Singapore often gets plenty of attention in the press for reasons totally unrelated to its real charms. Sure, it’s a wealthy country whose permissive taxation policies attract millionaires like flies, but you don’t have to be a tax accountant to see the real value of a Singapore visit.
Singapore packs a surprisingly massive number of attractions: verdant parks, world-class zoos, luxurious hotels, historical structures, and deliciously cheap eats, all in a land area not much bigger than El Paso, Texas.
With not a little difficulty, we’ve boiled down the reasons for visiting Singapore down to ten bullet points. Read on to find out more about this little island city that thinks big.
Unearth History Under all the New Stuff
Singapore’s relationship with its past, to crib from Facebook, boils down to “it’s complicated”. Many historical buildings in the business center have long been obliterated to make way for gleaming high rises.
But modernity has not always had its own way: ethnic enclaves like Chinatown retain many 19th-century shophouses and temples, and many other signs of Singapore’s past persist all around the island.
Most of Singapore’s oldest buildings have managed to hang on through history’s highs and lows – the Raffles Hotel, opened in 1887, continues to serve patrons in the same Long Bar that once served Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin.
Singapore also has a surprisingly comprehensive complement of museums – some of the best are clustered together in the civic center, allowing you to walk from one to the other in under five minutes.
Explore Modern Art & Architecture
Singapore’s currently building the future from both glass and greenery. The city-state is currently undergoing a radical transformation into a futuristic “garden city”, with its most visible example in Marina Bay.
Formerly an empty landscape of sea and reclaimed land, Marina Bay’s skyline has been transformed by the addition of architectural marvels like the Esplanade, the Gardens by the Bay, the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer. To see Singapore rushing headlong into the future, you need to visit Marina Bay posthaste.
You’ll also find Singapore’s creative expression much closer to the ground: commissioned public sculpture, murals and installations can be found all over the city. Orchard Road, for example, has a public art trail you can follow at your own pace. Upscale hotels like the Marina Bay Sands and the Ritz Carlton Millenia have their own collections you can admire.
See Singapore's Wild Side Up Close
Considering the towering, iconic skylines of Marina Bay and the Civic District, it's hard to imagine Singapore actually living up to its "garden city" aspirations. Leave the built-up areas behind, though, and you'll find a network of parks that spans the island, adding to a green cover that makes up about 46 percent of the country.
The National Parks Board (nparks.gov.sg) manages Singapore's sprawling parks network, which includes family-friendly parks like Kent Ridge Park (pictured above) and seaside promenades like the East Coast Park.
Plans are under way for a "green matrix" of park connectors that will link Singapore's parks and nature reserves all across the island - in a few years, you can cross from west to east throughout the island without stepping out of a park!
Shop Till You Drop at Singapore's Shopping Precincts
Keep your credit card under lock and key when you visit Singapore, because you’ll be sorely tempted to go on a shopping rampage.
The shopping scene in Singapore is cunningly designed to efficiently part you from your money: shopping centers in Orchard and Marina Bay are mostly connected by underground passageways to the MRT and to each other, credit cards are widely accepted everywhere (although cash is still king – read about money in Singapore), and the annual Great Singapore Sale slashes prices to bargain levels island-wide!
Tourists who fly out through Changi Airport can also take advantage of Singapore’s tax-free shopping policies – the 7% Goods and Service Tax (GST) levied on shopping in Singapore can be refunded before your outbound flight, thanks to an ultra-efficient Electronic Tourist Refund Scheme (eTRS) in place.
Where you go shopping depends on what you need and where you stay; for more details, check out our list of hottest shopping spots in Singapore.
See Southeast Asia's Most Family-Friendly Destination
Come to Singapore, bring your kids! The island-state’s family-friendly attractions allow visitors of all ages to experience Southeast Asia in the region’s safest environment.
Start with a series of world-class zoos showcasing animals from all over the world in humane “cageless” environments: the open-air Singapore Zoo, the nocturnal Night Safari, and "Asia's largest bird park", the Jurong Bird Park.
Kids will love Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios park, but its location on Sentosa Island gives the whole family access to the island's many kid-friendly attractions, including an adventure park, five-star restaurants and three of Singapore's best white-sand beaches.
Closer to the city center, take a seat at a DUCKtours tour and see Singapore’s historical district from both the road and the river.
For more details, read our article on Singapore’s family-friendly activities.
Lie in the Lap of Luxury
Singapore has become a favorite playground for the world’s rich. As the world’s biggest businesses have continued to invest in Singapore, so have some of the world’s finest luxury brands.
The hotels along Orchard Road, the Heritage District and Marina Bay have more stars than a Hollywood agent’s phonebook. The burgeoning restaurant scene is evolving away from the country’s hawker roots to embrace Michelin-class extravagance. New Singapore shopping centers like the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands hawk luxury goods like Louis Vuitton, Prada and Bulgari. And spa enthusiasts can lose themselves in the island’s many exclusive spa resorts and day spas.
The aforementioned Marina Bay Sands also hosts one of Singapore’s two casinos – the gaming tables provide another fun way to part with one’s cash!
Singapore's Changi Airport - the Ultimate Asian Stopover
Singapore’s central location in Southeast Asia makes it an ideal air, land, and sea stopover for visitors who plan to travel elsewhere in the region.
The country’s main air hub, Changi Airport, is easily reached by flights from LA, San Francisco and New York. From here, visitors can fly practically anywhere into Southeast Asia, as the region’s major carriers and budget airlines service regular flights from Changi.
The rest of Asia can also be reached by land and sea from Singapore. Bus services depart regularly for Kuala Lumpur in neighboring Malaysia. Singapore is connected by rail to Malaysia, and thus to Thailand and the rest of Asia.
The Singapore Cruise Center (singaporecruise.com.sg) offers ferry services to Batam, Bintan and Karimun, along with a number of international cruise lines. The new Marina Bay Cruise Center (mbccs.com.sg) specializes in cruise operators; most of the biggest names in the cruise business now use the bigger Marina Bay port for their Singapore stops.
Singapore's a Perfect Stop for a Layover
Got a long layover? Singapore’s small size and comprehensive transportation system makes it one of the best places to endure a long wait in.
Travelers who don’t want to check out of Changi Airport between flights can sign up for a free three-hour guided tour of Singapore at the Free Singapore Tours booths at least an hour before any tour starts. You have a choice of two different tours; more details on the Free Singapore Tours official page.
If you’re staying longer than a few hours in Singapore, book a Changi Stopovers tour that covers hotels, transportation and attractions in a single package for one to three nights. More details on the Changi Stopovers official page.
But who needs all this hand-holding, when you can strike out and do a Singapore tour by yourself?
See Different Cultures Side By Side in Singapore's Ethnic Enclaves
For such a small island, Singapore is chock-a-block with a variety of Asian cultures, all living side-by-side, each with an ethnic enclave and a Singapore festival of its own. In each ethnic enclave, individual Singaporeans find a way to eat, worship, and live to the fullest extent of their cultural heritage.
The "enclave" system is rooted in Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles' policy of allocating a district to each ethnicity in Singapore. Today's Chinatown, for instance, was allocated in 1828 to the immigrant Chinese of Raffles' day. Shophouses that used to shelter brothels and opium houses have now been converted into museums, offices, and hotels. Visit during Chinese New Year in Singapore to see Chinatown's local vibe turned up to eleven!
The quarters of the former Malay nobility of Singapore have become the kernel for present-day Singapore's Kampong Glam. The former Sultan's palace has now been transformed into the Malay Heritage Center; close by, the golden-domed Sultan Mosque and the bazaars on Bussorah Street and Arab Street provide ample opportunities for tourists to shop and sightsee.
During Ramadan and Aidilfitri, Kampong Glam becomes the site for a massive pasar malam (night market) that caters to Malay Muslims and non-Muslim visitors alike.
At Little India you can see - and smell - how the local Tamil Indian community lives: the area's spices and scents permeate the area, providing an interesting sensory backdrop as you explore. Get some shopping done at the Tekka Market, the Little India Arcade, Campbell Lane, or at the 24-hour Mustafa Centre shopping mall.
Pig out on Singapore’s vibrant food culture
Singapore may be a prosperous country, but eating out around here takes place mostly in the country's many hawker centers - open-air foodcourts that sell Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Peranakan, and "Western" food, fast and cheap.
Singapore hawker centers serve as an amazing, delicious crash course on the local culture - after all, Singapore (much like Singapore's food) derives its identity from long centuries of trade and the merging of many cultures, brought by the traders and their servants who came and stayed.
The choices are endless... and surprisingly cheap! (Expect to spend about $2-4 for a filling meal at a Singapore hawker center.)
The food choices become even more varied in the holiday season: Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore prompt the appearance of specialty Chinese foods like yusheng, while Ramadan and the ensuing Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr) festival comes with a proliferation of pasar malam (night markets) serving an endless variety of Ramadan foods.
If you have a little extra cash to spend, visit one of Singapore's Michelin-star restaurants to experience local cuisine turned up to eleven, from Corner House's "gastro-botanica" menu to Candlenut's unfiltered Peranakan cuisine.