Dig into Singapore: an endless feast for the senses
Though it's a conveniently English-speaking nation, Singapore actually has three more official languages—Malay, Mandarin and Tamil—an early tipoff about the riches that await. From its Michelin-starred street food stalls to its stately landmarks; its bustling cocktail bars to its serene nature reserves; and its historic multicultural neighborhoods to its futuristic monuments to sustainability; this island-nation is a seemingly endless feast. And there are plenty of newsy openings to pair with the famous favorites.
So this is neither the time nor place to sell yourself short. Set aside at least five days, book a flight to the fabled Changi Airport (Singapore Airlines flies three times daily from LAX, twice daily from SFO and JFK, and once daily from EWR and SEA, while United goes direct from SFO, too) and see what all the buzz is about.
Lively local districts
A wander through Singapore’s historic neighborhoods is more like a wander through the wider world, but with cultural layering and blending that’s singularly Singaporean. In fact, when Sir Stamford Raffles first appeared on the scene (quick history refresher: he was the British East Indies administrator who established the city in 1819), so did the sepoys who laid the early foundations for what would become a thriving Indian neighborhood.
It would take a few decades and migration waves, but Singapore’s Little India filled with temples and mosques, spice and sari purveyors, as well as publications in languages from Punjabi to Tamil. And at the turn of the century, Chinese entrepreneurs moved into the area as well. So today, there’s nothing particularly surprising about the presence of one of Singapore’s best known and most beloved Chinese historic villas—the Tan Teng Niah house—in the heart of Little India, amid various Indian groceries and restaurants. Still, the blend is beautiful to behold, and fun to experience.
For its part, Kampong Gelam, began with Malay and Arab communities, among others. And while historic Muslim institutions such as the gleaming Sultan Mosque and gabled Madrasah Alsagoff are still fixtures of local life, not to mention destinations unto themselves, they now share the neighborhood with hipster boutiques, bars and cafés, making for another of Singapore’s most interesting blends. To get a taste, head straight for Haji Lane, the narrowest and arguably most colorful one in the neighborhood.
In Chinatown, that theme continues: This onetime refuge for Chinese immigrants—which is still home to traditional temples, medicine halls and tea houses and an opera—has also taken on new life with an influx of bars, restaurants and shops. Chinatown is also home to one of the best Singaporean displays of religious plurality, with a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple and a mosque all sharing the same street.
Though you’ll find many more neighborhoods worth wandering in Singapore, there’s another you can’t miss: Katong-Joo Chiat, technically, two adjacent areas that provide some of the richest and most visually stimulating of local experiences. The stretch of 1920s pastel shophouses on Koon Seng Road, for one, is the stuff that Insta dreams are made of. Then there’s the deep local dive into Peranakan culture, a reflection of locally-born people, from Chinese-Malay to Indian-Straits Chinese lineage. Walk through some of that history at the Katong Antique House, and for more, head over Singapore's Museum District for a visit to the newly reopened Peranakan Museum.
As much as these neighborhoods exemplify melting-pot culture, the more literal embodiment of that idea is served up at Singapore’s world-renowned kitchens. Indeed, Singaporean cuisine is such a standout on the global stage that in 2016, the nation became the first to receive Michelin stars for street food.
The recipients were two of the stall owners on Singapore’s vast hawker scene—a cultural gem so important that UNESCO added it to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity three years ago. Naturally, then, any local eating tour must include a visit to Hawker Chan and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle — the street food stands that broke the Michelin barrier — plus at least a few of the 17 hawkers who’ve been newly Michelin-recognized this year. Options include Unforgettable Carrot Cake in Bukit Merah View Market & Hawker Centre, Hup Kee Teochew Fishball Mee in Mei Ling Market & Food Centre and Zi Jing Cheng Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice in Alexandra Village Food Centre.
At the other end of the spectrum — i.e., fine dining — Singapore shines just as bright with Michelin stars. One of the most noteworthy awardees of 2023 is Seroja, where chef Kevin Wong celebrates Malay flavors so distinctively and sustainably (think jasmine tea duck broth and sea conch with fermented shrimp dressing and onion jam) that he’s earned not only a regular Michelin star, but also Singapore’s first green star, a recognition of “outstanding eco-friendly commitments” (a theme across Singapore, as we’ll get back to soon).
Of course, in between the hawker centers and the haute cuisine, you’ll find a whole world of delicious dishes, many of which fall under the heading of “Mod-Sin,” or Modern Singaporean. The coiner of this term—and godfather of the category—is chef Willin Low of Relish and Roketto Izakaya fame, who loves “to take apart traditional dishes, reassemble them and turn them on their head.” You’ll find other Mod-Sin standouts everywhere from Mustard Seed to Candlenut, the latter being the first Peranakan restaurant to receive a Michelin star. (You’ll see why when you try the likes of the king prawn with lemak sauce, luffa melon, sambal, baby sweet potato leaf and green chili.)
As you might expect from a land of such epic cuisine, Singapore pours up some of the most legendary cocktails in existence, starting, of course, with the Singapore Sling. The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel Singapore is the must-visit spiritual birthplace of this gin-based blend of pineapple juice, lime juice, curaçao, Bénédictine, grenadine and cherry liqueur. And while you’re there, check out Raffles’ latest contribution to the local drink scene: the new menu at the famed Writer’s Bar, where the offerings now reflect the words of this year’s writer-in-residence—the Singaporean poet Madeleine Lee—among others. For something truly distinctive, try the Tiffin & Co: a blend of sour mash, lemongrass, lime leaf, Gula Malaca and Gum Arabic.
Indeed, Singapore has risen to such a position of prominence in the cocktail cosmos, the nation will be hosting The World’s 50 Best Bars ceremony in October. Unsurprisingly, two of the stars of this year’s list are Singaporean: Jigger & Pony, cited for the resident punch bowls, and Manhattan, beloved for barrel-aged cocktails.
Then again, you need not stick to Singapore’s five-star hotels and 50-best winners to find innovative cocktails with unique local flavors. The aforementioned neighborhoods are teeming with offerings. Some of the most celebrated cases in point? The draft cocktails at Underdog Inn, the retro-meets-future flavors at Night Hawk and the sustainable- and plant-forward offerings at Analogue, where the main bar is not only entirely 3-D printed of recycled bottles but also wheelchair-accessible.
Historic hotels and noteworthy newcomers
Raffles isn’t the only iconic name updating the already legendary local hospitality scene. New from the Pan Pacific Hotels Group is the Pan Pacific Orchard, a bastion of green (not just sustainable, but also packed with literal green spaces) that soars over Singapore's fabled retail heart. Bonus: the only beach pool in the city center. Also coming to the neighborhood: the latest from the locally-based Como group, famous for some of the world’s most exquisite stays. In keeping with that reputation, as of September, the Como Metropolitan Singapore is opening within Como Orchard, where highlights include stunning luxury accommodations, impeccably curated retail spaces, a sprawling wellness center and a vista-maximizing rooftop pool.
Another rooftop pool to consider is the one atop the Mondrian group’s new Southeast Asian debut: the Mondrian Singapore Duxton, which aims to immerse you in a “deconstructed shophouse chic” esthetic, as well plenty of original art and décor.
Of course, whatever any newcomer does, there’s one rooftop pool power player that’s arguably impossible to beat: the infinity pool that spans three buildings at Marina Bay Sands. Whether or not you stay at this Moshe Safdie-designed icon, it merits at least a visit to the top.
Even the most casual observer of Singapore—as in, you know it from Crazy Rich Asians—has seen the Supertrees, those whimsical, outsized vertical gardens that generate solar power, vent air and collect rainwater. But they’re a drop in the bucket, as it were, of the nation’s sustainability efforts. In fact, this year, Singapore was certified as a sustainable destination by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
The qualifying initiatives include a million new trees by 2030 (Singapore is well past the halfway mark), zero-emissions excursions (think: electric go-karts) and the maximizing of Singapore’s natural beauty (more on that in the next section). Then there are the hotels that have achieved their own GSTC certifications, from Marina Bay Sands Singapore to Resorts World Sentosa (on an island that has achieved certification itself).
For all of Singapore’s urban renown, this island-nation is also home to singular natural beauty. In fact, the Supertrees are just the start of what you’ll find at Gardens by the Bay, where other must-see installations include the Flower Dome—home to a 1,000-year-old olive tree, among other flora from six continents —as well as the Cloud Forest Conservatory, where you'll find one of the tallest indoor waterfalls on earth (the tallest being the Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi Airport).
Next up: the Singapore Botanic Gardens, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the onsite “science, research and plant conservation,” in addition to sheer beauty. The National Orchid Garden is a good place to start on that front.
If you’re up for a hike (emphasis on up), consider the Treetop Walk at MacRitchie Nature Trail & Reservoir Park, the Summit Trail at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve or the Henderson Waves bridge. To fuel up (or celebrate afterward), go for an experience that melds food, culture, sustainability and nature: Singapore’s burgeoning farm-to-table scene, with offerings from Bollywood Farms to Bistro by Gardenasia.