36 Hours in Singapore – The New York Times

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Yes, there are futuristic mega malls and skyscrapers. But you’ll also find a rich cultural heritage reflected in traditional temples and shrines, street food and homegrown art.

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Haji Lane, a shopping street in the Kampong Glam neighborhood, the cultural heart of the Muslim community in Singapore.CreditCreditLauryn Ishak for The New York Times

Singapore’s main island is sometimes described as diamond-shaped — fitting, perhaps, since the sparkling city, which had a starring role in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” is known for its materialistic pursuits. But look past Singapore’s shiny veneer and you’ll find a compression of Chinese, Indian, Malay and other heritages reaching back far beyond the city state’s half-century history as an independent nation. And thanks to the superb street food and efficient public transit, you don’t have to be crazy rich to enjoy this cinematic city, which is now more accessible than ever with Singapore Airlines’ new nonstop service from Newark.

Begin your visit with a snapshot of Singapore’s past and present on Telok Ayer Street, where Chinese immigrants once arrived on boats. Though land reclamation projects have since filled in the waterfront and gleaming skyscrapers have sprouted around this narrow street, shrines and temples of many creeds have persevered in this faithfully preserved neighborhood. Linger for a few quiet minutes inside Thian Hock Keng, a carefully restored 19th-century temple built by Hokkien immigrants to give thanks for a safe passage across the sea. Past the minarets and arches of the nearby Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre, walk deeper into Chinatown, where Sri Mariamman, the nation’s oldest Hindu temple, invites visitors to admire the ornate gopuram (gatehouse tower) and colorful shrines.

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Hawker centers, or food courts, are a quick introduction to Singapore’s pan-Asian palate, allowing diners to sample dishes like crab fried in chili sauce, chicken poached with ginger, and roti served with a fiery curry sauce. Locals debate which hawker center serves the best rendition of a particular dish. Lau Pa Sat distinguishes itself with its soaring cast-iron frame and national monument designation. At night, vendors grilling meat on skewers take over the adjacent Boon Tat Street, erasing the boundary between this lively hawker center and the rest of the city. If you want a more down-home atmosphere, Amoy Street Food Centre (7 Maxwell Road) is popular among locals and Michelin Bib Gourmand critics alike. Expect to pay 3 to 6 Singapore dollars, or about $2.25 to $4.50, for a filling entree.

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The less-than-two-year-old Native dazzles with cocktails made with local ingredients that range from fresh mangoes to ants.CreditLauryn Ishak for The New York Times

The candy-colored shophouses on Amoy Street now house CrossFit gyms, hipster barbershops, Korean barbecue joints and other businesses reflecting Singapore’s trends. The less-than-two-year-old Native dazzles with cocktails made with local ingredients that range from fresh mangoes and salt-baked tapioca to jasmine blossoms and even ants. The hyperlocal approach informs every detail, from the soundtrack of local bands to the compostable coasters of dried lotus leaves and banana stalks (cocktails around 20 Singapore dollars).

Supermama sells porcelain sets featuring the city’s unmistakable skyline.CreditLauryn Ishak for The New York Times

Avocado toast and single-origin coffee may rule brunches in gentrified Tiong Bahru and up-and-coming Jalan Besar. But when you begin your morning in the laid-back Katong district, full of Easter egg-colored 19th-century villas, opt for the traditional bite of kaya toast, buns or white bread slathered with coconut jam and slabs of butter, served with soft-boiled eggs. Hungry diners (and Instagrammers) line up at the nearly century-old Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, a local institution where charcoal-grilled buns (1 Singapore dollar each) and heaping servings of nostalgia make up for the brusque service. For a heartier meal, sample the district’s interpretation of laksa, a spice-packed coconut curry noodle soup, at various spots such as 328 Katong Laksa (from 5.35 Singapore dollars) and Marine Parade Laksa (50 East Coast Road, No. 01-64; from 4.50 Singapore dollars).

Serving as the cultural heart of Singapore’s Muslim community, the palm-lined neighborhood of Kampong Glam remains popular with travelers and shoppers alike. Orient yourself around the landmark Sultan Mosque, now 90 years old, yet looking fresher than ever, thanks to the 2016 face-lift that put an extra shine on its golden domes while preserving the original timber door. To go deeper than browsing the near-identical accessory stores, rug shops and hip cafes with vaguely European names on Arab Street and Haji Lane, download the Singapore Heritage Trails app, a free platform with crowdsourced itineraries that uncover stories behind the colorful facades all around Singapore.

Rest your legs at Looksee Looksee, a 25-seat reading room stocked with an eclectic collection of books on design, art and food. The interior designer John Lim and the architect Yong Sy Lyng created this space using whimsical furniture, tropical prints and quirky fabrics. The pay-what-you-want beverage service features brews by the local tea company A.muse Projects. If this puts you in the mood for souvenir shopping, Supermama next door has porcelain sets featuring the city’s unmistakable skyline, designed in Singapore and made in Kyushu, Japan.

The former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings were reborn as the ambitious, light-filled National Gallery Singapore in 2015, reflecting the country’s growing interest and pride in homegrown art. Here you’ll find paintings and sculptures from around Southeast Asia that connect the diverse regional styles that transcend national boundaries. Works by local artists like Georgette Chen and Chua Mia Tee offer intimate glimpses of Singapore’s past and present. (Tickets are 20 Singapore dollars for nonresidents.)

The views across Marina Bay can be dramatic. Above, one of Singapore’s trademark futuristic buildings, Marina Bay Sands, a resort.CreditLauryn Ishak for The New York Times

Jutting out of the waterfront like two durians (the beloved local fruit so pungent that it’s banned on public transit), the performing arts venue The Esplanade hosts over 3,000 events that range from world-class concerts to unpretentious community programs. On any given evening you might happen upon a production of electronica music and video installation, or a concert of art songs by Enrique Granados and Benjamin Britten. Even if you’re not catching a performance, set aside a few minutes for the well-manicured roof terrace garden, which offers sweeping views of the city and Marina Bay.

No longer a notorious red light district, Keong Saik Road on the edge of Chinatown has seen globally oriented restaurants and bars taking up its Art Deco edifices and narrow shophouse. Among the cevicherias and Australian steakhouses, three-year-old Cure stands out with its smart prix fixe menus (five courses on weekends, 120 Singapore dollars; three courses on weekdays, 95 Singapore dollars). The Irish-born chef-owner Andrew Walsh serves no-holds-barred dishes like a custard of dashi in an onion broth, Wagyu paired with piquant harissa, and snapper steamed tender with fennel. A popular option among locals is Kok Sen Restaurant (30 Keong Saik Road), with diners lining up on the sidewalk for its tze char, or home-cooked Hokkien Chinese cuisine, with dishes like spicy jumbo prawn soup (16 Singapore dollars).

Singapore isn’t all shiny skyscrapers and glitzy shops. Traditional styles of architecture are also evident in places like the East Coast neighborhood. Above, a Peranakan Chinese house.CreditLauryn Ishak for The New York Times

Few things would encapsulate Singapore better than Gardens by the Bay, a nature park that’s at once lush and futuristic. The 250-acre grounds encompass themed conservatories, winding trails and Supertrees, or vertical gardens rising up to 16 stories and threaded together by suspended walkways. While air-conditioned indoor parks and the 72-foot-tall Skyway close at 9 p.m., the free outdoor gardens remain open until 2 a.m., giving you ample time to admire the wildly lit grounds — with thinner crowds and naturally cooler temperatures.

Those who can’t commit a whole day to the time capsule of Pulau Ubin, a rustic island of tin-roof shacks and mangrove-lined lakes, can indulge in an easier getaway with a trip to Coney Island Park. Over 80 bird species, including collared kingfisher and spotted wood owls, call this 123-acre nature reserve home. Rent a bike from one of several vendors at the nearby Punggol Point Park and breeze through the coastal forestry, or join a guided nature walk (free; registration required at nparks.gov.sg) to discover its diminutive beaches.

Steps from Pulau Ubin dock, the lively 270-seat Little Island Brewing Company serves up S.P.A. (a Singaporean take on I.P.A.) and other unpasteurized and unfiltered beers. Grab tamarind-marinated wings (8 Singaporean dollars) and kick back to live music. Jumbo jets taking off from the adjacent Changi Airport are bound for faraway places. But you will want to stretch your weekend in Singapore as long as you can.


The art-filled Vagabond Club, with its own “whiskey library,” offers 41 intimate rooms in the heart of Little India and Kampong Glam; from 275 Singapore dollars.

A former spice shop and distillery is now The Warehouse, a 37-room boutique hotel. You don’t need to jump in the adjacent river to cool down, either: The rooftop has an aquarium-like pool. From 240 Singapore dollars.

Centrally located, Chinatown makes a convenient home base with one-bedroom Airbnb rentals starting from 100 Singapore dollars. Jalan Besar, with its coffee shops and rentals averaging between $110 and $150, provides a more laid-back alternative to trendy Tiong Bahru. Keep in mind, however, that short-term rentals under three months remain illegal in Singapore.


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