A tiny country with grand ambitions, Singapore is known for its immaculate manmade attractions — from classic colonial icons such as the Raffles Hotel and the Fullerton Hotel, to epic 21st-century visions like ION Orchard and Marina Bay Sands. But alongside these landmarks, visitors and residents continue to delight in the ample space given over to nature, a commodity often in short supply in major Southeast Asian cities. From the discreet placement of trees and playgrounds amid busy town centers to the islandwide Park Connector Network, it’s the successful fruition of late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s pet project — to fashion a “Garden City” where eye-pleasing greenery envelops dense infrastructure and diverse architecture.
“Mr Lee believed the ‘Garden City’ would distinguish us from the rest of the region and bring much-needed investment,” explains Jason Huang, senior communications executive at the National Parks Board, commonly known as NParks. “Mr Lee observed that during colonial days, greenery was more prevalent in areas where rich people stayed, and felt that everyone should have equal access to greenery which would lift the spirits in an increasingly urbanized landscape. At the same time, he wanted to create a green oasis for Singaporeans and visitors alike.” Lee Kuan Yew’s nationwide greening campaign began in 1963, and 20 years later, a further mandate to beautify the island decreed that concrete structures should be covered up, and plants should be grown on retaining walls, along pedestrian overhead bridges, in car parks and on viaducts. Japanese architects were hired to give shape to significant spaces like the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and in the 1990s new recreational features, as well as sculptures, brought added dimensions to the parks’ raison d’être.
Singapore’s continuing ecological preoccupation is abundantly obvious from the moment you arrive at Changi Airport, with its Butterfly Garden and lush, palm-lined driveway. But it finds its best expression in the litany of parklands both large and small dotted around the city-state — a staggering total of 350 in this space slightly larger than Metro Manila — which offer plentiful options to seekers of recreation, relaxation, horticulture and history. And the abundance of green just keeps growing: this year alone, Chestnut Nature Park, Windsor Nature Park and the largest park in the north, Admiralty Park, have all sprung to life, offering whole new vistas for residents in the heartlands.
We’ve cherry-picked six of the most pedestrian-friendly and eye-popping green spaces in Singapore for a true immersion into the perfectly manicured equatorial hinterland.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
The city’s best-loved and most recognizable green lung since 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is a quintessential slice of the tropics. It is the world’s most visited botanic gardens, and two years ago it became Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally modeled on Kew Gardens in London, the 82ha behemoth combines a series of undulating spaces, each with their own distinctive personality, within a highly populated tranche of the city center — at one end, the resolutely upmarket residences of Bukit Timah, at the other, the retail extravaganza that is Orchard Road.
Starting at Tanglin Gate, take a luxurious wander around resplendent lakes, rainforest, sculptures and waterfalls, along areas as diverse as Swan Lake, the Ginger Garden and the justly famous National Orchid Garden (the only section requiring a minimal entrance fee of S$5). Then enjoy liquid refreshment at one of the cafés lining the path before emerging at the beautifully repurposed shophouses of Cluny Park Road, where a shiny MRT station is ready to shuttle you to your next destination.
Down in the southwest, Kent Ridge Park’s elevated sections offer panoramic views across Singapore’s enormous port facility, though it’s best known as the stage for the Malay Regiment’s brave battle against Japanese forces during World War II. Yet, this already sizable green expanse, which sports the treetop Canopy Walk, proves to be just the gateway to the Southern Ridges, Singapore’s most multi-faceted, interconnected outdoor experience, cutting through a 10km swathe of the urban jungle. Saunter through the adjacent HortPark, taking time to soak up its myriad zones of horticulture — 23 themed mini-gardens, as well as greenhouses and gazebos — before arriving at the armadillo-shaped, electric-light-spattered Alexandra Arch and a sturdy walkway propped up along a gradual incline, where the Southern Ridges hike truly gets into its stride.
To your left, look out for a smattering of colonial-style, black-and-white houses as you enter the Singing Forest, where trees have been specially planted to attract a broad cross-section of tropical birds. Rising up through the Forest Walk, stop for a picture at Alkaff Mansion — a classic 1918 home that once belonged to a wealthy family known for throwing swinging high-society parties. Then, pass through a multi-level section, where bougainvillea tumble down terraces amid towering rare tree species, and traverse the 274m-long Henderson Waves. Singapore’s tallest pedestrian bridge, its sleek undulations are illuminated with LED lights at 7pm nightly. Finally, you’ll emerge at Mount Faber, where cable cars linking Pulau Ujong (mainland Singapore) to the beach party island of Sentosa glide silently across Keppel Harbour.
Punggol Waterway Park
Just meters from Damai, a cute-as-kittens LRT (light rail transit) station in Singapore’s northeast, a spectacular looping footpath encircles a former fruit-growing area through a series of canals, condominiums, retail hubs and rest areas. With its sympathetic union of the manmade and natural, Punggol Waterway Park is one of Singapore’s most photographable spots, particularly at sunset, when you can walk along a number of bridges to capture swoon-worthy panoramas.
Punggol Waterway Park is also linked by the Park Connector Network to Pulau Serangoon, commonly known as Coney Island, which became one of the city’s most Instagrammed locations upon opening in 2015 — complete with sightings of a lone Brahman bull that had somehow made the 50-hectare park its home (it has since died, sadly). The Stateside-sounding name is no coincidence; the park, a haven for endangered bird species, was once earmarked for development as a resort in the style of the New York attraction, before eventually returning to state ownership. With the growth of Punggol New Town, it was linked up with the mainland across a short walkway.
Fort Canning Park
At the opposite end of the island, close to the Singapore River, Fort Canning Park stakes a fair claim to being the single most historic site in the whole country. It was in this hilltop expanse, reached via a steep staircase, that the regal rulers of early Malay settlers set up their palaces. Many centuries later, it served as the HQ for the British Army. Less happily, an underground bunker at Fort Canning also saw the British commanders’ decision to surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942; it’s now a museum known as the Battlebox.
These days though, there’s nothing but good cheer at this oft-visited city-center landmark. In recent years the park has hosted numerous music concerts, festivals and theatrical productions — its sloping section off Canning Rise, Fort Canning Green, lending itself particularly well to gig audiences. A café and event spaces face the Clarke Quay side at The Foothills, while up in the Fort Canning Arts Centre, Fort by Maison Ikkoku offers Japanese-style omakase dining and a host of sophisticated cocktails. But simpler pleasures are just as easy to come by, in the shape of the Spice Garden, while the park has a second life as a favorite haunt of newlyweds — which is perhaps not surprising, since the Registry of Marriages lies within its bounds (this writer even exchanged his vows at the luxurious Hotel Fort Canning, a short walk from the Battlebox).
Jurong Lake Gardens
For the true meaning of contrast, make tracks way out west — and through a sea of HDB (public housing) estates — where you’ll find one of Singapore’s most unsung attractions. The station name, Chinese Garden, tells only one side of the story: from the station walkway, the first thing you see on entering Jurong Lake Gardens — currently being revamped in time for a 2018 re-opening that aims to reposition it as a national garden in the heartlands — is a bright red Japanese bridge and a handsome, seven-storey pagoda. Wind left around this beautiful place of lakeland and greenery, and cross the multi-arched Double Beauty Bridge, which leads toward landscaping reflecting the Japanese style of the mid-14th to early 17th centuries, centered around the Garyuchi pond. Back on the “Chinese” side, admire the bonsai collection in the courtyard, or climb the pagoda for imperious views across this calm and delightful suburban park.
East Coast Park
There’s a good reason why this is the city’s most popular park. Simply put, it offers something for everyone: you’ll get a taste of its versatility just by meandering along the seaside, where adults play volleyball on the beach, children frolic in gentle waves and teens practice kiteboarding. Meanwhile, on the footpath that extends throughout the park, relatives and friends skate, Segway or ride tandems and “family bikes” — four-seaters with brightly colored canopies. All these modes of transport are available for hire at outlets around the park. Further in, past coconut palms, casuarinas and a panoply of cafés, Bedok Jetty (an old military training venue) juts into the Singapore Strait, crowded with sunset seekers and keen anglers, before the rustic expanse of Dalbergia Green comes into view. East Coast Lagoon Food Village makes an ideal pit stop for seafood lovers craving local tastes — try the chili crab — while a stone’s throw away, cable skiers zoom around a specially built pond. Five minutes’ walk further on, barbecue and camping areas cater to diners and overnighters (with a license, of course).
The most rewarding, though least frequented, stretch of the park is its easternmost extreme, the approach to the National Sailing Centre, where bountiful blossoms of bougainvillea form a lush purple archway over the pedestrian path. As yachts glide across serene waters, and low-flying planes jetting off from the airport leave contrails overhead, pass through an enchanting woodland to emerge beside a golf course, with a cluster of restaurants by the seafront. Now you’re officially outside the park, but if you’re feeling intrepid you can walk all the way from here to Changi Village via the Changi Coast Walk, a captivating forested stretch studded with the tiniest of secret-picnic beaches — and a place infused with the overwhelming sense of being somewhere very far from the big city.
How to get there
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Take the Circle Line and alight at Botanic Gardens MRT Station.
Take the MRT to HarbourFront station. You can also take the cable car from Sentosa to Faber Peak Singapore.
Punggol Waterway Park
Take the North East Line to its northern terminus, Punggol, then hop on the LRT to Damai station.
Fort Canning Park
The latest addition to the city’s MRT network, the Downtown Line 3, has a stop at Fort Canning.
Jurong Lake Gardens
Take the East West Line and alight at Chinese Garden MRT Station.
East Coast Park
From central Singapore, bus 36 stops along Tanjong Katong Road, and from here you can find underpasses beneath the highway that lead into East Coast Park.
This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Smile magazine.