Cautiously, cleverly, Singapore is shrugging off the stodgy mantle it’s worn for decades and morphing into a cool, even chic, place to live it up in Asia. Forget the old jokes about chewing gum and caning. The ambitious city-state is wooing the global glitterati with flourishes like the world’s first Formula One night race and a sparkling new casino resort in the heart of the city. This is a place for good food and a colourful cultural mix, heavily Asian but with an increasingly international zest as well.
Author Yu-Mei Balasingamchow Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY TWO / Singapore’s too diverse for there to be such a thing as the Singapore breakfast, but one popular choice is Hainanese charcoal-grilled toast with butter and kaya (coconut jam) and strong-brewed coffee or tea. Try it at Killiney Kopitiam, a coffee shop that has fed this scrumptious fare to generations of Singaporeans.
This morning, you’ll explore some of Singapore’s colonial history, starting at Fort Canning Park. Ask the taxi driver to drop you at the car park at the top of the hill near Fort Canning Centre, where you can take a deep breath of fresh air and look out over the city. Then follow the stairs down to Fort Canning Green, a lawn that was used as a Christian cemetery in colonial times. The graves are long gone, but many of the 19th-century tombstones remain, set into the walls.
If you’re curious about precolonial Singapore, follow the signs along a shady path to the pavilion displaying archaeological artifacts or to the keramat (tomb) said to be the final resting place of Singapore’s 14th-century king Iskandar Shah. Otherwise, take the steps that will bring you down to the National Museum of Singapore. Its Singapore History Gallery provides an audio-visual tour of the area’s history from the 14th century, while the Singapore Living Galleries give a snapshot survey of Singapore’s food, fashion, film, and photographic heritage.
When you’ve soaked up enough history for one morning, take a taxi to Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant for lunch. The house specialty at this 100-year-old Indian-Muslim eatery is murtabak (eggs, meat, and onions wrapped in layers of dough, then fried). The Sultan of Johor is among the restaurant’s customers.
Singapore Zam Zam also is a good starting point for exploring the Arab Street area, the traditional heart of Muslim life in Singapore. Directly opposite the restaurant is Sultan Mosque, Singapore’s biggest mosque and a striking fusion of Turkish, Persian, and Moorish architectural styles. Visitors are welcome, though you’ll have to wait until prayer time ends around 2 p.m., and it gets especially busy on Fridays. If you look up and squint at the base of the golden dome, you’ll see that it’s made up of brown bottles. They were donated by the poor for the construction in the mid-1920s.
The little lanes of Arab Street around the mosque are an intriguing jumble of traditional shops, art galleries, sheesha (Arabian water pipes) cafés, and even the odd bohemian clothing store. Some of these shops are great places to find gifts and art, such as Balai Senu Melayu, which sells Malay shadow puppets and replicas of the kris (traditional Malay dagger).
Drop off your items at the hotel; then adjourn to Persimmon for an early dinner. Styling itself as a Euro-Singaporean bistro, this cosy space pairs an à la carte buffet menu of original Asian-fusion cuisine with retro chic décor. Start with the white-pepper crab cakes or the Hainanese chicken salad, and follow with the laksa fishermen’s pie or spaghetti aglio olio porchetta.
The night’s still young, so take a break from the city and head north to the Night Safari. Whether you explore it on foot or take the tram, you’ll see giant cats, otters, flying squirrels, and many other nocturnal creatures on the prowl.
If you still have energy to burn afterward, pop down to Little India and have a gander at Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour department store that sells everything under the sun, such as tourist trinkets, food, DVDs, and gold jewellery. Spread across six stories, it’s a fun place to shop and people-watch.