Singapore’s infamous alternative theme park, Haw Par Villa, was once a popular leisure park modeled after all manner of Chinese folklore. However, it fell into a state of disrepair after the late 90s, when visitor numbers were too low to keep Haw Par Villa running in the black.
Haw Par Villa’s most famous attraction is its Ten Courts of Hell exhibit, meant to show children the consequences of a life of evil misdeeds. Foreign visitors are usually creeped out by the garish statues and dioramas, as well as the shockingly oppressive Confucian values they’re supposed to impart. Luckily, you can’t get in (or they can’t get out…) after dark.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the city from The Pinnacle@Duxton
Marina Bay might be one of the most popular places to visit in Singapore, but I’m not forking out $350 just to get an “Insta-worthy” photo of myself in the infinity pool. The Pinnacle@Duxton costs only 1% of the price of a room at MBS: $3.50!
The Pinnacle @Duxton is an iconic public housing development in Singapore comprising seven 50-storey apartment blocks connected by two sky gardens. The upper garden on the 50th level is open to the public for just S$5; all you need to do is register at the security office with an EZ-Link card, and you’ll be able to enjoy views of Chinatown, Keppel Bay, and parts of the city for as long as you want!
Stroll around the retro-hip neighborhood of Tiong Bahru
Unlike most of the residential areas in Singapore, Tiong Bahru is where clusters of old, low-rise apartments line meandering streets – and where the back alleys are backdrops for Instagram shoots.
Bookstores are one of my favorite alternative attractions wherever I travel. Local independent bookstores are filled with character, and BooksActually is no exception. Stashed away in a quiet corner of the estate, you’ll find BooksActually (and its three purr-pietors). The bookstore sells works by local writers and artists; I highly recommend anything by local poet Cyril Wong.
Street art is hard to find in Singapore, since it has to be officially sanctioned, but the Little India heritage district is home to more than 16 eye-popping murals and art installations by local artists.
You can follow two different street art trails here and here, or venture out on your own. Be warned, however: you may find yourself stuck in Little India for longer than expected when you come across all the Indian restaurants, sari shops, henna painters, and if you’re really lucky, a parrot astrologer.
Things to do in Singapore: unique activities and tours
Go beyond Marina Bay and other tourist spots, and you’ll find plenty of options for immersing yourself in tropical greenery or local culture. These suggestions are more suitable for adults so if you’re looking for family-friendly ideas, A Winter Escape has this great Singapore itinerary with kids.
Walk the Southern Ridges trail, above roads and amid forests
The Southern Ridges is my favorite nature trail in Singapore because it’s more than just a nature trail – there’s plenty of history, art, and good food along the way! The 10km long trail spans several parks along Singapore’s southwestern edge, all the way from Kent Ridge Park (near Haw Par Villa) to Mount Faber (near Sentosa Island).
You can download this official PDF guide filled with useful info on the Southern Ridges. Insider tips:
If you like art, make a detour to Gillman Barracks (opposite HortPark) to check out the art galleries and cool down at Creamier – one of my favorite ice cream shops!
Walk in the opposite direction towards Harbourfront instead. This way, you can take a cable car to Sentosa, grab some hawker grub at Seah Im Food Centre (right above Harbourfront MRT station), or cross over to Vivocity mall to enjoy the air-conditioning and boardwalk.
Once a granite quarrying site, Pulau Ubin (Malay for “Granite Island”) is now one of the last rural and natural retreats to be found in Singapore. Thankfully, the island’s heritage and ecology are still being preserved.
You can find check out things to do in Pulau Ubin and how to get there on these websites: National Parks and Wild Singapore. I recommend this guided kayaking tour around lush mangrove habitats – it’ll definitely change your impression of Singapore.
Learn about Peranakan heritage and culture
Known as Babas (men) and Nonyas (women), the Peranakan people are descendants of 15th-16th century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago and Straits of Malacca. Many Peranakan families in Singapore settled in the neighborhoods of Katong and Joo Chiat, painting their shophouse homes in unabashed hues.
To explore this area, I recommend this 3.5-hour guided Peranakan cultural tour that explains the history of the Joo Chiat area, takes you into a traditional shophouse where you can find traditional Peranakan craft souvenirs, and includes a dinner of richly flavored Straits Chinese dishes.
Make your own pottery using a traditional Chinese dragon kiln
A dragon kiln (龍窯/龙窑) is a long, thin, sloped kiln which originated in China, designed to reach extremely high temperatures for firing stoneware and porcelain. Here in Singapore, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is the last pottery studio in Singapore possessing a dragon kiln.
Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is not easily accessible by public transport in Singapore, but joining one of their pottery workshops is truly one of the more unique things to do in Singapore as you surround yourself with creative Singaporeans – still considered deviants in a city of meticulously groomed places and people.
Discover Singapore’s haunted horrors…
Talk to Singaporeans about ghosts, and you might find yourself spellbound for hours by the tales of pontianaks (female vampires), Japanese soldiers, and demonic possessions. After all, our multicultural, multi-religious society is fodder for great spine-tingling tales and superstitions.
Combine this with the fact that behind all the shiny buildings, there are lots of hidden and abandoned sites with forgotten histories. If you’re looking to do some urbex in Singapore, get in touch with the Urban Explorers of Singapore – they’ve got incredible knowledge of all the secret spots, many of which come and go with the rapid pace of demolition and redevelopment in Singapore.
Tour a Singapore gin distillery
Singapore has long been known for producing Tiger Beer, but gin lovers like me certainly sat up when local gins suddenly appeared in 2018. There are two gin makers in Singapore – Tanglin Gin and Brass Lion Distillery – but only the latter offers a tour of its standalone distillery.
At the Brass Lion Distillery tour, you’ll learn about the selection of local botanicals used in Brass Lion’s gins, as well as the story behind all the years it took for this sweet gin dream to come true. Of course, you’ll get to round off the tour with a flight of their gins!
Find more unique tours in Singapore
Still looking for more unusual things to do in Singapore? Try these:
Cop style finds and creative cocktails at Haji Lane
In contrast to the mega-malls lining Orchard Road and the downtown district, Haji lane’s shophouse boutiques and cafés invite you to explore the works of local designers and creators at your own pace. You may even find limited edition vintage and contemporary fashion, accessories, jewelry, and even furniture.
In the evening, head up to Bar Stories, where your tastes, personality, and conversations are crafted into bespoke cocktails that perfectly match your mood.
Get cool, unique Singapore souvenirs at design stores
Singapore’s multicultural society and status as a key trading port makes it uniquely creative, and you can find lots of cool items to take home as souvenirs. My favorites are Supermama, Naiise, and The Farm Store; all have boutiques in Singapore’s downtown region.
Accommodation: unique hotels and hostels in Singapore
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The Warehouse Hotel ($$$)
This beautifully restored boutique hotel somehow manages to convey the history of its Robertson Quay location (a bustling and, at some point, seedy neighborhood) even as it possesses that quiet, upmarket elegance reflecting the riverside area’s modern-day vibe. Learn more/book here or here.
Lloyd’s Inn ($$)
Lloyd’s Inn is my kind of introvert’s haven. The zen atmosphere of its rooms and shared areas, with foliage pretty much the only daub of color, is a welcome respite from the sensory overload of nearby Orchard Road.
MET A Space Pod ($)
This utterly cool space-themed capsule hostel doesn’t just look futuristic – each pod boasts a personal safe, controllable lights and air-conditioning, TV with a selection of movies, and folding lap desk. MET A Space Pod has branches in Boat Quay, Chinatown, and Little India.
I hope this alternative guide to Singapore will inspire you to immerse yourself in our local way of life. Have you tried any other unique things to do in Singapore?