Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe & Simon Difford
Steamy, tropical and high-rise, the tiny island state of Singapore is one of the most densely populated nations in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the city's foodie reputation and a recent influx of international celebrity chefs, the drinks scene in Singapore is developing rapidly.
The average Singapore bar remains designed to appeal to the masses with cocktails best avoided. Quiet, sophisticated lounges are scarce, but karaoke (KTV) bars are plentiful. Indeed, music is a theme in Singapore nightlife with live bands and DJs commonplace.
However, Singapore has a thriving community of microbrewers, specialist whiskey bars and a cocktail culture that is developing apace with a growing number of Singapore bars that are noteworthy on the international scale. Indeed, they are among the very best bars in the world - see our pick of the best below.
Famously strait-laced, Singapore has a high "sin tax" on alcohol. Couple this with the cost of fresh fruits - all imported, as the island has no agriculture - and you'll find the Big Durian a pricey place to drink. To mitigate this, many bars offer Happy Hours. Some have, in fact, as many as three different sets of pricing depending on the time of day.
The tropical climate means that Singapore is either steaming hot, sunny and humid or humid and raining. Consequently, jackets tend not to be required and dress codes err on the casual side of smart-casual. However, many of the most interesting bars are inside slick hotels so pack your best clobber (for sauna conditions) and remember to bring an umbrella.
Singapore is not a late city, especially during the week when most bars close soon after midnight. Weekends see bars remain open till around 2am with clubs closing at 3am or later. Fridays and Saturdays also see the in vogue places packed despite the cover charges. KTV bars often have 4am licences, as does the bartender's hangout that is Skinny's Lounge.
Singapore is famously strict, very strict, so best be on your very best behaviour. It is also squeaky clean and manicured, so littering is rightly treated as a heinous crime, as is chewing or even brandishing gum.
Smoking is not only banned in most indoor public places but also certain outdoor places. Look for signs/ask before lighting up and whatever you do, don't drop that butt.
Singapore is far from tolerant and you should be aware of the
legislation on "Outrages on Decency" which criminalizes same sex relations.
Don't stager drunkenly across roads, in fact don't cross a street at all unless in a designated pedestrian lane. As with so many things we do without a thought in other cities, here jaywalking is frowned upon.
The minimum age for drinking alcohol is 18 years, something American readers may consider surprisingly liberal for such a conservative, controlling state.
Getting around by taxi is cheap, and, even better, air-conditioned. However, at peak times you're advised to book by phone rather than chance finding one on the street. Unlike many other cities, in Singapore it's easy to identify which taxis are free: those with green lights are for hire while red denotes they are busy. And yes, rightly or wrongly, Uber is here.
Singapore is a fairly large island but handily all the "must visit" bars lie close together, mostly within easy walking distance, in the central southern business area.
Singapore is famously regimented so it's perhaps not surprising that the island state is officially divided into twenty-eight districts with the first two digits of the postcode signifying areas within each district. Most of the bars lie in District One, the 'City - Marina Area' (Boat Quay, Chinatown, Havelock Road, Marina Square, Raffles Place and Suntec City) which is designated by first and second postcode digits: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06. The rest lie right next door in District Two, the 'City - CBD' (Anson Road, Chinatown, Neil Road, Raffles Place, Shenton Way, Tanjong Pagar) with postcode digits: 07, 08. Hence we've grouped our recommended bars below starting up near the Botanical Gardens and running south through the CBD to Marina Bay according to their postcode.
Manhattan Bar at the Regent Hotel
Parkview Square, 600 North Bridge Road, Bugis, 188778
Epic art deco lobby bar with over 1100 gins in a three-storey back bar tower.
1st floor, Regent Hotel, 1 Cuscaden Rd, Orchard, 249715
On the first floor of the imposing Regent Hotel, this jewel-like enclave is what all hotel bars would aspire to if only they had the funds. Plush dark leather sofas are studded with bright cushions, wing chairs adorn an award-filled library and the raised bar dominates the room like a stage. Cocktails, food and service are all first-class.
43 Tanjong Pagar Road, Chinatown, 088464
Pocket-sized bar from the folk behind 28 HongKong Street with a concept that changes every six months.
1st Floor, 52A Amoy Street, Chinatown, 069878
Ambitious, experimental pan-Asian modernist cocktails from an Operation Dagger veteran.
The Other Room 4.5/5
Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, 320 Orchard Road, Orchard, 238865
Hidden behind curtains in a corner of the imposing Marriott Tang Plaza hotel lobby, The Other Room's theme is Prohibition with Dario Knox (28 HongKong St) behind the cocktails and also filling the 2-litre barrels with house-finished spirits that are the bar's USP.
The Auld Alliance 4/5
09 Bras Basah Road, Hotel RendezVous Gallery #02-02A, 189559
A library themed bar to delight whisky lovers, with over 1,300 bottles carefully regimented in alphabetical order.
Coffee Bar K 4/5
205 River Valley Rd, #01-76 UE Square, 238275
A Japanese bar with an expansive cocktail and spirits list and impressive back bar. Seating is available inside up at the bar, or outside on the terrace.
Skinny's Lounge 4.5/5
#01-02, 82 Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, 049870
An oasis amid the tourist joints of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, Skinny's is a textbook perfect little dive bar, owned and operated by bartenders. Skinny's has everything you need for a raucous night out: great cocktails, pool table and even a karaoke room. It also boasts a 4am license most nights. What's not to like?
28 HongKong Street 5/5
28 HongKong Street, Clarke Quay, 059667
A classic American speakeasy in downtown Singapore with a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's best bars. Great cocktails and equally tasty dishes served in a dimly-lit long rectangular room. You'll need to nab a seat at the bar to properly experience 28 HongKong Street.
Employees Only 5/5
112 Amoy Street, Chinatown, 069932
The first international opening for long-established NYC speakeasy Employees Only sits handily near to Jigger & Pony on Amoy Street and comes as close as is humanly possible to replicating the original, right down to the floor plan, pressed tin ceiling and space for a fortune teller in the entrance. Come here for the cocktails, amazing steak tartare, but mostly for the hospitality and party atmosphere.
Bitters & Love 4.5/5
118 Telok Ayer Street, Raffles Place, Chinatown
Despite relocation to a standalone space in Telok Ayer Street, this popular cocktail bar retains its speakeasy feel. A discreet doorway - look for the Robot Coffee graffiti - leads into a long, narrow space with chequer-tiled floors, raw cement walls and a long, low bar.
Jigger & Pony 5+/5
101 Amoy Street, 069921
Superb cocktails, created and served by knowledgeable bartenders, this unassuming, friendly bar should be on your 'must visit' list.
Operation Dagger 4.5/5
7 Ann Siang Hill, Chinatown, 069791
Look for the black marker hieroglyphs leading to the artfully scratched door in this pedestrian street off Club Street, and follow the stairs down to a raw concrete emporium of avant-garde culinary cocktails.
Nutmeg & Clove 4.5/5
10A Ann Siang Hill, Chinatown, 069789
Nutmeg & Clove may have moved location (in March 2016), but its overarching concept and the style remains the same. It's a liquid tribute to Singapore - and Ann Siang Hill's - history and heritage and, from the burlap sacks displayed on the walls to the porcelain behind the bar, it's done in a very avant-garde way. Expect classic cocktails updated in a modernist and very Singaporean vein.
Gibson Bar 5/5
1st Floor, 20 Bukit Pasoh Road, Chinatown, 089834
As the name suggests, the concept here is a tribute to the Gibson cocktail, the dry martini garnished with a pickled onion. The signature serve blends two different gins and comes with a selection of sides - Japanese pickles, a house-pickled onion and a deliciously liquid smoked quail's egg - to bring out the umami flavours. To enjoy it at its best, pair with one of their impressive selection of oysters from America's Pacific North-West.
2 Bukit Pasoh Road, Chinatown, 089816
For a dose of solemn, ritualistic high Ginza style, look no further than D.Bespoke, a temple to the art of Japanese bartending. An impressive array of whiskies, sherries, armagnacs sit in a gentlemen's club-like setting alongside lovingly crafted cocktails, including a superb seven-year-old Negroni.
Tippling Club 5/5
38 Tanjong Pagar Road, 088461
Joe Schofield, formerly of London's Savoy, took over as head bartender in 2016 and his cocktails continue to draw those in the know and industry veterans, even if they're not eating. Choose between creative concoctions featuring ingredients from tofu to togarashi and modernist classics like the Smokey Old Bastard, prepared and served in a mason jar.
Shangri-La Hotel, 22 Orange Grove Road, 258350
Inventively Singaporean cocktails come to a classic Singapore hotel.
35 North Canal Road, 059291
Minimalism arrives in Singapore – with a bang!
Caffe Fernet 4/5
70 Collyer Quay, Customs House #01-05, 049323
An elegant waterfront space, with views right across to Marina Bay Sands and a feel, between the vaulted ceilings and the arched gridwork on the bar, a little like an Italian train station restaurant during some vanished golden age of travel.
Airport: Changi (SIN)
Time zone: Singapore Standard Time (GMT +8)
Currency: Singapore Dollar (S$)
On February 6th, 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles, an agent of the British East India Company, anchored off St John's Island and rowed into the Singapore River. At the mouth of the river he passed a rocky promontory topped with a monument inscribed in ancient script and was sure he'd discovered the lost city of Singapura. He raised the Union Jack and named the small island Singapore. Fort Fullerton, named after the first governor of the Straits settlement, was constructed on the hill a couple of years later.
It's strategic location, along the maritime route between India and China, meant that Singapore grew rapidly on the back of the spice and tea trade. By 1873, the land on which the fort stood was too valuable to remain under military use and it was demolished to make way for trade. Between 1919 and 1928, a grand building was erected to house the General Post Office, The Singapore Club and the Chamber of Commerce: it is now the Fullerton Hotel.
Today, independent Singapore is an ultra-modern city state of soaring skyscrapers and spotless, manicured streets, surrounded by fifty smaller islands. It is the world's busiest port and home to a mix of many different Asian peoples: in the bustling streets of Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India, religious monuments reside among colourful shophouses.
Singapore is also a shoppers' paradise with mall upon mall, all boasting designer brands and open late into the evening. However, such rapid commercial growth and safe, clean surroundings have come at the price of freedom of expression. Everything from public protest to not flushing a public lavatory is punishable by law and the result is a somewhat sterile city.
Singapore has almost as many large luxury hotels as it does shopping malls and yet more are being constructed. When deciding what class of room to book, bear in mind that many Singapore hotels offer access to club lounges and other fringe benefits with suites. Follows our recommended hotels:
ParkRoyal on Pickering
3 Upper Pickering Street, Singapore, 058289
Best described as a multi-storey garden, ParkRoyal is one of Singapore's most distinctive buildings. The "on Pickering" part of the name refers to its handy location, smack in the centre of Downtown on the edge of China Town. It very modern with its rooms hotwired with electronic gismos but it is also homely and luxurious. We love the water and plant-lined open-air, high-rise corridors.
1 Cuscaden Road, Singapore, 249715
This is not just any Regent Hotel, this Singapore outpost is part of The Four Seasons franchise so is suitably luxurious. Its location is well to the north of downtown Marina Bay, but it is handily located close to Orchard Road, Singapore's premier shopping destination. It's also minutes from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Best of all this hotel is home to Manhattan, one of our very favourite bars in the world.