Billed as “Asia’s favourite playground”, Sentosa attracts more than five million visitors and their dollars every year. Hotels, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops can be found across the island along with an array of attractions, including Universal Studios Amusement Park, Adventure Cove Waterpark and a sky-diving simulator.
Though it certainly gives the impression, Sentosa is not an artificial island and is noted on maps dating back to the 1700s. At that time it was called Pulau Blakang Mati, which roughly translates to “Island of Death from Behind” in Malay. The British were apparently unperturbed by the ominous name and chose it as the site for military forts to protect the Singapore port. According to historical records, the British actually used dynamite to flatten the hill it sits upon before installing the gun batteries. Though they continued to strengthen the fort to protect their colony, it infamously fell to the Japanese in 1942. Because the British generals were expecting a sea attack, the huge guns at Fort Siloso were pointed the wrong way — the Japanese invaded overland from Malaysia. By the time they could be rotated, it was too late. During the Japanese Occupation that followed, Fort Siloso was used as a POW camp to hold British, Australian, and other Allied soldiers.
Today, Fort Siloso has been restored to its pre-war condition and houses Singapore’s largest collection of war memorabilia. Each military building has been converted into a mini-museum with videos, old army maps, and black and white photographs. As you explore the barracks and tunnels you’ll encounter uniformed mannequins illustrating military life and the hillside is dotted with antique artillery.
Even if you’re not a history buff, there’s plenty to like about Fort Siloso. First of all, it’s the only attraction on Sentosa that won’t be overrun with people on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Also, its rather untamed grounds make for interesting walks and offer great views of the ocean. If you’ve got the kids in tow, there’s even an army obstacle course playground.
After the war, a nationwide contest was held to rename the island. The winner, Sentosa, means “peace and tranquility”.
In 2010 the island became the site of Singapore’s first casino with the opening of Resorts World Sentosa. With this “integrated resort” (‘casino’ is apparently a dirty word) has come more new hotels, boutiques, celebrity chef restaurants and nightly sound and light shows. While casinos are pretty much designed to part you from your money, if you’re over 18 and have a foreign passport you can enter the casino for free (locals pay a hefty S$100 levy). It’s not sexy like Vegas, but there’s usually some art to admire, live entertainment in the evenings, and free (non-alcoholic) drinks.
But there’s a lot more to Sentosa.
From east to west, Sentosa’s three beaches are Tanjong, Palawan, and Siloso. Tanjong Beach is the most isolated and ideal if you hope to have a patch of sand to yourself. Palawan Beach is a favourite for families with young children and has a splash fountain, free kids’ entertainers on the weekend and reasonably priced food court. Palawan is also the access point for the rope bridge to a little island that claims to be the southernmost point of continental Asia. Siloso is the beach to see and be seen with beach bars, beach volleyball courts, and adrenaline-pumping rides like a trapeze and zip line. This is also where the ZoukOut beach party is held every December. The westernmost part of Siloso Beach is reserved for guests of the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa, Singapore’s only beachfront resort. All of Sentosa’s beaches have changing facilities and places to eat.
And one of the best things about the beaches? They are completely free. The water may not look particularly inviting with huge tankers in the distance, but the spotless white sand is perfect for stretching out and soaking up the tropical sun.
If you’re on a tight budget, you should know that there is no charge for the trams or buses that take you from sight to sight. For a breezy tour of the whole island without paying a cent, try the buses.
Among the most popular attractions on Sentosa is Universal Studios, the most impressive theme park in Southeast Asia. There are around 20 rides featuring favourite movie characters like Shrek, the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, and the Transformers, spread across seven different zones. Except for a few scream-inducing rollercoasters, most of the attractions are suitable for children six and up. Expect to spend a lot of time queuing for the best rides, so wear light clothes and drink lots of water! Costumed characters roam the park for photo ops and washrooms, food kiosks and souvenir stands are abundant.
A one-day pass to Universal Studios for adults is S$74; children aged 4 to 12 are S$54; seniors aged 60 and over are S$36. If you dread queuing in the tropical sun you can upgrade your ticket to an express pass for an additional S$50.
We haven’t been here yet, but Adventure Cover Waterpark looks like a great way to spend a day (though we do not advise taking the additional animal interaction options). The park offers a large array of water slides that look like a great way to beat the heat.
Other adventurous attractions include iFly, an indoor sky-diving simulator. Nearly 60 feet high, the wind tunnel is the largest of its kind and all jumpers require 90 minutes of training before they fake their freefall. The experience (two dives) costs S$119 for adults for ages seven and up, or less if booked in advance.
Siloso Beach is home to the Skyline Luge & Skyride. The trip up hill is slow and scenic on a chair-lift, but the ride back down on the luge, a mix between a sled and a go-kart, is as fast as you can handle it while navigating the twisting course. One ride costs S$17.00 but, since once is never enough, package deals are available. The Luge & Skyride is open daily from 10:00 to 21:30 – try it after dark for a completely different experience.
Though there’s also a rope course and climbing wall, the thrill of the MegaZip Adventure Park is the zip line that starts at Imbiah Hill and ends at the middle of Siloso beach. It’s no Gibbon Experience, but you’ll still hear people screaming as they soar over the jungle canopy at speeds up to 50 kilometres per hour. The brief-but-ballsy zip line ride costs S$39.
You won’t see any surfers on Sentosa’s perfectly calm beaches, but you can catch an artificial wave at the Wave House. The continuous 10-foot wave rivals the best surfing in Bali, but unlike Mother Nature’s waves it’ll set you back at least S$35 an hour to ride this one. The Wave House is outdoors right on Siloso Beach and also has a California-cool beach bar with a swimming pool.
For just S$10 you can pretend you’ve run away to Singapore and joined the circus at The Flying Trapeze. All wannabe acrobats wear a safety harness and there’s a net to catch you when you eventually fall – it requires an incredible amount of upper body strength to hold on. The Flying Trapeze is right beside Trapizza restaurant (try the thin-crust pizza) at the eastern side of Siloso Beach.
Those less interested in adrenaline and more interested in history will want to check out the interactive Maritime Experiential Museum, which immerses visitors in the history of sea exploration and trade in Asia — a visit is included as part of a ticket to the SEA Aquarium. The museum’s inspiration is Admiral Zheng He — Asia’s greatest explorer — who commanded a fleet of 300 ships as he explored the seas on behalf of China’s Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. The museum’s showpiece is a full-sized replica of his treasure ship.
Following the Admiral’s ancient maritime trading route, the museum has a “souk” (market) for each of his major ports of call: Quanzhou, China; Qui Nhon, Vietnam; Palembang, Indonesia; Melaka, Malaysia; Galle, Sri Lanka; Calicut, India; Muscat, Oman; and Malindi, Kenya. Each display has examples of what would have been traded in that city — spices, porcelain, silk, giraffes! — and displays about the culture, such as Vietnamese water puppets and traditional Indonesian dance. This part of the museum is extremely kid-friendly with lots of things to touch, arts and craft stations, and computer games.
Nearly as big as Admiral Zheng’s ship, the museum has a recreation of a ninth century Arab dhow. “The Jewel of Muscat” is a gift from Oman to Singapore and it spent five months at sea sailing from Muscat to here without the aid of GPS. The ropes are made from coconut husks and there is not a single nail holding it together.
If you have kids in tow and they have a fascination with the creepy-crawly, the Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom deserves a spot on your Sentosa Island itinerary. Even if they don’t, this mini-zoo is a lifesaver if the monsoon rains wash out your other plans.
The first exhibit you encounter is also the best – the walk-through butterfly house. More than 50 species are kept captive here, including rare and endangered ones, and it’s an ethereal experience to have dozens of them fluttering around you. Dishes of tropical fruit are set out to encourage the butterflies to land and pose for photos and, if you stand really still, they may even land on you. The exhibit is also educational with a Pupa House where you can see the pretty bugs at different stages of their life cycle.
Admission is quite steep, at S$16 for adults and S$10 for kids, but if it’s a rainy day, it can help fill a few hours. Open 09:30AM to 19:00.
If you like the idea of attraction-dense Sentosa, you may want to consider staying on the island, which boasts a sprinkling of hotels. If money is no object, the Rasa Shangri-La is one of Singapore’s most idyllic hotels and is perfect for families with a generous budget. The 454 generously sized rooms have five-star trimmings like sumptuous bedding, big-screen TVs and oversized bathtubs. Ground level rooms have private garden terraces while the upper floors have balconies with sea views. The Rasa is the only Sentosa hotel with direct beach access and also boasts a gorgeous pool, kids club, games room and a variety of restaurants.
Resorts World hosts not only the casino but four hotels: the Hard Rock Hotel is the trendiest with rock’n’roll glam rooms and iPod docks so you can crank your tunes. It also has the best pool — an oasis with palm trees and sun beds — but all resort guests can use it. Festive Hotel is preferred by families for its spacious rooms and bedding arrangements, while Hotel Michael is the most mature with its art-gallery atmosphere. The fourth is Crockford Towers and restricted to the casino’s high rollers. All hotels have very high standards — and similar price tags. The location is great for more than just gambling — Universal Studios is minutes away.
If you want easy access to Sentosa’s popular beach bars then Siloso Beach Resort Sentosa is the place to stay. Rates rise significantly on the weekend as it’s a popular staycation hotel for locals. The heavy use shows in the regular rooms and while we’re not saying they’re bad, they’re pretty average for the price. For something with more wow factor, splurge on one of the suites with a treetop terrace and outdoor Jacuzzi. The beach is a stone’s throw away but you’ll probably find the lagoon pool with cascading waterfall even more appealing.
Costa Sands Resort Sentosa is as cheap as it comes on the island. The air-con “Kampong huts” are reminiscent of childhood summer camp with two bunk beds and little else, but considering they accommodate four people and get you access to the resort pool they’re a bargain. Rooms in the main building are a little worn around the edges but perfectly comfortable with mini-bar, TV, and queen or twin-sized beds. WiFi is free and there’s a shortcut through resort grounds down to Siloso Beach. Rates vary significantly by dates — come on a weekday for the best value.
Sentosa is home to a vast array of dining options — more than 50 outlets offer a range of cuisines, from budget to high-end. It can be hard to know where to start — but let’s start at the more affordable end.
Malaysian Food Street is slightly more expensive than your average hawker centre, but it represents great value for generally over-priced Sentosa. Feast on Malaysian street food favourites like Penang’s Lim Brothers char kway teow and Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling Street porridge, which have been in business for more than 50 years. Other offerings include bak kut teh (herbal pork rib soup from the Malaysian town of Klang), Penang lor bak, mutton curry, sliced cuttlefish, kaya toast and dim sum. Wash it all down with a cup of kopi or bandung, and do try to save room for dessert: the Penang cendol with green jelly noodles and beans tastes better than it looks.
Despite being completely indoors (with much-appreciated air-con), it features traditional shophouse frontages, old advertisements in bahasa Malay, Kuala Lumpur street signs, and an antique cycle rickshaw. It’s a little gimmicky, but you are on Sentosa after all.
Some of the city’s most famous street-chefs have set up branches at VivoCity’s Food Republic (so dine here on your way to or from Sentosa), where you can feast on Hokkien prawn noodles, fried carrot cake, oyster omelettes, roti prate, laksa and yong tau foo in air-con comfort for around $5 a dish. Food Republic is more stylish than most food courts with wooden tables and paper lanterns to make it look like a traditional kopitiam.
We don’t normally list chains, but budget-oriented places are thin on the ground on Sentosa. The all-day breakfast sets at Coffee Bean & Tea are fair value and the bagel meal — a bagel, cream cheese and steaming cup of Viennese roast — is a steal for under S$5. Sandwiches, salads and pastas are available during lunch but have that mass-produced taste. Iced coffees are an instant pick-me-up in Singapore’s hot weather and, for non-coffee drinkers, there’s flavoured iced tea and fruit juice blends.
The huge Singapore Seafood Republic is a collaboration between Tung Lok Seafood, Jumbo Seafood, Palm Beach Seafood, and Seafood International, with an encyclopaedic menu including crab nine different ways, fried squid, steamed fish, Thai tom yam soup and a refreshingly light salad of lobster and dragonfruit. The two-storey waterfront building near Resorts World Sentosa looks like a tourist trap, but it has a reputation to maintain and the seafood does not disappoint (though it’s far from cheap).
Sentosa keeps going once the sun’s gone down, of course. Once you’ve paid the cover charge you can move freely between the 11 outlets and nightclubs at St James Power Station, which was Singapore’s first coal-fired power plant. Warm up with a cocktail at the Bellini Room, catch a set from The Boiler Room’s amazing cover band, then dance the night away to hip hop at Powerhouse. St James is easily accessed by a bridge from VivoCity Mall and also has an outdoor food court that serves hawker food until the wee hours.
Sentosa can be reached by a boardwalk (free), Sentosa Express monorail (S$4) or cable car (S$29 adult / S$18 children one-way). Whichever you choose, they all depart from VivoCity Mall at Harbourfront MRT station; you can also catch a bus. The monorail is rightfully the most popular.
Once you’ve paid the fare you can ride the monorail between the three stations on Sentosa as much as you like. Departing from VivoCity Mall (Sentosa Station), the first stop is Waterfront Station which serves the Resorts World complex and Universal Studios. The second stop, Imbiah Station, is convenient for The Merlion, Tiger Tower, and the Luge and Skyride. Beach Station is the final stop and located at the waterfront near the Songs of the Sea amphitheatre.
The boardwalk is open 24 hours if you’re paying by EZ-Link card, otherwise the ticketing booths are open 09:00–18:00 daily.
The Sentosa Cable Car is more of a viewpoint than transportation — it connects Imbiah look-out to Mount Faber, passing over the ocean and busy port. The eight-seat cabins are comfortable, with climate control and space to accommodate prams or wheelchairs. For something special upgrade to a VIP cable car experience or have a private dinner onboard — advance booking required. If you’re boarding at Sentosa remember to invest the extra S$2 in a round-trip ticket — there’s nowhere to go from the top of Mount Faber.
Bus service RWS 8 runs in a loop from VivoCity Mall to Resorts World Sentosa. The fare is S$2 a person and buses run from 06:00 to 23:30 daily. You’re more likely to get a seat on the bus than the monorail, but traffic can make the ride quite slow and it’s only convenient for the Resorts World attractions: the casino, Universal Studios and expensive restaurants.
If you choose to drive, an entrance fee of S$2-7 (highest on weekends, lowest weekday nights) is levied per car whether you’re in a taxi or have your own wheels. Parking isn’t free either.
Getting around Sentosa is a breeze with complimentary trams and buses that cover the island coast to coast. Most attractions are within easy walking distance of each other and it’s possible to rent a bicycle too.
International ATMs can be found at Beach Station and the cable car arrival area at Imbiah Station.
By Samantha Brown
Last updated on 4th December, 2015.