If it’s raining when you come out of the City Hall metro station in Singapore and walk the few blocks to the National Gallery, you won’t get wet. Why not? The pavements on that stretch are covered by an artfully decorated balcony system that renders the sheath of long plastic wallets ‘for your wet umbrellas’ outside the gallery totally futile, and that for me is emblematic of the impeccable order and cleanliness that has made Singapore famous.
With its spotless streets, tight train schedules and low crime rates, the island state appears to be an urban utopia. Signs asking you to avoid durian fruit and offer your seat to elders encourage commuter harmony. The prominence of the solar-powered ‘supertrees’ and a palpable dedication to recycling highlight the city’s unique relationship with nature. Maps are clean-cut and easy to follow, taxis are ubiquitous and there’s not a tout or scam in sight.
If this sounds a little Stepford Wives too-good-to-be-true for you, in three days you can discover Singapore’s messier side too. First? Food, food and more food. This place is a gastronomic Jackson Pollock. Street food stalls and top-of-the-range hawker centres abound; my go-tos were Chinatown Food Complex, Maxwell Food Centre and Little India’s Tekka Centre. Like in all good metropolises, diversity is just as important as quality when it comes to food, and the endless pork belly, roasted duck, handmade noodles, morning glory, fresh soy milk, naan breads and pastries that I feasted on did not disappoint (that list was brutally edited. I could go on).
Two eating experiences in particular stand out. The first is the traditional breakfast I had at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a bright, linoleumed café that has been serving Chinatown since 1944. Vintage posters on the wall ask if you’d like your eggs ‘wet and runny or runny and wet’, and ‘want a skinny latte? Stop at half a cup’. Order the classic kaya set and an energetic grey-haired woman will bring you thinly sliced toast layered with kaya (coconut jam), two runny eggs in a bowl and a bottle of soy sauce. The idea is to mash the eggs up with some soy, dip your toast into the mix and wash it down with freshly-strained coffee. It’s a salty, sweet, intriguing start to the day.
The second is the essential stop at Hong Kong Soy Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles, the hawker stall in Chinatown Food Complex that has claimed a Michelin star and now boasts queues of at least half an hour. Don’t be put off by the potential for pretension and astronomical prices: you can get hearty fare for two people for as little as $6.
So Singapore is foodie heaven – and as a lifelong foodie my section on food is disproportionately long – but it’s also got wonderful sightseeing opportunities. The aforementioned National Gallery, in the converted Supreme Court building, is the polished home to the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art. Kampong Glam (the Arab Quarter) is lovely to walk through for its magnificent gold-domed mosque and rows of bustling tailor shops. And though the jury is still out for me on the ethics of zoos, Singapore’s does everything it can to convince you that zoos are a good idea (and almost succeeds): the animals are displayed in naturalistic, semi-open exhibits and the park’s commitment to conservation since its launch in 1973 is clear in its emphasis on education in all of the exhibits.
One of my favourite parts of Singapore was an obvious one, but I think it’s obvious because it encapsulates the futuristic beauty of the place perfectly. It’s the view from the foot of the glittering supertrees in the Gardens by the Bay: the glossy indigo of the water and its quiet reflections of the biggest skyscrapers, the hum of a cool micro-climate in the glass beehive of the Cloud Forest and the sleek curves of the Marina Bay Sands, glowing neon in the light show. It was admiring this view that I knew three days in Singapore wasn’t enough for me.
Next stop: Phuket.