The genius of Sir Stamford Raffles’ town planning is evident from the fact that till today, the different districts of modern-day Singapore can be easily distinguished. The Colonial District, River Area, Orchard Road, Chinatown, Central Business District, Little India and Kampong Glam form the city centre with most of the tourist attractions. Further afield are the eastern, northern and western districts as well as the outlying islands.
Chinatown and the Central Business District
The Chinatown and Central Business District areas are usually crowded with throngs of tourists and office workers. The sprawling skyscrapers of the Central Business District contrasts sharply with the old shophouses of Chinatown but they share a common history as one of the earliest settlements in Singapore. With a number of old temples like the Thian Hock Keng Temple and museums like the Chinatown Heritage Centre, these two areas are a must-visit for anyone who wishes to learn about the early history of Singapore after the British arrived in 1819. This is the place to purchase authentic Chinese handicrafts, traditional Chinese medicinal products as well as sample a taste of Chinese food. The hustle-bustle and vibrancy of the area offers a uniquely Singaporean experience.
The Singapore River divides the Colonial District from the Central Business District, and is divided into three sections: Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay. The three Quays are famous for their nightlife and are Singapore’s most vibrant areas by night. Like candy in a sweetshop, an assortment of bars, pubs and clubs playing a variety of music from jazz to pop to house border the fringes of the Singapore River. A number of above average restaurants are also found amongst the bars and clubs where diners head to for a quick meal before partying the night away. When the sun sets in Singapore and you're in the mood for serious (and we mean serious) fun, this is exactly where you want to be.
The Colonial District is exactly what the title implies, a home to impressive colonial architecture as well as some of Singapore’s best museums. Nestled among the many skyscrapers are charming buildings that serve as reminders of Singapore’s colonial past. Being the heart of the city, modern shopping malls and top-end hotels can also be found in this area. No other place in Singapore has as strong a colonial influence as the Colonial District - and rightly so, since this was where British officials and their families lived during their control of Singapore.
If Chinatown is where you should go to find all things Chinese, then Kampong Glam is the place to visit for all things Malay. With street names of Middle-Eastern cities, it is hard to ignore the Arabic influence in the area. Kampong Glam is home to a number of mosques and also the grandest mosque in Singapore, the Sultan Mosque. Look out for local fashion boutiques that have set up shop in the restored shophouses. Kampung Glam cafes are also some of the few places in Singapore where you can find shisha (hookah), through which a half-tobacco, half-syrup mixture is smoked. This Arabesque district truly comes alive in the evenings when the people gradually the cafes and bars (such as Blu Jaz Cafe) to enjoy music and toss down drinks.
The heart of the Indian community in Singapore is Little India. Highly popular with the Indian immigrant community, it is easy to see how some have commented that it almost feels like walking along a busy street in Chennai or Mumbai. The scores of people that flock to this area create a colourful and vibrant atmosphere. The standout attraction here is definitely the 24-hour Mustafa Centre which comes close to claiming the title of the epitome of chaos in Singapore. The streets in the area are lined with shops selling all sorts of Indian spices, cuisine and textiles. However, Little India is not simply the commercial hub of the Indian community. Beautiful, imposing and intricate Hindu temples can be found scattered throughout the district as well. The kaleidoscopic colours, heady scents and peoples of all ethnicities combine to create a unique experience.
Probably the most famous stretch of road in Singapore, Orchard Road is the shopping mecca of Singapore. Many believe that it is the presence of this road that largely justifies Singapore's reputation as a shopping haven, and post-midnight is probably the only time the roads aren't sardined with human bodies. If you're in the mood for designer goods, you can easily burn an entire day along this stretch of road. Large shopping malls like Ion Orchard or Plaza Singapura house a wide variety of fashion and retail outlets like Gucci and Prada. A number of above average eateries and restaurants like Cafe Modesto's and Esmiralda can also be found here. This is probably disputable but you cannot claim to have visited Singapore if you haven't taken a walk along its famous Orchard Road.
Islands of Singapore
The surrounding islands of Singapore offer a different experience to the concrete jungle of Singapore, and are also popular tourist attractions for those who are here for a longer period of time.
The nearest island to mainland Singapore, Sentosa is an entirely manufactured tourist destination. It is rare to see a whole island dedicated to the tourism trade but that is exactly what Sentosa is. With a variety of sights like the Underwater World and activities like the Sentosa Luge, it is also a popular place for locals looking to escape the hectic city life. Weekends and public holidays see locals flocking to Sentosa in throngs to enjoy the sights and attractions or simply to laze on the man-made beaches. With the opening of the Resorts World Casino and the Universal Studios Theme Park in 2010, the island looks set to draw even larger crowds.
Pulau Ubin and the Southern Isles
With the exception of Sentosa, the islands of Singapore do not usually see a large influx of visitors but this does not mean that they are not worth visiting. Nature lovers will revel in Pulau Ubin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna found in the Chek Jawa Wetlands as well as along the hiking trails covering the island. The Southern Isles of Singapore comprise of Kusu Island, Sisters Islands, Pulau Hantu and Saint John's Island. These islands do not see many visitors but due to their proximity to mainland Singapore, are ideal getaways for those who wish to escape the hectic city life. Although there is nothing much to do or see on these islands, they are a good place to have a picnic, laze by the sea or even, if you are so inclined, camp overnight.
Contrary to popular belief, there is life outside of the city centre of Singapore. The outlying parts of Singapore might be covered with residential estates but there are hidden gems as well. If you are staying for a longer period, you should definitely visit these areas to complete your Singapore experience.
The main concentration of flora and fauna in Singapore is in the northern part of the island. Home to nature reserves, reservoir parks and residential parks, this part of Singapore stands in stark contrast to the sprawling skyscrapers and shopping malls of the city centre. The main attraction in northern Singapore is the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, which have become must-visits on the list of every visitor to Singapore. The orchid gardens and farms found in this part of Singapore lend credence to the theme of flora and fauna. In addition to being the gateway to Malaysia, northern Singapore also has its fair share of memorials and temples like the first and only Burmese Buddhist temple built outside Myanmar, the Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple. With its wide variety of flora and fauna, a trip to northern Singapore comes highly recommended for nature-lovers.
Western Singapore is not just industrial parks and institutes of higher learning. Like the other outlying areas of Singapore, there are hidden gems as well. A number of tourist attractions can be found in the western part of Singapore. The standout attractions include the Jurong Bird Park and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. Nature lovers can also attempt the Southern Ridges Walk that covers a good part of the parks located in the west. Museum-lovers will find unique museums like the Army Museum of Singapore and those found in the compound of the National University of Singapore interesting. When the sun goes down, the nightspots of western Singapore like St. James Power Station and those of Holland Village come alive. If you've time to spare in Singapore, the western region promises to occupy you with its almost inexhaustable list of things to do.
Eastern Singapore is usually dismissed as being of no real importance other than being home to Changi Airport. This, of course, is an understatement. Tucked away in the east are museums, some top-end restaurants and relaxing parks and beaches. Hidden also in the eastern part of Singapore are the neighbourhoods of Joo Chiat and Katong, which are the nucleus of the Peranakan culture. Located at the extreme eastern end of Singapore, the Changi district’s laidback atmosphere contradicts the hectic city life just over 30 minutes away by car. Those looking for a more laidback experience in Singapore should definitely head to the east.