The Weekender: Singapore
What to see, eat and do on a weekend in Singapore, by Anwer Bati
The Weekender: Singapore
When Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city-state of Singapore 200 hundred years ago, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that it would turn into the international business and financial powerhouse it is today. There’s a constant buzz and bustle, with almost six million people crammed in an area less than half the size of London. The only way to build is up, and the first thing you notice is the sheer number of high-rises. But explore a little and you can find congenial areas and relics of the colonial era (Britain ruled until 1959) hidden among the towers.
It’s a remarkable melting pot, with a local population of Chinese, Malays and Indians, as well as expats and tourists from around the world. And the national language is English. Standards are high, from law and order to cleanliness and local transport – and you can find anything you want, from food to leisure to shopping, often at reasonable prices.
There are many luxury hotels in Singapore, but only one place to stay: Raffles. It has had a huge reputation, almost since it was founded by the beach (now over a mile away after decades of land reclamation) as a 10 room bungalow in 1887. Now it’s a listed national monument and a tourist attraction.
Recently reopened after a massive renovation, it is surely one of the best hotels in the world. You feel special from the minute you are greeted by the uniformed Sikh doorman. Then your personal butler takes you to your suite to check-in. The suites (there are 115 of them) are spacious and seamlessly blend hints of the colonial past with modern comfort and technology, including iPad controls – which actually work – for virtually everything, and mini-bars disguised as traveling trunks where even the snacks and beer are free. The bathrooms are huge, with freestanding tubs, and large, specially created amenities. There are new, smaller studio rooms, but no bad rooms in the hotel. Service throughout is superb and unstuffy. You can have breakfast on your veranda or in the Tiffin Room, where there is a generous beautifully presented buffet, as well as hot dishes to order such as Mee Goreng.
There is a huge choice, but Singapore’s temptingly varied local food is one of its glories. The best places to go are the many hawker centres where small stalls from the various communities sell their specialities at low prices. This is street food, but no longer on the street – controlled to keep up standards. Go for the stalls (each has a table) with the longest queues. At the Chinatown Complex you will find the Michelin-listed Hawker Chan, with a more conventional restaurant (always packed) in nearby Smith Street.
The best international food is in the upmarket hotels and shopping centres, often created by major international chefs. At Raffles choices range from celebrated French chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s restaurant (where she melds her native cuisine with local flavours), a Chinese restaurant with innovative chef Jereme Leung, the Tiffin Room, serving Indian food, with a good value buffet at lunchtime, multi-Michelin starred chef Alain Ducasse’s new Italian restaurant, Osteria BBR, in the old Billiard Room, and a steakhouse. A splendid afternoon tea is served in the lounge.
At Swissôtel The Stamford, is Michelin-starred Jaan, under chef Kirk Westaway, serving delicious modern versions of British food, often attracting well-heeled locals. Most of the tables have superb views. There are also views to be had at Lavo, at the huge Marina Bay Sands development, serving Italian-American food. There are numerous other options at Marina Bay Sands, such as an offshoot of Wolfgang Puck’s steak restaurant, Cut.
For a drink, try the Sky Lounge on the roof of the National Gallery in the former City Hall and Supreme Court building and, of course, Raffles’ famous Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling cocktail. Raffles also has the atmospheric Library Bar, and the outdoor Terrace. Other good bars include Native Cocktail Bar and Nutmeg and Clove.
There are few official sights in Singapore, though it’s worth going to the National Museum for a little history, and the magnificent Botanic Gardens are a must. The new Gardens by the Bay are also impressive. The Sultan mosque and Thian Hock Kang temple are pretty special, too. Marina Bay Sands, with its vast shopping and eating areas, viewing platform, and its ArtScience museum – particularly attractive to children – is a place to experience. There’s an underground station running directly into it.
There are shopping malls in abundance, with several along Orchard Road, including ION Orchard, where you can find designer brands. Others include Funan, with many outlets selling electrical goods. At the 24 hour Mustafa Centre department store, you can find any number of bargains – from cosmetics to computers. Raffles has its own smart shopping arcade, and a gift shop with an extensive range of attractive items.
Take a bus tour to see the remaining colonial era buildings such as the neo-Palladian Old Parliament House; and districts where the various ethnic groups formerly lived: China Town, Kampong Glam and Little India. The latter two are also the places to find craft items and clothing boutiques.
Go to Tiong Bahru, a peaceful, leafy, low rise residential area of art deco buildings, to escape the hubbub. Once social housing, it’s now a hipster hangout, with cafés, bookshops and a good hawker centre. You can also see the city by taking a trip in a traditional bum boat along the Singapore river.
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