“This is so much better than I expected,” I kept thinking, “Singapore must have changed in the last four years.” Or had I?
I remembered Singapore as one big shopping mall. Safe and clean, but also commercial and sterile. Ridiculously expensive. A lot of rules.
And yes, it has those aspects. But this time, I sought out the other sides. I ate cheap, delicious hawker food, fell in love with beautiful Asian art, visited a hipster Danish beer joint, and had cocktails at an art deco gin paradise. Throw in clean drinking water, easy-to-navigate public transportation, and lots of green spaces—Singapore, you’ve stolen my design-loving heart!
If you have a few days to explore Singapore, here’s what I would recommend for some well-designed, artistic, and authentic experiences. These are all close to the center and easy to reach with public transportation.
1. See some art at the National Gallery
I enjoy exploring a place through its art, and the National Gallery in Singapore was no exception. I spent about three hours here, but the place is huge, so I only had time to see a small fraction of art.
I chose to forgo the special Monet exhibit and focus on their inspiring collection of Southeast Asian artworks from the last four centuries, as well as their Chinese paintings. I was impressed by the retrospective of Chen Chong Swee, a Chinese artist who combined modern and traditional as well as Eastern and Western painting techniques. His exhibit was followed by a collection of historic Chinese paintings, making it easy to compare the two. The modern Southeast Asian art was also thought-provoking.
As you view the artworks here, whether it’s the peaceful depictions of local village life in the 19th century, or the contemporary work critiquing the dictatorships and commercialism of more recent times, think about how the art makes you feel. Personally, I was struck by how universal the themes were and how artists have been gaining inspiration from the same subjects for centuries, even if the style might be slightly different. As Chen Chong Swee says: “Art is a part of life. It cannot exist in isolation from real life.” Thinking about the universality of our life experiences was very moving for me.
If you go, don’t miss the peaceful rooftop terrace, and if you need a break to fend off museum fatigue there are plenty of places to get a snack. For something a bit fancy, I would highly recommend Violet Oon’s restaurant (reservations needed).
2. Go shopping around Haji Lane
This little lane and surrounding streets are chock full of cool bars, colorful wall murals, and chic shops. I loved window shopping and walking around this cute (if touristy) area. A few places that stood out were Blu Jazz Café, which has live music in their outdoor courtyard, and Supermama, a boutique shop off Beach Road with a great collection of beautifully designed, quirky souvenirs, ceramics, keychains, bags, and more. If only I had more room in my suitcase…
You’ll definitely want to take some photos of the iconic Masjid Sultan mosque while you’re in the area; if you walk up Arab Street, you can’t miss it.
3. Have a cocktail at a chic bar
Alcohol is painfully expensive in Singapore, but for those who aren’t on too tight of a budget, I would recommend skipping the cheesy dives at Clarke Quay and splurging on a drink in an inspiring place.
One of the most amazing places I went to was Atlas Bar. The interior is opulent: beautiful art deco architecture, soaring ceilings covered with nature-inspired murals, and a multi-story bar gleaming with bottles. The service was great and the drinks weren’t as out-of-this world expensive as you might expect. It’s definitely worth a trip to feel like you’ve stepped into Gatsby’s mansion.
Another place that is popular with the after-work crowd was Sum Yi Tai (which apparently means "Third Wife" in Cantonese). The bar is decorated ironically in an homage to “the decadent glamour of 1980s Hong Kong”. The cocktails are strong and interesting, and the rooftop bar gives you a little break from the noise of downtown and makes you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a hidden secret.
4. Walk around the Botanical Gardens
For some exercise, a peaceful walk, or just inspiration from nature, I recommend the Botanical Gardens. I visited during the week and it was very quiet; the weekends are much busier (I’ve heard the place is especially popular with runners).
Entrance to the park is free, but it’s worth shelling out $5 SGD for the orchid garden, which is apparently the largest tropical orchid collection in the world. Every bit of this garden is beautifully manicured, making it a nice place to spend a few hours (if perhaps not super natural). Drinking fountains and shaded benches are plentiful for breaks from the heat and humidity.
5. Make like a Scandinavian and visit Mikkeller
Having lived in Copenhagen for three years, Mikkeller feels like a little slice of Danish home to me. With its cute drawings, muted color schemes, and quirky beer names, Mikkeller is the perfect place for lovers of design and hoppy beers. The company is well along its path to world domination, having ventured beyond beer and into food in its 18 locations in Copenhagen, with outlets in places as far away as San Francisco, Bangkok, and Barcelona.
Mikkeller in Singapore is a bit small and doesn’t seem to be widely known here yet, but it has all of its signature touches, including the blackboard above the bar. If you go, you’ll probably run into some Scandinavians (as I did). Even better, you’ll be one of the cool kids who gets there before it becomes popular.
6. Eat hawker food!
Not just for designers, everyone who goes to Singapore should eat a lot of hawker food. It’s cheap, clean, and absolutely delicious! I ate at a few different hawker food centers in Singapore.
Old Airport Road (51 Old Airport Rd) is a bit dark and enclosed but felt the most local and authentic—I had some delicious Char Siew here as well as some yummy kaya toast at Toast Hut.
Newton Food Centre was another popular destination with a ton of choices, and the open-air aspect is really nice.
Lau Pa Sat (18 Raffles Quay) is more touristy but also popular with locals; just ask the office workers who flock here on their lunch breaks. I tried a few different dishes, including “carrot cake” (which is not made of carrots and isn’t cake, but it’s very good), and some delicious Hokkien Mee (noodles with seafood), washed down with delicious sugar cane and lemon juice.
Just outside is a street where you can get freshly-grilled sate from one of many stalls in the evening; the chicken sate was tender and the peanut sauce had just the right consistency.
I also couldn’t leave Singapore without trying the famous chicken rice at Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Noodle, which earned this hawker stand a Michelin star in 2016.
While the chicken wasn’t quite as mind-blowing as I hoped, I will say it was the best chicken rice that I had during my time here, and for $3.50 SGD ($2.60 USD) you can’t go wrong.
This list doesn’t come close to covering all of great places for designers to visit in Singapore. For example, Haw Par Villa and the Henderson Waves Bridge are two interesting places I had to miss and would love to see next time.
Do you have a favorite destination in Singapore that would be perfect for people interested in design and art? Let me know—I’d love to hear your tips!