Backpacking in Singapore
You may have heard of Singapore from the Crazy Rich Asians movie, but the reality is, most of us aren’t crazy rich. It is true that our cost of living is pretty high, but Singapore is still a destination for a low-budget backpacking trip, with loads of affordable but chic hostels and free activities to enjoy.
Explore the best of this sunny island without going over your budget with this handy backpacking guide – with useful information on underrated food spots, travelling around on public transport, and laws to take note of.
The best time to travel to Singapore
Weather: Wet and dry seasons
It’s always a good time to travel to Singapore because of its year-long tropical climate. But even so, you can expect sunnier and warmer days in the months of May, June and July and a higher chance of overcast skies and torrential downpour from November to February. On normal sunny days, you can sometimes expect sudden light showers that don’t last too long.
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Wet or dry season, the average temperature however remains at a minimum of 23 degrees celsius on a rainy night and frequently rises to a sweltering 35 degrees celsius on a sunny day.
It’s hot and humid even during times of rainfall so it’s perfectly fine to strut down town in bermuda shorts and a cotton tee, or dress up a little with some jeans and long sleeved shirts when visiting air-conditioned places like museums and theatres. Your most important accessory, however, is a foldable umbrella.
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You may also want to pick up a handheld fan before your trip here, especially if you’re used to a cooler climate. We also recommend wearing a cap for some shade and slathering on some sunscreen.
Public holidays to avoid for a less crowded experience
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Choosing the right public holiday to avoid or be present for can enhance your experience. For example, during our National Day season in August, you’ll be able to catch a dazzling display of fireworks on selected Saturday nights and National Day itself (9th August) at various points around the Marina Bay area – as well as some heartland spots – for free.
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If you’re visiting during Chinese New Year, you may face empty streets and malls because establishments are usually closed during the 2-day break while people do house visits.
Pros: No crowds. Cons: A limited shopping experience.
Some shopkeepers and cafe owners choose to take longer breaks during this period – lasting up to a week or two – so you may find that the places you want to visit are closed.
Do also take note of other public holidays like Good Friday, Labour Day, Vesak Day, and Deepavali. This is when you’ll see hordes of Singaporeans flocking to malls, tourist attractions, and food spots, so pretty much everywhere will be crowded.
Laws in Singapore to take note of
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You may have heard of Singapore being a fine city. That doesn’t just refer to the quality of life here, but also the literal fines people get for committing trivial crimes. You don’t want to lose your moolah for missing the bin when you’re tossing your trash. Here are a few laws you need to know to avoid the po-pos.
1. No begpacking
If you’re planning on strumming tunes on your ukulele to earn some bucks to fund your travels, know that it’s illegal to do so without a permit. Getting this permit is a tedious process of obtaining an Employment Pass, a letter of consent from the Ministry of Manpower and passing auditions.
2. No consumption of alcohol in a public space from 10.30PM-7AM
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It’s cheaper to pop your own bottle of beer but unfortunately, you can only enjoy alcohol at licensed premises like bars, or within private spaces such as your hotel room, from 10.30PM to 7AM. We do not want a repeat telecast of the 2013 Little India Riots where intoxicated men attacked a bus and an emergency vehicle in the middle of the night.
3. No jaywalking
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The traffic light crossing may seem 50 metres too far from where you are, but you will want to walk that extra distance to avoid being fined up to $1000.
4. No littering
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There’s no reason to litter in Singapore given the number of trash cans available. That, and the maximum fine of $2000 that’ll await you once you’re caught disposing of your trash irresponsibly.
5. No chewing gum
It’s perfectly legal to chew gum in Singapore, but you aren’t allowed to bring it into the country. If you really need something to chew on, you can try looking for chewy mints from convenience stores as an alternative.
6. Smoking only at designated areas
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Moving towards being a smoke-free country, Singapore now has designated smoking areas. Non-smoking areas that you should take note of include sheltered areas, parks, and washrooms. There are even separated areas at coffee shops for smokers and non-smokers, for the benefit of those who’d like to enjoy some clean air while having their meals.
If you do get caught taking a puff on your cig at a prohibited spot, you can get fined up to $500 by NEA officers – who are usually dressed to camouflage with everyone else.
Check here for a detailed list of areas where smoking is allowed.
7. No feeding of pigeons
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You might be thinking of feeding the pigeons your leftover bread but that benevolent gesture will carry a $500 fine with it.
8. Don’t bother bribing your way out
If you do find yourself caught by the po-pos, don’t try to bribe your way out because that could cost you up to $100,000 worth of fines or a 5-year jail term. Not the wisest way to spend your holiday here.
Compared to other countries, the police here are largely uncorrupt, so it’s unlikely that they’ll accept your bribe to begin with.
Safety levels in Singapore are generally high
Singapore is extremely safe, so pickpocketing and other petty crimes are few and far between – and if you happen to lose your valuables, there’s a high chance of someone turning it in instead of keeping it.
In fact, it’s part of the Singaporean culture to use a packet of tissue paper, or other items like a water bottle or umbrella to reserve (or “chope”) your seat at a crowded hawker centre or food court while you buy food.
Image credit: VisitSingapore
Just don’t leave your bags unattended in the MRT, as it’s likely to be reported as a suspicious object. And when that happens, the whole track will stop for officers to investigate the situation.
Travel scams are also uncommon here so you don’t have to worry too much when you sign up for tour packages by local companies.
Money changers in Singapore
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Money changers are aplenty across the island so unless you need cash immediately, don’t change your money at Changi Airport because they charge a higher rate.
One of the best places to change your foreign cash to Singapore dollars – if you haven’t already done so – is at Mustafa Foreign Exchange. It’s open for 24 hours and conveniently located within the vicinity of Farrer MRT. You can check out their exchange rates for various currencies here.
Arcade Money Changers at Raffles Place is another one to hit up. It offers a wide range of currencies and even if there’s a long queue, there are nearly 20 other money changers in the same area to try out. You might want to avoid the lunch crowd from 12PM-2PM.
Mustafa Foreign Exchange
Address: 145 Syed Alwi Road, #03-00 Mustafa Centre, Singapore 207704
Opening hours: 24 hours
Telephone: 6292 9252
Arcade Money Changers
Address: 11 Collyer Quay, #01-18 The Arcade, Singapore
Opening hours: Mon-Fri: 9.00AM-6.30PM | Sat: 9.00AM-3PM
Telephone: 6223 0753 / 6220 7241 / 6221 2080
Getting a tourist SIM card in Singapore
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WiFi hotspots are readily available at cafes, restaurants, and certain attractions, but you’ll still want a good bundle of data so you can use Google Maps. You can choose to get a tourist SIM card from Singtel, Starhub or M1 from only $15 for 100GB of local data, 500 minutes of local call time and 100 local texts for a 7-day stay. These SIM cards are readily available at convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and Cheers or any mobile phone kiosks across the island.
Take note though, phones in Singapore run on a GSM 900 and 1800 frequency band so you will have to check your phone specifications to make sure that the SIM card is compatible. If not, you can always find a decent second hand smartphone here for less than $100.
Affordable accommodation for tourists in Singapore
There are many stylish hostels you can comfortably bunk in for a short stay and prices are pretty affordable. The ones in town are usually within short distances to convenience stores, restaurants, and MRT stations. Here are some of our recommendations:
Kampong @ Arab
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Located along the streets of cafes and murals is Kampong @ Arab, an affordable hostel with rates from $21/night. Best part is it’s within walking distance to nightlife spots.
MET A Space Pod
MET A Space Pod is out of this world with its futuristic space-themed capsules. Rates here are slightly pricier at $52.50/night but each relatively spacious sleeping pod comes with a bed, television and vanity mirror.
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There’s also Hipstercity, where you can pick between different types of rooms – from single beds, to triple bed dorms, or a private room with a bed and twin bed from $54.03/night. Each part of the hostel has a different ambience – the toilets are garden-themed while the lounge looks like an old-school American cinema.
Check these articles for a list of hostels to stay at:
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The best way to get the inside scoop on what’s good in Singapore is by couch-surfing and living with the locals. There might not be as many hosts as there would be in other countries but you can still try your luck here. You will be saving a ton of money on your accommodations.
Tip: send in your requests at least a month early and don’t stop at one – the more requests you send out, the more chances you’ll get at experiencing the life of a local.
We’re all familiar with the infinity pool cutting across the skies of Marina Bay Sands but on the flipside, Singapore also has a good range of affordable boutique hotels that are still well within reach of touristy areas.
The Great Madras
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The Great Madras has aesthetically-pleasing rooms from $101/night, as well as a decent lap pool that also doubles up as a popular photo spot.
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If you’re into minimalism and monochromatic finishes, Hotel Mono will be right up your alley with rooms priced from $97/night. It’s also conveniently located in Chinatown, a mere 2-minute walk from the MRT station.
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Hotel Kai has a nice homely feel with the white overalls decorated with bold colours. From $110/night, you can get your own private space with a nice-sized bed to allow you to wind down comfortably. It’s also located at the heart of Bugis so on a boring day, you can easily find something to do around the area.
For more options, read our articles on hotels here:
- New hotels in 2019
- Romantic boutique hotels
- Affordable hotels
- Hotels near popular clubs
- Hotels with free late check outs
- Secret staycation spots
Get cheap local food at Singapore’s hawker centres
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You do not truly experience Singapore until you’ve explored her through your tastebuds. Singapore is a food paradise featuring a variety of cuisines from local and neighbouring cultures, and you can get mouth-watering dishes at any hawker centre in Singapore, usually below $5.
You might have heard of Lau Pa Sat and Newton Food Centre, but locals deem them touristy and slightly overpriced. We suggest taking a detour to other places like Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, Old Airport Road Food Centre and Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre instead – they offer the same iconic local dishes but at cheaper prices, and many locals say the quality of food there is better.
A simple checklist of dishes you have to try while you’re here: Hainanese Chicken Rice, Bak Kut Teh, Sambal Stingray, Murtabak, Kaya Toast, Indian Rojak, Laksa and Satay.
Local breakfast set of kaya butter toast and soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce
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Singapore’s hawker centres may have a street food concept but it’s a clean version with regular hygiene checks and designated cleaners so you don’t have to worry about going home with an upset tummy.
For more in-depth hawker stall recommendations, read these articles:
- Cheapest hawker meals under $2.50
- Endangered hawkers dishes to try
- Hidden hawker dishes
- Legendary hawker stalls
- Hawker stalls by ex-restaurant chefs
- Modified hawker classics
- Best hawker centres in Singapore
Clean drinking water in Singapore is not a problem
You don’t have to spend money on mineral water here because tap water in Singapore is potable. Changi Airport and popular tourist attractions like Gardens by the Bay, the Singapore Zoo, and some parks have water coolers where you can get a free refill of clean, ice-cold drinking water.
Things to do in Singapore
Nightlife in Singapore – bars and clubs
Over-the-top cocktails at Holey Moley
A visit to any country is incomplete without a peep into the nightlife and while Singapore’s night scene is not that wild, it can be pretty vibrant if you know just where to go.
A popular area for a night of booze and partying is the Clarke Quay and Boat Quay area, where there are plenty of live music performances and cheers of sports enthusiasts watching a live soccer match. Some places we like hitting up here include Level Up, a bar with retro arcade games, and Holey Moley, Singapore’s first and only golf cocktail bar.
Level 33 at Marina Boulevard
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If you’re feeling fancy, there are classy rooftop bars at the Marina Bay area with beautiful views to accompany your drink. Other popular nightlife zones include Ann Siang and Club Street, which typically have cosier establishments for a more intimate night out. Holland Village is a hotspot for pubs and restaurants, and is especially popular amongst expats.
Check out these articles for our bar recommendations:
- Best bars in Singapore
- Themed bars
- Cheap bars in town
- Affordable happy hour cocktails under $12
- Hidden bars in the CBD
- Rooftop bars
- Bars with games
Check out these articles for our club recommendations:
Free walking tours at Singapore’s heritage districts
Street art at Chinatown
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One way to get to the roots of the people is by touring the main streets of culturally-rich Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam. Simply follow a free walking tour hosted by local tour guides to get the best out of your experience at these ethnic districts. A schedule of tours available can be found here.
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When you’re in Chinatown, visit the grand Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which has a whopping hundred Buddha statues on its first floor. Kampong Glam is home to the iconic Sultan Mosque, and has streets of shophouses occupied by cafes and independent boutiques. While there, make sure you drop by Arab Street for some of the best Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food.
Colourful flower garlands sold at Little India
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Night owls will want to raid Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour megamart at Little India with cheap electronics and groceries. Surrounding it are rows of food stalls serving up some of the best North and South Indian cuisine. You can also check out Tekka Centre, a bustling market complex.
Island hopping in Singapore – apart from Sentosa
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Singapore is not just one island. It’s actually made up of 63 islands and there are 4 islands besides Sentosa that you can visit for a sunny day out.
For a look into Singapore’s kampong past, you can visit Pulau Ubin on a $6 bumboat round-trip ride. The best way to discover its rustic charm is by renting a bike (from $2/hour) and cycling through the island.
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Hop on a ferry from Marina South Pier and visit three other islands for just $18. The boat ride will first get you to St John’s Island where lots of cats roam freely. Take the link bridge and you’ll be at Lazarus Island next, where you’ll find a stretch of white sandy shore and clear waters to dip your toes in.
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Take note of the ferry schedule because there’s no other way back and you don’t want to miss Kusu Island, the next pit stop that’s an island steeped in local myth. You’ll find sacred sites like the Da Bo Gong temple to worshipped trees lined with shrines at the Malay keramats.
Part of this island is inhabited by hundreds of turtles and red-eared terrapins, which is how it got its name – because “kusu” means turtle in Hokkien.
Read our article on islands to explore in Singapore here.
Free concerts and art exhibitions
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Artsy folk can drop by the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre or Esplanade Concourse for free performances and art exhibitions. You can view a schedule of what’s on for the current and coming months here.
You can also enjoy a classiscal serenade by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra while nibbling on some picnic food for free at Singapore Botanic Gardens. Check out their performance schedule here.
For more free things to do in Singapore, check out this article.
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If you’d like to stay on the mainland but still seek the embrace of nature, Singapore has a long list of nature reserves and parks with no entry fees. For an adventure through a swampland, visit Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve – also home to migratory birds come bird migration season. Those who’d rather not brave the muddiness can check out the new Lakeside Garden, or get a good workout by hiking up Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and its surrounding trails.
Read our articles on nature spots and walking trails in Singapore:
- Nature reserves and large parks in Singapore
- Hiking trails
- Hiking around Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
- Hiking trails used by Singapore’s soldiers
- Beginner-friendly walking trails
Travelling around in Singapore
Public transport – Tourist passes and EZ-Link cards
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You can trust in our reliable transport system to get you around the island within an hour and a half at the most. The only thing you’ll need is a Singapore Tourist Pass. There are 3 types of passes you can purchase and the cheapest starts from $10 for a day of unlimited rides on trains and buses. Top up a little more and you’ll get access to bundle deals for half-day tours and up to 50% off meals at selected restaurants.
Find out more about Singapore Tourist Passes, visit here.
Singapore’s MRT map – something useful to have in your phone when planning your route. Take note that the dotted lines are for tracks that are still in the process of being built.
Image credit: Land Transport Authority
But if you think your daily transport fees are going to cost less than what the passes cost, it would be wiser to get yourself an EZ-Link card – either from any of the TransitLink Ticket Offices located at any MRT station or bus interchange for $12, or from 7-Eleven convenience stores and at a cheaper rate of $10.
This would be more cost-effective than Standard Tickets (single-ride tickets) which cost more per ride.
Taxis and ride-hailing apps
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Taxi rides here range from $5 to $30 depending on the distance. To find out the exact prices before you hail or book a cab, as well as to check out the cab-booking numbers to call, refer to this list. Take note that there are usually late-night surcharges which can go as high as 50%.
Ride-hailing apps are a good alternative, as they’ll not only show a fixed price to pay, but also track the location of the car during your journey. The most popular ride-hailing apps used here are Grab and GoJek. Check out our article on taxi apps in Singapore here.
Shuttle bus services
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There are shuttle bus services for direct transport to many places of attraction in Singapore. For example, to get to the Singapore Zoo, River Safari or Night Safari, you can hop on a fuss-free shuttle bus from Khatib MRT for just $1.
You can also opt for a free transfer from selected hotels to Safari Gate@Suntec for a direct ride to one of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore parks from just $7. For more information, check out this link.
There are also free shuttle bus services that take you from MRT stations to certain shopping malls. For example, if you’d like to visit Great World City or take a free ride to one of their drop off points after a shopping spree at the mall, they do round trips from Newton MRT, Chinatown Mrt and Queenstown MRT.
Useful apps to get you around Singapore
Download the Singapore Travel Guide App (iOS, Android) to get recommendations for attractions or restaurants to visit. It will help you navigate through the city while providing other useful information, such as where free WiFi hotspots are located.
To make sure you don’t miss your bus or take the wrong bus service, download SG BusLeh (iOS, Android). With a simple interface, it’ll give you an accurate estimation of bus arrival timings and a complete record of their routes.
For discounts of up to 50% for restaurant reservations, Eatigo (iOS, Android) will come in handy. This app will also help you source for the best deals based on your location and interest so you don’t have to waste your precious time looking for a place to dine at.
You can also download reservation app Chope (iOS, Android), which comes with an extensive list of promotions from 1-for-1 exclusives, coupons for 50% off meals, and guides to local-approved restaurants across the island. Quandoo (iOS, Android) pretty much works in the same way, but generally caters towards those who are looking for more high-end restaurants.
Since MRTs and busses will be your main transport during your stay here, having a copy of the MRT map in your phone will be useful for you to plan your journey. Take note that the dotted lines are for MRT tracks that have yet to be built.
More apps can be found here.
Visiting Singapore on a budget
Singapore may be an expensive city to live in, but your backpacking expedition here does not have to be. There are free attractions, convenient ways to travel across the island, and cheap local eats that won’t break your bank even if you’re here for more than a week.