8 top things to do in Singapore

CNN  — 

Singapore is compact – roughly the same size as New York City – but the Southeast Asian city-state is brimming with culture, character and plenty of things to do.

Bordering the southern tip of Malaysia, just one degree north of the equator, the island of 5.6 million is a destination synonymous with hawker centers, urban gardens – and, of course, the Singapore Sling cocktail.

Whether you’re in town to sample the myriad street snacks, catch a cricket game or tour the recently renovated National Gallery, there’s something for everyone when you travel here.

Here are the eight top things to do, see and devour in the Garden City:

1. Take a heritage tour

A British colony for nearly 150 years, from 1819 until 1963, Singapore boasts many beautifully maintained Victorian-era buildings along the Singapore River, just west of Marina Bay.

A walk through the central area will take travelers on a heritage trail, from the grand City Hall and Old Supreme Court, the Peranakan Museum, Fort Canning Flagstaff, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Victoria Theater and Concert Hall and The Arts House.

Many of the heritage buildings hug the Padang, an open playing field home to both the Singapore Cricket Club (est. 1870) and the Singapore Recreation Club (est. 1883).

Inside an installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma at National Gallery Singapore.

Overlooking the cricket field, the recently renovated National Gallery Singapore specializes in Southeast Asian art.

It is a popular stop thanks to its ever-changing interactive exhibits, including a recent show by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who harnessed infinity mirrors, patterns and light to create a compelling visual experience.

National Gallery Singapore, 1 Saint Andrew’s Road, #01–01, Singapore 178957; +65 6271 7000

Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian St, Singapore 179941; +65 6332 7591

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, 11 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore 178959; +65 6337 6104

2. Eat everything

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre.

Singapore is said to be one of the world’s best food cities – and it’s easy to see why.

The island is home to the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal – Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle – a humble hawker stall that sells its famous chicken and rice dish for just S$2 ($1.42).

This is just one of thousands of hawker stalls where travelers can indulge in tasty noodle dishes and quick snacks for just a few dollars.

The options are endless and all delicious, from the flaky roti prata in Little India to grilled satay, kaya toast (a coconut-like jam served with half-boiled egg), Hokkien mee noodles, laksa, Hainan chicken rice, chili crab and ice kachang – a dessert made with shaved ice, condensed milk and assorted toppings such as red beans and mango.

When thirst strikes, a cup of traditional kopi-o (thick black coffee with sugar), kopi kosong (without sugar), grass jelly soy milk or sugarcane juice should be easy enough to find.

Timbre+ gastropark.

For a sampling of everything, Chinatown Complex Food Centre is one of the largest hawker centers in Singapore, with more than 250 stalls.

Nearby, Maxwell Road Hawker Centre also draws crowds to its famous stalls, including the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall and Hoe Kee Porridge.

And for a contemporary take on the traditional hawker center? Try Timbre+ – an artsy outdoor gastropark with more than 30 food stalls, food trucks, craft beer vendors and live music nearly every night of the week.

Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, 78 Smith St, Singapore 058972

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, 1 Kadayanallur Street, 069184, Singapore; +65 9790 2826

Chinatown Complex Food Centre, 335 Smith Street, #02-127 Chinatown Complex, Chinatown, Singapore

Timbre+, 73A Ayer Rajah Crescent, JTC LaunchPad, 139957, Singapore; +65 6252 2545

3. Drink up the nightlife

Operation Dagger.

Singapore might be known for its Singapore Slings – best savored at the famous Long Bar inside the 19th century Raffles Hotel – but that’s not the only tipple worth a try.

The city is home to countless cocktail bars, particularly around Clarke Quay, Club Street, China Town and the Ann Siang Hill area.

Speakeasy 28 Hongkong Street serves up American-style classic cocktails and barrel-aged favorites, while Bitters & Love specializes in Asian-inspired cocktails with quirky presentations (like a Kaya Toast cocktail served in a mason jar).

Nearby, Operation Dagger does experimental libations in a sculptural setting.

For more low-key options, we’d suggest grabbing a seat outdoors at one of the hookah bars and alfresco cafes along Haji Lane.

Long Bar, Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Rd, Singapore, 189673; +65 6337 1886

28 Hongkong Street, 28 Hongkong St , Singapore, 059667; +65 6533 2001

Bitters & Love, 118 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068587; +65 6438 1836

Operation Dagger, 7 Ann Siang Hill, #B1-01, Singapore 069791; +65 6438 4057

4. Soak up some culture

A hindu temple in Sinagpore.

Singapore is a melting pot of cultures with a diverse population, its residents hailing from Malaysia, China, India and more.

In Chinatown, the skyscrapers of Marina Bay fade into the background and three-story shophouses transport travelers back in time.

These quiet lanes, busy markets and traditional restaurants showcase Singapore’s unique heritage.

Look closely and you’ll notice that many of the traditional buildings have been remodeled into upscale boutique hotels, restaurants and speakeasies.

One example is ultra-slick Potato Head. Stretched across three floors in a heritage shophouse, it’s now home to an intimate cocktail bar and rooftop restaurant.

Potato Head Singapore.

While wandering around Chinatown, travelers will likely stumble upon Thian Hock Keng Temple, which is the oldest of its kind in Singapore, as well as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and the Sri Mariamman Temple – a pastel-painted Hindu temple that perfectly embodies the city’s multicultural identity.

Likewise, in Little India – toward the north side of the city – color and energy ooze out of sari tailor shops, gold jewelry boutiques and small restaurants.

For a bite, Lagnaa… barefoot dining – which is pretty much what it sounds like – comes highly recommended for its cushioned seating and tasty Indian cuisine.

Lagnaa… barefoot dining, 6 Upper Dickson Road, Singapore 207466, Singapore; +65 6296 1215

Potato Head Singapore, 36 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089143; +65 6327 1939

5. Visit Marina Bay

Singapore's Marina Bay.

Hugged by futuristic skyscrapers on all sides, Marina Bay is where you’ll find Singapore’s collection of modern architecture.

The centerpiece is, of course, Marina Bay Sands – a 55-floor hotel and entertainment mecca with an infinity pool, lookout point, and Ce La Vi bar and restaurant on the rooftop.

Inside, it feels awkwardly like an airport, but there’s no arguing with its iconic status.

And for Formula One fans? A room here provides amazing views of the Marina Bay Street Circuit, where the Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix takes place every September.

Elsewhere around the Marina, you’ll find a few of the city’s top landmarks, including the ArtScience Museum – shaped like blooming flower – the Merlion (fashioned after a mythical creature with a fish body and lion’s head), the Singapore Flyer and No SignBoard Seafood Restaurant – famous for its addictive chili crab.

Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Ave, Singapore, 018956; +65 6688 8868

Singapore Flyer, 30 Raffles Ave, Singapore 039803; +65 6333 3311

No SignBoard Seafood Restaurant, 8 Raffles Ave, 01-14/16, Singapore 039802; +65 6336 9959

6. Explore Gardens by the Bay

The Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay.

Directly behind Marina Bay Sands, an elevated walkway leads to the award-winning Gardens by the Bay.

This 101-hectare wonderland provides a futuristic ecosystem full of aerial walkways above the canopies, lakes, sculpture parks and 164-foot-tall Supertrees – vertical gardens that harvest solar energy.

Within the park, there are two climate-controlled conservatories – one a misty cloud forest and the other a Flower Dome.

The largest of its kind in the world, the 1.2-hectare glass greenhouse cultivates an incredible array of flora, olive trees and enormous African Baobab trees.

If that’s not enough flora and fauna for you, we’d also recommend visiting the Singapore Botanic Gardens to the west.

Founded in 1859, the UNESCO World Heritage site is home to all kinds of walking trails, raw rainforest, sweeping green lawns and an immaculately manicured Orchid Garden with more than 1,000 orchid species.

Gardens by the Bay, 18 Marina Gardens Dr, Singapore 018953; +65 6420 6848

Singapore Botanic Gardens, 1 Cluny Rd, Singapore 259569; +65 6471 7138

7. Go on a safari

Red pandas on the River Safari.

Safaris… in Singapore? The urban powerhouse doesn’t seem like the most likely place to find monkeys and manatees – but you’d be surprised.

There are more than 6,000 beasts within the grounds of the River Safari – a river-themed experience northwest of the city center that traverses various ecosystems, from the River Nile to the Amazon.

The highlights include flamingos, one-horned rhinoceroses, wildebeests, monkeys, pufferfish, red pandas, crocodiles and more.

Tigers and bears more your thing? The next-door Night Safari delivers a tram ride through the rainforest, where tigers, leopards and elephants await.

It’s all part of the larger Wildlife Reserves Singapore, including the Singapore Zoo, bird park, aquarium and a major research and conservation center.

Northwest of the complex, there’s another worthy nature outing – the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, an ASEAN Heritage Park.

This sprawling ecological jewel promises excellent hiking and birdwatching – with more than 140 bird species – along the mangrove boardwalks and wetland terrain.

Wildlife Reserves Singapore, 80 Mandai Lake Rd, Singapore 729826; +65 6269 3411

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, 301 Neo Tiew Cres, Singapore 718925; +65 6794 1401

8. Take a side trip

Capella Singapore on Sentosa Island.

Most people think of Singapore as a cosmopolitan city, but there are actually 62 islands off its coast.

For a family-friendly side trip, Sentosa Island provides an easy option.

Located on Singapore’s southern shore, the man-made island is home to Universal Studios, as well as golf courses and a few luxury resorts, such as the Capella Singapore or the glamorous W Sentosa.

For a more rustic adventure, we’d recommend Pulau Ubin or the Sisters’ Islands – perfect for scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking and lounging around on clean beaches.

Departing from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, Pulau Ubin is about a 15-minute ferry ride away, with camping grounds should you wish to stay overnight – though travelers must register with the Pulau Ubin Police Post when they arrive.

Sisters' Islands Marine Park.

Meanwhile, Sisters’ Islands Marine Park comprises several islands, beaches and excellent snorkeling among the protected reefs.

To reach the islands, it’s best to book a guided walk, which includes transportation as well as an introductory overview of the coral and wildlife preservation programs.

Otherwise, travelers will need to charter their own transportation from Marina South Pier.

Capella Singapore, 1 The Knolls, Sentosa Island; +65 6377 8888

W Sentosa, 21 Ocean Way, Singapore 098374; +65 6808 7288