Five neighborhoods to visit on your next trip to Singapore

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You’ll only need to look around to find pockets of culture that make Singapore worth coming back to. In photo: Haji Lane. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Singapore (CNN Philippines Life, July 28) — The Jewel Changi indoor waterfall is a sight to behold. You know the one: The massive vortex in which a torrent of rainwater falls from its center, surrounded by levels of greenery that makes you forget that you are, in fact, in an airport-slash-mall complex in one of the world’s most expensive cities and not the Aviary in “Jurassic World.” It’s been the subject of many an Instagram story in the past few weeks, and an all-time non-negotiable photo stop for tourists visiting the Lion City, regardless of how many times they’d been there prior.

An April press release from travel platform Agoda said that Singapore is now the second go-to destination for Filipinos ever since travel restrictions to the country were eased. Using data gleaned from their booking platform between May to August, they observed that Singapore moved up from its sixth place position in 2019, knocking Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan off the previous top three spots.

I’d been to Singapore once before, but dismissed the waterfall as a mere tourist attraction, preferring to go straight to and from Terminal 1 to avoid missing my flight. Seeing it in person, I finally understood the appeal. And of course as Filipinos, posting a photo of the 40-meter tall structure is one way we get to declare, “Hey, you! This is what it’s like in a highly developed Southeast Asian country. Sana all.”

When you search the word “Singapore” on TikTok, the top results show 30-second montages featuring the Jewel Changi rain vortex alongside clips of the country’s other tourist landmarks showcasing this “first world” image — of the Merlion and the city’s many hawker centers, of the view atop Marina Bay Sands, and of Universal Studios and Orchard Road’s luxury stores.

All attractions are indeed deserving of all the attention, but there is more to the country than its towering skyscrapers, futuristic architecture, and a very efficient transport system. Singapore’s heritage conservation initiatives make for an interesting case study for seeing how preserving heritage and adapting trends can go together.

You’ll only need to look around to find pockets of culture that make Singapore worth coming back to. Below are five neighborhoods to start with.

A mural by painter Yip Yew Chong depicting a historical scene in Tiong Bahru. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Quaint cafes and unique lifestyle boutiques: Tiong Bahru

Tiong Bahru (translation: “new cemetery”) is a 19th century burial ground-turned residential housing estate in which you can find artisanal cafes, independent lifestyle stores, and trendy restaurants. It’s an ideal area to stroll around, hang out with friends, or even do remote work in.

The neighborhood has been touted as an example of heritage preservation and is lauded for “positive” gentrification (whatever that means).

During my trip, we had a quick lunch at Tiong Bahru Market, a hawker center known for its fried kway teow (rice noodles), chewy kueh (steamed rice cake similar to puto), and Cantonese roast meats, all going for an average price of S$3. Make sure to go early — our tour guide Dino mentioned that the market mainly serves the breakfast and lunch crowd, so stalls usually close shop after they run out of ingredients early in the afternoon. Dino said that like other hawker centers in Singapore, the market’s main customer base are locals and so they weren’t as affected by the lack of tourists. Over the pandemic lockdowns, stall owners survived mainly through deliveries.

Tiong Bahru Market exterior. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Cat Socrates carries books, paper paraphernalia, home decor, and other odds and ends made by a mix of Singaporean and international makers and designers. Photo by GABY GLORIA

After lunch, digest your food with a stroll around the area to appreciate its Art Deco-style buildings, handpainted murals, and lifestyle boutiques. Say hello to Mayo the cat as you browse through Cat Socrates’ collection of books, paper paraphernalia, home decor, and other odds and ends made by a mix of Singaporean and international makers and designers. Drop by independent children’s bookstore Woods in the Books to check out their selection of picture and illustrated books.

Much of the housing in Tiong Bahru has retained the original Art-Deco style architecture of the past. Photo by GABY GLORIA

The Everything Bagel and an iced mocha from Monument Lifestyle. Photo by GABY GLORIA

If you’re hungry after all the walking, grab a snack at Plain Vanilla (known for their assortment of bakes and cupcakes) and Creamery (known for its handmade ice cream and lava cookies). For coffee, check out Monument Lifestyle (try their Everything Bagel paired with an iced coffee and browse through their selection of clothing and lifestyle items while waiting for it to be ready). The famous Tiong Bahru Bakery has French croissants that are well-known around the country.

The colorful shophouses along Koon Seng Road in Joo Chiat. Photo by GABY GLORIA

A taste of Peranakan culture: Katong and Joo Chiat

Singapore is a melting pot of different cultures, with the majority of its population belonging to Chinese, Malay, and Indian descent. The Katong and Joo Chiat neighborhoods used to be residential suburbs inhabited by mixed race citizens: the English-speaking Peranakans and Eurasians, and it is here that you can get a better sense of their culture. Peranakan, meaning “local born” is a word used to describe a person born to a Malay mother and Chinese (likely a trader) father, with males referred to as “Baba” and women referred to as “Nyonya.”

The Kaya toast set, complete with two eggs and a cup of Kopi from Chin Mee Chin Confectionery. Photo by GABY GLORIA

A closer look at the colorful shophouses at Koon Seng Road. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Start your day by having a Kaya toast set, complete with two eggs and a drink (your choice of Kopi or Teh) at Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, a Hainanese-style coffeeshop that’s occupied the same spot in Katong since 1925. It closed down in 2018 but was revived in 2021 and serves the same delicacies it’s always been known for. Afterwards, walk around the area and take in the colorful sights of the preserved shophouse facades. For those hoping for a good photo op backdrop, head to Koon Seng Road for its colorful shophouses. Constructed between the 1840s and 1960s, the building type is prevalent all over Singapore, but ones lined up at Koon Seng Road have become something of a tourist spot, with the houses now residential, with some available to rent. Just be sure to watch out for passing traffic as you take photos, as it is a two-way street.

For lunch, sample traditional Peranakan cuisine from Chilli Padi Nonya, a no-frills neighborhood haunt established in 1997. Recently included in the 2022 Singapore Michelin Guide, the restaurant’s specialties include the Ayam buah keluak, a traditional Peranakan (spicy) dish that uses buah keluak nuts, curry chicken, and chap chye (mixed vegetables).

One of Chilli Padi Nonya's specialties is ayam buah keluak, a traditional Peranakan (spicy) dish that uses buah keluak nuts. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Those keen on dessert can head to the Awfully Chocolate flagship store, where you can pick from their selection of chocolate cakes and pastries. Their hei ice cream, made of Belgian chocolate and 100% Dutch fresh milk was a dream to eat (note: they also serve this in the store’s many branches around Singapore in case you want to go back for more).

A peek at the selection of chocolate cakes at Awfully Chocolate's flagship store. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Shophouses and other trinkets from the Kampong Gelam area. Photos by GABY GLORIA

Independent boutiques and colorful photo ops: Kampong Gelam

For a deeper immersion to the combination of trendy and traditional culture, look no further than the historic district of Kampong Gelam. Here, you’ll find decades-old shops run by generation upon generation of families carrying wares like aromatics and carpets, with a sprinkling of newer boutiques and specialty stores. The majestic Sultan Mosque acts as a major fixture in the area and can be seen from different angles.

A view from Haji Lane at sundown. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Inside Curated Records, where you can purchase classic, mainstream, and indie records. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Kampong Gelam is where the famed Haji Lane is located, the narrowest street in Singapore and an original photo op location because of its many street murals and proximity to various independent boutiques and cafes. Walk along the street and find gems that range from clothing stores to cat cafes and nail art salons. Pick up a special perfume blend (or make your own) at Sifr Aromatics. Further down, you can pay a visit to Curated Records, which has an extensive selection of brand new albums. Prices here are standard for vinyls, but owner Tremon Lim told us that the draw is their selection is always well stocked with a good number of classics, mainstream, and indie records, so you won’t have to worry about not finding something to take home hassle-free. And even if you’re not looking for anything in particular, a quick chat with Lim about music might help you find something.

The first floor of Coconut Club is open air and has al fresco options. Photo by GABY GLORIA

The coconut shake and coconut milk cold brew from Coconut Club go well with their nasi lemak. Photo by GABY GLORIA

For food, you can easily find authentic Malay, Indian, and Middle Eastern restaurants in the area, but if you’re looking for a place for good conversation and great ambience, the Coconut Club flagship is a spot to check out. The place serves a mean nasi lemak and coconut milk cold brew. There are other gelato and milk tea shops around the area, but one of the standouts interior-wise is Bird of Paradise, which recently opened a grab-and-go outlet nearby. Its entrance is flanked with cacti and benches where guests can enjoy their gelato. The brand is known for its unique botanical flavors that take cues from the Southeast Asian palate. Suggested flavors include white chrysanthemum, lychee raspberry, and sea-salt hojicha.

Workers inspect shophouse windows in Chinatown. Photo by GABY GLORIA

More than the hawker centers: Chinatown

Singapore’s Chinatown does not need much explanation and is a better-kept example of old-meets-new. You’ll find the same vintage quality in the shophouse exteriors of the area, but enter any of the restaurants, boutique exercise studios, and cafes in the area and you’ll be surprised how modern their interiors are.

The view from the balcony of Sweetea Caffe in Chinatown. Photo by GABY GLORIA

The main Chinatown complex hosts plenty of hawker stalls to try and stalls to check out for Chinese herbs and wares, as well as cheap clothing and household items, similar to our own Divisoria. Chinatown itself is not lacking in quality restaurants and bars. Take a break from all the walking at Sweetea Caffe, which offers affordable sets for afternoon tea. While the food isn’t as impressive, they make up for it with the balcony view overlooking some of the shophouses. Sit outside for the full teahouse experience, complete with pastries and light treats and your choice of tea.

Potato Head Singapore is housed inside a heritage Keong Saik Road shophouse. Photo by GABY GLORIA

While each floor of Potato Head follows a different restaurant concept, the Rooftop Bar allows you to cross order from the menus of all floors. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Opened in 2014, Potato Head is a multi-concept destination occupying four floors of a heritage Keong Saik Road shophouse, each floor representing a different concept. Originally from Bali, the Singapore branch maintains the original’s out-of-the-box spirit. If you look closely, you’ll see how the building resembles a ship, which is a characteristic that some Singaporean buildings retained from pre-War times. While it can get crowded at peak hours, the Rooftop Bar is the ideal location for sunset drinking. If you’re lucky, you can catch DJ gigs at Studio 1939 on the third floor.

The oolong highball from Native. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Those wanting to do a nightcap can visit the multi-awarded Native in Telok Ayer. They change the cocktail menu regularly, making sure to update it with new finds from their local produce and inspired by Asian flavors. During my visit, we tried the crowd-favorite, aptly named Ants (yes, it had actual, visible ants), and the oolong highball, which owner Vijay Mudaliar explained is inspired by the Japanese salaryman’s bento.

A note on health and safety protocols

Being able to go on a trip outside the country — let alone ride an airplane — feels like a luxury in these times. I spent the week prior to my flight extremely paranoid — keeping my mask on, even during field coverage and at an event with a generous spread of food.

Before the pandemic, I was the type of traveler who would pack mere hours before her flight. If it was already a struggle to remember to pack a toothbrush after dumping everything into my luggage, how much more could I be trusted to carry all the essential medicine? But that was pre-COVID-19, pre-TikTok, and pre-GERD diagnosis. Now, I packed my bags a full day before my flight, securing a haphazardly assembled ziploc of Biogesic, Cetirizine, lozenges, and Gaviscon in one of the luggage pockets. Just in case.

Surprisingly, I didn’t have to use any of it. Around the time of my visit, Singapore had recorded a record 9,985 new COVID-19 cases, with that number fluctuating and eventually spiking to 16,870 new cases by the end of my trip — the highest for their latest wave of the disease. Despite my worries, no one in our group was infected. After consulting other friends who traveled to Singapore in the past month, I narrowed down that it helped that we would eat most of our meals during restaurant off times, or in more secluded areas of the place, and would keep our mask on indoors except when eating. The neighborhoods we visited also have plenty of al fresco dining options. 

As an added precaution, we agreed to do self-tests every other day of our five-day trip for everyone’s safety. You can get a self-test kit for as low as S$4.50 in Watsons, so the additional cost shouldn’t be too pricey. PCR testing is no longer required for fully vaccinated and boosted travelers to enter the country. Re-entering the Philippines, you would need to make sure that you have proof that you have your first round of vaccination and a booster to be able to complete the DOH-required OneHealthPass. Without record of the booster, you would have to get an antigen test from an accredited clinic.

Before booking your ticket, make sure to visit the VisitSingapore portal and our own Bureau of Quarantine website for information on what you need to enter Singapore and the Philippines.

Stay tuned for part two of our Singapore series, which will feature recommended tours and experiences.