I travelled to Singapore for the first time last week thinking I would discover a pleasant but rather dull and artificial city, lacking authenticity and soul. All wrong prejudices. As I walked through different neighborhoods, I was charmed by the city’s well-conserved heritage, the diversity and warmth of its population, its colorful façades, its culture of outdoor dining and gastronomic variety, its lush nature present everywhere from doorsteps to gorgeous gardens and also by its stunning futuristic architecture.
Here are the walks that won me over!
(Restaurants' reco and links in purple in the text)
The colonial district
I started this walk from the iconic Raffles hotel and I was not disappointed especially at this time of the year when the grand palace is all geared up for Christmas. It is worth wandering in the Raffles arcades, the hotel's gifts shop stages beautifully the atmosphere of the colonial era.
I then walked down North Bridge Road and admired the neo-classical façade of the Capitol Theatre across from St Andrews Cathedral. Further west, on Hill Street, the Central Fire Station and the old Police Station (MICA Building) are not to be missed landmarks, glorious heritage from the British era, the latter is an example of successful architectural rehabilitation.
This walk ended at the brand new National Gallery Singapore, another impressive example of architectural rehabilitation featuring Asian Art collections. I suggest you take a lift up to the top floor for a drink with a view over the Padang.
My starting point was Chinatown MRT station. I walked very quickly through the bustling and commercial Chinatown complex and immediately headed towards another bustling site, the gigantic Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. I then walked up the charming Ann Siang Road that gets extremely lively in the evening since most of the traditional Chinese houses have been turned into restaurants and bars. The colorful façades and shutters on Telok Ayer and Amoy streets are gorgeous. These streets host several mosques, Hindu and Taoist temples, offering a good illustration of the peaceful cohabitation of religions in the city.
Further South, I loved our plunge into the Perakanan culture with a delicious and spicy meal at Blue Ginger restaurant.
Kampong Glam and Bugis
Small houses, narrow streets, colorful murals, Arabic restaurants and shops, the golden dome of the Masjid Sultan Mosque, the evocative street names (Sultan Gate, Muscat Street, Baghdad Street, Haji Lane, Arab Street, etc), all of it is an invitation to travel to another part of the globe. I enjoyed visiting the area early in the morning as the neighborhood was slowly awakening up and wasn’t invaded by tourists yet.
The Sultan Mosque and Malay Heritage Center are landmarks to be visited. I liked strolling in the back alleys between the Malay Heritage Center and Jalan Sultan Street, observing local life. The Sultan Hotel (only spotted from outside) seduced me: it looked elegant and charming! It was also pleasant walking under the colorful arcades along Jalan Sultan Street.
South of Rochor Road, I made my way to the famous Bugis district starting from the charming shop houses on Tan Quee Lan Street and Liang Seah Street, again I enjoyed exploring the back alleys where I was greeted warmly by an old man cutting vegetables and cyclo drivers having a rest. It got incredibly busy as I approached Sri Krishnan Temple and Kwam Im Tong Hood Cho Temple and it became uneasy to find a way through the fortune tellers, the incent and flowers’ sellers, people praying and presenting their offerings to both temples!
Little India and Jin Besar
For the Indian lover I am, wandering in the lively streets of Little India was a treat! I started from the bustling Tekka center where I stocked up on colorful bangles and indulged myself with a mouth-watering south Indian dosa at one of the hawkers’ stands. I then decided not to follow any map and to simply stroll around the narrow and colorful streets (Campbell, Dunlop, Dickson, Upper Weld Streets), guided exclusively by my senses: following curry fragrances, incense’s smoke coming out from temples, beats of Bollywood’ tunes and colorful saris. Little India is not just another tourists’ attraction; it is a local ethnic neighborhood that will transport you to another part of the world.
Following the recommendations of the Lonely Planet (10th English edition, p 90), I pushed up my exploration to the Jalan Besar area where the architecture is a mix of lovely old shop houses from the 1920’s and industrial buildings going through a rehabilitation phase, now home to an upcoming community of foodistas and barristas. I found an engaging list of restaurants and cafés which unfortunately I had no time to try: https://www.misstamchiak.com/food-guide-lavender-jalan-besar/
I had a taxi dropping me at the Tiong Bahru market and from there started the most attractive neighbourhood exploration. The market is an enchantment for the eyes as the stands are esthetically laid-out, it is also a warm place where a mix of local and expat people shop and chat in the friendliest ways.
As I walked through the neighborhood, home to the first public housing estate in Singapore, I was amazed by the esthetics and harmony of the art-deco buildings. My camera was magnetized by all the gorgeous white façades, elegant palm trees and poetic flower compositions at each doorstep. Many buildings have an arched ground floor hosting restaurants and cafés, a mix of trendy cafés-bakeries and local eateries: make sure to stop at one of them (I had a yummy breakfast at the French Tiong Bahru Bakery and would have loved having a second one at Plain Vanilla Bakery)!
There are many attractive shops: I particularly enjoyed the children's bookstore, Woods in the Books, and its neighboring bookshop, BooksActually. That is one neighborhood that made me want to settle in Singapore and open my own independent bookstore!
Orchard Road and Emerald Hill
I am not a shopping addict and particularly dislike malls still a visit to Singapore is not complete without a stroll on bustling Orchard Road especially during this Christmas season when all malls compete for the most outrageous decorations. I regret I did not see it by night, as the lighting should be fascinating.
What I actually liked best was my unplanned detour into Emerald hill: it offers the most stunning overview of the Perakanan style with astonishing Chinese Baroque Mansions. The contrast between the glass and metal malls and these fine heritage-villas found in a nutshell is so representative of Singapore's double-face: it has done so much to be on the edge of architectural development together with preserving its heritage.
The Botanical Gardens and Dempsey hill
My walk at sunset in the Botanical gardens was truly magical. The sunlight was playing into the leaves of the gigantic trees, embracing in a soft gaze the groups picnicking on the immaculate lawns. I loved getting lost in the different corners of the huge gardens, changing atmosphere from the mysterious rainforest, to the blossoming lotus pond and the very European Swan Lake. These lush gardens offer the most soothing and relaxing experience in the heart of the city. I am only sorry I missed the Orchids’ Garden (last entry at 6 pm).
This walk was followed by a candlelight dinner on the terrace of PS café at Dempsey Hill, an attractive tropical oasis, serving tasty international food.
Marina Bay and The Quays
I enjoyed discovering this area by night (starting point: the Esplanade Theatres), walking in this futuristic décor where one can’t help wondering if it is still on Earth or out on another planet. There is a light show around 8 pm at the foot of the massive Marina Bay Sands. Night is also a good time to visit the nearby Gardens by the Bay (special lighting for Christmas). The promenade around the Marina is busy with tourists, joggers, cyclists, yogis, still it is so large that it never felt crowded. Have a drink (and rest) with a view at the Lantern Rooftop bar (Fullerton Bay Hotel).
Once at the iconic Fullerton Hotel, I walked along the Southern quay of the Singapore River. The buildings on the North bank are beautifully-lit offering an enchanting view. Old shop houses turned into bars and restaurants border the Southern-quay making this walk a very lively one.