Orchard Road, Marina Bay, and Bugis are all lovely areas to visit if you’re a first-time visitor or on a layover, but what if you’ve already covered it all? Aside from finding more unique things to do in Singapore, here’s another urban adventure you can try: Explore our residential areas.
Going around local Singapore neighborhoods may not seem like a worthwhile activity, but I can promise you that these neighborhoods below will reveal a very different side of the city. Not the glittering, Crazy Rich Asians Singapore our tourism board loves to portray, but the everyday Singapore with quirky practices, cheap tasty food, and maybe even a primer on local politics.
1. Tiong Bahru
Built in the 1930s, Tiong Bahru Estate is one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore. The flats (apartment buildings) are unique in their architecture – low-rise buildings with curved facades, spiral staircases, and ground-level units, a contrast from the skyscrapers and all the other high-rise plebeian flats. In recent years, the place has become home to unique shops like independent bookstore BooksActually, specialty cafes, and design miscellanies that sit among decades-old establishments, making for a tranquil getaway from the chain retailers and malls.
Walking along Geylang Road with its colorful shophouses, you’ll realize that the area is famous for two things: durians and prostitutes. However, the red light district is restricted only to certain “lorongs” or lanes in Geylang and many locals frequent the neighborhood for its good food such as beef noodles and frog porridge (and durians, of course). Bird sellers, antique stores, and Chinese clan associations cater to the older wartime generation of Singaporeans.
Named after Queen Elizabeth II to mark her coronation in 1952, Queenstown was developed from swampy kampongs and rubber plantations into Singapore’s very first satellite town. Today, this old residential area known for its unique architectural landmarks, including one-of-a-kind public housing apartment blocks.
Queenstown was also home to the Queenstown Remand Prison, which has since been demolished.
Explore Queenstown, Holland Village, and more Singapore neighborhoods! Join these free heritage tours by My Community, a local nonprofit helping to preserve Singapore’s community heritage.
4. Holland Village
Named after architect Hugh Holland, this enclave of shophouses is often crowded with expats living in the surrounding private condominiums, as well as locals looking for a place to chill out. The village is filled with pubs offering live music and live football telecasts, and restaurants serving a world of cuisine – Chinese, Indian, Italian. Japanese, Korean, Lebanese, Mexican, Mediterranean, Thai, Vietnamese…you get the drift. The quirky old Holland Village Shopping Centre also houses a bevy of nail salons and Southeast Asian art/craft stores.
5. Bukit Timah
Malay for “tin hill”, the Bukit Timah district is named after the highest point in Singapore and is one of the most expensive neighborhoods to live in. With much of the island covered in concrete, many enjoy visiting the hill and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve for some fresh air and a change of scenery. Bukit Timah was also Singapore’s last stand against the Japanese during World War II and worth visiting is the Old Ford Factory along Upper Bukit Timah.
6. Toa Payoh
Compared to the other neighborhoods above, Toa Payoh New Town is a relatively modern satellite town but has a genuine heartland flavor to it. Wet markets, Traditional Chinese Medicine shops, household goods vendors, and bakeries that pay no heed to fancy facades reflect the more realistic, down-to-earth nature of everyday Singaporean life. Don’t be surprised to hear conversations in Hokkien and Cantonese or find people staring at you if you’re an ang moh (Westerner).