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Singapore City Guide
We skip some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and show you an alternative side to the island in our official Singapore City Guide.
There’s so much more to Singapore than skyscrapers, shopping and its squeaky clean façade.
Beyond the modern high rises and manicured lawns, you’ll find diverse ethnic neighbourhoods and lovingly restored colonial architecture that reflect Singapore’s history and cultural diversity.
With Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans making up a large part of the native population, enclaves like Little India, Chinatown and the Arab district, Kampong Glam have become part of the fabric of modern Singaporean city life.
Singapore’s dining scene best represents this diversity, but it isn’t just confined to pan-asian cuisine. Alongside local hawker or street food, you’ll find the likes of Japanese, Australian, Middle Eastern and European cuisine influencing the menus here.
Similarly, the coffee culture – traditionally associated with sweet “kopi” (coffee) with condensed milk – has seen an influx of Australian expats setting up indy boutique cafés in Singapore, serving up specialty coffee with an emphasis on the origins of the beans and roasting techniques.
While Singapore has four official languages – English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, and Tamil – you’ll find it easy to get around as English is the most widely spoken language.
But if you’re not sure what to see and do first on your trip, read on for some unique and quirky things to do in our interactive Singapore City Guide.
We show you where to sample the best local food, offer shopping alternatives to the touristy Orchard Road and find quirky, indy cafés, bars and restaurants that are raising Singapore’s cultural profile.
We also uncover the best places to sleep – skipping the chains and focusing on the small boutique hotels that are making waves across town.
Essential travel information
Before you visit Singapore, don't forget to read this.
Essential travel Information
Currency: Singapore Dollar (SGD)
Best time to visit Singapore:
July and August
History shows the most rainfall is seen between December and January. The middle months of the year offer a great opportunity to travel to Singapore and enjoy cheaper rates than other times of the year, in particular over the Christmas to Easter period where many local Singaporeans celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year - resulting in higher charges during this peak period.
Getting around: Rail (MRT) / Bus / Taxi
If travelling by public transport, make sure you pick up a Singapore Tourist Pass, which provides unlimited journeys on Singapore's public transport system including the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), LRT (Light Rail Transit) and certain buses. These can be purchased at specific MRT stations (see here), and to get one you'll need to provide your landing card and passport as ID.
999 (police), 995 (ambulance or fire)
Things to do in Singapore
Escape the tourist bubble and do something different.
You don't always need to eat out to enjoy Singaporean cuisine. Why not learn to cook up your own dishes, the local way? Ruqxana is a self-taught chef who runs hands-on cooking classes daily from her own home. While the idea of cooking in someone's home may seem a bit strange, Ruqxana has been running her daily classes for a decade, and they are so popular that tourists from around the world sign up. Her dishes include nasi goring (spicy fried rice) and Tapioca Leaves Stew in Spicy Coconut Milk. Classes cost S$100 (£50) per person.
Infinity pools are usually associated with the high life but who could have thought it would be this literal? This ostentatious pool on the roof of Singapore's Marina Bay Sands SkyPark straddles its three skyscraper towers, some 200 metres above the city. Soak up the views while doing a few laps or relax in the poolside loungers (you won't need a book to distract you with views like this). Unfortunately the pool is off limits to anyone who isn't a guest of the Marina Bay Hotel - and so its exclusivity is also part of the appeal.
Hotel guests only
If you're after an authentic shopping experience but don't want to be wading through tourist havens like Orchard Road - the equivalent to London's Oxford Street - then head down to Haji Lane for offbeat shopping in small boutiques. Instead of the high street chains, expect to find independent fashion stores - popular with trend-setting Singaporeans - and vintage shops, inside rows of shophouses. But you won't just find clothes here. Worth a visit: Pluck - a fashion, book, furniture store and ice cream parlour under one roof (31/33 Haji Lane), Salad (25 Haji Lane) which stocks pretty home accessories; Greenpoppies (11 Haji Lane) for clothes, jewellery and stationery and Mosi café for authentic Moroccan food (32 Haji Lane).
The Sultans of Spice, a Kampong Glam walk organised by the Original Singapore Walks of Singapore isn’t your typical tourist tour. Focusing on the Malay-Islamic quarter (the home of the Sultan of Singapore in the 1920s), you’ll learn about Kampong Glam’s colourful heritage and rich history. You’ll visit some of the oldest streets, historical markets, the Sultan Mosque (Singapore’s largest) and and the Royal graveyard. Other highlights include sarong tying and learning about the area’s sadly dying trades.
The TreeTop walk is a great way to spot native birds and take in Singapore’s spectacular forest canopy views - if you’re prepared to hike a little to get there. The 250-metre long suspension bridge that connects the two highest points in MacRitchie Reservoir Park is a 1.5 mile (45 minute) walk away from Venus Drive (off Upper Thomson Road). This is the starting point for the walk if you want to take a shortcut and can be reached by bus or taxi from the CBD.
Start your hike early in the morning - to avoid the afternoon heat – and follow the wooden boardwalks and trails through the forest. A round-trip walk (taking the short cut) is about 7kms (5 miles), so allow 3 hours for the experience. Don’t forget to pack bottled water, insect repellent, sunscreen – and your camera. Regain your energy in the afternoon by stopping by Old School Delights on Upper Thomson Road for a bite to eat.
Best cafes and light bites
Where locals love to linger for lunch and latte art
A relative newcomer to Singapore's indy café scene, tucked away on the second floor of an historic shophouse on Duxton Road. While opening in 2011 mainly as an event space for wine tastings, media launches and corporate workshops, its café area is starting to gain a following among the locals as a lazy afternoon spot for brunch and simple hearty food. The café's philosophy is to create “space away from the daily grind” – with coffee, artisanal beer, wine and ciders served up alongside signatures like Belgian waffles and homemade four-layer carrot cake.
Focusing on roasting and brewing specialty coffee, Papa Palheta is serious about its beans. This small shop space has a tasting bar where baristas craft espresso drinks for coffee heads. There are a limited number of seats in the courtyard and no menus or prices at this boutique coffee bolthole: drinkers pay what they think their espresso and milk is worth. While this place may take a little hunting down, it's worth a visit if you're after top-notch coffee - in the cup or in bean form. If you want more of a café experience, head to Loysel's Toy (www.loyselstoy.com - 66 Kampong Bugis), Papa Palheta's new café joint for more of the same latte art, but with a slab of cake or sandwich.
On first impression, this old-school coffee shop might not have the wow factor of Singapore's more contemporary establishments, but it is one of the best spots to sample kaya toast, a delicacy so popular with locals. Kaya (coconut jam) is delicious when spread over bread and is a breakfast staple and popular afternoon café snack. The staff here make an excellent homemade kaya, which they slather over round toasted buns. While you're in the local mindset, order it alongside runny eggs and a milk tea or coffee (kopi).
PS Café has become an institution in Singapore for its botanical setting, ambience and decadent desserts. Serving mod European fare, it is also a popular lazy weekend brunch spot.
Interior-wise, it's bright and airy, with full-length glass walls and the relaxed setting continues outside, with more seating in a conservatory area, surrounded by foliage. The menu wouldn't look out of place in a New york café, with dishes like the portobello stack and steak sandwich - and the food isn't cheap by café standards, but it's the ambience that continues to draw the crowds. The dessert bar is worth shouting about (and drooling over). The double chocolate blackout cake is one to tick off the dessert list.
Coffee is king at this indy café, occupying an old army barracks on a residential estate. The espresso is poured from Singapore's first Slayer espresso machine (apparently) - a unique piece of kit that unlike traditional machines, allows the barista to change the pressure settings and produce subtly different espresso flavours. But locals don't just come here for the coffee. The food on offer is hearty, with brunch, lunch and dinner served on wooden topped tables and a full cooked breakfast “lazy weekend” menu if you're after something a little more substantial than the eggs benedict or a vegemite & cheese sandwich. We like the industrial-chic décor, high ceilings and warehouse feel, and its signature alcoholic milkshakes.
If you've overindulged on your holiday, ease your guilty conscience at The Salad Shop, a Monday to Friday joint where fast food is served without the fat (if you can pick wisely from the 23 kinds of homemade salad dressing). Pick your bowl size - rabbit (small), zebra (medium) or elephant (large) and customise your salad with your favourite greens, toppings and dressings. While seating is a little cramped - with some communal table - the modern canteen-style setting is also quite fun and inviting, with window holes shaped like cutlery and round, living room style lamps hanging above the tables.
Part café, shop and 'lab' for chocoholics, this minimalist sweet spot is stocked with more than 100 varieties of chocolate. Bars are wrapped in funky boxes, neatly arranged in an assembly line along a centrepiece table and stuffed inside wall-to-wall drawers. Quirky flavours include Sichuan pepper, cheese and lychee martini. In the hip café area, a dripping chocolate effect runs down the walls and cocoa treats are served on chocolate square-tabletops that you'll want to eat off.
Occupying a petite space in a shophouse on Duxton Hill, this patisserie - run by a Japanese pastry chef - bakes authentic Japanese cakes and pastries onsite and prides itself on using the freshest organic ingredients. Delicate handmade treats, from the green tea sponge cake and lychee cheesecake to Waguri Millefeuille (puff pastry with chestnut cream), can be taken away or enjoyed in - if you can find a seat.
Best restaurants in Singapore
Wine and dine your way around town at these hidden gems.
Wine enthusiasts will love the Tastings Room, a mod European bistro that matches quality food with recommended wines from its wine cellar - all with an emphasis on affordability. Wine pairing, usually the preserve of expensive restaurants, is made more affordable with wine offered by the glass. The décor is industrial chic, with a concrete floor, exposed ceiling and pendant lights hanging over the wooden tables. You can also pop in for breakfast, where you'll find fish and chips and steak benedict on the menu.
Boiling Betty and Scrambling Sam aren't nicknames for the staff that work here; they are part of the egg themed menu (that takes the form of a children's book) at Hatched. Serving breakfast around the clock, each dish is humorously named and proves how versatile the humble egg is. Highlights on the menu include the burly benedict: an English muffin topped with Wagyu beef, a poached egg and Mornay sauce. Hatched will cook your eggs as you like them - boiled baked, fried, scrambled or poached.
If you're in the Duxton Hill area, Wok and Barrel is well worth a visit - famous among the locals for chef and owner, Shen Tan's famous nasi lemak rice sets (rice cooked in coconut milk) and fusion menu. Traditional Singaporean dishes are conjured up with a twist -from the five-spice pork with homemade tagliatelle, to rendang pizza and crispy homemade carrot cake with prawns. For sweet tooths, signature desserts include the ‘shendol delight' - gula Melaka (palm sugar) drizzled over coconut panna cotta with red bean ice cream (shendol) and banana crack parfait (a brownie base topped with cream and bananas). As well as being a good place to try good local food, you can also enjoy an artisanal beer or two, with happy hour specials enticing the locals. But with seating for just 30, it can fill up quickly. If you'd rather not eat in, they offer a local delivery service.
If cupcakes are your weakness, this cute cupcake café should hit the spot. While the cupcakes here aren't piled high with frosting, that doesn't mean they are any less delicious. Baked and iced daily on-site, they taste lovely and moist and are topped with the café's signature fondant balls.There's a nice selection here - from your standard Red Velvet to Matcha Marvel (green tea - yes the sponge is green) and Adult Chocolate (with rum). With only cupcakes, hot chocolate dunking sticks and chocolate spreads on the menu, it's a nice place to pop in for an afternoon sweet treat - in a pretty little space. We're fans of the décor, including the pretty polka dot wall and ceiling.
The name says it all. Traditional Singaporean food here is cooked from scratch (using recipes passed down through the generations) and served in an old school (literally) setting. With hand-written menus written on a giant blackboard and a retro classroom-style layout, eating at Old School Delights is intended to add some nostalgia to the dining experience. The quirky nick-knacks like vintage toy models and books on display add to the charm and ambiance of this place and the food is comforting, with plenty of secret-recipe dishes like the Mee Siam and Nasi Lemak that were passed down through the generations to the current owners. Well worth a visit, if only to sample something homemade and the unique setting.
This charming former military chapel has been lovingly restored and makes you feel a bit like Alice walking into wonderland. From the fairy lights guiding you up the stone path, to the original chapel features like the stained glass windows and original church signage, eating here is like being in another world. Its European menu offers a posh take on home comfort food, like the mac cheese (macaroni cheese) topped with truffle shavings and drizzled with truffle oil. Diners don't just come here for their evening meal. If you don't want the full dinner experience, you can pop in for lunch, or hit the cocktail bar.
It's hard to get a bad meal at this Singapore variant of the modern food court, which – although a little off the beaten track – is well worth a visit if you're after some cheap, good quality stall (hawker) food. While the school canteen style setting may not appeal to everyone, hawker centres are a great way to see how the locals like to dine. Chow down on char kway teow (flat noodles stir-fried with beansprouts, prawns other fish), oyster omelette, chicken rice, roti prata (fried pancake) and hokkien mee (fried noodles from China's Fujian Province) – local dishes at their best. Top tip: the stalls with the longest queues are probably worth the wait.
Best bars and clubs
A roundup of rooftop bars, cool clubs and evening spots
Best places to stay
Hip places to hibernate – no chains allowed.
It has separate pod-style sleeping accommodation for women-only, and a mixed dormitory with individual and double bed pod rooms for couples. Communal spaces include a relaxing entertainment loft upstairs that’s scattered with beanbags and equipped with games, books magazines and a flat screen TV. Nightly rates include little touches such as free Wi-Fi, iPod docks and hair straighteners. They even offer different pillows for back, side and front sleepers.
We strive to make these guides as informative as possible, to ensure that your travels are as enjoyable as they can be. While we take every precaution to ensure the accuracy of the information in this guide, Terminal U provides no guarantees, nor accepts any responsibility for factual inaccuracies. If you spot a mistake or error, please let us know by contacting us here.