On the surface, Singapore and Hong Kong have much in common: two port cities and cosmopolitan financial hubs with a shared colonial heritage. It’s been enough to spark a (mostly) friendly rivalry. Yet for Hongkongers, there’s a huge amount that’s unique about the Lion City. Below are just 10 things to do in Singapore to get you started.
Remember to book ahead for popular restaurants and attractions – and that offerings may change to reflect COVID-19 measures.
1. Have a Winter Beach Holiday
Singapore doesn’t get cold. Even when it’s getting chilly in Hong Kong, Singapore stays sultry, with temperatures easily hitting 30 degrees. It’s the perfect city for that beach holiday you’ve been dreaming about this past year.
That’s what Sentosa is for. This island of tropical beaches and paradisical resorts is just 15 minutes south of the city centre, and has something to offer everyone. Families will dig the playgrounds and swimmable lagoons of Palawan; Siloso has beach bars and volleyball courts for plenty of sun-kissed action; and Tanjong is the most secluded stretch if you’re after some relaxation. Make an advance reservation to be sure you’ve got a spot on the sand; it’s a way for Sentosa to manage crowds in the COVID-19 era. To spot heritage trees, butterflies and the native Oriental Magpie-Robin, set out on the Sentosa Nature Discovery trail.
2. Get a True Taste of Hawker Food
For many, eating at a hawker centre is the reason to visit Singapore. Each centre has a specialty, be it barbecued satay, stingray laden with sambal chilli, or rich laksa. Follow the universal protocol and leave a packet of tissues to chope (reserve) your spot at a table, then create your own feast by ordering from the smorgasbord of surrounding food stalls. Just keep a healthy distance of one metre from others (some centres have added floor queue markings). You’ll experience Singaporean classics as they were meant to be eaten – and a style of dining that is rare in modern Hong Kong.
3. Dive into the Peranakan Past
Peranakan culture is a hybrid of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences that dates back 500 years. That culture is still going strong, kept alive in both Singapore’s people and its architecture. While the Peranakan Museum is closed for renovations through mid-2021, you can still experience it in the Katong and Joo Chiat neighbourhoods, where 1920s-era Peranakan shophouses feature distinctive ceramic tiles and animal figurines. One gem is The Intan (book in advance), a home museum where owner Alvin Yapp has lovingly amassed thousands of artefacts. Then for a taste of the culture, sample the cuisine at 328 Katong Laksa or go upscale at Candlenut, the first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant.
4. See the Old Masters of South East Asian Art
Hong Kong has a thriving art scene, but for South East Asian art, Singapore is the place to go. The National Gallery Singapore houses the world’s largest collection of modern art from the region – in an impressively renovated colonial landmark. In addition to its vast exhibition spaces, there’s also eight on-site bars and restaurants, including celebrity chef Violet Oon’s National Kitchen and Julien Royer’s masterful three-Michelin-starred Odette.
5. Practise your Singlish
Those staccato sounds you’re overhearing at the kopitiam (coffee shop) are Singlish, the unofficial, informal language that’s unique to Singapore. It’s a mix of English with Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Tamil and Malay loanwords that captures Singapore’s multicultural heritage. Get your bearings at the Singapo(Ren) exhibit at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, then take a Singlish class and practise in the real world by ordering a kaya toast with a Milo dinosaur, boleh?
6. Explore a High-Tech Park
You’ve never seen trees like Singapore’s: Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay stretch 25 to 50 metres skyward and put on a nightly light and sound show. Get a closer look while strolling along the OCBC Skyway, which also provides sweeping skyline views. The Cloud Forest has a dramatic indoor waterfall while The Flower Dome is the world’s largest greenhouse, with a cooling eggshell-like exterior of glass and steel.
7. Immerse Yourself in the World of TeamLab
Tokyo-based digital art collective TeamLab is behind the Future World: Where Art Meets Science exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, which may well be the most Instagram-friendly destination in Singapore. Within the interactive Future World exhibit, more than 170,000 LED lights form a kaleidoscope of shifting colours. Another installation depicts flowers going through a year’s cycle of blossoming, wilting and scattering within an hour.
8. Live the Movie Magic at Universal Studios
Take a break from Hong Kong Disneyland to explore a whole new world of theme parks on Sentosa, beginning with Universal Studios Singapore for a dose of fun inspired by the silver screen. If you’re here for the adrenaline rush, you should know that Battlestar Galactica: Human vs. Cylon is the world’s tallest duelling roller coaster setup – and that the rafting ride through Jurassic Park ends with a major splash. If you brought along the kids, take photos with characters from favourites like Madagascar, Despicable Me and Sesame Street. Find more thrills at nearby S.E.A. Aquarium and Skyline Luge Sentosa.
9. Explore Singapore’s Multicultural Heart
While Hong Kong is East-meets-West, Singapore throws the entire Malay Peninsula and Middle East into the mix. Take Kampong Glam, the city’s oldest neighbourhood and one of its most dynamic. In the 1800s, this was a Muslim hub where sultans lived; their former palace is now the Malay Heritage Centre. The golden domes of the nearby Masjid Sultan mosque still draw worshippers, who brush shoulders with hipsters drawn to the cafes and boutiques of Haji Lane. Pick up souvenirs at Royal Fabrics, known for its batik, and the many Arab spice and rug shops. A few minutes away, tucked behind Muscat Street, Gelam Gallery’s bright murals and framed works cover the back lanes. Another eye-popping sight is the Vintage Camera’s Museum, a wonderfully quirky stop while you’re in the ’hood.
10. Spot Wildlife in the Dark
There’s a surprising variety of places to get up close with wildlife across Singapore. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is full of macaques, the mangroves of Pulau Ubin are home to kingfishers and otters and Thomson Nature Park opened in 2019 to support the endangered Raffles’ banded langur. Of course, Hong Kong also has its share of vibrant wildlife – so for a truly only-in-Singapore experience, you’ve got to book the Night Safari. It’s the world’s first nocturnal zoo, offering up the chance to observe animals when they’re most active – after dark. Hop on the guided tram ride or follow the four walking trails to encounter leopards, tigers, tapirs and Asian elephants at play.