Singapore travel guide and things to do: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors

Singapore is often thought of as Asia-light, a safe, sometimes vapid city-state with uptight rules and up-high skyscrapers. But scratch the shiny surface of the Lion City and you have plate-scrapingly-good meals for next to nothing, rich and varied history and pockets of lush jungle.

With the travel corridor between Australia and Singapore now open, it's the perfect time to visit the city for the first time. If you've never been, here are a few things that may surprise you.

They really, really love rules

We have all heard about the island nation's hatred of chewing gum, but it is true that Singapore is obsessed with order. It has been a bit of a COVID success story by following strict rules. Masks are still required inside and out, only two people can currently go out together anywhere (this is being reviewed) and there is a vaccinated economy that is strictly enforced. Get the TraceTogether app before you go, expect a rapid COVID test at the airport and carry proof of your vaccination as soon as you leave the house. Sentosa Beach is currently available by booking only and if you see someone in a red shirt they are a COVID safety ambassador and they will not mess around. Fines for breaches are sky high. Dining is not very relaxing currently as you cannot talk to or interact with other tables, last drinks are at 10pm and your glass will be removed, empty or full, at 10.30pm. Not the party city it once was. See moh.gov.sg

You can reserve a hawker table with a tissue packet


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Images supplied for Traveller by laura.sedgwick@adhesivepr.com.au

Another fun "rule" is the practice of "choping". If you see a packet of tissues sitting alone on an empty hawker table, that table has been choped, or reserved, and the owner of the tissues is off ordering their chicken rice. Ignore this modern day planting of a territorial flag at your peril, but how much space one tissue pack can reserve is still a matter of national debate.

You can live very cheaply

Singapore has a reputation for fleecing foreigners but if you live like a local you can eat well at hawker stalls, shop at local designer stores and get out and into nature for next to nothing. There is even a Makan Index (see lib.nus.edu.sg) that keeps an eye on hawker food and can point to the cheapest neighbourhoods to eat out in. And taxis costs are minimal compared to the rest of the world so grab your Comfort DelGro taxi app and take them everywhere.

You can also spend an absolute fortune

Singapore - May 3, 2018: Infinity Pool at sunset of Skypark that tops the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino from rooftop of La Vie Club Lounge on 57th floor. Financial district skyline on background. singapore

Photo: iStock

Once a place has four walls and air-conditioning prepare to pay big bucks. If it is an expat hang, expect the price to rise even higher. This is definitely a two-speed economy where you can pay $80 for a bottle of mid-shelf Jacob's Creek and fork out four or five times the price of the same Aussie beef you could be eating at home, but with more air miles to its name. That said, you do want to have that one cocktail next to the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands (above). See marinabaysands.com

Parks and public places are packed on a Sunday

Sunday is when all the helpers and nannies get the day off (if they are lucky) and, with no homes to entertain people in, they all hit the streets, parks and shopping malls. It really brings some areas to life with mini-parties and boom boxes (pre-COVID) but if you are after a quiet picnic, go for Saturday.

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There is a gruesome museum depicting Buddhist hell

Haw Par Villa
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Images supplied for Traveller by laura.sedgwick@adhesivepr.com.au

Graphic violence, contorted monsters who are half-person, half crustacean and scenes of torture and despair, that is just the start of the fun at Haw Par Villa a sculpture park dedicated to the more obscure parts of Chinese folklore. See hawparvilla.sg

You can go bushwalking with crocodiles


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They are not Dundee-sized or anything but you might well spot a crocodile sunning itself on a footpath if you are on a nature walk at Sungei Buloh Wetlands (above), at the far north of the island. The area is also full of tropical birdlife that you can observe from the hides and observation decks scattered around the park. See nparks.gov.sg

Things can get quite wild

Singapore is known as a sterile cityscape but there are pockets of the island that are so full of greenery you would need a machete to get through the dense foliage. MacRitchie Reservoir Park is a thick green rainforest in the middle of the island just a few hundred metres from apartment blocks. The reserve is home to gangs of marauding macaques who will steal your lunch and disappear into the stands of rubber trees never to be seen again. And, with cleaner waterways and the COVID lockdowns, otters have returned to the Singapore River and Marina Bay area. See nparks.gov.sg

You can go out all day and never see the sun

A surprising amount of the Lion City is connected via tunnels that can keep you out of the steaming midday heat or stop you getting soaked in a tropical downpour. You can shop for hours, or even days, on Orchard Road and never have to breathe fresh air, or you can explore the network of tunnels around the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE) full of shops, train stations and plenty of buskers.

Visit a secret rooftop garden

Anyone who has travelled through Asia knows that Buddha was pretty careless with his belongings and body parts, with temples to his handprints, robes and even teeth. The fourth floor of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore's Chinatown is an oasis away from the shopping and eating down below. There is even a giant prayer wheel for you to spin. See visitsingapore.com

Some touristy things are still awesome


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Yes, you have to have a Singapore Sling at Raffles, the hotel that emerged recently from an 18-month mega-renovation. It has retained its 19th century charm but even the Singapore Sling has had a slight tweak, making it a bit less saccharine. It might be over $30 a glass but sitting in the Long Bar (above) with a Sling in hand is still the closest thing we have to time travel. Also the Singapore Zoo is quite simply how all zoos should be, semi-free-range where you can almost touch noses with a sloth as it climbs overhead. See raffles.com; mandai.com/en/

There is a new baby panda at the Singapore Zoo

The first-ever giant panda cub to grace the island nation was born this year and is a great reason to visit the sprawling jungle zoo.

Street food comes with a safety rating

If you have a Western tummy you can use the ratings at the hawkers stalls to be extra safe. Stalls have a rating from A-C but most come towards the top of the scale and a C is hardly taking your life in your hands. Try the char kuay teow (fried flat noodles), bak kuh teh (peppery pork soup) or roti prata (with a side of fish curry). Head to the Makansutra website or app to find the most revered stalls or visit their own collection of hawker greatest hits at Gluttons Bay. See makansutra.com

The pepper crab is better than the chilli crab

A pile of crustacean in a rich, red chilli sauce may be the poster child for Singapore dining but the black pepper crab is the go-to for those in the know. For a truly local experience head to No Signboard Seafood in Geylang.

Fish eyes are a delicacy

Just as you can immerse yourself in a Chinatown here, Little India in Singapore is packed full of great eating, spice markets and pop-up markets that make you feel like you are in that country. For the perfect mash-up of cultures, have a fish head curry at Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant, the eyes are said to be the best part. See thebananaleafapolo.com

There is an orchid named after Bindi Irwin

Dendrobium Bindi Irwin can be found in the Singapore Botanic Gardens at the VIP Orchid Garden that has been an attraction since 1956. She is not alone, there is also a flower there named in honour of the late Princess Diana. See nparks.gov.sg

Cycling is an upcoming mode of transport

Unlike many Asian cities, cyclists used to risk their lives on the roads of Singapore where cars pay a premium to drive on the roads and behave like they own them. But a new SG Bike bike-share system, and an increase in locals taking to two wheels, means cycling is no longer the sole the domain of Lycra-loving expats. See sgbike.com.sg

Balestier Road is a secret foodie strip

When it comes to hawkers, Maxwell Road is more famous, La Pa Sat more ornate but the food along the non-descript Balestier Road is full of hidden foodie gems. Try the tau sar piah at Loong Fatt (bean paste in flaky pastry), have some rojak at Hoover Rojak (fresh fruit and veg tossed in shrimp-paste dressing) or grab a fresh and very smelly durian from the market. See sethlui.com

You could stay for a long time and not get bored

Often thought of as a quick stopover to somewhere more "authentic" there is a reason that Singapore is full of expats. It is a great, safe and interesting place to explore so consider staying longer than a couple of days.

You'll want to go to spend time at the airport

Changi International Airport may have been eclipsed recently by Doha as the world's best airport but it is a wonderfully serene (there are no announcements) and interesting place to while away a few hours. And with the addition of the multi-million dollar Jewel Changi Airport next door you will want to call that taxi a bit early. Locals actually head to the airport to spend time, it's that good. See changiairport.com

See visitsingapore.com; singaporeair.com

Singapore is now open to vaccinated Australians for quarantine-free visits. However, there remain some testing requirements and other rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19. See https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/destinations/asia/singapore for more details.

Paul Chai has had a long connection with Singapore, including living and working there for two years.

See also: US, yes; Japan, no: Where you can (and can't) travel to now borders are open

See also: Singapore Airlines brings back superjumbo to Australian route

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