Singapore is booming, with new casinos and hotels, museums and galleries opening their doors, and, best of all, lounges and rooftop bars are helping the city-state shake off its formerly staid image.
36 Hours in Singapore
SINGAPORE may be clean, efficient and manicured, but the prosperous island-state knows how to get down and dirty, too. At a string of open-air bars near the main shopping drag, young Singaporeans with stylishly tousled hair toss back martinis until the early morning. A sex therapist who styles himself “Dr. Love” has become one of the biggest celebs in town. And the Ministry of Sound, the famous British house music nightclub, has opened a branch in Singapore that pounds with local D.J.’s. That’s not to say Singapore has gone off the rails. Just stroll along its bougainvillea-draped streets, where order is still enforced by Big Nanny signs, like the one that recently read, “Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime — Be Vigilant.”
Get a taste of Singapore’s cultivated side at the Singapore Botanic Gardens (1 Cluny Road; 65-6471-7361; www.sbg.org.sg), an ambling 157-acre park where you’ll see a medley of Chinese, Indians and Malays practicing martial arts, doing yoga and flirting. Founded in 1859, the landscaped gardens are dotted with intricate Victorian gazebos, a micro rain forest and a dazzling collection of orchids — from the flamingo-pink hybrid Vanda Miss Joaquim (Singapore’s national flower) to varieties named after visiting V.I.P.’s like Margaret Thatcher.
2) BEER THERAPY
Southeast Asia isn’t known for beer, but that’s starting to change. Brew connoisseurs recently opened Archipelago Brewery (79 Circular Road; 65-6861-6200; www.archipelagobrewery.com), a microbrewery that revived a Singaporean beer works originally founded in 1931. Archipelago mixes standard pilsners and ales with local flavors like lemongrass, tamarind, star anise and wolfberries, a traditional ingredient in Chinese medicine.
3) SIDEWALK CHEFS
Singapore has its share of white-linen restaurants, but food-mad locals salivate for hawker centers, open-air food courts where each stall serves one dish and the cooks yell out their specialties like ballpark vendors. One of the most popular, East Coast Lagoon Food Village (1220 East Coast Parkway), sits in a tropical park on the beach. With more than 50 stalls, the Village offers everything from barbecued tiger prawns to Indonesian satay to drinks made from grass jelly and aloe vera. Dinner for one, about 10 Singapore dollars, or $6.80 at 1.47 Singapore dollars to the U.S. dollar. For a quieter, cleaner atmosphere, try the appropriately named Makansutra Gluttons Bay (Esplanade Mall; 65-6336-7025; www.makansutra.com), by the Esplanade arts complex.
4) THE HILLS
Cap off the evening in style. Skip the Boat Quay night-life area, unless you hanker to meet hundreds of sodden, sunburned European tourists. Instead, head to Emerald Hill, an upscale area with a cluster of hip pubs, and sip martinis at Alley Bar (2 Emerald Hill Road; 65-6738-8818), a long and sleek lounge frequented by aspiring fashion models.
5) WILD SIDE
Singapore’s skyscraping downtown makes it easy to forget that parks cover much of this island. But in recent years, Singaporeans have gone wild for adventure sports. Get up before the mercury rises and head to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (177 Hindhede Drive; 65-6468-5736; www.nparks.gov.sg/nature_bukit.asp), a 400-acre rain forest that is home to garrulous macaques and some 500 other animal species. Hiking and biking trails wind through the jungle, creeping with vines and giant ferns. Watch out for the flying lemurs: the possum-sized critters glide overhead between huge jelutong trees.
6) ARRESTING ART
In the past decade, wealthy Singapore has become a regional hub for contemporary art, attracting painters and sculptors from China, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. For a glimpse of the expanding art scene, visit the MICA Building (140 Hill Street; www.mica.gov.sg), a colorful gallery warehouse in a former police station, now run by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. In the building, the Soobin Art International gallery (65-6837-2777; www.soobinart.com.sg) features groundbreaking Chinese artists like Luo Jie, known for his sharp political cartoons.
7) COOKING, LAH?
Long before Jean-Georges, Singapore’s chefs created the ultimate fusion food, a mishmash of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences that resulted in unique, if not always pretty, dishes like chili crab and fish-head curry. Many of these dishes are created in a single wok, and are much easier to master than, say, classic French cooking. Shermay’s Cooking School (Block 43 Jalan Merah Saga, 03-64 Holland Village; 65-6479-8442; www.shermay.com) was created by Shermay Lee, who wrote the definitive cookbook on Nyonya cuisine, which marries Chinese and Malay cuisine. Courses, which last roughly three hours, start at 109 Singapore dollars.
8) EXTREME SHOPPING
Shopping is a national sport, and the main drag, Orchard Road, resembles a tourist mosh pit on weekends; one tour group knocked me down as they scrambled, like escaped convicts, into a sporting goods store. (You can avoid the crowds by arriving early, but then you’ll miss the action.) Or skip Orchard altogether for the high-end boutiques in Holland Village, a suburb of villas and leafy streets that draws local fashionistas and expatriates. Galerie Cho Lon (01-76 43 Jalan Merah, Saga; 65-6473-7922), an exquisitely cluttered boutique, has classic Chinese chairs and screens, antique wood furniture and books on Asian history and art.
9) DINING WITH ART
Singapore’s National Museum (93 Stamford Road; 65-6332-2659; www.nationalmuseum.sg) is housed in a neo-Classical-style building from 1887, but it’s not just for art lovers. At night, the soaring marble rotunda becomes the funky restaurant Novus (65-6336-8770; www.novus.sg). It serves modern European cuisine with Asian touches like five-spiced duck with poached quince (32 Singapore dollars) and crispy-skinned snow cod with garlic pain perdu (34 dollars). If you arrive before your reservation (highly recommended), sidle over to the nearby bar, Muse, and rub elbows with the high-society crowd, who were spotted comparing their silver-plated cellphones on a recent visit.
10) ETHNIC CANTEEN
Though many ethnic neighborhoods have lost their authenticity (Little India resembles a movie set), the Arab Quarter remains dingy, crowded and real. Wander along Bussorah Street, the main drag, where you’ll find halal cafes open until the early morning. Most draw a mixed crowd of Singaporeans, Lebanese, Moroccans and Indonesians, who come to smoke shisha pipes, snack on olives, flatbreads and other tidbits and occasionally watch local belly dancers shake it up.
11) COFFEE AND KABBALAH
Take a cab to Chinatown, where young entrepreneurs have gutted classic old Chinese shop houses painted purple and pink, and turned them into a warren of new and New Agey cafes. The Whatever (20 Keong Saik Road; 65-6224-0300; www.whatever.com.sg) is a cafe that serves organic salads, soups and nutty coffee (10 Singapore dollars for breakfast), along with yoga, reiki and enough kabbalah books to satisfy Madonna.
12) SPA ISLAND
For a quick getaway, Sentosa is an island resort over a causeway bridge, or eight minutes on the new Sentosa Express monorail (www.sentosa.com.sg). The resort is being developed with two new casinos, but for now you can stroll through lush green scenery and small, Disney-esque theme parks. If you tire, stop at quiet Tanjong Beach. Or head for a rubdown at Sentosa’s Spa Botanica (65-6371-1318; www.spabotanica.com), a pleasure palace set inside tropical gardens and complete with an open-air volcanic mud bath. A 90-minute steam bath and massage costs 170 Singapore dollars.
Singapore Airlines flies nonstop from Newark to Singapore. A recent Internet search found fares starting at $1,575 for January. Cheaper fares can sometimes be found with non-direct service, with changes in places like Bangkok or Tokyo.
For colonial-era décor and exhaustive pampering, check into the Raffles (1 Beach Road; 65-6337-1886; www.singapore-raffles.raffles.com). Dating back to 1887, the hotel has been painstakingly restored and is staffed by Indian attendants in white coats with gold tassels. Rooms start at around 1,000 Singapore dollars, about $680 at 1.47 Singapore dollars to the U.S. dollar.
Singapore has also blossomed with boutique hotels. The New Majestic Hotel (31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road; 65-6511-4700; www.newmajestichotel.com) enlisted local contemporary artists to design each room, including one covered wall to floor in mirrors. Rooms from 300 Singapore dollars.
The Royal Peacock (55 Keong Saik Road; 65-6223-3522; www.royalpeacockhotel.com), in a converted Chinese shop house, offers nicely designed rooms starting at 135 Singapore dollars. For deep hotel discounts, try www.asiarooms.com, though you may have to pay for the room in advance.
For event listings, check out Time Out Singapore (www.timeout.com/sg/en/), I-S (www.is-weekend.com), a free local magazine, or The Straits Times (www.straitstimes.com), the leading English-language newspaper.