Singapore on the cheap: how to make the most of a visit on a tight budget

Singapore is one of my favourite cities, but it can get pricey. It’s for this reason that many travellers seem to avoid the city-state (well, that along with a really outdated claim that Singapore is boring), but they’re missing out. There are loads of free and cheap attractions, bargain eats (and even drinks!) to be enjoyed in Singapore that deliver a travel experience just as rewarding as the country’s top shelf experiences – in some cases even more so. Even if you did manage to work your way through all of the activity options I’ve rounded up below in a single day, you’d still get change from S$50. Not bad eh?

It’s free to take in the amazing light show at Gardens by the Bay every evening © Sarah Reid

It’s free to take in the amazing light show at Gardens by the Bay every evening © Sarah Reid

Green spaces

Self-dubbed a ‘city in a garden’, Singapore prides itself on its green spaces. And it should – they are immaculately maintained, and all of them are free to visit in some way. You’ll have to stump S$20 to visit the two conservatories at Gardens by the Bay, for example, but it’s free to wander around the outdoor gardens at this sustainably engineered superpark including the futuristic Supertrees grove. I like swinging by in the evening to catch one of the 15-minute sound and light shows held at 7.45pm and 8.45pm daily, during which the Supertrees glow in tune to music. Not only is it free to the public, but it doesn’t put a strain on Singapore’s power grid, either – photovoltaic cells on the trees’ canopies harvest solar energy during the day for lighting them up at night.

Other great free green spots include the beautifully manicured Singapore Botanic Gardens (there’s a S$5 charge to visit the National Orchid Garden), historic Fort Canning Park, the Southern Ridges with its great views, the jungly trails of Bukit Timah, and sharing the Treetop Walk MacRitchie Resevoir with resident monkeys.

See how wealthy Peranakan families once lived on a free tour of Baba House © Sarah Reid

See how wealthy Peranakan families once lived on a free tour of Baba House © Sarah Reid

Museums

Historic Baba House, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Singapore’s Peranakan (also known as Straits-born Chinese or Baba-Nonya) history, is by far Singapore’s best free museum – you’ll just need to book your spot on one of free hour-long tours in advance through the University of Singapore. If you want to learn more about Peranakan culture and can spare S$6, the Peranakan Museum is another worthy stop on the museum circuit. Over in Little India, the interesting new Indian Heritage Centre is worth S$4 for the air-conditioning alone.

Alternately, you could pool your funds towards visiting one of Singapore’s top two museums: the recently rebooted National Museum (S$10), or the brilliant Asian Civilisations Museum (S$8), which is set to fully reopen in 2017 after an extensive renovation, or the newly-refurbished Chinatown Heritage Centre (S$15) with its brilliant recreated early 20th century shophouses.

Lastly, it’s more of a morbid theme park than a museum, but Haw Par Villa is an interesting place to spend an afternoon for free if you have a thing for gruesome dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology. I mean, who doesn’t?

The trek across town to Gillman Barracks is totally worth it © Sarah Reid

The trek across town to Gillman Barracks is totally worth it © Sarah Reid

Galleries

Art lovers will be pleased to learn that Singapore has some wonderfully accessible free galleries. The series of galleries that comprise Gillman Barracks, a historic army base-turned public art space, is the best free option (I caught a great Steve McCurry exhibition here in April 2016), but many of Singapore’s hotels also have great free art, such as the Pan Pacific with its free public art space featuring rotating exhibitions, Marina Bay Sands with its installations by Zheng Chongbin, Antony Gormley and Sol LeWitt, and The Ritz-Carlton Millenia, where anyone is welcome to take a DIY walking tour of its enviable collection (think: Warhol prints, Dave Chihuly glass blowings). I cant wait to check out the murals by local street artist Yip Yew Chong in Tiong Bahru on my next visit.

If you can’t face parting with $25 to visit the new National Gallery Singapore, at least stop by to have a look at its stunning facade comprising the historic former Town Hall and Old Supreme Court buildings. There’s free wi-fi at the cute Gallery & Co Café on the ground floor (a rarity at Singapore cafes).

Little India’s Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is always a vibrant hive of activity © Sarah Reid

Little India’s Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is always a vibrant hive of activity © Sarah Reid

Temples, churches and mosques

Travellers used to forking out up to €20 to visit European cathedrals might be pleased to know that none of Singapore’s places of worship charge an entry fee. My favourites are the city’s colourfully kitsch Hindu temples including Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown and the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India. Replete with elaborate carvings, Thian Hock Keng (Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple), is one of Singapore’s most atmospheric Chinese temples. Kampong’s Glam’s Arabian Nights-esque Sultan Mosque is more striking from the outside, but you can borrow a robe for free and have a look inside if you like. Finally, fans of English Gothic architecture would be wise to stop by St Andrews Cathedral in the CBD.

Arabian niiights… Actually no, just Singapore © Sarah Reid

Arabian niiights… Actually no, just Singapore © Sarah Reid

Heritage architecture

Singapore is rightfully famous for its early 20th century shophouses featuring an eclectic mix of Chinese, Malay and European architectural styles. The highest concentration of shophouses can be found in the red-light district of Geylang, though perhaps the best preserved can be seen in the neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Katong, along Little India’s Dunlop Street and around Haji Lane in Kampong Glam. The curved, whitewashed apartments of Tiong Bahru, a 1930s-housing estate-turned hipster hangout northwest of Chinatown, are also quite photogenic.

Singapore is also famous for its ‘black-and-whites’ – grand, pre-WWII houses that were painted in a distinctive monochrome palette. Sadly, many of these stately homes fell into disrepair in the post-war years and eventually fell victim to Singapore’s bulldozers. Most of those that survived remain highly-coveted rental properties (you can spot some of them on a wander around the Alexandra Park residential estate) while several are restaurants, such as Flutes on the edge of Fort Canning Park.

Festivals

Given Singapore’s varied cultural makeup, there always seems to be one festival or another in play at any time of the year. Top non-ticketed events include the Mid-Autumn Festival (September) and the Thimithi Fire Walking festival (October), both held in Chinatown. It’s even possible to catch Singapore’s famous Chingay parade for free if you arrive early enough to grab a good spot. Visit yoursingapore.com for the most updated listings.

Satay Street is a top spot for a cheap and tasty dinner © Sarah Reid

Satay Street is a top spot for a cheap and tasty dinner © Sarah Reid

Cheap eats

It’s easy to shell out S$100 for a meal and a few drinks at a mid-range Singapore restaurant, but there is no lack of places to eat cheaply – and well. My personal favourite is Satay Street: each night at 7pm, Boon Tat St in the CBD shuts to traffic and transforms into an open-air food court specialising in sizzling sticks of chicken, beef and prawns served with a delicious peanut sauce. A plate of 10 sticks ($6) accompanied by a large Tiger beer (about $6) is usually enough to satiate an adult.

Singapore is also famous for its hawker centres, where you can get a slap-up meal for roughly S$4 to S$6. I love the murtabak (stuffed savoury pancake) from Ah-Rahman Royal Prata at the Tekka Centre in Little India washed down with a fresh young coconut water. The signature dish at Tian Tian Chicken Rice in Chinatown’s Maxwell Food Centre (S$6) is also worth queuing for, though you can expect those queues to be a little longer since the stall scored a Bib Gourmand in the first ever Singapore Michelin Guide, published earlier this year. These particular hawker centres are among the most convenient for tourists, but they’re just two of more than 100 across the city-state. Bring your own packet of wet wipes as serviettes are not available at any centres.

The murtabak at Ah-Rahman Royal Prata in Little India is legendary © Sarah Reid

The murtabak at Ah-Rahman Royal Prata in Little India is legendary © Sarah Reid

Hawker centres aside, there are plenty of standalone cheap eats to be found in Singapore, from the laksa stalls in Katong (the S$5.35 ‘small’ bowl served at 328 Katong Laksa, another 2016 Bib Gourmand recipient, is a generous serving) to Azmi Chapati in Little India for super-cheap chapatti and dipping sauces. For those who need a break from Asian food, the tacos at Muchachos in Chinatown should hit the spot, and I’m a sucker for the pastries at Tiong Bahru Bakery. Near the Botanic Gardens, Mr Prata (which dishes up more than 40 types of prata along with dosa, thali and other Indian faves) is so cheap it’s any wonder how the joint turns a profit. I foolishly ordered two S$4 dishes on my first visit, thinking they’d be snack-size…

If your room rate doesn’t include breakfast, head to a classic Singaporean kopitam (coffee shop) such as Killiney Kopitiam near Orchard Road for a cheap traditional breakfast of strong kopi (coffee), a serve of kaya (coconut jam) toast, and a side of soft-boiled egg. Crack open the latter, add a dash of soy sauce and pepper, then dip your kaya toast in it.

If you’re just after an espresso, you’re in luck – Melbourne-style cafes are everywhere in Singapore. The likes of Curious Palette and Common Man Coffee Roasters and The Populous Coffee & Food Co. have killer brunch menus, too.

The Long Bar’s Singapore sling: it might be a classic, but it’ll cost ya. Image by  il_baro  / flickr

The Long Bar’s Singapore sling: it might be a classic, but it’ll cost ya. Image by il_baro / flickr

Budget boozing

Alcohol is taxed to the hilt in Singapore, which generally means you’ll be lucky to get change from a S$20 note for a decent glass of wine or a cocktail. If you’re keen to try an original Singapore sling at Raffles Hotel Long Bar, prepare to shell out a whopping $31. I love the Long Bar for its historic value, but unless you like your drinks sickly sweet, save your money and soak up the atmosphere instead.

To avoid blowing your budget on booze, it’s all about knowing where to go for happy hour. Fortunately, it usually lasts longer than 60 minutes in Singapore. My favourites include Loof, a rooftop bar in Bugis where from 5pm a house wine or beer will set you back just S$5 (the price increases by S$1 each hour until 8pm) and hip Chinatown cocktail bar Jigger and Pony, which offers a choice of five bespoke cocktails for S$14 from 6pm-8pm.

Ladies night deals, typically offered on Wednesdays, are another great opportunity to stretch your funds. For some of the best views of Singapore, grab a girlfriend and head to Ce La Vi for free entry and a drink, or 1-Altitude for free entry and $10 martinis all night.

If you’re happy with Tiger beer, it’s cheapest to drink at hawker centres, where you won’t pay much more for a local brew (about S$4 for a small bottle) than you would in a local supermarket. Beer snobs should seek out of the craft beer stalls hidden in the Chinatown Complex hawker centre; look out for The Good Beer Company.

Wanderlust is one of Singapore’s best affordable boutique hotels. Image by  Brandon Lim  / flickr

Wanderlust is one of Singapore’s best affordable boutique hotels. Image by Brandon Lim / flickr

Accommodation

Singapore hasn’t traditionally been blessed with a plethora of solid cheap sleeps, but the offerings have definitely improved over the past few years. Expect to pay around S$20 for a dorm bed at the city’s better hostels including Bunc@Radius in Little India, the chic Alder Hostel in Chinatown, and at the five cool hostels in the 5footway.inn collection spread across Chinatown, Boat Quay and Kampong Glam (all of which offer private rooms as well as dorm beds).

Most of Singapore’s cheapest hotels are part of a chain that, er, rent rooms by the hour. Consider splurging on one of the cheapest boutique hotels in town instead – rooms at the delightful Wanderlust in Little India can be had from S$149. On my first trip to Singapore I stayed at the Naumi Liora in Chinatown, which offers doubles for S$136 – a bargain for its location. Check out asiarooms.com for competitive room deals.

Airbnb isn’t hugely popular in Singapore, but it’s still available. You can also try Couchsurfing. 

Getting around

Singapore’s public transport easy to use and is surprisingly affordable compared to other expensive cities like Sydney and London (it’ll set you back less than S$2 to take the MRT from the airport to the CBD, for example). Load up an EZ-Link card, which is good for use on the MRT, LRT and buses. Singapore also has Uber, which can be cheaper than using taxis. If you’re transiting through Changi with at least five hours to spare, consider signing up for a free city tour via changiairport.com.