It’s mandatory to wear Bermuda shorts and those British colonial military hats that look like fried eggs whilst visiting the city of Singapore. It is also recommended you use words like “whilst” and that you proceed “chin-up” into the heat and humidity of this former British colony that still very much feels like a British colony. If you do not do these things, the British tourists you will inevitably find yourself surrounded by may regard you with a discomforting curiosity.
All the global public image of an over-the-top strictly regulated city—no spitting in public, no chewing of gum, no jay-walking, no littering, no mooning people from rooftop bars—aside, Singapore is indeed a very clean, well-ordered city with a pedigree of British social order cultivated to extremes that surprises even British people. Nevertheless, we expected Singapore to be, somehow, more perfect than it was: we spotted a piece of trash once during our few days there, and we are fairly certain we heard someone breaking wind in public. Thankfully, within scant moments cheery Singaporean officials swooped down on the tidbit of rubbish and cranked up the citywide air purifiers.
Singapore lies just above the equator. Which means it is about the closest you can be to the sun without leaving this planet. Even in February, it can get hot here. It is fortunate that sweating in public is tolerated, though it is discouraged through the abundant availability of rather tall buildings, each of which offers a rooftop bar above the cloud layer where it is nice and breezy and the urge to moon bar-goers on top of neighboring buildings can be palpably strong.
The city, at the very southern tip of the Thailand-Malaysia peninsula, is a transportation hub for all of Southeast Asia. Travelers from North America or Europe have pretty good odds that flight connections will bring them through here. Or like us, if you’re destination-hopping in Asia, it’s inevitable you’ll touch down sooner or later at the city’s ultra modern, efficient, and clean Changi International Airport. Singapore is a great place to linger a few days before going on to wherever you’re headed. Get over jet lag. Enjoy this cleanest of clean cities. And proceed chin-up into the tropics.
Here’s what we managed to cram into our three-day visit, mostly upon the recommendation of a good friend who’s spent a lot of time in Singapore.
Marina Bay Sands Roof Bar
The three-tower building with what looks like a long boat straddling all three towers has become an icon of Singapore. On one hand, it’s an architectural marvel; on the other hand, it’s a casino. Not that we have anything against casinos, but we are surprised there’s not a miniature duplicate already built in Vegas. It’s best to admire the MBS (a chic abbreviation, you must admit) from a distance, which is really unavoidable from almost any vantage point in the city, but we also recommend going atop for the views at the mere cost of a couple of pricey drinks.
There are two ways to get to the top. Method 1: pay about $20 per person for an elevator ride to the 56th floor and access to the observation deck on the bow of the tower-top boat. Method 2: pay about $20 per person for an elevator ride to the 57th floor where you’ll find a bar and your admission ticket becomes a voucher for a drink. It’s true that the 56th floor observation deck is a larger area and permits you to approach the edge for “suspended in air” selfies, but the bar comes with a drink. And as a bonus, the bar gets you a good view of the MBS’s pool-in-the-sky: just proceed to the bar area to the left as you exit the elevators.
The Marina Bay Sands’ Swimming Pool: A Pool With A View
Gardens By The Bay & The Supertree Grove
Filling the space behind the MBS building is Singapore’s “Supertree” grove and two domed botanical gardens called the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome. A disclaimer: we’re huge botanical gardens fans. We were members of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for many years, and would still be if we weren’t nomads. We love gardens. And if you love them, too, you’ll love this peaceful corner of Singapore.
Top: Both Domes; Middle: The Flower Dome; Bottom: The Cloud Forrest
You’ll wander aimlessly, gaping upwards with open mouths, through the Supertree grove—a “forest” of architecturally spectacular tree-like structures (ironic, I suppose, for a botanical garden to hilite fake trees)—on your way to the domes. Your tickets are separate: proceed to the ticketing area between the domes and buy admission to both domes, and plan to return to the Supertree grove later.
Enter whichever dome has the shortest wait. The Cloud Forest is more vertical, evoking the very tip-top of a mountain in the clouds and providing a peek at the plant life at elevations. The flora is splendid, but you’ll probably wind up with lots more pictures of the waterfall, the Asian sculptures, and the twisty-winding walking paths in and out of the structure that sometimes seem to float in mid-air. The Flower Dome is a flatter structure, no less splendid, filled with plants picked more for their aesthetic appeal, from a Chinese flower garden to a desert garden complete with full-size baobab trees.
After the domes, return to the center of the Supertree grove and buy tickets to the skywalk. An elevator will whisk you to the top of one of the trees where you can walk along a suspended, swaying catwalk for great views of the MBS, the other Supertrees, and the (real) forest below (it is actually a very interesting perspective looking down on the palm trees from above).
Situated as it is at the foot of the Thai-Malay peninsula, Singapore has a huge Chinese population. Our taxi driver from the airport to our hotel bragged that he was a native Singaporean a moment before he also bragged that his parents both emigrated from China to escape the communists (often when someone finds out we are American, they are eager to let us know they’re not communists). This has endowed Singapore with what is likely the most famous Chinatown outside of China.
Browse the stalls. Eat some street food. Visit the Buddha Tooth Relic temple. Catch a pleasant whiff of burning incense. Stroll past the Hindu temple and the mosque. If you’re there in the evening, listen for a performance and try to find your way there through the maze of tiny streets to locate it. And I dare you not to buy a pair of souvenir chopsticks.
Singapore is a modern city full of modern attractions including museums and a giant Ferris wheel. But sometimes you just want to sit and have a drink and do some people-watching. Clarke Quay, a restaurant-bar-shopping complex nestled along the river, is a great place for this. We went the evening we arrived in Singapore, a great choice for an evening and when you don’t want to bite off more of a destination visit.
It’s a bit touristy (the prices especially are), but it’s pleasant dining and drinking al fresco by the river. After dinner, spring for a tour boat ride for the best pictures of the Marina Bay Sands possible. Stroll across the Read, aka Malacca, Bridge and have an ice cream “sandwich”, complete with cake-like bread.
Singapore Zoo & Night Safari
For zoo-lovers, Singapore offers the Walt Disney World of zoos. The Singapore Zoo is actually four separate parks: the Singapore Zoo proper, the Night Safari, the Jurong Bird Park, and River Safari. Each park has its own theme, and each requires separate admission. You can buy a single ticket to any of the parks or combined admission to any combination imaginable. Having only one day allotted for our zoo visit, we went with just two: the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari. If you have more time in Singapore, combination tickets are good for several days.
We raved a year and a half ago about the Columbus Zoo, and we can rave again over the Singapore Zoo. In both cases, the quality of the zoo was not just in the variety of the animals but also the layout—the simple thoughtfulness of the place as an exhibit. It is easy, though an all-day effort (six to eight hours), to wander in a single direction around the park and ensure that you see everything.
But the cannot-miss site to see at the Singapore Zoo is the “free range” orangutan enclosure. Walk up to the beautiful enclosure and admire the orangutans on the island in the middle of the moat. Their enclosure is spacious and roomy and you’re sure to see these primates frolicking (seemingly) joyfully. Now, look up. Notice the ropes strung from tree to tree leading behind you? Can you find the nets and platforms for the orangutans above your head? Can you snap a picture without wondering if orangutans, like chimpanzees, like to fling poo at gawkers?
“Free Range” Orangutans At The Singapore Zoo.
For another unique experience, the Night Safari opens at dusk and features animals in nocturnal environs. We’ve never heard of a zoological park entirely dedicated to a nocturnal display, and it was fascinating. Ride the safari tram around the perimeter of the park, catch the second showing of the show, then take some of the footpaths for closer, more intimate looks at the animals. You can cover the whole park in about four hours.
Hyenas Considering How Tasty We Might Be
Raffles & A Singapore Sling
One afternoon, pop into the world famous Raffles Hotel and sidle up to the bar for a Singapore Sling, the city’s signature Edwardian era cocktail. This drink comes in original and classic varieties, but both are concoctions of gin (naturally), Cointreau, and pineapple juice. Look around at the century-old bar and imagine all the famous people who’ve done what you’re doing now, from Prince William and Princes Kate back to Liz Taylor, Joseph Conrad, Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, Rudyard Kipling, and many more. Stroll around the hotel, admire the gardens and the colonial architecture, and leave just a bit more motivated to work hard and earn enough to pay the Raffles Hotel’s entry-level nightly rate of $500.