Singapore is one of South-East Asia's most alluring destinations...
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The Lion City, as it’s known, packs a lot into its diminutive size, with world-class attractions, fabulous food and shopping, and pockets of pristine natural beauty. Here are ten things first-time visitors must do.
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Nowhere is Singapore's transformation from sleepy tropical backwater to high-tech city- state more visible than on its downtown waterfront. Best go after sunset when the air has cooled (slightly) and the futuristic skyline is majestically lit. Veer right on the promenade behind Marina Boulevard, and walk – or jog – past architectural marvels such as Marina Bay Sands resort, the lotus flower-shaped ArtScience Museum, and the giant greenhouses of Gardens by the Bay.
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Golden dragons. Red lanterns. Mandarin signs. Some elements of Singapore's Chinatown wouldn't look out of place in Shanghai. But you'll also find mosques and Hindu temples in a district that, perhaps more than any other, symbolises Singapore's harmonious multi-cultural vibe. Chinatown Heritage Centre charts the area's colourful past, but the incense-scented alleys and markets are just as much fun to explore.
National Museum of Singapore
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You could spend hours trawling the galleries of this excellent museum, which occupies a palatial 19th century building that's had a slick modern makeover. But if time is short, hit the History Gallery. Tales from Singapore's ancient Malay kingdom, British colonial era and Japanese wartime occupation illuminate this 360-degree visual trip down memory lane.
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Singapore has a thriving fine-dining scene, but Singaporeans (and many tourists) adore hawker centres. Found in most neighbourhoods, these aromatic open-air food courts buzz morning, noon and night as vendors ply punters with the likes of char kway teow (wok-fried noodles), prawn laksa (a spicy soup) and chilli crab. For lunch, try Lau Pa Sat. This splendid cast-iron Victorian venue is beloved by hungry CBD workers.
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Shopaholics flock to Singapore's answer to London's Oxford Street. Where spice and fruit plantations once stood loom glitzy malls, department stores and boutiques stocked with high-end global brands, locally-made craft and high-end fashion. Look out for Keepers, a collective of Singaporean designers and artisans. Visiting Singapore over the festive season? Orchard Road's Christmas lights are spectacular.
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Fancy breakfasting with a family of orang-utans? Singapore Zoo is the only place in the world where you can do this (it's very popular, so book at least a week in advance). Two Aldabra giant tortoises – a gift from Mauritius – are among the newest residents of this lushly-located zoo, whose white tigers bewitch visitors with their piercing blue eyes.
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Characters as diverse as Rudyard Kipling, Michael Jackson and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have graced this whitewashed colonial landmark. Even if you're not staying, browse the hotel's exclusive gift shops, and refuel in the wood-panelled Long Bar, where they've been mixing ‘Singapore Slings' since 1915. As you sip this concoction of gin, cherry brandy, pineapple and lime, nibble on the complimentary peanuts and toss the empty shells on the floor. It's a thing.
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Singapore comprises 63 islands, with Sentosa the biggest crowd-puller off the 'mainland'. There are beaches, golf courses and family-friendly draws, including Universal Studios and S.E.A. (the world's biggest aquarium). Want an adrenaline rush? The MegaZip plummets 450m, reaches speeds of up to 60km/h and offers gobsmacking views of Singapore's city, sea and jungle.
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Take the metro to this beguiling green retreat, founded in 1859 and now boasting UNESCO World Heritage status. Its rare tropical orchids, banyan trees and picnic-friendly lawns are lovely, but the primeval jungle boardwalk is utterly captivating (especially after a downpour, when the leafy, soily aromas come to the fore).
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While Singapore isn't as racy (or seedy) as some Asian capitals (we're looking at you, Bangkok), you can still burn the candle at both ends – especially in Chinatown's Keong Saik Road. Singaporeans and expats mingle over craft beers, cocktails and fusion food in the hip bistros, speakeasies and rooftop lounges of this former red light zone. Before bar crawling, get a caffeine pick-me-up at Luxe, an Australian-Singaporean establishment at 1 Keong Saik Road.