The driving force behind the South-east Asian commercial boom is a fascinating destination for a short break. Simon Calder explores the city-state's highlights, from its great shops to its fabulous food and diverting museums



This equatorial city-state has a fascinating history and experiences a constant temperature of about 32C and 12 hours of daylight all year round. A new-found sense of identity fuelled by big investments in art and heritage mean that there is much more to Singapore than shopping - though it remains one of the better places in the world to spend money.


Non-stop flights take around 12 hours from Heathrow with British Airways (0870 850 9850;, Qantas (08457 747 767; or Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; The best deals are available for travellers stopping off en route to Australia or New Zealand or as part of "IT" fares.

You arrive at the world's finest airport, Changi, 12 miles east of the city centre, where each terminal has its own tourist office that's open from 6am-2am daily. Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains take about half an hour to reach City Hall, the most convenient station for the centre, or about 10 minutes longer for Orchard Road station, which is close to many of Singapore's hotels. The MRT system is complicated: as well as your S$1.40 (50p) basic fare you have to pay a S$1 deposit on your ticket, and you often have to change trains at Tanah Merah station en route to and from the centre. A cab will take around half an hour and costs S$24 (£9). A shared mini-van costs S$7 (£2.60) per person.


Singapore island is roughly the same size and diamond shape as the Isle of Wight. The city occupies its southern tip, with the old colonial centre clinging to the Singapore river. To the north lie Little India and the Islamic quarter around Arab Street, while Chinatown is on the south bank. More recent developments have brought shops and hotels to Orchard Road. Public transport around the island works well and taxis are cheap (a ride from Little India to Chinatown costs around S$7 (£2.60)). The construction of a new MRT line has created obstructions in many parts of the centre, which makes walking tricky and increases the already heavy traffic congestion.


Travellers heading to or from Australasia often qualify for free or very cheap hotel deals. And if you are going no further than Singapore, the cheapest air tickets are often "IT" prices that require you to buy several nights' accommodation - effectively, your room can be free. If you are booking a room independently, you could opt for one of the smaller and friendlier options. At 40 years old this year, the South East Asia Hotel is a relative antique in Singapore and well-located at 190 Waterloo Street (00 65 6338 2394; A double costs S$88 (£31) including breakfast - you can pay only with cash. Backpacker hostels are mostly in Little India - the pick of the bunch is the InnCrowd at 73 Dunlop Street (00 65 6296 9169; "Any cheaper and we'd be sluts", it asserts; a dorm bed with breakfast and free internet use costs S$18 (£6.50).


Beside the gaily-painted former police station on Hill Street, steps lead up to Fort Canning Park, the site of an early British military fortification. From gaps in the profuse vegetation you can see Chinatown and the city's skyscrapers, while proof that Singapore's colonial heart still beats strongly can be found just downhill at the Fort Canning Country Club.


For a slice of the ancient and the modern, start at the Merlion fountain in the shape of the city's symbol: half-fish, half-lion. Wander along to the Fullerton Hotel, in the old home of the Singapore Club, and then the former post office, which is now another luxury hotel. From here you can cross the Cavanagh Bridge to the city's colonial core. A statue of Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, stands in front of the handsome Victoria Theatre. Skirt past the Singapore Cricket Club and cross the wide Padang to the striking War Memorial. From here, make your way under Esplanade Drive to the new performing arts centre known as Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. The complex looks like a durian fruit split in two and always has art exhibitions inside.


Singapore is a fabulous place to eat - you cannot walk 10 yards in some parts of Chinatown without someone offering to sell you food. At Yum Cha at 20 Trengganu Street you can join the lunchtime crowds for dim sum. After lunch, walk along Pagoda Street to number 48 - the Chinatown Heritage Centre (00 65 6325 2878;, to find out more about Singapore's dominant community. It opens 10am-7pm daily, and admission is S$8 (£3).


Singapore has upped its cultural game in the last couple of years. The Asian Civilisations Museum (00 65 6332 7991; occupies the Empress Building, the former headquarters of the immigration service. The museum places the island in the context of its neighbours, with stone carvings from Angkor Wat, tribal relics from Borneo and - currently - an exhibition of Ottoman treasures. It opens 9am-7pm daily (Mondays from 1pm, Fridays until 9pm), and admission is S$8 (£3). The Singapore Art Museum at 71 Bras Basah Road (00 65 6332 3222; is difficult to find because of construction work, but worth the effort. The building is a work of art in its own right and its contents (chiefly touring exhibitions) are usually rewarding. It opens 10am-7pm daily (except Fridays until 9pm) and admission is S$3 (£1) - free on Fridays after 6pm.


For a high-level thrill, put on some smart casual clothes and head for the 75th floor of Swissôtel The Stamford, where cocktails are slightly cheaper than normal during happy hour from 5-9pm. At ground level there are dozens of options at Clarke Quay, but for something more sophisticated, try Bar Opiume (00 65 6338 8151) - part of the Empress Place complex.


The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, the oldest Catholic school in Singapore, has now been converted into a shopping and eating centre called Chijmes. You can dine on anything from Brazilian to Italian here, but pick of the bunch is Viet Lang (00 65 6337 3379) for exquisite Indo-Chinese curries, stews and noodle dishes. Most restaurant prices are quoted as "triple plus", meaning that 1 per cent government tax, 3 per cent general sales tax and 10 per cent service are added. Less wealthy locals tend to eat at hawker centres - large and lively, these are full of stalls competing to offer the tastiest Asian cuisine and/or the cheapest Tiger beer. A reliable choice is Newton Circus, which is easy to reach on the MRT.


If you eat at Newton Circus you are halfway to the night safari. Every evening from 7.30pm to midnight, Singapore Zoo (00 65 6269 3411; opens its doors for a walk among nocturnal animals such as panthers and leopards. Take the MRT to Ang Mo Kio and transfer to bus 138 (ask the locals at the station because the bus stop is somewhat hidden). Admission is S$15.60 (£6).


St Andrew's Cathedral sits in its own block of the city and its interior is bleached with Madras chunum, a blend of egg white, shell lime and sugar. Look above the pulpit for the Coventry Cross, formed from a pair of nails rescued from the cathedral ruins after the Luftwaffe raid on the English city in 1940.


On Serangoon Road in Little India, visit Komala Villas for a superb South Indian vegetarian thali served on a banana leaf. For this, together with a cup of sweet tea, you will pay S$6 (£2). Like most other eating establishments in Singapore it is open seven days a week.


Orchard Road is the city's best-known drag and is full of glitzy malls such as The Paragon full of all the top European labels, and the closest Singapore comes to "alternative" fashion, up Scott's Road at the Far East Plaza. Between bouts of buying, find your way to the exquisite Peranakan Place, one of the few properly preserved parts of Singapore. For five floors of electronic gizmos make for Funan IT Mall while you can also pick up classy cotton at very low prices on Serangoon Road in Little India.


"Bum boats", the launches that bob around the Singapore river, provide an excellent view of the high-rise city - though the commentary that accompanies the ride may irritate rather than edify. Half-hour tours depart frequently from the north bank of the river, beside the Empress Place complex and cost S$12 (£3.50).


Raffles Hotel at 1 Beach Road (00 65 6337 1886; has much more to offer than expensive Singapore Slings in the dark, cold Long Bar. Take a wander through the palm trees of the courtyard, and go up to the museum on the top floor (open 10am-9pm daily, admission free). Here, an array of sepia photographs, extracts from newspapers, luggage labels and travel posters are relics of an age when people wanting a passage to Australia were obliged to pay "in Sovereigns or Spanish Dollars" and when London was rather more than 12 hours away.