Once known for financial expats and quick stopovers, Singapore has found its groove post-COVID-19, with a wellness push, new hip beach clubs and festivals - and even more green spaces.
IT'S been a fair few years since I last saw Singapore and, while I was away, the Garden City got cool. It's not so beige anymore. And it's so much more than a stopover.
With a recent wellness blitz, a new development in Sentosa and some super cool or quirky (or both) restaurants and bars, there's something for everyone. Here are 74 things that are great about Singapore right now.
On a recent five-day trip, I was told about this at least 20 times - Singapore is undergoing a wellness revolution, with adult wellness experiences a priority. Lots of hotels have introduced wellness initiatives beyond the pillow menu - think entire wellness food menus, beauty products, feng shui design and even bespoke playlists - so it pays to ask about their options.
Wellness restaurants abound, such as Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa's vegan/vegetarian pop-up turned permanent restaurant Casserole, where you can order green juice "detox mojitos" (still with alcohol!) and banana leaf dry-braised "beef" rendang.
At Wellness Festival 2023, the government bankrolled hundreds of fitness, mental health, lifestyle, arts, family, food, mindfulness and nature-based wellness initiatives and events. Tourists and locals could sign up to animal yoga and equine wellness, classes in MMA, dance, Muay Thai and rooftop cycling, workshops in resilience and creativity, laughter and sleeping, sound bath meditations, beats therapy, scent journeys, immersive rainforest trails, wellness experience spaces, stretch lounges and (much) more.
Aromatherapy is a global wellness trend and at Scentopia, you can take a personality test in order to create your own perfect signature scent. Opened last year with a view to helping tourists create a keepsake to remember, the funky boutique offers free scent-crafting workshops - you just pay for the gorgeous fragrance bottle at the end. Choose between 300 unique orchid-infused aromas - the largest collection of orchid perfumes in Asia - such as the national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim, as well as rainforest and other floral ingredients.
Blending custom perfumes onsite is something Sifr Aromatics on Arab Street in Singapore's Kampong neighbourhood has been doing for more than a decade (owner Johari Kazura is a third-generation perfumer). They also do workshops and demos and sell their gorgeous scents online. And Scent by Six offers fragrance workshops at its four Singapore boutiques, tailored to provide an exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it's like being a perfumer.
COOL BEACH CLUBS
Once it may have seemed kitsch and a tad tired, but Sentosa - the island resort over the bridge from Singapore proper - has had a major glow up. No longer just a place for tired UK-bound parents to stop for a couple of days to distract their kids, it's for the DINKs as well.
It's still a safe place - and we all need a bit of that in our lives right now - but it's become more interesting.
The Palawan is the new 17,000 square-metre lifestyle and entertainment precinct built by the Shangri-La Group; finally open after years in the planning and a few COVID-19-related delays.
It's full of restaurants, bars, pop-ups and activities, but it's Tipsy Unicorn that locals and tourists are most raving about. The sexy beach club on the sand is a pastel-pink house of fun, with small bites and grilled seafood, craft cocktails and open-air DJs, as well as a pool, spa, cosy lounges and private karaoke cabanas.
SO MUCH ACTION
What I love the most in Singapore is that tropical sweltering summer heat. My hotel's doormen would giggle when I headed out into the morning steam for a stroll - but there's something to be said for what that warmth does for your skin and your spirits.
In Sentosa, you can now bounce, fly, bungee, zipline, feast on wings and pizza, rope climb, indoor skydive, Skywalk, play on the six themed zones in Universal Studios at Resort World, hit the three-kilometre beach walk, or cable car up to Mount Faber. The new S.E.A. Aquarium has four marine zones, art installations and the interactive Aquarist Lab, where you can get behind how it all works. Other new Sentosa attractions include UltraGolf, an 18-hole beachside mini golf course and HyperDrive, Asia's first indoor gamified electric go-kart arena, where racers combine real-life racing with virtual reality (you can, for example, shoot competitors or turbo charge your ride) in fancy, fast electric racers on a three-level, 308-metre long racetrack designed by former go-karting world champ David Terrien.
Back on the mainland, at the new and massive sports complex Trifecta, you can snowboard, ski, surf and skateboard in the one compound, with virtual reality snow terrains, the first surfskate circuit in Singapore, and a deep water-wave pool.
Asia's tallest Slingshot offers extreme rides such as the 70-metre Slingshot into the sky or the GX-5 Extreme Swing that free-falls at speeds of more than 120kmh.
With almost half of the city-state green space, still one of the best things you can do, ever, is spend several hours strolling the famous Singapore Botanic Gardens. At 165 years old, it's not a new attraction ... but it's constantly evolving - and the National Orchid Garden is simply one of the most relaxing, beautiful (and cooling) experiences you can have. Walk a loop around and down and sight, smell and feel more orchids than you ever knew existed - more than 1200 species and 2000 hybrids. This place has even more special significance with the recent announcement that many orchids around the world are endangered.
The rest of the free-to-enter 82-hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site is a thrill, too - leave more time than you think to tour the lakes, rainforests, herbarium, sculptures and gardens for ginger, children and frangipanis.
For more human-engineered magnificent greenness, head to Gardens by the Bay, with its futuristic and oft-photographed Supertree Grove, Flower Dome, Cloud Forest, treetop walk and indoor waterfall.
Not content with all that wonderful park life, this year the powers that be in Singapore launched Bird Paradise, one of the largest bird parks in the world, with more than 400 species, including those critically endangered such as a breeding pair of Philippine eagles. Check out Penguin Cove, one of the world's largest sub-Antarctic, cold saltwater habitats for penguins, as well as other immersive environments such as the large Heart of Africa forest with cranes, weavers and parrots, and the South American-inspired Crimson Wetlands with flamingos, spoonbills and ibises. There are eight walk-in aviaries, interactive encounters, tours, bird shows and a night safari.
EXPLORE THE NEIGHBOURHOODS
There's so much great architecture, a mixture of old and new, in Singapore's many unique and character-filled neighbourhoods.
In Chinatown, you can discover colourful and vibrant streets, boutiques, street art, food and markets, cafes and restaurants and historic places of worship such as the beautiful Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and the bright Sri Mariamman Temple.
The Muslim quarter of Kampong Gelam dates back to the 1800s and now seamlessly blends old and new - you'll find modern art, traditional Arab craft, the impressive Sultan Mosque and the famous Rich & Good Cake Shop here. Head to Haji Lane to find bars, cafes and shops all decorated with beautiful and bright murals, and the parallel Arab Street, with textiles shops and casual restaurants serving spicy Malay and global fare.
In Little India, discover Indian culture, authentic cuisine and the historic Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple.
By the way, this is a shopping-free guide: you already know you'll be hitting up Orchard Road. But it is worth mentioning that the excellent airport (no, that's not an oxymoron) Changi Jewel is its own micro-neighbourhood and so popular that a heap of airlines are happy to check you in 24 hours early, so hit the walkways and waterfalls, dine in and, of course, shop in the hundreds of stores.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
As a melting pot of so many culinary cultures, Singapore is famous for its fabulous food. It's a mix up of multi-Michelin-starred fine diners and accessible but high quality hawker food, so you can spend a lot or a little and consistently eat well.
The former includes French restaurant Les Amis helmed by Chef Sebastien Lepinoy; Singapore's first South American fine-dining restaurant, Araya; Swedish-inspired Brasserie Astoria in Singapore's historic Victoria concert hall; and the reopened and phenomenal JAG. Less flashy is Samy's Curry in Dempsey, where the cold mango lassi and curry on a banana leaf is the best on the island. There's even meaty fare, thanks to Aussie chef Pete Smit opening Underdog Inn, a restaurant inspired by nose-to-tail philosophy.
Chicken rice, laksa, chilli crab, satay: "hawker culture" is so diverse it was inscribed in 2020 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Swing by the only beachside hawker centre in Singapore, East Coast Lagoon Food Village or, for Singapore-style Chinese dishes, Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown. The 50-year-old Old Airport Road Food Centre has more than 100 neatly lined-up stalls all on the one floor. Hot tip: arrive early because they get busy - and long lines generally mean the best food.
Singapore not only hosts a variety of cultural festivals - Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Raya - throughout the year, but you'll also be able to celebrate groovy food, music and action sports events.
Outdoor music and theatre venues include Fort Canning Park, the Botanic Gardens or the Esplanade. The super-slick Marina Bay Sands also attracts top names - Matilda the Musical and Rod Stewart are both scheduled for early 2024. Gardens by the Bay has a twice nightly musical light show, Gardens Rhapsody, as well as regular performances and events.
Coming up on November 18-19 is Singapore's first sports and music festival. Trifecta Singapore is from the new surf-skate-snow destination and will feature hit Aussie artist Ruel, Thai singer-songwriter Phum Viphurit of Lover Boy fame and rides, art, food and drinks and (of course, it's Singapore) "wellness experiences".
KOOKY AND BOUTIQUE BARS
Singapore has always been rated for its big and glitzy rooftop bars but, in the last few years, it has really upped its boutique bar creds.
My Singapore-residing sister-in-law raves about Eden at the Pullman, which is new, on a rooftop and has funky, great cocktails and a whisky masterclass. But the most talked about is Atlas, the chic and grand 1920s-style speakeasy in iconic Parkview Square (with free flowing cocktails on Sundays).
We also loved Shangri-La's new Origin bar, themed on the glamour age of train travel ("take this as your one way ticket towards an adventure that never ends"), with the most inventive, exciting cocktails I've ever seen - bubbles, edible lipsticks, explosions and teddy bears all featured.
There really is something for everyone in no-longer-a-stopover Singapore.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines, Scoot, Emirates, British Airways, Virgin Australia, Fiji Airways, Qantas and Jetstar all fly to Singapore from most major Australian cities.
Staying there: Check into Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa, with elegant rooms, a luxurious spa and dedicated kids zone. Rooms from about $420 per night.
Explore more: visitsingapore.com
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The writer travelled courtesy of Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa and Shangri-La Singapore.