From landmark museums to handsome colonial architecture and from clamorous neighbourhoods to action-packed theme parks, city-state Singapore is one of Asia’s most accessible destinations for English speakers. It’s also home to a top-table hawker food scene, so make sure you pack those pants with the elasticized waist.
Since I’ve only visited once – quick tip: don’t bother with the $30 Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel – I tapped some local experts for recommendations on where to go (and what to eat).
Travel blogger Rosemarie John (travelandbeyond.org) has three must-see suggestions. “The Asian Civilisations Museum is great if you’re interested in the region’s history, from Singapore’s ancestral cultures to artifacts spanning the entire Asian continent,” she says, adding that the 1837-built St. Andrews Cathedral – based on a 13th-century English abbey – is also perfect for architecture fans.
(I’d also include Gardens by the Bay, a spectacular botanical attraction of waterfront plant pavilions, climate-controlled glasshouses and “supertrees,” a clutch of man-made, tree-shaped towers covered in flowers that perform a dazzling nighttime light show.)
The giant new Marine Life Park S.E.A Aquarium completes her top three. Opened in November 2012, it’s part of Resorts World Sentosa, a popular monorail-accessed pleasure isle of casinos, a Universal Studios theme park and soft-eco activities such as beach Segway tours. (I only fell off once on my trundle).
Alternatively, John suggests Pulau Ubin island, a 15-minute “bumboat” ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Ideal for nature walks and bike rides, you can hire wheels at the dock.
John also suggests Chinatown for self-directed walking tours. “Apart from the vivid colours and fanciful trinkets, it’s home to Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple – the Sri Mariamman Temple – plus the Jamae Mosque and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.” The rainbow-hued Sri Mariamman is well-worth charging your camera batteries for.
Along with Little India, Chinatown is perfect for budget shopping, while Orchard Road’s 22 malls will sate your designer retail impulses. In common with most Singapore hotspots, all three are accessible by the handy Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system – reloadable Ez-Link passes are available from all stations.
If all that exploring leaves you week with hunger, food blogger Catherine Ling (www.camemberu.com) suggests filling up at Singapore’s hawker centres – food courts crammed with often unfamiliar but ever-tempting
“Be open to trying all kinds of food,” she says. “This is a melting pot of many cultures, and the resulting cuisine can be fairly different, even if the original dish started in another country. And don’t be afraid to ask locals about food: eating is our passion, our number one pastime and probably the national sport.”
Ling recommends three centres for first-timers. “Old Airport Road Food Centre has everything from freshly made cheong fun [steamed rice rolls] to barbecued seafood. It’s famous for Hokkien mee, wanton mee, and char kway teow – wok-fried rice noodles. Brave first timers can also try kway chap, or braised pig innards with rice sheet noodles.”
The old-school Maxwell Food Centre is recommended for classics such as chicken rice, fish congee, prawn fritters and deep-fried sweet potato dumplings, while Tekka Market is “a hub of Indian, Muslim and Chinese stalls with excellent nasi briyani, murtabak, Masala tea, Chinese duck rice and Teochew glutinous rice cakes.”
Navigating the markets can be initially intimidating, but after a couple of orders you’ll be flying. “Most hawkers understand basic English,” Ling says. “But don’t be put off of they appear brusque. All they expect is for you to tell them your order, quantity and whether it’s tar pao [takeaway] or ‘eating here.’ ”
While hawker nosh will fill your belly, sometimes a romantic restaurant dinner is required. Ling’s top picks are Chinese seafood – including local favourite chili crab – at the Majestic Bay Seafood Restaurant at Gardens by the Bay; French fusion dishes at the view-tastic Sky on 57 atop the 57-storey Marina Bay Sands hotel (there’s also a ticketed viewing platform here if you want to enjoy the vistas without splurging on dinner or a hotel stay); and exquisite nouvelle cuisine at Andre – “it’s Singapore’s most memorable culinary experience,” she says.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnleewriter.
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