Shaped like a diamond, Singapore’s main island is 42km from east to west and 23km from north to south, compact enough to explore in just a few days. The southern corner of the diamond is home to the main part of the city – “downtown”, or just “town” to locals – which centres on the Singapore River, the creek where Raffles first landed on the island in 1819. After a full day’s sightseeing, it’s undoubtedly the top place to unwind, lined with former warehouses that are now home to buzzing restaurants and bars.
The main draws for visitors are the city’s historic ethnic enclaves, particularly Little India, a couple of kilometres north of the river. Packed with gaudy Hindu temples, curry houses and stores selling exotic produce and spices, the district retains much of its original character, as does nearby Arab Street, dominated by the golden domes of the Sultan Mosque. South of the river, Chinatown is a little sanitized though it still has a number of appealing shrines; an immaculately restored Chinese mansion, the Baba House; plus a heritage centre documenting the hardships experienced by generations of Chinese migrants in Singapore. Wherever you wander in these old quarters, you’ll see rows of the city’s characteristic shophouses; compact townhouse-like buildings that are the island’s traditional architectural hallmark.
Of course, the British left their distinctive imprint on the island as well, most visibly just north of the Singapore River in the Colonial District, around whose grand Neoclassical buildings – including City Hall, Parliament House and the famed Raffles Hotel – the island’s British residents used to promenade. Also here are the excellent National Museum, showcasing Singapore’s history and culture, and Fort Canning Hill, a lush park that’s home to a few historic remains. All these are constantly being upstaged, however, by the newest part of town, Marina Bay, built on reclaimed land around a man-made reservoir into which the Singapore River now drains. Around it are arrayed the three-towered Marina Bay Sands casino resort, the spiky-roofed Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay arts centre and Gardens by the Bay, with its two huge arch-shaped conservatories.
Nearly as modern as Marina Bay, but steeped in tradition as far as Singaporean consumerism is concerned is Orchard Road, a parade of shopping malls that begins just a few minutes’ walk inland from the Colonial District. Just beyond is the finest park on the whole island, the Botanic Gardens, featuring a little bit of everything that makes Singapore such a verdant city, though most tourists make a beeline for the ravishing orchid section.
Downtown Singapore is probably where you’ll spend most of your time, but the rest of the state has its attractions too. North of downtown is the island’s last remaining pocket of primary rainforest, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the splendid zoo, where the animals are confined in naturalistic enclosures rather than cages. There’s more fauna of the avian kind on show in the west of the island at the excellent Jurong Bird Park, while eastern Singapore is home to some sandy beaches and a museum recalling the infamous Changi Prison, where so many soldiers lost their lives in World War II. Among the many smaller islands and islets that lie within Singapore waters, the only one that is close to being a must-see is Sentosa. Linked to the main island by causeway and cable car, it boasts Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park and several slick beach hotels.