Singapore may be a small island nation, but however short your stay it will make a big impression. It’s slick, smart and glamorous – just like the local residents – and has a burgeoning neighbourhood scene of cool boutiques and hip cafés. Visit them on a tour of this intriguing, walkable city
From humble beginnings as a fishing village, Singapore has transformed into a thriving metropolis, combining Western concepts and Asian traditions. And with its exotic blend of cultures, diverse neighbourhoods, vibrant design scene, hip haunts and incredible variety of food, the Lion City has plenty to offer its visitors. Indeed, Mandarin Oriental, Singapore is in a prime position for exploring this remarkable and dynamic city.
The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, a waterfront arts centre opposite Mandarin Oriental, Singapore
Situated in the heart of glamorous Marina Bay – a district whose residents and visitors are affluent, stylish and immaculately groomed – the hotel is close to the key attractions. So start the day with an extravagant breakfast served on the terrace overlooking the dazzling bay, before setting out to explore. As a result of its compact size and grid-like structure, Singapore is easy to navigate on foot, if you can cope with the heat.
Head left out of the hotel to the Singapore Flyer, a giant observation wheel, for a bird's-eye view of the city. Then cross over the Helix Bridge to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. This luxury shopping mall is home to an illustrious list of international labels, from Bottega Veneta to Burberry, as well as emerging designers and retail concepts such as Louis Vuitton Island: a huge crystal pavilion set over the bay. Among the latest additions to the mall are chic Argentinian polo label La Martina and quintessential British menswear brand Hackett.
From here, it is an easy walk across to Singapore's lush and tropical Gardens by the Bay. Cool off in the giant conservatories or take the walkway between the soaring Supertrees (man-made vertical gardens) for phenomenal views of the city. Back along the Marina Bay waterfront, you will find the futuristic-looking Art Science Museum, which has permanent galleries and plays host to international exhibitions. Wander round the bay towards the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District, and along Raffles Quay to Ong Shunmugam, one of Singapore's hottest womenswear labels, whose eponymous line includes ready-to-wear cheongsams.
The Victoria Theatre, a colonial building in the Civic District
An exhibit at the Peranakan Museum, which explores the culture of a local community
Next, veer north along the waterfront past Collyer Quay and national icon the Merlion. Hop on a bumboat, or water taxi, for a leisurely journey along the river, taking in the colourful buildings of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay – popular tourist hangouts that are filled with bars and restaurants. Back on dry land, cross Anderson Bridge and head into the Colonial District, an area peppered with venerable reminders of British rule. Stroll past the magnificent neo-classical buildings of the Supreme Court, Parliament House and St Andrew's Cathedral. Here, you can have your cultural fix as there are museums aplenty. Take your pick from the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Peranakan Museum and the Singapore National Museum, each offering a different insight into Singapore's intriguing past.
Clarke Quay on the riverside
The National Museum of Singapore
Continue north beneath the verdant hills of Fort Canning, one of Singapore's historic landmarks, and into the enchanting Arab Quarter known as Kampong Glam. In the heart of this Malay-Muslim enclave is the magnificent golden-domed Sultan Mosque. Vibrant and boho-chic, the neighbourhood attracts hipsters as well as history buffs thanks to its curious mix of heritage, modern boutiques and hip hangouts. The streets brim with open-fronted shops selling textiles, Persian rugs – for which Amir & Sons is reputedly one of the best – wicker baskets, perfumes and spices, while hidden lanes are lined with trendy boutiques and cafés. Pop into Sifr Aromatics, a far from ordinary perfumery, and Khim's Collections for stunning Oriental home decor designed in-house. Chris Chan, owner of this Kampong Glam stalwart, says of the area, 'It's like a throwback to Singapore's heydays in the Fifties and Sixties, with a serene and traditional feel. And it's easy to spend a day here browsing.'
The Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam
Running parallel to the main strip, Arab Street, is Haji Lane, a narrow pedestrian street bursting with independent shops. Perennial favourites include multi-label store Soon Lee for smart and sassy womenswear, The Salad Shop for stylish homeware and fashion, and Dulcetfig for quirky gifts. Newcomers include DH Sunglasses for cult-brand shades and vintage lifestyle store Chillal. Tucked away on Bali Lane, Threadbare & Squirrel stocks local rising stars Lion Earl and Max Tan, among other labels.
For those in need of a sugar hit, the Swiss rolls at the Rich & Good Cake Shop on Kandahar Street are touted as the best on the island. If you are feeling bold, sample favourite Singaporean fillings kaya (coconut egg jam) and durian. Or stop off for a Mi pork bun at Maison Ikkoku, a cool café-retail-bar concept that sells sharp menswear. For a casual meal, Middle Eastern Café le Caire is seen as something of an institution, or try Swedish eatery Fika. Alternatively, swing back to Mandarin Oriental, Singapore in time for afternoon tea at Melt – The World Café.
Chillies from the Little India area
Along North Bridge Road, Maya Gallery displays works by contemporary artists. By contrast, a short walk west into Little India takes you to a raucous array of sari shops, spice stalls, Bollywood record shops, and galleries. Then make your way to Jalan Besar, which, with its growing crop of new hangouts and art establishments, is set to become Singapore's next go-to district.
Loop round to Orchard Road. This continuously evolving retail stretch exudes luxury and is a prime spot for discerning shoppers. The leafy main street is lined with an endless run of huge, glitzy malls and a dazzling parade of designer stores, feeding the nation's shopping obsession. It is hard to imagine it was once an area dominated by fruit orchards, for this is where the moneyed set hang out. As well as Ngee Ann City, ION Orchard and Paragon, there are boutique-style malls and the old-established department store, Tangs.
Orchard Road's fashion and lifestyle mall ION Orchard
The Orchard Road area is the place to shop for local designers. With the Singapore government's focus on fostering homegrown talent through new fashion-led initiatives, the nation is emerging as one of Asia's fashion powerhouses. Renowned local label Raoul is stocked in Paragon, while womenswear's Zenchi, as modelled by Naomi Campbell at Singapore's inaugural Digital Fashion Week – a live streaming concept launched in 2012 – is just off the main stretch. Meanwhile, Thomas Wee's perfectly tailored suits and couture dresses and Dzojchen's bespoke collections are available at Coda Co in Scotts Square. And just along the street, the swanky Mandarin Gallery houses Hansel and Ashley Isham. Hansel designer Jo Soh says, 'I love Orchard Road because it's constantly evolving, and because you can find anything you want on one street.'
The Mandarin Gallery is also home to a spread of idiosyncratic multi-label boutiques, including Inhabit and Bread & Butter. And if you start to flag, there are some fabulous eateries, such as Wild Honey and Arteastiq. Orchard Road offers plenty of opportunities to quench your thirst for art, too. Check out Opera Gallery at ION, featuring names such as Damien Hirst, the Art Tree Gallery and MAD (Museum of Art and Design). Tanglin Shopping Centre and Tudor Court, both on Tanglin Road, are popular spots for expats on the hunt for antiques.
Contemporary art at Opera Gallery at ION
As a respite from the galleries and malls, follow the road along to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a lush, tropical oasis. From here, wend your way south to Tiong Bahru to experience an unexpected side to Asia's most glamorous city. This once sleepy, now hipster-cool, neighbourhood is one of the oldest residential areas in Singapore, and the eclectic blend of coffee shops, eateries, independent bookshops and quirky boutiques imbue it with a relaxed, village-community feel.
Hidden away on Yong Siak Street, design store Strangelets showcases an unusual selection of handcrafted homewares, accessories and jewellery. A few doors down, Woods in the Books stocks an utterly charming choice of children's picture books and retro gifts. For a pick-me-up, don't miss 40 Hands, one of the original and best speciality coffee houses in Singapore.
Stroll past pre-war low-rise apartments to girlie boutique Nana & Bird on Eng Hoon Street for hard-to-find labels such as Aijek, and Code Deco perfumes. One of Singapore's top jewellery designers, Marilyn Tan has a new showroom (by appointment only) along the same street and knows the area well. 'I love the mix of old and new, as it gives the area a great atmosphere,' says Tan. 'The places I used to visit as a child, such as the wet market and bird corner, are still here and there are lots of hidden treasures if you look carefully.'
Some of the best places to rest your legs include Tiong Bahru Bakery, Drips Bakery Café, The Dispensary and Plain Vanilla – for what are possibly the best cupcakes in town. Energy restored, go north along Tiong Bahru Road and you'll arrive at the Tan Boon Liat building, an old warehouse housing unique antique and furniture stores. Alternatively, head south again and across into the historic district of Tanjong Pagar, Singapore's newest up-and-coming area and the location of the contemporary Red Dot Design Museum, which has more than a thousand exhibits.
Continue onto Telok Ayer Street and discover Thian Hock Keng, one of the oldest and most important Hokkien temples in Singapore. From here, walk along Amoy Street – once famous for its opium-smoking dens – for boutiques and cafés in charming renovated shophouses, like Willow & Huxley, whose limited-edition designs are tailored to suit the hot climate. Says owner Susie Wallace, 'This area is fascinating and exciting, and the old-world charm has been preserved.'
Make a pit stop at Made by Lauren Jasmine, a fashion boutique-cum-café that meets the needs of foodies and shopaholics. Those with a sweet tooth can try the decadent chocolate cake at Matt's the Chocolate Shop.
The 25-metre pool-with-a-view at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore
Walk up the steps through the park to Ann Siang Hill and Club Street, a lively area formerly associated with traditional Chinese clans and exclusive social clubs. Residents are likely to be younger expats who work in the city or creative types. Pop into MyThology to find a chic one-off outfit for a special occasion. Filling a gap in the market for well-curated menswear is Swagger, offering dapper suiting, leather goods and grooming products.
For a glimpse of old Singapore, continue into the colourful and bustling centre of Chinatown, where you can visit the pagoda-style Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple. Have a browse around the Chinatown Street Market in and around Pagoda Street for kitsch souvenirs and trinkets, and then duck down Neil Road into Tea Chapter to experience a traditional tea ceremony.
Walk back towards the bay through famed hawker centre Lau Pa Sat and along Satay Street, which sells authentic street food, before returning to Mandarin Oriental, Singapore for a well-earned rest. Cool off in the outdoor pool or revitalise tired legs with a foot massage in a private cabana. Later, enjoy a cocktail at the hotel's Bay@5, followed by a Cantonese feast at Cherry Garden. Once re-energised, step out again to enjoy a concert in the durian-shaped domes of the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, or stroll along the waterfront and marvel at the glittering skyline.