SINGAPORE—More and more Filipinos are making Singapore their long-weekend-away choice destination, thanks to its relative proximity, the vast eating and shopping choices it offers, and more recently and more importantly, the number of budget airlines that now fly to the Lion City.
Thanks to social media, I have become a resource of sorts to friends and family who come here, asking what they can do over what is normally a three- or four-day long weekend.
“With so many choices, what can I do to make my short stay worthwhile?” they always ask.
I always say, “Pick your battles!” then promptly send them an e-mail or private message containing some of entertainment, food, hotel and shopping recommendations for making the most of their long weekend in one of the safest and most efficient countries on earth.
Go online for the best hotel deals. Normal rates are pricey, so it’s worth it to do a little digging. Agoda, Booking.com and Trivago are particularly helpful.
There are also new 3- and 4- star hotels, like those from the Far East, Holiday Inn, Park Royal, Ramada and Worldhotel groups, sprouting throughout the city, and Singaporean shop houses are being remade as boutique hotels in areas such as Chinatown and Bras Basah, by innovative younger-generation locals.
Don’t be daunted by location, other than, of course, the dodgy parts of town (there aren’t that many, and even those have a history and vibe!), because Singapore is small, and very much connected, thanks to its super efficient public transport system.
The Central Business District (Raffles Place, Suntec and Tanjong Pagar), for example, has some hotels catering to businessmen, but they also make for perfectly good family accommodations as well.
Most hotels offer free Wi-Fi, and some even offer free meals (yes, meals—plural!), and it’s worth it to ask if they can extend it to you, or if there’s a promotion you can avail yourself of.
Orchard Road is synonymous with Singapore for shopping, and it is justifiably so since you can find every local and popular international brand within its just over two-kilometer area.
I strongly suggest starting on one end of Orchard and making your way to the end, because it makes for good exercise or a good way to build up an appetite.
Everything is connected, and you can comfortably cover the entire district in a day.
Orchard is the place where, for example, retail jewelry stores stand side-to-side with family jewelers, who normally can be bargained with.
There are also small stores run by young, local designers and entrepreneurs whose collections make for one-of-a-kind purchases.
Wander in and out of each building, because even the ones that don’t look like malls offer some shopping experience.
Singapore goes on super sale from end of May to end of July every year at The Great Singapore Sale. Tourists from all over the region converge in Orchard to grab pretty sizeable discounts, including from the pricier designer brands.
At the end of the shopping belt is Plaza Singapura. From there, take the MRT to Raffles City (one stop), another mall from which you can walk to Suntec City-Marina Square area (you can MRT it too, but there are heaps of stores underground that you’d miss out on if you did), and if you’re really up to walking some more, end the day at Marina Bay Sands.
That’s Day One, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the shopaholic wife, daughter, or girlfriend sorted.
Singapore has really blossomed into an entertainment center in recent years. Plays, concerts, exhibits and shows are constantly changed to keep public interest up and offer variety to what is really a rather small population compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors.
From the queries I receive, it seems that the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari are tops of everyone’s list, but I would suggest this only if you like the outdoors, really love animals, or if your child really wants to, because it is a whole (hot and humid) day and obviously, night, affair.
The zoo recently opened its River Safari attraction though, so if you are going to make a day off it, go the whole hog!
Have the Breakfast with the Animals experience (worth the money, this one—a good buffet spread will wake you up for the active day ahead, and you get to interact with orangutans and reptiles up close and very personal!), do the zoo tour and the River Safari, then end the day riding a tram alongside the red-eyed, nocturnal animals of the Night Safari.
If sea creatures are more your thing, head to Sentosa instead because Singapore is home to the largest indoor aquarium in the world—the S.E.A. Aquarium.
Air-conditioned, with lots of amazing marine life, including one attraction I won’t give away, but is so amazing, it gets me every single time (think Aquaman… or Nemo, depending on how old you are!).
After that, you can check out the Trick Eye Museum for lots of fun pics to post on Facebook.
Sentosa is also home to Universal Studios Singapore, which is also a whole-day event. Ride everything if you can (the Transformers ride is a family fave), take photos with all the characters you see (the Minions and Kung Fu Panda are quite popular), and do bring an extra top, or two, because there are some wet-and-wild rides that you’ll want to do a second time!
For the more cultural, Singapore is home to some pretty amazing museums.
The National Museum is housed in a beautiful colonial building, the Ancient Civilisations Museum is amaaazing (misspelling intentional), the Singapore Art Museum is a relaxing tour, but the most popular is the ArtScience Museum, which is the giant lotus next to Marina Bay Sands. Check their respective websites for ongoing exhibits.
There are also walking tours of Singapore, for those who appreciate history (and not to mention, their incredibly preserved and much-loved architecture). Go online to search for the one most interesting to you, but truth be told, a walking tour is really a great way to immerse yourself in the multiculturalism that thrives in Singapore today.
Perhaps the best physical manifestation of Singapore’s multicultural society is in its food. Enter a community hawker center (food markets) and you will instantly know the cultural composition of the area.
The hawker centers are not only places to eat, but also where communities converge from morning till night.
Go to one at 9 a.m. and see elderly “uncles” and “aunties” conversing about today’s news over kopi or teh (coffee or tea), perfectly grilled thin-cut bread spread with kaya (coconut or pandan jam), peanut butter or a giant slab of butter (how they stay so thin, I still don’t know!) and soft-boiled eggs done in their traditional way (I suggest you ask an uncle how, because it’s not how we in the Philippines do it!).
While chicken rice is extremely popular with Filipinos, there is so much more to Singaporean food.
For one thing, their nasi lemak (coconut rice served with fried or chicken curry, anchovies and pickles) is never the same in any one hawker stall, and it’s fried rice version, nasi goreng, served with satay sticks (no one does peanut sauce like they do here and in Malaysia), is just my definition of heaven—spicy, carb-y (again, forgive my made-up words!) and peanut-y.
Speaking of satay, there are stalls that make all their money (and educate generations) from these glorious sticks of meat, served with an oversupply of what is often a secret-recipe peanut sauce and crushed pineapple. Tuck into a dozen. You won’t even notice you’ve eaten them all!
And then there’s the world famous Singapore chili crab, which every restaurant has a different version of. Some of the bigger names in chili crab are Jumbo, Longbeach and No Signboard, but I personally prefer Mellben Seafood.
Other noteworthy Singaporean crab dishes worth trying are their butter, pepper and clay pot bee hon crabs, all served with either steamed or fried mantou (bun).
A word of caution, since I did read about the Pinoy family who ended up paying a couple of hundred dollars for their chili crab—always specify that you want a Sri Lankan crab. Don’t bother with an Alaskan king crab because to be honest, besides being massively expensive, the local sauces don’t soak in that well.
Another popular dish is their poh piah (their version of the Chinese lumpia or spring roll). Again, every stall makes its version differently, and do ask them to slather on some chili for a good kick!
A lesser known, but personal favorite in my local hawker center, is their braised duck rice. A rice topping dish made up of soy sauce braised thinly-sliced duck, yam rice (cooked in the sauced, which gives it a beautiful brown color), braised Chinese tofu and hard boiled eggs, this classic Teochew (of eastern Guangdong, China origins) dish is heaven on earth, at least for a foodie like me.
And finally, dessert.
Singapore is not known for its rich, gooey confections (although the younger, more western generation is definitely catching on), but rather for its not-so-sweet, nourishing meal enders or mid-afternoon snacks like hot almond or sesame cream, red or green beans soup, bubur cha cha (their version of our ginataan) herbal jelly, mango with sago, and a personal favorite, tau suan (yam paste with gingko nuts)
They also have Singaporean versions of our kakanin called kueh. Check out their kueh lapis and bingka ubi, which are the localized, but still very familiar-looking, versions of our sapin-sapin and cassava cake.
Some Peranakan (loosely described as a mix of Chinese and Malay influences) buffets, like the one at the Copthorne King’s Hotel, actually make them on the spot the traditional way!
Singapore over a long weekend promises to be a busy mix of eating, entertainment and shopping, so come over but be warned—you may need a vacation from your vacation!