48 hours in: Singapore
The city state may be changing at the speed of light, but it remains a metropolis of one million menus, Simon Calder discovers.
Why go now?
While Ireland shivers, Singapore is permanently hot -- and loosening up with the opening of the city state's first casino, on Sentosa Island. As high-rises sprout from reclaimed land, Singapore's diverse heritage shines through the steel-and-glass skyscrapers.
Changi airport has non-stop links from Heathrow and Manchester on Singapore Airlines (01-671 0722; singaporeair.com). BA (01-845 4184; ba.com) and Qantas (01-407 3278; qantas.co.uk) fly from Heathrow. There are no direct flights from Ireland.
Get your bearings
Singapore is the diamond-shaped island dangling from the southern tip of Southeast Asia. Changi airport is at the extreme east of the island; Singapore city is to the south. To use the immaculate and efficient urban railway, the MRT (smrt.com.sg), invest S$15 (€7.88) in an EZ-Link card, a stored-value 'smartcard'. From the airport, the MRT takes you to City Hall station (1) on the north bank, which serves the colonial district -- confusingly some way from Singapore's actual City Hall (2), but close to the iconic Raffles Hotel (3). It is named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the creator of modern Singapore, whose white marble statue (4) stands at the point where he landed in 1810.
Little India and the Islamic quarter around Arab Street are north of here; the busy retail drag of Orchard Road is to the west, with the main Visitors' Centre (5) at the junction with Cairnhill Road (0065 6736 2000; visitsingapore.com); open 9.30am-10.30pm daily. Raffles Place (6) is in the financial district, with Chinatown to the west.
Ninety years ago, planning began for what would become the biggest structure in Singapore -- though this Palladian landmark became the Fullerton Hotel (7) at 1 Fullerton Square (0065 6733 8388; fullertonhotel.com) only in 2001. A double room costs S$527 (€277), excluding breakfast, but including use of a large open-air swimming pool. The Scarlet (8) is a much more modest proposition, located on the fringe of Chinatown at 33 Erskine Road (0065 6511 3333; thescarlethotel.com). This boutique hotel, occupying a series of Chinatown 'shophouses', is reputed to have once been a bordello. Doubles from S$188 (€99), breakfast S$33 (€17) per person.
The clean, Catholic-run Waterloo Hostel (9) at 55 Waterloo Street (0065 336 6555; waterloohostel.com.sg) offers an internet rate of S$80 (€42) for a double, including breakfast, with 10pc off for "fathers and sisters".
Go to church
St Andrew's Cathedral (10) at 11 St Andrew's Road (0065 6337 6104; livingstreams.org.sg) was funded by rich Scots and built in the mid-19th century by Indian convict labour. The result: an airy gothic creation at the heart of the colonial district. Free 90-minute guided tours take place at 10.30am and 2.30pm daily except Sundays (when the cathedral is closed to visitors).
Take a hike
From the cathedral (10), go one block north to Raffles Hotel (3) to explore the lavish grounds and visit the top-floor museum (open 10am-7pm daily, admission free). An array of sepia photographs, extracts from newspapers, luggage labels and travel posters remind you that Europe was once much more than 12 hours away. If the door to Jubilee Hall, Raffles' own 400-seat theatre, is open, take a peek.
Three blocks west, the Singapore Art Museum (11) at 71 Bras Basah Road (0065 6332 3222; singart.com) occupies a 19th-century mission school, where a permanent collection of Southeast Asian art is augmented by visiting exhibitions.
Admission is S$10 (€5.25); open 10am-7pm daily (to 9pm on Fridays, when admission is free after 6pm).
Head north along Waterloo Street, studded with temples and public art, then jink north-west across the Rochor Canal to the foot of Little India. Thread your way along 'Backpackers' Row', officially known as Dunlop Street, then aim north along Serangoon Road to take a slice through Little Indian life -- branching off to explore lanes such as Little India Arcade (12) and Sri Veeramakaliamman temple (13).
Lunch on the run
'See Singapore and dine' should be the city state's motto. You are rarely more than 10 yards from the next eating opportunity. At the end of the hike you find yourself at Komala's (14), an excellent, clean and accessible restaurant where delicious north and south Indian vegetarian dishes are served up at very good prices. The location at 328 Serangoon Road (0065 6299 4464) is well placed for moving on, with Farrer Park MRT station just opposite -- perfect for the next stop on your itinerary.
Go three stops south to Clarke Quay (15) station, then wander along the south bank of the river to the footbridge beside the Fullerton Hotel (7). If you are escorting neither cattle nor horses, cross Cavenagh Bridge to the beautiful Asian Civilisations Museum (16), where the elements that help to make up the complex compound of 21st-century Singapore are laid bare in beautifully composed galleries. Open 9am-7pm daily (from 1pm on Mondays, to 9pm on Fridays), S$8 (€4.20).
Part of the same complex is Bar Opiume, part of the IndoChine waterside restaurant (0065 6339 1720; indochine.com.sg). It claims to be "Asia's first-ever Prosecco and vodka bar". Sip by the Singapore River any time after 5pm.
Dining with the locals
Singapore is opening up to the water, with a number of bars and restaurants looking east over Marina Bay. Jing (17), part of the One Fullerton complex (0065 6224 0088; jing.sg), offers classy Chinese dishes; a six-course vegetarian set menu is S$58.50 (€30.73).
The newest, flashiest and brashest mall along Orchard Road is Ion (18), with Louis Vuitton on hand to sell you an elegant case in which to ship it all home. It opens 10am-10pm daily. Mustafa's (19) emporium in Little India meets your jetlagged shopping needs: everything from saris to saucepans 24 hours a day.
Sunday morning: take a walk
Considering five million residents are squeezed into the island, Singapore manages to offer plenty of green escapes. The most formal manifestation can be found at the Botanic Gardens (20), beyond the end of Orchard Road (0065 6471 7361; sbg.org.sg). Modelled on Kew Gardens, though with rather more profuse vegetation, it is an ideal antidote to city life, with a horticultural inner sanctum in the shape of the National Orchid Garden. Open 5am-midnight daily (Orchid Garden daily 8.30am-7pm; S$5/€2.63).
Further west, the Chinese and Japanese Gardens feature is a stunning 176-step pagoda.
Out to brunch
The 'hawker centre' or food court is a great concoction: dozens of vendors, each with their own specialism, compete for custom. Choose what takes your fancy, then take a seat in the centre. The most architecturally attractive is Lau Pa Sat (21), occupying a former Victorian market building in the heart of the city. It was created in Glasgow in 1894 and shipped to be assembled locally. You can swill pig-organ soup; Indian, Korean and Japanese dishes are also available. Open 24 hours, but best experienced at lunchtime on weekdays.
Take a ride
... to McDonald's. The taxi driver will be sure to know the branch in East Coast Park (22), on the waterfront north-east of the city. The fast-food outlet is almost next door to Cycland, where you can rent a bike for S$5 (£2.20) for two hours -- just right for an afternoon's ride along the coast, passing attractions such as the 360 lake, where a crafty system creates a water-skiing venue with no need for a speedboat.
The icing on the cake
Most flights leave Singapore late at night, so make a perfect finale to your Singapore fling by enjoying a meal at the East Coast Seafood Village, 10 minutes by cab from the airport. The signature venue is Jumbo (0065 6442 3435; jumboseafood.com.sg), where you can feast outdoors on prawns, satay or soup, watching the planes line up before you take off. Reckon on S$30 (€15.75) per person, including a beer or two.