Singapore's green network of nature reserves, parks, tree-lined streets and newer buildings covered in lush greenwalls and greenroofs pervades the city and makes Singapore a tropical garden-lover’s paradise.
Gardens to see and visit in Singapore include the big garden drawcards of two world-class attractions, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay, but there are also many greenwalls, green roofs, the wonderful Hort Park, as well as historic gardens. The biennial Singapore Garden Festival in July is one of the world's biggest garden shows.
"I love the way Singapore feels like it's dripping with greenery. Everywhere you look there's trees, colourful flowers, ferns and vines. It's so wonderful to be immersed in a vibrant culture that really values plants and gardens - it really is the City in a Garden."
Garden Travel Guide to Singapore
Singapore has become the ‘City in a Garden’. If you like tropical plants and gardens, a visit to Singapore must be on your bucket list. The journey to this began in 1963 when the Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew began a greening campaign which has transformed the city into a landscape where greenery is a feature.
The ‘City in a Garden’ policy has changed Singapore CBD into one the world’s most plant-filled cities and one where garden-based tourism is an important and growing part of the country’s economy. Everywhere you look you can see signs of government investment in greenery and also the requirement that all development takes a similar approach. New apartments, commercial buildings and hotels have trees growing from upper floors and also extensive greenroofs, and greenwalls hide concrete facades and reduce building cooling and energy costs.
The massive and ambitious SG$1 billion Gardens By the Bay project with its supertrees, cloud forests and climate-controlled ecosystems is fast becoming one of South East Asia’s ‘must see’ attractions. Every second year Gardens By the Bay hosts the prestigious Singapore Garden Festival, filled with high-quality landscape display gardens, many by international designers, balcony gardens, children’s area, fantasy gardens, miniature and bonsai gardens and spectacular floral displays.
There are about 5.5 million Singaporeans but there is also always a large number of visitors. Because of the small size of this city state the density is 7,700 per km2 which makes Singapore the world’s third most densely populated country. The population is largely ethnic Chinese (74%), Malay (13%) and Indian (9%). The country has a high level of education and nearly all Singaporeans speak English and one other language.
Singapore consists of one main island and a number of smaller nearby islands. It is a compact city state about 50km from west to east and only 26km north to south. Most of Singapore is no more than 15 meters above sea level and the highest point is only 165 m (538 ft). The current area of Singapore includes reclaimed land which has been created with earth obtained from its own hills, the seabed, and neighbouring countries. Because of the reclamation, Singapore’s land area has grown 24% since the 1960s and may grow by another 14% by 2033.
Singapore has no natural lakes, but reservoirs and water catchment areas have been constructed to store fresh water for Singapore’s water supply. The spoil from this work has contributed to the reclamation of land from the sea.
Climate of Singapore
Located just over 1 degree north of the equator, Singapore’s climate is tropical and mostly hot and humid with average temperatures ranging from an overnight low of about 24C (75°F) to 31C (86°F) during the day throughout much of the year. Although it can be cooler at night, it is never cold and the only jackets you will need if for the rain, not the cold. The coldest temperature ever recorded was in 1934 when one night it dropped to 19.4C (66.9 °F). The government tourist board cheekily advertises four seasons: Hot, Hotter, Wet and Wetter!
As the city is located in the tropics there is regular rainfall throughout the year, and these falls can be very heavy, even outside the monsoon seasons. However the rain is usually over quite quickly, so your garden visiting might be delayed but only briefly.
Singapore has two monsoon seasons, with the wettest months between November and January but a second wet period from June to September. The monsoon rains can last longer and may have more effect on some outdoor activities.
Vegetation of Singapore
Originally Singapore was covered with tropical rainforest with mangrove forests along the muddy coasts and tidal creeks.
At the time of the first British settlement there was already a town on the southern coast, around the mouth of the Singapore River and the remainder of the island was mainly farmland although it also included some primary rainforest, This clearance continued under the British and during the 19th century land was cleared for crops such as nutmeg, clove, pepper and cocoa. During this period the deforestation caused many endemic plant species to disappear, including many mangrove-dependent orchids.
Urbanisation accelerated after the 1960s with many new towns and today the island is nearly entirely built-up and urbanised. There have been some areas retained such as around the highest point on the island, Bukit Timah. The 164 hectare Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and some part of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve have primary forest which is the last remaining traces of primary rainforest in Singapore. The main vegetation is the tropical towering hardwoods of the Dipterocarpaceae family (often over 40m high) including species in the genera Dipterocarpus, Anisoptera, Hopea and Vatica. Other common rainforest trees in Bukit Timah are Gluta wallichii and Campnosperma auriculatum. The understorey is very diverse and also include fan palms and many species of fern.
On the coast and offshore islands there is still mangrove forest in places like Kranji, Sungei Loyang and Sungei Tampines near Pasir Ris. Some of the reclaimed land is also being set aside for revegetation.
However it is orchids that most people think of when they think of Singapore. Once Singapore had over 220 native orchid species but many have been lost through the decades of urban development before Singapore rediscovered its green roots. These recent efforts to conserve the remaining 60 known species and the reintroduction of species such as tiger orchid (Grammatophyllum speciosum) mean that native terrestrial orchids are once more growing in park trees, along roadsides and in gardens around Singapore. (More on NParks orchid conservation work HERE).
The Singapore national flower, the exquisite and free-flowering hybrid Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, a cross between Vanda teres (syn Papilionanthe teres) and Vanda hookeriana (syn Papilionanthe hookeriana), was bred in Singapore in the late 19th century.
Singapore – getting there, and getting around
Singapore is one of Asia’s most important air travel hubs. It’s an easy 8 to 8.5 hour flight from Melbourne and Sydney with many flights each day, 10.5 hours from Johannesburg, and a long but direct 13.5 hour flight from London. A stopover is required for flights from the USA, usually in Hong Kong or Tokyo.
In Singapore getting around is very easy. It has an excellent public transport system which includes the metro style Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) plus the newer extensions known as Light Rapid Transit. Combining these systems you can often get within walking distance of your destination virtually anywhere on the island. The metro is augmented by local buses from one of two operators, SBS Transit and SMRT Buses. These are comfortable and mostly air-conditioned and very cheap.
For public transport, use either a pre-purchased EZ-Link card, or tourists can buy a Singapore Tourist Pass for unlimited daily travel on both train and bus, which might be more cost effective. Even taxi cabs are reasonably priced compared to most developed cities.
Although driving in Singapore is easy with very orderly traffic and well signposted routes, there is no need to hire a car and in the city centre private car use by visitors is not common as tolls and congestion charges make public transport the obvious choice.
What’s the best time to visit Singapore gardens, and how long should you stay?
With the climate hot and wet all year round, Singapore’s tropical gardens are filled with lush vegetation and colourful flowers at any time. Both the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Gardens By the Bay maintain an ever-changing display of flowering plants, especially orchids, so there’s always something special to see.
Although Singapore is a small country, there’s so much to see and do that you will need a lot more days than you expect. By the time you see the garden offerings and then add in other tourist attractions like a cable car ride to Sentosa Island and its Pioneer Museum, Maritime Museum, Madame Tussauds and Trick Eye Museum, the excellent Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, the trendy shopping enclaves of Little India, Kampong Glam and world-famous Orchard Road, a rooftop cocktail under the stars at a glamorous bar and, of course, sampling the most amazing array of delicious food from hawker stalls to high-end restaurants you could easily see a whole week whirl by, and you’ll still want to come back again. And be warned – if you add the Singapore Garden Festival into your itinerary, just that will take a whole day on its own.
Gardens to visit in Singapore
• Singapore Botanic Gardens – founded in 1859, the Botanic Gardens located on the edge of the shopping precinct are highly rated and the only tropical garden to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. They showcase the best tropical flora and incorporate the National Orchid Garden with thousands of species and hybrid orchids, and a pocket of remnant tropical rainforest.
• Gardens by the Bay – located on reclaimed land at Marina Bay, this spectacular horticultural feast is divided into eight sections showcasing over 250,000 rare plants. Features include two enormous biodome glasshouses (the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest), and the Supertree structures linked by a skyway walk (these have a night-time light show too!).
• Chinese Garden – a slice of Imperial China on 13.5 ha in the western part of Singapore, featuring stone bridges, pagodas and a tea house.
• HortPark – a collection of 21 manicured and designed themed gardens such as a Silver Garden, Gold Garden, Butterfly Garden and Balinese Garden plus tranquil lawned picnic areas in the western part of Singapore. It’s a one stop hub for garden related recreational and education activities, or just enjoying the gardens.
• Fort Canning Park – an historical landmark on a hilltop in central Singapore, with 18 ha grounds that include a spice garden and the ASEAN sculpture garden.
• Istana Guided Walk – the President of Singapore’s garden is open each Labour Day (1 May)
• Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve – 202 hectares of mangroves, ponds and forests, with a spectacular boardwalk and great birdwatching. Visitor centre off Kranji Way.
• Pulau Ubin – an island off the eastern end of Singapore – not a garden but a beautiful nature reserve, just a short ferry ride from Changi Village Ferry Terminal. Walk about or hire bicycle or even a car and driver to see the island, including beaches, mangrove (including the unique Nipah mangrove palm) and coastal boardwalk, dense tropical forest, wildlife and a fabulous tree-top lookout.
• Jurong Bird Park, Jurong Hill – although it’s not created as a garden, the landscaping and habitat planting for the many tropical bird species on display is truly stunning.
Singapore ‘Lines for Life’ is a new green corridor project that will turn 24km (15 miles) of disused railway tracks into a new park that will stretch right across the island from Kranji in the north to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in the south. The public feedback period ended in March 2016 but there is no announced completion date as yet.
Singapore greenwalls and vertical gardens
With its tropical climate and environmentally-sensitive building codes, Singapore is a place where green roofs, greenwalls and vertical gardens flourish. They call it ‘skyrise greenery’ and you can see many great examples in the short video above. Although many of the larger ones are on private apartment buildings, there are several that are publicly accessible, both indoors and out.
• Changi Airport Terminal 3 – more than 100,000 plants form a green tapestry
• Changi General Hospital – rooftop hydroponic garden
• Punggol Roof Garden – intensive greenroof over an above-ground public parking garage
• Queenstown Parking Block roof garden – intensive greenroof
• Subaru Showroom – 6th floor intensive greenroof for test driving recreational all-wheel drive cars
• VivoCity – waterfront shopping mecca with public roof garden
• Nanyang School of Technology University, School of Art, Design and Media on Nanyang Drive – beautiful interlocking, wave-form building covered with a grass roof
• Ocean Financial Centre, Raffles Place – an ambitious map of Singapore greenwall
• Orchard Central Mall – 3 outdoor green balconies and rooftop garden with greenwall.
• Singapore Botanic Gardens entrance –
• Raffles City Shopping Centre – 2 greenroofs visible from the nearby Swisshotel
• HortPark – Rooftop Garden shows different types of greenroof systems
• Singapore Management University, Li Ka Shing Library
• Institute of Technical Education HQ and College Central, Ang Mo Kio Drive – greenwall covered facades up to 35m high
• Casa Clementi – public housing with large ‘greenroof’ park over an underground carpark
• Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Yishun Central – a ‘hospital in a garden’ with sensory gardens, produce gardens, terraced roof gardens for patients and visitors.
• Solaris, Fusionopolis
• Marina Bay Sands Resort – Skypark
Singapore’s NParks has 7 Skyrise Greenery Trail Maps to different precincts around Singapore where you can see greenroofs, and greenwalls.
Singapore trees and avenues
Nearly every street in Singapore has extensive tree plantings of a wide range of tropical trees, including heritage-listed rain trees (Samanea saman) along Connaught Drive.
Many of the flowering street trees such as golden shower (Cassia fistula), golden penda (Xanthostemon), trumpet trees (Tabebuia rosea), yellow flame tree (Peltophorum), and pink mempat (Cratoxylum) are at their peak at the end of the dry season in late April. Highlights include Whampoa Road, Sims Way, Stanford Road, North Buona Vista Road, Dunearn Road, Mandai Road, and Clementi Avenue.
Singapore’s NParks has a map and searchable list of Singapore’s Heritage Trees – click HERE.
Singapore street art
Although you won’t find any real ‘gritty’ graffiti in Singapore, there are several great examples of international and local street art. However, as street art is by nature ephemeral, its locations and style are constantly changing. An indication of likely sites:
• OCBC Bank at Sixth Avenue, 827 Bukit Timah Road – Taggers by ‘Trase’ (Sufian Hamri)
• Joo Chiat Terrace and Everitt Road – Jousting Painters by Ernest Zacharevic
• Everton Road – kampong life murals by Yip Yew Chong
• Kampong Glam – walk from corner of Victoria Street and Jalan Sultan toward Arab Street
• Banda Street – Heritage murals of Kreta Ayer pioneer generations
• Amoy Street Food Centre – Samsui Lady by Ceno2
• Rowell Road – Light in Little India by Elmac and Green Goblins by Tyke Witnes AWR
• Haji Lane – Manifesto Found Art by Oak and Bindi
• Tiong Bahru Market – Peacock – part of the ’50 Walls’ celebration of Singapore’s 50 year anniversary.
Singpore hotels with gardens
• Parkroyal on Pickering – extensive planted sky-gardens with views of the city skyline.
• Marina Bay Sands Hotel – rooftop ‘Skypark’ with observation deck with spectacular view of Gardens by the Bay.
• Fairmont Hotel – herb garden five floors up using a composting system for natural fertilisation, relying on the abundant waste produced by garden worms. It is part of the hotel group’s Sustainability Partnership Program that encompasses the Bee Sustainable Program.
• Shangri-La Hotel – the Garden Wing has 15 acres of lush landscaped gardens including a waterfall. Luxury and serenity!
Singapore garden restaurants and cafes
• Melt Cafe Garden Terrace, Mandarin Oriental
• Open Farm Community, Minden Road – produce gardens, creative chefs and outdoor dining
• Canopy Garden Bar, Bishan Park
• The Green Door cafe, Dempsey
• Halia Restaurant, Singapore Botanic Gardens
• Barracks Cafe, Dempsey
• Torte, Waterloo St, SCWO Cenre
• ROAST at One Rochester
• Morsels, Mayo Street
[And to find the best food in Singapore, you must consult Victoria Milner’s excellent blog ‘Singapore Foodie‘ to find hawker food, local food and top restaurants]
In July 2016 my show garden ‘The Butterfly Effect’ will be in the prestigious Singapore Garden Festival. As I’m just developing a new landscape design career while managing a young family, how did this amazing thing happen?