Published Date: 25 Aug 2017
Tucked away in its culturally-rich neighbourhoods, some of the island's best-kept secrets entice true explorers
Singapore is a destination with incredible depth and breadth of discovery, offering visitors infinite possibilities to experience the country. What’s truly valued amongst explorers are the authentic connections with locals and cultures, as well as new, not-to-be-missed activities. A walk around these vibrant heritage precincts will lead visitors to some great finds and unforgettable hidden gems with a story to tell.
Best for culture vultures and those on the hunt for local bites
Joo Chiat is a district known for its multi-cultural heritage. In the early 20th century, Peranakan (Straits-born people of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage) and Eurasian communities moved into Joo Chiat alongside the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities. Today, Joo Chiat’s multi-ethnic influences are most evident in its architecture and dining options. In the same vicinity is Katong, an area formerly located by the sea before land was reclaimed to the current East Coast Park.
While Joo Chiat and Katong are famous for local dishes such as laksa (spicy, coconut milk-based noodle dish) and Peranakan cuisine, it has other gems. Keeping traditional methods alive is Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah, which is run by the Quek family. This famous Joo Chiat popiah (fresh spring rolls) skin maker adheres to its tried-and-tested method of making its special popiah dough—by hand—based on a closely guarded generations-old recipe.
Visitors should also step into The Intan, a private museum that exhibits Peranakan artefacts from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China and England within a modern home setting. This under-the-radar museum is only open by appointment and visitors are personally hosted by owner, Alvin Yapp, who started out collecting old Peranakan antiques when he was just 15, and eventually launched The Intan to showcase his collections.
Not to be missed as well are the rows of eye catching, restored heritage shophouses with Peranakan influences that fill the neighbourhood. An iconic, photo-worthy sight, these unique, colourful pre-war structures along Joo Chiat Road feature ornate facades, intricate motifs, and gorgeous ceramic tiles in assorted patterns.
Best for families, café-hoppers, and those with an eye for design
One of the oldest housing estates in Singapore, Tiong Bahru is now a cultural hotbed for the island's young and hip. Built in the 1930s, the neighbourhood has a look that sets it apart: low-rise buildings featuring a Streamline Moderne-Art Deco architectural style.
While checking out different indie stores in the neighbourhood, like BooksActually, which features a specially curated collection of books, many by local and Asian writers and artistes. Visitors can spot the colourful murals by local artist Yip Yew Chong, who turned his passion for art and photography into reality by creating murals such as ‘Pasar and the Fortune Teller’ and ‘Bird Singing Corner’, outside of his day job as an accountant. These murals depict scenes of old Tiong Bahru—giving visitors an illustrated idea of what the precinct used to look like and scenes from the past.
For families with young kids, there is the Tiong Bahru Park Adventure Playground—one of the few remaining playgrounds with a large sandpit. There is also a new retro-inspired playground at Tiong Bahru Plaza, which has given its swings a modern touch, but retained the feel of an old-school playground with a sparrow-shaped tile structure as its centrepiece.
Travellers can also experience Singapore's famous hawker culture at the recently refurbished Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre, which is known for the wide variety of local delights available. The revamped hawker centre on the second floor now has seven high-volume low-speed fans, six LCD screens, and retractable sun shades—these new features deliver a more comfortable dining experience for visitors. Tables designated for the elderly and people with disabilities have chairs that can be moved to make way for wheelchairs.
Best for hipster-type millennials who want a little bit of everything
Officially named in the 1880s, "Jalan Besar" translates to "big road" in Malay. Jalan Besar began as a track through a nipah and betel nut plantation. It was eventually developed into a major road, along which communities lived and worked. As one of the oldest roads in Singapore, Jalan Besar has been gazetted as a conserved area to preserve and enhance its heritage.
In recent years, Jalan Besar and the streets around it have become a hip enclave with a growing number of independent boutiques, swish restaurants, and modern coffee houses. Explorers can experiment with their creative side through craft workshops at The Refinery, which are run by The General Company (read more about them
Tucked away along Jalan Besar is Petain Road and its picturesque shophouses that are little known even to locals. These feature facades decorated with beautiful imported European and Japanese tiles and plaster reliefs of birds, flowers, and other motifs. This is an ideal pitstop for Instagram lovers and photographers.