These are my random notes on what to do, what to eat and where to go in Singapore. You can take it as my contribution to the fight against "there is nothing to do in Singapore" and "Singapore is boring". This list is mostly written for the people who are moving to Singapore for some period of time and will be particularly useful to those who have never lived in Asia before. As I could not put any meaningful structure on the things I wanted to tell I had to put them in alphabetical order. These are the things I would tell and show my friends who would visit me in Singapore. Hopefully they will help someone find all the cool places in Singapore that I used to enjoy so much!
Warning: the guide is LONG and you can probably entertain yourself or your guests for a month just following these tips
A: Arab Street
Arab Street and the surroundings is one of the most atmospheric places in the city. Apart from the Middle Eastern restaurants there are also numerous textile shops and outlets selling Persian carpets, lanterns and crafts. You have to take a walk through the streets of the area to get the feeling of it. If you like Middle Eastern food this place will probably feel like heaven.
B: Ballet Under the Stars - Beaches - Botanical Garden - Business Casual
Ballet Under the Stars is the annual open-air ballet series held in the Fort Cunning park annually in June-July. The event is organized by the Singapore Dance Theatre, often in collaboration with foreign dance companies. The repertoire is different every year. Take a picnic mat, some food and drinks and come early enough to get a good spot close to the stage as the event is quite popular. If you are interested in dancing ballet you can also check out the Singapore Dance Theatre Adult Dance Classes. If you are lucky you'll get Etienne Ferrere as your teacher :). Once you have attended one of his dance classes you'll understand what I mean.
Beaches. The consensus is that there are no good beaches in Singapore, which is true if you compare it to other beach destinations around SEA. However, you can still go to one of the Sentosa beaches to get tan, for a beach party or to play volleyball. Couchsurfing usually arranges beach volleyball meet-ups at the Siloso beach (to the right from the monorail Beach station). If you want to go to a less busy beach, go to the left of the monorail station. There is also the Southernmost point of continental Asia there. The truth is that, it doesn't even matter how you define continental, it's not even the southernmost point of Sentosa (check your GPS if you don't believe me!). It's cool for taking some pictures there though.
Botanical gardens is a nice place for a peaceful weekend picnic. There are free concerts (often jazz) held at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage in the gardens. Check the schedule, take a picnic mat, some fruit and drinks with you and enjoy an evening listening to beautiful music out in the nature. Before the concert make sure to check out the pond right behind the Shaw Foundation Stage - you'll find dozens of turtles there. You can feed them and see them fight for the food! Btw, there is a Da Paolo Gastronomia to the left of the MRT exit where you can get some heavenly good sandwiches (my personal favorite is the Parma ham one).
Business casual in Singapore is not what you would expect from business casual. Well, at least not for women. I remember trying to find out what kind of business attire I would need while working in Singapore. None of the people I asked seemed to understand my question so I turned to the internet. Opt for conservative and not too revealing, it said. Neutral colors are best. Avoid sandals and open toes. Avoid skin-tight dresses and opt for long-arm shirts. So that's exactly what I was looking for when shopping for the business cloths before going to Singapore. Once you are there you understand how different the business cloths reality is. Even if you don't work in Singapore try going to the Raffles Place during the lunch time and watch the women. You will be very surprised to see dresses shorter and tighter, hills higher and colors brighter than you would expect. Open toes are just as normal as no tights (moreover, try finding tights to buy in Singapore. You can only fail). Sometimes you can even see an open back dress. You might think it's strange but when you get used to it you will love it.
C: Casual Friday - Can - Cannot - Chicken Rice - Chilli Crab - Chewing Gum
Another thing to know about business clothing in Singapore is the Casual Friday concept. It's not exactly Singaporean but it is very common there. It's basically the concept of dressing down on Fridays. Sandals, sneakers and jeans might be allowed. I personally love it because it makes me feel even more comfortable and relaxed than I usually am :).
Can and cannot are perfect examples of how Singlish (Singaporean English) works! Both words make perfectly grammatically correct sentences on their own. They are supposed to be used in the following context: "Lunch can?" - "Today cannot. Today so busy lah. Tomorrow can?" - "Tomorrow also can." I'm sure you can figure out what that means! (Now this is obviously based on my very superficial understanding of Singlish). If you speak perfect English but still don't understand what people around you are saying, don't worry. It will take you some time and suddenly all of it will start making sense. For more examples of Singlish grammar structure check the compilation made by NUS. If you are still unfamiliar with it you'll find it hilarious. The reason why the language is built this way is that it is heavily influenced by the presence of Chinese in which this kind of grammar is perfectly correct!
Chicken rice is a very big deal in Singapore. It really is just a combination of rice cooked in a chicken broth with steamed or roasted chicken. They also add a couple of cucumber slices and some sauces (I'm not a good advisor on sauces, if I have a choice, I always choose away most of them. However, be sure, the red chili sauce you get with chicken rice is freaking spicy). I am saying chicken rice is a big deal in Singapore because trust me, Singaporeans can take a ten minutes' bus ride and a 15 minutes' walk in the hot tropical weather to get to their favorite chicken rice place. If you think that chicken rice at this place tastes exactly like the chicken rice you could have got next door, don't you dare to bring it up when talking to your Singaporean friend! There is a difference! P.S. Ask your fellow Singaporeans where the best chicken rice can be found.
Chilli crab is another Singaporean specialty. The worst idea you might get is to try it somewhere around the Boat Quay or any other touristic area. In those place you might pay as much as a couple of hundred dollars per kg which is insanely expensive. My favorite place for the chilli crab (and a heavenly delicious steamed red snapper) is 37 Heng Kee: the House of Steamed Fish. If you don't eat spicy food you may try a Bee Hoon crab or some other alternatives. However, the chilli crab is not as spicy as you would expect it to be. I'm not a great lover of spicy food but I can eat the chilli crab. Don't forget the special buns that you eat with the crab. As for the red snapper, try the Hong Kong style one. It's delicious!
Chewing Gum is that thing everyone knows is prohibited in Singapore. Moreover, everyone is so appaled by the fact that it's prohibited that people make legends about it. Like: "Don't chew a chewing gum or they'll chop your hands off". Well, Singapore might be a "fine city" but trust me, they won't.
D: Din Tai Fung - Dumplings - Durian
Din Tai Fung is the best place for trying dumplings. It is a restaurant originated from Taiwan that is specializing in dumplings. The food is delicious and the place is an absolute must-visit. For a Michelin star awarded restaurant it's extremely reasonably priced. Be aware that certain kinds of dumplings are not served in all the restaurants (for example, if you are vegetarian you might want to check whether the Din Tai Fung outlet that you are going to serves the veggie dumplings). If you are scared of all the strange-looking Asian food, Din Tai Fung is the perfect place to go. Try everything! The quality of the food is really good here. You can even see the dumplings being made in the kitchen through the glass wall. Being able to see the kitchen is usually a sign of the perfect cleanliness of the place.
Durian is that strange-looking fruit that you are not supposed to take with you on an MRT (Singaporean subway) ride. Well, that's because its smell is not the nicest smell in the world. If you are curious and want to try it, the best thing to do is to try it in one of the places that specialize in selling durians (there are quite a couple of them around Geylang, in the beginning of the Sims Avenue). There they will cut it for you and you will eat it using plastic gloves. Bringing it home might be a very bad idea, especially if you live in a shared apartment. In any case, make sure your neighbors don't mind before you buy it. To get a good durian ask your Singaporean friends for tips on the best place to try it.
E: Esplanade - Esplanade Rooftop - Esplanade Beautiful Sunday - Esplanade Theatres on the Bay
Esplanade is the Singaporean concert hall. It's that white strange-looking Durian-shaped building next to the Marina Bay. This is the place where you will go to watch ballet or listen to the music. It was meant to become the Singaporean landmark (aka you see it on a postcard and you know it's Singapore), however, it has kind of failed its mission and the landmark role was overtaken by Marina Bay Sands (most often pronounced as MBS) hotel instead. To get acquainted with the Esplanade I suggest visiting the Esplanade rooftop (look for the signs to the rooftop terrace inside of the building). The view on the city is just great and very romantic. Be sure to go there in the evening for the best ambience. The roof access doesn't cost anything.
Check out the free concerts schedule - Beautiful Sunday at Esplanade - free concerts held once a month on Sundays. On the Waterfront is another series of free concerts held at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. The free performances can be seen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and may be anything from smaller local bands playing their own songs to someone performing famous covers.
F: Fireworks - Fresh Fruit Juice
M: Marina Bay Golf Club Park
Fireworks can be seen during the National Day celebrations and on some other more or less random occasions. The funniest thing about the National Day fireworks is the fireworks rehearsals held on the four Saturdays preceding the National Day. In this way you can watch the National Day fireworks five times. It's a great opportunity for experimenting with locations! Try the Esplanade rooftop, the Esplanade bridge, the park next to the Marina Bay Golf club (the absolutely best scenic view of the city with almost no people there) and some skyscraper rooftop. The Marina Bay Golf Club park (I'm sure it has some other name I just don't know it) is a 20 minutes' walk away from the Stadium MRT station.
Fresh fruit juice is something you will love (at least if you come from Europe and not so spoiled by quality fresh fruits). The pineapple juice taste has absolutely nothing to do with the taste of that half ripe thing that is sold as a pineapple in most of the European supermarkets. Some places make better juice, some worse, however, if you always ask them to add no water and no/less ice to your juice, the chances of getting a very good quality drink rises. This option will usually cost you 50 cent more. The best place to get fresh juice in the city center is the Arcade at the Raffles place (you have to walk through almost all of the entry level floor when you enter from the Raffles Place side). Apart from the safe option - the pineapple one - try dragon fruit, star fruit, papaya, mango juice, strawberry mixes and avocado milkshake.
G: Gardens by the Bay - Garden Rhapsody - Geylang
M: Marina Barrage
S: Satay by the Bay
Gardens by the Bay is the park with the huge artificial trees (Supertrees) south of the MBS hotel. Artificial trees might not sound very impressive to you but they are. Those Supertrees are covered with hundreds of thousands of plants and photovoltaic elements are installed on the top. Those photovoltaic panels generate enough energy to cover all the energy needs of the park (and I guess even more). The outdoor park areas are open until 1 am and are free to access. If you visit the park in the evening plan your visit so that you see the Garden Rhapsody show held twice every evening. If you walk a bit further away from the MBS (just follow the waterfront walk) you will come to the food court Satay by the Bay (you will soon realize that many things are "by the Bay" in Singapore). This is a great place to try another Singaporean specialty - satay. Try the chicken one! If you walk a bit further you'll come to the Marina Barrage. This is a place you will probably never find in any tourist guides but it's a great place to go to during the night time. It offers an amazing view of the city (walk up to the "rooftop") and you can see people having picnic there or watching kites.
Geylang is that special district everyone usually makes jokes about. (I used to live there, by the way :). It consists of north and south areas divided by the Geylang Road. The south area (evenly numbered Lorongs) are known to be the red-light district of Singapore. The Geylang Road itself is one of the busiest places in the city. You will see people and traffic here even at 3 am. There are also countless eateries that are open during the night. The best thing about this area is the variety of fresh fruit shops and the cheap local supermarkets (try Sheng Siong for a huge choice of fresh fish).
K: Karaoke - Kopi
What you shouldn't do in Geylang is going for karaoke! I have the impression that the Geylang KTV's are not exactly for singing. Go to one of the KTV's in other areas of the city. The cheapest place with a huge variety of English language songs is the Cash Studio Family Karaoke Box at Somerset. You get a private room for your company and usually they will let you extend your stay for free if there is no queue for the room. The normal stay is four hours. The place is also open until 6 am if you feel like singing through the whole night! :)
Kopi is the South East Asian name for coffee. In my view, it has a very special taste and you have you get used to it to like it. Make sure you know all the differences between kopi, kopi O, kopi C and others.
L: Ladies' Night- Lau Pa Sat
Ladies' night is every Wednesday night! Most bars and clubs offer some free drinks or special offers to the ladies. My personal favorite for a Wednesday night is the Ku De Ta club at the top of MBS. You get a free entrance and a free drink (don't take white wine though unless they have already changed the type of wine you get). Be sure to wear something classy (at least no shorts and no flip-flops), otherwise they might not let you in. The music is also good on Wednesday nights. The place that is not worth to go to on Ladies nights is One Altitude (please, don't take it as "not worth to go there at all" as it is one of my most favorite clubs in the city). It's just that there is a cover charge of around 30 SGD to get in and it includes one drink. On the ladies night there is no cover charge, however you get to pay about 22+ SGD for your drink. One Altitude is an open-rooftop bar on the top of the highest skyscraper with live music on certain days and, obviously, a great view on the city. If you live in Singapore probably all of your visiting friends will want to go there. So you are bound to visit this place many times.
Lau Pa Sat is the main CBD food court. It's a very old landmark food court with a great variety of food stalls. It used to be the cheapest lunch place in the CBD before it was closed for renovation in September 2013. When it reopened again in July 2014 it got a bit more expensive than it used to be. However, there is still a great variety of food and you won't regret if you decide to have you lunch there.
M: Makansutra - Marina Square Food Court - Marina Bay Sands Swimming Pool - McRitchie Reservoir - McRitchie Park - McRitchie treetop Walk - Monkeys - Monitor Lizards -Movies by the Bay
Makansutra is the food court next to the Esplanade, at the Gluttons bay. It's a bit pricy but there is some good satay there and it's right in the city center. My favorite food court is the Marina Square Food Court (it's on the top floor). There is a great variety of food for about four to six dollars. It's one of the best options to eat a cheap meal in the city center. It has the best view on the city as well!
Marina Bay Sands Swimming Pool is that famous swimming pool on the top of MBS that everyone wants to get into. As it is only open to the hotel guests it is very expensive to get there. The room rates in the hotel start at 440 SGD inclusive the taxes and if you have decided to spend that much money on a hotel stay you would probably pay additional 50 SGD to get the City View room on a higher floor. It is a hell of a lot of money but once you get to that swimming pool on the Sky Terrace you will feel that every dollar you've spend on this hotel was worth it. The first time I got there I couldn't stop smiling like a child who just got the toy that she really wanted.
McRitchie reservoir is a part of the larger Central Catchment Nature Reserve - a protected area that has been reforested to protect the water resources and act as the "green lung of the city". There are around 17 reservoirs in Singapore and McRitchie is one of the oldest ones. The reservoirs were built as a part of the program aimed at the water self-sufficiency of Singapore. Annually Singapore receives more than twice of the world rainfall average. The problem is just the densely populated island and limited land resources to capture the rainfall water. Singapore plans to be independent of the Malaysian water supply by 2061, however, according to some sources, they might be self-sufficient already, except for the years with extremely low precipitation levels. Pretty impressive for a country that used to import about 70-80% of its fresh water supply from Malaysia back in 1962 when the agreement was signed. If you happen to be in the McRitchie reservoir park when it rains make sure you take a look at the water capturing process, you can watch it from the Mushroom café entrance. It's impressive! However, the most enjoyable thing about the McRitchie reservoir and the reason why you absolutely should visit it are the monkeys that live in the park to the left of the Mushroom café as well as in the jungle (if you decide to go for a longer hiking walk). On an average visit you will see about 30 to 40 monkeys, some of them might be baby monkeys not larger than a palm. They are just as cute as they are impressive. They also are very intelligent and almost not scary at all. It is absolutely prohibited to feed the monkeys. Please, don't give them any food, that won't do them any good. If they get used to people giving them food, they'll become more aggressive and the park management will have to shoot them (no kidding). Just trust me, the reason why they are not as aggressive as the monkeys you'll see in major tourist places around SEA (like the Bali Monkey forest) is that in Singapore you are not allowed to feed them.
Apart from the "monkey park" you can go for jungle hiking. There are various trails, varying from 3 to 12 km. You can start with a hike to the Treetop Walk. It is about 4,5 km one way from the Mushroom café and it's a nice suspension bridge overlooking the reservoir area. It's a good way to spend a Sunday, just make sure to have a water bottle with you and some comfortable shoes. Look out for the monkeys and monitor lizards while walking. The lizards I've seen were about half a meter long, not very easy to miss!
Movies by the Bay are monthly open-air movie screenings right next to the MBS shopping mall. They are organized by the local bank - DBS - and you can vote for which movies to watch on their Facebook page. It's for free and if you come there early enough you can get a free picnic mat and a free popcorn
Nabins (the one at Sultan Gate) is my absolutely favorite place in Singapore. I would like to think that it's because of the very special ambiance, however it's probably due to the very special memories :) It's located in the Arab Street area, it's a Middle Eastern restaurant with cozy sofas, beautiful textiles, belly dancing, shisha smoking and delicious food. I don't think there is any other restaurant or bar in the city where I would feel equally comfortable as at Nabins.
O: Orgo Bar
Orgo is the rooftop bar at the Esplanade rooftop (overlooking the Marina Bay and the CBD). If you happen to go there on the night when they have live music (especially if it's jazz) you will fall in love with the place! Make sure to ask for the front row seats that are closest to the Bay for the best view of the city.
R: Rain Season
The rain season in Singapore is supposed to last from September to February. However, it's not exactly fixed. During my one year in Singapore I never experienced a rain that lasted for more than two hours. The real tropical rain I experienced happened on my weekend trip to Langkawi, Malaysia when it was raining cats and dogs from 8 pm until 11 am the next day. This has never happened to me in Singapore. It usually rains for an hour or so and then the sun is out again. You might think the weather is always the same in Singapore but it's not exactly true. After a year or two you will start noticing that the weather is changing. Some periods are hotter and drier than others. The difference is quite subtle though.
S: Salads - Screening Room - Sentosa - Sentosa Boardwalk - St. John's Island - Siloso Beach Volleyball Meet-ups - Sushi
U: Universal Studios Singapore
W: Wild Wild Wet
There are many places offering you to mix your own salad. Although eating fresh vegetable salads is definitely not an Asian thing (they mostly eat vegetables steamed), mixing your own salad is not a European thing either. Well, since this year they have it in Sweden as well, but you won't find such a variety as in Singapore. The best place I've been to is the Salad Stop at the Robertson Road. First time you'll mix your salad you will have a feeling "oh no, there's no way all these things I've picked up from the list will taste well together". Don't worry! Usually the outcome is really good. Well, unless you've mixed some really weird things together :).
Sentosa island is the main island resort of Singapore. Sentosa means "peace and tranquility" from Malay. However, you just have to go once to the Universal Studios park or one of the beach parties to understand that Sentosa is anything but peace and tranquility. To me the island seems very artificial (which it definitely is), however, there are quite some nice things there. The Universal Studios theme park is a great place for theme and amusement park lovers. It's a bit children-oriented in my opinion and they just have four good rollercoaster rider (two of which have been closed for the last year and a half but have now been announced to open in early 2015). However, those four are really exciting ones. If you have been to any larger amusement parks in the US you probably won't be impressed. However, if you haven't you might love it! The best way to get to Sentosa is to walk there. The boardwalk from the Vivo City is just about 600 meters. The island admission is 1 SGD. You can take the monorail that costs 4 SGD but the boardwalk is really nice, especially in the night time when it's beautifully illuminated. If you get tired after the day spent at Sentosa, take the monorail back from the island. The way back won't cost you anything!
Another place to go at Sentosa is the water park. The cool part of the park is the one where you can go snorkeling (although the place is obviously artificial there is a lot of colorful fish). There are also quite cool water rides. However, for the rides try Wild Wild Wet instead. It's not centrally located (it's around Pasir Ris area) but they have more exciting rides and the ticket is half the price of the Sentosa one!
If you happen to be at Sentosa during the evening time, check out the Crane show. It's beautiful, free and held almost every day. Check the schedule before you go!
If you are still determined to find some beaches in Singapore, go to the St. John's island instead of Sentosa. It is just a 20 minutes ride from the Marina Barrage ferry terminal. It's best to go on Saturday as there is the largest number of ferry departures to and from the island. The water is of the same quality as at Sentosa, however, the views are nicer. Make sure you have food, drinks and sun-lotion with you. There is absolutely no infrastructure on the island. For the directions to the best beach on the island check here.
S: Screening Room - Sushi - Sushi Express - Standing Sushi Bar- Supply & Demand
Screening Room is one of the rooftop bars located in China Town. It's not high at all, however, it offers a great view on the city. As all other rooftop places it is expensive but is worth a visit. Btw, the full list of the great rooftop bars can be found here.
Sushi. When I first came to Singapore I was extremely open-minded when it came to food. I was very eager to try the local food and I was instantly punished for that open-mindedness. My first dish in Singapore was extremely spicy and I was left hungry almost crying for something to ease that horrible burning feeling in my mouth. That was how I suddenly realized I couldn't take spicy food. The next morning I tried some half-boiled eggs, local coffee and kaya toasts (all of which you have to get used to if you want to enjoy eating them). The result of my unexpected food shock was that I was eating only sushi for the next two days (it was the only familiar thing I could come up with!). Of course, there is McDonalds as well but better sushi than McDonalds! :) So the best cheap sushi places in the city are the Sushi Express in the City Link mall (there is usually a queue for entrance but it moves fast) and the Sushi place in the Cineleisure Orchard mall (8, Grange Road, one floor down from the entry level). Both places are very cheap and have good quality sushi. The more expensive option is the Standing Sushi Bar. The quality is great though.
Supply & Demand is one of my favorite bars in Singapore. It is not included in the list of the rooftop bars, probably because their rooftop terrace is on the second floor only. However, because there are no buildings in front of the bar, the view on the CBD and Marina Bay is very good. Their usual wine prices are at the Happy Hour price level of the other bars, which makes it an even nicer place to go to. They have the best Italian pizza in the city as well. On the ground floor there are some swings that can be used instead of the chairs. It's a very charming place.
T: Traveling Hub
Singapore is a great traveling hub. There are countless destinations within one to three hours flight from Singapore and they definitely deserve a separate blog post. Just be aware that they exist, ask your friends where they travel and make sure you travel and see as much as you can while you stay in Singapore.
W: Wine Connection - WonderFull
Wine Connection is the place to go to if you like wine. Wine in Singapore is generally expensive (mostly only expats drink it and everything that is "expat-oriented" is expensive) and not very good (if you go for the cheapest option). Wine Connection has a great variety of wine and reasonable prices. Well, Singapore-kind of reasonable. Generally, if you live in Singapore you will find yourself drinking white wine most of the time because it is served chilled. When you grow tired of the white wine and want to change to red you will find yourself drinking red wine chilled as well. There's nothing strange about it! It's hot anyway!
WonderFull is the water and lights show that can be seen daily on the waterfront next to the Marina Bay Sands shopping mall. The show is held twice a day on Sunday-Thursday evenings and three times a day on Friday-Saturday evenings. This is an absolute must-see in Singapore. Be sure not to miss it. It is very beautiful. Once you've seen it you will want to come back and see it again.