Imagine a nicer, more efficient New York City. One where people stand politely to the sides on the subway platform and -gasp- actually give up their seat to older riders or pregnant women. Picture a city where littering is illegal, and despite the high cost of living there are plenty of beautiful and free things available to see/do. Such a place exists in this world, and its name is Singapore.
Admittedly, I wasn’t too thrilled about traveling to Singapore at first. It seemed sterile, devoid of the beauty most Southeast Asian cities hold. I was afraid it would just be one big, expensive city that had no real character at its core. Yet, this was all proven wrong in an instant. I became enamored with the city and all of its neighborhoods. As a result, I’ve produced this Singapore travel guide filled with tips and advice to seeing this city without breaking the bank. I wasn’t paid to say any of this, yet you’ll hear me gushing more than once throughout.
Note: At the time of writing this (early 2018) the currency conversion from SGD (Singapore Dollar) to USD was 1 to 0.75
All pricing in this guide is in SGD, so if you’re any good at math, knock off 25% to get a feel of what it would be in US dollars. Be sure to visit acurrency exchange website to get the up-to-date currency conversion.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultures.
One can traipse their way through Chinatown, stopping at the hawker food centers for some breakfast noodles, and explore the colorful section of little India with a side of curry for lunch. In the evening, marvel at the British architecture of the Colonial District while you dine on pricey French cuisine paired with a nightcap at an American speakeasy. The mixture of cultures and neighborhoods is eclectic, and anyone can find something for them and their budget.
Although not my pace, Singapore also has several areas dripping in luxury. From the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel to Orchard Street, one can shop to their heart’s content at top-end brands from around the world.
Everything is easily accessible by public transportation and bite-size enough to explore a lot in little time. I found it to be a fantastic starting point to my first time in Southeast Asia to get slowly acclimated to the culture shock that was to ensue elsewhere.
What to eat/drink
Singapore has a wide variety of cuisines from the wonderful blending of cultures in the city. Though many dishes are claimed to be created in Singapore, one can detect outside culinary influence from surrounding countries in many neighborhoods. From excellent curry-based dishes, to craft cocktails in American-style speakeasies, to the infamous fish head soup, one can be adventurous or relish in their favorite comfort foods as they please.
The main staple in many Southeast Asian diets is the classic chicken and rice dish. A blend of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures have perfected this simple dish to make your mouth water any time you pass a food stall. Biryani, or briyani is a mixed-rice dish made up of various spices, meats, and sometimes veggies. One of my favorite things to try was the murtabak, or a stuffed, fried pancake with meat and rice.
For drinks, if you’re craving something sweet, try out the Milo or Milo Dinosaur. Both are a cold, rich drink made up of chocolate malt powder (Milo) and can have extra undissolved powder on top (Milo Dinosaur) as an added treat. Limau ice, or iced lime and syrup is another way to stay cool under the humid temperatures. For something a bit more unique, try out a teh halia. It’s a warm ginger tea mixed with milk to make a spicy, yet addicting drink.
Coffee lovers can try out the variety of kopi (coffee) drinks found in kopitiams, or traditional coffee houses. Most variations are very sweet, so be sure to order the kopi-o (coffee without milk) kosong (no sugar) for a black coffee. I stuck with a kopi peng, an iced coffee with condensed milk. More about the variations in coffee in Singapore can be found in this mini food guide for Southeast Asia that I currently have in the works.
A few things to keep in mind while visiting Singapore.
Though it is a modern and rapidly developing city, there are still a few caveats to keep in mind while visiting. Homosexuality is technically illegal, but this is rarely enforced. Still, most public displays of affection, regardless of sexuality, are generally frowned upon.
Lefties (such as myself)need to be conscious of how they give and receive anything. Toilet use is associated with your left hand and is therefore considered a dirty body part. I messed this up plenty as I instinctually handed my passport and credit cards over with my left hand, realizing too late. It became easier to remember just to hand things over with both hands instead of trying to learn how to become right-handed while I was there. Try not to use your left hand to greet, wave, eat or interact while here. Pedestrian traffic is also on the left side of the street, so be mindful when walking.
Singapore is one of the few countries in Asia where the tap water is safe to drink, and a great money-saving tip as those $2 bottles of water can add up.
Most people we met spoke English very well, or had a remedial grasp to answer basic questions. It’s always nice to learn even just a few words before going anywhere, though you may get a few smiles when you try to pronounce things. Signs also had English versions to make navigating a breeze.
Some temples still require women to be properly covered up where shoulders, backs, and knees shouldn’t be left bare. This prevented us from entering the Buddha Tooth Relic temple, so look up any dress codes for any places of worship you may wish to visit while here.
Getting around Singapore
The Singapore MRT subway system and buses are an excellent way to see the city as most taxis/Ubers can be expensive. You can buy a regular or tourist EZ-link pass at the ticket offices in the MRT stations. The only caveat with the regular EZ-link pass is the minimum reload on the EZ-link card is $10 and needs to be reloaded if there’s less than $2 as it won’t let you through without topping off first. We also mostly encountered ticket stations that were cash-only to reload.
Tourist day passes range from 1-3 days with unlimited swipes in that time, ranging from $10-20 depending on how many days. If you’re looking visit all the top attractions in Singapore in 3 days and don’t want to walk a ton, this may be worth it. Depending on your itinerary and length of stay, see if the EZ-link, tourist day pass, or single ride is right for you.
Grab Taxi is apparently a better version of Uber in Singapore, as you can hail taxis or cars right from your phone. We personally didn’t explore that option and paid the higher prices for Uber, but it’s efficient and worth checking out.
Pay attention to the subway rules
Oh, what I would do for a subway system like Singapore’s to replace New York City’s MTA. This on-time, clean, and efficient system blows any other public transportation I’ve experienced out of the water. Be advised though, there are plenty of rules in place to keep it running the way it does.
- No food or drink (even bottled water!)
- ESPECIALLY no durians.
- No breastfeeding.
- No smoking or chewing gum.
Wondering why a fruit would be banned from the subway system? Durians are the Singapore’s official fruit, yet they have one of the most pungent smells your nose may ever come across. Now if only they’d ban bringing greasy, fried food on the subway in New York City..
Some unofficial rules are to remove backpacks when entering to save space. Make sure to leave the last seat open for the elderly/disabled/pregnant as marked in red. And, my personal favorite, stand to the side and wait for everyone leaving to get off the train first. Again, all of which the MTA tries to enforce at home, yet you regularly see people getting shoved aside or even back into the train when they try to exit.
Sigh. One day.
Singapore is dedicated to keeping it clean.
Leave your packs of gum at home because Singapore has a strict no gum-chewing policy here. The sale of gum was banned in 1992, and importing the minty sticks to be sold can impose heavy fines. They’re extremely serious about keeping their streets clean and impose heavy fines on those who litter. Whether it’s from pride in their city, or to maintain the sort of utopian vibe of Singapore, this city runs a tight ship.
Also, be advised that there is a serious no-drug policy within its borders. In dark, bold letters at the bottom of your customs form they reiterate the statement so it’s loud and clear: Death for drug traffickers under Singapore law. For some drug offenses, there is a mandatory death penalty as well.
Currently, overall crime rates in Singapore are some of the lowest in the world. I can only account for my and my travel partner (both of us being straight, white females in our twenties) but I found Singapore to be an overall safe place to walk around at night. For solo travelers, I’d certainly recommend it as a place to check out. My general rule of thumb is to be as aware and cautious as I would be in any major city. If you wouldn’t set your bag down and walk away from it on the street in Boston or LA, why would you do it abroad?
As mentioned before, no anti-discrimination protections exist for the LGBTQ communityat this time. Male homosexuality is illegal, as well as both gay & lesbian marriages. If this is something you and your partner are concerned about, (and understandably so!) I would stray away from any public displays of affection and exercise caution whenever possible until things change. As modern as life in Singapore is, they still have a ways to go in this aspect.
Saving money while traveling around Singapore
-Food hawker stalls are a great way to save money while getting some traditional dishes in you. Little India and Chinatown have a few major hawker food stall centers packed with plenty of savory dishes and types of kopi to try.
-Alcohol is extremely expensive in Singapore, comparable to Manhattan bars/clubs for cocktails ($15-25) and beer ($7-10) pricing. Head to a convenience store to pick up some large bottles of beer or limit your consumption and splurge in a cheaper country. If I am looking to live a little, I’ll go for one interesting-looking cocktail and pick up beers on the way back to the hostel.
-Some of Singapore’s famous attractions can easily add up in price, but I found a TON of amazingly free/cheap attractions to mix in. The Singapore Botanic Garden was one of my absolute favorite (and free) ways to spend an afternoon, the Supertree Grove’s show can be watched from below twice a night for free, or for $5 to use the OCBC walkway above (note: skip the $20 rooftop bar “special” as you can’t see much of the other trees from it.) They also have a secondary light show over the bay, which is pretty in itself to walk around as the sun sets.
-We didn’t really find anything cheap when it came to hotels/Airbnb’s/hostels while we stayed, but noticed places were slightly cheaper in Little India.
–Walk more. Singapore is a fairly walkable city if you have a good pair of shoes and a raincoat/poncho for the rainy seasons!
Hopefully this Singapore travel guide will leave you a little more prepared and a little less wary of visiting this wonderful city. If you have any money-saving tips or would like a more in-depth guide to the various neighborhoods, let me know in the comment section!