Let me say it again: Singapore is my favorite city on the planet. It is clean, safe, and friendly. It also has one of the best mix of cultures anywhere in the world. Colonial buildings stand beside beautiful modern architectural gems. Religious sites abound. And museums celebrating some of the most impressive civilizations in the region are plentiful.
Any first time visitor to the Lion City will first notice the architecture. It seems that every building in the city has something interesting to look at, and many have greenery incorporated into their designs. Take this masterpiece in the Singapore River district adjacent to Chinatown.
My favorite building in Singapore… for now
Standing in contrast is the colonial architecture of the Raffles Hotel. Currently being refurbished, this look is from a couple years ago. The hotel is beautiful to explore, fountains and courtyards beckoning. It is said to be the place that the famed Singapore Sling was invented, and the bar will charge you according to that. (I didn’t purchase one due to the high price.)
One of the courtyards at the Raffles Hotel
Just walking around Singapore is an invitation to experience an incredible cultural mix. While nothing is truly ancient, there are certainly historical buildings from the city’s past. And everywhere are monuments to the city’s place as a home to a cornucopia of immigrant cultures, mostly from China and Southeast Asia, but also Arab traders and European colonists.
One of the highlights of Singapore’s diversity is seen in its religious sites. Churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, and even a few synagogues can be found all over the city, and most are open to visitors (keeping in mind dress code requirements). Sitting in Chinatown is the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple. An ornate gate invites visitors in to explore the grounds, where paintings and statues of the gods are spread across the numerous buildings.
The entrance to the Sri Mariamman Temple
A few miles away is Arab Street. Small shops sell silks and spices, and vendors pour their signature “pulled” tea. Tea is poured between vessels that are pulled away from each other, leaving a liquid rope connecting them. This both cools and aerates the tea, leaving a unique frothy treat. Drink one at a table along the street, watching the passers-by going to and from the 1824 Sultan Mosque, a stunning golden-domed building.
The Sultan Mosque is one of the cultural highlights of Singapore
Having experienced the different religions of Singapore, it is time to dive into the different ethnic mixes that make up the city. For me, the best place to do that is at the Museum of Asian Civilizations. An incredible collection will teach visitors about the many cultures that make up modern Singapore, Malaysia, and Southeast Asia in general. From the treasures of a Chinese shipwreck to ornate artifacts, a few hours will leave a visitor awed at the peoples that have populated this part of the world, helping to make modern Singapore the melting pot it is.
Artifacts from India, China, and every culture of Southeast Asia rest in all corners of the Museum of Asian Civilizations
Finally, to truly appreciate the unique culture of Singapore, visit the beautiful colonial building housing the National Museum. Here one can explore the entire history of the island city, including unique exhibits dedicated to its time under Japanese occupation during World War Two, the role of women in colonial society, and the transformation of the city into one of the dominant economic powers after independence in 1965.
The National Museum of Singapore
This cultural diversity is made possible both by the unique place Singapore occupies geographically, sitting at the southern end of the Straights of Malacca, and by government policy by the British and Singaporeans themselves at being an open port. As a result, work has always been plentiful, and those seeking better lives made their way here. A couple days spent enjoying the cultural gems in the city will tell you that most of them probably found that better life.
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