The thriving city-state of Singapore feels like a world apart from many other places in Southeast Asia.
It’s highly developed, spotlessly clean, and meticulously planned and architected — a far cry from the congestion, noise, and erratic development seen in many other Asian capitals.
I’m a big sucker for the chaos and spontaneity of places like Hanoi or Bangkok, but I must admit that Singapore’s high-tech style is very interesting in a different way.
Even though most people know it as a financial center, there is more to Singapore than meets the eye. It makes for a convenient pit-stop when traveling in Southeast Asia, but it’s also highly worth visiting in its own right!
I’ve been to Singapore a few times, usually on a 1- or 2-day layover. One time, I also stayed for a week while visiting a friend, which gave me a bit more time to poke around. I do think you can get a pretty good feel for Singapore in a couple of days as the distances on the island are quite manageable — and the best sights are easily seen in a short amount of time. Still, there’s always more to discover if you stick around longer!
Singapore is a super easy travel destination: it’s well-organized, English-speaking, and almost totally hassle-free. Keep in mind it’s not particularly cheap though, especially if you’re used to the low prices in other nearby countries. Thankfully, there are many ways to keep your costs under control.
Where to stay in Singapore
If you’re on a tight budget then hostels are always a good way to save money in Singapore. Below are a few backpacker hostels in Singapore that I recommend.
Most travelers base themselves in or near Chinatown, Kampong Glam (the Arab quarter), or Little India.
Things to do in Singapore
There is plenty to see and do in Singapore, and luckily some of the best activities are free. Here are some of my top picks:
Since opening in 2012, the Gardens by the Bay quickly became the city’s most iconic site. Your visit won’t be complete without seeing the massive Cloud Forest Dome (containing the world’s largest indoor waterfall) or the Supertree Grove (home to futuristic tree-like vertical gardens, with a light show at night).
Cost:outdoor gardens are free, walking the skyway is $8 SGD, and the cloud forest is $28 SGD
At the Marina Bay you can experience Singapore in its full futuristic glory. Squint your eyes a bit and parts can seem like a future Earth from Star Trek. There’s a multi-level mall with an indoor canal, a bayfront boulevard, and great views of the financial district’s skyline. Louis Vuitton also set up an enormous shop here on a kind of mini-island, accessed via an underwater tunnel. It’s a pretty extravagant place.
At the top of the Marina Bay Sands building is a hotel with an infinity pool. It became a ridiculously sought-after Instagram spot, though these days it’s open only to hotel guests. There’s also an observation deck giving panoramic vistas of Singapore’s cityscape and as the shipping lanes through the Singapore Strait.
Cost:free to walk around, $23 SGD for the observation deck
Budget travel hack:you can sneak into the Marina Bay Sands observation deck for free by telling the staff “you’re just going to the bar”. Walk in and they’ll assume you’re a hotel guest.
Looking for a cheap eat? Then look no further than Singapore’s many hawker centers, which are open-air complexes with stalls selling lots of affordably priced food.
First introduced in the 1970s to deal with rampant street hawking at the time, the centers are now a unique aspect of Singaporean culture. They’re basically a regulated form of street food with proper hygiene standards put in place. Many migrants from around Asia ended up working in the hawker centers, so you can sample a huge variety of cuisines. Whether it’s Indonesian, Chinese, Malay, Indian or Thai, you can get it here.
You can find a good list of Hawker centers here. A slightly more hipstery version of the concept also exists at Gluttons Bay, which offers wonderful bay views and some of the best cooks (drawn from other centers) making their signature dishes.
Cost:a few Singapore Dollars for a tasty meal
In the old Chinatowna, the futuristic high-rises and business districts give way to British colonial architecture with pastel colors. Several Hindu temples, mosques, and other places of worship are also scattered across the town. There is an excitement and hustle in this district that makes it one of the most popular areas for visitors to go. It’s great for a wander, and a good area to find a nice hotel or hostel too.
You can get to Chinatown with the MRT metro and explore by foot from there. Follow this self-guided temple walking tour and be sure to pass by the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple — some fine examples of the cultural and religious melting pot that is Singapore.
Singapore can sometimes be orderly to a fault, but its narrowest street reminds you that pockets of creativity do manage to thrive.
With its boutique shops, Middle Eastern cafes, and street art-covered facades, Haji Lane is known as Singapore’s original hipster enclave. Until the 1960s, the shophouses were used as lodges for Hajj pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Nowadays, they’re home to many trendy fashion shops.
The adjacent Arab Street and surrounding neighborhood form Kampong Glam, Singapore’s vibrant Muslim quarter. You can learn more about its history at the Malay Heritage Centre, which is free to enter.
Just a stone’s throw across the Rochor River is Little India, another one of Singapore’s vibrant ethnic neighborhoods. While you’re there, don’t miss seeing the colorful Sri Veeramakaliamman Hindu temple.