Travel Story Singapore's big four: gardens, architecture, eating and shopping

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Where else would you find a city where a street is shut down to eat satay, a temporary construction fence is covered in a vertical garden and where shopping is a national pastime?

There are four things Singapore excels at, hands down — gardens, architecture, eating and shopping. 

Where else in the world would you find a city where a city-centre street is shut down to eat satay? Where a temporary construction fence is covered in an elaborate vertical garden? Where shopping is a national pastime? And where the architecture of the sloping three skyscrapers of Marina Bay Sands, joined by the Skypark cantilever, gives us a glimpse of a futuristic world?

Singapore has long outgrown its stopover status, positioning itself as a holiday destination in its own right.

It’s a modern city with shiny skyscrapers and hipster precincts but within that it has retained touches of the old school with heritage neighbourhoods and a population that still dines out at dirt-cheap hawker centres.

Within the glamour of the modern city you often forget you’re in Asia until you notice the mini-trucks cruising down the freeway with trays crowded with migrant workers, or the odd rickshaw that isn’t carting tourists around.

At first these moments jar and confuse, before becoming the fabric of what makes Singapore a unique destination.

Singapore’s most striking element is its greenery. With its extremes of humidity and daily rain, it seems anything can grow anywhere — climbing buildings, shading streets, atop skyscrapers, along fences.

The best place to appreciate Singapore’s garden mastery is the 82ha World Heritage-listed Botanic Gardens and, within that, the National Orchid Garden.

The gardens have had an orchid breeding program since 1928, and the fruits of those labours are on full display, with more than 1000 species and 2000 hybrids on display. The work that goes into these intricate gardens is mind-blowing.

Pathways lead us past a rainbow of orchids, calming water features, tropical greenery and beneath winding arches — the most spectacular of which are the Golden Shower Arches.

Within the gardens are separate houses, including the impressive Yuen-Peng McNeice Bromeliad Collection.

The Cool House provides a short respite from the Singapore weather, mimicking a tropical highland cloud forest full of cool-growing orchids and carnivorous plants.

At Gardens by the Bay the marriage between architecture and nature is brilliantly showcased at the Supertree Grove. Almost 163,000 plants — bromeliads, orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers — attach themselves to the modern structures that reach up to 50m. The beauty of the design, matched with nature’s greenery: no wonder the Supertrees have become one of the country’s major attractions.

While the skyline-dominating Marina Bay Sands, the lotus- flower shape of the ArtScience Museum and the slow-moving Singapore Flyer speak of a modern Singapore, there is much to appreciate in the city’s heritage architecture.

Once a fishing village, the now-trendy Kampong Glam is where culture, religion, history and hipsters meet within a few blocks.

On Haji Lane, vibrant street art adorns the walls of fashion boutiques, trendy bars and cafes offering rainbow-cake delicacies. There’s even a “selfie coffee” establishment. Look up from these street-level offerings for the heritage shophouses with shuttered windows and intricate detailing.

One street over is the Malay-Arab quarter, centred on the Sultan Mosque. A call to prayer lends an amazing atmosphere to the kebaya dress shops, colourfully tiled Middle Eastern eateries and fabric shops that line Arab and Bussorah streets.

Art Deco lovers can’t go past Tiong Bahru. Follow the curves down from the market (currently being refurbished) and around to Yong Siak Street, a stretch of cupcake and bookstore heaven. There is the Plain Vanilla Bakery, which is anything but plain or vanilla, on the same stretch as children’s book specialist Woods in Books and BooksActually, where you can even get a mystery book via vending machine.

Closer to the markets is the popular Tiong Bahru Bakery, with its buttery croissants.

Don’t miss the back lane off Yong Siak Street past the community centre for the geometric staircases, impossibly skinny entry doors and sneaky glimpses into restaurant kitchens and neighbourhood life.

Another heritage centre — this one east of the city and lined with colourful Peranakan shophouses — is Joo Chiat/Katong. Like much-of Singapore, it’s a foodie’s delight.

For $5 I dine on a bowl of laksa at 328 Katong Laksa. I’ve chosen this cheap and bright restaurant because it’s busy but it’s not until I sit down and tuck into the spicy, fragrant soup that I notice its walls are covered with pictures of its owners with celebrity visitors. Front and centre is a picture of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who was beaten by the restaurant in a Hawker Heroes Challenge back in 2013. 

Just a few metres from 328 Katong Laksa on Ceylon Road is the intricate and colourful temple of Sri Senpaga Vinayagar, where anyone can enter (remove your shoes and wash your feet).

Joo Chiat and Kampong Glam offer off-beat shopping in small boutiques but if hardcore shopping with the full selection of international chains and major fashion houses are your bag, you can’t go past Orchard Road. For me it’s a maze of consumerist hell, for others it’s a shopping paradise. 

Heritage architecture and delicious food entwine in the city centre at the landmark hawker centre, Lau Pa Sat. Gazetted as a national monument in 1973, we sit within its octagonal form beneath the soaring roof, cast-iron archways and fretted eaves.

Behind the Victoria-era building is Boon Tat Street, closed to traffic each night so the little satay huts can come alive, smoke filling the air from charring chicken, beef and prawn satay sticks.

It’s here I taste the best satay sticks I’ve eaten in Singapore — and oh, the satay sauce. Once the sticks are gobbled up you will find yourself looking for anything edible to dip to avoid the temptation to drink the sauce directly from the cup. 

Like the satay smoke that fills the air of Boon Tat Street, spice- laden aromas delight in Little India, where the air is heady with cardamom and clove at our dining destination, the popular Banana Leaf Apolo.

Like many Singapore neighbourhoods, Little India comes alive at night with construction workers lining benches for a cheap dinner, families adorned in sari finery out for a special dinner and others going about their daily shopping and worship.

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