Don’t let the size of Singapore fool you. This tiny city-state happens to have so much going on, it’s easy to get lost in it all upon arrival. With its futuristic architecture, world-class shopping, and dizzying food scene, Singapore is an incredible place to visit while traveling through Southeast Asia.
For your first trip to Singapore, you will want to get a good overview of the city, experience its most iconic sights, and try some of its amazing food. I recently spent 3.5 days in Singapore and found myself being completely captivated by the city, blown away by cultural immersion and completely dazzled by the food and nightlife scene. If you are planning your first trip to Singapore, here are 5 things you must do on your trip to get a taste of what this island has to offer.
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The Top 5 Things To Do On Your First Trip to Singapore
1. Experiencing the Different Facets of Local Food Culture
Singapore’s restaurant scene has a reputation for being pricey, but fortunately, there’s a solution for expensive fare and it’s been around for centuries – hawker centres. You remember that scene in Crazy Rich Asians at the beginning of the movie when they kick off their trip to Singapore with an assortment of delicious-looking street food and beer in what appears to be a food court? That’s a hawker center! These Singaporean food courts are where you can find local dishes showcasing all of Singapore’s cultural identities, from satays and curries to samosas and chicken rice (a Singaporean staple). And the best part – despite being incredibly affordable compared to the rest of Singapore’s dining options, hawker centers are typically well-known for being high-quality. In fact, two hawker stands in Singapore have even earned Michelin stars (making them the first street food vendors to do so, and likely the cheapest, in the world). Even more hawker stands – 58 of them and counting, to be exact – have since earned Bib Gourmand recognition, too.
Hawker Centres to Visit:
Food Courts & Mall Dining
One of my friends who I met up with in Singapore informed me that mall culture here is massive. I’m not talking about the shopping (Singaporeans do love shopping, as you probably will already know by now after a visit to the Jewel). I’m talking about the food courts. Singaporean food courts, like hawker centres, offer cheap fare and attract massive local crowds. During my time in Singapore, I saw more local people eating in air conditioned malls than I did eating at outdoor cafes, and I loved it. The ambiance in a popular food court is lively yet unpretentious – people care about good food but don’t mind if it’s served on a paper plate or lunch tray.
You can also have coffee and a quick bite at a kopitiam, which is essentially a local neighborhood coffeeshop. They’re simple but reliable, and you’ll find most people enjoying coffee, some variety of kaya toast (toasted bread with coconut jam), and soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce. Although it’s a chain, Toast Box is a great, approachable way to experience kopitiam culture, and everything is pretty delicious. Good Morning Nanyang Cafe is another good option.
A quick note on coffee. Singaporeans take their coffee seriously. By this, I mean that there are a million ways you can order it. Traditionally, Singaporean coffee, kopi, is served with condensed milk and sugar. If that’s not your jam, you can take a stab at personalizing your order.
Ordering Coffee in Singapore – A Crash-Course:
Kopi: Black coffee with condensed milk
Kopi O: Sweet black coffee
Kopi O Siew Dai: Sweet black coffee with less sugar than Kopi O
Kopi O Peng: Sweet black coffee with ice
Kopi Gah Dai: Black coffee with extra condensed milk
Kopi-Kosong: Unsweetened black coffee
Kopi C: Coffee with unsweetened evaporated milk and sugar
Kopi Ta Bao: Coffee to-go
2. Taking in The Iconic Singapore Skyline
Marina Bay Sands is an iconic part of Singapore’s skyline. It is a 3-tower hotel joined together at the top by a massive pool and observation deck that genuinely looks part-spaceship, part-football. While you can only access the pool if you’re a guest at the hotel, you can visit Marina Bay Sands’ observation deck – Sands SkyPark – for S$26 ($18 USD).
Before my trip, I was told this wasn’t worth the money and that you can find similar views in tons of other buildings in Singapore. But, there is something about seeing all of Singapore from Marina Bay Sands itself that is irreplaceable, and I knew I had to witness it for myself.
My tip for getting the most out of this experience? Go about an hour before sunset, so you can see the skyline both by day and by night! Depending on how long you stay, you might even be able to catch one of the Gardens by the Bay’s daily light shows from up high!
3. Shopping in Singapore’s Cultural Neighborhoods
Singapore is a melting pot of cultural influence, with dedicated neighborhoods celebrating some of the city-state’s largest populations. Some must-visit neighborhoods you should check out include:
Kampong Glam & The Arab Quarter: Singapore’s Muslim Quarter. Home to both Middle Eastern and Malaysian restaurants and shops. The 2nd picture from the left above shows the Sultan Mosque, a religious landmark in the middle of Kampong Glam.
Chinatown: Chinatown is a foodie’s wonderland. Pictured above in shots 1 and 3 from the left, Chinatown is home to tons of restaurants and 2 of its own religious landmarks – the Sri Mariamman Temple (Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple) and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.
Little India: Another foodie and shopping haven, Little India (pictured in the 4th photo from the left) is filled with local jewelers, malls, eateries, and grocery stores. Be sure to visit Jalan Besar, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, and the colorful House of Tan Teng Niah (pictured right).
4. Getting a Taste of Singapore’s Nightlife
Singapore’s nightlife scene is unmissable. Everything from ritzy nightclubs and cocktail lounges to dive bars and hole-in-the-walls is yours for the taking after dark. If you’re not sure where to start, take a stroll down the Singapore River – you’re bound to find great nightlife in one of the quays!
Of course, like everything else here, drinks and cover charges in Singapore can be insanely expensive. Look for happy hour specials, ladies nights, and places where drinks are included in your cover whenever possible!
5. Visiting the Night Safari
At first, I had very little interest in visiting a zoo. At night. But I had so many friends recommend this as a worthwhile stop that my curiosity got the best of me. Fortunately, it turned out to be a really cool experience! The Night Safari is home to all kinds of animals (over 100 species), 41% of which are threatened or endangered. This nocturnal zoo allows you to see animals after dark, learn about them, and get to know about the conservation efforts the Night Safari is pioneering to help keep them safe.
What are you most excited to do on your first trip to Singapore?