“Singapore is so expensive!” That’s what I kept on hearing when I announced our plans for a 5-week housesitting adventure in this intriguing country. I was prepared to mainly eat at home, work a lot and hopefully get to see some of the things that weren’t going to explode our budget. Guess what? We needn’t have worried! Well ok, maybe a little bit. Alcohol and restaurants are very expensive indeed, but turns out there are loads of free things to do in Singapore! Curious? Read on!
1. Free things to do in Singapore: Architecture
Marina Bay forms the heart of Singapore’s modern architectural marvels. It’s THE postcard image of Singapore. Between the Marina Bay Sands complex, the giant white lotus-shaped Artscience museum and the durian-shaped Theatres on the Bay, it is indeed a fine work of art. Stroll around the bay to take it all in, take the mandatory picture with the half fish/half lion Merlion and if you’re lucky there will be a free concert on the Promenade. After sunset, the buildings are beautifully lit up. Don’t stick around for the nightly light-and-laser show at Marina Bay Sands though, not really worth it in my opinion.
TIP: If you really want to see the light show, go to the National Gallery, and follow the signs for ‘Smoke & Mirrors’. It’s a cocktail bar that offers gorgeous views across the entire bay. If you don’t want to order an (expensive and very average) cocktail, just head up the stairs and stop at the viewing platform near the entrance.
Changi Airport is considered as the best airport in the world and it’s easy to see why. Between butterfly gardens, cinemas, amusement arcades, and over 200 restaurants and shops, there’s enough to do to take a holiday at the airport itself! But the crown jewel at the airport is the Rain Vortex, situated in the Jewel Complex of Terminal 3. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it a hundred times on TV, once you stand in front of it, there is no doubt that the world’s tallest indoor waterfall with totally blow you away! The water cascades 40m or 7 storeys towards the basement. As with most architectural jewels in Singapore, there is a lightshow around 8pm and 9pm.
You’ll spot decorated shophouses in many of the city’s heritage areas, from Purvis Street to Emerald Hill and Chinatown. The most popular ones (judging by the Insta-crowd that was gathering around them) are situated in the East, on Koon Seng Road. Shophouses were designed to have a shop or business on the lower floor and accommodation upstairs. The façades are often brightly painted and decorated with beautiful tiles. It pays to have a closer look!
Other architectural gems in Singapore
Walking or bussing around Singapore, you’ll come across many others architectural gems, such as ‘Reflections at Keppel Bay’, the ‘Old Hillstreet Police Station’, the ‘Interlace’, or the ‘Parkroyal on Pickering’ hotel with its dramatic cascading gardens.
2. Free things to do in Singapore: History
The City Gallery
Ever wondered what Singapore looked like before it was transformed into this modern and sometimes futuristic-looking city? Head to the Singapore City Gallery where you’ll learn everything about Singapore’s mind-boggling 50 year-transformation. You’ll get an insight into the land reclamation, high-rise housing policies and urban planning. You’ll also get a sneak preview at what Singapore will look like in the future, once all the projects currently under development join the skyline. A very interesting, interactive exhibition that is totally free!
Raffles has become a synonym with Singapore. It might just be the most iconic and evocative 19th century hotel in the world. Only guests are allowed in via the front doors, but everyone can admire its colonial architecture, take a walk around the first floor landing area or through the courtyard, and visit The Long Bar, the birthplace of the famous Singapore Sling. To be honest, I recommend you give that last one a miss, unless you’re prepared to queue with bus loads of tourists and open up your wallet. Last time I checked (April 2023), the cocktail set you back a whopping 38SGD! Nobody in Singapore drinks Singapore Sling nowadays, but if you really want to try it, I suggest you go to No 5, Emerald Hill instead. So, forget about the Singapore Sling, but definitely visit Raffles for a stunning reminder of colonial history.
Close to the shopping mecca of Orchard Road you’ll find this iconic hilltop that has witnessed many of Singapore’s historical milestones. This is said to be the resting place of the last King of Singapura and remains of spiritual significance for the Malay community. Fort Canning also served as the command centre during the Battle of Singapore in WWII. A very historical place that few people visit. Apart from its historical importance, Fort Canning also features great views, expansive lawns, a lovely spice garden and several walking trails.
3. Free things to do in Singapore: Culture
Chinatown is a vibrant and one of the most historically significant neighbourhoods of Singapore. It is one of my favourite places. Chinatown has a very rich cultural heritage, some remarkable temples and the most yummy food markets. Make sure to visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. This impressive four-story Buddhist temple is known for housing a sacred tooth relic of Buddha. Another notable landmark is the Thian Hock Keng Temple, one of the oldest and most important Hokkien temples in Singapore.
If you’re into streetart, look out for the murals of Yip Yew Chong, a local artist known for his intricate and detailed scenes from Singapore’s past and traditional heritage.
Chinatown is also home to the Maxwell Food Centre, one of the most famous hawker centres in Singapore (more on hawker centres below). It’s THE place to try Hainanese Chicken Rice and other popular dishes, such as laksa or char siew meats. If you’re looking to try a curry puff, head for the Amoy Street Food Centre. Make sure to join the local community for dim sum on a Sunday. We tried a place called Yum Cha, which I’d highly recommend!
The hub of Singapore’s Indian community is Little India. I was expecting a rather chaotic neighbourhood, kind of a reflection of the country, but was a little disappointed. This said, it’s still worth visiting Little India for the beautiful Hindu temples. One notable temple is Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, adorned with intricate sculptures and vibrant colours. Other temples like Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple are also worth exploring. And Little India is of course THE place if you’re longing for a delicious curry!
The Kampong Glam neighbourhood is known for its rich Malay and Arab heritage. The centrepiece of the area are the golden domes of the Sultan Mosque. You can visit the mosque, even as a non-muslim. Near the mosque stands the Malay Heritage Centre. We were very lucky to be in Singapore during Ramadan; Kampong Glam has one of the biggest Ramadan Bazaars in Singapore, and every evening, muslims gather to shop, eat, drink and socialize. It’s busy, but not to be missed!
If you thought that Kampong Glam was all about religion, think again. Head for Haji Lane, a narrow alleyway, known for its hipster vibe, independent little boutiques and trendy cafés. It’s a totally different side to Kampong Glam!
If there is one thing I miss about Singapore, it’s definitely the hawker centres! If you want to eat cheap, but well, these are the places to go for! You don’t need to search very long, there are over 100 hawker centres in Singapore and there seems to be one every couple of blocks!
Hawker centres are food complexes that house a variety of individual food stalls, offering a wide range of affordable and delicious local dishes. From Hokkien to Teochew, from Indian to Malay, hawker centres showcase the multicultural food scene of Singapore. Don’t worry if you’re not sure what to taste, just point or ask the help of a friendly local.
4. Free things to do in Singapore: Nature
Gardens By The Bay
Yes, you read that right. You don’t have to pay to visit Gardens in the Bay! Well, ok, if you want to get into the Conservatories, you do, but to be honest I don’t see why you would. You can walk for free in ‘real nature’ everywhere in Singapore and if you want to see a spectacular waterfall, I suggest you go to the Jewel at Changi Airport. So, unless you’re a real flower-fanatic, spend your money elsewhere.
What can you visit for free at Gardens in the Bay? First of all, the amazing Supertree Grove! Again, if you want to head to the top or walk the Skyway, you’ll have to pay, but it costs nothing to wander amongst these sci-fi trees, learning all about their environmental benefits, construction, … After sunset, the Supertrees become the glowing protagonists of a nightly light-and sound show. Yep, also for free!
Take a walk along the Dragonfly lake. Very few people make it there, so it’s really peaceful and offers great views. Close to Gardens in the Bay, you’ll find the Marina Barrage, a sort of green ‘roof’, popular with kite enthusiasts, that offers breath-taking views of the skyline!
The Botanic Gardens
Welcome to Singapore’s most famous sprawl of greenery, home to ancient rainforest, themed gardens and lots of picnic-friendly lawns and lakes. The National Orchid Garden comes at a price, but the rest of the 3 hectares are free of charge! It’s an ideal escape if you’d had your fair share of busy city life.
The MacRitchie Reservoir lies at the very heart of Singapore and is a popular destination for runners, water sports enthusiasts, and of course nature lovers. Walk the 11km MacRitchie trails, located within the tropical rainforest of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Aim for the 25m- high Treetop Walk to find yourself in the middle of the mind-blowing fauna and flora, complete with long-tail macaque monkeys! Walking trails skirt the water’s edge, ideal for a calming and evocative escape. Keep your eyes out for monitor lizards! It’s a world away from Singapore’s cityscape and totally free!
If you’ve explored the Botanic Gardens and don’t have the stamina to tackle the MacRitchie trails, then the Southern Ridges might be a good alternative if you’re in need of some green. Kent Ridge Park and Mt Faber are connected via a series of parks and hills. There’s a canopy walk, beautiful themed gardens, not to mention the Henderson Waves, an undulating pedestrian walkway suspended 36m above the forest floor. At the end of the walk you’ll reach Mt Faber, which offers fine views across to the Harbour Front and Sentosa Island.
As you can see, there are many free things to do in Singapore, so you can totally visit this wonderful country without straining your wallet. From beautiful gardens and nature reserves to cultural neighbourhoods and stunning cityscape views, there are plenty of options for those seeking budget-friendly experiences.