SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore was once famous for three things: The banning of chewing gum, mandatory flushing of public toilets and the caning of American youth Michael Fay for car vandalism in 1994.
It has since shed some of its inhibitions as Asia’s city of “thou shalt nots” diversifies away from an economy heavy on manufacturing and banking.
While Monaco or Barcelona it is not, tropical Singapore is now known as a top-class casino-gambling destination, the venue for the world’s first Formula One night race and the bachelor playground of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.
Clean and safe, the prosperous city-state is also a magnet for high-end shoppers and one of the most diverse food capitals in the world. (Map: goo.gl/maps/54Glo)
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Singapore from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
Singapore, whose name means Lion City in Sanskrit, was colonized by the British in the early 19th century. Before that, it was inhabited by no more than a thousand people.
The preceding centuries are shrouded in myth and legend, with Chinese travelers and Javanese chroniclers alluding to a lair for pirates and the sighting of a majestic lion.
The last 100 years marked an era of deep change as the British empire unraveled, post-colonial Singapore was expelled from the Malaysia federation and the tiny island suddenly became a self-governing state with a tenuous future.
The little red dot, as Singapore is fondly known among locals, has since overcome its smallness and lack of resources to become an economic powerhouse - an evolution that critics say has led to soul-sapping materialism, political apathy and intellectual homogeneity.
History buffs and travelers with relatives who were part of the Allied forces are often drawn to the World War Two sites around the island.
A good place to start is the tranquil Changi Museum, which documents the lives of prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation. Then make your way south to Fort Siloso on Sentosa island, before taking a short train ride to the stark but stately Kranji War Memorial.
The Asian Civilisations Museum at 1 Empress Place showcases culture and history from around the region. Current exhibits include relics from China’s Tang dynasty and Batak sculpture from Sumatra. (www.acm.org.sg)
People intrigued by the colorful, energetic culture of Chinese traders who settled in Malacca, Penang and Singapore centuries ago will have a rewarding time at the intimate Peranakan Museum at 39 Armenian Street. (www.peranakanmuseum.org.sg)
For tourists game for a spectacle, join the male devotees celebrating the fire-walking festival at the Sri Mariamman Temple each October. The Hindu temple, Singapore’s oldest, is in the most unlikely of places - Chinatown.
Visit the Sultan Mosque in the Kampong Glam enclave near the city centre to bask in the glory of the Malay aristocracy of old. Then retire to nearby Arab Street for a drink at Blu Jaz as you marvel at the boho patrons and their shisha pipes.
Outdoorsy types can explore the 200-acre (81-hectare) Bukit Brown cemetery off Lornie Road in central Singapore. Named after a 19th century English trader, the final resting place for thousands of pioneering Chinese immigrants has sparked a rare national debate on conservation versus development.
Other scenic spots include the 155-year-old Botanic Gardens, the jungle trails at MacRitchie Reservoir (mind the long-tailed macaques!) and East Coast Park’s 15 km (9 miles) of seaside biking and walking paths. (www.nparks.gov.sg)
See a play or live music at Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, which has a year-round calendar of cultural events, including hands-on workshops for kids. Dozens of restaurants and food stalls line the complex. (www.esplanade.com)
Listings of shows, concerts and other events can be found at www.timeoutsingapore.com, www.is.asia-city.com and the Tourism Board’s website www.yoursingapore.com.
Singapore prides itself on being a food haven, and for good reason.
A morning excursion to Tiong Bahru market, in the heart of Singapore’s oldest public housing estate, is a must-do. Admire the area’s art deco charm as you sink your teeth into crispy, thin toast covered with kaya - a jam made from coconut milk, eggs and pandan leaf - and sip coffee in quaint porcelain cups.
For lunch, savor a plate of chicken rice, one of Singapore’s iconic offerings, at Boon Tong Kee at 425 River Valley Road.
Or try some laksa - a coconut-based curry with rice noodles, shrimp and fish cake. Foodies quarrel endlessly over that perfect bowl of laksa but a good version can be had at 328 Katong Laksa at 51 East Coast Road in the Tanjong Katong area.
Dinner would be a toss-up between chilli crab, the third iconic dish, and Peranakan cuisine, a happy outcome of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences.
A favorite chilli crab destination is Red House Seafood at the East Coast Seafood Centre. It’s best enjoyed with beer and boisterous company. On a different night, sample Peranakan duck soup, honey pork and spicy beef at Ivin’s at 19 Binjai Park.
Brunch and tea? You can have your eggs Benedict or Florentine, plus quiche, burgers and towering portions of cake at PS Cafe at 28B Harding Road. Popular on weekends, the cafe boasts a lovely outdoor sitting area with a leafy backdrop.
Those craving dim sum will find fulfillment at Lei Garden Restaurant at Chijmes - a collection of eateries, bars and boutiques in a historic former convent at 30 Victoria Street.
Challenge your palate with frog legs a la Kung Pao chicken at Lion City Frog Porridge at 235 Geylang Road (Lorong 9). If you are keen to try the king of fruits, the pungent and fleshy durian can be savored at many street stalls in Geylang.
Beyond Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine, Singapore offers everything from boeuf bourguignon to Vietnamese springrolls.
Within walking distance of Esplanade is Morton’s The Steakhouse on the fourth storey of the Mandarin Oriental, a fail-safe but pricey option. A good alternative is L‘Entrecôte at 36 Duxton Hill in the historic district of Tanjong Pagar.
At Marina Bay Sands, Pizzeria Mozza offers an extensive menu and a team of star chefs.
For hearty French fare, there’s Le Bistrot du Sommelier at 53 Armenian Street near the Peranakan Museum. Diners with deeper wallets will take to Joël Robuchon Restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa.
For Italian fare, Basilico at The Regent has a terrific lunch buffet, OTTO Ristorante at 28 Maxwell Road is a chic venue and nearby Capricci at 27 Tanjong Pagar Road has a more casual vibe.
For authentic ramen, try Keisuke Tokyo at Parco Millenia. Sushi lovers flock to Shinji by Kanesaka at Raffles Hotel. A less expensive but equally elegant venue is Aoki at Shaw Centre in the Orchard Road shopping district.
Let’s start at the top.
The 1-Altitude Gallery & Bar, which claims to be the world’s highest al fresco bar, commands a 360-degree view of the business district and Marina Bay.
On the 63rd floor of One Raffles Place, the bar competes for high-elevation revelers with nearby KU DE TA on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Skypark across the bay.
Pangaea, also at Marina Bay Sands, is frequented by the well-heeled and conspicuously rich. Even if you don’t have thousands of dollars to blow on luxury cognacs, it’s still a worthy diversion with its self-conscious glamour and African Safari theme.
Equally bold but more European is Attica at River Valley Road in the Clarke Quay area. No business suits please.
For those looking to hit the bottle at double-quick time, Tantric Bar at 78 Neil Road in Tanjong Pagar is your port of call. Lounge about in the green-lit courtyard as you down double shots with no extra charge for the second. It’s LGBT-friendly too.
Or chill out at Vida Vino at 29 Keong Saik Road. In a part of Chinatown known as a red-light district in the 1960s, the bar has a great tapas menu and laid-back Mediterranean feel.
Revelers and the thirsty can also explore numerous drinking holes at nearby Duxton Hill and Club Street.
Catering to a visibly younger crowd is Home Club at Upper Circular Road in the Boat Quay area. It’s almost like a noisy dormitory but in a good, fun way.
For beer under the starry sky, head to Brewerkz, a microbrewery at Riverside Point in the Clarke Quay area.
For whisky, it’s the Auld Alliance at the RendezVous Hotel Gallery. Martini Bar at the Grand Hyatt on Scotts Road offers 30 varieties of that cocktail and more in a chic space.
Shopping along Singapore’s famous Orchard Road can be daunting due to the thick crowds and sheer number of shops. But die-hard fashionistas can start at the ION Orchard mall at the western end of the retail boulevard and work their way down for as long as their stamina and bank balances allow.
For a more relaxed time, slip out for an early morning walk around Marina Bay. Do your warm-ups at the Formula One pit stop - where else? Stroll on to Marina Bay Sands via the glass-and-steel Helix Bridge before throwing in the towel at the Merlion Park waterfront at One Fullerton.
The Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo is no doubt a top attraction, with more than 1 million visitors a year. It is also the world’s first nocturnal zoo where open-air enclosures and careful lighting create the illusion that nothing stands between you and that Indian rhinoceros. (www.zoo.com.sg)
Those looking to try their luck at a casino can head to Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. Beyond gambling, eating and shopping, the two resorts offer a variety of shows and concerts. (www.marinabaysands.com) (www.rwsentosa.com)
Editing by John O'Callaghan