Once a busy colonial outpost, Singapore is now a truly global city and travel destination in its own right, even being listed as Lonely Planet’s top place to visit in 2015. Visitors to Singapore will be pleasantly surprised with the vast range of activities, sports, history, culture and nature on offer within the 719 square kilometres of this unique island city-state.
Huge levels of investment, planning and care have culminated in a modern, thriving country which is rapidly shaking off its sterile image to become much more than just a quick long haul stopover. Despite the business-driven economy, its ambition to become a ‘Garden in a City’ means you are never away from a park or garden to relax in.
We spent 7 days exploring the sights, smells and tastes of Singapore and have produced this guide to highlight the best of the country.
Money & Costs in Singapore
The Singapore Dollar (SGD) is the official currency of Singapore. It’s mostly displayed with a $ symbol but sometimes S$ to differentiate it from other dollar currencies. Using the decimal system 1 dollar is divided into 100 cents.
Due to a unique Currency Exchange Agreement between Singapore and Brunei, Brunei Dollars are also accepted as legal tender in Singapore as Singapore Dollars are accepted for payment in Brunei. Always handy to know.
NOTE: All prices mentioned in this guide are in Singapore Dollars to keep things simple.
ATMs and Currency Exchange
Being one of the financial capitals of the world there’s no shortage of ATMs or places to exchange currency as with any developed city.
Most international banks will have branches in Singapore so it can be worth seeking out your bank, usually in the CBD area, to get low or zero ATM withdrawal fees. See the note below for more.
Cash and Card Payments
Cards are widely accepted at larger stores and restaurants, you can also top up your transport card via a card payment.
If you’re visiting some of the excellent ‘hawker’ food courts, markets or small stores they might not accept card payments so have some cash handy. These are the exception rather than the rule but it’s always useful to carry some of the local currency and easier to haggle for a good deal.
MONEY SAVING TRAVEL TIP: Make sure that you have a great Travel Credit Card to avoid a poor exchange rate and extra fees when using ATMs in Singapore. Check out our guide to choosing the right travel credit card to help avoid those evil fees and charges!
Rough Daily Budget for Singapore
Backpacker: If you stick to the ‘hawker’ food courts, sleep in dorms and only visit the free attractions you could get by on under $40 per day.
Mid-range: Mixing the food courts in with some local restaurants and staying in a simple hotel would see you spending upwards of $150 to $200 per day.
High end: The sky’s the limit in Singapore, the city specialises in exclusive accommodation and fine dining, enjoy!
At the budget end of the spectrum, cheap eats can be found at one of the many ‘hawker’ food courts scattered throughout the city. These can even be found in some of the modern shopping malls and you’ve not truly experienced Singapore until you’ve eaten in one.
Unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, there’s hardly any street food due to strict regulations so these are the next best thing.
Food vendors usually have small outlets around the edge of a central area full of tables and chairs. The unwritten rule is to place an object on any spare set or table you wish to claim before going to get your chosen food. This can be a bit confusing and we upset a local family when we failed to spot the packet of tissues they had left on a table to claim it, so we just sat down.
The food courts contain a wide range of food and drink at some of the cheapest prices you’ll find in Singapore with dishes starting from around $2.50. We had a delicious bowl of chicken/fish porridge for this price and it filled us up for the rest of the day.
Drinks here can cost less than $1 for a cup of fresh juice, iced tea or coffee.
Depending on the area the food court is in you’ll find Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai or Western-style dishes on offer and it’s great to mingle with the locals as you share a table in amongst the madness.
Coffee and toast is a popular dish at cafes across the city and can provide a great little cheap food source when you are out exploring. The ‘toast’ can come in many forms but is often served with a tasty coconut jam and butter in between two slices and accompanied by some poached eggs. It’s washed down with a cup of hot ‘Kopi Gao’ (coffee). We found it usually priced around $2.50 but the toast can be quite small so you might need to order two?!
There are hundreds of restaurants to choose from in central Singapore and you’re sure to find something to suit any budget or taste. We found some delicious fish and pasta dishes just out of the centre which included a drink for under $9 each. This was unfortunately just a lunchtime price which nearly doubled for the same dish in the evening so be aware.
Or if you really fancy pushing the boat out, how about an Afternoon Tea at Raffles starting at $49 per person? We’re not sure if it’s a bottomless pot though.
Singapore is a great place to try abstinence for a few days. In most bars and restaurants a pint of draft beer will cost between $8 and $12 and wine can be around the same price per glass. Look out for ‘happy hour’ or ‘buy 1 get 1’ promotions to save some pennies.
You can buy alcohol from convenience stores but only until 10.30pm and be aware that drinking in public areas isn’t allowed in most places around the city. A small can of imported beer costs around $1 to $2.
Hostel Warning: We don’t like to be negative at MapTrotting but feel we should warn you about a hostel chain called 5 Footway Inn who have several places around the city. Thinking it looked like a good budget option we reserved 2 beds. Long story short, it was next to a nightclub, thumping bass until 4am, lockers were broken so no safe storage and the shared bathroom was filthy, full of cockroaches. What really got us is the refusal to refund the 2 nights we didn’t stay, they are devious. Avoid at all costs!
Finding where to stay in Singapore is pretty easy, but check the trusted sites for reviews. Dorm beds start at around $30 per night in a 4, 6 or 8 bedroom and $45 to $70 for a double room with AC and shared bathroom in a hostel. Avoid the hostel mentioned above, there are plenty of nicer alternatives just out of the central district. Also, consider a reasonably priced ‘pod hotel’ for a truly unique experience.
Private hotel rooms in the central area start from $90 to $100 for something very basic and run into the hundreds for more bells and whistles. You could always try a stay at the now iconic Marina Bay Sands from around $800 per night.
After our hostel debacle, we found a lovely room via Airbnb (if you use this link you can get free credit on us when signing up) to the east of the centre. It was a private room in a big house but clean and pretty quiet with a 10-minute walk to the MRT. It costs $90 per night but cheaper than anything we could find centrally at the last minute.
There’s a number of activities you can do in Singapore, depending on time and budget. A few of them are listed below:
Sentosa Island – the ‘State of Fun’ island theme park just off the south shore offers the chance to really blow the budget. There are over 20 pricey attractions and activities here which can be combined in a Fun Pass ticket. A 1-day pass starts at $45 per adult and $40 per child ramping up to $142 per adult and $72 per child for a 2-day pass.
However, it costs just $2 to visit the island itself and you can just chill out at the beach or take the free transport around Sentosa without paying for any of the attractions or activities.
Rooftop bars – there’s a host of places to have a drink high above the bustle of the city streets and it’s a must do for many visitors. Drinks start at around $15 with occasional promotions making drinks cheaper earlier in the day.
We visited the SuperTree by IndoChine one evening for a drink which cost $18 each for admission and 1 beer or wine with great views across the city.
Museums and Galleries – from museums exploring the rich history of Singapore to galleries displaying the finest in contemporary arts there’s a lot for culture vultures to choose from. Admission prices range from free up to $10 per adult so we would recommend picking a handful which appeals to you to cut costs.
Night Safari – a long established and popular attraction where you take a tram or walk around a ‘safari’ route past large enclosures where the animals roam. Tickets are priced at $45 per adult and $30 per child including the tram ride.
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Check out our Singapore city walk on gpsmycity.com
Visa Requirements for Singapore
As with many countries, the visa requirements and situation for entry into Singapore can change at any time. The information below is correct to the best of our knowledge (sometimes limited!) as of September 2016. We always advise checking embassy or your country’s government travel websites for up to date info just in case.
People travelling to Singapore on a passport from most countries will not require a visa in advance, this covers around 80% of the world’s population. A stamp issued on arrival will entitle visitors to a visa-free stay of between 30 and 90 days depending on their nationality.
Visitors from countries not included in the visa-free list will need to obtain either an e-visa or an approved visa from a Singaporean embassy or diplomatic mission. Check with your country’s authority in this case.
The map below details the Singapore visa situation for each country.
Transport in Singapore
Getting to Singapore
Changi Airport (SIN) in Singapore is one of the world’s major ‘hub’ airports with direct flights from South Africa, Middle East, North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. It is often used as a popular stop off or layover when flying from Europe to Australia with many major international airlines.
It’s possible to take a ferry over to the Indonesian province of Riau Islands or the Malaysian state of Johor from Singapore. There a 5 different terminals in Singapore running numerous services but it does open up the possibility of travelling south without having to fly.
The mainline train station in central Singapore has sadly been closed so you’ll need to take a shuttle train or bus service from Woodlands Train Checkpoint in the far north of Singapore over to JB Sentral in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. This will connect you to both train lines running north through Malaysia and onwards into Thailand.
In Singapore, the nearest MRT stations to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint are Marsiling and Woodlands on the North-South Line. Regular buses run between Woodlands MRT and the Train Checkpoint which are around 2 km apart. Alternatively, a taxi from the downtown area to the train station will cost around $50.
Make travelling in Southeast Asia super easy with the super friendly 12GoAsia website. Use the search box above to find the cheapest tickets for you.
The island of Singapore is joined to the mainland Malaysian Peninsula via 2 road bridges. This makes direct bus travel possible to Singapore from most major destinations in Malaysia so check locally for your best option.
There’s no central bus station in Singapore and different companies will leave from different locations around the city. So again we would advise picking one that’s easy to get to but make sure that they use the ‘Second Link’ bridge off the island for a smoother and quicker journey. This is one case where the cheapest ticket will not be worth the saving.
Getting Around Singapore
A 40-minute sightseeing cruise on a bumboat will take you around the Marina Bay area and along the Singapore River for $25 per adult and $15 per child. This can be a great way to see the city from a different perspective without extra legwork.
Singapore has a comprehensive, modern and easy to navigate metro system called the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) and LRT (Light Rail Transit). It links up all the major downtown attractions as well as running out to the Changi Airport and elsewhere around the island.
Ticket wise, you can pay per journey which cost between $0.80 and $2.20 but if you’re staying for 2 or more days it can be worth getting an EZ-link or Nets FlashPay farecard. You add credit to the cards which is then deducted per journey and will work out cheaper and more convenient over a few days.
The cards can be purchased at the ticket window in any station and include a $5 deposit which you get back if the card is returned at the end of your stay.
The bus system is also very comprehensive and can be a quick and cheap way to get between destinations. The payment cards mentioned above are valid for bus travel in Singapore too, you just need to tap in and tap out at the start and end of each bus journey.
Compared to many world cities the roads in Singapore tend to be congestion free. The insanely high cost of car ownership and driving helps to keep the roads clear of jams which makes bus travel a practical alternative for getting around the island.
Due to the uncongested roads mentioned above, travel by taxi around Singapore can sometimes be quicker than taking a bus or MRT. If you are in a group of 3 or 4 people then the fares can be comparatively reasonable even over longer distances.
The only downside is the overall lack of taxis in Singapore which leads to being unable to book or hail one during peak times or wet weather.
Top Places to See in Singapore
Thought to get its name from the nutmeg, pepper and fruit orchards which once populated the area Orchard Road now offers rich pickings of a different kind. This 2 km plus stretch of road has become ‘the’ shopping destination is Singapore with well over 20 shopping centres of all shapes and sizes here.
From high-end designer stores to internet cafes and 1 dollar shops, you’ll find it all on Orchard Road. If all that shopping has given you an appetite then head to the Food Republic at No.435 (Level 4, Wisma Atria) for a good selection of reasonably priced eats.
If you’re struggling to find your way around or need some ideas on what to see and do, make sure you pop into the Singapore Visitor Centre at no.216 to chat with the helpful staff.
MRT: Orchard or Somerset
Located to the south of the Singapore River, Chinatown is an area with a rich and sometimes harrowing past. The streets may no longer be packed with ‘hawker’ merchants, prostitutes and opium dens but Chinatown still retains links to the past through its unique architecture and narrow streets.
A good place to start exploring is the Chinatown Visitors Centre on Sago Street. Here you can pick up a local map and orientate yourself with the nearby streets to cover all the attractions.
As you wander the streets look out for the heritage signs which offer a glimpse into the often murky past of the area. For example, we found out the Sargo Street used to be known as the ‘Street of the Dead’ due to the number of buildings once used as a place for people to go and die. It was considered unlucky for anyone to die in their family home so the ill or elderly would head to Sargo Street to pass on. This supposedly prevents their spirit haunting the family residence.
The tourist hub today tends to centre on Trengganu Street and into Pagoda Street where you’ll find an extensive street market selling crafts, gadgets and the usual tourist tat.
Chinatown Heritage Center is located nearby on Pagoda Street and gives a fascinating insight into the history and development of the area and its people.
Other cultural attractions include the impressive looking Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum facing South Bridge Road which was constructed in 2005 to house a relic of Buddha found in 1980 in Myanmar.
For food, there is a great selection of restaurants along Smith Street (also called Chinatown Food Street) which has a giant canopy over it so you can sit outside even if it’s raining.
For cheaper eats, we recommend sniffing out Maxwell Food Centre at the junction of Maxwell and Neil roads. It’s a big ‘hawker’ style food court where the rice porridge is well worth a try.
MRT: Outram Park or Chinatown
As with Chinatown, Little India of today is a shadow of its form self. However, you’ll still find traditional trades and vendors sitting alongside a swathe of new business and restaurants in this area.
The busy Serangoon Road intersects the area which extends one block west and 2 blocks east of it but it’s a small enough area to be covered on foot. This is good as the main activity here is simply to wander the streets and take in the sights and smells which are certainly different from the rest of Singapore.
If you fancy a spot of shopping then beyond the numerous roadside stores and stalls head into the Tekka Market or the Mustafa Center where you can grab a bargain in the warren of stalls.
There are plenty of great Indian restaurants around the area as you’d expect so just dive in. Or for a cheaper option check out the Tekka Food Centre, the perfect place to enjoy some Indian, Malay or Chinese food.
MRT: Little India or Farrer Park
Katong & Joo Chiat
Most visitors pass right by the Katong and Joo Chiat area on the way from and to the airport. But the area is worth exploring if you have a little more time as you’ll get to experience a more authentic version of Singapore in this melting pot of Peranakan Chinese, Eurasian, Malay and Indian cultures.
The area centres on the Joo Chiat Road, running north to south, and the East Coast Road running east to west with quieter residential roads forming a grid in between.
Turn off into Koon Seng Road to see two colourfully painted rows of pre-war shop-houses. These are great examples of Singapore’s architecture historically being influenced by design details from both Eastern and Western cultures.
At 150 East Coast Road, the conserved terrace houses are built where the beach used to be and the living areas are raised up to protect against any rising tides. These designs are pretty unique and worth seeking out if you are close by.
Food wise there’s no shortage of great places to eat with such a mix of cultures gathered here. Make sure you try some local Katong laksa at one of the stalls next to the former Red House Bakery on the East Coast Road.
MRT: Paya Lebar
Head down to the waters edge for a relaxing stroll around the Marina Bay area which provides some rest bite from the bustling streets of Singapore.
Via a series of linked up developments, it’s now possible to walk a full loop of the bay and catch some stunning views of the city.
To the east of Marina Bay sits the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its 3 mighty towers and protruding rooftop platform looking like it could fall off at any moment. Here you’ll also find a Casino, more shopping, theatre and the ArtScience Museum as part of the large resort complex.
There’s also a nightly light and fountain show called ‘Wonder Full’ in front of the Marina Bay Sands hotel which is free to watch, just check their website for timings.
Along the western edge of the bay don’t miss the iconic Merlion statue with the fountain shooting out of her mouth. This distinctive symbol of Singapore is a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish.
You can tour the bay on ‘bumboat’ which will also take you along the Singapore River. There’s a ticket booth next to the Merlion and a 40-minute trip costs $25 SGD per adult and $15 SGD per child.
Just to the east of the complex, you’ll find the Gardens by the Bay where 3 large gardens make up a nature park spanning over 100 hectares including some huge greenhouses.
One of the main attractions is the man-made ‘supertrees’ which stand up to 50 meters tall and come alive at night in a spectacular light and sound show.
There’s an elevated walkway (skyway) between the trees, adults $8 and children $5, but this gets very busy after dark and the wait can be 1-hour plus. We opted for a drink at the IndoChine open bar on top of the tallest tree which cost $18 each to enter and includes a beer or wine to enjoy with the fantastic views.
MRT: Bayfront or Raffles Place
Once an important military fortress guarding the waters around Singapore today Sentosa Island is mostly a giant theme park known as ‘the state of fun’.
There’s a huge range of activities on offer and the wallet-draining capacity of this mini 2 sq mile island knows no bounds. Here you’ll find zip lines, 4D adventures, dolphin shows, Madame Tussauds, casino, Universal Studios, hotel resorts and much more to keep you spending.
However, if like us, you find these kinds of things a little tacky and manufactured you can always head to 1 of the 3 beaches which line the coast. All transport on the island is free so grab one of the regular buses and head along to the more secluded Tanjong for a spot of sand and sun.
To get onto the island you can take a cable car which also runs up to the Faber Peak lookout point in the opposite direction but tickets are quite pricey at $29 per person. You can also take the Sentosa Express monorail near the MRT station which has just 4 stops and costs a flat $4 fee to enter, deductible from any transport card. Equally just walk over the bridge and pay the $2 admission fee.
MRT: HarborFront – then cross the bridge or take the MonoRail
Singapore Botanic Gardens
If you’re looking for a slice of tranquillity in the big city then head over to the wonderful Botanic Gardens for a relaxing stroll. The 82-hectare long stretch is home to over 10,000 species of flora and stretches out, north to south, for around 2.5 km.
There’s no admission fee unless you want to visit the National Orchid Centre and the gardens are open from 5am to midnight daily.
The gardens vary from wide open spaces to lakes and more secluded themed gardens so it can really feel like you’ve left the city behind for a little while.
Don’t miss the Ginger Garden and Tropical Rainforest area when you visit and be sure to pick up a map at the entrance to help you find your way around.
If you get hungry or thirsty as you explore there are 3 different restaurants within the gardens but they tend to be on the pricey side. We found the centrally located Casa Verde fine for a coffee and snack but you can always refill your water bottle at one of the many water fountains in the gardens.
MRT: Botanical Gardens
Download this article as a self-guided walking tour on your smartphone.
Check out our Singapore city walk on gpsmycity.com
Health in Singapore
The numbers for the emergency services in Singapore are:
Insurance – make sure you are covered by good travel insurance before visiting Singapore as with anywhere. Healthcare is excellent but can prove very costly over prolonged periods.
Vaccinations – seek the advice of your healthcare provider before travelling to Singapore to check for any specific vaccinations or boosters you’ll need. Most people shouldn’t need to worry if just staying for a few days. Further advice can be found on the Fit4Travel website (UK).
Malaria – there is a very low to zero risk status for Singapore but Dengue Fever is endemic to the region. The general advice is to take the usual precautions to avoid mosquito bites. If you think you are in a higher risk category seek advice before you go as above.
Tap Water – is safe to drink in Singapore. Remember to stay well hydrated in the high humidity.
Food – hygiene standards are very high in Singapore but when eating out use your common sense and avoid anywhere that looks unclean or poorly maintained.
Weather in Singapore
Singapore has a very consistent monsoon climate all year round which makes the weather less of a consideration when deciding to visit. Being just 1 degree (137 km) north of the equator provides this steady weather pattern but rain is also common throughout the year so take a brolly or a good raincoat.
The temperature will fluctuate between the mid-twenties and low thirties from day to night regardless of the month or season. Stifling humidity is more likely to affect you during a visit to Singapore. It can reach 100% during heavy rainstorms and hang around 90% very often.