On 28th January 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore and decided he liked the look of the place.
He returned the following morning and planted the Union Jack, which was a bit presumptuous, but then he was an 19th century colonising Brit, so what do you expect.
But even Raffles, who saw Singapore’s potential 200 years ago, would have struggled to imagine the scale of the success, vibrancy and modernity the place has become known for today.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Raffles’ arrival might have sparked the beginning of Singaporean prosperity, but it was the self-determination of the last half century that led to the flourishing and forward-looking nation that Singapore is today.
Prizing itself on openness and multiculturalism, Singapore is a welcoming and truly unique tourist destination.
What to do
Some people enjoy lengthy historic learning experiences consisting of looking at static things in glass boxes, and reading things on the walls next to those glass boxes.
Not me. I am a child and demand to be entertained if I am to learn. That’s why it was fortunate that From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience was an absolute riot.
An interactive, multimedia sensory experience with charming actors, moving stages, roaring sound effects and more rain than you would normally expect to fall from a gallery roof, there wasn’t a moment to be bored or cynical - just entertained, educated and moved.
By the end I was genuinely stirred by a feeling of patriotic pride in a country I had arrived in less than 24 hours previously.
For a vision of Singapore that is less about history and more about what felt like the future, visit Marina Bay Sands. It has become an iconic part of the Singapore skyline it helped transform, and boasts views of the rest of the city from its 360-degree observation deck and rooftop infinity pool - the world’s largest.
On ground level, Little India is Singaporean life at its most colourful and bustling. Beautiful temples, busy shops, and fantastic food all contribute to the unique sensory experience that the Indian enclave offers.
Just 15 minutes’ walk away is Haji Lane, the cool, indie neighbourhood of Singapore. Bars, boutiques, cafes and restaurants are packed into narrow streets painted with plenty of insta-worthy artistic murals. It’s the perfect place for backpackers - or those who want to taste the backpacker experience before retreating to a comfortable hotel across town.
A must-visit experience in the city is the Gardens by the Bay exhibit. Indoor conservatories are packed with paradise-like floral art and lush greenery, alongside the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.
But the Gardens’ most spectacular offer is the Supertree Grove: light-up tree-like structures of up to 50 metres tall. The living displays are home to tropical flowering climbers, epiphytes and ferns, as well as being packed with technology that harvests solar energy and pumps out air from the indoor gardens, mimicking the ecological function of real trees.
The Grove’s Garden Rhapsody light and sound show kicks off every night at 7.45pm and 8.45pm, and can stir up emotions in even the weariest cynic.
What to eat
Lau Pa Sat is a quintessentially Southeast Asian food market that sits in the middle of the towering skyscrapers of Singapore’s financial district. The historic hawker centre is home to traditional, inexpensive Asian cuisine complemented by a striking backdrop of modernity and affluence.
In the evening, the outside area is converted from a regular road into “Satay Street”, transformed by the closing of the road to traffic and the arrival of a raft of stalls, fold-out tables and plastic chairs.
I enjoyed endless Singapore satays as plate after plate of barbecued chicken, beef and mutton skewers arrived, served with veg and nasi impit (compressed rice cubes) for dipping in generously provided bowls of buttery peanut sauce.
The idea of Satay is to enjoy it communally, which worked well for me - when six people eat 150 satay sticks, it’s very hard to prove who took twice their fair share.
If you want something that is less jugs-of-beer and more ludicrous pinnacle of sophistication, then try the Fullerton Bay Hotel’s Clifford Pier restaurant. Built on the landing point of Singapore’s forefathers, the Clifford Pier offers Western classics alongside heritage signatures.
The dress code is relaxed, to a point. Smart casual would be fine, but I had misjudged the occasion and was wearing a t-shirt, causing me to feel a shame more intense than the time I fell off the stage during a school production of Les Miserables.
I had the Hainaese Chicken Rice, which was great, but not so great that I didn’t stare enviously at my dining partner’s slightly more interesting Indonesian-style chicken, Nasi Goreng.
What to drink
No trip to Singapore is complete without a Singapore Sling in the Raffles Hotel Long Bar, where the cocktail was first created in 1915 by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon.
The bar itself was inspired by 1920s Malayan tropical plantation life, and features earthy décor and cane and rattan furniture. It is the only place in Singapore where littering is permitted, and guests are invited to break open peanuts from a gunny sack and brush the shells off the table and onto the floor.
At $31 SGD (£17.50) for a Sling, the cocktails aren’t cheap - but neither are they much more expensive than an average drink in a forgettable London bar. The Raffles experience is far from that - it is memorable, historic and an absolute must.
A couple of km south, LeVeL33 is the world’s highest urban microbrewery, offering penthouse dining and a humming indoor bar area. But the best reason to go is its open-to-the-sky terrace that offers a remarkable view of Singapore’s famous futuristic sites.
Unsurprisingly, it also does some very good beer. Ale 200, brewed up with black glutinous rice for Singapore’s bicentenary, is fresh on tap at LeVeL33 and even available at cut-price during happy hour.
Top of your to-do list should be a visit to Atlas bar, occupying the ground floor of Singapore’s iconic building, Parkview Square.
Deco glamour is the beautiful backdrop in a bar offering the world’s largest collection of gins; over a thousand bottles from across the globe - and the last century - are available to guests at this Raffles rival.
Where to stay
The Park Regis Hotel is a comfortable and well-positioned base from which to head out on Singaporean adventures.
The hotel is within walking distance from the maze of narrow roads that make up Singapore’s Chinatown, with its shops, wine bars and traditional restaurants.
Back at base, there is a 25-metre pool with a cascading waterfall, restaurant, and well-equipped gym.
Elsewhere, the Fullerton Hotel is a destination in its own right, not just a place to rest your head. Ultra luxury and steeped in history, it’s worth visiting for a tour of the hotel and its surroundings, even if you’re staying elsewhere.
How to get there
Singapore Airlines flies non-stop to Singapore from London and Manchester. Return Economy flights from London to Singapore start at £650, while Economy flights from Manchester to Singapore are available from £620.
Visit visitsingapore.com before you visit Singapore for custom itineraries and big inspiration.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.