Two different people have asked me this question this week, so I thought I would write out my answer. My approach is slightly unorthodox, but here goes:
1. Go to the top of Marina Bay Sands hotel and get a view of the skyline, the harbor, and the Straits. Watch the ships queuing. This is one of my favorite views in the whole world. Most of all I am struck by the contrast between what Singapore has achieved so quickly and also its continuing ultimate vulnerability; the view captures both of those. If you can afford it, stay in the hotel and swim in the Infinity Pool. That alone justifies dragging your body all the way to Singapore.
2. Organize the rest of your trip around food. For Malay food, visit the hawker centre at Geylang Serai Night Market. For Indian food, go to the hawker centre at the entrance to Little India, and walk around the adjacent shopping bazaar as well. For Singaporean food, there are many good choices, depending on your location. The optimal time to arrive is by 10:30, before most of the queues start. Ask cabbies for the best chili and pepper crab.
3. Eat at David Thompson’s Thai restaurant, in the mall next to Marina Bay Sands.
4. Once it is dark, and edging toward 9 p.m., walk around the Merlion area and the bridge, where the city comes to life.
5. Spend the rest of your time seeking out “retro Singapore” as much as possible. Haw Par Villa is one place to start, but there are multiple substitutes, including the hawker centres away from downtown and their special dishes.
6. The Asian Civilizations Museum is by far the best museum in town. The zoo and the bird park are first-rate.
7. Much as Singapore calls itself a “city-state” I think of it as a “suburb-state,” unlike Hong Kong which is a true city. I consider this high praise, but Singaporeans often are slightly insulted when I put it this way. Your mileage may vary, but I say enjoy it as you would a suburb.
8. Talk to as many Singaporean civil servants as you can.
9. Take a day trip by cab or bus into Johor Bahru, in neighboring Malaysia, a thirty minute trip if there are no delays. The food there is even better and you will learn some political science. Read this book for background on both countries. Read Lee Kuan Yew.
Here is my earlier post “Why Singapore is special.” In a nutshell, it’s one of the world’s greatest trips, safe and easy to deal with too.