One of the reasons that backpackers and budget-travelers head to Southeast Asia is because of its affordability and its chaos. Singapore is a definite exception to this rule. I’ve heard so many travelers describe Singapore as expensive and sterile. With a reputation like this it’s no wonder why many long-term travelers (including myself) opt to leave Singapore off of their Southeast Asia itineraries.
I might have never even gone to Singapore if not for the fact that it is the cheapest and quickest place to do a visa run from Jakarta. And while I was thrilled at the idea of visiting a new city, I had incredibly low expectations.
I wasn’t all that sure what there was to do in Singapore. And from the little research I did do, the options were limited to checking out the view from the top of the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel and shopping at the glitzy malls on Orchard Road. I think most budget-minded travelers can understand why these pricey activities didn’t sound all that appealing to me.
Before my first trip to Singapore, I couldn’t help but think that the city was going to live up to its reputation as being expensive and sterile. And, to be honest, I was pretty ambivalent about my obligatory visa run to Singapore. But I suppose the perk of having low expectations is that you’re bound to be at least a little bit surprised – and I was!
Now that I’ve visited twice I will admit that Singapore is a bit on the sterile side compared to other more chaotic, more gritty Southeast Asian cities. I mean, this is a country that has outlawed things like chewing gum, spitting in public and peeing in elevators, and these things do, quite literally, help keep the city sterile.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the city has a colorful and quirky side too. And the best part is that there are quite a few fun and free things to do in Singapore. Budget travelers who are planning on leaving Singapore off of their Southeast Asia itinerary might want to think again.
5 Quirky and Free Things to do in Singapore:
1. Haji Lane
I first read about Haji Lane in this post from Sha over at Life to My Fullest, and I had been curious about visiting ever since. Any place that has street art is a winner in my book. And seeing as street art is illegal in Singapore (and punishable by caning) I was intrigued to scope out the one place in the city that actually allows it.
Not all that long ago, Haji Lane was nothing more than a row of abandoned shop houses, but luckily Singapore’s creative minds came together and gave this little lane a funky makeover. With its hip boutiques, colorful buildings and hipster attitude, Haji Lane is kind of like the anti-Orchard Road.
Located in the Kampong Glam neighborhood, this narrow back alley is now a haven for trendy designers, creative artists and forward-thinking entrepreneurs. It is lined with tchotchke-filled boutiques, progressive design studios and Middle Eastern cafés and is definitely the ‘it’ place to be in Singapore.
Of course I was in town on a Monday (I think) and nearly every shop on the street was closed. But with its colorful buildings – each painted in bright, mismatch hues – and expansive murals, I had a blast strolling down the lane and just looking around. I can’t say the street art was as amazing as the street art in Bogotá but it was pretty awesome and a definite must-see when in Singapore.
Like a lot of other budget travelers, I opted to stay in Singapore’s Chinatown during my most recent visit to Singapore last month. It turned out to be a good move. Not only was I within walking distance of numerous vegetarian restaurants (mock meat in Singapore is just too good!) and hawker centers, but Chinatown is kind of awesome.
The Chinese are actually the largest ethnic group in Singapore and they have a long and fascinating history in the country. It’s kind of crazy to think that in the 1800s this place was home to indentured Chinese servants and an abundance of opium dens – definitely a far cry from contemporary Singapore!
Even if you’re not staying in Chinatown, this district is well worth a visit. The old buildings, with their combination of baroque and Victorian architecture, are incredibly picturesque and it seems like there are red and orange paper lanterns strewn about the entire area, making it all the more atmospheric. And for those who are looking to buy some cheap, kitschy souvenirs, Chinatown is definitely a must.
Chinatown also boasts some sprawling (and famous) hawker centers that are packed with cheap food stalls where it’s possible to fill up for a couple of dollars – not bad for ultra-expensive Singapore!
3. Supertree Grove
I became obsessed with the idea of visiting Supertree Grove after reading this post by Silvia over at Heart My Backpack. I’d always wondered what it feels like to be in a real life fantasy world – now I know! Having the chance to frolic in a grove of giant, trippy trees was pretty much the coolest thing ever. And it’s super bizarre to me that this psychedelic art installation is located in such a “sterile” city.
Supertree Grove is a part of the one billion dollar Marina Bay Gardens project. You pretty much have to take the time to visit this amazing and unique part of town while in Singapore (if you’re taking the MRT get off at the Promenade stop). At the gardens you can visit the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome both of which cost a pretty penny, but backpackers and budget travelers will be happy to know that Supertree Grove is absolutely free to visit!
The actual grove is made up of 12 giant, super-psychedelic “trees” – though there are 18 in total scattered around the gardens – that range from 25-50 meters in height. The structures are covered with over 200 species of orchids, ferns and tropical flowers, making them even cooler to look at. Seriously, my neck hurt from all the craning I was doing. My only regret was not seeing the trees at night because they look especially cool all lit up. Next time for sure!
For $5 SIN it’s possible to walk along the OCBC Skyway, a narrow bridge that connects the trees. I opted not to do this but it did look pretty awesome.
4. Little India
Some of you might remember that during my first trip to Singapore in November, I spent the majority of my time eating my way through Little India. I was so enraptured by all the amazing Indian food on offer in Singapore that I spent little time doing anything else. This time around I made an effort to delve a little deeper into non-food related things in Little India.
Food aside, I highly recommend taking some time to explore Little India. Singapore actually has a sizable Indian population and I personally found it very interesting to see just how different Little India is compared to anywhere else in Singapore; it honestly feels like a different country.
Things like jaywalking and smoking cigarettes in public, all outlawed in Singapore and strictly adhered to everywhere in the city, seemed like they were perfectly acceptable in Little India. I was actually shocked to see massive amounts of people darting across the roads, blatantly jaywalking. I honestly half expected to be arrested, and promptly deported, when I followed suit, but luckily that didn’t happen. Little India definitely seems to march to its own beat – and I liked it.
I’m not sure if there was some sort of special event going on when I visited but there were massive – and I mean massive – amounts of people in the streets when I was there. It was like an endless sea of people and oddly enough most of them were Indian men. Where all the women were, I have no idea.
Little India was perfectly chaotic. It is made up of Technicolor Hindu temples and cool old buildings. Colorful and fragrant garlands – assembled from white Jasmine, red chrysanthemums and green hemp leaves – hung in street stands and colorful Indian desserts were stacked in restaurant windows.
Whether or not you’re a budget traveler staying in this part of town, Little India is a wonderful place to visit to soak up the atmosphere and do some serious people watching. Oh, and have I mentioned that it has the best Indian food ever? Because it does.
5. Clarke Quay
I don’t even know how I stumbled across this place. I took a wrong turn as I was walking from Marina Bay to the MRT so I ended up just walking back to my hotel in Chinatown. Somewhere along the way I stumbled across the riverfront, a quirky part of town that’s lined with sports bars and seafood and Indian restaurants.
At one point I looked across the river I saw a picturesque row of narrow, pastel painted buildings and I almost died laughing when I saw that one of them was a Hooters! I’m not exactly sure why this was so funny to me, but Hooters just seemed so epically out of place in a city where pornography is illegal, as is the act of walking around naked in your apartment or changing in front of a window, lest anyone catch a glimpse.
Clarke Quay is actually a pedestrian mall filled with international restaurants and shishi nightclubs and it happens to be one of the biggest tourist draws in the city. It’s not necessarily my scene but I thoroughly enjoy wandering around uber-touristy places, just watching people and seeing what’s doing.
One of the many things that I like about Singapore is that the city is easily navigable given its relatively small size and easy-to-use (and cheap!) MRT system. It is amazing that in two days’ time I was able to explore so much of the city and experience some of its many different sides, from watching Hindu ceremonies in Little India to glimpsing funky street art on Haji Lane to wondering around one of the trippiest art installations in the world.
And best of all, all these quirky activities in Singapore were absolutely free!
What are your impressions of Singapore? What is your favorite free thing to do in Singapore?