Singaporeans moan that besides shopping, dining and the movies, there’s not a lot you can do here. Ignore them. The must-see list for the one-day visitor to Singapore, especially the first-timer, is absorbingly long. There is very little chance you’ll get bored. 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.
- Singapore Botanic Gardens
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.
- Artwork at the Ritz-Carlton
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.
- Chinatown Heritage Centre
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 24hour 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.
- Plastic Surgery
In case you missed the memo, the place for plastic surgery is Asia. While many people head to Bangkok and Seoul for assorted nips and tucks, the locals make a beeline for the ultra-swish, Richard Meier–designed Camden Medical Centre. You may not have time for a full makeover, but squeeze in a spot of Botox or a non-surgical facelift with local celebrity surgeon Woffles Wu. And then adjourn downstairs for snapper pie and Pavlova at Whitebait & Kale.
- Electronics for Cheap
Tokyo may have the latest in electronic gadgets, but Singapore has the widest range, and luckily for the time-pressed shopper, they’re all clustered in two massive multistory emporia. Handicams, portable DVD players, mobile phones, hi-tech cameras, MP3 players and laptops in just about every imaginable configuration are up for grabs at Funan Digitalife Mall and Sim Lim Square. The prices are usually about 10% to 20% cheaper than at other commercial outlets. At Sim Lim Square especially, good deals can be had with some serious haggling, and many retailers will knock off a few extra dollars if you pay in cash.
- Haji Lane
This tiny lane, hidden away in the heart of the Muslim quarter, is a fashionista’s paradise. With very little fanfare, the collection of narrow shop-houses have, in less than a year, been transformed into an aggressively hip retail stretch recalling Le Marais in Paris or New York’s Meatpacking District. Know It Nothing is a stylish industrial space that stocks beautifully tailored dress shirts stitched with silver skull buttons by Japanese label Garni. Next, pop into Pluck for its shabby chic collection of Austin Powers– inspired cushion covers and a cute ice-cream parlor. A few doors down, Salad boasts a range of home accessories like laser-cut table mats and Hong Kong–based Carrie Chau’s quirky postcards. If you’re feeling peckish, have an authentic Middle Eastern lunch around the corner at Cafe le Caire.
- The Singapore Flyer
The 165-meter-high Flyer is Singapore’s answer to the London Eye. For the moment, it is the world’s largest observation wheel (that title will go to Beijing when its version opens in 2009). Despite much fanfare and hype, the locals have never really taken to the Flyer, grousing that it’s too far from anywhere (it’s not) and S$29.50 is a lot of money to pay for a 30-minute ride. Lucky you, since this means you’ll almost never have to wait in line. The best time to hitch a ride is at dusk when the entire row of downtown skyscrapers is softly lit. Back on the ground, head for a dinner of chili crabs at Seafood Paradise.
- The White Rabbit
Back in the ’50s, Dempsey Hill was home to the British Army. These days, the former barracks, set amidst lush jungle, have been transformed into a fine collection of restaurants, bars, art galleries, epiceries and spas. Recently, the long abandoned garrison church was reopened as the White Rabbit, a restaurant and bar serving up Euro comfort food. After extensive renovations, its lofty interiors are now a mood-lit bolt-hole that heaves with tout le monde. When people aren’t busy air-kissing and waving to one another across the crowded dining space, they’re tucking into chef Daniel Sia’s cleverly re-imagined classics, like macaroni and cheese drizzled with truffle sauce and a deconstructed Black Forest cake. After dinner, head up the hill for a chilled mojito at Margarita’s.
Once upon a time, Bugis Street was Singapore’s premier red light district (and forever immortalized in Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack), but the crown has long since passed to Geylang, an atmospheric quarter on Singapore’s east coast that bristles with great period architecture, leggy street walkers and some of the best local food on the island. On offer is a greedy grab of Peranakan, Indian, Malay and regional Chinese standards including the coconut rice and curry chicken at Bali Nasi Lemak, spicy noodles with roast pork and prawns at Kuching Kolo Mee and the Hakka favourite of rice, vegetables, tofu and peanuts in a tea-based broth at Lei Cha Fan.
Despite its prim, straight-laced reputation, Singapore’s nightlife is actually quite racy, though compared to Barcelona or New York, the party ends early (around 3 a.m.). After nearly two decades, Zouk is still the throbbing heart of the action. The pulsating institution is a strobe-lit, rambling warren of dance floors, figure-hugging outfits, swagger and seasoned moves. For many of the pretty young hipsters here, it’s a rite of passage. If it isn’t enough to satisfy your urge to groove, drop into the mammoth Ministry of Sound for a quick shimmy.