Singapore travel tips

Jordan and I had an absolute blast in Singapore, even though we were only there for two days and two nights! We highly recommend a visit to the city state. Below are our list of suggestions for a smoother time.


  1. Taking the subway/metro is the much cheaper transportation option. It can be tricky buying passes, though. The ticket machines don’t take any bills higher than 5 Singapore dollars and the ticket counters have their own rules. The airport is the trickiest. For the smoothest transitions and purchasing possible always have small bills and coins.
  2. Singapore is good for two or three days, probably not much more. It’s an expensive place to visit and somewhat small, so it’s easy to hit all the highlights pretty quickly. In two days Jordan and I saw almost everything we had wanted to see. A third day would’ve been nice to perhaps visit the islands or the Malay Heritage Centre, but we were content with two.
  3. If you’re interested in culture, history, and museums, don’t miss out on the heritage centers around the city! the Chinese Centre, Malay Centre, Indian Centre, and the Peranakhan Museum each show the formation of Singapore as it is today from the perspective of those ethnic groups. It’s pretty cool.
  4. If you’re on a budget, don’t worry about entering the Gardens by the Bay. Yeah, it’s amazing inside, but it’s also really expensive for a garden. There are outdoor exhibits that are free, like the trees, and in many people’s opinions, that’s the highlight of the garden anyway.
  5. If you do the Night Safari (which you should!) save the tram ride for last. We arrived at 8 pm and all the lines were crowded and an hour-long wait. Jordan and I saw the animal show, strolled through the walking parts of the zoo, and saved the  tram for last. At 10:30 there was a five minute wait and we happily got an entire row to ourselves rather than sharing with four other people.
  6. Singapore cabs aren’t terribly expensive considering where they are. But they do charge a 50% surcharge for any rides after midnight. And the subway stops running at midnight.
  7. The sights and the shopping and the clubs are fun, but don’t forget about the gardens. Take your time through Ft. Canning park or one of the other many parks in the country. Singapore is at the world’s cutting edge for incorporating green spaces in urban zones and vice versa, and their leader has declared Singapore to be a “City in a Garden,” which everyone takes seriously. Enjoy the ivy and flowers and trees. It’s beautiful.


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The Lion City

Singapore’s nickname, the Lion City, is hundreds of years old. Legend tells us that a Sumatran prince was hunting nearby in the 1200s and spotted a beautiful island called Temasek. It had been a trading post for probably hundreds of years, and he went to see what was there. He spotted a lion and decided to develop the island into a true city and port, naming in Singapura, after the lion. Today, everyone thinks that what he actually saw was a Malayan tiger, because lions were never native to this part of the world.


Singapore flourished due to its good weather and advantageous setting in sea trade routes, and different empires held the city for several hundred years. Fort Canning Park, near Singapore’s central business district, is a small hill that the 13-15th century palaces were built upon. Southeast Asian culture has a great deal of respect for authority, and it was forbidden for anyone to climb the small hill unless invited by the royal family. After the city slowly crumbled and the island’s population dwindled, the few locals left still skirted their way around the hill. When the British arrived, they recognized the hill as a natural defensive point and built their fort (Fort Canning) there. The locals were hesitant to build on the hill, saying their ancestors and the island spirits would dislike them coming uninvited to build on the hill.


Fort Canning Park is beautiful and worth a long trip, boasting a spice garden, archaeological dig (of the old palace walls), butterfly park, and more. We strolled along the 14th century walk, enjoying the shade from trees and learning more history of the country. When we finished, we went to the Peranakan museum. This hadn’t been at the top of our to-see list, but after hearing the word “peranakan” used at the Chinese Heritage Centre and elsewhere, I  was very curious was the hybrid of cultures was all about.


“Peranakan” is a Malay word with a root that means “child of.” Although the Singapore we know today has only been around since 1819, traders have been passing through for hundreds of years. A few Chinese and Indian traders (with a couple of other ethnicities, like Indonesian) stayed, marrying local Malay women. Their descendants are the Peranakan. The Chinese Peranakan (by far the majority in their creole culture) sometimes refer to themselves as Straits-born Chinese, because while their ethnicity is originally from China, they were born in Malaysia or Singapore. The Peranakan today, I learned from the museum cashier, aren’t quite as insular as they used to be, but their food is a prided among Singapore as some of the best in the country. Below is an example of a Chinese Peranakan wedding procession (it lasted 12 days! Nowdays the ceremonies are shorter).


The peranakans are descended from these 15th century traders. Anyone coming in after that time wasn’t/isn’t considered a “true blue” peranakan. In fact, during the huge Chinese immigration wave around the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese Peranakans called the new immigrants “sinkeh,” which basically translates to “newcomer.” The Chitty (Hindu Indian peranakans), Jawi (Muslim Indian and Arab peranakans), and Kristang (Portuguese-Asian peranakans) have their own subcultures within the peranakan identity, and it was really fascinating to walk through the museum and learn about their influence in Singapore over the past 200 years.


This furniture was owned by a Chinese peranakan family. TheChinese dragon carvings beside the Holy Family were really interesting together.

Our last cultural/museum stop of the day was at the Indian Heritage Centre in Little India. This was a great interactive, modern building with interesting exhibits and a much cheap price than the Chinese center. We walked through Little India in the late afternoon, listening to English and Tamil spoken interchangeably, learning to recognize Tamil script on buildings. I had always thought the phrases in movies about “the air in India smells like spices” was a cliched and poorly-crafted description of the country, but as we walked along the street market, we did smell cardamom, peppers, cumin, and more. The museum explained the migration patterns over time to Singapore, as well as the “social awakening” in the 20th century and how the Indian-Singaporeans argued for independence and a new nationalism. Unfortunately, we had to rush through the exhibits to get to a bus to reach our next stop: the night safari.


Singapore isn’t only known for it’s urban gardens, but also it’s open-air concepts in zoos. Their Night Safari, basically a zoo attended at night, is one of it’s most popular tourist attractions. While the night safari tickets aren’t cheap, it was a lot of fun. It was Jordan’s most anticipated stop for Singapore. We’re not big fans of crowds, so after the (rather difficult) public transportation rush to get to the admission, we steered clear of the trams for the time being.


After watching a 30 minute show and walking the paths (which took about an hour and a half), we enjoyed the tram without the crowds and long lines. Much more enjoyable that way! We had arrived around 7:45 and left at 11 pm. After catching a bus to a MRT stop, we hopped on the next subway and hurried as quickly as we could to the transfer station. Frustratingly, however, the MRt shut down at midnight (we were worried about that), and we had to hail a taxi to get us back to our hostel–we were on the other side of the city, in it’s southwestern corner, a good 20 minute drive from Clarke Quay in the southeastern side. And, because it was midnight, there was a 50% surcharge. Ugh. We paid S$19.60 (honestly, though, for Singapore the taxi cost was pretty reasonable) and found food in our clubbing district, then dropped into bed. Our trip was almost over, with only a long layover in Kuala Lumpur, and then we would head home to Korea.

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The City in a Garden

We flew into Singapore around 10 am and eventually got to our hostel (near Chinatown and Clarke Quay) by noon. With only two days in Singapore, we really wanted to make it all count! So we dropped our bags off at the hostel and went out searching for a city sightseeing bus.

Singapore, a modern city state, has a population of 5 and a half million people living in a country half the size of London. We planned our trip here knowing very little about Singapore–all Jordan knew (he admits it) was from Pirates of the Caribbean, and I only knew a little more from a graduate class in urban planning (we were learning about creating green spaces in urban zones that week). I suppose sometimes it’s good to be unprepared, because Singapore has really blown us away. We’ve loved exploring and marveling and learning all about this exciting mash-up of culture, architecture, and urban/rural life.


In some sense, Singapore has reminded me of Dubai, except with a lot more humidity and trees and less glitz (everything except for humidity I count as a plus for Singapore). Everywhere we went, there were trees, vines, flowers, and shrubbery. I knew that Singapore was at the world’s forefront of combining trees and pavement in an aesthetic yet practical manner, but actually seeing it made me appreciate again the creativity of this Asian commerce hub.


Once we (finally) got on the sightseeing bus, we enjoyed the sights of Singapore’s CBD and older parts of the city while learning more about it’s short yet rich history.

Although people have lived here for hundreds of years (off and on), the Singapore we know today was founded in 1819 as a colony of Great Britain. Singapura (as it was known then) had always been a huge trading zone, sitting at the end of the Malaysian peninsula between sea trade routes. After gaining its independence, Singapore’s government threw the entire country into massive reforms, renovations, and economic growth. It was hard work, but now in the 21st century, it is one of the most important cities for commerce, technology, and trade–and it has the towering skyscrapers (and towering cost of living) to prove it.

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One of the stops we made was for the Singapore flyer, which is exactly like the London Eye except it’s a few meters taller. This was Jordan’s number one must-see item, and we excitedly bought tickets (S$ 30 apiece!) and climbed aboard. You can see most of the city from that height, from Gardens by the Bay all the way to the suburbs (the “rural” parts of the country).


After passing through the rest of the tour on the bus, we got off near Chinatown to explore. When the city plan for Singapore was drawn up in 1819 by Thomas Raffles, sections of the city were put aside for the British government, the Chinese immigrants, Indian immigrants, and Malay/Arab immigrants. Although today Singapore’s Chinese make up about 74% of the population and most live in other parts of the city, Chinatown is still a large, vibrant part of Singapore’s heritage. We strolled along the walking paths, looking at kimonos for sale in shops and stalls, the street food in pavilions, and enjoyed hearing Mandarin yelled from shop owners, school children, and other tourists on the streets (Side note: Although most Chinese-Singaporeans are originally from southern China, the Singaporean government has strongly encouraged them to speak Mandarin, not Cantonese or Hokkien, as their ancestors in China did).


The Chinese Heritage Center is a new museum housed in three old houses along one of the main streets of Chinatown, and is set up in a way for visitors to walk through, imagining what the place looked like in the 1900s-1930s. Singapore, like the United States, is a country of immigrants, and there were massive waves from China around the turn of the century. Living conditions were deplorable–we went through a small house with cubicles for each family. Each cubicle was the size of a large walk-in closet, and there were only two bathroom stalls for six or seven famiies. Coolies, or unskilled laborers arrived in Singapore with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, hoping to find work at rubber plantations or in construction, and couldn’t afford even a small cubicle to themselves. Five or six would share a cubicle with two beds, rotating in shifts, sending most of their money back home to China.


The top floor of the museum delved into the underbelly of colonial Singapore, talking about opium dens, sex slavery (it was common to kidnap young Chinese and Japanese girls and sell them to brothels), and the corruption of gangs and lack of a police force. All in all, it was really fascinating and we were glad to have visited, though we thought the tickets were a little expensive.

We began walking back to our hostel to catch some rest before visiting Gardens by the Bay, and passed by a Hindu temple. As we walked by the doorway, gongs sounded and men’s chanting began. I halted midstride to see what was happening. A service had begun, and I peered inside to spy several men proceeding toward an altar carrying banners. Others crowded around me also. I looked around me and noticed three Buddhist women, a Sikh man passing by, a Muslim woman in a hijab almost falling across the threshold she was craning her neck so far, and then us. It was a funny sight, all the religions crowded at the door, poking their heads in to satisfy their curiousity, united in one thing: not being Hindu.


Gardens by the Bay is a rather expensive yet beautiful garden complex that (I think) is best seen at night. Not everything costs a ticket to see–there are plenty of trails and views that are free to the public, which is what we were interested in. The Supertree Grove is the iconic image of the gardens, and the most picturesque.



By then we’d had a full day and dropped into our bunkbeds (budget hostel!) and fell asleep.


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