Think Singapore is just another urban concrete jungle? In this guide from the lens of a fellow Singaporean, you can find a list of establishments in Singapore, from parks to bars, that gives it “that little more soul”.
2 February 2021 / By Nicole Huang
I’m quite lucky to call Singapore home. It didn’t always feel this way, but having returned home after Uni in Australia and a work stint in New York City, I’ve began to appreciate Singapore a lot more with all its quirks and “Singaporeanisms”. And now I experience it through the lens of a parent, scouting for nice spots to immerse in nature with the kids, and then you realise how it’s not such a concrete jungle after all. This list will never be complete – and is just a starting point. It doesn’t contain any information on malls (because I generally try to avoid them unless I need something specific), but instead, highlight some of the spots and independent establishments/small businesses that give Singapore that little more soul. And if you chance upon this, I hope it helps in your exploration, and do let me know if you end up checking any of these (and I’ll definitely love to know if you’ve any good tips to share too).
Parks & Nature
In recent years, NParks did a really nice job creating a number of Nature Playgardens specifically designed for kids, such as the one at Hort Park and at Jurong Lake Garden, as well as introduced a lot of cycling network paths all over the country. The NParks website is a great resource for more info, and a few of my favourites are below:
Singapore Botanical Gardens: Perfect for walks, runs, picnics, especially in the early mornings or evenings. It gets crowded especially during the weekend, but most of the crowd tend to be around the Symphony Lake area, and if you head further out to the other side of the park closer to the Circle Line, there are plenty of open spaces there for everyone. The Jacob Ballas Children Garden is lovely, but does get crowded. Plenty of F&B options all around.
East Coast Park: A long stretch with a cycling path that stretches from Changi through to the Central Business District. I generally recommend cycling along the scenic Eastern Coastal Route, and you can also do an extension and cycle all the way to Changi. There are plenty of pitstops along the way at East Coast Park, don’t forget to stop for a coconut at the East Coast Lagoon Hawker Centre, or have a drink/picnic at the generous grassy lawn patch at Aloha Beach Bar while the sun sets – it’s one of our family favourites.
Hort Park: In the vicinity of Labrador Park is Hort Park. It’s doesn’t seem to get too busy here which is great. Check out the nature playground, NParks did a wonderful job with this space. Early mornings or evenings are your best bet as there’s little shade/canopy since the park only opened in 2019 or so and many trees are still quite young.
MacRitchie Reservoir: Also known as Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Nice for a tropical jungle run (one jungle loop around the reservoir is around 10km, or you can also run all the way to Bukit Timah Hill if that’s your thing), and kayaking is also available. If you’re with the kids, it’s great for a walk in the early morning or evenings and there’s a small climbing playground near the entrance. Close to the zigzag bridge, there’s often turtles (kids love sighting this), or if you’re along the boardwalk, you might be lucky enough to see a monitor lizard or two. Love the treetop walk as well, this park is one of our favourites!
Fort Canning Park: Right smacked in the city centre and makes for a nice historical walk. Major plus: The Jubilee Playground (near the Fort Canning Station) is fairly new and quite nice – big hit with the kids.
Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: Quite a bit of a trek to the area for most people but that means less people. It’s nice to visit in the early morning and there might also be the occasional crocodile spotting, and lots of interesting birds/wildlife to spot. While you’re in the hood, make a visit to Bollywood Veggies and walk around their vast vegetable garden, and hop over to Hays Dairies to see some goats, somewhat of a rarity in urban Singapore.
Dairy Farm Nature Reserve / Chestnut Nature Park / Bukit Timah Hill / Hindhede Nature Park: These are all in the same vicinity in the western part of Singapore, surrounding Bukit Timah Hill. Check them all out! At Dairy Farm Nature Reserve, there’s a Wallace Education Centre which has an informative exhibition on the history of the area.
Jurong Lake Garden: Huge garden that (re)opened in 2019 but often crowded. Plenty of play spaces and forest ramble for the kids.
Tampines Eco Green: Big open grassland in the eastern part of Singapore. Nice for nature walks with kids.
Homegrown Brands – Lifestyle
MATTER: Probably the most comfortable pants I have so far. I like and appreciate their philosophy of being inspired by tradition, sourcing heritage prints and styles, and reinterpreting them for the modern nomad. As of mid-2020, the business is on an indefinite hiatus, but check out their website/IG for their past work, as it’s truly a brand well-built and clothes well-made.
MUDROCK Ceramics: Absolutely gorgeous looking hand-made homeware (they also supply to a number of restaurants/cafes). Great pottery courses to boot. Follow them on IG!
SUPERMAMA: Designed in Singapore, made in Japan. Beautiful homewares (made of ceramics) that often included symbols of Singapore. Flagship store is at Beach Road.
NAIISE: If you are looking for unique and tastefully designed Singapore souvenirs (that aren’t too expensive), you should check them out. They’ve got a great selection of lifestyle products, which makes for great non-kitschy gifts.
Rocket Eyewear: Prior to this I’ve not had a pair of sunglasses that I REALLY liked, until I found Rocket!
Our Second Nature: Very beautiful prints for adults and kids.
Elizabeth Little: Hand-sewn apparels using Liberty Prints for both adults and kids.
Homegrown Brands – Bookshops
I used to work at Borders for a year before going to uni and it was one of the best work experience. I love the smell of books. While lots of the big players have all gone out of business (Borders, Times, MPH), the smaller independent bookshops that has so much more heart and soul are the ones we should be supporting. Knowing how hard it is to survive in the print business, all the more we should support small businesses like that who dared to create a space for the community to enjoy.
BooksActually: This 100% local independent bookshop is a labour of love and is well-stocked with local literature and other trinkets (and of course a wide range of international literary selection). Once an institution at Tiong Bahru, they’ve now moved fully online, and their team operates out of 44 Upper Weld Road (near Little India).
Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop: Located at the side of the URA building, this bookshop stocks titles related to Singapore (but not necessarily just by Singapore authors). Love visiting there whenever I need to grab a book on Singapore as a gift for someone.
Grassroots Books: This cosy bookshop stocks predominantly Chinese books but also has a small selection of English books. I love their selection for kids. Nice place to browse and have a coffee at the back of the bookshop.
Littered with Books: This is just 5-min from Grassroots Books and has a wide variety of books spanned over two floors.
Hook on Books: Located along River Valley Road, I love the customer service here at this predominantly Chinese bookstore for kids and the art and craft table.
The Moon: An independent bookshop with a focus on writers and artists of colour.
Library@Orchard: is an oasis in the middle of Orchard Road. Not your typical tourist spot, but well-worth a visit if you like books, or appreciates good design. In fact, if you have kids, I think we have some of the best libraries for the little ones. Sassymama wrote a good article on that here.
Arts & Culture
Way more than I can summarise here but here’s a few which I really like. Most of the museums are great to visit with kids as they have often have areas/activities designed for kids.
National Museum of Singapore: The grand dame. It is a beautiful building with permanent exhibits of Singapore heritage and history. I love looking up at the dome the moment you step in to the building 🙂 It also links to Fort Canning Park on the 3rd floor, which makes for a nice side trip.
National Gallery: It’s a gorgeous building, previously home to the Supreme Court. Very nicely restored and has a number of good restaurants and an awesome area just for the kids. ALL-TIME FAVOURITE.
Objectifs: If you enjoy photography and film, check this place out. They also have a store that sells books and films by local artists, and often holds exhibitions and talks/workshops.
Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall: This was the original home for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra before Esplanade and is my preferred venue (over Esplanade) for classical music concerts because it’s just so much more intimate and the heritage building itself is a good reason to visit. You can get tickets for concerts that are held there via the Singapore Symphony Orchestra website.
The Projector: An independent cinema situated at Golden Mile Tower, don’t be fooled by the state of the building. Awesome place for people who enjoy a bit of your non-Hollywood blockbusters. Singapore needs more places like this.
Barely scratching the surface here, but here’s a few to start with:
Jigger & Pony: Great team, great service, great tapioca chips and great cocktails.
Live Twice: A bar ‘inspired by mid-century Japan’, and by the same Jigger & Pony team, which could only means great ambience and service.
Le Bon Funk: Great spot for an after-work/after-dinner drinks, and the open kitchen looks like it serves up pretty decent food options too. I love their branding and all their ceramic wares.
Kafe UTU: African-inspired bar in the hip Keong Siak area. Head to the rooftop for a sunset drink. Very interesting cocktail menu.
LOOF: One of the original rooftop bars in Singapore, overlooking Raffles Hotel. The chili crab mantou (buns) are delicious.
It’s somewhat impossible to list down all our favourite places but here’s a starting point:
The best way to try local food, is to head to a hawker centre or a kopitiam, the heart and soul of Singapore’s heartland. Tiong Bahru Market is a great starting point for a wide array of local food. Visit Chomp Chomp in Serangoon in the evening for the best BBQ stingray (as well as a good selection of local fare). Jumbo for the chili crabs (I like the outlet at East Coast for the sea breeze and sea views). And my latest obsession – The Coconut Club which serves up awesome nasi lemak and the best chendol I’ve ever had.
Over at Joo Chiat, One Kind House offers a private-dining experience at a shophouse helmed by Mummy Soh, super fun and excellent food if you can grab a group of friends to go along. Not forgetting the Violet Oon restaurants which have mouth-watering Peranakan dishes. 2 other small businesses that produce excellent spices/pastes are: Anthony the Spice Maker and 2 Mamas and a Wok. Check them out on IG!
Sushi: Tomi Sushi is our go-to for a regular sushi meal that has excellent quality and doesn’t burn a hole in the pocket. Others that we really like are: Kuro Maguro (more of rice bowls), Yuzu, Sushi Mitsuya. The Flying Squirrel is a hidden sushi bar along Amoy Street, always good times there.
Ramen: Most ramen places serve up a decent bowl of ramen (something which I can’t find in Switzerland). Check out Ramen Bar Suzuki, Ramen Keisuke, Ippudo, Afuri Ramen, Sanpoutei Ramen, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Uma Uma Ramen, and probably a dozen more.
Grills / Izakayas / Sake Bars: Yazawa Yakiniku is my favourite Japanese grill place. Bit pricey, but excellent meat. Cuppage Plaza has a number of good Japanese izakayas as well, bit of a unimpressive building but some good restaurants in there. Also MoboMoga comes highly recommended and is high on my list.
All-round good Japanese food: Suju has really good Japanese food with a focus on miso. Jypsy isn’t really a Japanese restaurant but its Japanese-inspired menu by the folks at P.S. Cafe is delectable. Beautifully done interiors to boot. Ishinomaki Grill & Sake – great lunch deals.
OTHER ASIAN CUISINES
Ding Tai Fung (Taiwanese): Everyone should try this at least once. Consistently good quality and service. To-die-for xiao long bas.
Basil (Thai): I love Thai food but have not found a really authentic one since the chef left at my favourite spot at East Coast. Basil serves up a decent Thai fare though and decent prices.
Colombo (Indian & Sri Lankan): I actually don’t enjoy the Boat Quay stretch that much but this particular restaurant is situated right at the top of one of the shophouses on the 5th floor and comes with a beautiful view of the skyline at night.
Annalakshimi (Indian vegetarian): Delicious Indian vegetarian meals and you pay what you think the meal is worth.
Home Bar & Kitchen (Indonesian): I love love love this place for the Indonesian food, and the friendly service. It’s located near Little India, and has a really nice homely vibe. The sambal is soo good.
Mak’s Noodles: Of Hong Kong fame.
Camp Kilo: Located near the Kallang Riverside is one of my absolute favourite joints in Singapore. It’s so casual, always play good music, has delicious grilled meats (and seafood and vegetables), and some seriously good vibes. (Looks like they’ve shut down….look up RAW Kitchen Bar instead).
Burnt Ends: Bit heavier on the wallet but excellent meats.
Bistecca: Known for steaks, but has equally good options for non-steak eaters. I personally love the long shophouse layout.
Cicheti: I have good memories of good meals and conversations and Cicheti (Kandahar St), and the pasta bar at Keong Siak (Bar Cicheti) looks promising too.
Casa Rustico: A random find and surprisingly good.
Firebake: That angel hair prawn dish is super unami. They have fresh bread daily(-ish) from their huge oven and of course, Katong is a great neighbourhood to explore.
Cafes / Bakeries
The cafe scene is burgeoning. Too many to mention but here’s a few to start..
Punch, Bundt at Havelock (not so much of a sit-down cafe, but great sandwiches, and to-die-for brownies), Mellower Coffee, Glasshouse, Hvala, Baker & Cook Dempsey (bonus points for having an outdoor playground for the kids), Chye Seng Huat Hardware.
So, over to you, what’s your favourites?
This article was first published on WhiteRiceCulture. WhiteRiceCulture is a journal and a visual archive by Nicole Huang, where she explores and document perspectives around travel, culture and sustainability.
About Nicole Huang
Nicole Huang is a Singaporean based in Basel with a background in digital marketing, and is currently studying to learn more about corporate sustainability. She enjoys documenting perspectives on travel and culture, and is inspired by people who (and businesses that) value authenticity, provenance and sustainability. Her recent side project “No More Mondays” explores people’s aspirations beyond the 9-5 and seeks to share diverse perspectives on what it means to find meaning through the work we do.
Learn more at http://www.whitericeculture.com or connect with Nicole on Instagram @whitericeculture.