Wrap yourself in the heat and humidity of this thriving metropolis – and drill down a little deeper into the distinct neighbourhoods that make it.
Walking along Serangoon Road you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in downtown Chennai, such is the prevalence of Hindu shrines, spice traders and carts selling jasmine garlands, okra and mangoes. Once the centre of employment for Indian workers in the 1820s, Little India is now at its most vibrant on Sundays when workers from India and Pakistan have a day off.
The tastiest curries
The island state marked 54 years of independence in August so a 45-year-old restaurant is a veritable veteran of the local dining scene. The Banana Leaf Apolo serves Indian classics like chicken masala but its speciality is a spice-laden fish head curry.
The busiest spot in town
Built by Bengali labourers in 1881 – and rebuilt during the 1980s – Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road) is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu places of worship. Dedicated to the fearsome goddess Kali, the temple is busiest on Sundays when some 5000 worshippers come to pray.
The quickest sugar fix
During Deepavali and other Indian festivals, queues for one particular food stand snake outside Little India Arcade. At Moghul Sweet Shop (01-16, 48 Serangoon Road; +65 6392 5797) the trays are laden with North Indian treats, such as gulab jamun (deep-fried dough balls) and chocolate burfi (Indian-style fudge) that are worth the wait.
The best vegetarian
Don’t be fooled by its unassuming façade, MTR’s South Indian vegetarian fare is legendary. The first international outpost of Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, which opened in Bangalore in the 1920s, is known for its authentic dosa (rice pancakes), bhath (rice dish) and chandrahara (deep-fried dessert made from flour).
The antique treasure trove
Few people are as passionate about vintage electric fans, lamps and bicycles as Chee Keong Toh. His antiques warehouse, CK Collection (586 Serangoon Road; +65 6293 2301), open by appointment only, is packed with collectors’ items and Chee Keong can tell a story about each one.
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A quick cab ride from Little India is Kampong Glam, the cultural and historic heart of Singapore’s Malay community and home to the Arab Quarter. From the gold-domed Sultan Mosque, the muezzin’s call to prayer washes over the buzzing bars and boutiques of Haji Lane and Arab Street’s ubiquitous hookah cafés.
The most creative cocktails
Tucked away on the second floor of an unmarked building on Haji Lane, Bar Stories is beloved by local punters for its bespoke concoctions. Pull up a stool and let the bartender know your flavour preferences.
The best Turkish kebabs
When he moved to Singapore in 2006, Turkish immigrant Nafiz Bozkurt discovered that his architecture qualifications weren’t recognised. To pay the bills, he took on Alaturka, a Turkish-Mediterranean eatery, despite having no restaurant experience. One decade later, it earned Michelin Bib Gourmand status. Order the classic mixed (karisik) kebab.
The best bar
Although it is technically one block away from the Arab Quarter, you’d be mad to skip the Art Deco-inspired Atlas when you’re this close. Sitting at number eight on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, the opulent lounge is famous for its gin tower of 1100 bottles, some of which date back to the 1910s.
The olfactory wonderland
Evoking a traditional apothecary, independent perfumery Sifr Aromatics is lined with wooden shelves displaying delicate glass bottles of fragrance. Book a session in advance with third-generation perfumer Johari Kazura and create your own bespoke blend or stop by to sample his range of perfumes, colognes, candles and balms.
The souvenirs worth buying
Boutique Supermama stocks everything from orchid-shaped trays and Akoya pearl necklaces to kitsch Lucky Cat keyrings. But husband-and-wife team, Edwin Low and Mei Ling, are best known for their award-winning porcelain plates featuring Singapore icons, such as the Merlion and “supertrees”.
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The need for a Chinatown in a country where the population is three-quarters ethnic Chinese may seem unusual but Singapore puts its own spin on the concept. Where market stalls jostle for space on one street, well-preserved pastel-hued shophouses line another. On South Bridge Road, a Buddhist temple, a mosque and a Hindu temple coexist peacefully.
The best chicken rice
The world’s first hawker stall to be awarded a Michelin star has been rebranded as Hawker Chan, named for its owner Hon Meng Chan. While he now has 18 restaurants in seven countries, the original outlet at Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre still serves the perennial favourite to a growing queue of devotees.
The must-visit speakeasy
A pineapple lamp above the door is the only sign you’ve found Singapore’s iteration of The Old Man (55 Keong Saik Road; +65 6909 5505), the Hong Kong cocktail haunt that tops the 50 Best Bars in Asia list for 2019. The Singapore branch is twice the size of its parent and its curated drinks menu includes ingredients such as beeswax-infused bourbon.
The best movie nights
See a documentary, foreign film or an old favourite at Screening Room. This intimate theatre inside a heritage building can seat up to 20 and movies are free for patrons who spend S$15 (about AU$16) on food and drink. The alfresco rooftop bar is also an ideal spot for a post-film cocktail and critique.
The place to find your zen
A tooth fragment believed to be Buddha’s, which was discovered in Myanmar, inspired the creation of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. Consecrated in 2008, this incense-scented, five-storey complex charts Buddha’s life and teachings and contains the tooth, a cloisonné prayer wheel and rooftop garden.
The coolest night out
With giant pigeons graffitied across a wall and a thumping house-music soundtrack, Neon Pigeon stood out from the crowd when it opened in 2015. Its Japanese share plates and inventive cocktails have made it a mainstay.
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Murals by local artist Yip Yew Chong colour the backstreets of this charming neighbourhood, which is comprised of three-storey Art Deco buildings and is Singapore’s first public housing estate. But the hipster enclave is also renowned for food that spans fine dining, French bakeries and one of the city’s best hawker centres.
The hidden diner
Bincho is a 70-year-old kopitiam (traditional coffee shop) that sells mee pok (Chinese noodles) by day. At night, the front door closes and a secret back door opens to reveal the eatery’s after-dark persona: an intimate yakitori joint. Entry is through the copper-clad bar, where an impressive list of craft cocktails, Japanese beer and sake awaits.
The best hawker centre
At the heart of any neighbourhood in Singapore is its hawker centre and Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre (30 Seng Poh Road) may well be the island’s finest. Check out the fishmongers, egg sellers and florists offering brightly coloured orchids on the ground floor before taking the escalator to the food court upstairs. Some stalls here date back to the 1950s. For the best eats, join the longest queue.
The best bak kut teh
International politicians and actors from Crazy Rich Asians have all pulled up a red plastic chair to slurp peppery Teochew-style bak kut teh (pork rib soup) at Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh (58 Seng Poh Road; +65 6223 3075). Make like a local and order a side of youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) to dip.
The best bookstore
With a book-vending machine and retro Singapore bric-a-brac for sale in the back room, BooksActually redefines “independent bookstore”. The store’s founder, Kenny Leck, is also a champion of Singaporean writers via his publishing house, Math Paper Press.
The island’s finest croissants
Finding a table at Tiong Bahru Bakery can be a feat, such is the popularity of the flagship outlet of the chain by French celebrity baker Gontran Cherrier. One taste of the sublime croissants – or the signature kouign amann, a “butter cake” from Brittany – and you’ll know why.