Singapore Street Smart: Free Things to Do in the World’s Most Expensive City

It’s safe to assume that Singapore is on everybody’s bucket list. Who wouldn’t want to go to Singapore? It is a small country with huge offerings—spectacular nature attractions, vast parks, world-class theme parks, a colorful cuisine, and a lot more. On the other hand, Singapore also bears notoriety for being the world’s most expensive country. This makes travel to the Lion City seem like an elusive dream.

But Singapore may not be as expensive as everybody thinks.

As you spend time here, you’ll find—just like I did—that Singapore harbors a multitude of cheap experiences that can effectively offset the big flight and hotel costs. There are also things that, as promised in the title, are totally FREE. And I’m listing them down here to prove that it’s possible to enjoy Singapore even on a tight budget.

I went to Singapore on a short birthday trip in 2019—pre-coronavirus. It wasn’t my first time in Singapore, but it felt a lot like a first. Actually, Singapore was the first country I ever traveled to. I blew hot and cold on linking that first Singapore blog entry here because it was so naïve and sappy, LOL! But that was me—several years ago, an innocent young woman excited about her first-ever ride on a plane flying out of the country. It’s fun nonetheless to look back on it.

I wrote a second blog right after that, which put Singapore on a very high pedestal with a subtle resentful tone toward my country. Some points might seem superficial and naïve, but many points remain true: Singapore is definitely amazing. Public transport is practical and efficient. Nature is very well-integrated. Some public parks are underrated; there are many hidden gems!

I hate to admit, I didn’t get to explore much of Singapore on that first trip despite the three weeks I stayed there. That’s why this second trip really felt like a first. It was much shorter than the first—a full weekend—but filled with a lot of adventures and quality memories. Here are the things I did that helped me prevent a burnt hole in my pocket. For most of them, all you really need is your EZ-Link card (for bus and train rides) and money for food!

 

Endless street art photo ops at Little India, Kampong Glam, and Chinatown

These places—Little India, Kampong Glam, and Chinatown, which are in close proximity of one another—are colorful wonderlands filled with graffiti and murals. Even little back alleys have some murals on them! Not only that, but these places are also hot gastronomic and cultural spots where you’ll find lots of hawkers, old architecture, and temples. Beware not to glue your eyes on your phone or camera, and keep an eye out for these spots!

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A good day to have kopi c ☕️

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All these colors🌈

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Everybody blends in, no matter how different

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Sit, sip, snap📸

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Free art exhibitions

Not many people are aware that there are many museums in Singapore that are either totally free to enter or offer free admission to certain exhibitions. For instance, I and my Singaporean friend walked into a thought-provoking and slightly creepy exhibit at Parkview Museum called Disturbing Narratives that welcomed spectators for free. That exhibit has already concluded, but the museum is already gearing up for the next one. Parkview Museum is only a five-minute walk from Bugis and 10 minutes from Kampong Glam.

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“What? Where?” “Behind you.”

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A rare treat for bookworms — browsing books at the National Library

Book lover or not, you’ll surely enjoy looking around one of Singapore’s amazing public libraries. My favorite is the award-winning National Library, which stands proudly on Victoria Street. Since it’s open until 9 pm, I like to go here after sundown and enjoy the ambiance when the library is illuminated. There are floors and floors of bookshelves for every type of reader—fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, magazines, and even comic books! Plus, the reading areas are spacious, bright, and amiable.

 

Refreshing walkathon at Punggol and Singapore Botanic Gardens

Did you know there are 451 parks in Singapore? It’s not called the Garden City for nothing! For nature lovers, many parks and gardens welcome visitors at no cost. I’ve visited a number of parks in Singapore, where I just ambled along, breathed in the fresh air, and took in the green scenery. My favorites are Punggol Promenade and Singapore Botanic Gardens (UNESCO World Heritage Site).

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It's about an hour of bus ride from the city center to Punggol, which is to the northeast. Except for the bustling Whisk & Paddle cafe, Punggol is a really nice place to unwind. The vastness and calmness of the place helps expand and liberate the mind. It was a nice stroll along Punggol Promenade Riverside Walk, lined with dense green foliage that seems to flourish more freely here (without the need for extreme grooming) so it kinda has a forest vibe. You get to meet a family of otters, a friendly boatman aka the otter whisperer, and carefree bikers and joggers. For strollers, the riverside is actually a pretty big place to explore on foot, I only got to explore a small fragment. Only walked from Whisk & Paddle and then up north on Punggol Promenade until the intersection on Punggol East Rd (just a little over 1km). Along the way, I came across the picturesque Lorong Halus Bridge, which connects to a wetland park on the other side, and then another bridge called Sunrise Gateway that's said to be a beautiful sunrise viewing spot. If I had walked further, I would have reached Punggol Waterway Park which, based on photos, seems to be an even lovelier place—but it was a hot afternoon and I was getting tired and sticky😅 And this sentiment ends abruptly here cos it’s getting long already 😆💦 。 。 Conclusion is—Punggol is beautiful. Not many photos of the place except for silly clips of me cos for the most part I simply cherished the scenery and let my eyes capture the beauty. Data is safely stored in my memory😉♥️

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A funny memory at Fort Canning Park: I arrived in Singapore extremely early so I started exploring the city a bit while waiting for my hotel check-in. It was almost noon and, lacking sleep from the late-night flight and untimely arrival, exhaustion was creeping in. So I decided to just hang at Fort Canning and read a book. I settled on a wooden bench shaded by trees. It was so quiet and the wind was so gentle and cool that I fell asleep! It wasn’t a long sleep, but I was definitely knocked out for a while. It’s a good thing there weren’t a lot of people at the time. The trees lulled me well.

Fort Canning Park — this is probably not the exact place but the spot I settled looked like this. (Photo from National Parks Board)
My only photo at Fort Canning Park, where trees above me rained down some welcome confetti.

 

Hawker hopping and mingling with the sweet locals!

Most importantly, if you want the most memorable free experience—skip the fast food and expensive cafes and simply go to a hawker center. Well—food isn’t free of course, but making friends with the sweet, hospitable locals sure is. Strike a conversation, ask about their food, or maybe ask for recommendations for your next tour. Who knows? They might like you enough to give you free extra noodles for your Hokkien Mee or a free extra stick of satay. (I got extra sugar (condensed milk) in my kopi C, LOL.)

 

Other cheap things I did in Singapore

Riding double-decker buses!

Another thing I like doing in Singapore is riding the double-decker buses. It’s like a cheaper version of those open-top tourist buses. So as much as possible, I would wait for double-decker buses with vacant front seats on the top deck.

View from a premium seat for cheap!

For that weekend trip, I availed of the Singapore Tourist Pass — 38 SGD, unlimited rides on bus, MRT, and LRT.  That was a touristy mistake for me. It’s 8 SGD more expensive than the regular tourist pass because it has some “bundle deals” that I didn’t even get to claim. Unless you’re actually going on a hectic, jam-packed tour around the city and take the public transport a lot, you can get by with a regular EZ-Link card. Because I’m also such a fan of walking, I don’t think I consumed even close to 38 SGD, which is such a waste. The only consolation is that the card is cute, so that’s a little souvenir for you!

Touring in the sky.

On the other hand, one smart purchase of a coupon I did was a Singapore Cable Car Sky Pass from Klook for about 19 SGD!

For souvenirs/gifts for family and friends back home, it’s also easy to score cheap goodies at local street markets and shopping centers. I did my shopping at Bugis and Chinatown, where I got some cute shirts and blouses, tote bags, and instant coffee sticks (I love Owl and Oldtown). The zippered tote bags are a real great steal! They have simple Singapore-related prints and made from thick material. I forgot the price exactly, but I know it’s no more than 2 SGD per bag. Item prices vary greatly per store, so do not settle with the first store you find. Walk around a bit and see if you find cheaper others.

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