I’ve got a thing for big Asian cities. I’ve already penned down guides to two of my other favourites on the continent – Tokyo and Hong Kong. So it’s about time I give Singapore a bit of the limelight, another of Asia’s megacities which I happen to really love.
Singapore is such a vibrant blend of cultures, religions and cuisines; yet they all live in harmony side by side. It’s a wonderful feast of food and temples, shopping and exploring. It must be one of the only places in the world where you can start your day with authentic South Indian dosa’s and chai, before heading to a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple, and then spending an afternoon Persian carpet shopping and finishing the day with a Malaysian feast. The best way to see Singapore is by exploring its neighbourhoods. It’s in these areas that you will be able to see the mix of cultures, try the local foods and meet the local people – who despite their heritage, are all proud to be Singaporean.
Let us begin with one of Singapore’s biggest and boldest neighbourhoods; Chinatown. Around 80% of Singaporeans have Chinese heritage, and it’s in Chinatown that their culture is celebrated most vibrantly. The area is one of the cities oldest, and the traditional shophouses are well preserved above ribbons of red Chinese lanterns. At night, the area erupts into night markets and huge sizzling food centres. Here you can grab some authentic Chinese cuisine, with a Singaporean twist. Popular dishes include roasted duck, dim sum, and chicken rice.
There’s plenty to do in the day here too. One of my favourite museums in the whole of Singapore is the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The museum is set within three traditional shophouses in Chinatown’s Pagoda Street. The museum takes you back in time, with rooms showcasing what life was like for the Chinese workers who helped shape the city of Singapore.
The area around the Heritage Centre is also a great place to pick up souvenirs, watch a game of Chinese Checkers, or if you are lucky to be around during Chinese New Year – enjoy the many festivities which take place around the town.
Chinatown is also home to some of Singapore’s best temples. The highlight is perhaps the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a Tang style Chinese Buddhist temple built in 2007. Another highlight of the area is the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, which might seem a little misplaced in Chinatown, but in many ways, this represents Singapore – where contrasting cultures sit side by side.
Everywhere in Singapore is a food heaven, but Chinatown has some of the cities very best options. If you’re looking to try authentic hawker cuisine, try the Maxwell Food Centre where you can grab a taste of some of Singapore’s most famous dishes. To seek out the best stalls, look for the longest queue.
Nearest MRT Station: Chinatown
One of my favourite areas to explore in Singapore is Little India. Indian’s moved into this area when it became a hub of cattle trading, and many Indian migrant workers were hired to work in the trade. Stores began to open catering to Indian tastes, and soon enough, Hindu temples and mosques were built in the area. Today, it’s a glimpse into the subcontinent, with rainbow painted houses and chai shops on every corner. In Little India, you can fill your tummy with vegetarian curry’s and tasty lassi’s, and shop for gold, saris and bohemian bags and dresses.
A must see is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the cities oldest Hindu temples and a landmark in Little India. The temple has a striking front, constructed in the style of South Indian Tamil temples. Inside, incense swirls in the doorway and white-robed priests perform ceremonies in front of colourful statues of gods. The temple is open to visitors all day, although you should be respectful of the worshippers and only take photos of people if you have permission.
Elsewhere in the area, the Indian Heritage Centre gives a great insight into the beginnings of the area and the lives of the migrant workers who travelled from South India to live and work in Singapore. But the best way to experience Little India is by wandering the market streets and finding a cosy spot to feast on some delicious traditional food. Outside of India, I can safely say it’s some of the best Indian food I’ve had around the world.
Little India particularly comes alive during Hindu festivals such as Diwali which is celebrated in October. If you’re in Singapore during this time, make sure you don’t miss it!
Nearest MRT Station: Little India
Walk from Little India to Kampong Glam (also known as Arab Street), and you’ll feel like you’ve crossed a continent. The area is framed by the Masjid Sultan Mosque and its great golden dome. Elsewhere in the area, you’ll find delicious Turkish food, Persian carpet shops and streets with names like Baghdad street. The area was once a zone attracting Malays, Sumatrans, and traders from eastern Yemen.
Interestingly, the area has combined with the Singaporean youth culture to be one of the hippest and most artistic parts of the city. Hajj Lane, a narrow street on the edge of the area is filled with quirky boutique stores, coffee shops and bars. The street art in the area has also drawn in tourists who love to flash a selfie in front of some of the vibrant walls before diving into a matcha ice cream puff.
If you’re keen to absorb yourself in the Arab Street culture, check out some of the Turkish and Lebanese restaurants on Bussorah Street. You can also hop onto one of the Masjid Sultan Mosque’s guided tours to learn more about the area.
Nearest MRT Station: Bugis
It can often be hard to pinpoint what is ‘Singaporean’ in a country of so many cultures. But perhaps what best represents the city best is Peranakan culture. The culture came about when Chinese migrants came to Singapore and married local Malaysians. The culture is often thought to be the best representation of Singapore, and the Joo Chiat area is one of the best places to learn more about it. A must see in the area is the Peranakan Heritage Centre, a museum dedicated to the world’s finest collection of Peranakan artefacts. The museum highlights the various elements of the Peranakan culture, which is made up of so many cultures from across Asia.
Another favourite spot in this area is Kway Guan Huat, a food store which makes Popiah, a Peranakan type of Spring Roll which is very popular in Singapore. Local chef Zita serves up the rolls filled with either crabmeat or mushrooms. This article has more traditional eats in the Joo Chiat area.
Nearest MRT Station: Paya Lebar or Eunos
Every neighbourhood you explore in Singapore has a different personality, and Tiong Bahru certainly has it’s own very unique atmosphere. The art deco enclave is both one of the cities most traditional local neighbourhoods, and also one of the hippest spots for the cities youth. The rows of white shophouses are home to quirky cafes, bookstores and boutique shopping. BooksActually is one of the best bookstores I have been to in the world. While it’s small, it stocks a diverse collection of literature, magazines and local publications. It also has a small section of souvenirs and vintage bric-and-brac.
The area is also one of the best places in the city to grab brunch or a coffee and cake. One of the best spots is the forever busy Tiong Bahru Bakery, which serves up French-inspired pastries. Just around the corner is Curated Records, a must for any vinyl lovers in the city.
As well as soaking up the cafes and creative stores, Tiong Bahru is a great place to explore local life. When you arrive, you’ll find the huge Tiong Bahru Market and food centre in the centre of the neighbourhood. Upstairs, there’s a hawker centre where you can try authentic Singaporean foods, such as ku chye kueh, a rice flour cake with chives. It’s perfectly washed down with a Soya Bean Milk Tea. I also recommend walking around the palm-lined houses – you’ll find lots of quirky street art and friendly local cats.
Nearest MRT Station: Tiong Bahru
Getting there: Singapore is one of the biggest airports in South East Asia and it can be a great hub to start your trip to the region. Singapore Airlines is one of the best airlines I have been on, and it flies from many cities around the world.
Getting Around: Singapore is an incredibly convenient city and the MRT is cheap and can take you almost everywhere. All signs and announcements are in English, so it is very easy to navigate for a tourist.
Where to Stay: If you fancy splurging, we recommend the wonderful Shangri-La which is set in its own gardens and feels like a wonderful retreat from the humid city. For a budget option, there are many great hostels in the Arab Street and Little India areas. We recommend Shophouse which has an amazing location right by Hajj Lane. Singapore is also a great place to Couchsurf as locals are friendly and accommodating and generally speak very good English. There are also many great Couchsurfing meet-ups around the city every week.
More Information: Visit Singapore has a really excellent website which lists a whole host of things to do, see and places to explore in the city.
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Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.