Singapore is a beautiful, varied, and unpredictable city. From the glamour and luxe of the CBD, to the flavour and real-world grit of Chinatown and Little India, this compact city has something for every taste and every budget.
Singapore is a city of many districts, and therefore many cultural centres: Chinatown, Little India, Joo Chiat/Katong, Holland Village, Kampong Glam, and Geylang Serai all offer culturally and historically diverse contexts to explore that are friendlier to the wallet than the hipper and more glam (but none the less beautiful and interesting) Harbour Front, Civic District, Marina Bay, Orchard Road and Sentosa Island areas.
Singapore is one of the most fascinating cities I’ve encountered: within its small territory, it’s home to a myriad of religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, and Hinduism, amongst others) as well as multiple languages, including English, Mandarin, and Malay. This diversity is strongly reflected in the historical and cultural scene.
Chinatown is what it sounds like, the home of the first Chinese immigrants and workers who helped build Singapore. To this day, the architecture and food scene strongly reflect this background, creating a lively and enticing atmosphere.
Joo Chiat/Katong is a beautiful neighbourhood where the rich Peranakan culture is still on display in the shopfronts and eateries of these quaint streets. Peranakan refers to descendants of Chinese male immigrants and locally born Malay or Indonesian women, with a dash of Portuguese and Dutch influences.
Kampong Glam was once the part of Singapore reserved for royalty, and this decadence and luxe are still palpable today. Here you will see the Sultan’s Mosque, the eclectic Haji Lane and its famed murals, and Arab Street.
Little India provides vivid and vibrant insights into the life and culture of Singapore’s Indian community, with shops and eateries that will literally transport you. You can witness traditional art forms such as henna, eat Indian specialities with a twist, and admire the brightness of life in this colourful district.
Holland Village embodies a gentle merging of cultures, where European culture flourishes with a uniquely Singaporean flair. Established by the Dutch and subsequently inhabited by the British Army, this is a creative and hip neighbourhood frequented by locals and tourists alike.
Geylang Serai is the main Malay district, and its past as a trade emporium is still strongly visible in the markets, bazaars, and shop fronts which adorn its every street.
The Civic District is the main historical and architectural centre, considered to be the origin of Singapore’s heritage. The more modern Harbour Front and Marina Bay offer breathtaking vistas of both the city and the water, while Sentosa Island is like Disneyland for adults, complete with artificial beach, roller coasters, parties and more.
The cheapest and most efficient way of travelling around Singapore is public transport. It’s practical, frequent, and relatively easy to use – just beware, the name of a bus stop is often preceded or followed by the name of the street that it’s on. I used google maps and followed our progress until we were in the right place.
The easiest way to use public transport is to buy an MRT card from any metro station. You can use these on buses, boats, and trams, and any credit you don’t use by the end of your trip is returned to you in cash. Tap on as you board the bus, and don’t forget to tap off as you exit, or you’ll be charged the maximum fare.
Whatever you do, don’t go to restaurants. If you want to explore Singapore like a local, experience the grassroots culture, and save money, go to the hawker centres. Each district has one or more, where you’ll find food stall upon food stall offering a staggering variety of local meals for next to nothing, as well as fresh
For the locations and cuisines of hawker centres, please see https://www.visitsingapore.com/editorials/the-street-food-of-singapore/
Things to Do
Free Walking Tours
I’m a big fan of the free walking tour phenomenon. It’s a wonderful, budget-friendly way of getting a real sense of a place from a local. I strongly recommend Monster Day Tours (https://www.monsterdaytours.com/free-walking-tours), their guides speak good English, and are equipped with microphones, maps, pictures, and all sorts of realia to help you get a grip on the city. They have tours of Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam, Marina Bay and Gardens, and the Civic District. Bring water, comfortable shoes, and maybe a parasol depending on the season!
Marina Bay Sands
The famous silhouette of the Marina Bay Sands hotel does not disappoint in real life, day or night. Its location, opposite Merlion Park (the Merlion is the symbol of Singapore), and near the Gardens by the Bay, makes it an ideal landmark if you’re visiting the Marina and Civic districts, as well as a fun respite from the heat. For a fee, you can ride to the top and enjoy breathtaking vistas, as well as guided tours at
SkyPark: 9.30am-10pm, 23$
Gardens by the Bay
I knew what to expect when entering the gardens, and was still blown away. They too are as magical in the daytime as they are in the night
Outdoor Gardens: 5am-2am daily
Cooled Conservatories: 9am-9pm daily, 28$
OCBC Skyway: 9am-9pm daily, 8$
The botanical gardens are a bus/tram ride away from the centre, but they stand out as flagships of their type. The wide variety of plants, trees, and wildlife on show, themed displays, and helpful guides and explanations contribute to creating an interesting, relaxing, and awe-inspiring experience, all for free.
Opening times: 5am-12pm
This is more of a novelty-factor/fun visit: the artificial beach is surrounded by industrial ships and murky water, it’s crowded, and prices are high. Nonetheless, if you have the time and the inclination, it’s an interesting visit to a man-made island geared toward family fun and entertainment. The main attractions include the waterpark, an adrenaline-inducing tower drop, a 19th-century fort, and a wind tunnel, as well as nature discovery programmes and wildlife encounters.
Sentosa Island boardwalk: 15 minutes. Follow directions from the Harbour Front metro station.
Sentosa Express: 4$. The Sentosa Station is accessed on the third level of VivoCity, the largest shopping centre in Singapore (Harbour Front MRT station, Exit E)