Discovering Singapore

Starting March 24, Singapore shut its doors to tourists and short-term visitors. Work pass holders (like me) are allowed to return to Singapore only if they work in essential service sectors, and must get approval from the government if they do not, which could take months. This is, of course, all in the name of limiting imported infections of the COVID-19 virus.

These precautions mean a huge change in lifestyle for me, and many expatriates in Singapore, who typically take advantage of weekends by jumping on a plane to explore one of the many idyllic locations located a stone’s throw from this tiny island. Instead, weekends these days take on a slower, more restful pace: yoga, brunch, walks along Singapore River, reading books, newspapers and magazines, dinner.

I miss the days of regularly jet-setting to new locations and exploring the beaches, jungles and temples of Asia, yet I also recognize that every situation offers a silver lining. In this case, it’s twofold: I have the opportunity to enjoy the sweetness of slow living and – perhaps more importantly – to explore the city I have called home for the past four years, at last (of course, I am also happy to be healthy and safe amidst the chaos of the world).

Discovering Singapore means consciously making reservations at restaurants I haven’t tried before, renting bicycles to take on new trails by wheel, spending mornings walking through my neighborhood, unplugged and observing, and finally making progress on my Singapore ‘to-visit list.’

I’ve decided to turn my findings into a refreshed version of my more traditional ‘what to do in Singapore‘ list (updated November 2018). I do this hoping it will help residents of Singapore discover a new favorite cocktail bar or trail to hike, and keeping faith that soon visitors will be able to visit this city, and enjoy the beauty and vibrancy of the island that I’ve recently come to discover. All thanks to a global pandemic that has brought my formerly frenetic life on the road to a screeching halt. And for that, I am thankful.

(Note before reading on: locations may be closed or operating on limited hours due to the pandemic, check hours before visiting)

Daytime activities

  • ArtScience Museum. Cool exhibits related to art, science, design, media, architecture, and technology.
  • Asian Civilizations Museum (pictured below). This museum is cool if you want to brush up on your Asian civ knowledge: the exhibits tell the stories of Asian civilizations through its permanent collections. Last year, they housed a collection of couture dresses by Guo Pei, including the famous gown Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala (made famous by its stunning details, and also memes like these).
  • Botanic Gardens. A ‘must visit’, over and over and over again. A beautiful, tranquil tropical garden and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Buddhist temple and museum complex located in the Chinatown, with, yes, one of Buddha’s actual chompers as part of the museum. Worth visiting if you’re in the area or want to experience a bit of temple culture.
  • Bukit Brown Cemetery. One of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China that has spent years overgrowing and being forgetting, giving it an extra spooky vibe. Halloween party 2020…?
  • CHIJMES. A historical convent (previously known for taking in ‘bad luck babies’ left on its doorstep), which is now an upscale shopping center and great spot for lunch.
  • Haw Par Villa. A ‘Buddhist theme park’ that depicts a very graphic and educational journey through the hodgepodge of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism that constitute the traditional fabric of Chinese life. Super bizarre and worth going to if you’re interested in off-the-beaten-track sites.
  • Henderson Waves. The highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore, built to look like a series of undulating waves rising between two public parks. A cool architectural feat (and place for an evening stroll).
  • House of Tan Teng Niah. One of Singapore’s last remaining examples of a historic villa (and one of the most colorful sites in the country!).
  • Japanese Cemetery Park. A seven-acre piece of land housing the graves of prostitutes, soldiers and businessmen. An interesting microcosm of Singapore’s history with Japan.
  • Kampong Lorong Buangkok. Singapore’s last surviving traditional village, which offers a unique view of what Singapore looked like before it became a global financial powerhouse.
  • Katong Antique House. A jam-packed treasure trove of Peranakan antiques, located in a two-storied shop house in Katong.
  • Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery. The largest monastery in Singapore, housing a crematorium, a college, and one of Asia’s largest indoor Buddha statues.
  • Jalan Kubor Cemetery. The oldest Muslim cemetery in Singapore, with a strong royal connection.
  • The Live Tortoise and Turtle Museum. If you have kids or you’re just weirdly into reptiles, this is the place for you.
  • Merlion Park. Swing by to see Singapore’s national icon and a nice view of the marina. Pretty place to walk around and snap photos.
  • Mint Museum of Toys. A collection of over 50,000 toys from 40 countries, spanning most of the 20th century (including Batman, Mickey Mouse, and Dan Dare).
  • National Gallery. Art gallery with the world’s largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art. Worth checking out if you are interested in art, as the permanent collection is beautiful and the rotating exhibits are often quite interesting.
  • National Museum. The nation’s oldest museum, good for learning about the history and culture of Singapore (which is very interesting).
  • Sentosa Island. The boardwalk makes for a nice walk, but if you’re tight on time, go with the monorail or a taxi. If the weather is good, you can go for a short hike or grab a drink and chill for a bit at Tanjong Beach Club or Rumours (a bit less ‘sceney’ than TBC). Check out the brunch spots on Sentosa Cove, too.
  • Singapore Flyer. You’ll get better views of the city at some of the other places I’ve suggested on this lists, but it’s fun for the novelty. Only go if you have extra time.
  • Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Singapore’s flagship orchestra held in the Esplanade Concert Hall.
  • Singapore Turf Club. The oldest existing and only horse racing club in Singapore with world-class racing sports facilities.
  • Soy Sauce Bottles of Sultan Mosque. If you live in Singapore, I bet you didn’t know about this one. A close look at the black rings on the bases the mosque reveal a ring of black soy sauce bottles, sourced from poor Muslim families when the mosque was built. 
  • Southernmost Point of Continental Asia. Geography nerds, unite!
  • St. Joseph’s Church. A Neo-Gothic colossus with a rich architectural history (declared a national monument in 2005).
  • Sri Mariamman Temple. Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple.
  • Umbrella Trees. Looks like Dr. Seuss made a visit to Little India with these colorful, tree-top umbrellas.
  • World’s First Salmon ATMs. Yes, you read that correctly.
Guo Pei on exhibit at the Asian Civilizations Museum

Hiking

  • Bukit Batok Nature Park. Serene and not overly challenging. An ideal place for a peaceful nature walk.
  • Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Short, steep hike, with the tallest natural hill in Singapore (163.8m) and steep slopes. Good for the mind, body, and buns ‘n thighs.
  • Coney Island Park. No, not the site of the famous bustling neighborhood and ferris wheel in New York. In fact, the very opposite: a rustic environment and untouched island near Serangoon.
  • Dairy Farm Nature Park. No cows here, just a legit jungle trekking experience. Most trails, like the Wallace Trail, are a good fit for experienced hikers.
  • Fort Canning Park (pictured below). There are four trails within this park, all of which connect to each other at some point.Take note of the turns you take so that you can explore different routes in future.
  • Labrador Park. The best! Includes a jungle walk, coastal hike, and connection to the Southern Ridges (see below).
  • Little Guilin. A disused quarry turned lake in the middle of a residential district.
  • MacRitchie Nature Trail. Famous for cross-country races and nature trails. Relatively easy hikes, many of which leave you lost deep in the woods (in a good way) and strolling on boardwalks next to calm waters.
  • Macritchie Treetop Walk. Cool and iconic canopy walk over a 250m bridge. Start at the entrance beside Venus Drive and follow directions towards Treetop walk on the Petaling trail. Don’t visit if you’re afraid of heights!
  • The Northern Explorer Loop. A mostly open-air trail (no trudging under jungle trees), this trail takes you through six different park connectors in the North of Singapore.
  • Pulau Ubin’s Puaka Hill. A short, 15-minute yet challenging hike, yet the breathtaking view at the peak makes the climb worth it, with the Granite Quarry and the borders of Malaysia in sight.
  • The Southern Ridges. A trail covering 10 kms of green, open space, connecting Mount Faber Park, Telok Blangah Hill Park, Hort Park, Kent Ridge Park and Labrador Nature Reserve. Why visit one nature park when you can visit five? Start at Start at Marang Trail.
  • Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. A rare wildlife haven in Singapore that makes you feel like you’re in the tropical rainforest. 
Fort Canning Park in River Valley

Restaurants

  • Afterglow by Anglow. Trendy vegetarian on Keong Saik Road. Super tasty food, good-sized portion. Works for lunch or laid-back dinner.
  • Amo. Cozy yet chic, this Italian restaurant seats guests in both a warm and inviting area around an open kitchen, and a botanic-themed backyard.
  • Anything on Amoy Street. Cute and trendy little street of restaurants and bars. Try Birds of a Feather, Fat Pigeon and Ding Dong.
  • Blu Kouzina. Greek in gorgeous Dempsey Hill (one of Singapore’s most hip and quaint neighborhoods, nestled away in lush greenery).
  • Butcher Boy. Trendy and fun vibe, good food, and close to lots of cocktail bars. My pick for a Friday or Saturday night out.
  • Cafe Fernett. Good Italian food and plenty of Aperol. Located on the marina with a divine view of Marina Bay Sands.
  • BoCHINche. The only Argentina cuisine in town, with great ambiance, quality food and service.
  • Camp Kilo Charcoal Club. A roasted meat joint, served in a laid-back outdoor setting with no fuss (think: Bob Marley on the sound system).
  • Candlenut. Modern Peranakan. Beautiful décor and fun vibe. 1 Michelin Star.
  • Cure. Good for a fancy night out. Delicious tasting menu and same owner as Butcher Boy.
  • Dempsey Cookhouse (pictured below). A relaxed yet refined restaurant-and-bar by Michelin chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
  • Dumpling Darlings. Cute little dumpling shop on Amoy Street. Good for lunch.
  • Cicheti. A cozy Italian restaurant situated in a shop house serving wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas.
  • Chopsuey Cafe. Modern gourmet interpretations of Anglo-Chinese cuisine, in an elegantly restored colonial bungalow.
  • Don Ho. Slick décor, inviting interiors and food and drinks that are on point. Good for a night out with the girls, or a date.
  • Fotia. Stylish and lively Greek restaurant on Club Street. Food is 7/10, but the atmosphere is great, and the location is very convenient for grabbing drinks on Club Street afterwards.
  • The Guild. A restaurant-bar focused on small-batch producers of craft beer.
  • JAG. Tasting menu heaven. Native herbs from Savoie in France are flown in and crafted into every dish on the menu. 1 Michelin Star.
  • JAM @ Siri House. Intimate brunch spot in Dempsey, where guests can dine in a luxurious condo owned by one of Bangkok’s super-rich.
  • Jypsy. A casual Japanese restaurant owned by the same folks as PS Cafe. The sushi is good here (get the mackerel or 5 Stones roll), and the vibe is similar to PS Cafe: expansive, home-y and beautiful.
  • Latteria. Mozzarella bar with good Italian food at reasonable prices on Duxton Hill.
  • Leopold. Wine and cheese bar with  sleek modern décor and cozy ambiance in Tanjong Pagar.
  • Luke’s Oyster Bar. Situated at the fringe of the CBD, Luke’s references the cooking repertoire of America’s East Coast (represent!).  
  • Ma Cuisine. A unique French gastro winebar serving ‘food for wine lovers.’
  • The Market Grill. A quaint Telok Ayer diner serving up fresh lobsters and robust grilled meats.
  • Meta. Tasting menu with Asian-infused French cuisine on Keong Saik Road. 1 Michelin Star.
  • Mustard. Best Punjabi and Bengali food in Little India. Period. Good place to take visitors for lunch or dinner if you’re exploring Little India.
  • Real Food. Easy, quick lunch spot with tasty and healthy options. Multiple locations.
  • Nouri. ‘Creative fine dining that crosses cultural boundaries’, with service that’s competent and not too stiff.
  • Rhubarb. A modern French restaurant owned by a British chef and French sommelier. 1 Michelin Star.
  • Salted and Hung. Aussie restaurant with a menu that has a strong focus on in-house curing and grilling.
  • The Ottomani. Sexy supper club with a four-course set dinner that showcases a collection of dishes cooked in traditional Middle Eastern style.
  • Pasta Bar. An Italian restaurant on Keong Saik Road that serves fresh, hand-pulled pastas made daily.
  • Tamarind Hill. My favorite restaurant in Singapore, by far. Opulent décor (an old, colonial black-and-home home), and fantastic Thai food. Best for lunch after a hike at Labrador. Good for dinner as well, but not close to anything.
  • Terra. A ‘Tokyo-Italian fine dining concept’ with 1 Michelin Star.
  • Tuga. A Portuguese restaurant that hails from Taipei, Taiwan, located in beautiful Dempsey Hill.
  • Violet Oon. Great Peranakan. Her Satay Bar and National Kitchen venues are both fantastic. Call ahead to book.
  • *A note on hawker centers: I don’t run the hawker center circuit, so I’m in no position to advise on the best. Seth Lui is someone to trust.
Dempsey Cookhouse in Dempsey Hill

Bars

  • 28 Hong Kong Street (or 28KS). An atmospheric speakeasy with no signage above the non-descript door, no social media presence, etc. Great cocktails.
  • Atlas Bar. Great Art Deco bar near Bugis with the world’s largest gin collection. A sight-to-see, but beware – there’s typically a wait of about an hour.
  • Ce La Vie (pictured below). Rooftop bar on the top of Marina Bay sands. $25 will get you admission to the rooftop, plus one drink.
  • Employees Only. An old-timey, New York-style speakeasy bar on Amoy Street that will take you back to the Prohibition days of the US.
  • The Gibson. A traditional American dive bar that’s eclectic and rustic all at once.
  • Jigger & Pony. Your classic ‘mixology’ spot, with 19th century cocktails served with artisanal craftsmanship and precision. Same owners as the Gibson.
  • Junior the Pocket Bar. A pint-sized bar that changes theme every six months, hidden in the back alleys of Tanjong Pagar.
  • Lantern. Elegant and stylish rooftop bar with fantastic views of the marina and Marina Bay Sands. A must!
  • No. 5 Emerald Hill. Cocktail bar with dangerously good 1-for-1 happy hour. Located on Emerald Hill. FYI – it is always freezing in here, so bring a sweater.
  • The Old Man. An intimate speakeasy with charming service on Keong Saik. Perfect for a cocktail before dinner on KS.
  • Operation Dagger. A subterranean bar bar that’s so hidden there’s no name on the door. You need to be a bit crafty to find this one, but it’s worth it! Great, creative cocktails and service.
  • The Owl Bar. A little jewel in Outram, this bar is housed in a historic building along the Singapore General Hospital, built in the ’20s.
  • Potato Head. A multi-story bar and restaurant, with a tropical rooftop bar with city views on the third level. Can’t go wrong with this pick (on Kiong Seik Road).
  • Salt Grill and Sky Bar. On the pricey side, but the view from outside is one of the best of the city.
  • Smoke & Mirrors. Located atop the National Gallery Singapore, offering spectacular panoramic views of Singapore’s skyline and a creative cocktail program.
  • The Spiffy Dapper. A no-frills, spunky dive-bar on Amoy Street.
  • The Tippling Club. Ultra-progressive gastro-cocktail destination (think: an entire drink menu in the form of 12 edible gummy bears served in a candy bag).
  • White Label Records. A hip record store by day and bar by night, located on Ann Siang Hill.
CÉ LA VI at Marina Bay Sands

Happy trails!

Sam

3 thoughts on “Discovering Singapore

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