Discovering Singapore without opening your wallet
Choosing the best things to do in Singapore was no easy task. This is a city bursting to the seams with impressive attractions, exciting activities, and plenty of day trips for all the family. This tiny island state is also a land of contrasts; Chinatown and Little India, both gastronomic and shopping hubs in their own right, represent the incredible ethnic diversity of the country. For nightlife, we’ve got you covered too. Sip on a Singapore Sling at the lavish Raffles Hotel, or head to Clarke Quay for some of the city’s most picturesque eating and drinking spots. However Singapore may be one of the most expensive countries to visit in Southeast Asia, but there are plenty of free things to see and do to ease the pressure on your wallet. Here are some of our favourite Singapore freebies.
Admire the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay
You’ll have to fork out extra to enter the conservatories and the OCBC Skyway at showstopping horticultural super park Gardens by the Bay, but it doesn’t cost a cent to wander through the iconic Supertree Grove. Swing by just before 7.45pm or 8.45pm daily to get the best vantage spot to watch Garden Rhapsody, the captivating 15-minute sound and light show.
Stroll among overgrown tombs at Bukit Brown Cemetery
First established in the early 20th century, Bukit Brown Cemetery was once Singapore’s largest Chinese cemetery but was subsequently abandoned. Today it’s a birding and wildlife spot, and has been identified as a heritage site worth preserving. Sadly some areas have already been redeveloped by the government in the name of road widening, and the remainder is pegged for new housing developments. Enthusiasts, historians and activist groups run free walking tours of the cemetery; check out their Facebook page for details.
Marvel at Singapore’s most atmospheric temples
Sri Mariamman Temple
Paradoxically in the middle of Chinatown, the colourfully kitsch Sri Mariamman Temple is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, and well worth a look-in. Replete with elaborate carvings, Thian Hock Keng (Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple), is also particularly atmospheric, and don’t miss the 44m heritage mural painted by Singaporean artist Yip Yew Chong on the temple’s outside rear wall. A peaceful afternoon can be spent exploring Kong Meng San Phor Kark See, a working monastery housed in a massive Escher-esque building with a bell and drum tower, statues, and various halls.
Walk the Southern Ridges
The Southern Ridges is one of Singapore’s best walking trails, spanning Mt Faber, Telok Blangah, Kent Ridge and Hort parks. It meanders through 9km of lush forest and canopy walks, and crosses the undulating Henderson Waves, Singapore’s highest pedestrian bridge. Don’t forget to take water, sunscreen and a hat; see the National Parks website for more details.
Get classical with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
As part of its community outreach program, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducts free concerts at various tertiary institutions, concert halls and gardens throughout Singapore. The Classics at the Park sessions at the Singapore Botanic Gardens are particularly atmospheric: come early and bring a picnic basket. Check dates and locations via the SSO website.
Take a free art tour
Many of Singapore’s hotels have made their art collections accessible to non-guests, from the Pan Pacific’s Public Art Space (which hosts rotating exhibitions) to the artworks integrated into the public areas of Marina Bay Sands (it’s hard to miss Sol LeWitt’s Arcs, Circle and Irregular Bands in the underground pedestrian walkway linking the hotel and Bayfront MRT station). But art lovers are really spoiled at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia, where anyone is welcome to take a 30-minute iPod tour of its enviable collection, from Dale Chihuly glass blowings to enormous Frank Stella installations. Don’t miss the Warhols near the ballroom.
Chill out at East Coast Park
In space-starved Singapore, the 15km stretch of beach known as East Coast Park is a breezy spot to swim, work on your tan and escape the crowds (though it does get busy here at weekends). Kids will love the Marine Cove playground, complete with rock climbing walls, slides and digital game stations.
Go green at Singapore Botanic Gardens and Fort Canning Park
Originally established in Fort Canning Park by Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s Botanic Gardens today occupy a swathe of quiet green space at the edge of the Orchard Rd district. It’s free to wander the stunning grounds on your own, though if you’re a keen botanist, check out its website for free walking tours. Overlooking central Singapore, Fort Canning Park also remains a lovely spot for a stroll; don’t miss the spice garden. Free tours are run monthly; visit the National Parks website.
Find more free art at Gillman Barracks and the Esplanade
Singapore’s latest and greatest (free!) contemporary arts space, former colonial army base Gillman Barracks houses 11 galleries. Back down by the river, ogle the Durian-like architectural style of the Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay before checking out the Jendela gallery exhibitions. The Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay also hosts free short films and music events.
Find peace at St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Armenian Church
Aside from being architectural masterpieces, these churches offer glorious respite from the heat of the city. St Andrew’s Cathedral is Singapore’s largest church, and the Armenian Church its smallest and oldest (built in 1836).
Go all-out kitsch at Haw Par Villa
What happens when you earn a fortune selling Tiger Balm? Use the money to build your own theme park, of course. That’s what the Aw brothers did at Haw Par Villa, where more than 150 dioramas depict scenes from Chinese mythology, including some almost comically graphic scenes from hell.
Stride above the trees at MacRitchie Reservoir’s Treetop Walk
One of the many swathes of greenery that have come to define Singapore as the world’s most impressive garden city, MacRitchie Reservoir Park is the place to go for a proper hike. It’s an 8km round-trip hike to the TreeTop Walk, where you can climb to a 250m-long pedestrian suspension bridge that soars above the rainforest canopy.
Pose with a Merlion
Singapore’s most iconic sculpture, the Merlion (a half-lion, half-fish creature), is free to visit. Pose with the water-spouting critter before taking a walk around Marina Bay. Colonial architecture fans would be wise to pop into the nearby Fullerton Hotel and the Fullerton Bay Hotel while you’re in the neighbourhood, the former used to be Singapore’s General Post Office and the latter was the bustling Collyer Quay.
Visit Singapore’s largest mosque
Most people come to Singapore’s Arab district Kampong Glam to shop, eat and drink in Haji Lane, but it’s also a charming neighbourhood to wander around in the early morning before the crowds arrive. It’s free to enter the Arabian Nights-esque Sultan Mosque (outside prayer times), with volunteers on-hand to provide an insight into the city-state’s Muslim heritage.
Take a trip back in time
Leave the modernism and frenetic pace of present-day Singapore behind when you meander up the dirt road to Lorong Buangkok, one of Singapore’s last remaining kampongs (villages). With the area now lusted after by cashed-up developers, it’s unclear how long this window into the past will continue to exist, so visit while you still can.
Understand past and future city plans
Delve into Singapore’s amazing story of planning and transformation at the Singapore City Gallery, and learn how this once sleepy fishing village transformed into the futuristic metropolis of today. The detailed 11m-by-11m scale model of the central city area allows visitors to see the city’s future skyline, once proposed building developments are complete.
Visit the island of fun
Often referred to as Singapore’s good-time island, Sentosa is free to visit as long as you’re happy to make the trek along the Sentosa Boardwalk from VivoCity shopping mall. Once there, you can use the monorail, trams and buses to whiz around the island. Beaches here are perfect for relaxing, and come nightfall, there are free weekly outdoor movies.
Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city
View from ION Sky
Perched 56-storeys above futuristic ION Orchard shopping mall, ION Sky offers jaw-dropping views across Singapore. On a clear day you’ll be able to spot neighbouring Malaysia and a smattering of Indonesian islands. Entry is between 3-6pm daily.
Where to Stay
There’s nothing quite like The Warehouse Hotel, a converted colonial-era go down on the waterfront of Singapore’s vibrant Robertson Quay. Its long history starts on 1895, year when it was built as a spice warehouse, to then become a house of ill repute and later a nightclub over ensuing decades.
Opened in January 2017, the meticulous operation of reconversion of the building, curated by the creative studio Asylum, has given life to a design hotel that is mirrored in the waters of the Singapore river and which preserves the ancient charm of the original structure. There are 37 rooms spread over two storeys, each designed with the original layout of the property in mind. Chef Willin Low, famous to be a pioneer of modern Singaporian cuisine, overseen the delicious kitchen of The Warehouse Hotel‘s restaurant, Pó, which serves modern interpretations of traditional regional dishes.
Last but not least, on the rooftop of The Warehouse Hotel, there is an infinity pool overlooking the river and the neighborhood of Robertson Quay as well as bicycles for those who want to explore the garden city and don’t mind getting a little sweaty.