Singapore is a kaleidoscope of history, culture and tradition – a place with a foot in the past and a hand reaching for the future. Once a humble sea town, it’s now home to more than 5.6 million residents, each of them bringing their own cultural flair to the city.
We’ve been to Singapore four times together now and it blows us away every time. It’s hard to define exactly what it is about the city that appeals to us, but it’s probably the fusion of cultures that exist in such a small place. It’s a bit like visiting the best of Asia in one trip.
Whether it’s your first or fifth time in the Lion City, a good way to discover how it ticks is by visiting the traditional neighbourhoods. Away from the skyscrapers and sky trees, these pockets offer an authentic taste of the local Indian, Chinese and Malay culture.
Kampong Glam, a colourful district also known as Little Arabia, is as good a place to start as any. Once the seat of the old Malay royalty in Singapore, the neighbourhood has been a Malay-Muslim quarter since the early 1800’s. Whether you’re a fan of good coffee, historic architecture, religious sites (the mosque is stunning) or just want to max out your credit card on designer threads, this is the place to come.
Haji Lane, an inconspicuous laneway that you could easily walk past, is one of the big drawcards. Located right in the heart of Kampong Glam, it’s home to some of the up and coming best designers in town. The Malay Heritage Centre is also worth a visit. Be sure to keep an eye out for the fantastic local street art.
Moving on from Kampong Glam, head to the ultra-trendy Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. If there were a heartland for café culture in Singapore, this would be it. Singapore’s first housing estate, built in the 1930’s, it’s a vibrant community where the young and old, gay and straight, locals and tourists all congregate.
Walking through the streets of Tiong Bahru, admiring the Art Deco style as you go, you’ll pass numerous specialty stores selling everything from quirky collectables to haberdashery, quiet cafes and ground-breaking restaurants. For brunch: Open Door Policy, Tiong Bahru Bakery, and 40 Hands deserve a look.
For something a bit different, head to Dempsey Hill. Starting life as a British army barracks, it’s had a total reinvention and is now one of the hottest dining precincts of Singapore. Whether you want to wrap your hands around a hamburger, tuck into a sumptuous steak, or indulge in some tasty seafood, Dempsey Hill has you covered – P.S Café, RedDot Brewhouse and the Disgruntled Chef are our picks for where to go. More than just food however, Dempsey Hill also has a great selection of antique and homewares stores, and art galleries.
Little India is a treasure trove of colour, flavour and creativity. Some of the local icons include the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, which has been standing tall since 1885, and Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, also known as the temple of 1,000 lights. Little India is also home to one of Singapore’s great shopping institutions, Mustafa Centre. Though nobody knows the exact figure, it’s estimated to have some 150,000 items for sale.
Of course, we couldn’t mention Singapore’s neighbourhoods without bringing up the most famous of all (and our personal favourite) – Chinatown. Comprised of five districts – Telok Ayer, Bukit Pasoh, Tanjong Pagar, Kreta Ayer and Ann Siang Hill – Chinatown is vast.
The central streets around the pagoda are packed with market stalls, mostly aimed at visiting tourists, but there are also beautiful shophouses selling silks, along with numerous restaurants serving incredible Chinese food. Visit Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple & Museum and the Thian Hock Keng Temple for an insight into local culture. Sri Mariamman Temple – the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore – is also located in Chinatown.
Though many people tend to write it off as just a stopover, Singapore is a destination in its own right – and one that deserves a little of your attention. Leave your preconceptions at the gate and it won’t take long to fall under the spell of this fascinating city (just like us).