Singapore is one of Asia’s smallest countries, but it packs a lot into a small space.
Essentially a megacity with a small periphery of coast and countryside, this is an urban experience miles away from the jungle escapes on offer in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
Singapore’s relentless march of progress is epitomized by its ritzy shopping, slick public transport that makes it easy to get around, gleaming high rises, and its general sense of order, cleanliness and efficiency. Thankfully, Singaporeans’ unapologetic love of the new is tempered by respect for history and an appreciation for green spaces, with many parks and gardens to offset the frenetic city buzz.
Here are the best places to go in Singapore, whether you’re on a stopover or planning a longer visit.
1. The Jewel
Best for indoor nature
This Singapore attraction dazzles visitors just as they set foot in the country. From the arrivals area at Changi Airport, it’s just a 10-minute walk to this architectural marvel, which mixes futuristic modern materials with living nature. It’s a perfect first or last stop on a Singapore sightseeing tour.
The Jewel is a shopping mall, but in fact, it’s way more than that. The huge indoor waterfall at the center of things is where the magic really happens. At 40m (130ft), this is the tallest indoor waterfall in the world, and water pours from a massive hole in the roof into an indoor rainforest, covered by a geodesic canopy.
The building was designed by architectural mastermind Moshe Safdie, of Marina Bay Sands fame, and visiting is a surreal experience. Giant slides and cargo nets for climbing are tucked under the glass roof; you might think you’ve been transported to some kind of Lilliputian world of fun and frolics.
Best iconic experience
The most iconic hotel in Singapore, if not in Asia, Raffles isn’t just a place to stay; it’s an institution. The history of the place is legendary. Originally designed as a beach house, the hotel was gradually expanded throughout the period of British colonial rule in the 19th century. It was named for Sir Stamford Raffles, who arrived as a representative of British colonial rule on the island in 1819 and is credited with “founding” modern Singapore (though the people already living here would profoundly disagree). By the 1880s, this was the city’s prime hotel, and staying here still has a cachet unmatched by any other place to stay in Singapore.
Planning tip: It’s worth a visit just to admire the imposing neoclassical architecture: porticos and pediments, mixed with tropical touches like verandas and open terraces to relieve the intense heat, add up to a soaring set piece. The hotel’s noted arcade of shops and restaurants is another feature to check out; if you can’t afford a room, you can at least come away with a souvenir.
3. Marina Bay Sands
Best for city views
Some say it looks like a futuristic ironing board, others that it’s more like a surfboard perched on tall legs. Either way, there’s no mistaking this unique component of Singapore’s wild skyline. Three linked towers make up Marina Bay Sands, rising high above Singapore’s remarkable Gardens by the Bay. The gravity-defying top section contains an infinity pool and sundeck, which gives stunning views of the city beyond. From 57 floors up, this will be a swim you’ll never forget.
Here’s the but – you need to be a guest staying at the hotel to get into the pool; you can’t just pop up for the price of a drink in the poolside bar. There’s plenty here for non-guests, though, from the SkyPark observation deck and the glam Shoppes mall to the adjacent ArtScience Museum, which mixes works of art with educational displays and interactive exhibits about science.
Planning tip: It’s worth heading across the bay at night to see the towers lit up by the daily sound and light show (best viewed from near the Fullerton) – and better yet, it’s completely free.
4. National Gallery of Singapore
Best for understanding Southeast Asian art
Opened in 2015, the National Gallery of Singapore is one of the nation’s key cultural institutions and one of the most important art galleries in Asia. The gallery displays the world’s largest collection of South East Asian art – over 9000 items in one massive collection – in the heart of the Civic District.
The Gallery sprawls across several striking British-era buildings, including the former City Hall (from the 1920s) and Supreme Court (from the 1930s). Modern canopies and wings by architects Studio Milou stitch these buildings together, creating a single coherent space for the gallery’s art displays.
5. Sentosa Island
Best for beaches
Linked by a causeway to the city’s southern shore, Singapore’s holiday island is the best thing to do for travelers who want to escape the frenetic pace of life in the city proper. Sentosa is dedicated to the pursuit of fun, from competition golf courses to famous Palawan Beach, where swimmers and sunbathers congregate along a gleaming strip of sand. Singaporean families come to the island to chill, and there’s plenty of nature on offer, with paths through the trees and soothing sea views. It’s also a great spot for a laid-back bite, with plenty of outdoor cafes and restaurants.
Don’t ignore the island’s history – this was once a colonial British military base, and it also saw time as a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Remnants of the past are dotted between the leisure developments. Drop into fascinating Fort Siloso, which is now a museum exploring Singapore’s torrid experience of occupation during WWII.
Planning tip: If you fancy staying over, there are plenty of hotels – more than a dozen, in fact, including the swanky W and Capella – making it easy to be first in line at the Universal Studios Singapore theme park or Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.
6. Fort Canning Park
Best for history with a side serving of nature
Fans of history can delve into Singapore’s difficult past at Fort Canning Park. As well as beautiful lawns, tropical trees and exotic birdlife, this green hill is dotted with various historical treats, including the eponymous fort itself, which was built in the 1850s by the British to defend their prized colonial port. Today it houses the swish Fort Canning Hotel. Also, here are the Battlebox military bunker museum and the stunning National Museum of Singapore, full of imaginative multimedia exhibits on the city’s journey to statehood.
The aforementioned Stamford Raffles had his villa in the park, once the most prized address in the newly expanding city. You can see a reproduction of Raffles’ original residence today, alongside bunkers used by the British military command, former artillery placements, and a sprawl of green lawns and spice gardens. It’s the most atmospheric green space in the city.
7. Gardens by the Bay
Best botanic garden
It says something about Singapore’s love of technology: that the iconic image of the Gardens by the Bay is not a plant at all but the legendary “Supertrees” – a collection of 16-story-tall sculptures inspired by nature, but alien and futuristic in form. The tallest has a viewing platform at the top where you can get great views across the gardens and Singapore skyline. This is still, however, a botanical garden, albeit one wrapped in fascinating architecture – check out Wilkinson Eyre’s bulbous glass conservatories on the waterfront as an example of how these two strands come together.
Visitors with a horticultural bent can revel in the variety of tropical plant species on show here. Don’t miss the bizarre brain cactuses displayed in the Sun Pavillion. Around the gardens are biospheres recreating environments from Australia, South America and South Africa, with typical plants from each region.
Planning tip: As you wander between the trees and water features, look out for public works of art among the living exhibits.
8. Pulau Ubin
Best for peace and quiet
Those in search of a dose of pure nature would do well to take a trip to Pulau Ubin. There’s plenty of unspoiled greenery just a boat or bus ride away in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, but this green island is part of the city-state itself, so there are no border crossings required. Pulau Ubin is tucked up squarely against the Malaysian border in the northeast of the city, reached via a 10-minute ride on a bumboat (an old Dutch term for the small boats used to transfer goods to ships anchored offshore).
Once you’re on the island, you can follow some fantastic hiking trails along the coast, passing wetlands that are home to the likes of fiddler crabs, mudskippers and red junglefowl. The rocky beaches and mangroves are a unique and pristine habitat, so remember to look after the environment here and take your rubbish away when you leave.
Planning tip: There’s a mountain bike path (and bikes for rent) and several campsites if you want to stay overnight under the stars.