Singapore is famous for more than just topping the “most expensive places to live” list. In its very short history (it’s only been a country for 50 years!), the economy has boomed along with a stunning, modern skyline drawing visitors and expats from around the world.
Last year, I spent nearly three months in Southeast Asia on assignment with my company’s Singapore office. Most of my friends couldn’t pick Singapore out on a map—the most common misconception was that is was quite close to China—but it’s a large island in Southeast Asia just a short flight from the stunning beaches of Thailand and Bali. Singapore’s Changi Airport is world renowned; there’s a rooftop infinity pool, butterfly garden, and free movie theater, making it a frequent stopover on journeys out to the islands. If you have the opportunity, make your layover a mini trip; you can see most of the main tourist attractions in Singapore in a few days.
Some people, particularly the expats in Hong Kong, may knock Singapore for being a little too sleepy and family-oriented, but once you really dig in, there’s a ton of culture, art, music, fitness trends, and of course all-star dining options to uncover. There are many distinct neighborhoods in Singapore, my favorite being: happy hours in Duxton Hill with its adorable cobblestone roads, the hipster cafes in Tiong Bahru, the street art and speakeasies in Arab Street/Haji Lane, and the acclaimed Western-style restaurants in Tanjong Pagar.
I made a personal goal to go out every single night in Singapore, whether that was a walk in a new neighborhood or trying a new restaurant. This small island really holds a special place in my heart and it was challenging to capture everything in just one guide. Most people won’t have the luxury of staying as long in the country, so below are my highlights if you are lucky enough to explore the “Little Red Dot.”
Nearly everyone around the globe agrees that Singapore is a food-centric town. After two months of living there, I barely scratched the surface. My primary objective when it came to food was focusing on sampling local fare. There are plenty of renowned, fancy, celebrity chef restaurants in town, which usually top the typical “best restaurants in Singapore” lists, but honestly you can go to a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Vegas. Not knocking the gourmet cuisine, but coming from New York where we have renowned restaurants on every street corner, I was seeking the local grub.
Singaporean food is a unique melting pot with Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian influences. Especially if you’re only in Singapore for a short trip, stop by one of the infamous hawker centres to try a ton of local options on the cheap. In the 90s, the Singaporean government revamped the food centres, which are basically open-air market stalls grouped together in complexes, to regulate and ensure that the centres were hygienic and up to code.
My office was conveniently located near the Maxwell Centre, which I frequented with my co-workers daily for lunch and coffee breaks. You can these local dishes at pretty much any hawker centre, but locals are divided among their go-to vendors. When all else fails, just go to the stalls with the longest lines; they’re typically the best. My must-try dishes included:
- Chicken rice, the official dish of Singapore. Check out the chicken rice at Tian Tian in Maxwell Centre for the most iconic serving. This dish is simple and just as it sounds; the chicken is poached and the rice is cooked in fat, so you really can’t go wrong. Pro tip: if there’s a long line at Tian Tian, check out the stall immediately next door. It was started by his feuding brother and the food tastes just as good.
- A favorite among the girls in my office was fish soup bee hoon/fish head soup, even on those consistently balmy days. Again, it’s just as it sounds, a broth with sliced fish or the fish head, with bee hoon noodles and some veggies.
- Laksa is a fusion between Chinese and Malay cuisine, basically a spicy noodle soup typically with chicken, prawns, or fish.
- For a hands on eating experience, dig into the famous Singaporean chili crab. Fresh crabs are coated in delicious chili sauce, which will get all over, and you break the crabs open, Maryland-style.
- Skip the Starbucks, my guilty pleasure every morning was grabbing a Kopi C, or the local coffee. Since it’s consistently around 85 degrees and humid in Singapore, I preferred my coffee iced, or “peng.” The “C,” or condensed milk, was the secret ingredient and what made this such an indulgence. You can also order Kopi O (black) or Kopi “kosong,” without sugar, but that’s no fun.
- For those adventurous eaters out there, give frog porridge a try. Most of the buzzy frog porridge spots are located in the Geylang neighborhood. It’s a dish of creamy porridge (almost a watery grits consistency) cooked with tender frog meat.
- With the Chinese influence in Singapore, they’ve got dim sum down pat. I loved the cheap dim sum at 126 Eating House in Geylang, but also frequented the Michelin-starred chain Din Tai Fung on the regular.
Bitch Tip: Hitting the hawker centres when hungover is a LIFESAVER. Plenty of cheap, greasy food that’s made hot within minutes. Noodles and pork buns made me right as rain after a few rough weekend mornings.
Especially with the insurgence of Western expats, there’s a ton of forward-thinking restaurants that could feel at home in Manhattan.
- Fancy Australian-style barbecue at Burnt Ends near Tanjong Pagar and the CBD
- Gin and tonics with a variety of inventive infusions at the Alice and Wonderland-themed secret garden behind The White Rabbit
- Elevated vegan fare at Afterglow by Anglow (kombucha is outlawed though; that’s so Singapore)
- Funky Asian fusion cuisine at Bird Bird, right on Club Street
- Fresh seafood at Hawaiian-style Aloha Poke
- Fun happy hours with quality bar bites at Club Meatballs and Humpback
- Spanish tapas and a great wine selection at Esquina
- Big salads and sammies at the popular Aussie shop, My Awesome Cafe
I was thrilled to learn that Singapore has a “brunch culture,” which I found fell into three camps: 1 – local Singaporean breakfast like kaya toast, noodles and the like; 2 – bottomless champagne brunches typically hosted at a nice hotel with a buffet that will cost you upwards of hundreds of dollars per head, think Bagatelle-esque; and 3 – typically Aussie-owned cafes with hip ambiances, flat whites and cold brew coffee, and plenty of brekkie sandwiches to choose from.
For some funky Korean-style coffee drinks, swing by The Da Bang while strolling the streets of Tanjong Pagar. We particularly enjoyed the unique latte and matcha ice cubes; perfect for the sweltering Singapore head. Read the full review of The Da Bang brunch here.
For a Western-style Mexican themed brunch right on the water, check out Super Loco in Robertson Quay. Grab a margarita and some zesty bites to take a break from the rather touristy, but fun, bustle of nearby Clark Quay. Read our full review of Super Loco here.
For a low key hipster cafe brunch with some seriously Instagrammable art and food presentation, try Symmetry on Arab Street. Read our full brunch review of Symmetry here.
If you’re only passing through Singapore briefly, your best bet to get a quick taste of the nightlife is to take a stroll down the aptly named Club Street. This is expat paradise, with plenty of bars and lounges blaring music and spilling twenty and thirty-somethings out on the cobblestone streets.
However, there’s a more bespoke cocktail scene outside of the sea of finance guys with a relocation package. Here’s my laundry-list of cozy bars and speakeasies to grab a fancy cocktail:
- Rooftop drinks: Potato Head, Southside, Spago at Marina Bay Sands, Loof, Kinki
- Speakeasies: 28HongKongStreet, Operation Dagger, Bar Stories
- Great mixology programs: Tippling Club, Jeckll & Hyde, Bitters & Love, Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall
I’m a sucker for a cute coffee shop so I made a conscious effort to explore the many cafes on the weekend, while I stuck to the local kopi during the work week.
My favorite coffeeshops had a theme. Airy workspaces, great playlists, well-curated designs, and plenty of blogger-friendly marble accents and succulents. I highly recommend Forty Hands, Plain Vanilla, and Tiong Bahru Bakery in Tiong Bahru, Common Man and Toby’s Estate in Robertson Quay, and Symmetry and ARC on Arab Street.
- Local designers
Of course, there are plenty of touristy sites to explore during your time in Singapore. I did most of them and am only recommending the worthwhile activities.
- Drinks at Ce La Vie or Spago at the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel for unparalleled views of the skyline.
- Take the “bumboat” boat rides along the water, providing a helpful historical overview of the country as well as some stunning photo ops.
- Head to Sentosa Island, a manmade island just a quick MRT or cab ride away. There’s family friendly activities like the beaches and Universal Studios rides, but the real party is at Tanjong Beach Club on Sundays with great DJs, chilled rose, and a sceney crowd.
- This is by far the most touristy thing, but one item to check off your bucket list. Try a Singapore Sling cocktail at Raffles Hotel and snack on the free peanuts at the bar. The drink is sugary and totally overpriced, but it’s a must-try, similar to a hurricane or hand grenade in New Orleans.
- Walk through Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic sea of sculptures and trees in the middle of the city. If you time it right, you can catch a symphony of lights and music at night among the trees.
- Pack a picnic or a good book for an afternoon in the Botanical Gardens. The Gardens are immaculately manicured and impressively lush, and a popular makeout spot for youngsters who still live at home with their parents.
- Embark on the Night Safari at the world-renowned Singapore Zoo. I went to the zoo by day and at night, and recommend the Night Safari for a more unique, exploratory experience. There’s nothing more terrifying than a nearby lion’s roar in pitch black.
To balance out all of the greasy hawker food, exercise was a high priority during my time in Singapore. Initially, I tried out GuavaPass, an offering similar to ClassPass, as an opportunity to explore different neighborhoods and classes, but eventually found my favorite studios outside of the app. I admittedly gravitated towards workouts that I was used to and happily found my alternatives to PureBarre, SoulCycle, and Gotham Gym on the other side of the world.
For a killer barre workout in a gorgeous studio conveniently located right in Tanjong Pagar near Duxton Hill, try out WeBarre. Every instructor was outstanding with fun, upbeat playlists and I loved the intimate class sizes. The barre workouts were challenging and just as quality as my favorite studios back in New York City. I miss my WeBarre crew!
For cycling addicts, CruCycle is a must. The founder was inspired by her SoulCycle obsession when going to college in California and brought a similar concept back to SG. There are plenty of tapbacks and arm series in this modern, spacious studio on Duxton Hill. One unique element I loved about the class was the ab series involving crunches on the bike. After a serious sweat session, head next door to Juice Junkie for smoothies, cold pressed juice, and acai bowls chock full of superfoods.
I’ve been a big fan of boxing in the states, but thought it was only appropriate to give Muay Thai a shot given my close proximity to Thailand. Evolve MMA is the premiere studio in the area – in fact it’s Asia’s #1 mixed martial arts studio – in fact, every trainer at the gym is a certified champion. You’ll hustle hard in a very inviting, hands-on environment with premium facilities.
This was a laundry-list of my top picks in Singapore, but I barely scratched the surface. The country may be tiny and new, but it’s bursting with inventive local flavor on every street corner if you know where to look. As they say, “the only way is Singapore!”
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