A love/hate relationship with Singapore


The Masjid Sultan Mosque is incredibly photogenic

It is a big city, a nexus of transit with a large and well-regarded international airline serving dozens of destinations. It is a melting pot of cultures. And, for whatever reasons, people I talk to about Singapore either love it or hate it. The city-state proves to be spectacularly polarizing for no apparent reason.

I love taking pictures of other people taking pictures.
I love taking pictures of other people taking pictures.

I’ve been four times now. Each successive visit gave me a greater appreciation for the city, though I remain firmly in the camp believing it is not a destination worth spending too much time in. Unless, of course, you’re willing to eat non-stop.



The cuisine of Singapore

The city’s geography and hydrography made it a crossroads for merchandise and people passing from Asia to Europe or Africa. That also brought the cuisines of those cultures into a single place and today they remain in the form of the hawker stalls (or, as Google Maps likes to call them, food centres).

Pick a stall, grab a meal and savor the Singapore Food Center experience
Pick a stall, grab a meal and savor the Singapore Food Center experience

Scattered throughout the city, the hawker stalls offer dozens of vendors each serving up a particular specialty from a tiny kitchen. And, because they represent the range of cuisines it is possible to build a feast, often cheap, with a variety of foods. Some are famous. Others are regular standbys for their devoted regulars.

Starting our day with hawker stall breakfast under the watchful eye of the proprietor; he checked on us at least three times to make sure we were enjoying our noodles.
Starting our day with hawker stall breakfast under the watchful eye of the proprietor; he checked on us at least three times to make sure we were enjoying our noodles.

Ask Singapore aficionados their favorite stall or center and you’re almost certain to get a couple recommendations. I’ve been to several and, while the suggestions can help, they’re not critical to enjoying the experience.

One of the hawkers making dumplings for her shop; they were delicious!
One of the hawkers making dumplings for her shop; they were delicious!

I’ve waited in lines or skipped them in favor of a quieter stall. I’ve yet to have one I found disappointing. The main problem is coming up with enough room in my stomach to fit it all in.

Lau Pa Sat is known for its skewers scene every night. Just another of the great, cheap(ish) dining options in Singapore.
Lau Pa Sat is known for its skewers scene every night. Just another of the great, cheap(ish) dining options in Singapore.

Wander the aisles and wend your way through the crowds. Pick something that looks good and get your order in. Soon you’re rewarded with a plate of deliciousness. Better yet, go with enough friends that you can expand the order to a wider range of food and not feel guilty about gorging or wasting food.



It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that Sling

Yes, the Singapore Sling was invented at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel. Yes, its purpose was to help women enjoy a tipple when such indulgence was considered déclassé. And, yes, the Long Bar still serves the classic. By the jug, it would seem.

Slinging Slings in volume. I'm scared to think about how many are poured each day at the Long Bar in Singapore's Raffles Hotel.
Slinging Slings in volume. I’m scared to think about how many are poured each day at the Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.

We showed up for happy hour to a line out the door. Typically that would be enough to get me to walk away. But we had little else to do so we waited. Peanuts are served on the bar and at the tables, along with a variety of cocktails, including the Sling. Priced north of S$30, they are ridiculously expensive, even accounting for a hotel mark-up. But it was also a piece of history that we’ve now had the pleasure(??) of sipping. To be fair, it is a very well made cocktail. And there’s the experience of the Long Bar. But I’m also not too unhappy that I’d previously skipped the experience when in Singapore on my own.

Arab Street

While food is the main redeeming value of Singapore for me, there are some sights to see between snacks. Arab Street dead ends at Masjid Sultan Mosque. The architecture is impressive, especially inside.

The interior of Masjid Sultan Mosque is spectacular

Beyond the mosque, the surrounding blocks spread to include a cute and quirky set of shops worth exploring. They range from touristy tchotchkes to local artisan wares to bars that can hop.

Doing it for the 'gram on Arab Street in Singapore
Doing it for the ‘gram on Arab Street in Singapore

Arab Street is not alone in showing off incredible architecture. Indeed, I’m assuming there’s an architecture tour of some sort offered by an enterprising person or group. Maybe that will be my choice between meals next time I’m in town and looking for something to do, because the architecture is incredible and varied.

Art, too

We accidentally “discovered” the Parkview Museum, brought in by the Art Deco facade of Parkview Square, the eponymous building it sits in. It is modern art, so expect a quirky experience rather than the classics. But it very much delivered on that.

It's not funny; it's art!
It’s not funny; it’s art!

We also were a little early for entry so stuck in the building lobby. As spectacular Art Deco bar experiences go, Atlas and its hundreds of gins, is hard to beat. The bar rations some of the more rare selections, with a set limited to one serving per visit and another, even more exclusive collection, limited to the management’s discretion. A fancy prix fixe lunch is also available, with a price point that is more about closing a deal than a casual meal, but within the ballpark of reasonable given Singapore and the setting.

The art deco interior of the Atlas Bar is stunning, as is the gin list
The art deco interior of the Atlas Bar is stunning, as is the gin list

Separately, we went to the National Library on purpose to see what we could see. That choice was rewarded with an awesome exhibit of maps around the region from prior to the British colonization in the mid-1800s. It was very cool for a cartophile like me.

One of the awesome, old maps on display at the National Library exhibit on Singapore's pre-colonial history
One of the awesome, old maps on display at the National Library exhibit on Singapore’s pre-colonial history

Other Singapore highlights

I fully expect that some will try to tell me about the great things we missed. Should we have stopped for a drink atop the Marina Bay Sand (been there, done that), a walk through the botanical gardens, the night safari at the zoo or wandered through the Gardens by the Bay? Maybe we should’ve crossed the double-helix bridge and stopped by the Merlion for a bit (we walked past because it was on the route towards the Lau Pa Sat food center; didn’t bother for a photo). Riding the luge at Sentosa Island or just vising those beaches are also options, both of which I’ve done and don’t feel compelled to repeat.

The Marina Bay waterfront and Sands hotel.
The Marina Bay waterfront and Sands hotel.

Maybe I’m just cranky or maybe those things don’t appeal enough to me, at least not enough to go out of the way to make Singapore a destination worthy of repeat visits. Or maybe it is the general sweating every time I step outside that kills the vibe.

Don’t get me wrong: There are things to see and do. There are ways to enjoy a short stop in Singapore, especially if you’re up for eating. But, to me, it does not stand out as a strong destination, just a solid pause en route elsewhere. There are just too many other places I enjoy more. Fortunately for us, it was just a short part of a much larger adventure this time around.

Looking out on Arab Street from the front of Masjid Sultan Mosque
Looking out on Arab Street from the front of Masjid Sultan Mosque

Tales from our South Asia Adventures

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

14 Comments

  1. So you haven’t been to the only UNESCO destination in town, the Botanic Gardens?? Or Chinatown? Or a Peranakan restaurant? Or the Asian Civilizations Museum? Or the Night Zoo? Or Little India? Or the National Museum? Or a nice dinner at a Michelin started restaurant? Yes, if every time you go to a City you do the same few things, I would tire too!

    1. I’ve been to Chinatown in Singapore. And in other cities. I’ve enjoyed the Little India, but not enough for it to be something that would make the city compelling as a destination. A meal or two, but not worth returning to over and over again. I specifically mentioned the zoo in the post as well.

      And my experience with Michelin starred dining generally has me enjoying hawker stalls more from a value perspective.

      Fancy dining and shopping aren’t my thing. I respect that Singapore does them well, but I lived in a large city for 19 years and regularly had access to that stuff. Traveling half way around the world for something I could do similarly at home doesn’t make much sense to me.

      I do keep adding new things to what I do in Singapore, but the visits are more a chore than a joy for me.

  2. Agree I’ve always had trouble finding a lot of things to do in Singapore. Not a big fan of luxury shopping. Many times I’ve been there it’s been hot and raining, which makes my go-to idea of “just take the subway somewhere distant and walk around outside for a while and see what it’s like to be there” a little harder.

    The Asian Civilizations Museum was great — my wife and I got a guided tour from a curator who was baffled that we knew none of the Hindu mythology stories that people grow up telling their kids, but patient enough to explain the cultural context from scratch (“you know who Ganesha is, right? No? Ok, this is going to take a bit…”)

    We ended up climbing up Fort Canning, which is steep!, then checking out the fire station museum, which has a history of firefighting in the country and is pretty cool.

  3. I am firmly in the camp of loving Singapore. Next time you go, I suggest your check out the “Original Singapore Walks” by Journeys. The guides are all very knowledgeable, and most of them are historians or researchers. It was on one of these walks that I learned the origin story of Tiger BAlm, got the backstory of RAffles hotel, and found out a bit about the Japanese occupation of Singapore.

    Oh, and I always stop at Old Nanyang Coffee for a slice of pandan cake.

  4. I share your feelings about Singapore. What’s so strange to me is that I think Singapore is a great place because of all that it has to offer, but somehow I just feel “meh” about it. I somehow prefer spending time in Hong Kong (before the riots) or Tokyo. I visited the brand new Jewel two months ago and thought that it was just a very nice mall, not something that I would go out of my way to visit. While Sentosa Island was nice, I would rather spend time in Bali any day over Sentosa. The two best things about Singapore in my eyes are the food and medical care (if you are in South East Asia and need medical care). I’ve flown through Singapore and Hong Kong countless times, but I’ve stayed in Hong Kong 7 times more often than Singapore because I like it more.

  5. I love Singapore despite the terrible heat. I can’t image why people hate it.

    I once went to the air force museum during the middle of the day. For most of the visit, I was the only visitor though 2 people came later.

  6. Try getting off the beaten path more. There is so much more to Singapore than expensive cocktails and tourist-choked sites (like the Merlion). I won’t rattle off a list of all the amazing things you missed (you can find that easily enough online) but I can tell you that if you get out of the CBD and head into the Heartlands, you’ll find a variety of interesting experiences. Based on a lot of what you said, like visiting being a chore, it sounds like Singapore just isn’t for you, which is fine. I’m the only person in my group of friends who has no desire to ever visit Paris again so go figure. Everyone has their own happy place.

  7. I’m a gardener, so I specifically went to the world class botanical gardens. They are so extensive, that one day is not enough if you really want to see everything. I was so hot and sweaty that I decided I’d come again some time when it was not as hot and humid. Unfortunately, due to it’s location near the equator, there is no such time. I checked the temp/humidity tables online and it was hilarious how little variation there is between “hottest month” and “coolest month” (clearly a relative term!). I do not think I have another full day of Singapore heat and humidity in me. It’s as if you wanted to visit New Orleans, but it was always August! That city would be WAY less popular as a tourist destination, I promise you.

    I’m a cartophile too! Do you happen to know whether or not the map exhibit at the Library is permanent? I’d love to see that.

  8. The Singapore government has done a spectacular job of marketing the island nation.So good that it has difficulty in living up to its own hype.Take street food for example. if you want the real thing just hop across the border to Malaysia and you will find the original authentic stuff at a fraction of the price.In fact if you want the real non sanitized larger version of Singapore just go to Malaysia.

  9. Other things to try:
    Fish pedicure, and incredible reflexology (foot massage)
    Prawning (oddly fun, and you can even find places that do this indoors in air conditioning)
    Bumboat or Duck tours
    High tea at the Fullerton or Raffles Hotel
    Sunday brunch (epic champagne buffets at either the Ritz or Shangri-la Hotel)]
    Wander round the Fulan center (massive mall specializing in electronics), see a bunch of crazy and impressive stuff way before it goes mainstream in the West.
    Get a custom shirt or suit tailored (you can do this in many places in SE Asia but the Singapore advantage is being able to do this easily and comfortably in English without high pressure touts or bartering).

    If you are not in to Sentosa as a beach resort take the 50 min ferry to Bintan (Indonesia) where there are resorts varied from huts on the beach to colonial-style private estates.

  10. The Gardens by the Bay are amazing places. Been in Singapore in December, not hot at all – nice weather and small crowds. There are few activities one can do outside the city center too, can be worth extra ride. Just walking in the center is very exiting by itself: nice scenery, sculptures, city views – not many cities have such nice and green centers with a waterfront and river. Its a mix of cultures that travel can appreciate and enjoy too. Food is additional benefit for me, I tried some, and indulge myself at the airport lounge. Airport by itself has some interesting things to explore. So may go for another short visit in the near future.

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