It can be hard to be a tourist in Singapore. So much of what you find on the surface feels overproduced and generic. The best thing to do in Singapore is to forget that you are a tourist and pretend you are a local (and you won’t go wrong if you follow your stomach)!
Top highlights from my recent attempt at being a local in Singapore:
SINGAPORE SLINGS AT LANTERN BAR
Admittedly, this is 100% a tourist activity, so get it out of your system early on and then move on to the more genuine Singaporean experiences. Lantern Bar is on the rooftop of the Fullerton Bay Hotel with amazing views of the Marina Bay. It definitely felt “westernized” and catering to tourists, but the views and atmosphere make it worth a visit, even just for one drink. And you might as well go all-in; embrace being a tourist and order a Singapore Sling! If you want to double-down on the touristy activities, definitely also head to the famous Long Bar at the Raffles hotel, where the cocktail was invented. The hotel is reopening August 2019 after extensive renovations.
Side Note: You know that famous building that looks like it has a ship on top? That’s the Marina Bay Sands hotel & casino. We really don’t recommend staying there, it is just too big and impersonal, but going up to the rooftop viewing deck is a classic tourist activity in Singapore. Go if you must, but I wasn’t a fan. It is expensive and crowded and not worth the effort. If you go to the bar and order drinks, you can get free access to the rooftop but you won’t be able to get up to the edge of the viewing deck.
There are far better cocktails to be found so please branch out from the Singapore Sling after the first obligatory drink! I suggest heading to Neon Pigeon in Chinatown, home of the friendliest bartender I’ve ever met! Cocktails served here look too good even for Instagram! I was suspicious of the trappings of fancy, hipster glassware, but the cocktails were delicious!
CHINATOWN & DUXTON HILL
The Marina Bay is the traditional focal point for tourists visiting Singapore, but Chinatown is so much more interesting to me. Chinatown runs into nearby Duxton Hill and the two neighborhoods have become one in my mind. This is where the “cool kids” hang out! We found so many great bars & restaurants, cute boutique shops, and incredible historic architecture. The neighborhood is modernizing, but the historic highlights and local neighborhood aesthetic remains strong. I recommend spending as much time in Chinatown as possible. If you’re looking for a good meal, head to the Coconut Club for a heaping plate of Nasi Lemak, which includes coconut rice, a chicken leg, peanuts, fried egg, cucumber, and sambal curry… it sounded strange to this novice of Asian food, but I am glad I gave it a try!
The new Six Senses Maxwell and Duxton hotels are very charming and put you in the center of everything you want to see in Chinatown, but beware of tiny entry-level room sizes – yikes!
These open air food halls are a must for any Singapore visit, no matter how many times you’ve been. For beginners, this is the best way to try different regional dishes and the pros will always find a favorite dish to keep them coming back. If you aren’t familiar with Asian cuisine, I recommend taking a guide along for your first visit so you can have a translator and interpreter to help you find dishes that you will like.
Lau Pa Sat is my favorite Hawker Center; it is a beautiful structure architecturally and offers a great variety of food. It is located in the CBD so the best time to go to really feel like a local is lunch on a weekday, but be prepared for a crowd. Grab a table and claim your territory first, then go in shifts to get your food. Start with Chicken Rice and don’t be afraid to sample the different sauces! For a refreshing drink, try the calamansi “lime juice.”
If you’re going to invest in a private tour, this is the one I suggest. My understanding of Singapore’s history was fuzzy at best and I am so glad I took the time to learn more during our visit. This tour highlighted the interesting history and perspective on the regional history and relationships between different cultures and ethnicities in Singapore. The Peranakan Museum is small and easy to digest. I appreciated the exhibits on genetics as well as the cultural fashion display and the ceramics collection. The highlight of the tour was seeing the traditional houses with intricate exterior designs. My favorites were the homes that had been tastefully modernized & updated with more geometric motifs & simplified color schemes. Our tour also introduced us to some yummy Peranakan desserts and treats; my favorites were the pandan love letters and a very large tub of these crispy, flaky wafers made it home with me as a perfect souvenir!
You can get famous Singapore-style chili crab in many places around the city and if you ask a local, they will each have their own favorite spot. We ventured out to East Coast Park for dinner at Jumbo Seafood on the waterfront. Advance reservations are a must! The delicious crab and prime people-watching opportunities made it worth the trek!
CAPELLA SINGAPORE & CENTOSA ISLAND
Sentosa Island is not for everyone, but this urban resort is perfect if you’re just stopping through Singapore on your way to a beachy vacation. Get those vacation vibes started early! The Capella Singapore features inventive architecture with a great “old meets new” vibe. Highlights include: private plunge pools, a creative rum bar, Cantonese fine dining, a lush garden setting, and old world charm. After a full day of touring in the Singapore heat and humidity, I really appreciated the opportunity to escape from the city and relax in my own oasis. Read more about our love for Capella Hotels here!
I was only in Singapore for 3 days and I covered a lot of ground but it only feels like I scraped the surface and just got a peek at what Singapore is really like for a local resident. I can’t wait to go back and discover more and I hope these tips have inspired you to add Singapore to your next Asia itinerary! If you’re ready to visit Singapore, let us help you plan your trip!
More reading on Singapore:
- A guide to Duxton Hill, Singapore’s Most Charming Day-to-Night Neighborhood, Vogue January 2019
- City Secrets: Singapore, Virtuoso Life March 2018
- A Taste of Singapore, Virtuoso Traveler October 2015