Studying a semester in Singapore was an incredibly fun experience. But fun in the most expensive city in the world does not come cheap. We walked into every tourist trap before we finally got creative. These are 10 recommendations for Singapore on a budget.
We barely touched the hot, humid grounds of Singapore when reality hit. No more 1€ Stella in Belgian student bars, but $14 Heineken plus entrance fee. Just when we settled for a future of house parties, we learned about Ladies Night. On Wednesdays, even the fanciest clubs and rooftop bars offer free entrance and drink specials to ladies. The goal of this clever concept? Attract a lot of men willing to spend thousands of dollars on table reservations and bottle service. Who are always happy to share with the lucky ones in this story, us ladies.
DO your due diligence on Ladies Night venues
DON’T be a man in Singapore’s nightlife
The next reality check was served on our first restaurant visit. After a week of noodles and rice, three Belgians were ready for some Western food. We picked the one dish we could afford and were seriously disgruntled with the portion size. I now realize that the caesar salad we ordered was actually a side salad. The only restaurant we frequented after this day? A pizza place where one glass of wine came with a free pizza on ladies night. You read that right.
DON’T eat at (Western) restaurants
The key to eating on a budget in Singapore is food courts. Food courts are next-level street food markets, usually located in shopping malls with AC and seating. A variety of food stalls cook up dishes from Singapore to India and everything in between. Singapore’s food scene is known for combining flavors from all over Asia, creating a unique fusion flavor. My favorite feature of food courts is the hygiene rating that is displayed in each food stall. I don’t recommend going for anything less than an A. As our 20-year old self did not see the value of trying fish head steamboat, we usually scanned food courts for Western dishes or Asian food as we knew it from Europe. It hurts to admit I left Singapore without proper chopstick-skills.
DO savor fusion fare in food courts
On our first night in Singapore, we were fittingly welcomed into the tropical climate. Telling ourselves we better get used to the weather in our new home, we walked for over an hour in the pouring rain. When we got to the student meeting venue, it was deserted just like the streets. Turned out we had crossed the city in the middle of a monsoon storm.
DON’T challenge the weather
The weather in Singapore is extremely unpredictable. Minutes away from home when a storm breaks translates into soaking wet. Luckily, the expansive underground network provides shelter. The subway in Singapore – better know as the MRT – spans over 200 km. The MRT runs like clockwork and is so clean you could eat off the floor. Just don’t give in to this temptation, as eating and drinking in the subway entails a $500 fine. Singapore, “the fine city”.
DO take shelter in the MRT
Before we arrived in Singapore, we booked a sightseeing tour of the city. After negative reviews from fellow exchange students, our excitement went down the drain. We felt obligated to go regardless, in order not to waste 80 dollars. This is when our Canadian roommate explained us the concept of a sunk cost. The 80 dollars are gone, whether you attend the tour or not. He sticked to the concept and I wish I had too. Instead, we ended up melting in the Singapore midday sun on a duck tour – a bus that turns into a boat.
DON’T take a river tour
Singapore’s waterfront is one of my favorite city skylines. The Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade is freely accessible 24/7 and offers a stroll past the main architectural highlights. Start at Merlion, Singapore’s mascot with the body of a fish and the head of lion. Walk past the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the ArtScience museum, shaped like a lotus flower. Then cross the DNA-shaped helix bridge for a stunning outlook on the bay. I recommend going at sunset, to catch both golden hour and the impressive night views. Every night there is a free light and water show, with virtual performances by Singaporean singers.
DO stroll along Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade
The second activity that came with our sightseeing tour was a Night Safari. This Singapore zoo is built for seeing nocturnal animals in action. Unique concept, was it not that the animals play hide and seek in the dark. The only animal we could observe in all its glory was the one that’s very hard to miss.
DON’T go on a night safari
Gardens by the Bay is a much more interesting take on green spaces in the city. Only Singapore could come up with futuristic “supertrees” that generate solar power and collect rainwater at the same time. Gardens by the Bay also houses the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, impressive greenhouses with the city skyline as a backdrop.
DO visit the garden of the future
Marina Bay Sands is an iconic landmark on the Singapore skyline. The boat-shaped luxury hotel boasts the best views in town. One tourist trap we didn’t fall for is the SkyPark Observation Deck. Better views are served comfortably and with a cocktail in MBS’ rooftop bar, once Ku De Ta but now Ce La Vi. It quickly became our number one Ladies Night venue.
DO party with a view at MBS’ rooftop bar
DON’T go up to the SkyPark Observation Deck.
Marina Bay Sands’ spectacular infinity pool is reserved for hotel guests only. Gaining access to THE pool was a hot topic among exchange students. Some tried to sneak in, with mixed results. Others fit six people into a double room for one night. And lucky ones like me got in using a wristband from friends in the former category. We lounged on the 57th floor from morning till night. If you splurge one time in Singapore, let it be on a stay at MBS.
One day in our first weeks on Singaporean soil, we woke up feeling adventurous. We took the MRT, followed by 28 stops on a bus to Changi Point Ferry Terminal, where we boarded a small boat to Pulau Ubin. What was supposed to be an experience in an authentic part of Singapore, turned into a day spent on public transport. As soon as we touched the mosquito-infested grounds of Pulau Ubin, we stood in line for the next boat to the mainland. It’s no secret that I’m a mosquito magnet, but I never had to kill so many mosquitos in plain daylight.
DON’T take a trip to Pulau Ubin
On this topic, I’ll take man-made over authentic. Sentosa is an island designed for having fun. There are white sandy beaches, beach bars, Universal Studios and a water park. Only a short ride on the Sentosa Express from the busy mainland, it’s a popular destination to escape the city life. Especially on Sundays, when migrant workers flock to Sentosa to enjoy their day off. One Sunday, the four of us in bikini on the beach became Sentosa’s main attraction. From there on out, we kept our visits to weekdays.
DO board the Sentosa Express
After ordering my first and last $14 beer in Clarke Quay, we went back with the roomies a couple weeks later. One cannot leave Singapore without indulging in fresh seafood at least once. That was our plan when we headed for dinner in Clarke Quay, known for its seafood restaurants. As soon as we opened the menu, we regretted the trip. Instead of a seafood feast, we ordered noodle soup from the appetizer section – the only dish under $20. We got swindled at the tourist trap, with smiles.
DON’T order seafood in Clarke Quay
For a much more authentic experience, head to Singapore’s East Coast. This strip of beaches also houses many restaurants that prepare signature Singaporean dishes. We got our hands dirty at the original Jumbo Seafood, famous for chili crab. Finger licking good and served with sunset over the Singapore Strait.
DO dive into chili crab along the East Coast
Paying over $20 for a cocktail is the norm in Singapore. But the historic Raffles Hotel and its Long Bar take the cake when it comes to drink prices. Home of the Singapore Sling and the tradition of throwing peanut shells on the floor, we considered it a necessary evil to have a drink at the Long Bar. I would rate our experience evil rather than necessary. Not only is the Singapore Sling incredibly sweet, this sugar rush set us back 30 dollars.
DON’T pay an arm and a leg for one drink
While our Australian and Canadian roommate did not seem discouraged by the drink prices, us Belgians sought a way out. Buying alcohol in a supermarket was equally expensive. The alternative was pink vodka, exclusively sold in dingy Little India shops. The best way to escape Singapore taxes while avoiding alcohol poisoning, is to stock up on drinks in Changi Airport. Which we enjoyed on house parties or the famous Clarke Quay hangout bridge, as drinking in public used to be legal in Singapore.
DO stop by Changi Airport’s duty free section
It’s not surprising that Singapore tailors to the luxury shopper. But even without a full wallet, Singapore’s luxury malls are worth a visit. The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands tops the window shopping-list, with boat rides on a canal that runs through the mall. Our shopping experience was limited to stopping by ZARA once in November. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we found a full-blown winter collection, in a country where the temperature never drops below 75ºF.
DON’T bring your wallet to Singapore’s luxury malls
Singapore counts many local markets, reflecting its diverse population. The area around Arab Street and the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam is lined with shops, restaurants and food stalls. Chinatown has a popular night market, a great place to sample the Singaporean Chinese cuisine. For fans of big shopping crowds and kitschy souvenirs, Bugis Street Market is the place to be.
DO shop at local markets