The bustling island city-state of Singapore is close to Malaysia and one of the world’s most visited cities for international tourists. This place is clean, green and with a definite artistic streak. Read on to discover how to plan a brilliant backpacking Singapore trip in this ‘Lion City’.
Why is Singapore known as the Lion City?
Legend has it that in the 13th century, Sang Nila Utama, a Prince of Palembang from the influential Srivijaya Empire, was on a hunting trip on the Indonesian island of Bintan. Climbing a large rock, he spotted an island, which he decided to visit. While hunting on this nearby island, he saw a strange but attractive animal, which swiftly disappeared into the jungle. Sang Nila Utama’s chief minister informed him that this animal was a lion. The Prince believed to be a good omen – a sign of good fortune coming his way – so he decided to stay and build a city on this island. He founded the city in 1299, naming it ‘Singapura’, which in Sanskrit means ‘Lion City’.
Today, you can see an 8.6 metre statue spurting water, which is a national icon of Singapore. The mythical ‘Merlion’ has the head of a lion and the body of a fish. It symbolises Singapore’s humble beginnings as a fishing village before it became Lion City.
Explore the Art in the City
On our first day in Singapore, we took the MRT train to explore the city. I was struck by the sculptures we found in its heart – curvaceous contemporary art in the centre of this straight-up-and-down business district.
Shop ’til you drop in Marina Bay Sands
One building I was excited to see was Marina Bay Sands, a luxury hotel nicknamed ‘The Boat’, inspired by its unusual design. Three glossy, shiny towers topped by a bullet-shaped platform hosting upmarket restaurants and bars, a huge infinity pool and a lush oasis of palm trees. It really is spectacular, by day and by night, as it is illuminated and becomes the central hub of the city’s nightly light-and-sound show. Singapore knows it is an attractive city and isn’t afraid to show off a little – quite right too. Beneath the towers lies The Shoppes, a vast designer shopping centre whose avenues you can wander to your heart’s content, though maybe not your wallet’s.
Get your bearings on the Singapore Flyer
We took a ride in the Singapore Flyer, a revolving giant ferris wheel from where you have a bird’s eye view of the city. One of the glass pods is reserved for dinner guests (‘full butler sky dining’ costs S$269 per couple), while another is a Moët & Chandon champagne-sponsored VIP bar. In this pod we spotted a man trying to impress his date! Peering out and identifying the buildings and sights around us, we saw more than fifty container ships in the waters out to sea, revealing that Singapore is quite the industrial port city. And looking down we realised with surprise that the road we’d been ambling along only a few minutes earlier was actually the city’s Formula 1 racetrack. Just next to the Singapore Flyer is a sign where you can pose and take cheesy photos.
Take in the city at night
Gorgeous by day, the city lights up at night and it is absolutely stunning. Perfect for winding down your first day in Singapore.
Visit an exhibition at the ArtScience Museum
On your second day in the city, you may choose to visit an exhibition. You may have already spotted the ArtScience Museum, which is shaped like a robot hand crossed with a tulip. This museum sets out to fuse the concepts of science and art.
The museum holds temporary, world-class exhibitions. We visited a showcase of the life and work of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, through her portraits. It was an in-depth memoir, showcasing Leibovitz’s work with Hollywood A-listers – including Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and her famous shot of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore.
Alongside were intimate family photos and her lesser-known forays into landscapes and photojournalism of wartime Sarajevo. Leibovitz’s portraiture is stylistically unconventional, as she captures the humanity and idiosyncrasy of her subjects. They gaze out beyond the lens, at once soulful and confrontational. A highly recommended exhibition for photography fans.
Another exhibition, on at the same time, investigated the story of the dinosaurs’ time on Earth.
Wonder at the unique and majestic Gardens by the Bay
From the Singapore Flyer we had spotted some giant purple tree-like sculptures and discovered that these are ‘Supertrees’, part of the Gardens by the Bay. Intrigued, we decided to pay a visit.
Some of the grounds are free to walk around and you can enjoy themed gardens and sculptures. Inside the large conservatories, which cost an eye-popping S$28 per person to enter, you will find unusual trees and flowers from all over the world. In the mild UK climate, such greenhouses would be heated to cultivate exotic plants, however here in Singapore, the temperature was regulated to fend off the cloaking Asian heat.
Climbing up to the top of the Cloud Forest Conservatory’s plant-covered ‘mountain’ (by lift, so you don’t need to break a sweat), you can walk through different areas detailing the biodiversity of these lofty natural environments. Misty air cools your skin as you take in the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and tropical highlands, via elevated walkways high above the canopy. The journey concludes with a moving video about global warming, outlining the impact just a few degrees will make on our world over the next few years, as animal and plant life as we know it becomes extinct.
My favourite moment in Singapore was beneath the Supertrees that we had spotted from afar. Each evening, crowds gather, sitting and lying on the ground, as these giant monuments burst into colour and light, with a dazzling yet oddly calming display set to classical music. A truly wondrous and unique spectacle in homage to the natural world that protects us, nourishes us and gives us so much beauty.
Take a trip to Sentosa Island
On day three, it’s time to explore a little further afield. Just South of Singapore lies Sentosa Island, known as ‘Asia’s Favourite Playground’, as it houses a number of attractions including Universal Studios Singapore and the S.E.A. Aquarium. You enter this impressive aquarium via a glass tunnel, through an ocean habitat filled with ominous sharks and graceful manta rays. Its different zones, including a tank in which you can touch the fish and crustaceans, reveals the diversity of various underwater habitats with some weird and wonderful creatures on display.
Seeing shark eggs was a first for me, and forlorn seahorses that look like they’re wearing tattered bridal gowns. I have ‘found Nemo’ several times before at aquariums and indeed while diving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: the orange-striped clownfish, darting among the anemone, are pretty cute. The aquarium is also home to an octopus that is said to predict the outcome of World Cup football matches, though from the statistics it didn’t look as though his clairvoyant skills were on a par with Germany’s late oracular octopus Paul.
Tuck into the local treats
All that sightseeing can work up an appetite so on day four in Singapore, be sure to sample the local fare. Wandering around the city’s markets, you will no doubt stumble upon a durian stall. This intriguing, stinky, spiky fruit is a delight for some people’s tastebuds, but to others its unusual, pungent flavour and pervading odour of week-old dirty socks is distinctly off-putting. Try it and decide for yourself! Is this fruit heaven or hell?
Luckily for us, durian wasn’t dinner. There is a wide variety of places to eat in Singapore for every budget, from bustling street food markets to five-star hotel champagne brunches.
Make the most of your Singapore itinerary: 7 days – or more!
Singapore really is a surprisingly beautiful city. At sunset, with the coloured skies reflecting in the water and glinting skyscrapers it is a sight to behold.
As well as spectacular light shows, the city’s free evening entertainment includes music concerts on the waterfront from live bands. From a stylish rooftop bar, I sipped on a fruity Singapore Sling cocktail, as the sun set on our Singapore fling.
Next, discover the best route about Malaysia, Borneo and Singapore here.