After three weeks of trekking through Indonesian jungles, island hopping via scary fast boats, and fending off water-born illnesses, we were ready to dive back into a modern city. As we discovered, it doesn’t get much more modern than Singapore. This island city-state boasts the highest standard of living across Asia. Everything from its immaculate streets, world-class transit system, and rich variety of public gardens and parks make it clear that Singaporeans lovingly invest in their city.
More than just a high-functioning 21st-century metropolis, Singapore delights visitors and locals alike with its rich colonial architecture, vibrant immigrant communities, and delicious international palate. It’s a place where Victorian-era neighborhoods stand across the street from modern tower complexes and plazas. A town where a cheap lunch and a $30 cocktail are steps apart, and every major world religion’s iconography is on display. There are clear parallels to cities like New York and London, but Singapore’s urban garden movement makes for a truly modern take on the international city.
With this in mind, we said good bye to Bali and hopped over the Java Sea, landing at Changi International Airport. What an introduction! Awarded “World’s Best Airport” eight years in a row, Changi delighted us from the moment we landed. The luxurious terminal ended at the recently opened Jewel – a harmonious union of natural and urban form at the center of the airport. This introduction to the city foreshadowed what we’d see throughout our time in Singapore.
After spending a few hours in the airport (yes, the 130-foot waterfall vortex at the center of the Jewel was that mesmerizing), we figured it was time to actually see Singapore. We hopped on the spotless Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system and checked into our hostel. We were ready to explore!
Singapore’s most iconic modern buildings surround Marina Bay. To get a bird’s-eye view of the town on our first night, we made our way to Mr. Stork, a semi-casual rooftop bar, to take in the sun set with cocktails in hand. From here we could see the path we’d take over the next few days, admiring the Marina Bay Sands, Esplanade Theaters, and the whimsical Merlion, the city’s official mascot.
We spent the next several days walking this path through an almost utopian version of a city. Streets were astonishingly clean, contemporary buildings blended nicely with colonial neighborhoods, and parks and plazas were dotted everywhere. Singapore began an intensive modernization program in the late 1960s after it’s expulsion from Malaysia, and this tradition of forward-thinking urban growth is on full display through the city.
Not every building was a monolithic vertical sculpture – we noticed the myriad of uniform public housing complexes across the city’s skyline. Nearly 80% of Singaporeans live in these towers, which are very well-maintained and affordable for an otherwise rather expensive city to live in. We really appreciated how vested Singaporeans are in their public spaces and their shared responsibility to each other.
Singapore draws immigrants from all over the world – nearly a quarter of its citizens are foreign born. Its neighborhoods are enriched by diverse communities, religions, and cuisines, stemming from its foundation as a port city under British colonial rule. We certainly appreciated the architectural variety between mosques, temples, and churches, but we absolutely loved the food!
Hawker centres are Singapore’s much better interpretation of the food court. Each Hawker centre is a collection of dozens, up to hundreds, of quick-service counters offering cuisines from China, India, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, and more. As travelers on a budget, we reveled in the chance to eat expertly prepared food for a few dollars per plate. We ate our way through Telok Ayer Market in the financial district, Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown, and the Newton Food Centre adjacent to the Newton MRT station. We delighted ourselves with Hainanese chicken rice, dumplings big and small, fried oyster cakes, and plates of seafood. Everyone in Singapore makes Hawker centres part of their weekly diet, and you can’t visit without a taste yourself.
Modern Singapore is rooted in its recent colonial heritage. The city is dotted with enclaves of colorful Victorian-era row-homes, public buildings, and religious shrines. Immigrant communities and expats alike call these historic landmarks home. We enjoyed walking through the ever radiant neighborhoods of Little India, Chinatown, and Kampong Glam, the latter of which includes the famed Haji Lane. This short little pedestrian street is flanked by nifty shops, small bistros, and neon-covered bars.
These colorful colonial buildings stood in stark contrast to the modern towers just next door. Both distinct styles complemented each other rather nicely. If we ever felt overwhelmed by the city, we’d escape to hidden alleys and back streets lined with two-story businesses and homes.
A trip to Singapore would be incomplete without exploring its many urban gardens. From the moment we landed at Changi, we understood why Singaporeans prioritize natural spaces in their city. Any city, no matter how clean its streets or refined its architecture, is an assault on the natural environment. Instead of lazily stuffing a green lawn between towers and calling it a day, Singapore smartly infuses nature with its local environment.
Nowhere is this union more apparent than Gardens by the Bay – a 250 acre dreamland full of parks, gardens, whimsical structures, and exhibits seated between Marina Bay and the Singapore Strait. We spent one afternoon touring the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, the latter of which stands as one of our most memorable experiences. We were greeted by a wall of green as we entered Cloud Forest, but the true experience comes from descending this fern-covered tower while learning about the regional vegetation and conservation efforts of the Singaporean community.
As the sun set, we sauntered through the Supertree Grove and carefully made our way along a 400 foot-long aerial walkway. With wine and beer in hand, we laid down underneath these towering steel and vine trees and thoroughly enjoyed Garden Rhapsody – an audio-visual spectacle mixing thunderous classical music with lasers, strobes, and spotlights.
Beyond the gardens, we toured through the imposing Marina Bay Sands shopping concourse and checked out multiple exhibits at the ArtScience Museum. We may have had our most fun poking and prodding through the 300+ floating colorful eggs on display part of the temporary exhibit, Autonomous Resonating Life on the Water and Resonating Trees.
Singapore provided just the change of pace that we needed after Indonesia. We loved walking the multicultural, vibrant streets of this city nation, and we now fully understand what draws so many expats and immigrants from all over the world to this futuristic urban paradise.