What to know before (and when) you go — and what to see when you get there
From futuristic skyscrapers to lush green, open spaces, Singapore offers a unique blend of soaring modernity and serene beauty. Given its role as an increasingly prominent center of business and commerce — in addition to a tourist destination — there are ample ways to both access and experience this compelling country.
Singapore is a small, diamond-shaped island located just off the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia. It’s around 700 miles west of Borneo (the world’s third largest island) and around 220 miles east of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Both of those islands are known for their wild, untouched beauty and sizable indigenous populations who live their lives in the rainforests; whereas Singapore is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with its supertall buildings and copious traffic.
Despite that, the country has a wealth of untouched vegetation and some of its biggest attractions are its public gardens, from the dreamy biodomes and soaring Supertrees of Gardens by the Bay, one of Asia’s most breathtaking public spaces, to the more placid but just as enthralling Singapore Public Gardens, with hundreds of plant species in an idyllic, flawlessly manicured environment. Singapore’s outlying islands — including Pulau Ubin and St. John’s & Lazarus Island (the two most popular for island-hopping tourists and locals) — are also breathtaking by nature, with untouched wetlands and picturesque crescent beaches.
Singapore is relatively tiny in physical size (less than 700 square kilometers), but its population is anything but small — it houses 5.6 million people, comprising a rich, wide-ranging mix of cultures including Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian. The most popular language, surprisingly to many, is English, with Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin also very popular.
Founded in 1819 as a British trading colony, Singapore is one of the most prosperous colonies in the world today, with one of the world’s highest per-capita GDPs, the 2nd most-expensive housing market in the world, and an outsize amount of millionaires (1 in 6 households in the country have a net worth of $1 million — excluding property). Catering to this demographic — as well as to tourists looking for a luxe experience — the city’s Orchard and Marina Bay areas are known for their ultra-high-end shopping, food, entertainment, and hotels (including the architecturally spectacular Marina Bay Sands, topped by a “SkyPark” that connects the three 56-story towers and is one of the city’s top attractions all on its own).
Finally, the most notable fact about Singapore is the one that sets it apart from anywhere else: It’s the only country in the world that’s also a city and an island.
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As the gateway to Southeast Asia, Singapore is a popular home port for cruise lines, and a number of cruises begin and end here. Besides cruises within Asia, it’s also a beginning or end point for cruises to destinations as wide-ranging as Australia, Greece, and the Middle East.
If you’re visiting by air, you can easily find numerous flights at all times and price levels: Being such a heavily populated, bustling Asian city, Singapore has a world-class travel hub, Changi Airport, where over around 7,200 flights land or depart per week and more than 62.2 million passengers pass through per year. And its food, entertainment, and shopping options — particularly at the new Terminal 4 — are world-class.
Lastly, you can drive from Malaysia, via either the Johor-Singapore Causeway or the Malaysia–Singapore Second Link bridge. Similar passport and entry requirements apply as with air travel, and travelers to Singapore can drive in the country using a valid foreign driver’s license and an International Driving Permit (IDP) issued by your home country.
When you’re in town, Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is a clean, efficient, and easy way to get around, and the Singapore Tourist Pass allows unlimited travel on buses or trains for the duration of your stay. The basic version costs $10 for 1 day, $16 for 2 days, and $20 for 3 days, plus a $10 refundable rental deposit. (Note: eating and drinking on the MRT are strictly prohibited and punishable by fine.)
If you’re concerned about whether you need a tourist visa to Singapore, not to worry: Travelers from most countries (including the U.S.) can generally stay for up to 30 days on a social visit. As with travel to many other international destinations, you’ll just need to show a passport valid for at least six more months, a visa for onward travel if applicable, and proof that you have enough funds for your stay.
Despite its welcoming people, bustling culture and futuristic, tech-savvy urban setting, Singapore is known for some very strict laws; and, while the overwhelming majority of tourists have incident-free experiences, it’s important to review the country’s guidelines.
First, there’s that well-publicized “chewing gum ban” — the most infamous of its public cleanliness and order laws. It’s actually not illegal to chew gum, but it is illegal (and punishable by prison or a fine) to sell it; since 2004, an exception has been made for medicinal, dental, or nicotine gum, only available by prescription from doctors or in controlled amounts by registered pharmacists. Tourists can bring two packs per person; more than that, and the excess will be confiscated (a lot more than that could get you in trouble).
Beyond the gum: Cursing, singing obscene lyrics, and connecting to another user’s Wi-Fi are all punishable by fine or even imprisonment. So is jaywalking (this is not the place to bolt across the street if you don’t have the right of way). Some crimes, including vandalism — which includes writing or hanging anything on existing public property — are punishable by public caning.
Singapore is warm, humid, and tropical, with high temps at or above 26 degrees C year-round. The rainiest months are generally November and December, and the least rainy months (hence the best time to visit) are February through April. Most other months are also completely fine for visiting, but it’s recommended to avoid leisure travel to Singapore during the period of heavier pollution known as “the haze”; the length and extent of this period varies from year to year, but it’s generally worst in September.
Singapore is home to some spectacular museums, including the ArtScience museum — one of the futuristic attractions at Marina Bay Sands, with an apropos permanent exhibit called Future World — and the National Gallery, displaying modern art from prominent Southeast Asian artists. But the country’s most iconic museum is also its oldest: built in 1887, the National Museum of Singapore serves as the country’s definitive historical record and houses treasured artifacts as well as paintings and other artworks that explore the country’s history and multifaceted culture.
Speaking of the latter: Singapore’s fascinating cultural mix is evident throughout its vibrant neighborhoods. There’s Little India, with its busy markets and 24-hour stores (regularly scheduled Little India Heritage Walks are the best way to see it), and Chinatown, with its world-famous hawker stalls (located on Smith Street) serving fresh, authentic dishes in a fantastically frenetic setting. There’s also Kampong Glam, with its Turkish and Mediterranean restaurants, flea markets, and the stately Sultan Mosque.
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