LGBT Travel Guide: Singapore

Singapore by night
Singapore by night.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images 

An ethnic, cultural, and religious melting pot if ever there was, the Southeast Asian city-state—sometimes referred to as the “little red dot"—is also home to a vibrant LGBTQ population and culture. Every year, Singapore's Pink Dot serves as a de facto Pride event and rallying call to revoke Singapore's archaic colonial era holdover, Section 377A, which criminalizes consensual sex between men and, in effect, officially makes homosexuality illegal.

Although the law is never actually enforced these days, its remaining on the books has the unfortunate effect of giving LGBTQ locals a second-class status, forbids Singapore media (movies, TV, etc.) and government tourism efforts from officially promoting homosexuality in any way, and results in censorship and even cancellation of explicitly queer film festivals, parties, and other events.

It's a sore spot for sure, yet visitors have absolutely nothing to fear from 377A, and in fact will find a surprisingly open and buzzing LGBTQ nightlife scene and plenty of inclusive things to see and do.

Pink Dot will see its 13th edition in 2021, and each year has seen a colorful array of high-profile Singaporean ambassadors and straight allies—such as former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, rapper Subhas Nair, singer-actor Nathan Hartono, and Singapore's first openly queer athlete, Theresa Goh—as well as media campaigns directed by some of the country's most prolific filmmakers, including Boo Junfeng. Other out queer Singaporeans in the public eye include filmmaker Royston Tan and Otto Fong, a teacher and creator of an acclaimed series of children's educational comic books, "Sir Otto's Adventures in Science," and a TV program, Totally Totto.

Much of the LGBTQ nightlife is concentrated around Neil Road in the shophouse-lined Tanjong Pagar district, while current LGBTQ+ events can found on Time Out Singapore (type "LGBTQ+" in the search bar). English-language Asian LGBTQ website Dear Straight People also features plenty of Singapore coverage, from news to profiles to culture, and also boasts a YouTube channel.

Pink Dot
Ore Huiying / Getty Images 

Things To Do

Singapore's National Gallery is home to not only one of the most fantastic, extensive collections of Southeast Asian art (over 9,000 items), but also surprisingly queer, provocative and politically-charged work by LGBTQ artists. A series of sprawling galleries, stores, and restaurants situated within two connecting heritage buildings, Singapore's former Supreme Court and City Hall, the five-year-old National Gallery keeps most of its queer work in the contemporary section. Of particular note are video footage and items from Josef Ng’s 1994 performance piece, “Brother Cane,” which addressed the 1993 arrest and caning of 12 homosexuals for sexual solicitation in a gay cruising area. Ng was arrested as a result of this piece, which caused an uproar, and was reenacted in 2012 as "Archiving Cane" by Zihan Loo, another prolific queer Singaporean artist/performer/filmmaker/activist. Be sure to check out Loo's website for upcoming installations and performances, which take place in various galleries and spaces around Singapore, and events including the annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Dates for the 2021 edition are TBA.

Contemporary art fans should also check what's on at independent space The Substation; celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2020, programming ranges from installations to film to all manner of performance and music. Some queer artists and events can also be found at Chinatown's Utterly Art.

Beyond the fact that architect Moshe Safdie’s Changi Airport itself is a spectacle, thanks to the addition of an eye-popping rain vortex, garden, and other attractions to its Terminal 1 in 2019 (Terminal 2 will see its own transformation by 2024), those who just arrived in Singapore should plot out neighborhood explorations. Tiong Bahru is unique for its Peranakan heritage and businesses, and the Hindi Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple is decked out with countless (and still growing) sculptures, tributes, and depictions of the elephant-headed god Ganesha.

Meanwhile, the almost monthly gay Aquaholic Pool Party SG sees locals and visitors flock to the resort island of Sentosa (home to Universal Studios Singapore theme park) for wet and wild fun and DJ tunes.

Of course, no trip is complete without a photo op with the Merlion, and a swim in the Marina Bay Sands pool if you can swing a night's room reservation, since only hotel guests can use it.

Tantric Bar
Home of the Blue Spin

LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

Most of Singapore’s LGBTQ bars are concentrated in the Tanjong Pagar district—meaning “cape of stakes” in Malay—along and around its Neil Road artery. Several of the most buzzy, lively spaces are part of the same group, starting with Tantric, which features both outdoor and indoor spaces. This is also where you can nurse cocktails and catch Singapore's growing stable of local drag stars, including Vyla Virus and Vanda Miss Joaquim, the latter a finalist from season two of "Drag Race Thailand" and subject of "The Rise of Vanda Miss Joaquim," a short 2019 documentary.

Located just upstairs, sister venue May Wong's Café takes its name from Hollywood's first Asian star, Anna May Wong, who was featured and dramatized in Netflix's 2020 series, "Hollywood." Besides a pool table, darts machine, and video screens, the café serves up East-meets-West cocktails and more classic creations.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021—and relocated from its original location on Chinatown's Trengganu St. to Neil Road in 2015—Backstage Bar celebrates Broadway shows with posters and paraphernalia-lined walls.

The two-floor Taboo, located just across Neil Road, brings in a diverse LGBTQ and ethnic mix for dancing, drag performances, themed music nights, and drink specials (do bear in mind "specials" is used very loosely, since alcohol prices are insanely high due to over-the-top taxes in Singapore). Neil Road is also home to karaoke and beer-centric spot Ebar and Out Bar, the latter featuring a Canto-Mando dance pop night every second Saturday—with an appearance by glamorous Thailand-born drag personality Sammi Zhen—and retro tunes on last Saturdays.

Lawrence Ferber

Where to Eat

Adorable Pink Dot stickers greet you at Fort Canning's The Fabulous Baker Boy, a bright, pro-LGBTQ bakery and café where self-taught, openly gay pastry chef Juwanda crafts delicious, modern cakes—many bearing names that nod to gay culture and icons, like Ab Fab Red Velvet, Bette Midler, and Ms. Diana Ross— brekkie items, and coffee.

While Singapore's hawker centers offer a wide range of affordable traditional local foodie faves like chicken rice and a diverse range of craft beer, coffee, and hipster takes on traditional cuisine, you'd do well to hit up "Mod Sin" (short for "Modern Singapore") chef LG Han's Labyrinth. The Michelin-starred restaurant presents cutting edge, exquisite set menus in which Singaporean staples are reinterpreted with intensely local, seasonal ingredients that Han personally seeks out (ask to taste the stinger-less bee honey).

Also check out Mod Sin pioneer Willin Low's Relish by Wild Rocket: Although it specializes in burgers, Relish also serves up tasty twists on Singaporean and other Asian fare.

Capitol Kempinski Hotel
The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore 

Where to Stay

Singapore's iconic grand dame hotel, Raffles Singapore, is the luxury brand's flagship property. Opened in 1887, it was closed from 2017 to 2019 for a complete overhaul; retaining its classic elegance, the updated Raffles includes a new white marble floor, air conditioning system and tech elements (although the light switches are still colonial era vintage), and even a tweaked signature Singapore Sling with lower sugar and increased alcohol content at its Long Bar (the cocktail's birthplace). The restaurants have also been changed up with celebrity chef-headed offerings BBR by Alain Ducasse in the Bar & Billiard Room, chef Anne Sophie Pic's La Dame De Pic, and Yi by MasterChef Jereme Leung. And Raffles Spa boasts an incredible menu of indulgences including Hydrotherapy Wellness Experiences.

One of Singapore's most anticipated brand new hotel openings in recent years is the 157-room Capitol Kempinski Hotel. Within walking distance to the spectacular Gardens By The Bay complex, it occupies two early 1900s heritage structures—the Capitol Building and Stamford House, which served as an extension of Raffles from 1911-1913. Originally slated to debut as The Patina in 2015, the Kempinski opened its doors in 2018, bringing with it uncluttered contemporary luxury. Rooms are creamy and latte-toned, blending European and Asian design elements. Don't expect much of the pool, though: It's an enclosed, small, thigh-high soaking affair, but does make for a good photo.

Another Singapore luxury brand flagship, the sprawling urban oasis Shangri-La spreads its 792 rooms over 15 acres and has seen all stripes of VIP guests, including President Obama.

If proximity to Tanjong Pagar's LGBTQ nightlife is your priority, 15-year-old boutique hotel The Scarlet—occupying a row of 13 former shophouses in Chinatown—is a sassy, chic, and colorful choice with design flair for days.

For Singapore's best pools, you can't beat a stay at the iconic Marina Bay Sands, the chic and "neoclassical" SO Sofitel, or Marina Bay's Mandarin Oriental (the room views are also fantastic). Over on Sentosa island, you'll also find the resort-style W Singapore and Capella, a lush, ambrosial getaway that has seen the likes of Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Martha Stewart.