Occupying 719.1 square kilometres, Singapore is not an enormous country. (As a comparison, Australia is 7.692 million square kilometres.) However there is a lot squeezed into it: more than 5 million people, business hubs, a thriving arts scene, every imaginable type of food, a busy nightlife and continual construction. But because of this things can get a bit hectic. Residents can escape the big city through the well-connected airport, hopping on a plane and a short while later finding themselves relaxing on a beach in Bali.
But how do you find the space for quiet within the city? Singapore can be an overwhelming melting pot of cultures and activity, but there are still many spots where you can find a still space or a jungle retreat. Singapore is in fact a surprisingly green city. Below I’ve outlined just a few of my favourite places to catch my breath in this urban hot spot.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Not far from the shopping heaven of Orchard Road, Singapore Botanic Gardens are filled with ambling paths and a variety of plant specimens. It reminds me of many other botanic gardens from around the world. The standout is a unique orchard garden. The orchard is a symbol of Singapore and the gardens display an impressive collection of them with many surprising varieties. Aside from these exotic flowers, the Botanic Gardens are a popular spot for jogging, family gatherings, lovers’ walks and concerts. The advantage is that the gardens are close to the city and easy to get to, with an MRT station to the north and a number of buses to the south. If you can catch a dusk performance at the centre stage you can enjoy the gardens in the cooling evening temperature, as well as the insects!
Chinese and Japanese Gardens
Filled with circular doorways, bridges, a tea house and landscaped gardens, the Chinese Garden feels like a still place away from the ever-changing city. It is a model of the northern Chinese imperial style, a little China in the outer west of Singapore. The Bonsai Garden is a must see, with over a hundred bonsais from Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. It’s a tranquil place to wander around and imagine past emperors taking tea. Connected to this garden is the enchanting Japanese Garden, which is based on Japanese gardens from the middle ages. The gardens display a distinct landscape style to the Botanic Gardens, evoking a past era and attention to detail that is both enchanting and fascinating. At points it feel like a work of art more than just a garden. Although the gardens are to the far west of Singapore, they are easy to get to with an MRT stop almost directly in front.
One of my favourite places was Pulau Ubin, an island near Changi Airport and one of the few places in Singapore that’s maintained a village vibe. To get there you need to get on a “bumboat” from the Changi Village pier. The boat, and the timetable, reminds me more of my travels in other parts of Southeast Asia. Once there you can hire a bike at one of the several shops near the pier and cycle through the jungle-like paths.
Throughout the island you pass by houses that are reminiscent of what Singapore must have been like before all the high-rises and economic development. You get a hint of a sleepier time. There is even a family of not-so-wild pigs. Once you’ve built up a sweat, you can return to the collection of restaurants and shops at the one ferry entrance point to eat some good food and drink coconut straight from the shell. It can be quite busy on the weekend, so if you want the island practically to yourself you can head over there during the week.
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
In the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve the city disappears behind the canopy. You can’t see or hear the cars or building, and all around you is just the sound of insects and wildlife. Set on the highest point in Singapore, the reserve can be quite a challenging walk through, especially in the humid heat so it’s a good idea to start early in the morning when it’s still feels a little fresh. There are a number of trails with varying degrees of difficulty and distance, but most of them require solid footwear. As well as walking the trails, there are also mountain-bike trails and a spot for rock climbing. Although the reserve is not that large, it is one of the largest segments of primary rainforest left in Singapore and worth visiting to see what the island would have been like before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.
Park Connector Network
Although I enjoyed these parks as an escape from the urban life in Singapore, the space that I used most regularly was the Park Connector Network. The network is a series of pedestrian and bike paths that link the green spaces in Singapore. They connect the parks to each other and weave in between the busy roads. Developed as a way to encourage more cycling, there is sure to be one close by.
The network’s charm is that you can find the paths everywhere. It’s not always possible to take a half-day trip to Pulau Ubin, but if you have a spare 30 minutes you can breathe in some trees in a local path. They are normally popular with runners and bikers, but not so much that they get overly crowded. I often went there after work to wind down after a long day, listening to the many birds, running next to flowing water.
There are many ways to escape the busy life in Singapore and find a short respite from the fast-paced life in the little red dot.