Singapore isn’t all high-end shopping malls and sipping over-priced cocktails on Sentosa, although both things should be on your hitlist when in town.
Surprisingly, Singapore can be done on a backpacker’s budget and there are plenty of lowcost, or even free, things to see and do in the Lion City. Experience colonial charm and twenty-first century chic in Southeast Asia’s most famous city-state without spending a small fortune. Here are 15 activities to give you more bang for your (Singaporean) buck:
1. Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa, also known as Tiger Balm Gardens, was once the home of Burmese-Chinese brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the guys who every backpacker should bow down to for giving the world the wonder-cure that is Tiger Balm. The house, built in 1937, has now been demolished, but the gardens are lovely, if not very surreal. Stroll through the Ten Courts of Hell to see some pretty gruesome depictions of hell from Chinese mythology and Buddhist teachings. Look out for statues of giant crabs with human heads or field mice having tea. Besides the MRT ticket to get there, it’s absolutely free!
2. Marina’s Merlion and light show
With the head of a lion and the body of a fish, Singapore’s iconic Merlion sits in Merlion Park right in Singapore’s CBD, although there are various replicas around the city. Spouting water from its mouth, it’s tacky, but makes for great cheesy tourist photos. Head down there at night to see it lit up and watch the light and water show at nearby Marina Bay. The higher up you can get the better your view will be, and there are plenty of roof-top bars close at hand where you can enjoy a (cheap) drink and be dazzled by the impressive display.
3. Collect swag at Changi Airport
Hanging around the airport is not how I normally like to spend an afternoon, but that was before I’d been to Changi. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an airport, with the usual annoyances (check-in queues, security dress downs) but the whole experience is brightened by being able to sit in the Sunflower Garden on the roof of Terminal 2. The shopping is also great, although if you’re backpacking on a budget you might find Fendi and Gucci just a little out of your price range. There are, however, plenty of opportunities to collect some decent swag. I got some l’Occitane hand cream and a couple of free gin and elderflower cocktails at the taster stand in Duty Free. Score.
4. Wander around Raffles
The home of the Singapore sling cocktail, Raffles Hotel is full of old colonial charm. Built in 1887, the white pillared front, wicker chairs on tiled verandas and tropical gardens hark back to Singapore’s days as part of the British Empire. While the cocktails are delicious, they are quite pricey, even if you do get some peanuts thrown in for free. If you can’t stretch to a sundowner then just go in and take a peek to soak up the ambiance and you needn’t spend a dime!
5. Sri Mariamman Temple
Singapore’s oldest Hindu Temple, Sri Mariamman is in downtown Chinatown and it costs nowt to wander through the courtyards admiring the wonderful statues and vivid colours, although small donations for camera use are expected. I missed it, but the annual fire-walking ceremony held here every October/November is meant to be insane!
6. Gardens by the Bay
An oasis of calm amidst Singapore’s screaming taxis and crowded skyscrapers, Marina Bay is home to 101 hectares of green, lush open space. Wander through Flower Grove and Cloud Forest, but the main attraction for me were the Supertrees. We went at night and took a stroll on the Skyway along the tops of these vertical gardens and the views over the city at night were amazing. It costs $5 to get up there, but the light show they have every night is brilliant and well worth the cash to get the best view. Entrance to the outdoor gardens in Bay South is free.
7. Singapore Art Museum
SAM, the Singapore Art Museum, and their sister gallery, SAM at 8Q house some interesting Southeast Asian contemporary art, with plenty of interactive installations to explore. Ticket price is $10 for adults and this gives you entry to both sites, but you can visit for free every Friday between 6pm and 9pm as well as on Open House days. Check their website before you visit to see what’s on.
8. St. Andrews Cathedral
It’s the country’s largest cathedral, a great place to learn about another side of Singapore’s diverse population and it’s absolutely free to visit. It was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century after the original was struck by lightening and demolished in 1855. It also served as a hospital shortly before Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942.
9. Eat at a hawker centre
Expensive restaurants and fine dining experiences aren’t hard to find in Singapore, but some of the best food I ate was from hawker centres. Rows of stalls and shacks serving fresh noodles, fruit shakes, chicken and rice, as well as Indian and Vietnamese food, hawker centres are neighbourhood hubs come lunch time. Get a glimpse of local life and a tasty feed for just a couple of dollars. Arrive early though to avoid long queues and before all the best bits run out, the food is fresh, so once it’s gone it’s gone!
10 . Tiong Bahru
Unlike 80s shoulder pads, some things come back in to fashion and stay there! Tiong Bahru has emerged as a firm favourite with local hipsters looking for some of the city’s best coffee and independent bookstores. I liked hanging out in Forty Hands Café even though a coffee there is likely to set you back at least $4.50 . But it’s a lovely neighbourhood to wander through, admiring the art deco architecture, much of it unchanged since the 1930s and its heyday as Singapore’s first housing estate.
11. Haji Lane
Once the hipsters have had their caffeine fix in Tiong Bahru, many head to Haji Lane, a meccca for Singapore’s style icons who love to rumage in the boutiques and vintage shops that line this hidden alleyway in the city’s Muslim quarter. After all that bargain hunting, take a breather in one of the many Middle Eastern cafes, feasting on some of the best falafel I had in Southeast Asia. Nightlife is also pretty cool here too, hanging out in a shisha cafe, watching live street performers singing for their supper.
12. Little India
Stroll through the busy streets of this small Singaporean neighbourhood, tempting aromas wafting from the dosa cafes and dodge colourful flower garlands hanging from street vendor stalls. There are plenty of vibrantly painted temples to gaze at here, but the area’s charm can be experienced just by walking through the streets, having a cup of masala chai or haggling with stall holders in the market.
13. Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Chinatown is also home to this Buddhist temple and museum complex. As it says on the tin, it houses a tooth of Buddha, believed to have been found in a collapsed stupa in Myanmar in 1980. It’s beautiful architecture has made it a popular tourist attraction, whilst the simple but tasty vegetarian food served in the temple’s basement attracts many backpakers on a budget.
14. Free bus loop around Sentosa
Sentosa’s beach is a great spot to top up the tan, but the area’s boutique shops and expensive restaurants mean that that free day soaking up the sun can turn out to be a bit more expensive then you might have budgeted for…Save some pennies and see what Singapore’s island resort has to offer with the free shuttle bus. Perfect for getting your bum off that beach and staying out of those tempting shops!
15. Thian Hock Keng Temple, Chinatown
This is the most important Hokkien (a variant of Chinese culture) temple in Singapore. The main site is dedicated to the Taoist goddess of the sea and protector of all seamen. Meaning The Temple of Heavenly Happiness, this impressive structure features beautiful lion statues, traditional door gods, and interesting Buddhist swastika designs.