48 hours in Singapore

Modern skyscrapers and ancient traditions rub shoulders in this steamy tropical city. Mark Rowe escapes for a weekend of winter sunshine
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The Independent Travel



A winter break in this tropical city, where you can enjoy 12 hours of daylight and a fairly constant 32C, will soon make you forget the dark nights back home. Singapore is one of the world's most compelling and intriguing cultural melting pots. To its fascinating history and outstanding food have recently been added some spectacular art installations that consolidate Singapore's reputation as a destination in its own right, and not just a stopover en route to Australia.


Non-stop flights take around 12 hours from Manchester or Heathrow with Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; www.singaporeair.co.uk), or from Heathrow on Qantas (08457 747 767; www.qantas.co.uk) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Flights are available for under £500 through discount agents. For only slightly more, you can choose Singapore as a stopover en route to Australia or New Zealand. Beautiful Changi airport is 12 miles east of the city centre. The metro, known as the MRT, will whisk you in 30 air-conditioned minutes to the centre of town for S$1.40 (50p). A taxi will cost around S$20 (£7.50), while a maxicab shared with up to four other people costs S$7 (£2.60) each.


The city grew up around the Singapore River. On its north side is the colonial quarter, beyond which lies a series of smart shopping malls flanked by Little India and the adjacent Arab Quarter. On the west bank stand the towering financial houses, in whose shadow lies Chinatown. A helpful tourist office stands on the corner of Orchard Road and Cairnhill Road (00 65 6736 6622, www.stb.com.sg); it opens 8am-9pm daily. Singapore is reasonably pedestrian friendly. However, the heat frequently makes transport a necessity; besides the MRT and buses, there are plenty of taxis.


The highlight of the Singapore Shangri-La at Orange Grove Road (00 65 6737 3644; www.shangri-la.com) is the opulent lobby lounge - all feng shui pillars and glass windows. Rates start at S$600 (£224) for a double, excluding breakfast. To reduce this figure, consider booking a bespoke package through a specialist such as Asia World (0870 0799 788) or Quest Travel (0870 444 5552; www.questtravel.com); for five nights at the Shangri-La, and return flights from London on Singapore Airlines or Qantas, both Asia and Quest quote around £950 per person. The New Otani at 177a River Valley Road (00 65 6338 3333; www.newotanisingapore.com) is an impressive Japanese-run four-star hotel close to Boat Quay which offers fine river, harbour and city views, and an open-air swimming pool, for S$130 (£48) including breakfast. The YMCA at 1 Orchard Road (00 65 6336 6000; www.ymca.org.sg) is very good value, with singles from S$90 (£33.50) and twin rooms from S$100 (£37) including breakfast and use of the rooftop swimming-pool.


To see how unwarranted is Singapore's reputation for monoculturalism, take a walk down South Bridge Road, starting at the junction with Cross Street . Though this is the heart of Chinatown, you first come to the Jamae Mosque and then the colourful southern Indian Sri Mariamman temple . Turn right down Pagoda Street past some restored shophouses to number 48 - the Chinatown Heritage Centre . This house (00 65 6325 2878; www.chinatownheritage.com.sg) contains a fascinating record of the Chinese community in Singapore; it opens 10am-7pm daily, S$8 (£2.85). From here, return along Pagoda Street and South Bridge Road and turn right along Cross Street to reach Telok Ayer Street. Here you will find the city's most attractive Chinese temple, Thian Hock Keng . By now, you may be in need of a refreshing fruit juice, in which case the Amoy Street hawker centre is conveniently only a few yards away.


To the right of the gaily-painted former police station on Hill Street , steep steps lead up to Fort Canning Park, where Sir Stamford Raffles - the man who put Singapore on European maps - built his residence. He looked down on swamps and grazing bullocks. Nowadays, if you move between the frangipani and the fig trees, you'll see Chinatown, the skyscrapers belonging to the financial houses and the colonial courthouse.


Choose a hawker centre, where dozens of vendors offering extremely fast food compete for your custom. The best is the Lau Pa Sat festival market , on the corner of Boon Tat Street and Robinson Road, where 100 stalls offering noodles, fish and meat sprawl across a Victorian filigree building amid impressive cast-iron arches. Most dishes cost around S$4 (£1.50).


The Asian Civilisations Museum (00 65 6332 7991; www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/acm.shtml) opened its new flagship premises last year in the whitewashed Empress Place building . The beautifully laid out galleries comprise an outstanding collection of artefacts, including stone carvings from Angkor Wat and tribal relics from Borneo. Informative hands-on video guides explain everything from trade winds to the history of rice cultivation. It opens 9am-6pm daily (except Mondays from noon, and Fridays until 9pm), admission is S$3 (£1.10).


Some dismiss it as a cliché, but as clichés go it's one of the best: start the evening with a Singapore Sling for S$14 (£5.20) at Raffles Hotel , at 1 Beach Road (00 65 6337 1886; www.raffles.com). Most sip theirs in the dingy and supercooled Long Bar on the first floor: instead, settle under the stars and among palm trees in Raffles Courtyard, which has an attractive gazebo bar.


For a meal with a view, take the glass lift to the 37th floor of the Pan Pacific hotel (00 65 6826 8338; www.singapore.panpacific.com) at 7 Raffles Boulevard and the highly regarded Hai Tien Lo Chinese restaurant. The top-class menu offers traditional dishes such as Peking Duck and the more acquired taste of Bird's Nest soup. A meal for two people including drinks costs around S$200 (£65). For alfresco dining, try the Indonesian Riverside Restaurant at 1-4 Riverside Point (00 65 6535 0383). Try sambal udang (hot sweet and sour prawns with chilli and garlic) and ayam rendang (delicious creamy chicken curry). A meal for two with drinks costs around S$60 (£20). Woodlands at 12-14 Upper Dickson Road (00 65 6297 1594), is a gem of a family-run restaurant in Little India offering vegetarian Indian fare including dhosas as long as your forearm. It's difficult to spend more than S$7 (£2.60) a head.


St Andrew's , at 11 St Andrew's Road, is a classic colonial cathedral, early English Gothic in style, with whirring fans hovering overhead. It was built by Indian convicts in the 1850s who used Madras Chunam - a mixture of egg white, shell lime and sugar - to give the cathedral its striking white interior.


Not everything at Raffles costs an arm and a leg. The hotel's Ah Tengs bakery, entered from Bras Basah road, offers tasty made-to-order sandwiches and coffee or tea for just S$6 (£2.20) within a colonial air of bentwood chairs and marble-topped tables.


Skip Orchard Road, the city's best-known drag, unless you've travelled 6,700 miles for an American shopping mall experience. For classy clothes, head for Raffles City shopping centre and in particular British India (00 65 6333 3536) which sells chic well-priced clothes. In the nearby CHIJMES complex , the two stores run by Peter Ho (00 65 6339 6880) sell oriental household goods, such as coasters and cotton lampshades. For Chinese wickerwork and porcelain, head for Zhen Lacquer Gallery at 1 Trengganu Street in Chinatown.


The leafy grounds of Singapore's botanical gardens , best entered through the Tanglin gate off Napier Road, provide shady relief from the tropical heat. There are giant fig trees with dangling spidery aerial roots and a small section of rainforest. It's also worth popping into the exquisite National Orchid Gardens S$2 (75p) in the centre of the park.


While reclining in the Tea Chapter at 9 Neil Road (00 65 6226 1175; www.tea-chapter.com.sg), a wonderfully restored teahouse, where you can pull up a chair (or a pillow in the case of the low-slung Japanese tables on the third floor) for as long as you wish. The helpful staff will introduce you to the intricacies of tea brewing and drinking and then leave you to it. You can refill your kettle as often as you like, all for around S$5 (£1.85).


As night falls, order a glass of Tiger beer at one of the al-fresco bars that line Clarke Quay . Then hop on a bumboat S$12 (£4.50) from the adjacent pier for a 30-minute cruise down the river. Singapore's skyline is more modest than Hong Kong's but infinitely more varied, with the financial quarter's skyscrapers by the water's edge and the beckoning lights of Boat Quay, buzzing with restaurants and bars. You pass Raffles Landing Place , where a statue marks the point at which Singapore's founder first stepped ashore. Then you reach the harbour, and the spectacular twin domes of the Esplanade - Theatres by the Bay complex (00 65 6348 555; www.esplanade.com). Nicknamed "the durians", after their resemblance to the pungent local fruit, they house Singapore's new concert hall.


Take the MRT to Tanah Merah, also called EW4, from where Bus 2 S$1.20 (44p) will take you to the Changi Chapel and Museum, which recounts the wartime invasion and occupation of Singapore by the Japanese. The museum (00 65 6214 2451; www.changimuseum.com) draws heavily on personal accounts of the ordeal; it opens 9.30am-4.30pm daily, admission free.