Photo by Lester Ledesma
Photo by Lester Ledesma
Colorful 1920s terraced homes line Joo Chiat Road in Katong, Singapore.
These are the districts to explore for a truly multicultural Singapore experience, from Chinatown to Little India.
Tourists often rave about Singapore’s ultramodern skyline of skyscrapers and supertrees. But we locals are the first to admit—those attractions won’t even begin to tell you who we really are. To glimpse what life on this island is actually like, spend a day or two checking out some of our everyday neighborhoods. That way you’ll experience the things we take pride in—our nation’s humble origins, our multicultural identity, and our love of good food. You can start with these six colorful and historic Singapore neighborhoods.
Best for: Shopping and chinoiserie—and dim sum
Back in 1822, the British colonial government allocated this area west of the Singapore River for the many Chinese immigrants settling here. Now a tourist attraction with its nostalgic street murals by artist Yip Yew Chong, Chinatown remains a cherished repository of this nation’s ethnic Chinese heritage. The jumble of souvenir stalls and handicraft shops outside the MRT station might look touristy, but many items here—such as retro 1920s “Shanghai girl” posters, lacquered dowry chests, or fine Chinese porcelain—can be worth a second look.
Make your way through this street market, toward the People’s Park Complex where all the local activity happens. Say “Hi!” to the old uncles playing checkers outside, then walk inside to browse the rows of shops carrying everything from traditional Chinese medicine to woven baskets and antique mah-jongg sets. This two-story market also hosts a cavernous hawker center bursting with down-home Singaporean staples. From here, check out the nearby Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple, which houses several massive prayer halls containing ornate Buddhist artwork. Afterwards, help yourself to authentic Hong Kong–style dim sum at Red Star Restaurant.
Best for: the sights, sounds, and flavors of Big India
What was once a swampy area for Indian cattle traders in the 1800s has since grown to become the bustling heartland of Singapore’s ethnic Indian population. Little India expands from both sides of Serangoon Road and starts from the busy Tekka Market at its southern end. This building is the go-to spot for South Asian supplies, where heaps of fragrant spices, bundles of herbs, or packs of bracelets and henna tattoos can be bought at wholesale (and very negotiable) prices.
Outside the building, sari tailors share commerce space with jewelry merchants and traditional mamak sundry shops. If the heady scent of incense combined with the Tamil music hasn’t taken you across the Bay of Bengal, then surely the traditional flower garland vendors lining Buffalo Road will. From this street, a little alley leads to the former home of Tan Teng Niah—it’s a beautifully restored antique Chinese villa with colors that will liven up your IG feed. You can then stop for tea and dosa at Komala Vilas, which has been serving authentic South Indian delicacies since 1947.
Best for: the Middle East–meets–Far East vibe, plus hipsters
The laid-back Malay eateries along North Bridge Road give a sleepy village feel to one side of this neighborhood—until you reach the massive Sultan Mosque at the corner of Arab Street. Kampong Glam was once known for its Arab immigrant population, and for almost a century now, it has been the starting point for local Muslims embarking on their hajj pilgrimage.
The area has kept its Middle Eastern flavor, especially along Arab Street with its generations-old shops selling Persian carpets, Ottoman lamps, and textiles. At the adjacent Bussorah Street, alfresco Turkish and Lebanese restaurants compete for diners within earshot of the Sultan Mosque’s evening prayer call. Alaturka, in particular, serves up a mean platter of hummus, koftas, and kebabs. Fifty meters away at the hipster-overrun Haji Lane, traditional stores have been replaced by not-so-traditional vintage clothing shops and retro boutiques. Head over to the street art–encrusted southern end for the requisite selfie—and an ice-cold beer with live music at Blu Jaz Café.
Best for: simple pleasures in a quiet seaside setting
Despite being in an island-nation, Changi Village is the closest thing that Singapore has to a modern seaside community. Come here anytime and you’re bound to find fishermen, campers, and families making good use of the long, quiet shoreline. Taking it easy is by far the most popular activity here; walk over to Changi Beach Park to watch hornbills flutter across trees or hop on a wooden ferryboat for a quick 15-minute ride to Pulau Ubin—the country’s only undeveloped island and a getaway for nature lovers.
You can then retreat to Little Island Brewing Co., at the end of Changi Village Road, for a few pints of craft beer. In addition, the nearby hawker center houses some of Singapore’s favorite nasi lemak coconut rice and ayam penyet fried chicken vendors. To really get away from it all, saunter down the Changi Boardwalk. It’s a pathway of just over a mile that traverses Singapore’s scenic northeastern coast. The Coastal Settlement, a very quirky garden restaurant-bar, awaits at the end of the stroll.
Best for: local color and regional cuisine
This neighborhood is said to be the city’s true downtown, a staunch holdout against gentrification that has infected many other areas. The heritage buildings that line Geylang Road are a mishmash of architectural styles that include pre–World War II Sino Portuguese shophouses, art deco warehouses, and traditional Chinese temples. Geylang Lorong 24a in particular hosts lovely samples of all these.
Start your tour at this picturesque lane, and pay a visit to the Chinese Cultural Shop—a store frozen in time with its 1960s-period merchandise and interiors. Afterwards, stroll down Geylang Road, heading west toward the 24-hour sundry shops, the perpetually busy eating joints, the sex shops, nightclubs, and brothels. You’re just here to soak in the atmosphere, mind you—and to sample the authentic regional food that attracts Singapore’s population of foreign workers. We recommend Gu Thai House for its Thai mookata hot pots, and Absolutely Pho-bulous for its grill-on-demand Vietnamese barbecue.
For more, read Geylang Is Developing a New Reputation as a Foodie Hot Spot.
Best for: a closer look at Singapore’s Peranakan heritage
In the city’s eastern suburb, Katong bears a refined character that has long been associated with Singapore’s Peranakan families. These locally born ethnic Chinese married into the native communities and were known to be wealthy businessmen. This neighborhood was their gentrified enclave in the years before World War II. Today their distinctive fusion culture and social class remains evident in many of Katong’s streets.
This is especially true around Joo Chiat Road, which still has many of the area’s old, ornate mansions. Its corner with Koon Seng Road is said to be Singapore’s prettiest street with its rows of colorful 1920s terraced homes. Two blocks north from here is Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant, a local dining institution since 1953. Sample authentic Peranakan cuisine here, then top it off with a suitable dessert—cakes and ice cream inspired by traditional sweets—at Sinpopo Brand.
The budding café scene will also give you a reason to linger (Homeground Coffee Roasters has great espressos), along with the Katong Antique House—a preserved century-old home that showcases Singapore’s Peranakan heritage.
>>Next: The Best New Hotels in Singapore
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