Why Singapore Should Be Your First Stop in Asia

May 18, 2017

We're noticing a trend of more packagers adding Singapore to vacations that cover several Asian countries.

With two nonstop flights to Singapore from the U.S. added in the last year, this city-state is fast becoming a great jumping-off point for Americans taking a bigger trip through Southeast Asia.

Here's why Singapore should be your first stop in Asia.

1. It's a great place to get your bearings.

After a long flight from the States, it can be jarring to get off the plane into an environment where the signs and the language aren't familiar. English is an official language in Singapore (one of four), so you won't need Google Translate to hire a taxi (call your cabbie "uncle"), order a meal or find a bathroom.

It's a city where you feel safe, with great public transportation and sidewalks that are so clean you could probably eat off them.

There's a wide range of hotels with names you'll recognize, in addition to boutique hotels with cultural character and luxury resorts. One of Singapore's first hotels was the Raffles Hotel, which set the bar pretty high for competitors.

Finally, you're not off the grid. Singapore is a business center for Southeast Asia and beyond, so the Internet is super-fast and reliable. Find a Wi-Fi signal and post a selfie in front of a Supertree or the Marina Bay Sands -- your friends might think you're posting from a city of the future.

2. Jet lag? There's plenty to do -- at all hours.

You're going to be jet-lagged, waking up early or going to bed late until you adjust to the time difference (15 hours from San Francisco). Singapore is a city where something's always going on 24/7, so you won't spend those random waking hours in your hotel.

The bar scene is hopping (it's home of the Singapore Sling after all) and the dance clubs stay open late, with DJs spinning beats at hot spots like Zouk and Club Kyō.

For a calmer late-night experience, stargaze from one of the few observatories near the equator at the Science Centre, hang out with other nocturnal animals at the Singapore Zoo's Night Safari (open til midnight) or catch and grill prawns at ORTO (open 24 hours).

The two-week Night Festival in August is a midsummer celebration of arts and culture for night owls centered around Armenian Street (which is closed to traffic during the festival.) Make sure to check out the light displays that transform the facades of the Singapore Art Museum and National Museum of Singapore.

If you plan a trip for September, make sure you're in town for the Singapore Grand Prix (Sept. 15-17). Singapore's Formula 1 event is unique on the racing circuit -- it's a night race -- drawing A-listers to Singapore to watch the cars zoom through Marina Bay, and catch big-name acts such as Chainsmokers, Ariana Grande, Duran Duran and Seal.

3. Asia's diverse cultures are blocks away from each other.

While Singapore is a relatively young country (52 years old), it's been a hub of commerce for centuries, thanks to its location on popular shipping lanes. As a result, there are several ethnic communities that have settled in Singapore and fused their cultures and cuisine together to create something entirely unique. For an example, learn a little "Singlish". You may find yourself saying "Shiok" (great) to describe a new dish you just tried or "Can Lah" (yes, of course) if you want seconds of the chili crab.

Explore the districts of Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam (Malay) and Joo Chiat (Peranakan), for shopping, sightseeing and some of the best meals you'll ever eat. You'll find colorful shophouses and colonial-era buildings alongside mosques, churches and temples.

Along with the sightseeing, there's plenty of shopping on offer in Singapore -- especially during the Great Singapore Sale, a 10-week event held every summer (this year, June 9 - August 13). Discounts are up to 70% on everything from designer brands on Orchard Road to unique finds in the independent shops on Haji Lane.

4. Your trip starts on a foodie high.

The prestigious Michelin Guide only publishes 25 editions -- and Singapore got its own Guide in 2016, with 29 restaurants earning coveted Michelin stars. World-renowned chefs like Joël Robuchon and Andre Chiang have set up outposts in Singapore -- inspired by the culture of innovation and fusion. Best of all, these meals don't have to break the budget. You can get a Michelin-starred meal for less than US $3 at a hawker stall (two hawkers earned stars in the 2016 Guide).

These hawker centers are concentrated collections of street food vendors, and they are where it's at when it's time to eat. You may uncover the next chef to earn a Michelin star at these clean, organized markets. The smells alone will get your mouth watering. The Maxwell Food Centre and Tiong Bahru Market are two places you need to visit. Don't leave Singapore without trying chili crab, laksa, roti prata with curry and chicken rice.

You might decide to stay an extra day just to eat it all.

5. It's one of Asia's busiest cruise ports.

For many cruise lines that sail through Southeast Asia, Singapore is their hub -- with ships departing and arriving almost daily. Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas are among those with ships that start itineraries in Singapore that last anywhere from four to forty nights. With options from mainstream to super luxe, there's a cruise choice to fit every kind of budget.

Arrive a few days early to explore the city, then hop on your ship to venture off to spots like Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and beyond.

6. It packs a lot to see and do in 278 square miles.

Singapore is only slightly smaller than New York City. Plan on spending three or four days exploring, and don't miss these highlights.

Gardens by the Bay is a futuristic take on a green city. An elevated walkway takes you through a grove of 16-story tall Supertrees, vertical gardens that generate solar power and collect rainwater to power the rest of the complex. Visit in the day and at night for two completely different views.

Go inside the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome, which look like the spiked glass-encased humpback of a dragon. They are cool to look at -- and refreshingly cool on the inside. In the Cloud Forest, check out the 115-foot-tall Cloud Mountain covered in orchids, ferns and other fauna, with a waterfall spilling onto the floor below. The Flower Dome is home to 32,000 plants from around the world -- this is a greenhouse on steroids.

One of the dominant features of the Singapore skyline is a building that looks like a giant left his surfboard on top of three skyscrapers. Marina Bay Sands is a luxury waterfront hotel, and the SkyDeck rooftop is out of this world. If you're afraid of heights, grab a cocktail up to calm your nerves at SkyBar at CE LA VI, then sit back and enjoy the view. The infinity pool looks out over the city from 57 stories up and will be one of the stars of your vacation photos on Instagram. (Don't believe us, search #MarinaBaySands on IG.)

It's not all sci-fi structures that will be on your list of things to see.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a great place to escape the buzz of the city. Bring someone special with you to stroll these romantic English-style gardens full of 60,000 plants. You may even catch a free concert from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Stop in the National Orchid Garden to check out orchids named for visiting dignitaries and celebs like Nelson Mandela and Jackie Chan.

Take a bumboat cruise on the Singapore River to get a sense of how the city grew from a simple trading post into one of the world's leading cities. The waterfront has transformed from warehouses to a popular spot for entertainment and dining.

Interspersed amid the modern buildings are ornate religious buildings. You'll find three of the country's oldest -- the Chinese Thian Hock Keng temple, Masjid Al-Albrar mosque and Hindu Sri Mariamman temple -- within a few blocks of each other in Chinatown.

7. It pairs perfectly with an off-the-grid beach destination.

The exotic beaches of Bali, Thailand and Vietnam are a short flight from Singapore. So you can get your fill of culture, cuisine, shopping and 21st-century pursuits here.

Then spend the second half of your vacation unplugged on a beach like this.

For a beach experience without leaving town, go to the island of Sentosa for an afternoon of surf and sand. To go off the grid, hop a bumboat ride for a day trip to Pulau Ubin — an island without electricity that seems light years away from the skyscrapers of downtown.

8. Singapore is well-connected -- in every sense of the word.

You're flying into and out of the best airport in the world for five straight years (Skytrax). Changi International Airport is a destination unto itself, with a free 24-hour movie theater, two-story butterfly garden, rooftop pool, high-end shopping and the efficiency that Singapore has seemed to perfect. If you're going to have a layover, this is the place.

You can fly nonstop to 133 destinations out of Singapore. Almost every vacation spot in Southeast Asia is within a 4-hour flight, including Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Australia, Japan, China and India are all within a 7-hour flight.

So take your pick on your next stop in Asia, but make sure you start your trip in Singapore.

For more information on Singapore, check out these itinerary ideas, upcoming events and festivals and more fun facts about this city-state of 63 islands.

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