Essential guide to Singapore

Belinda Jackson shares her tips for a city-state fling.

STAY - Budget

Singapore's own budget chain is Hotel 81, dotted across the city. The latest is Hotel 81 Dickson. Hot tip: check the room has windows (from $S90, with window, 3 Dickson Road, Little India, 6392 8181, www.hotel81.com.sg). The Ibis Singapore is a new three-star, 538-room hotel already winning awards as Singapore's best budget digs, from $S180 (170 Bencoolen Street, 6593 2888, ibishotel.com). Backpackers should head to pulsing Dunlop Street in Little India. Check out the busy hostels InnCrowd (No. 73, from $S20 a dorm) and Prince of Wales (No. 101, from $S22 a dorm). Best book ahead.

Mid-range

Wanderlust is Singapore's newest hotel, vibrant and fun. Some rooms are New York loft-style, others are named after a song and painted all one colour — great if you love Yellow Submarine or Purple Haze. Opening special from $S180 (2 Dickson Road, Little India, 6396 3322, www.wanderlusthotel.com). The all-white Club Hotel comprises 22 rooms in a 1930s residence. Opened in May, with a tapas and rooftop bar, this is bound to become a Singapore fave, from $S210 (28 Ann Siang Road, Chinatown, 6808 2188, www.theclub.com.sg). Pristine rooms lined with gorgeous local artists are the claim to fame of newcomer Wangz. This efficient little 41-room hotel includes a small hotel gym and Halo rooftop bar, from $S245 (231 Outram Road, Tiong Bahru, 6595 1388, www.wangzhotel.com).

Luxe

If you love the brand, you'll love the four-star Hard Rock Hotel. Singapore lacks a beach, so the hotel imported sand from Perth and made its own lagoon pool. Expect the usual HR gear: Santana axes, KISS Army helmets, from $S450 (8 Sentosa Gateway, 6577 8899, www.hardrockhotelsingapore.com). Hip to the eyeballs, the award-winning 80-room Scarlet Hotel is sultry, groovy and on every trendsetter's lips, from $S320 (33 Erskine Road, Chinatown, 6511 3333, www.thescarlethotel.com). With just 17 rooms, the year-old Klapsons is Singapore's tiniest hotel. It features spas on the terrace and a rooftop bar, with a kooky reception desk encased in a raised, five-metre steel sphere, from $S385, (15 Hoe Chiang Road, city centre, 6521 9030, www.klapsons.com).

Lash out

Little sister to the grand Fullerton Hotel, the new, absolutely five-star Fullerton Bay Hotel has just 100 rooms, all with balconies, overlooking Marina Bay. Key features are the spectacular rooftop bar Lantern and Clifford fine-dining restaurant, from $S500 (80 Collyer Quay, 6333 8388, www.fullertonbayhotel.com). The 527-room Mandarin Oriental has recently launched its new swimming pool and deck, brimming with cabanas flush with fans, iPod docks, Wi-Fi and a button to call your waiter — as it should be ($S493.16, 5 Raffles Avenue, Marina Square, 6885 3030, www.mandarinoriental.com). And of course there's Raffles, with 103 rooms and suites, from $S750 (1 Beach Road, 0011 800 1723 3537 toll free, www.raffles.com).

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SHOP + PLAY

Go shop

Orchard Road is one of the world's best-known shopping strips and boasts a clutch of glossy malls, including the new 313@Somerset, ION Orchard, Mandarin Gallery and Orchard Central. Cruise Ngee Ann City mall for high-street brands such as Massimo Dutti, British India, Zara and Ted Baker. The brands start to repeat themselves as you work your way up Orchard Road. Up several notches is the serene, esteemed Takishimaya department store and mall, home to Coach, Kate Spade, Tod's and friends. Raffles City mall is also swanky. Stiletto fans should visit local-boys-made-good Charles & Keith for chic shoes at mighty fine prices, in every mall. Anti-mall shoppers make a beeline to Haji Lane in Kampong Glam for indie boutiques or raucous Little India for subcontinental homewares, food and fashion. Technology is best found in Funan DigitaLife Mall (109 North Bridge Road) or the cheaper Sim Lim Square, also great for repairs (Viva TechPro! Shop 02-52, 1 Rochor Canal Road). Psst, Victoria's Secret fans, head to Resort World Sentosa's mall.

To market

Sungei Road's daily Thieves Market is where old mobile-phone chargers find a new home. With second-hand shoes and jewellery aplenty and loads of junk, it's good for a short amble after visiting Little India. Bugis Street Market in the Hainanese region of Chinatown pumps with ladies' accessories, while the Chinatown night markets on Temple and Pagoda streets are mostly the same shops open day and night and good for souvenirs.

Live music

Groove to big-band sounds in the Bellini Room or Movida for Latin beats, both in the St James Power Station, which have no cover charge and ladies' night specials (3 Sentosa Gateway). Screening Room's La Terraza bar serves real mojitos, made by a Spaniard, and screens open-air movies (12 Ann Siang Road). Lantern is a spanking-new rooftop poolside bar with 360-degree views. The best seat is in one of the plunge pools at the side. Otherwise, stay dry, grab a Red Lantern cocktail (Don Julio Blanco tequila, Cointreau, watermelon, cucumber and lime) and enjoy the Latino band at Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Nightclubs

Dance your pants off at Zouk, Singapore's premier club, which is split into four sections: a lounge, chilled wine bar, experimental dance/drum and bass/hip-hop room and the main room, which has hosted everyone from Armin van Buuren to Bjork. DJ Mag rated it No. 10 in the world's top 100 clubs list (17 Jiak Kim Street, city centre). Choose from a plethora of bars at Clarke Quay, including Forbidden City on the waterfront, a bar-restaurant-supper club that serves chocolate martinis. Easy to find, it's the one with the enormous terracotta warriors overlooking the outdoor lounges.

SEE + DO

Icons

The Merlion is Singapore's most famous icon, a half-fish, half-lion that represents Singapore, the Lion City, and a busy port (1 Fullerton Road). The new SkyPark on top of the new Marina Bay Sands complex is a must-stop for views of the city and South China Sea. Pick up a free headset guide for the history of Singapore, liberally interspersed with hotel ads ($S20/adults, 10am-10pm daily). Otherwise, at 165 metres, the Singapore Flyer affords great views of the Big Durian ($S29.50/$S20.65 children for 30 minutes, www.singaporeflyer.com).

Culture

The Chinese Heritage Centre is fascinating and great for children. It has realistically re-created the tiny rooms Chinese settlers dwelled in while building the new Singapore, complete with plastic poo in the pan toilets, a soundtrack of crying babies, sizzling woks and the click of clog makers ($S10/$S6 children, 48 Pagoda Street, Chinatown). Rumah Bebe is a modest little shop in Katong, showing intricately woven bead embroidery and offering Nyonya cooking classes and guided tours of Peranakan (Malay-Chinese) history (113 East Coast Road, Katong, 6247 8781, www.rumahbebe.com). At the centre of Little India, Sri Veeramakaliamman temple is dedicated to the fierce goddess Kali, dating from 1881. The gate tower is a riot of colour in an already insanely colourful district (free entry, Serangoon Road, Little India).

On foot

The golden onion-shaped domes of Sultan Mosque in the Kampong Glam district are a great landmark to help you explore this colourful, Arabic-infused district. Start at the mosque in Kandahar Street and wander down to the pedestrian-only Bussorah Street, which is lined with kebab houses and shisha cafes. Then curve up Arab Street and its gorgeous fabric shops and, running parallel, chic Haji Lane for some hot fashion finds. Singapore is the home of Asia's first Universal Studios theme park. It has it all: evil roller-coasters, Shrek and the Madagascar guys doing photos, and an amazing reconstruction of ancient Egyptian sculptures, not to mention Far Far Away Castle. Wear hats and carry water because it gets hot and there's not a lot of shade (from $S66/$S48 children on weekdays, Sentosa Island, www.rwsentosa.com).

Follow the leader

Singapore Explorer bumboat tours are a well-spent half-hour with English commentary down the Singapore River, from Clarke Quay to Merlion Park and Clifford Pier, where migrants from China would first set foot in Singapore (departs Clark Quay, $S12/$S6). The Changi Museum War Trails takes you through the fall of Singapore in World War II, visiting Changi prisoner-of-war camp sites (Saturdays, $S45/$S30, 6325 1631, www.singaporewalks.com). Transit passengers can climb aboard a free hop-on, hop-off service between the airport, city centre and Sentosa to do their own exploring (Singapore Airlines/SilkAir passengers $S6, others $S12, www.siahopon.com).

EAT + DRINK

Cafe Culture

Pull up a seat at long-serving breakfast hot spot Ya Kun for toast smothered with kaya, an egg and coconut jam so sugary it'll induce a facial tic. Then, dip it in runny eggs, splashed with pepper and soy sauce, and wash down with a cup of sweet, milky tea. Yes, really (18 China Street, Civic). Luscious cakes and feathery pastries are on the menu at Everything with Fries, a new, chic little cafe in the historical Peranakan district (458 Joo Chiat Road, Katong). Wild Honey cafe is the hottest place to be seen on a Sunday morning. On order are its world eggs, from Tunisian to Californian styles. Get in early or be prepared to wait (second floor, Mandarin Gallery mall, 333A Orchard Road).

Snack attack

Fuel up on onde onde, sweet balls of coconut-covered glutinous flour with a core of molten palm sugar made by local Peranakan ladies at Kim Choo, 109 East Coast Road, Katong. Bak kwa is sliced, sweet barbecue pork, lashed with sticky honey. It's divine from long-time experts Lim Chee Guam (Basement 4, ION mall, Orchard Road). The queues at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice tell the story. For just $S3.30, you'll get a plate of rice and slab of succulent, boiled chicken with delectable ginger and black soy sauce (Stall 10, Maxwell Food Centre, Maxwell Road, Chinatown). If you don't queue, sit down at Boon Tong Kee for more of the same (425 River Valley Road, River Valley). Little India's best-known mutton biryani maker is Allaudin's Briyani (sic), from $S4.50 (Tekka Food Centre).

Top tables

The set menu at the rustic garden restaurant Min Jiang gives a taste of Sichuan cuisine, from the crispy eel to tea-smoked chicken and pork belly to mango sago pudding (5 Rochester Park, 6774 0122, www.goodwoodparkhotel.com). Hide Yamamoto overlooks the casino floors in the new Marina Bay Sands complex. The menu includes ramen (noodles) and lightly fried blowfish, which, if incorrectly prepared, can kill. Its celeb-chef neighbours include Tetsuya's Waku Ghin, Guy Savoy and Santi Santamaria's tapas lounge, Santi. Singapore Zam Zam, since 1908, is famed for its $S4 mutton murtabak — deep-fried parcels of rice and mutton (opposite Sultan Mosque, 697 North Bridge Road, Kampong Glam). Chilli crab fans rejoice! Jumbo's chain is often quoted as one of the best in town. Head up to the Dempsey Hill branch for a mini-break.

By the glass

Bartender magazine put Tippling Club restaurant and bar at No. 15 of the world's best bars. Chef Ryan Clift (ex-Vue de Monde) and barman Matthew Bax (of Melbourne's Der Raum) seat only 40, with an open-air "forest bar" that serves up molecular mixology drinks (8D Dempsey Road, Dempsey Hill). The Clinic sees drinkers plonked into wheelchairs and drip-fed the booze. Sounds like a delightful retirement plan (Block B, Clarke Quay). The art deco Waterboat House is best visited at sunset, on the rooftop with a glass of champagne (3 Fullerton Road). Raffles Courtyard bar lets you indulge in two great pleasures: outdoor drinking while in the grounds of one of the world's iconic hotels. If you're not having the Singapore Sling, savour a glass of Gruner Veltliner and a club sandwich. Moroccan meets Manhattan in the highest rooftop bar in the world, 1-Altitude, at 282 metres above sea level (Level 63, 1 Raffles Place).

Hot tip

Grab a guide and taxi all in one at the airport, with the Singapore Taxi Tourist Guide, from $S165/taxi (maximum four people), minimum three hours, in Terminal 2, Changi Airport, 6472 7351, www.taxi.org.sg.

Getting there

Singapore is well serviced from Sydney by Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Malaysia Airlines (via Kuala Lumpur). Budget airlines include Jetstar (via Darwin) and AirAsia (via Kuala Lumpur).

Getting around

Metered taxis are cheap and plentiful, MRT trains run until midnight, from 90¢, and the Singapore Tourist Pass gives unlimited rides on all trains and most bus services for $S8/day, www.singaporetouristpass.com.

Visas and currency

Australian tourists don't need a visa to visit Singapore. The local currency is the Singapore dollar ($S), A$1 = $S1.27. The best rates are found at money changers, not banks.

Calling Singapore

The Singaporean country code is (+65). There is no local code for tiny Singapore.

For more information

Singapore Tourism Board, (02) 9290 2888, www.yoursingapore.com.

The writer was a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board, Klapsons, Wangz and the Fullarton Bay Hotel.

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