Destinations

Singapore Sling

A first-time visitor to Singapore attempts to sample everything the city has to offer.

A sunset view of the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore skyline.
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LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I grew up with highly inaccurate notions of what Singapore was all about. To my untraveled Midwestern brain, the famed island republic was a vaguely mysterious, crazily futuristic, and prohibitively distant metropolis — the kind of place that existed in songs and movies, but not a place that one might actually go and visit. After I started to travel more as an adult, Singapore continued to hold this funny sway over my imagination, mostly as a place I never thought I’d have the occasion to visit. It wasn’t until a friend coaxed me into joining her on an ill-fated surfing getaway in Bali that I finally found myself in Singapore, courtesy of an extended layover — most of which was spent stumbling around the massive airport in a jet-lagged haze, having missed my connecting flight. This perception of Singapore — as a kind of layover city — is one that Singaporeans are quick to disabuse me of. As locals point out, Singapore’s dazzling variety of tourist-friendly attractions, spectacular hotels, and unbelievable dining experiences more than qualify it as a destination unto itself. During my action-packed week spent there, everyone I came into contact with — from the hotel concierge, museum curator, or chatty taxi driver — was eager to convince me of this fact. After only a few days, I no longer need convincing.

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Depending on where you are traveling from, simply getting to Singapore is a journey. I traveled there from New York City via a 19-hour flight on Singapore Airlines, an experience worth mentioning for two reasons: One, it is currently the longest commercial flight in the world; and two, in my experience, it was also one of the most pleasant, thanks to the airline’s renowned hospitality. Having actually slept soundly and eaten well on the flight, I arrived in Singapore surprisingly refreshed and ready to take on the marathon itinerary designed to provide a deep dive into everything the city has to offer.

No matter where you are in Singapore, everything is a fascinating collision between old and new, but with a heavy emphasis on the new. It’s a city built, quite literally, from innovation — huge swaths of man-made land that have been reclaimed from the sea to give rise to all manner of technological wonders. Everywhere one looks there is construction, refinement, and the glittery sheen of something just built. Zipping back and forth across the city, I quickly learn to orient myself according to where I am in proximity to the Marina Bay Sands — the famous hotel and casino that, depending on who you ask, either looks like a spaceship with three legs or a giant robotic dinosaur rising out of the ocean. Looking out toward the South China Sea, the skyline is crowded with cranes, each unloading an endless stream of goods, a necessity in a place where literally everything is imported. Though it’s hard to imagine, I’m told that the ports on this entire side of Singapore — encompassing Sentosa Island and filled with immense docks and an array of cargo ships dotting the horizon — will eventually be relocated to allow for even more residential development. “Always new new new,” my guide, Wee Toon Hee, tells me, pointing toward the tangle of construction cranes near the water. “Everything here is always changing.”

To borrow a phrase from my grandmother, Singapore has more luxury hotels than you can shake a stick at. During my visit, I split my time between three of the best. The Fullerton is one of the city’s most famous, occupying a massive neoclassical building that dates back to 1928. It was previously home to a post office and a variety of official city offices before eventually being transformed into a 400-room hotel. Just a stone’s throw away is the Fullerton Bay Hotel, a kind of sister property, which counters the staid elegance of the Fullerton with a decidedly more modern aesthetic. The hotel not only offers spectacular views of the marina and city skyline, but also serves as home to the Clifford Pier restaurant in its main lobby, which itself is a protected heritage site. The cavernous, arched space was the original entry point for people visiting Singapore during the city’s infancy, and it remains one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve ever sat in to have a cup of coffee.

A few days later at Capella Singapore, a sprawling hotel situated around two Tanah Merah colonial bungalows dating back to the 1880s, I snag my own villa room (with a plunge pool and an outdoor tub) that allows for a view of the sea. After finding a monogrammed Pratesi bathrobe on my bed as a form of welcome (I would not have actually believed it was for me, were my name not on it), I sip some champagne alone in my private plunge pool, convinced that this is the nicest hotel I’ve ever been allowed to set foot in. It’s a position I nearly reconsider a few days later when I visit Raffles, which is arguably Singapore’s most famous hotel. Opened in 1887, it’s considered one of the few great nineteenth-century hotels still in operation, and is credited with being the actual birthplace of the Singapore Sling. It’s been a preferred stay of folks like Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Queen Elizabeth herself, and a short stroll across the gardens and grounds of Raffles makes it easy to see why it is commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful hotels on earth. I’m allowed a visit into the Somerset Maugham Suite, named after the famed British writer and frequent Raffles guest, and am given a quick tour of the hotel’s presidential suite, where I contemplate stepping into a bathtub that itself feels bigger than my entire Brooklyn apartment. Even more exciting than the idea of U.S. presidents having slept here, I’m told this suite was also used as a set for 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” (as will be the case for many of the most beautiful spots I visit in Singapore). I leave with an exquisite candle from the Raffles gift shop, feeling appropriately wowed.

About two days into my stay in Singapore I start to realize that the overstuffed, food-centric itinerary I’ve set for myself is more ambitious than I might have realized. Things that I’ve allotted myself only a few hours to see turn out to be those that could have easily (and happily) consumed an entire day. This is particularly true for the National Gallery Singapore, a public museum that holds the world’s largest collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian modern art. The building itself, housed in the former Supreme Court and City Hall of Singapore, is a marvel, and has been configured to provide a seamless gallery experience while maintaining the integrity of its history. Between the airy galleries, for example, one may walk through the room where, on September 12, 1945, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, on behalf of the Allied forces, accepted the surrender of the Japanese. Preserved just as it was then, it provides a bold jolt of history in keeping with the other work on display. The exhibits in the building are arranged chronologically. I’m walked through the collection by Dr. Yu Jin Seng , deputy director of curatorial research and exhibitions; I leave with a much better understanding of Singapore’s history and fascinating confluence of cultures and colonial past, all explained through the prism of visual art. My only regret about the experience is that I couldn’t stay longer — and that I couldn’t get a reservation at famed Odette, the first-floor restaurant regarded by many as one of the best restaurants in Asia.

After spending a few days tooling around Singapore — including visits to Chinatown and a stop at a famed temple to view what is purported to be one of the Buddha’s actual teeth — I ask my driver and guide, Mr. Hee, if he can confirm a few of the myths about the city that I’ve heard repeatedly over the years. The first is whether or not Singapore is home to more millionaires per capita than any other place in the world. Apparently, this is true. And I take the presence of luxury Italian sports cars everywhere I go as anecdotal proof. The second myth I want to confirm has to do with whether or not it is illegal to chew gum. Also sort of true. The import of chewing gum is still illegal here due to the perceived role it plays in littering the streets. Being spotted spitting out gum (or littering in general) can result in a ticket and a hefty fee. This diligence around cleanliness and order is also one of the most remarkable things about Singapore, particularly for someone like me who calls charmingly filthy New York City home. No matter where I go, I am perpetually dumbfounded by how pristinely clean the city is — every sidewalk, every park, every public restroom shockingly spic and span, devoid of graffiti. When I ask Mr. Hee about this, he chuckles. “We Singaporeans have a joke that we often like to tell,” he says. “Singapore is a fine city — there’s a fine for everything.”


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As much as I find Singapore to be a sort of marvel of technology — filled with more architectural razzle-dazzle and opportunities for luxury shopping than one person could exhaust in several lifetimes — I’m pleasantly surprised to find that even in such a contemporary city, it’s the nature experiences that end up being the most fantastical. One morning I’m taken out for a long walk along the Rail Corridor Trail — a long, green trail that snakes its way through nearly three miles of the city. Despite being in the middle of Singapore, the railway trail is so lush and tree shrouded that it’s easy to forget where you actually are. The same is also true for the Southern Ridges, a series of elevated trails that zigzag through the treetops along Singapore’s southern border, connecting three large parks. The trails allow for panoramic views of the city and Singapore’s southern islands (not to mention dizzying views to the ground far below). Apparently, it also offers an occasional encounter with monkeys. Sadly, I didn’t see any (though I might have panicked and flailed to my death if an unexpected monkey sauntered across my path).

Later, I made my way to one of Singapore’s most famous attractions, Gardens by the Bay, a massive nature park that includes two behemoth indoor greenhouses. One of them, the Flower Dome, is the largest greenhouse in the world; both give the impression of being inside a giant terrarium, complete with towering waterfalls and explosive tropical greenery. Nearby is the eminently photographable Supertree Grove, which consists of massive tree-shaped structures. At night, they present a dazzling light show and look like something straight out of “Avatar” — a cluster of massive bioluminescent space trees connected by pedestrian walkways, which just don’t seem like they can possibly be real, even as you are standing on one.

Impressive as the Gardens by the Bay happened to be, they couldn’t compete with the truly spectacular Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was hands down my favorite place in the city. I’m not sure if it was the late afternoon sunlight or just my state of mind, but as I walked with Mr. Hee through the meticulously curated orchid gardens, which make up a huge chunk of the park’s 60-acre sprawl, I kept saying, “It’s so beautiful” over and over, until he replied, “Yes, I know. You don’t have to tell me.” Sprawling orchid gardens aside, there is also a climate-controlled Mist House that felt like stumbling onto the set of a fantasy film dedicated to the complicated lives of fairies or mythical orchid-loving creatures who can only thrive in mist-filled environments. “I wish I could live in here,” I told Mr. Hee, who only laughed. As the sun started to set, I left the botanical garden feeling like I’d still only seen a small fraction of it. As a plant-loving person who grew up with a florist as a mom, I could have truly stayed here forever.

Food culture in Singapore is a fascinating convergence of flavors and styles, with both exceptional fine-dining experiences and equally formidable street food.

If I’m being honest about the impetus to go explore Singapore for a week, I’d have to say it was at least 80% motivated by thinking about what I might eat while I was there. Food culture in Singapore is a fascinating convergence of flavors and styles, with both exceptional fine-dining experiences and equally formidable street food. I packed my schedule with a different kind of meal every night, not to mention a variety of decadent lunches and a couple of leisurely breakfasts. I had extravagant, old-fashioned Chinese food at the iconic Summer Palace, enjoyed a sublime twist on Indian food at Firangi Superstar, feasted on old-fashioned chili crab at Jumbo Seafood, and savored some incredibly decadent Peranakan dishes (a mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indonesian cuisines). I shared a drink with Chef Damian D’Silva at his restaurant, Rempapa. At Euphoria, I had an exquisite tasting menu experience and was wowed by Chef Jason Tan’s delicate Gastro-Botanica menu and expertly paired wines. I had a completely mind-blowing lunch of traditional Hainanese cuisine at Keng Eng Kee, and followed it with arguably the strangest dinner of my life at NOX, a restaurant where you dine in complete darkness and must use your other senses to try and discern exactly what you are being served. The experience was even weirder than it sounds.

As far as food goes, no trip to Singapore would be complete without a visit to one of the city’s famous hawker centers — open-air markets with a wild variety of food vendors, each specializing in a specific dish. The hawker centers in Singapore are globally renowned, and intensely competitive if you are a vendor. If you are a visitor like me, then trying to navigate the centers can be a little overwhelming. So I’m grateful that my lunch companion was Maureen Ow — better known as food blogger Miss Tam Chiak. She steered me in the right direction and made sure I got to try a little bit of everything at the Maxwell Food Centre, home to over 100 bustling food stalls. Classic chicken rice? Red bean fritters? Fish porridge? A kaleidoscope of inexplicable curries? Yes, yes, and also yes. Ow also helped to break down all the complicated dynamics of the hawker center, including rival booths serving the same dishes (the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice versus their rival, Ah Tai), not to mention the familial dynasties on display in some of the booths, some of which go back for generations. Just when I was certain we couldn’t possibly eat more, we did; our table looked like a wasteland of destroyed dishes and tiny cups of sauces. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite dish — though I did develop a fondness for kaya toast, a breakfast dish I sought out pretty much every day for the remainder of my time in Singapore.

The entire experience of the hawker center ended up a high point of my trip. After we finally wrapped up our seemingly endless meal and set about clearing our table, I couldn’t help but notice how fastidiously the other diners seemed to be doing the same. Despite the frenetic chaos of the lunch-hour rush, every table was cleared and clean by the time diners exited. “Oh, you must clear your table,” Ow told me. “It’s considered very rude if you don’t, but also … there’s a fine for that.”

Given how much generalized anxiety I’ve had about airports for most of my life, I would have called anyone insane who suggested that I carve extra time in my travel schedule just to spend time in one — until this trip. Singapore’s Jewel Changi airport is so special and so spectacularly surreal that it certainly deserves the time. The airport terminal is adjacent to a huge dome-like structure, home to what I’m told is the world’s largest indoor waterfall. Known as the “rain vortex,” it cascades down through the middle of the structure as if being poured through a gargantuan funnel. Around it are multiple floors of stores, restaurants, indoor gardens, walking trails, bungee-climbing courses, and canopy bridges that allow for a bird’s-eye view of the hypnotizing waterfall (which itself comes to technicolor life at night for a bombastic waterfall light show). The experience of being inside the Jewel is akin to being in the world’s most lavish Easter egg, a glittery mall complete with places to take a nap, buy a couture gown, get a massage, or, in my case, have one of the best meals of my entire trip (a traditional Chinese dinner at the base of the waterfall). Despite being completely exhausted, feeling as if I’d gained 10 pounds, and feeling preemptively jet lagged at the prospect of a 19-hour flight home, spending a few hours in Jewel Changi was the perfect cap to my trip. Like everything else in Singapore, it was over the top, a little overwhelming, and wholly unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. In other words, it was totally worth the trip.

Where to Stay, What to Eat, and What to Do When Visiting Singapore

Deputy Editor T. Cole Rachel shares a few extra suggestions for visiting Singapore.

Where to Stay

  • Fullerton Bay Hotel

    Even if you don’t stay at the Fullerton Bay (which you should), it’s worth a visit if only to gaze at the stunning lobby and have afternoon tea. Housed in a restored fishing pier, the view of the marina is one of the most beautiful in all of Singapore.

  • Capella Singapore

    I have yet to visit a Capella property anywhere in the world that wasn’t incredible, but the Capella Singapore, located on Sentosa Island, is remarkable in every way. Whether you are staying in one of the villas — each with its own tiny pool — or in one of the main buildings, which look out over the South China Sea, it’s a hotel unlike any other.

  • Raffles Hotel

    This iconic hotel has played host to presidents, the British royal family, and, once upon a time, Michael Jackson. The palatial building may nod to Singapore’s colonial past, but the rooms themselves — and the hotel’s spectacular bar — are tastefully modern and incredibly chic. A must-see for anyone visiting Singapore.

  • Fullerton Bay Hotel

    Even if you don’t stay at the Fullerton Bay (which you should), it’s worth a visit if only to gaze at the stunning lobby and have afternoon tea. Housed in a restored fishing pier, the view of the marina is one of the most beautiful in all of Singapore.

  • Raffles Hotel

    This iconic hotel has played host to presidents, the British royal family, and, once upon a time, Michael Jackson. The palatial building may nod to Singapore’s colonial past, but the rooms themselves — and the hotel’s spectacular bar — are tastefully modern and incredibly chic. A must-see for anyone visiting Singapore.

  • Capella Singapore

    I have yet to visit a Capella property anywhere in the world that wasn’t incredible, but the Capella Singapore, located on Sentosa Island, is remarkable in every way. Whether you are staying in one of the villas — each with its own tiny pool — or in one of the main buildings, which look out over the South China Sea, it’s a hotel unlike any other.

Where to Eat

  • Candlenut

    Touted as the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut’s lunch tasting menu was one of the most beautiful dining experiences I’ve ever had — course after course of impeccably presented food that was as beautiful as it was tasty. I took a photo of the Bakwan Kepiting Soup in hopes I would never forget how delicious it was.

  • Kausmo

    Tucked away in a quiet corner of a luxury shopping center, Kausmo is so unobtrusive it’s easy to miss. The food, however, which is prepared in small courses just a few feet away from you, is simple, refined, and totally gorgeous. Your meal, created with locally sourced ingredients, is paired with a flight of kombuchas that are made on the premises and can be seen fermenting in elegant glass vessels throughout the restaurant.

  • Claudine

    I didn’t expect to have my socks knocked off by French food while in Singapore, but Claudine dazzled in every respect. It’s the only place I’ve ever eaten where the steak tartare is prepared tableside to your exact specifications. I would happily fly back to Singapore to have the Strawberry Gariguette again.

  • Candlenut

    Touted as the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut’s lunch tasting menu was one of the most beautiful dining experiences I’ve ever had — course after course of impeccably presented food that was as beautiful as it was tasty. I took a photo of the Bakwan Kepiting Soup in hopes I would never forget how delicious it was.

  • Claudine

    I didn’t expect to have my socks knocked off by French food while in Singapore, but Claudine dazzled in every respect. It’s the only place I’ve ever eaten where the steak tartare is prepared tableside to your exact specifications. I would happily fly back to Singapore to have the Strawberry Gariguette again.

  • Kausmo

    Tucked away in a quiet corner of a luxury shopping center, Kausmo is so unobtrusive it’s easy to miss. The food, however, which is prepared in small courses just a few feet away from you, is simple, refined, and totally gorgeous. Your meal, created with locally sourced ingredients, is paired with a flight of kombuchas that are made on the premises and can be seen fermenting in elegant glass vessels throughout the restaurant.

Where to Visit

  • Atlas Bar

    This incredible hotel bar is famous for the way it celebrates Champagne (it serves over 250 varieties) and gin (the bar houses a collection of over 1,300 gins). It’s the perfect destination for a classic cocktail connoisseur.

  • Design Orchard

    Created to showcase the work of emerging Asian designers and artisans, Design Orchard is the perfect place to buy gifts and seek out the truly exceptional and unusual, whether it be clothing, beauty products, or original pieces of art.

  • Native

    For those looking for a true cocktail bar “experience,” Native celebrates beloved local ingredients (turmeric, mango, tapioca) and more exotic flavors (arrack from Sri Lanka or drinks containing foraged ants), as well as art and objects specific to the region.

  • Atlas Bar

    This incredible hotel bar is famous for the way it celebrates Champagne (it serves over 250 varieties) and gin (the bar houses a collection of over 1,300 gins). It’s the perfect destination for a classic cocktail connoisseur.

  • Native

    For those looking for a true cocktail bar “experience,” Native celebrates beloved local ingredients (turmeric, mango, tapioca) and more exotic flavors (arrack from Sri Lanka or drinks containing foraged ants), as well as art and objects specific to the region.

  • Design Orchard

    Created to showcase the work of emerging Asian designers and artisans, Design Orchard is the perfect place to buy gifts and seek out the truly exceptional and unusual, whether it be clothing, beauty products, or original pieces of art.


AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS

Fine Hotels + Resorts®

The Fullerton Bay Hotel is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.

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Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the deputy editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

Ore Huiying Photographer

Ore Huiying is a documentary photographer from Singapore. Her practice revolves around storytelling, which she believes is basic to human beings. She completed her master of arts in photojournalism and documentary photography at the London College of Communication in 2010. After three years of working and living in London, she returned to Singapore to focus on her investigation of the progression of Southeast Asian societies.

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