Singapore Backpacking Guide

Futuristic trees at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore  

Updated November 8th, 2018.

In our backpacking Singapore guide, we tell you the best areas to stay, the best value for money backpacker hostels, things to do on a budget in Singapore and some money-saving tips for travellers! Yes, we know that Singapore is the most expensive stopover in Southeast Asia, but that doesn’t mean that you need to avoid it. With a little extra planning, you can make the most out of this unique destination. First, a short taster…

EAT! Chili Crab – Singapore’s favourite crustacean smeared in thick spicy chilli sauce, mmmh. This famous dish of Singapore origin was invented in 1950 by Singaporean chef Cher Yam Tian. Eat it with the locals in streetside restaurants for an authentic Singaporean experience.

DRINK! Tiger Beer – Invented in 1932, Tiger Beer was Singapore’s first locally brewed beer! Now you can buy it in over 60 countries in the world. But, just like Guinness, it tastes better in its country of origin!

WEAR! Your Best Backpacker Outfit – Home to bankers and your global business millionaire sorts, your dreadlocks and holey vest won’t go down very well here we’re afraid. Don your best pair of fisherman pants and clean(ish) T-shirt to make local and expat friends.

BEWARE! Yo Dolla! You can forget sleeping for under $5 USD and eating for $1 USD in Singapore. This is undoubtedly the most expensive city for backpackers in South East Asia! Get your savvy budgeting head on to avoid an early trip home. Oh and read this article about 10 things to do on a budget in Singapore!

Marina Bay Sands Luxury Hotel - Singapore by night.
Marina Bay Sands Luxury Hotel – Singapore by night.

Singapore Backpacking – What to expect?

A mere 1.5° from the Equator, be sure to pack your sunglasses when visiting Singapore. If the sun doesn’t blind you, the glossy shopping malls and the fancy bars will!

According to legend, the compact island was originally named ‘Singapura’ (meaning lion) by Srivijayan Prince Sang Nila Utama, when he landed here in the 13th Century and spotted what he thought was a lion.

Studies show that this is highly unlikely and it was more likely to be a Tiger! No need to panic though, nowadays the only tigers on the streets are the beers and the four-legged kind only in Singapore zoo!

With a population now standing at over 5 million, Singapore is second only to Monaco as the World’s most densely populated country, but its streets are far from the never-ceasing hustle bustle of Bangkok.

Orderly and clean, Singapore oozes the sophistication and modernity of a European city, whilst retaining the buzz and charm of an Asian metropolis.

The only downside to Singapore is the expense. How can backpackers expect to compete with world bankers and business folks in one of the most expensive cities in Asia?

With accommodation at the highest price you will find pretty much anywhere in South East Asia, it may be the reason why travellers tend to spend only a few days in Singapore before catching a cheap flight to Thailand or Oz.

Singapore skyscrapers.

Where to stay in Singapore

Chinatown Singapore

As one of the World’s oldest and largest Chinatown’s, there is plenty to see here, including numerous temples and traditional road-side stalls selling Chinese wares.

Aim to be here for Chinese New Year (usually January or February) and you’re in for a spectacular treat, lasting a whopping 42 days! Head here for reasonable budget accommodation and a short walk to Smith Street for a bowl of Ah Balling Peanut Soup, at a tiny (especially for Singapore!) 50 cents.

iStay.inn is the cheapest at $14 USD for a dorm bed, but perhaps not the best. Capsule Pod Boutique Hostel, ZEN Hostel Mosque Street and Wink Capsule Hostel all come more highly recommended.

For the ‘flashpackers’ amongst us, there are plenty of upmarket hotels, including one with its own Shopping Mall… worth a visit even if it is slightly over budget at S$300 a night!

Search for accommodation in Chinatown here!

Little India Singapore

Singapore’s most bustling backpacker district is also arguably it’s most colourful. At only 25 minutes taxi from Changi Airport, Serangoon Road is the main drag, with most of the City’s budget accommodation being found around here.

Stick to the Indian grub and you’ll find it’s spicy and cheap, perhaps because Indian eating etiquette is followed and cutlery is not provided (but be sure to eat only with your right hand!). There is one exception for which a spoon is provided…who could resist a bowl of Little India’s speciality dish, Fish Head Soup?

For accommodation in Little India, Click Here!

Orchard Road Singapore

If you want to be right in the thick of it, Orchard Road is Singapore’s shopping mecca with numerous nightclubs for the night owls amongst us. Exceedingly upmarket and therefore extremely pricey, Orchard, as the area is often referred to, is not for the backpacker budget. Stay here only if Mum and Dad come to visit and fancy treating their wayward backpacking child to a luxurious 5-star hotel 😉 The area underwent a whopping $40 million revamp in 2009, so expect a perfect vision of modernity.

Search for accommodation on or around Orchard Road here!

Arab Street

There are some decent backpacker hostels cropping up in this area where you can find clean, comfortable backpacker dorms at good prices. Most hostels come with free wifi and you may even get a breakfast thrown in too! Arab Street hosts some great value eateries, shisha smoking venues and a lively atmosphere. Fast becoming one of the most popular places for backpackers to stay in Singapore.

To search accommodation city-wide, click here!

5 Inspirational Tips For a Cheap Singapore Trip!

While Singapore is often known for its ritzy hotels and designer shopping malls, thankfully there are also plenty of cheap and cheerful attractions around the thriving metropolis that are well worth checking out.

From green escapes and hawker food centres to museums or even just spending time in the amazing international airport itself, you’ll find plenty of fun yet affordable things to do in bustling Singapore. Here are our top 5 tips for enjoying Singapore on a budget

TIP 1: Don’t Leave the Airport! – Changi International Airport

Before you even leave the international airport in Singapore you can spend many enjoyable hours exploring what the city’s busy facility has to offer. An award-winning airport (it has received over 400 gongs over the years), Changi has regularly been voted as Asia’s best airport, as well as the top in the world.

When you arrive, make sure you allocate enough time to check out the venue’s many leisure amenities. These include a synthetic ice rink; a rooftop swimming pool with a Balinese theme and the tallest slide in the city; free cinemas; wellness centres; and at least 300 different retail outlets. One of the top attractions at the airport though has to be the recent addition of a live butterfly garden. This popular spot is home to over 1,000 butterflies, as well as numerous native plant species and even its very own waterfall.

TIP 2: Nature is Free! – Singapore Botanic Gardens

Another top attraction for those who like to enjoy green space is the Singapore Botanic Gardens — the city’s first UNESCO World-Heritage Site nomination. Established back in 1859, the 74-hectare park is the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll or a picnic lunch. The gardens feature at least 300 plant species, a swan lake, themed gardens, many paths, and boardwalks to explore, a symphony stage, and even a rare swath of primaeval rainforest, all within the busy confines of the city.

The main sections of the park (including the Ginger Garden, Healing Garden, and a specific children’s garden) are free to explore, while the National Orchid Garden costs just $5 per entry for adults. The park is open from 5 a.m. until midnight every day.

TIP 3: Eat at The Food Centres! – Don’t Miss Maxwell Food Centre

If food is more your passion and you love to try as many different tastes as possible anytime you travel to a new destination, head to the Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown. Although there are over one hundred different hawker venues in the city serving up affordable dishes, this one is generally considered to be the best or, at the very least, at the top of the list.

Located in the former Kim Hua Market building, the foodie haunt serves up authentic Singaporean street food to both locals and tourists. Operating since 1986, the centre boasts around one hundred food stalls, meaning diners can sample every type of local cuisine imaginable, such as fried sweet potato dumplings, oyster cakes, and the world-famous Singaporean dish Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. This meal has been praised by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in the past, as well as food critics from the New York Times.

TIP 4: Swallow Some Culture! – Asian Civilizations Museum

Art and culture lovers shouldn’t miss a visit to the low-priced, yet culturally-rich Asian Civilizations Museum. Housed within a stunning 1860s building you’ll find 11 thematic galleries to explore at leisure, all of which showcase the traditional side of pan-Asian culture, religion, and civilization (the first in the entire region to do so).

The collections within the Museum revolve around artefacts from the different groups and cultures who have settled in Singapore over the last two centuries. Exhibited works include those from Southeast Asia, China, India, Turkey, and Sri Lanka, to name a few.

TIP 5: Get Arty! – Singapore Art Museum

Another top attraction in the city is the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). The facility has amassed one of the largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks in the world since it opened in 1996 and has also started to expand into works of international contemporary art.

The Museum is set within a restored 19th-century mission school, and in addition to its many artworks also features a variety of dining facilities and an on-site gallery store. Visitors are also encouraged to take advantage of a guided tour of the galleries to learn more about the works housed within. Tours last around 45 minutes but are limited to 20 people per set departure time, so it’s best to arrive a little early to secure a place.

Entry to the Singapore Art Museum generally costs $10, however foreign visitors receive entry free of charge every Friday night, between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., as well as on SAM Open House days. Try to time your visit with one of these times and you’ll save yourself a welcome few dollars.

Top 10 Things to do in Singapore!

1. Cycle through Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

A welcome escape from the City, the Nature Reserve is one of the World’s only two primary rainforests located by a city. For the speed junkies, hire a bike and ride the 6km route to spot some of the forest’s 3,000 Macaque (Japanese monkeys.)

2. Sip a Singapore Sling

Despite no longer being a hit with the locals, no trip to Singapore would be complete without a taste of its namesake cocktail at its place of birth: the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. The famous cocktail was first served here in 1915. It contains gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, Dom Benedictine, pineapple juice, Grenadine, lime juice and a dash of Angostura bitters. Make sure you savour every mouthful, as the cost of the beverage is about a week’s worth of accommodation in other parts of Southeast Asia!

3. Visit the world’s first Night Zoo

A little pricey for the budgeting-backpacker, at S$38, this wildlife park can be explored by foot or by tram and is open until midnight. Makes for a truly great day out!

4. Shop (or window shop) overlooking the World’s largest fountain

At Suntec City stands the World’s largest fountain, made of cast bronze and costing the US $6 million! But that’s not all…designed to be a ‘city within a city’, Suntec City hosts over 888,000 ft of shops! Perfect to satisfy those window shopping cravings.

5. Walk the Southern Ridges

Spanning 9km the trails connect the parks of Southern Singapore. Featuring a number of architecturally brilliant bridges, the trail provides tree-top routes through the forest and panoramic views.

6. Play Mahjong with the locals

Wander down the side streets and you’re bound to find a couple of locals playing the Singaporean version of Mahjong (solitaire). With extra tiles and a few more rules, it’s hard to get your head around but an unforgettable experience…

7. Step inside a giant Durian

No, not the spiky, smelly fruit found across Asia, but the Esplanade Theatre, which is often said to resemble one. Catch a show here to experience first-hand its state-of-the-art performance space.

8. Visit the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery

Found in the Bishan district, this is Singapore’s largest Buddhist temple. Visit one of its many Hall’s, including the Hall of Great Strength and the Hall of Universal Brightness.

9. Visit Merlion Park

The mascot of Singapore is the ‘Merlion’, an invented creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. The fish signifies Singapore’s ancient name back when it was a fishing village(‘Temasek’ meaning “sea town” in Javanese) and the lion comes from Singapore’s origin as ‘Lion City’ – today a symbol of courage and strength. A famous statue of the Merlion stands in the Merlion Park at the mouth of the Singapore River.

10. Visit Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, Chinese temples, Buddhist temples...

Singapore is a multicultural city where all religions and cultures blend. From cuisine to temples to shopping and street life, you will get a taste of many different parts of Asia in this city!

Also see: Top 10 Attractions to do on a Budget in Singapore.

Getting to Singapore…

For many backpackers, Singapore is simply a stopping point on their way elsewhere. Changi Airport itself is a feat of beauty, and despite claiming the title of Asia’s fifth busiest Airport it has more than enough services to keep these passengers busy, including rooftop garden’s and countless plasma screen televisions. However, this is not an excuse to simply not leave! Grab a budget flight in from any Asian airports, or travel by road from Peninsular Malaysia.

Where to go next?

Bintan Island: If you’re craving some beach after the city, catch a 90-minute ferry to the island of Bintan for a taste of Indonesia. Bintan is the largest of the ‘Riau islands’ and a return ticket from Singapore will cost you around $60 SGD.

Tioman Island: One of Malaysia’s highly acclaimed ‘paradise islands’, it was once voted one of the Top 10 most beautiful islands in the world by Time Magazine. Tioman provides a sparsely populated getaway, a haven for scuba diving enthusiasts or those who’d like to spot a Monitor lizard or two. Get here by daily buses from Singapore (4 hours), followed by a two-hour ferry ride. Those short on time can catch a one-hour flight to the island’s airport.

Kuala Lumpur: Hop on an extremely short plane ride, or take a 4-5 hour bus journey to reach the next stop North on many a backpacker’s South East Asian trip. Malaysia’s vibrant and atmospheric capital hosts great food, cheap shopping (especially compared to Singapore!) an incredible multi-cultural flavour and some great nightlife!

Bali: Undoubtedly Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction, backpackers head to Bali for white sands, clear seas and a young and lively atmosphere. Take a two and a half hour flight from Singapore with low-cost airlines such as Jet Star and Air Asia.

Laura Davies started her career at South East Asia Backpacker Magazine on an internship in the summer of 2011. After proving she could knock back shots, ride a scooter and look good in a poncho, she soon became an indispensable part of the team. She's now living in London as a freelance designer and running our sister website - Europe Backpacker.

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