It was voted one of the top places to travel in 2013 by the New York Times, and on August 9, Singapore will go into overdrive during National Day, the country's equivalent to July 4th. Tourist-driven spots like Marina Bay Sands, Clarke Quay and Orchard Road will be their usual pedestrian-clogged selves, but for travelers seeking a subtler, more engaging experience, you won't have to look far.
On a recent trip, I bypassed all the spectacle and cheap thrills that the city is usually known for, and found another side to Singapore that contradicted everything I'd previously read: elegant concert halls, artsy boutique hotels, a nature reserve accessible only by ferry. I left with a greater appreciation for the city, its unique history, and the bright future that seems to be unfolding for it.
I'll start with Gardens By the Bay, the only place on my list that might technically be considered touristy. Too bad. The lush, man-made garden is set on a 250-acre plot behind Marina Bay Sands, and its assortment of lily ponds, footbridges, vertical gardens, and suspended walkways create a surreal haven within the bustling city. Make a beeline for Cloud Forest ($22/person), a giant glass dome that houses a 115 foot tall man-made mountain covered in native rainforest plants. As you ascend up the walkway, you'll feel mist from the plunging waterfall settling on your face.
Travel is a chance to break your routines, but every morning I made the same trip to the nearest hawker market (more on these later) and lined up with other Singaporeans for a kopi su su. Admittedly, part of the fun is pronouncing the name, which sounds a little like a baby's first words, but it's the drink itself, a refreshing mixture of iced coffee and sweetened condensed milk, that got me out of bed each day.
Orchard Road, a 1.5-mile stretch of consecutive shopping malls, is retail heaven – but right near the entrance to the Dhoby Gaut metro station is the School of The Arts (SOTA), Singapore's first independent arts school for youths aged 13–18. Frequent concerts, recitals, and performances are held here (including a superb classical piano concert I attended one night), though the architecture alone is worth a visit. The innovative design features a wide civic amphitheater in front of the building, where groups of students like to gather at night, slurp ice cream under the shade of several enormous trees, and watch the world go by.
Northeast of mainland Singapore is the tiny village of Pulau Ubin (pulau is Malay for 'beach,' so its literal name is Ubin Beach), one of Singapore's last remaining undeveloped sites. Dotted with scenic bike trails and explorable forests, mangroves, and lagoons, the island is a popular weekend destination for locals in need of a quick nature fix. To get there, simply take a taxi to Changi Village Terminal, where a "bumboat," or small ferry ($1.95/person each way), leaves approximately every 15 minutes – or whenever it fills up with 12 people. After disembarking, grab a bike at one of the rental shops in the main village for as little as $6.25, and away you go!
Back on the mainland, one of my most fun-filled nights out was in Duxton Hill, a thriving nightlife district near Chinatown, and also Singapore's off-the-radar gayborhood. The outdoor courtyard at Tantric Bar can get pretty packed even on a weeknight, so I'd suggest heading upstairs to May Wong Cafe, a more intimate lounge-like space whose bartenders like to pour strong, reasonably-priced drinks. Across the street is Taboo, where you go to dance, dance, and then do a little more dancing.
Hawker centers – bustling open-air food halls with a variety of vendor stalls all clustered around a large communal seating area – are an absolute must during any visit to Singapore. The good news is, they aren't hard to find. I sampled several places around town (Lau Pa Sat, The Esplanade, Chomp Chomp, to name a few), though my favorite was Maxwell Road, a large-ish complex with three aisles totaling over 100 vendors, offering the usual range of Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and native Malay cuisine. Located just down the street from Duxton Hill, some friends and I headed here for a late-night snack of fish ball noodle soup, and I was pleasantly surprised to see at least half of the stalls remained open at 3am.
As fancy hotels go, Singapore has them in spades. Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton, W – they're all here. But over the past few years, a relatively small (as in, only 30 rooms) boutique property in Chinatown has been making serious waves. Housed in a historic shop-house building, The New Majestic has an art gallery feel, with its hand-picked vintage furniture and brightly-painted rooms (the lobby also hosts a rotating art installation-retail space). But it's the relaxed vibe, backyard pool, and award-winning restaurant, named The Majestic, that make this a memorable place to stay.
Ask anyone what you should be eating on a visit to Singapore, and you'll almost always get the same reply: chili crab! The signature dish, consisting of a whole hard-shell mud crab stir-fried and then slathered in a mild, sweet-spicy sauce, is quite a thing to behold. You'll see it pop up on the menu at most Chinese and Malaysian restaurants, though the $55 and upwards price tag can be a turn-off for some. My advice: save the dish for your last night, after you've had the chance to poll locals on their favorite chili crab restaurant, and treat yourself. Yes, your hands and face will get messy, but that's just part of the fun.
Before I left for Singapore, I kept reading about the up-and-coming neighborhood of Tiong Baru, a quiet residential area dating back to the 1930s that's now being revitalized by a new influx of hip coffeeshops, vintage clothing stories and bars. The night I visited, I ended up on the roof of the Link Hotel, a serene, un-crowded spot called Breeze Beer Garden. There, I sipped a Tiger beer (another Singapore must) in the cool night air, listening to the hum of traffic on the street below, occasionally catching fragments of the lit-up Singapore skyline in the distance. I was in no rush to leave.