20 free things to do in Singapore
by SHAWN LOW· 07 August 2013
Though Singapore may be one of the most expensive countries to visit in Southeast Asia, there are plenty of free things to see and do to ease the wallet pain. Here are some of our favourite Singapore freebies.
Tour Peranakan history at Baba House
The exquisitely restored Peranakan (Straits Chinese) heritage Baba House near Chinatown can only be visited on a free hour-long tour, which offers a great insight into the life of a rich local family circa the early 20th century. The tours are run by appointment only, on Monday (2pm), Tuesday (6.30pm), Thursday (10am) and Saturday (11am). Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marvel at the colourful Sri Mariamman Temple
Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple (located in Chinatown, go figure), Sri Mariamman is built in a colourfully ornate Dravidian style and well worth gawking at. Aim your camera lens at the elaborate gopuram (gateway) before taking a walk around the temple compound. It’s particularly festive during the Deepavali festival period (generally October or November).
Sri Mariamman Temple, by Jorge Cancela. CC BY 2.0Sri Mariamman Temple, by Jorge Cancela. CC BY 2.0
Stroll among overgrown tombs at Bukit Brown Cemetery
First established in the early 20th century, Bukit Brown was once Singapore’s largest Chinese cemetery but was subsequently abandoned. Today it’s a birding and wildlife spot, and has been identified as a heritage site worth preserving (the government promises redevelopment within the next 40 years). Enthusiasts, historians and activist groups run free walking tours of the cemetery; check out their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/bukitbrown) and website (www.bukitbrown.com) for dates.
Explore Singapore’s hawker traditions at the National Museum of Singapore
You’ll need to shell out S$10 to see the National Museum’s permanent collection but the excellent Living Galleries are free to visit. Photography and film are covered but it’s the food gallery that will tantalise and make your stomach growl for some of Singapore’s famed hawker dishes. Also look out for free guest exhibitions via www.nationalmuseum.sg.
Walk the Southern Ridges
The Southern Ridges Trail – spanning Mt Faber, Telok Blangah, Kent Ridge and Hort parks – is one of the best walking trails in Singapore. It meanders through 10km of lush forest and canopy walks, and crosses the Henderson Waves, Singapore’s highest pedestrian bridge. Don’t forget to take water, sunscreen and a hat; see www.nparks.gov.sg for details.
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore, by yeowatzup. CC BY 2.0Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore, by yeowatzup. CC BY 2.0
Get classical with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
As part of its ‘community outreach’ program, the SSO conducts free concerts at various tertiary institutions, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Singapore Racecourse. The Classics at the Park sessions at the Botanic Gardens are particularly atmospheric: come early and bring a picnic basket. Check dates and locations via www.sso.org.sg/outreach/family-concerts.html.
Discover Fort Canning Park
Overlooking central Singapore, Fort Canning Park was once the centre of the British administration and was technically Singapore’s first botanic gardens, founded by Sir Stamford Raffles. Visitors should check out the spice garden and various historical sites. Free tours are run monthly; check the website (www.nparks.gov.sg).
Soak up the arts at the Esplanade
Ogle the Durian-like architectural style of the Esplanade before heading inside the Jendela gallery (www.esplanadesingapore.com) to check out art exhibitions. The Esplanade also hosts free short films, scads of other exhibitions and music festivals.
Esplanade Theatre Singapore, by Neil Howard. CC BY-SA 2.0Esplanade Theatre Singapore, by Neil Howard. CC BY-SA 2.0
Chill out at East Coast Park
In space-starved Singapore, the 15km stretch of beach known as East Coast Park is a breezy spot to swim, work on your tan and get away from the madding crowds (though you should avoid it on weekends when the crowds descend). BBQ pits are gratis and you can even camp for free – BYO beer and chicken wings, of course. Apply for a camping permit via www.axs.com.sg.
Challenge the locals in pick-up games
Fancy a pick-up game of football/soccer? Head to public parks such as East Coast Park come evening time (5.30pm onwards): odds are you’ll find groups of amateurs engaging in friendly scratch matches. ESPZEN (www.espzen.com) also organises a local league and free training sessions. If you’re not the sporty sort, head to the front of the Chinatown Market for pick-up games of Chinese chess. The only cost? Having your ass handed to you by retirees!
Witness cutting-edge art at Gillman Barracks
Gillman Barracks (www.gillmanbarracks.com) is Singapore’s latest and greatest contemporary arts space. This former army camp now houses 13 galleries in its colonial-era buildings. Notable picks include Singapore’s FOST Gallery, Sundaram Tagore (NYC), SHANGHART (Shanghai), Michael Janssen (Berlin), Equator Arts Projects (Indonesia) and Mizuma (Tokyo), and all are free.
Stride above the trees at MacRitchie Reservoir’s Treetop Walk
While most of Singapore is clad in concrete, you’ll find swathes of greenery outside the city centre. Head to MacRitchie Reservoir Park for an 8km round-trip hike to the Treetop Walk, where you can climb to a 250m suspension bridge that soars above the rainforest canopy. For details check out www.nparks.gov.sg.
MacRitchie Reservoir Park, by Edwin Lee. CC BY 2.0MacRitchie Reservoir Park, by Edwin Lee. CC BY 2.0
Get an education at the National University of Singapore Museum
The local university is home to a museum well worth checking out, and not just because it’s free. The NUS Museum features historical artefacts and the excellent Lee Kong Chian art gallery. Look out for the (also free) Natural History Museum, due to open in early 2014.
Go all-out kitsch at Haw Par Villa
What happens when you earn a fortune selling Tiger Balm? You use the money to build a kitsch and colourful theme park, of course, featuring scenes from Chinese legends and mythology. That’s what the Aw brothers did, at Haw Par Villa, where more than 150 dioramas depict everything from famous Chinese stories to scenes in ‘hell’ (where it seems that disembowelment will be the least of your worries).
Statues at Haw Par villa. Image by Richard I’Anson / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.Statues at Haw Par villa. Image by Richard I’Anson / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.
Find peace at St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Armenian Church
Aside from being architectural masterpieces from Singapore’s colonial era, these churches offer a respite from the heat and busyness of the city. St Andrew’s Cathedral is Singapore’s largest church, and the Armenian Church its smallest and oldest (built in 1836).
Go green at Singapore Botanic Gardens
Founded in 1859 by the British, the Botanic Gardens today occupy a swathe of quiet green space at the edge of the commercial Orchard Rd. Come early for a pleasant walk and people-watching. Keen botanists should check the website (www.sbg.org.sg) for free walking tours.
Singapore botanical gardens, by Joshua Eckert. CC BY 2.0Singapore Botanic Gardens, by Joshua Eckert. CC BY 2.0
Slow down at Thian Hock Keng and Kong Meng San Phor Kark See temples
Temples might be moderately commonplace in Singapore but these two are particularly atmospheric. Thian Hock Keng is Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple (circa 1839) and is replete with elaborate carvings. Kong Meng San Phor Kark See (a mouthful to pronounce) is a working monastery housed in a massive Escher-esque building with a bell and drum tower, statues, and various halls. Free vegetarian meals are served in the dining hall.
Celebrate at a smorgasbord of festivals
With festivals that range from the eclectic (Buskers Festival – www.facebook.com/sentosabuskers) to the artistic (Singapore Arts Festival and the Singapore Night Festival – brasbasahbugis.sg/nightfestival) to the musical (Mosaic Music Festival – www.mosaicmusicfestival.com), there’s quality free entertainment for visitors most months of the year. Check out www.yoursingapore.com for listings.
Pose with a Merlion
Singapore’s most iconic sculpture, the Merlion (a half-lion, half-fish creature), is free to visit. Pose with the water-spouting critter before taking a walk around Marina Bay for more free sights. Pop into nearby Fullerton Hotel and the Fullerton Bay Hotel – the former used to be Singapore’s General Post Office and the latter was the bustling Collyer Quay. Both are pristine restorations of colonial-era architecture.
Singapore by night, by motiqua. CC BY 2.0Singapore by night, by motiqua. CC BY 2.0
Get freebies at Changi Airport
Got a few hours to kill at the airport? No worries, there’s plenty to do: take a walk through the butterfly garden, surf the net or Skype using the free wi-fi, chill at a TV lounge, or plonk into a massage chair. If you’ve got five hours (or more) of transit time, book a free city tour (www.changiairport.com).
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