Singapore is just 719.7 square kilometres big. Yet, despite its humble size, the island packs a punch with a blend of elements that come together in unexpected symphony. From old-school buildings alongside uber-modern architectural marvels, to street food served up side by side with internationally acclaimed gourmet fare, the city itself is a celebration of diversity that goes beyond the postcard-perfect sight of steely skyscrapers. Here are five fascinating contrasts to look out for:
1. Old-school hawker fare versus modern experimental dining
One big reason why Singaporeans love food: even the local street (hawker) fare garners Michelin stars. Join the snaking queues at one-Michelin-starred hawker stalls—the world’s first—Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle on Crawford Lane and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Chinatown Complex. For even more traditional fare, breathe in a whiff of nostalgia as you order bak chang (traditional Chinese rice dumplings) at the time-honoured hawker stall Hoo Kee Bak Chang in Amoy Food Street Centre.
Besides its thriving hawker scene, the city is also at the forefront of gastronomic innovation. Expand your culinary vocabulary with chef Willin Low’s “Mod-Sin” (Modern Singaporean) cuisine at Wild Rocket—he remixes local dishes such as laksa (spicy coconut-milk based noodle soup) and congee with European techniques. Alternatively, head to Corner House in UNESCO World Heritage Site Singapore Botanic Gardens to find out what cutting-edge ‘Gastro-Botanica’ cuisine really means. Hint: it has something to do with plants.
2. Modern skyscrapers versus traditional architecture
The juxtaposition of historic and contemporary architecture in a city can evoke a beauty that is more than the sum of its parts. For a taste of the modern, take a whirl around bustling Raffles Place. Towering skyscrapers glint back at you from every direction, with the 43-storey Ocean Financial Centre and Singapore’s tallest hotel Swissotel The Stamford being a few of the pinnacles that dot the stunning skyline.
Down on the streets, historic neighbourhoods reveal architectural marvels that look straight out of a history textbook. Snap a photo of the colourful two-storey shophouses around Joo Chiat, where Peranakan (Straits Chinese) heritage has been preserved. Or jaunt around hip enclave Tiong Bahru and spot pre-war buildings inspired by transportation of the 1920s. Think aviation-inspired blocks, nautical elements and clean lines in the design.
3. International events versus local festivities
The city never sleeps when world-class events and local celebrations alike dot the calendar. As a cosmopolitan nation, Singapore plays host to many international festivals and events that set the city abuzz—such as the Grand Prix Season Singapore. Besides the adrenaline-pumping action on the tracks, the city revs up with parties, exclusive dining and entertainment offers, and more. Rub shoulders with the jet-set crowd at world-renowned bash Amber Lounge, or dance up a storm at electronic dance music behemoth Ultra Singapore.
Join in festivities of a more traditional kind, too—head to ethnic districts such as Chinatown or Little India, where lights fill the streets with pomp and colour during Chinese New Year and Deepavali, respectively. To truly soak up the festive spirit, inhale the aromatic scents of flowers or spices at the sprawling bazaars in Little India, or cheer on the lion dancers and fire-eaters as they perform along Chinatown Street.
4. Nature versus nurture
We’re not talking about the age-old question of psychology here. Despite Singapore’s evolution into a modern city, many pockets of lush greenery remain. Get close to Mother Nature at Kranji Marshes, the largest freshwater marshland in Singapore, developed way back in the 1970s. As you clamber up to its observatory for a bird’s-eye view, keep your eyes peeled for over 170 species of birds and insects. For an alternative nature escapade, take a bumboat back in time to off-shore island Pulau Ubin, one of the two remaining kampongs (rural villages) in Singapore.
If you’re wondering about the island’s moniker of ‘City in a Garden’, look up at the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay for a futuristic interpretation of a park. Amid the surrounding waterfront gardens, these iconic structures are man-made marvels—the defining touches of a horticultural destination that is truly ‘nurtured’ into existence.
5. Bargain buys versus designer brands
Shopaholics, get ready to part with your cash. Start with retail therapy at Bugis Street, known for ridiculously cheap steals (from SGD 10 for clothing) and its wide array of souvenirs such as magnets, silver accessories and T-shirts—bring a few home! To pick up quirky and unique items, hop on over to nearby Haji Lane in Kampong Glam, where eclectic boutiques nestle among narrow alleys and vibrant murals.
If you have a soft spot for designer brands such as Prada and Gucci, heed the siren call of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands®. Pop into the Chanel boutique for the latest ‘It’ bag, or to the Louis Vuitton flagship store outside. Housed in a floating Crystal Pavilion, it’s the label’s largest store outside of Paris.
But if you’re pressed for time, at the very least, squeeze in a stroll down Singapore’s iconic shopping belt, Orchard Road, where you can fill your bags with anything from designer threads to fast fashion. From hidden nature spots to glitzy malls to grand festivals, Singapore’s ever-expanding roster of activities and destinations will entertain even the most jaded of travellers. The only problem is: where do you start?