Raise a Toast
Start early, and know that the sweetest mornings in Singapore begin with toast slathered with coconut-ty kaya and butter slabs. The local chain Toast Box is an institution worth visiting for their superlative kaya. Walk up to Chinatown Point shopping centre outside Chinatown MRT (get a 2-day EZ Link subway card for SG$16/Rs875). At Toast Box order a plate of Hainanese kaya toast (SG$2/Rs110) and a tall glass of cold kopi (Nanyang coffee) (SG$3/Rs165).
Built in 1970, the Brutalist-inspired heritage building of People’s Park Complex is one of Chinatown’s—and Singapore’s—most emblematic structures. Stroll along local brands selling jewellery, electronics, clothes, and Chinese herbs, and slow down near buskers strumming the Chinese violin. The complex has some well-loved thrift stores like New2U and Refash. SG$20/Rs1,095 will get you a sassy, branded jumpsuit, or a couple of trendy blouses.
Around 11 a.m. make your way to historic Pagoda Street, a 7-minute walk away. The opium dens and coolie quarters of the 19th and 20th centuries have been replaced by elegant boutique stores and restaurants. Pick up sets of chopsticks in the jazziest of designs (SG$5/Rs275). See those endless shops with displays of dried meat squares? That’s bak kwa (pork jerky), a salty-sweet delicacy that mustn’t be skipped while in Chinatown. Try some at Kim Tee, a store that uses a 40-year-old recipe and still cooks the meat in charcoal ovens (SG$17/Rs930 for 300 gm). Around noon, treat yourself to cold, craft beer from the array of IPAs, lagers, and pilsners at Smith Street Taps at Chinatown Complex, Singapore’s largest hawker centre (approx. SG$10/Rs550).
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (top left); Kaya toast and kopi (top right); Char kway teow (bottom left); Duxton Hill (bottom right). Photos By: ThamKC/Shutterstock (food); Fedor Selivanov/Shutterstock (temple); Finn stock/Shutterstock (lanterns); anythings/Shutterstock (bowl), Arndale/shutterstock (building)
Chinatown, Past and Present
Spend the best part of the next hour inside the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which lies a minute away, to understand Singapore’s chequered past (SG$18/Rs985). Spread across three repurposed shophouses, the centre poignantly brings to life the original interiors of its tenants from the 1950s, complete with old Chinese crockery and wooden furniture.
No trip to Chinatown is complete without trips to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, whose facade is shaped like a mandala; or to the nearby Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. End this historic pilgrimage at 200-year-old Masjid Jamae on Mosque Street. The best part—it’s all free.
Books and Boutiques
Walk off the lunch with a stroll around nearby Duxton Hill. All you see—the terrace houses, the cobblestone streets lined with palms and boutique stores—was once a nutmeg plantation. Spend the afternoon indoors at the independent bookstore, Littered with Books, and later grab a coffee at Group Therapy, a quaint café inside a restored shophouse. Keep SG$25/Rs1,370 aside for a paperback and a cappuccino.
If it’s Singapore’s national dish, chicken rice, you crave, head to Maxwell Food Centre. Join the longest queue there is, outside Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (SG$5/Rs275), which wins the most votes for serving the best chicken rice on the island. And if it’s char kway teow (rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, cockles, sausage, and pork lard) you’re after, head to Hong Lim Complex and join an even longer queue outside the smoky little stall named called Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee. The uncle will heap your plate for SG$5/Rs275.
Downtown at Dusk
Spend the evening around Singapore’s famed downtown Exit from Raffles Place MRT and check out the iconic Raffles Hotel (some areas are open to visitors), and the string of restaurants along the Singapore River’s waterfront at Boat Quay. Then walk up to the National Gallery, a stately domed museum that celebrates art not from Europe but Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei among other Southeast Asian nations (SG$20/Rs1,095). It’s worth going up to the gallery’s Padang Deck for a spectacular panorama of Singapore’s glittering skyline, overlooking Marina Bay Sands, Esplanade—Theatres by the Bay, and the Padang field that hosted Singapore’s first National Day Parade in 1966 after independence. A minute’s walk from the gallery is National Kitchen by Violet Oon, which serves outstanding Baba Nyonya fare. You can’t go wrong with anything you pick off the menu, be it their buah keluak ayam (a classic Nyonya chicken stew) or udang goreng chilli (prawns tossed in chilli padi and garlic rempah) (approx. SG$55/Rs3,015 for one). Loop back to Chinatown for the night and stay at the centrally located shophouse-hotel, Heritage Collection on Chinatown (hericoll.com, doubles from SG$100/Rs5,480).
Singapore Botanic Gardens (top right); Nasi lemak (bottom right); Gardens by the Bay (left). Photos By: Mati Nitibhon/Shutterstock (gardens), dolphfyn/Shutterstock (rice plate), Matthew Seah (gazebo)
Breakfast for Champions
On your second day, slow down to know Singapore’s greener, older side. Take the MRT to Botanic Gardens, walk six minutes to Adam Road Food Centre and feast on nasi lemak: aromatic rice steamed with coconut milk and served with sambal, egg, anchovies, fish/chicken. Try the dish at Selera Rasa or No.1 Adam’s Nasi Lemak. They’re both memorable for approx. SG$4/Rs220.
Dreams of Green
Spend the morning walking across Singapore Botanic Gardens to feel cocooned from the busy city. Drop by at the National Orchid Garden (SG$5/Rs275) where rare orchids are named after Nelson Mandela, Jackie Chan, and Shah Rukh Khan. Even better, drop by when the gardens are hosting one of their free, open-air concerts, usually performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
A short, two-stop bus ride places you at the heart of Singapore’s shopping precinct, Orchard Road. But before you whip out your wallet, take some time to marvel at the lovely design of Library@Orchard. Then window-shop at ION Orchard, one of the district’s favourite malls, brushing up on the latest trends at Gucci, Kate Spade, and Valentino. Check out 313@Somerset for homegrown labels like The Editor’s Market. Set aside SG$80/Rs4,385 for something you can’t resist this afternoon. For lunch, head to Food Opera at Ion Orchard for a steaming bowl of Li Xin Teochew’s famous fish ball noodles (SG$5.50/Rs300).
Joo Chiat (left); Library@Orchard (bottom right); East Coast Park (top right). Photos By: Katanyu Klamnoi/Shutterstock (library); diyben/Shutterstock (floats); NG ZHENG HUI (man)
Into the Far East
Most streets in the eastern suburb of Joo Chiat are lined by restored Peranakan shophouses that come in the colours of a tiered cake. Take a long walk, stop at any roadside food centre for a chilled glass of bandung (condensed milk flavoured with rose syrup, SG$2/Rs110). Check out The Red House, a fire-engine-red heritage structure that is now home to the Red House Bakery; browse books and magazine by local presses at Cat Socrates; and take a long walk along the East Coast Park beach, watching a seemingly infinite line of ships twinkling at dusk on the horizon. End the day with a humble but unforgettable dinner at the all-night restaurant, Fei Fei Wanton Mee, for the noodle dish whose flavours will linger long after the meal (SG$4/Rs220).
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loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes. She is the former Commissioning Editor of Nat Geo Traveller India.
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