The main island of Singapore is shaped like a flattened diamond, 42 km (26 miles) east to west and 23 km (14 miles) north to south. Near the northern peak is the causeway leading to West Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur is less than four hours away by car. It is at the southern foot where you will find most of the city-state’s action, with its gleaming office towers, working docks, and futuristic "supertrees," which are solar-powered and serve as vertical gardens. Offshore are Sentosa and over 60 smaller islands, most uninhabited, that serve as bases for oil refining or as playgrounds and beach escapes from the city. To the east is Changi International Airport, connected to the city by metro, bus, and a tree-lined parkway. Of the island's total land area, more than half is built up, with the balance made up of parkland, farmland, plantations, swamp areas, and rain forest. Well-paved roads connect all parts of the island, and Singapore city has an excellent, and constantly expanding, public transportation system. The heart of Singapore's history and its modern wealth are in and around the Central Business District. The area includes the skyscrapers in the Central Business District, the 19th-century Raffles Hotel, the convention centers of Marina Square, on up to the top of Ft. Canning. Although most of old Singapore has been knocked down to make way for the modern city, most colonial landmarks have been preserved in the CBD, including early-19th-century buildings designed by the Irish architect George Coleman.
Welcome to Singapore, one of the world’s great food destinations, where eating—and eating well—is a time-honored national pastime.
Here you can splurge on haute cuisine from Michelin-starred chefs in some of the best fine-dining restaurants in Asia, or dig into fragrant bowls oflaksa (a spicy noodle soup) and heaping plates of char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodle strips) at one of the island’s famous hawker centers. The wide range of food and restaurants is what brings many travelers to Singapore in the first place, and few leave disappointed. In most cities the plan of attack is to map out must-see sights to pack in as much as possible; in Singapore it's often more about maximizing your meals and eating until it hurts—and then trying to fit in some more.
You hardly ever have to go far to find one of Singapore’s casual eating houses and hawker centers, which are fun, budget-friendly places to taste as many local specialties as your stomach can handle. The city-state’s indomitable megamalls are loaded with mid-range restaurants, sprawling food courts, and snack stands. Many of the island’s more upscale restaurants are tucked away in posh hotels, and many of the newer and trendier places are inside restored Chinese shophouses and once-abandoned colonial buildings. Note that upscale restaurants often close in the afternoon between lunch and dinner—from 2:30 to 6:30, for instance.
Singapore was once little more than a stopover for many travelers, but now it has come into its own as a booming metropolis that does good business for vacations as well as holidays. This has led to many hotels having to refurbish, expand, and vary their services to accommodate a changing clientele. As in many others cities, boutique hotels with smaller, quirkily designed rooms have become more and more common over the past couple of decades.
Hotel prices in Singapore can rival those in New York or London—a superior double room in a deluxe hotel can run more than S$400 a night, and one with a private bath in a modest hotel may run around S$200 a night. During conventions and in the peak months of December and June through September, rooms are often scarce, and prices rise. Still, there are usually enough discounts and deals that you can avoid having to pay the full published prices.
For truly low rates, concentrate your search in Chinatown and Little India, which have many of Singapore's budget hotels.
Singapore’s late-night options have expanded in recent years to include more highbrow lounges with million-dollar views, mixologists shaking up the trendiest ingredients, and bars tapping into some of the beers from all over. After work, professionals and expats typically congregate at watering holes on Club Street and pubs in Boat Quay, as well as at some of the cocktail bars that have been popping up around Chinatown and Haji Lane.
Nightclubs featuring electronic dance music have a massive following here, and that's been true since the opening of Zouk, back in 1996. Additional clubs can be found around Clarke Quay and throughout the CBD.
First-time visitors should be prepared for the exorbitantly expensive prices that clubs charge. Beer guzzlers on a budget are best off sipping on a few at the hawker centers, one of the only places to find reasonable rates.
Be aware that although the once-bawdy Bugis Street has been sanitized, a seedy underworld still exists elsewhere in town. Red-light districts, which are mostly found in parts of Geylang, have buildings that really are lit by red lanterns. Soliciting for prostitution is illegal, but the deed itself isn't; it's actually tolerated, monitored, and contained, with most prostitutes registered and subject to regular medical checks. If karaoke is what you seek, keep in mind that it is common for "KTV" lounges to be a cover for prostitution.
Shopping is a serious business in Singapore. Designer fashions, handcrafted jewelry, Khmer objets d‘art, cutting-edge electronics, Indian spices—the variety of goods sold in Singapore is likely to impress even the most seasoned shopper.
Here you’ll find an island well suited to full-day retail expeditions, from the mile-long strip of shoulder-to-shoulder mega-malls along dizzying Orchard Road to clusters of boutiques housed in the renovated shophouses in ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown and Kampong Glam. A growing number of independent shops are popping up within hip neighborhoods like Tiong Bahru and Little India, adding some welcome variety. Dempsey Hill, best known for its wining and dining, is also home to warehouse-like galleries filled with Southeast Asian antiques, artwork, furnishings, and housewares.
Bargain hunters should mark their calendars for the Great Singapore Sale, an annual eight-week extravaganza held from late May through July. At this time all of Singapore’s shopping centers and many independent stores slash prices by up to 80%. It pays to come early, though, as the biggest bargains are quickly snapped up by hawkeyed locals and zealous shoppers from around the region who flock to the island specially for the event.