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Viewed as a country, Singapore is tiny — just 281 square miles of islands off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. When you're inside this city state, however, it can feel expansive: a fertile juxtaposition of urban and tropical, where futuristic skyscrapers tower over stands of old-growth forest. This economic powerhouse has been a regional trading post since the 15th century, at least, and a British colony for 144 years. Over the past 500 years, Singapore evolved into one of Asia’s most diverse cities, where the free-flowing cultural exchange among residents of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) heritage has created a distinct Singaporean identity.
Your trip can be as urbane or as escapist as you choose. Perhaps you’ll approach the city as a playground, taking the cable car to Sentosa, a beachfront garden of delights south of the main city. Or you’ll spend your afternoons shopping in the swank department stores of Orchard Road and the bustling shops of Chinatown and Little India. Or wake up early to wander through the placidly stunning Singapore Botanic Gardens or the MacRitchie Reservoir, where an elevated path wends through the treetops.
Unless you’re arriving overland from Malaysia, your port of entry to Singapore will be Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), located on the eastern end of the island. You can find all manner of ground transportation options there — airport shuttles, taxis, trains, rideshares, and buses. You can also rent a car at the airport for your Singapore stay, though given the traffic, the easiest way to get around town is on the clean, efficient MRT subway, whose lines extend across the island. Singapore is one of the most accessible spots in Asia, and people using wheelchairs will find elevators in all the subways and well-paved sidewalks with curb cuts. If you’re a heat-tolerant exerciser, you can rent a bike to explore certain neighborhoods; some areas still have cobbled streets. Taxis and rideshares are plentiful and inexpensive.
Located just north of the equator, Singapore is dependably hot all year long, with daily temperatures fluctuating between the 70s and 90s Fahrenheit. The island’s tropical climate is dependably humid and wet as well — only the intensity of the wetness changes. The northeast monsoon season, from November through January, brings the most and the heaviest rains. During other times of year, expect sunny days interrupted by short-lived rainstorms. Along with your rain gear, pack a few light layers, since Singaporeans embrace the cool comforts of air conditioning.
There is no one best time of year to visit the country. In fact, there are many. Festivals enliven Singapore throughout the year, including Lunar New Year in February or March; Deepavali, or the Indian festival of lights, in October; Hari Raya Puasa, marking the end of Ramadan; and many weeks of Christmas festivities. To these religious celebrations, add cultural events such as the M1 Fringe Festival in January, the International Film Festival in April, and the Great Sale, a shopping extravaganza, in the summer.
Singaporeans are passionate about their cuisine, which reflects the country’s glorious cultural diversity. While you can find some of Asia’s fanciest restaurants here, you’ll eat majestically at the city's hawker centers — food courts where many vendors have devoted their career to mastering a dish, whether it’s Hainanese chicken rice, laksa (brothy noodles), biryani, chili crab, or grilled satay. When it comes to sheer atmosphere, the Victorian-era Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre competes only with the Chinatown Food Street. You really could spend your entire trip eating. If you want to engage in conversation with a local, ask them which hawker center you should visit next.
If you’re traveling to Singapore with your family, you’ll find the densest concentration of kid-friendly activities in this upscale neighborhood on the southern coast, including the famed Merlion Statue, the massive Singapore Flyer observation wheel, the ArtScience museum, and Gardens by the Bay, whose architecture is as spectacular as its vast collection of indoor flora (don’t miss the cool, misty Cloud Forest). Stick around after nightfall for the daily light displays.
It’s still possible to find pockets of Singapore where you can leave the concrete and steel behind to take in the eternal Singapore — a lush tropical forest on the edge of the Indian Ocean. It will take you an hour from the center of town to reach this 200-acre wetland reserve on the island’s northeast coast, where you can wander along boardwalks through the mangrove swamps or camp out behind an observation blind to admire the monkeys and 160 species of birds who live here.