- Singapore is a clean, green and modern city. I had already expected that, but it was still impressive to witness in person.
- Good skyscraper architecture
- Unlike most of SE Asia—and most still developing countries—tap water in Singapore is perfectly safe to drink.
- The electrical outlets are of the UK variety so you will probably need an adapter. My hostel had some on hand to lend but you should probably plan to bring your own.
- Singapore has a reputation for strictly enforcing laws like jaywalking eating on public transportation, littering, chewing gum, etc. and fines can be substantial.
How Long Do You Need in Singapore?
As a single city destination, you might guess the number of things to see and do in Singapore would be somewhat limited, but that is not true. You can easily spend a couple of weeks exploring the city, especially if you have the budget for some of the many more expensive activities. I spent 5 nights there but as I arrived and departed in the afternoon I ended up with four full days to explore. I was able to see everything on my list but I had to really hustle to do so and my list didn’t even include some of the more popular attractions (e.g., Universal Studios, zoo) and I would have preferred to take a more relaxed approach. So, for my itinerary a full week would have been better and I think that is a good amount of time for a visit, though if you have the time and budget, ten days or even two weeks would be great.
Money and Budget
If you are a backpacker touring SE Asia, you will be unpleasantly surprised by how expensive Singapore is. If you are visiting from a more expensive country in the West, expect similar prices. I traveled cheaply, staying in a hostel, eating at hawker centers, and avoiding most of the paid attractions (not so much because I was overly concerned about my budget but because there were free alternatives I wanted to do). Given that, for five nights I spent S$200 for everything. I also walked a lot because that is my preferred way to explore a place and get some exercise not because I wanted to save money. So, I think my expenses should probably serve as a lower baseline (~S$40 per day).
Most ticket and tour prices are fairly expensive, so if you plan to do many of those you should expect to spend much more. I didn’t see many discounts advertised but some are available. My hostel didn’t promote any (and I neglected to ask) but as I walked by another hostel in Chinatown I saw a sign advertising discounts and was able to buy entry to the cloud forest dome at Gardens by the Bay for 25% off (S$12 vs. the normal $S16) though they told me the OCBC Skywalk doesn’t offer any discount.
I am not a drinker alcohol in Singapore is expensive thanks to high taxes. If tying one on is a big part of your travel style or even if you just want to try the famous Singapore Sling, prepare to increase your budget.
I read that credit cards are widely accepted by restaurants, supermarkets, and shopping centers, but a minimum purchase of $20 often applies. I used only cash so I cannot speak from personal experience. Tipping is also not common in Singapore, but sometimes a service charge is automatically added to your bill, though not at the hawker centers.
Being very close to the equator, the weather is pretty similar all year, though some months are rainier than others. I visited in February, which is said to be the driest month and indeed I only experienced about 10 minutes of light rain, though I have read elsewhere that you should plan for rain all year so perhaps I just had good luck. I carried a small umbrella at all times to be safe. While it is indeed hot and humid, it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected and I found the evenings to be comfortable, though I am used to warm weather living so your experience may differ. Also note that another result of its geographical location is that sunrise and sunset are about the same time (07:30/19:30) all year. I never saw a good sunset during my trip but I don’t know if that was unique to my stay, common for February or due to some other circumstances. Perhaps it was because I didn’t get any rain.
Everyone says Singapore’s public transportation is excellent and I agree. You can go most places you want to visit via the MRT, and I had no problem catching a bus to and from MacRitchie Reservoir for the nature trail. Both MRT and buses are clean, comfortable and air-conditioned and during my visit I never failed to get a seat nor did I ever have to wait more than a few minutes.
Train and Bus Options
To use Singapore’s public transportation, there are four options:
- Cash. You can only pay cash to ride the bus, though doing so is not recommended due to the inconvenience involved (the driver will have to make change and calculate your fare based on distance to your destination).
- Standard ticket. A standard ticket can only be used on MRT and LRT but it can be used up to six times within 30 days. The purchase price includes a deposit of 10 cents and this is automatically refunded on the travel fare of the third trip. A user also enjoys a 10-cent discount on the sixth trip. Note that at some popular stations during high traffic times buying a single ticket can mean a long wait to use the automated machines.
- EZ-Link Card. This is a rechargeable card that lets you easily swipe to access and pay for MRT, Bus, and LRT. There is a non-refundable S$5 fee to purchase that card, though you can return it at the end of your visit and get your balance refunded. You also get cheaper per-ride fares using the card, so if you use it enough (I think about a dozen times or so) it ends up saving you at least the cost of purchase. Note that the minimum top-up is S$10 and you need a minimum balance of S$3.50 to use the card.
- Singapore Tourist Pass. You can buy a 1-day (S$10), 2-day ($16) or 3-day ($20) pass that gives you unlimited travel on MRT, Bus and LRT. There is a S$10 deposit as well, which you get back when you return the card, though you must do so within six days from the date it was first issued. The tourist pass can be a great option, but note that a day ends at midnight rather than 24 hours after activating so if you fly in late in the afternoon or evening, it might be better to buy a single trip ticket to your hotel and then start using the tourist pass the next day. Also note that you can either buy another pass using the same card if you need more than three days or you can choose to use it as an EZ-Link card after your days have expired by topping up.
However you pay for your trips, having a mobile app to help you get from one place to another is a good idea. The best app available is Gothere, though it won’t work offline and is only available on iOS or on the Web. Singapore MRT LRT Offline (iOS) is another option, but it doesn’t work with GPS so you will need to know starting and ending stations. Google Maps is always a good option, but even though you can download the Singapore map for offline use, you cannot use the directions feature offline. Other general purpose public transport apps worth trying include Citymapper, Moovit, or MétrO (only the latter works offline for route creation).
Depending on how much you like to walk and your tolerance of the heat and humidity, walking is a great way to see the sights and architecture of the city. You can easily hop on the MRT when there are just a few things you want to see, but sometimes the distance between things is such that walking is about as convenient as the distance to and from the relevant MRT stations. There are also some great walks/hikes worth doing if you are up for the extra punishment on your feet.
One thing I noticed everywhere I went were the bicycle sharing bikes. I never used one myself and this is probably the one thing I would do differently and recommend to you since zipping around on a bicycle would be a good way not to miss anything while being faster and more convenient than walking or using the MRT. Interestingly, I didn’t see many people riding their own bicycles but rather it seems most of the locals use the bicycle sharing options instead. This seems to me more impressive considering the bicycle sharing services were only launched in 2017.
There seems to be three major bicycle sharing outfits:
- oBike is based in Singapore and has grown to 14,000 bicycles with more than a million active users in Singapore and has since expanded to 20 countries. A ride costs $0.50 per 15 minutes but may vary according to your credit points. Users who exhibit poor riding habits (including breaking oBike rules) may be subjected to higher rental rates while users with higher credit points may enjoy discounted rates on their rides.
- Mobike currently has eight million bikes in more than 200 cities and it seemed to me that their bikes were the ones I saw most often in Singapore. A single trip cost $0.50 for 30 minutes and charges start once the bike has been unlocked. The timer will reset each time the bike has been locked. There are also credits offered for topping up, referring users, reporting broken bikes, parking properly, etc.
- Ofo has 10 million bikes in more than 250 cities. I had read that a ride is $0.50 and that was for an unlimited amount of time, but the website now says the price is $1 per hour so perhaps the service was being abused and things have changed.
All three outfits have a similar operating model. You download the relevant app, add a deposit and usage credit, use the app to locate a nearby bicycle, and scan the QR code on the bicycle to unlock and ride it (Ofo requires you to manually enter a code found on the bicycle and then sends you a combination code to unlock it). When finished, park and lock the bicycle to finish your ride transaction. There are supposed to be some designated parking areas or rules but it seemed to me that people more or less left them wherever they felt like so I don’t know how much that is or will be an issue for the city going forward.
Based on what I saw, Mobike seems to have the most functioning bicycles followed by oBike with Ofo being few and far between. Since I didn’t use any of them I cannot recommend one over the other but The New Paper and TODAYonline both have a comparative review of the three services that might be of use, especially since I think all three require a significant deposit to register.
The big problem I see with these services is you will need to have a mobile connection. Actually, I am just assuming that based on the way the apps work but I cannot find anything on any of the sites or the app pages that says definitively that is true or not. There are clearly app features that would require an online connection to function, but I can also imagine a more limited offline mode for those with a minimum wallet balance. If you have any insight into this, please share in the comments.
I decided to rely only on WiFi for my stay in Singapore since I generally use offline maps and was traveling solo with no need to be in contact with anyone. The good news is that it didn’t kill me to be offline all day while sightseeing. The bad news is that WiFi was pretty much not an option other than in my hostel since all free WiFi seems to require a one-time password which is sent via SMS. Since I had no local SIM card or mobile roaming there was no way to receive the SMS messages.
Besides free WiFi from restaurants and cafés, there is an extensive free service provided as a partnership between the government and the various local telecom companies called [email protected]. There is even an app to make using it easier. But again, you must have the ability to receive SMS messages to sign up so without that it is useless. What’s really annoying is that if you are in Singapore, you can register with a foreign phone number but if you try to register outside Singapore via the app (there is no online registration option), you must use a Singapore telephone number.
The main mobile carriers are SingTel, StarHub and MobileOne (M1). I think most sell one-week prepaid packages for around S$20. I met a fellow traveler who said he purchased an unlimited data package that he was told works across SE Asia (he was hoping to use it in his next destination, Vietnam) but I don’t know which carrier that was.
Thanks to the good public transportation I think most places you might choose to stay will probably be fairly convenient, though it seems like the hostels and lower priced hotels are concentrated in a few areas. I stayed at Footprints Hostel. It’s a pretty typical hostel experience, better than many, but nothing special. It is well located only a short walk from two Downtown Line MRT stations (Jalan Besar and Rochor). The main tourist areas are all on the same line and only a few MRT stops away.
I am not a foodie so I am not a good source of recommendations for your Singapore trip. I can say that the hawker centers are a convenient source of delicious and inexpensive meals and you can sometimes find discounted prices at restaurants for lunch. A few good resources for exploring food options are Migrationology’s Singapore Food Guide: 25 Must-Eat Dishes (& Where to Try Them), Eat Your World and Top 10 cheap eats in Singapore.
Things to See and Do
Below is a list of things I did during my visit, in no particular order.
Gardens by the Bay
Walking around Gardens by the Bay is free and quite nice. Besides the super trees grove, there are also other gardens to see. If you have time, visiting once during the day and again at night would be ideal, though if I were pressed for time I would try to visit in the evening to see one of the two super trees light and music shows (19:45 and 20:45 every evening).
There are two prominent domes, the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome. Both are said to be excellent but I only had time for one and chose the Cloud Forest dome, which I thought was excellent. Online I only saw references to tickets for both (S$26) so at first I thought you could not buy them separately, but you can. If you only wish to visit one it is S$16, though I was able to get a discounted ticket for S$12.
The OCBC Skywalk (S$8) is the other paid attraction. It is an elevated walkway between some of the super trees which provides a different perspective. A popular recommendation is to do the skywalk around dusk and stay for sunset and the 19:45 light show. That’s what I did, but note that you may have a long wait so be sure to be there in advance and inquire about the waiting time before you buy your ticket. Once on the skywalk, there really isn’t any convenient place to just wait for sunset and the show to begin, so I mostly just stood there.
Singapore Harbor loop
From the Merlion statue you can walk in either direction around the harbor and doing so is a good way to catch various sites and views.
Sentosa Island seems to be the tourist playground of Singapore and is home to popular attractions including Universal Studios, S.E.A. Aquarium, Adventure Cove Waterpark, Madame Tussauds, Trick Eye Museum, a casino, bungy jumping, indoor skydiving (iFly), a luge track, Wave House (an artificial surfing wave), and even a few fairly nice beaches. I spent most of my time at Palawan beach, which is connected by a rope suspension bridge to the southernmost point of continental Asia, and at Fort Siloso, which has a nice elevated walkway access and some interesting exhibits highlighting the history of the place, especially its role in World War II.
There are four ways to access Sentosa Island: a cable car, light rail, bus, or walking/cycling via the Sentosa boardwalk. I used the boardwalk, which is a nice, fairly short walk. It is currently free, though I saw payment turnstiles and I read online that in the future you will have to pay S$1.
Once on the island, there are two free shuttle buses that run in loops around the island so it is quite easy to get to the various attractions.
This is a nice park very close to downtown and the major tourist areas. It’s worth a visit if you have the time, maybe to take a break from sightseeing. You can also tour the Battlebox, which is where the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in WWII. The 75 minute tour costs S$18 but when I went the next tour was already fully booked so I ended up skipping this. A friend of mine did the tour and says it was good so if it interests you, try to book ahead.
Singapore is a surprisingly green city with several parks and nature preserves so if you like to hike and get outdoors, there are some good options. I did two of the primary hikes on offer.
The first was the Southern Ridges Walk. This trail stretches from Kent Ridge Park to Mount Faber Park (or vice versa), with an optional spur that includes Labrador Nature Reserve. I walked the full length from Kent Ridge to Mount Faber (about 9 km I believe), but skipped Labrador Nature Reserve. That is not my recommendation to you, however. The best part of Kent Ridge is the treetop canopy walk, but it is currently closed for renovation. It does look worthwhile when it reopens, but it is close to HortPark so I would actually recommend starting there, doing the canopy walk and then returning for the main trail from HortPark to Mount Faber (or start at Mount Faber instead). Then, if you have the time and energy, maybe include the Labrador Nature Reserve spur. If you have even more time, HortPark itself is quite nice and would be a good place for a picnic and some relaxation time.
There is another treetop walk that starts at HortPark and is fairly long. I really enjoyed that section of the walk. Eventually you will hit the most famous part of the hike, the Henderson Waves Bridge, which connects Mount Faber and Telok Blangah Hill Park. This too is nice and if you would prefer a shorter hike, you could do either it or the HortPark treetop walk alone (or together). Transportation options will depend on which route you choose. Kent Ridge, Labrador and Mount Faber all have MRT access (though Kent Ridge involves a bit of walking between the station and the park) while HortPark is best accessed via bus.
The second hike I did was at the MacRitchie Reservoir Park, which is home to a nature trail popular with residents of Singapore but seems to get a skip by most tourists. The entire hike is 11 km long and includes a short treetop walk section. You can also split the trail in two and do just the nature trail (5 km) or just the section with the treetop walk (6 km). Accessing MacRitchie is best done via bus.
Besides the two hiking trails I did, you can also do a fair amount of walking in nature at the very nice Botanic Gardens. I walked the whole of the gardens, took a quick nap on one of the lawns and did some reading on my Kindle, making for a very nice half day. If I had more time in Singapore I would probably visit the Botanic Gardens more than once to decompress and relax.
Little India and Chinatown
Little India and Chinatown are culturally rich neighborhoods worth time exploring. You can easily do your own walking tour of Chinatown or Little India, hitting up the interesting streets and shops, heritage institutes or museums, and local temples. You should also make sure to try one of the hawker centers for some delicious and inexpensive food.
Haji Lane & Arab Street
Haji Lane and Arab Street represent a mix of Muslim Mosque, Middle-Eastern restaurants and hip bars. There is interesting street art to be found as well.
Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa is a strange place that won’t appeal to everyone, but I liked it. The park contains over 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology, folklore, legends, history, and illustrations of various aspects of Confucianism. Entrance is free and it is right next to the Haw Par Villa MRT station. If you like slightly bizarre and kitschy things, give it a try.
Orchard Road and Emerald Hill
I am not a shopper but I still took a stroll along Orchard Road, the shopping nerve center of Singapore. There are normal shops along the road but also all the famous high-end brands. An interesting side street worth visiting is Emerald Hill. It is a dead-end mixed commercial and residential street featuring Peranakan architecture, antique shops, and a few trendy bars.
With the multitude of tall buildings around the city there are some options for getting nice panoramic views, though the best will require you to pay for access. Here are the viewpoints I am aware of:
- Marina Bay Sands Observation Deck. The rooftop of the most famous landmark in the city is the most famous spot for great skyline views and you have probably seen multiple pictures of the incredible infinity pool there (which you cannot use unless you are a guest of the hotel). Admission is S$23.
- 1-Altitude Bar is the world’s highest alfresco bar offering great views, including of Marina Bay Sands which you will obviously miss if you only visit that observation deck. I had previously read that admission is S$18 but that includes a drink. I have also read the price is S$30 with a drink but the website says the price is S$25 and the drink must be non-alcoholic so I am not sure what the real status is.
- The [email protected]. If you are in the Chinatown area, you cannot help but notice the towering presence of this 50-story, multi-building housing complex. It offers a very nice panoramic view, including a view that captures the contrast of the low-rise buildings common in Chinatown that eventually give way to the skyscrapers. At only S$6 it is also much cheaper than the other options. To access the rooftop skybridge you need to visit the small office on the ground floor of Building G. Payment is cash only but you will need an EZ-Link card as the attendant will scan it into the building’s security system so you can swipe it at the turnstile on the 50th floor that provides access to the roof. Daily visitor count is limited to 200, but apparently that number is very rarely reached. When I went there were probably a half dozen others there.
- Orchard Central Mall offers free access to the 12th floor roof where you can get an OK view of the surrounding area. It’s probably the worst of the viewpoints, but it’s free and if you will already be in the area anyway, it is worth a quick visit.
- Also located on Orchard road is ION Sky at ION Orchard, which offers a much higher viewpoint but the hours are limited and you must make at least a S$20 purchase.
- The rooftop terrace of the Esplanade is open most of the day and into late evening and offers a nice view of the bay and the city area. Best of all, there is no admission charge. There are also places to sit and relax and there is also a bar which opens from late afternoon.
Things I Didn’t Do That You Might Want To
I think I packed a lot into my time in Singapore. I was basically gone after breakfast and back at night. But, there was so much more I could have done with more time. Including things that are quite popular with most tourists, including:
- Singapore Zoo. This is usually rated as one of the top attractions in the city and is said to be one of the nicest in the world, with more of a natural environment for the animals. Of course, it is still a zoo and whether that is a socially responsible tourist attraction or not depends on your personal perspective. A friend went there and said it was indeed a great zoo, but that they still had elephant shows, so he left with mixed feelings.
- Singapore Flyer. Singapore Flyer is Asia’s largest giant observation wheel (I think it was the largest in the world at one time). Standing 165m from the ground, the Flyer offers you breathtaking, panoramic views of the Marina Bay and beyond. This is another of the most popular attractions in the city that I didn’t do.
- Museums and heritage institutions. There are quite a few museums scattered around the city, some with excellent reputations. If you are a museum fan or just want to schedule some hours out of the heat, a museum or three might be the perfect addition to your itinerary. I actually did make a quick visit to the Singapore Art Museum at 8Q to take advantage of its free admission on Friday nights from 6pm-9pm.
- Pulau Ubin. Pulau Ubin is an island a short boat ride from Changi Village out near the airport. It is one of the last rural areas to be found in Singapore, with an abundance of natural flora and fauna. It is one of the last areas that has been preserved from urban development, concrete buildings and tarmac roads. Pulau Ubin’s wooden house villages and wooden jetties, relaxed inhabitants, rich and preserved wildlife, abandoned quarries and plantations, and untouched nature make it the last witness of the old kampong Singapore that existed before modern industrial times and large-scale urban development.
- Nature walks. The national parks service offers some guided nature walks. I was particularly interested in one of the three Jane Goodall Institute Monkey Walks, but each is only offered once a month (2nd, 3rd, and 4th Saturday of the month).
- Listen to free live music at Esplanade. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights the Esplanade presents free outdoor concerts on the harbor. Concerts mainly showcase local bands and musicians.
- Marina Barrage is an eco-friendly building featuring a wide spiraling roof of grass that creates a giant open field on top of the building. It’s been designed with the country’s youth in mind as a place to fly kites, have picnics and generally hang out. The rooftop offers phenomenal views of the city, the outer harbor and the immediately surrounding botanical gardens.
Raffles Hotel supposedly offers an interesting and free museum on the second floor of their inner courtyard but during my visit the entire hotel was closed for renovation (due to re-open in the second half of 2018). I am not sure if the newly renovated hotel will include the museum or not.