Of Singapore's many sights and attractions, I enjoy the historical and cultural sights the most. The city's many old buildings and well-presented museum displays bring history to life. Chinese and Hindu temples and Muslim mosques welcome curious observers to discover their culture as they play out their daily activities, and the country's natural parks make the great outdoors easily accessible from even the most urban neighborhood. That's the best benefit of traveling in Singapore: Most attractions are situated within the heart of the city, and those that lie outside the urban center still can be easily reached.
Singapore also has a multitude of planned attractions for visitors and locals alike. Theme parks devoted to cultural heritage, sporting fun, and even kitsch amusement pop up all over the place. The city boasts two brand-new mega casino complexes: Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, which includes Universal Studios Singapore, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. In this guide, I've outlined the many attractions here and provided historical and cultural information to help you appreciate each sight in its local context. To help you plan your activities, I've put stars next to those attractions I've enjoyed the most -- for either significance, excellent planning, or just plain curiosity.
I've divided this section into the main sections of the urban center -- the Historic District, Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam, and Orchard Road, where you'll find the more historical sights of the city -- and those outside the city, to the west, north, and east, where you'll find large areas dedicated to nature reserves, a zoo, other wildlife attractions, theme parks, and sprawling temple complexes, all easily accessible by public transportation or a cab ride. I've also covered Sentosa, Singapore's amusement island, and some of the smaller outlying islands, and will fill you in on sports and recreation options.
When you're traveling to attractions outside the urban area, I recommend keeping this guide handy -- taxis are not always easy to find, so you may need to refer to the guide to call for a pickup or use the bus and MRT system, route numbers for which I've included with listings of most noncentral attractions.
A note: Many of the sights to see in Singapore are not of the "pay your fee and see the show" variety, but rather historic buildings, monuments, and places of religious worship. The places of worship listed in this guide are open to the public and free of entrance charge. Expect temples to be open from sunup to sundown. Visiting hours are not specific to the hour, but unless it's a holiday (when hours may be extended), you can expect these places to be open during daylight hours.
Attractions Outside the Urban Area
The famous image of Singapore, promulgated by the tourism board and recognizable to business travelers everywhere, is of the towering cityscape along the water's edge -- but there's a reason they call this place the Garden City. Not only are there picturesque gardens and parks nestled within the urban jungle, but the urban jungle is nestled within real jungle. While it's true that most of the wooded areas have been replaced by suburban housing, it's also true that thousands of acres of secondary rainforest have survived the migration of Singaporeans to the suburbs. Better yet, there are still some areas with primary rainforest, some of which are accessible by paths.
Singapore has excellent gardens, from the well-groomed Botanic Gardens to nature preserves like Bukit Timah and Sungei Buloh, where tropical rainforest and mangrove swamps are close enough to the city that you can visit them on a morning or afternoon visit. Outside the city center, you'll also find historic sites and temples, like the edifying Changi Prison Museum and the Siong Lim Temple, as well as museums.
The Peranakans of Katong -- If you'd like to experience local culture that's a bit off the beaten track, come to Katong. This neighborhood came to prominence before World War II, when Peranakans and Eurasians, families of mixed heritage, populated this area outside of the city center along the east coast of the island. Many Peranakans, because of their mixed Chinese and Malay heritage, rose to financial power and were known to build lavish homes (many of which still line the streets of Katong), furnishing them with ornate, Chinese-inspired interiors, and they dress with opulent flair.
Peranakan antique furniture sports detailed woodcarvings in classic Chinese design, but with unbelievably gaudy mother-of-pearl inlay everywhere. Their pottery also follows Chinese aesthetics, with pretty floral, phoenix, and dragon patterns, but in vivid colors more representative of Malay tastes -- bright yellows, pinks, and greens.
Peranakan ladies wore the sarong kebaya, a two-piece outfit consisting of a brightly colored cotton sarong topped with a delicately embroidered fitted blouse pinned with silver or gold broaches. Peranakan ladies (called Nonyas) were also known for their dainty beaded slippers. The outfit is really quite elaborate, but if you think it's a thing of the past, you'll be surprised to see how many local women still wear full traditional costume to weddings and other special events.
To visit Katong, start by taking a taxi to the corner of East Coast and Joo Chiat roads (don't worry, there are plenty of taxis here to bring you back to town). This is the epicenter of a boom in Peranakan heritage appreciation that has seen restaurants, a clothier, and an antiques house find cheers from locals who are keen to see this heritage survive. From this junction, you can find Kim Choo Kueh Chang (109 and 111 East Coast Rd.; tel. 65/6741-2125), a place for traditional Nonya glutinous rice dumplings -- the tetra-pack-shaped bundles wrapped in pandan leaves you may see hanging in bunches in food stalls around the island. Here you can buy and try, and also see how they are made.
Just next door is Rumah Bebe (113 East Coast Rd.; tel. 65/6247-8781), a boutique that specializes in fantastic quality sarongs and kebayas with all the accessories. Proprietress Bebe Seet, a well-known pillar of the Peranakan community, is the local authority on traditional beaded slippers, selling her handmade creations, giving demonstrations, and teaching the art of beading. You can even custom-order a pair.
You'll notice these shops are newly renovated, freshly painted, and quite welcoming. If you prefer your cultural experience a bit more down-and-dirty, backtrack down East Coast Road to the next block. At the junction of East Coast and Ceylon roads is the heart of the laksa wars. On two street corners, opposite each other, about four open-air hawker stalls fight over who has the best laksa in Singapore. This local specialty, a rich, spicy coconut-based soup with noodles, prawns, fishcake, and cockles, is delicious, and you'll find the best right here. I usually go for the laksa at No. 49 (no phone). Pull up a stool and eat on the sidewalk. (A hidden treasure -- if you walk half a block down Ceylon Rd., you'll find an old but recently renovated Sri Lankan Hindu temple dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. If you're dressed modestly, they'll welcome you in for a look-see.)
If you follow East Coast Road in the opposite direction, you'll find two older establishments. The Katong Antique House (208 East Coast Rd.; tel. 65/6345-8544) is operated by Peter Wee, the president of the local Peranakan heritage association. It's a very small display, but everything's authentic and for sale, as opposed to the objects at the museum, in case you wanted to take a bit of Peranakan heritage home.
Next door is my favorite Nonya restaurant, The Peranakan Inn (210 East Coast Rd.; tel. 65/6440-6195), a simple coffee shop-style restaurant with authentic home-style food at very reasonable prices. What you lack in decor you gain in authenticity.