Most tourists tend to gravitate first towards the famed retail stretch of Orchard Road. Fine, get your fix of bold-faced names like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and every other couture label under the sun. When you’ve gotten that out of your system, dump your purchases back at the hotel and head out into the ‘burbs where the real charm of Singapore lies. We’re here to guide you to the top 10 places where tourists don’t normally go; in short, the places where Singaporeans in the know live and play.
So, you’ve arrived. It’s early and nothing really opens for business until around 11 a.m., so how are you going to kill time? Slip on the trainers and head out to the Botanic Gardens (open 5 a.m. to midnight). At this time of the day, downtown Singapore’s last remaining green lung is a cool, bucolic retreat filled with joggers, dogs and tai-chi practitioners. Wander through the swaths of virgin rainforest (the main boardwalk through it is entered from Upper Palm Valley Road) and then take in the National Orchid Garden’s many-colored collection of 1,000 orchid species and 2,000 hybrids. When you’re done, drop into the food court near Tanglin Gate for a traditional local breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, coffee and toast slathered with coconut jam.
It may seem a little strange to head to a hotel to look at artwork, but the Ritz-Carlton is no ordinary hotel. The massive three-ton Frank Stella installation at the entrance and the pair of Dale Chihuly crystal glass sculptures that anchor both wings of the building kick off one of Southeast Asia’s finest (and under the radar) collections of modern and contemporary art. The majority of the pieces were specially commissioned for the public spaces and guest suites. The treasures on view include Andy Warhol and David Hockney’s exuberant colors, Rainer Gross’s geometric compositions, Henry Moore’s restrained monochromatics and the lush botanicals of Robert Zakanitch. It’s all free to view, and you even get an iPod-guided tour.
Let the other tourist hordes charge over to the newly minted Peranakan Museum or the gloomy Asian Civilisations Museum. If you do only one cultural thing during your 24-hour Singapore layover, it must be a tour of the unheralded Chinatown Heritage Centre, where entire sets of bedrooms, kitchens and street scenes from the late-19th century and early-20th century have been faithfully recreated. It’s an authentic slice of Singapore’s history that’s made all the more fascinating by the gleaming skyscrapers just a few blocks away. And if you must, pick up a kitschy souvenir from the gift shop on your way out.