Singapore. It’s the perfect name for a city. It rolls off the tongue like the beginning of a song. Say it aloud: it undulates like the waves coming in from the Indian Ocean, slips around in the air like it knows it is a beautiful word. And yet, when you say “Singapore”, the things that come to mind aren’t quite as ephemeral. Say “Singapore” and you get phrases like “global financial sector” and “commerce hub”. They’re good things, don’t get me wrong, and I’m sure most Singaporeans (myself included) are proud we have these associations. But it’s frustrating when you know there’s much more to your homeland that never seems to surface in conversation.
I was waiting tables back home in Singapore, at a restaurant at the top floor of Mandarin Gallery, a shopping centre and hotel situated on the fringe of Somerset. The rest of Somerset is a youth hangout; there are skate parks and concert venues and teen-oriented boutiques. But for whatever reason, Mandarin Gallery is chock-full of luxury boutiques, eclectic specialty stores, and fine dining.
“We’re here for a week. What do you recommend?” A couple of tourists had come in during offpeak hours. I panicked. I wasn’t sure what kind of experience they were looking for (I probably should have asked), so I rattled off the usual tourist traps: Sentosa, Marina Bay, Universal Studios. They said thank you, I apologised for not knowing more touristy places, they paid and left, I clocked out and went home.
I stay in Clementi, a small residential town nestled in the West of Singapore. I’d say we’re quite far removed from all things touristy (most of those tend to be in the South), but Singapore is so tiny, you could drive from one end to the other in just over an hour. Singapore’s smallness means that I’ve been to all the places you find on the tourism board’s website. Sentosa? Check. Marina Bay? Check. Universal Studios? Check. Suffice to say none of them scream “home” to me quite like my own neighbourhood does. When I think Singapore, I don’t think of the Singapore Flyer or the Duck Tours. I think of the hawker centres, the smaller art galleries, the cheap karaoke. Perhaps there are things about Singapore that aren’t as readily advertised, but here’s my take on Singapore and where to go.
- Hawker Centres and Markets
To be fair, you’ll see these advertised whenever you go looking for things to do in Singapore. But they’re special, because unlike the other touristy gimmicks Singapore shouts about, this one is actually something locals do. I grew up on Ghim Moh Market’s chai tow kway and tau huay, and until I became vegetarian, Lau Pa Sat’s satay was always worth a detour. Quick tip: the Singaporean rule of thumb for choosing a stall to buy from at the hawker centre is to join whichever line is longest.
Ghim Moh Market
Add: 01-161, 20 Ghim Moh Road, Singapore 270020
Opening Hours: 6am to 10pm
Lau Pa Sat
Add: 18 Raffles Quay, Singapore 048582
Opening Hours: 24 hours
- Tiong Bahru
London has Shoreditch and Brooklyn has Williamsburg. Singapore has Tiong Bahru, a little neighbourhood just outside the expensive part of the city. It’s impossibly easy to get to by train or bus, and it’s lined with fantastic food places and quirky stores. Pop into BooksActually, where you can browse and buy from a wide range of local and vintage literature. You can also (sometimes) play with their cat. You probably wouldn’t head to Southeast Asia for European food, but Tiong Bahru Bakery is famous for their croissants and boasts a cosy interior.
Add: 9 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168645
Tiong Bahru Bakery
Add: 56 Eng Hoon Street, #01-70, Singapore 160056
Contact: +65 6220 3430
Opening Hours: 8am-8pm (Sun-Thurs), 8am-10pm (Fri-Sat)
- The LGBTQ+ Scene
Singapore gets a lot of (well-deserved) flak for its conservative intolerance of homosexuality, but you’ll feel it a lot less along Neil Road, surrounded by the smells and sounds of Chinatown. Neil Road is home to most of Singapore’s gay bars and clubs, including Taboo and Tantric Bar. On the first Saturday of every month, CANVAS hosts Herstory, a party almost exclusively for women. Men are admitted subject to approval at the door. RIOT! is a monthly drag show that’s hosted by the arresting Becca D’Bus. Tickets are usually available for sale online, but you can also get them at the door if you pay with cash.
Add: 65/67 Neil Road, Singapore 088897
Contact: +65 6225 6256
Add: 78 Neil Road, Singapore 088841
Contact: +65 6423 9232
Opening Hours: 8pm to 3am (daily except Saturday), 8pm to 4am (Saturday)
- Holland Village
I grew up in the West of Singapore, so Holland Village has always been quite central to my entire existence. Fruit shopping and bank errands with my mother populated my childhood. Now that I’m a little older, Holland Village is the place I got my first real tattoo (shout out to Anthea at Traditions Tattoos) and the closest place for Friday night drinks and live music (check out Wala Wala).
Traditions Tattoo Collective
Add: 40A Lorong Mambong Singapore
Contact: +65 9798 9766
Opening Hours: 12.30pm to 8.00pm daily
Add: 31 Lorong Mambong Holland Village, Singapore 277698
Contact: +65 6462 4288
Opening Hours: 4pm to 1am (Mon-Thurs), 4pm to 2am (Fri), 3pm to 2am (Sat), 3pm to 1am (Sun)
- Labrador Park
This one’s for the explorer in you. You won’t find many tourists here because it’s so out of the way, but it will make you wonder why. It’s home to the only rocky sea cliff in Singapore with public access, and a multitude of bird species. There are also loads of vantage points for you to stare out at the vast expanse of sea or the lush skyline. You can get to Labrador Park by taking the train and then walking in, or you can cycle in along the Park Connectors, which are laced between all of Singapore’s parks and nature reserves islandwide.
Labrador Nature Reserve
Add: Labrador Villa Road, Singapore 119187
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Singapore is hot. And while some days call for dinner by the beach or afternoons in the pool, others just beg you to go indoors. Which is most probably why karaoke is such a popular activity for Singaporeans. Karaoke is very cheap (try Teo Heng KTV, but make sure to call and make a reservation) and KTVs are littered everywhere, from the upscale malls to the seedier parts of town. There are very few things as entertaining as attempting a drunken rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody while your best friends keep time with the maracas provided.
Teo Heng KTV
Hours: 1pm to 1am on weekdays, 12pm to 2am on Saturdays, 12pm to 12am on Sundays
- The Projector
Nestled in Golden Mile Tower is the most beautiful cinema you will ever visit. The Projector has breathed new life into the historic Golden Theatre, one of the oldest movie theatres in Singapore. The space still retains much of its nostalgic architecture and design, and shows a meticulously curated variety of films from indie horror to arthouse cult favourites. Once in awhile, the venue holds kickass themed events, like Halloween parties and Kubrick movie marathons.
Add: 6001 Beach Road, #05-00, Golden Mile Tower, Singapore 199589
Nearest MRT Station: Nicoll Highway