The island city-state of Singapore is a popular stopover for many travellers breaking the monotony of long hauls from the UK, Europe and North Asia to Australia and vice versa, further encouraged by the low-cost holiday stopover packages from Singapore Airlines, top rate airport and hotels, restaurants and attractions to cater for tourists on stopovers. With limited time on the ground, many visitors don't see beyond the tourist impressions and superficial observations. However the best of Singapore can be condensed into a menu which allows you to get a local taste of lifestyle, food, festivals, people and attractions. So if you only have 2 or 3 days, here are my recommendations for a real Singapore experience.
MRT & Taxis
Getting around Singapore with public transport is a breeze. Given the perpetual hot, humid and wet climate that discourages long walks, 2 modes of public transport will likely accompany you for the duration of your visit. The first is the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). This underground and above-ground network of trains is the most time-efficient and cheapest way of getting around the island with maximum fares still below SGD2 per person. Computerised ticket machines in the stations dispense card-like tickets with the push of a few buttons.
MRT at Dover Station / Image by Joey Foo of Flickr
Next is the ubiquitous taxi. Compared to the taxis I have used in many different countries, the ones in Singapore get a thumbs up for being metered, comfy, air-conditioned, English-speaking and affordable. An AUD50 fare from the Tullamarine Airport to inner city Melbourne will allow me to travel from east to west of the Singapore island and back again with change to spare. It is my favourite way of traversing all parts of Singapore inaccessible by MRT.
In its heyday, Chinatown was the cradle of early Singapore's migrant population defined by a mosaic of merchant shops, warehouses, worker quarters, street side food stalls, theatres and brothels. A pale version of its former boisterous self remains today, held together by a mash of shops, restaurants and bars that bare little or no resemblance to the traditional Chinese cultures. However this small precinct is home to a few attractions that provide a real flavour of Singapore's cultures, just minutes from each other.
Sri Mariamman Temple / Image by Terence of Wikimedia Commons
Located at 244 South Bridge Road of Chinatown, the Sri Mariamman Temple is Singapore's oldest and most important Hindu temple and a gazetted National Monument. An active temple for South Indian Tamil Hindu devotees, this 1827 Dravidan style construct is best known for its intricately sculptured and brightly painted gopuram (entrance tower) of Hindu deities, other figures and ornamental decorations rising above the main entrance, and for thousands of devotees celebrating the annual Thimithi fire-walking festival around October and November. Shoes-off and free to visitors, the Temple opens from 9am to 5pm (Mon & Tue, Thu to Sat), 9.45am to 5pm (Wed) and 9am to 1.30pm (Sun).
Another national monument is the Masjid Jamae or Jamae Mosque on 218 South Bridge Road. Built in 1826 by Indian Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of South India, it is one of Singapore's old mosques and perhaps the inspiration for the name of 'Mosque Street' that runs beside it.
Jamae Mosque / Image by Sengkang of Wikimedia Commons
Nearby sits the 4 storey Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum on 288 South Bridge Road. Based on Tang dynasty architectural style and completed in 2007, it contains a main prayer hall with a 27-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha, a huge ceramic urn for burning incense, a scared relic of Buddha Shakyamuni's teeth found in 1980 in a collapsed stupa in Myanmar and a pagoda with a large Tibetan-style prayer wheel. Prayers are conducted daily and a serving of simple vegetarian fare is available. Popular with locals and visitors alike, the Temple has a monthly traffic of more than 50,000 visitors. Admission is free though donations are welcomed to help maintain the facility.
Night shot of The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple / Image by Banej of Wikimedia Commons
Another long standing icon of Chinatown is the Chinatown Complex at 335 Smith Street well known for its wet market and delicious hawker food. The wet market is one of the rare few in Singapore where you can still marvel at barking stallholders selling live fish, frogs, terrapins and alligator meat in addition to fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. The Complex's hawker centre houses many individual stalls still dishing up local favourites based on traditional recipes.
Chinatown Complex / Image by Sengkang of Wikimedia Commons
As you wander the various streets that make up Chinatown, the unique combination of Victorian, Italianate and baroque architecture elements introduced by the early Chinese immigrants are still visible in the restored façade of several shophouses. They offer a peak into Singapore's past and add a colourful bygone contrast to the modern concrete jungle and Chinatown MRT Station which sprouted around them.
Singapore's skyline may not be the most impressive or distinctive but the addition of the world's most expensive standalone casino property Marina Bay Sands has made locals and tourists stop and stare.
The highlight of this SGD8 billion integrated resort is its boat-shaped Sands SkyPark perched 200 metres above ground and the unrivalled 360 degree view it offers of the Singapore skyline. The Sands SkyPark Public Observation Deck charges a ticket of SGD20 for adults, SGD14 for children between 2 to 12 years and SGD17 for seniors 65 years and above. However an ultra-plush lifestyle venue nestled in the SkyPark offers the same access to the rooftop gardens, views of the world's largest outdoor pool in the sky and uninterrupted vista of the striking city skyline with the simple purchase of a meal or drink.
View of Marina Barage and Gardens by the Bay from the SkyPark
Opened in September 2010, KU DÉ TA Singapore features a separate yet integrated lounge, bar and restaurant on top of the Sands SkyPark staffed by a world class team of chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, and DJs working together to provide an unrivalled lifestyle destination set against breath-taking views. Ms Dolores Tay, KU DÉ TA's Director of PR & Marketing who enjoys oysters, whiskey and the company's growth story shared with me that the Singapore venue was the first of a series of planned destination venues around the world for the iconic brand. A marketing professional of 12 years, Dolores explained that the venue is very popular with locals and expatriates aged 28 and above, working in the neighbouring financial district as well as tourists since they sit atop a hotel.
Its restaurant offers a multi-sensory experience with views, jazzy music and a modern Asian menu which draws inspiration from the rich cuisine of many different Asian cultures. Its club lounge and bar is a sleek, intimate space with plush banquettes that is a lounge by day and transforms into a club and dance area at night, perfect for partying with friends, unwinding after sundown over drinks as you watch the city lights come on, and romantic rendezvous under the star-lit sky. The crunchy chewy crispy sticky baby squid with a black pepper glaze and a twist of lime from the restaurant and Sunset Punch from the bar are the venue's best sellers and Dolores recommended me the Ohmi-gyu recognised by the Imperial Palace of Japan as the greatest wagyu beef raised in Japan and the Fireside Old Fashion.
I highly recommend timing a visit to KU DÉ TA before the sunset. An ice cold beer or cocktail with a loved one or friends is a great way to unwind from a day of touring and the watch the sun set behind the city and grab a bar snack or dinner with the city night lights in the background. There's no better place to soak in the spectacular panoramic view, ambience and envy of international jetsetters than at this iconic destination venue located at the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark.
Too humid to trek around the zoo in the day, the Night Safari is a personal favourite offering an opportunity for visitors and locals to get close to animals in the cool of the night. Opened since 1994, the world's first nocturnal zoo is an open air venue set in a tropical rainforest.
The different geographical zones simulating the animals' native habitats in Asia, Africa and South America can be explored by foot or by tram. 4 interlinked walking trails allow adults and children to peer over treetops and encounter animals like fishing cats and giant flying squirrels. A popular attraction is the daily animal performance of 'Creatures of the Night Show'. Other cultural performances include tribal dances and fire eating displays. The park's retail and restaurants are opened from 6pm while the park operated from 7.30pm to 12 midnight daily. General admission which includes the tram ride is SGD32 for adults and SGD21 for children 3 to 12 years. If you're a wildlife conservationist or enthusiast with some spare change, the park also offers a personalise safari tour at SGD120 for adults and SGD80 for children, complete with your own buggy and guide to delight you with in depth fact and figures on all your favourite nocturnal animals and reserved seats to the Creatures of the Night Show.
The park provides a bus service called Singapore Attractions Express which picks up from various locations along Orchard Road according to a fixed schedule. However the taxi is my preferred mode for a group of 3 to 4 people. Another option is to purchase a package which includes admission and 2-way transportation from local travel agents like City Tours.
Approximately 5 million people of predominantly Chinese origin, in less than a quarter of the size of the Sydney metropolitan area, Singapore offers a tasting far more wicked than any cocktail potion from The Alchemist Bar and Café on Brunswick Street in Lionel's Melbourne. Food is Singapore's favourite topic, encouraged by the cornucopia of cultural cuisine from diverse ethnic groups, topped with a sizable portion of local fusion. Eating is naturally Singapore's favourite past time, taken quite seriously by every other person on the street who prides himself or herself on knowing the best places to 'makan' (Malay word for 'eat'). The recipe for experiencing the best of Singapore cuisine is not often found in tourist guides but in the cumulative local knowledge of where you 'die die must try' (Singapore version for the Australian 'give it a go' with an "undeniably and indefinitely must" accent). Here is my recipe for a bonzer time with Singapore's food scene during the stopover.
The first port of call for a true taste of Singapore is the hawker centre. Void of any Michelin star, uniformed staff, polished crockery, attentive service and air-conditioned surroundings, the unexceptional stalls that make up these commonplace food venues serve up some of the best local everyday meals that draw queues of patrons from all walks of life and income levels. Maccas and Hungry Jacks value meals find stiff competition from local hawkers offering a complete meal of rice or noodles ranging from SGD2.50 to SGD4 and a hot or cold drink accompaniment from SGD0.80 to SGD1.50.
Niu Che Shui Famous Glutinous Rice stall / Image by Chensiyuan of Wikimedia Commons
A trip to Chinatown will place your firmly in hawker food heaven. Popular with local and foreigners, the food centre in Chinatown Complex is a must-visit for a sample of traditional recipes from various stalls. Foodies recommend starting the day at 7am by queuing for your share of Niu Che Shui Famous Glutinous Rice from this 40 year old stall, followed closely at 8am by Xiu Ji Ikan Bilis Yong Tau Fu where ingredients are hand-made, tasty, reasonably priced and the queue is just emerging. A sweet conclusion to brekkie is Hai Sing Ah-Balling with its chewy balls of glutinous rice flour filled with peanuts and black sesame in a mildly sweet pandan soup.
Ah-Balling / Image by Chensiyuan of Wikimedia Commons
Easily accessible by MRT, the township of Toa Payoh is another excellent venue to enjoy the real hawker food in the surrounds of one of the earliest public housing estates in Singapore. Located in the heart of the township and just minutes' walk from the MRT station, Block 183 Toa Payoh Central is home to an old-style coffeeshop renowned among foodies for its authentic Rojak, Lor Mee and Wanton Noodles. A bonus to the cheap lunch or dinner is experiencing a typical housing estate environment including the local residents, eateries, shops and the blocks of Housing Development Board (HDB) flats. Another slice of local Singaporean life is the NTUC Fairprice supermarket located close to the Toa Payoh MRT station. If you are game for durians, SGD5 will get you an affordable packet with several pieces for a tasting from within the supermarket.
Seafood market concept interior / Image courtesy of The Seafood International Market and Restaurant
Seafood is a universal favourite in Singapore and queries about places for Chinese-style seafood cuisine usually point to a stretch of beachfront called East Coast Park. A restaurant that's an excellent lunch or dinner stop on route to the airport since 1983 is The Seafood International Market and Restaurant.
What makes it stand out from other seafood establishments is its fame as Singapore's first live seafood shopping and dining concept; the neon "Lobster" sign that is a constant symbol of the restaurant; the live open kitchen; view of the park from any seating in the restaurant; and brand promise of "If it swims, we have it".
Located at 902 East Coast Parkway, Blk A #01-01, Big Splash, this establishment owned by Singaporean foodies also boast 20 private dining rooms with a view of the sea and al fresco options in surrounding greenery. An added reason to dine here for FIFOs (Fly-in Fly out) like me is the restaurant's complimentary daily bus service to the airport from 7pm to 10pm.
Ms Sun Teo, the restaurant's assistant marketing manager who prides herself as a fellow foodie informs me that the freshness of their seafood and Chinese-Thai style cooking is a winner with customers of which locals make up 60% and tourists the balance 40%.
Thai curry crab / Image courtesy of The Seafood International Market and Restaurant
The live crab in Thai curry, a signature, award winning and bestselling dish is also Sun's favourite. Next in the popularity list is their drunken flambé live prawns. Sun also recommends the sashimi styled Australian rock lobster and Canadian geoduck clam, deep fried fresh water red tilapia fish with Nyonya sauce and baked king crab with creamy white sauce. Importantly the food quality is guided by 2005 and 2007 World Culinary Champion, Chef Austen Ong, a culinary veteran of 33 years who joined the restaurant as F&B Director this year. I am looking forward to Chef Austen's wok-fried lobster chunks with shallot bits enhanced with Malibu wine. If you have a hearty appetite for 40 different dishes, the restaurant offers a lunch buffet in July for adults at SGD25.80 (excluding taxes) from Monday to Friday and SGD27.80 on weekends, eve of public holidays and holidays. Children pay SGD16.80 (excluding taxes).
If you miss Aussie tucker and grog, there's always good old reliable Hog's Breath Café at 30 Victoria Street, Block A #01-26/27. The legend of Airlie Beach in North Queensland credited for developing and specialising in Prime Rib Steaks in Australia made its way to Singapore in October 2006. The franchise is owned by a fellow Aussie, Mr David Loveday, who wanted to bring quality food and a slice of "hog'spitality" to families in Singapore.
Restaurant interor / Image courtesy of Hog's Breath Cafe
Best-selling prime rib steak / Image by Hog's Breath Cafe
For Mr Kelvin Toh, a F&B industry professional who enjoys meeting people and the Café's operations manager, the Prime Rib Steak is his personal favourite and remains a bestseller among locals and tourists with Australians making up 30% of the Café's customers. A trip to this relaxed and friendly Café provides an excellent side dish to accompany that mouth-watering steak. Located in CHIJMES, your meal also allows you to marvel at this historic complex and gothic style chapel which began as a Catholic convent 132 years ago and today is restored for dining, shopping, entertainment and weddings.
Shopping is another favourite Singapore past-time especially when bargains and sales can be had nearly all year round, be it designer clothes or electronic goods. Known to many visitors as a shopping mecca with the only country-wide sale in the world, Singapore's Great Singapore Sale (GSS) between 25 May and 22 July offered discounts of up to 70% in malls, department stores and individual boutiques.
The most convenience venue to grab every bargain, swipe those credit cards and quench your shopaholic thirst is the central shopping belt of Orchard Road. According to MasterCard, Australian shoppers alone spent USD33.2 million in the first month of the GSS, claiming the top spot among its entire card using tourists. It is little wonder with the strong Aussie dollar supporting an influx of Australian tourist to Singapore. Its Japanese card users came in second with USD21.8 million and Americans with USD27.1 million in third spot. Seems the economic slowdown linked to the Eurozone crisis is no match for this level of heightened retail therapy.
Ngee Ann City shopping mall / Image by Calvin Teo of Wikimedia Commons
Shopping pleasures in Orchard Road can continue even on your journey home. With 3 interconnected terminals, Changi Airport is one of the largest shopping malls in Singapore offering not only the same level of discounts in its outlets during GSS but the absence of the 7% goods and services tax on purchases. If you miss the GSS, fret not, as many boutiques and outlets continue their individual mark-downs past the official sale event date.
Changi Airport T3 Transit area / Image by David of Wikimedia Commons
Singapore's multi-ethnicity offers up a festive celebration nearly every month of the year, providing an opportunity for visitors to sample a religious ceremony and cultural event taking place somewhere on the island.
One of the trademark festivals is Chingay. What began as a neighbourhood Chinese New Year procession in 1973 has evolved today to become the Mardis Gras of Singapore and the grandest street parade in Asia. Characterised by an extravaganza of colours, costumes, lion and dragon dances, giant flags, floats, music, lights and pyrotechnics, this evening-to-night mega event combines the symbolic gesture of welcoming the Spring bloom with multi-cultural local and international performances to enthral tourists and Singaporeans.
If you're stopping over in Singapore between 15 July and 24 August, you're in for a 40-day Muslim cultural and heritage treat with the fasting month of Ramadan followed immediately by the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations. Make your way to the Geylang Serai area where a giant pasar malam or bazaar of more than 800 street stalls spread between a dedicated area next to the Payar Lebar MRT station, Tanjong Katong Complex and the junction of Sims Avenue and Jalan Ubi. Expect traditional Malay decorations and stalls selling food, clothing, footwear, carpets, rugs, handicrafts and home décor items in the evenings during the Ramadan month when Muslim families all over Singapore gather for evening prayers and break their dawn-to-dusk fasting.
Traditional Malay attire / Image by pinelife of Flickr
This iconic event is the largest of its kind and duration within the Malay community attracting more than 3.2 million visitors each year including tourists. A main attraction of the bazaar for locals and visitors alike is the variety of Malay rice, chilli, curry and fried dishes as well as traditional baked and steamed Malay pastries, cakes and deserts on sale. Hari Raya Aidilfitri heralds the end of fasting and celebrations are marked by Muslim men, women and children in colourful traditional attires visiting and greeting each other with "Selamat Hari Raya".
The Float@Marina Bay / Image by Waycool27 of Wikimedia Commons
Another mention-worthy festival is the Singapore National Day, a nation-wide celebration in commemoration of Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965, characterised by banners hanging from street lamps, national flags on HDB flats and the annual National Day Parade (NDP).
NDP 2012 logo
Held at The Float@Marina Bay, this 130 metre by 100 metre platform offers a seating capacity of 27,000 citizens and permanent residents nestled in the Marina Bay waterfront with a standing capacity of 150,000 extra spectators for NDP. The theme for NDP 2012 is 'Loving Singapore, Our Home' and exemplified by an 'Orchidstar' logo. The organisers have planned a dusk-to-night multi-ethnic musical performance, dragon boat procession, multimedia displays and the signature climax of fireworks displays. If you're in Singapore on 8 August evening, head down to Marina Bay waterfront and be entertained for free by a thundering celebration that would surely rock the very ground you're standing on. KU DÉ TA offers a top-down view of the NDP fireworks for the cost of cocktails and/or food.
Collage of NDP highlights / Image by chooyutshing of Flickr
For many American, UK and Australian visitors, Singapore's eclectic mix of East and West and Changi Airport's network of 80 airlines connecting Singapore to 200 cities in 68 countries makes it a favourite stopover destination. Averaging 4 hours to India, China, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Perth and less than 2 hours to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Philippines, Singapore is also an excellent stepping stone to the region.
More visitors are stopping longer to get a real taste of this constantly evolving cosmopolitan city teeming with diversity of language, culture, history, food, arts, architecture and attractions. So the next time you're travelling, make Singapore your stopover destination.
For more information on must-see attractions, special events, tours, dining options, accommodation and more, please visit the Official Singapore Tourism Website - YourSingapore.com
Why? Singapore is a popular stopover for many long haul travellers from US, UK and Australia. However most visitors only travel the tourist route during their 2 or 3 days. Here are recommendations to maximise your limited time and deliver a real Singapore