Singapore is rapidly becoming one of Asia’s most expensive cities. Much has changed in the 5 years since I have been living here. Perhaps there’s no more telling illustration of the change of pace here than by the subtle replacement of the Merlion with the Marina Bay Sands as the most prominent landmark of the city.
While a holiday here can indeed set one back by quite a bit, many would be surprised at the sheer amount of free things to do in Singapore. I can list dozens but in this instance I will just limit it to twelve. To prove my point that a trip to Singapore need not be expensive, here are my favorite free things to do:
1. Elevate your merit at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
all lit up for vesak day!
This building has only been around for 6 years but looks like it dates back from a much earlier age. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is located in South Bridge Road, in the Chinatown district of Singapore. Built with the architectural styles of the Tang Dynasty in mind, it is said to house a tooth relic from the Buddha himself (Siddhartha Gautama). Beautiful inside and out, the best time to see the temple is during Vesak Day which is usually in late May. You can get sweeping views of the temple against the offices of Raffles Place as backdrop.
How to go to Buddha Tooth Relic Temple: From Chinatown MRT station, head towards the southern direction for a couple of blocks. It is opposite Maxwell Food Centre.
2. Be awed by the light show at the Supertree Grove of Gardens by the Bay
purple glow of the supertree grove with marina bay sands in the background
While it costs money to enter the indoor areas of the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, the Supertree Grove is totally free and its image has now become iconic of the Marina Bay area. Between 25 meters to 50 meters in height, these gigantic vase-shaped structures are as much for function as they are for form. The Supertrees are fitted with instruments to help the plants photosynthesize. Impressive stuff.
The best time to come here is at night when there are lights and sound shows which occur at 7:45PM and again at 8:45PM. It’s totally free to walk around the Supertree Grove, but there is a nominal fee to climb up the OCBC Skyway, a 128m long aerial walkway which connect the Supertrees.
How to go to the Supertree Grove in Gardens by the Bay: Get off at Bayfront MRT Station. The Supertrees Grove of the Gardens by the Bay is within walking distance.
3. Sunbathe in Singapore’s version of Coron / El Nido / Krabi / Phuket / Guilin / Halong Bay
look ma, no boats!
Totally out of the Singapore tourist map, this quiet corner in the western part of Singapore does not look out of place in Phuket or Palawan. Carrying the monicker “Little Guilin” but carrying the official name of “Bukit Batok Town Park,” the only difference is that the huge slab of rock jutting out of the water is not made of limestone but of granite.
How to go to Bukit Batok Town Park: Get off at Bukit Gombak MRT station. Walk for a few hundred meters south. You can’t miss it!
4. Immerse yourself in the Singapore Botanic Gardens
an autumn-like scene in the singapore botanic gardens
The Singapore Botanic Gardens has always been one of the main attractions of the country but recently it has added a feather into its cap. This 74 hectare property is now in UNESCO’s tenative list as a world heritage site. There are many attractions within the Singapore Botanic Gardens such as the National Orchid Garden and Burkill Hall. Singapore’s knack for naming orchids after world leaders is also on full display here with the VIP Garden containing orchids named after the likes of Emperor Akihito and Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
How to go to the Singapore Botanic Gardens: The Singapore Botanic Gardens now has its own MRT station thanks to the circle line. It takes visitors directly to the north entrance.
5. Have a sunkissed holiday in one of the country’s many beaches
a beach that’s only a 10 minute ride away from the cbd
Contrary to the perception of many travelers, Singapore actually has a number of beaches. And yes, you can swim in them. The popular ones include Siloso Beach, Palawan Beach and Tanjong Beach in Sentosa. For those who don’t want to pay Sentosa’s entrance fee, there is also Changi Beach as well as the long stretch of beach lining the East Coast.
How to get to Singapore’s beaches: The beaches at Sentosa are pretty easy to find and at most, just a monorail ride away. Changi Beach is probably the most remote among Singapore’s swim-able mainland beaches and can be reached by taking bus 9, 19 or 89.
6. Get cultured at the museums
the national museum at blue hour
No, I did not make the mistake of adding Singapore’s museums here as FREE attractions. The 6 National Heritage Board museums – namely the National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, Peranakan Museum, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Philatelic Museum and Reflections at Bukit Chandu – are free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents. Foreigners can get in for free as well, during certain holidays which can include Chinese New Year, Singapore National Day, Christmas Day and Deepavali. The holidays with free admission may change from one year to another so it’s best to check in advance if you have plans to visit.
How to go to the museums of Singapore: The bulk of the museums, with the exception of Reflections at Bukit Chandu, are located within walking distance of City Hall MRT station. Bras Basah MRT station is also a good alternative, especially when going to the National Museum of Singapore or the Singapore Art Museum.
7. Explore the outlying islands
There’s more to the outlying islands than just Sentosa. For starters, there’s Kusu and St. John’s islands which are further afield and are accessible by ferry. You can find temples, beaches, picnic spots and places filled with myths and folklore. It’s a good place for a day trip if you want to escape the beaten path.
Tips on Singapore’s outlying islands and how to get there: Read my guide on Kusu Island and St. John’s Island.
8. Take a walking tour along the ethnic quarters
possibly my favorite street in the entire country
Singapore has three popular ethnic quarters which have their own charm. My personal favorite is Chinatown due to the recent gentrification that has occurred in its southern portion. More specifically, I like Chinatown for Keong Saik Road, and with the many great restaurants and speakeasies that have cropped up in recent years. The Library (a bar which customers can only enter with a password) and fusion restaurant Ember are tops in my book. The nearby Naumi Liora Hotel, with its orange facade, is also a worthy place to stay in Singapore.
9. Have a glimpse of the official residence of the President of Singapore
fit for a king
If you’ve ever wondered where that large gate just beside Plaza Singapura leads to, it’s to the Istana or the Presidential Palace. Open on special dates (during selected holidays), the Istana is the official residence of the President of Singapore. However, the building is now mainly used to receive world leaders and foreign dignitaries and the president doesn’t actually live there. Nevertheless, the lush grounds are very popular with the public, especially with the lily ponds, swan lake and the Japanese Gun which was acquired from the Japanese after their World War 2 surrender in 1945.
How to go to the Istana: Alight at Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. The Istana is just beside Plaza Singapura.
10. Then after that, see how 80% of the population actually lives
they’re called blocks and after viewing them from the air, it’s easy to see why
This is the side of Singapore that few visitors ever get to see. Up until I actually lived here, I never ventured out of the CBD-Orchard-Marina-Chinatown-Bugis-Little India area of Singapore. It’s most likely the same for most tourists. Take the North-South MRT line and the landscape changes dramatically. Rows and rows of identical government housing projects extend far in the horizon. This is basically the Singapore heartland. Life here is a bit slower than what one might normally see in the city center. Uncles and aunties (affectionate titles for basically anyone over 50) gather around and chat in the local coffee shops, with a kopi-o (black coffee) or teh (tea) in hand while in another corner, one might spot a live performance of Chinese opera (which are also free if I may add!).
How to go to Singapore’s heartlands: Take any northbound train along the North-South MRT Line. Pretty much any station north of Novena is considered “heartland.”
11. Scale Singapore’s tallest peak
It’s only 163.63 meters tall but hey, it’s the easiest way for you to gain bragging rights that you’ve climbed a country’s tallest peak!
How to go to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve: The entrance to the nature reserve can be found in Hindhede Road in the western part of Singapore. Buses that pass thru this area include # 67,75,170,171,173,184,852 and 961.
12. Watch a concert at the Esplanade
Concerts every night for free. What more could you ask for? Esplanade’s At the Concourse showcases both local and international talents. You can expect o see musical perfomances… and theater if you’re lucky.
What are your favorite free things to do in Singapore?