You know Singapore. It’s big and bold — if not necessarily brash — defined by the shipping routes that have delivered enormous riches to the city-state. And for a long time its attractions were just as broadly rendered, imported facsimiles of other ideas, scaled up for extra impact.
But you don’t know Singapore. Not quite. 2015 has marked both 50 years since the founding of this Asian pocket powerhouse and the passing of the man largely responsible for its existence, the much-loved Lee Kuan Yeuw.
The past and the future are now being reinterpreted all at once. Suddenly there’s a greater sense of identity in Singapore, and with that a more nuanced and layered approach to life for locals and attractions for foreigners. And we’re talking a city that is tightly packed and easy to get around, so discovering its hidden gems is a cinch.
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See and do
Hire a bicycle on the island of Pulau Ubin and mainline a dose of the village life that once dominated Singapore, visiting shrines, mangroves and picnic spots. It’s like a time machine, a reminder of just how recent the metropolis’s humble past is.
Stroll through the urban anomaly of Wessex Estate, a rambling inner-city campus of former British army bungalows turned over to Singapore’s creative community. Maybe knock on some doors — many artists run their studios as galleries — and stop by the old officers’ canteen, Colbar Eating House, for a tasty lunch.
Immerse yourself in some tremendous artwork at Gillman Barracks, a peaceful precinct in the heart of the island’s Southern Ridges National Park. Make a weekend of it and tie in some exploration of the park or live music at Timbre.
Another vacated military barracks, the sprawl of Dempsey Hill is these days about retail therapy and Singapore’s growing love for café culture. Mix with the Saturday locals, wandering from coffee date to warehouse to gift shop to restaurant to bar.
Brave the nondescript office block digs on Commonwealth Ave to discover FlabSlab, one of Singapore’s most innovative art and design collectives. ‘Mastermind’ Jeffrey Koh and his team by day operate as ad company, Nerf Creative, but welcome guests. Pop in and check out the stacks of artwork and obsessively-detailed figurines.
You can’t travel to Singapore and miss the spectacular Supertree Grove light show at Gardens by the Bay, a visual short-circuit for the synapses set to a propulsive musical score.
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Eat and drink
The Library these days is one of Singapore’s worst kept secrets, such is the bar’s underground popularity. Still, arrive without the password and you’ll be regurgitating a song of the door lady’s choosing. Embarrassing, but it puts you in giddy spirits for a slick speakeasy peddling cocktails that are beyond the imagination.
The Spiffy Dapper may have over-garnished its hipster name but otherwise gets the hidden bar mix spot on, with generous bartenders and an inviting, club-like atmosphere. One floor up on Amoy Street, listen for the crowds and cocktail shakers. Open stupidly late on weeknights.
Cé La Vi’s generous drinking deck is likely the best way to see Singapore at night, situated as it is atop the vertiginous Marina Bay Sands. The views of the city on a humid Singapore night will take your breath away — as will the prices of beer and wine. Best stick to the cocktails.
Experiencing Singapore also demands you experience chilli crab. No Signboard will happily fine tune the spiciness to your taste and is home to an iconic take on white pepper crab. If you’re going highbrow, head to Jumbo at Dempsey Hill for one of the best classic chilli sauces in town.
Visit Whampoa Keng for an authentic charcoal-fired steamboat, fresh seafood and vegetables bubbling away in a hearty broth. Complement it with juicy cereal prawns and some homemade tofu dishes. Delicious.
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Where to stay
Singapore hotels usually have you slap bang in the middle of downtown, so the idea of planting accommodation in the historically rich, thriving residential and commercial zone of Balestier is something new. Now forming a twin beacon on the dog-legged high street are the Days and Ramada Hotels. If you’re keeping it thrifty, try Days Hotel — a comfy three-star property with cosy, well-kept rooms from SGD$150 — but otherwise the four-star Ramada, with its wealth of facilities, is the way to go (from SGD$180). Either way, the two hotels are an $8 cab ride to the city and joined by a communal park, making it easy to immerse yourself in local life.
Need to know
Getting there: Scoot’s new all-787 fleet fly to Singapore daily from Perth and Sydney, and five days a week from Melbourne and the Gold Coast. Economy fares start at $199 one-way, Scootbiz fares at $499.
The writer was a guest of Wyndham Hotels and Scoot.