If you haven’t been to Singapore in the past three years, it’s almost as if you haven’t been there at all—and given the ambitious scope of the city-state’s ongoing infrastructure improvements and construction boom, the same will be true another three years from now, too.
In many ways, this burgeoning island nation makes for an ideal gateway into the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s squeaky clean; petty crimes are scarce, and violent crime is virtually nonexistent; plus, English, one of four official languages, is readily spoken and understood. These cultural attributes make this an easy destination for acclimating yourself to the region, but there are plenty other reasons why this tropical outpost warrants more than an extended layover—read on for five of our favorites.
1. Memorable Meals for Every Budget
Eating well is one of the great joys of everyday life in Singapore and a highlight of any visit. Superstar chefs like Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Jamie Oliver, Joël Robuchon, and Guy Savoy have all opened successful restaurants over the past few years, while roving pop-up dinner parties hosted by upstart foodies at Gastrogig and Lolla’s Secret Supper have thrown a well-received wrench into the traditional brick-and-mortar dining model.
Still, some of Singapore’s best local cuisine is found in its more than 100 hawker centers, where you’ll find veritable mazes of food stalls helmed by talented chefs cranking out plate after plate after plate of regional specialties like mee goreng, char kway teow, laksa, and fish ball soup—all at less than $5 per serving. A stop to feast at Maxwell Road Food Centre belongs on every Singapore hawker food trail—look for crowd-favorite stalls at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (#01-10), Jin Hua Fish Head Bee Hoon (#01-77), and China Street Fritters (#64).
2. Craft Beer with a Sense of Place
Big, hoppy IPAs are the calling card for most American microbreweries, but in Singapore, award-winning Jungle Beer has staked its success on beers brewed with unconventional regional products: think shiitake mushrooms and such tropical fruits as soursop, calamansi, and guava. This past June at Singapore’s Beerfest Asia, the largest annual beer festival in Southeast Asia, Jungle Beer’s Kiasu Stout, a rich ale brewed with unrefined sugar cane, was awarded "Best in Singapore" and "Best in the World" honors, while its English Pale Ale earned a gold medal in the "International Pub Ale" competition. Jungle Beer hosts an all-you-can-drink open house every second Saturday of the month at its somewhat remote brewery in northern Singapore; otherwise, quaff their brews at more than 20 bars and restaurants across the island.
3. Arts Infusion
Following the 2011 debuts of Goodman Arts Centre and Marina Bay‘s lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, Singapore’s fledgling arts community welcomed the arrival of contemporary arts haven Gillman Barracks in 2012. Located just north of Labrador Park, this sprawling facility, set within a former army barracks, was spruced up with a $10-million facelift and features 14 galleries and a handful of restaurants. Notable tenants include Tokyo‘s Tomio Koyama Gallery, China‘s ShanghArt Gallery, and New York‘s Sundaram Tagore Gallery; the Centre for Contemporary Arts will also soon open at Gillman.
Dedicated arts enthusiasts should time their trip to coincide with Art Stage Singapore, an impressive weekend-long exhibition held every January at Marina Bay Sands. Here, discover for-sale works on display from more than 600 international artists, who mostly hail from the Asia Pacific region.
4. The Great Outdoors
Much has been made of Gardens by the Bay since its debut in 2012—and rightfully so—though you won’t have to battle crowds to experience some of Singapore’s other stunning green spaces. At MacRitchie Reservoir, where 6.8 miles of well-marked trails snake through lush forests teeming with long-tailed macaque monkeys, hit up the 820-foot TreeTop Walk, a scenic freestanding suspension bridge. The Southern Ridges, an easy-walking system of trails stretching 6.2 miles along the island’s pretty southern coast, offers postcard-perfect panoramas from the peak at Mount Faber Park. And for an easy island getaway from the main island, head to Singaporean satellites Sentosa (family-friendly activities), Pulau Ubin (secluded cycling), or Kusu (picnicking and swimming).
5. Retail Riches
Doubling as air-conditioned oases from Singapore’s sticky midday humidity, the labyrinthine megamalls lining leafy Orchard Road are the likely first point of contact for any Singapore shopping spree. At touchstone tenants like ION Orchard, Paragon, and Ngee Ann City, you can while away entire days browsing scores of outlets from local and international brands, snacking at stellar food courts and gourmet groceries, and dining at top-notch restaurants like Sky grill & Sky bar, a contemporary Australian eatery from award-winning chef Luke Mangan, located on ION Orchard’s 56th-floor ION Sky deck.
Malls still dominate the retail world, but in recent years an influx of indie-minded merchants like BooksActually, Threadbare & Squirrel, and Cat Socrates have significantly reshaped and diversified the landscape. Ground zero for Singapore’s boutique renaissance is hip Haji Lane, a narrow strip of restored shophouses in Kampong Glam that’s home to more than 50 stylish fashion, accessories, and lifestyle shops.
Brian Spencer is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Singapore. He pens a weekly feature for the blog side of the award-winning travel zine Perceptive Travel.