Asia City trip Gastronomy

Singapore travel tips: 7 hidden gems for an authentic city trip

At first sight, a trip to Singapore is one of splendour: full of gleaming skyscrapers, monumental shopping malls and exquisite but expensive restaurants. Behind the glitter however, lies another Singapore: a green destination thick with culture and local delicacies.

Reistips Singapore - Gardens by the Bay

Singapore: anyone more or less familiar with Asia knows the clichés. It’s immaculately clean and very expensive, chewing gum is off limits and in the past people were publicly caned for not throwing their cigarette butt in the bin or some other minor misdemeanour. Many tourists who stay here for a couple of days as part of a longer trip, return with the image of some sort of futuristic Asian Disneyland in mind – a more tropical Dubai. To be fair, I held some of the same thoughts after my first short visit. It all felt a bit too clean and organised to me to be very adventurous. When I revisited the place a few years later to see some friends, they took me by the hand to show me their own favourite hangouts, and a whole different Singapore opened up to me. The clichés are what they are, but there’s much more hidden underneath the varnish here than you might think at first sight.


Singapore travel tips: 7 hidden gems for an authentic city trip

Singapore might be tiny, but it’s one of the more diverse countries on the planet. My hostel was located in the middle of Chinatown. This is of course the Chinese neighbourhood, but in a 200m radius you could find both a Buddhist and a Hindu temple as well as a mosque. Catholic churches can also be found here and there. Chinatown is a pleasant area by the way: brimming with shops, restaurants and brightly coloured facades.

“At first glance, Singapore mainly exudes splendour, but if you take the time to look beyond the curtain, you’ll discover a wide range of authentic activities and highlights.”

Ok, the Singapore you know from pictures – which are usually limited to Marina Bay and Sentosa Island – is quite over the top. You can even row a boat through a shopping mall if you so please. Away from this fancy central business district however, you’ll find many small-scale and cosy places. Above all, Singapore is a surprisingly green city. My hostel kitchen overlooked a small park where tons of pretty little birds chirped all through the day – literally in the shadow of the nearby skyscrapers. A dash of nature and some clean air: it’s a pleasant change for anyone used to the smog of Asian megacities. Here are seven travel tips to discover the authentic Singapore.


1. Authentic Singapore food: eat in one of the hawker centres

Wat te doen in Singapore: dumplings eten in Maxwell Food Centre Singapore
Reistips Singapore - Hawker Centre
Reistips Singapore - Cheryl & Olivia Hawker Centre

Anyone thinking they’ll get by with a few dollars for dinner as in the rest of Southeast Asia, is going to have a hard time in Singapore. The average restaurant is more expensive than in Europe and alcohol costs exponentially more – think five dollars or more for a can of bland beer at 7-Eleven. Fortunately, you don’t have to go to actual restaurants at all. All over the city you’ll find indoor food courts full of small stalls. These are the so-called hawker centres. Here you can taste the entire palate of Asian cuisine for a few dollars a plate. It all looks a little less refined and you’ll have to share your table with the local old-timers, but the food is as tasty and authentic as it gets.

“All over the city you’ll find indoor food courts full of small stalls where you can eat for a few dollars a plate: these are the so-called hawker centres.”

The hawker centres are an essential part of everyday life here. Some stalls deliver real quality by the way. Two of them even got a Michelin star for it. In the Chinatown Food Complex right next to the subway, you’ll find the very poetically named Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall, where the chef still sells his dishes on a paper plate for less than $2 per piece, even after getting his star (he lost it again in 2021). It’ll take you a while to get your order, but in Asia the length of the waiting line is the best indicator for the tastiness of the food you’ll eventually get. Here’s a list of every hawker centre per neighbourhood.


2. Haw Par Villa: the most unique amusement park in Singapore

Wat te doen in Singapore: toegangspoort van Haw Par Villa
Wat te doen in Singapore: standbeeld van tijger in haw par villa
Wat te doen in Singapore: standbeeld van monnik in haw par villa

Singapore has more than a few amusement parks on offer. Universal Studios is the best known; there’s the large Science Centre Singapore; Snow City is an indoor winter park (great when it’s 95 degrees outside at all times) and there are plenty of water parks to visit. Singapore’s most unique amusement park however, is far less high-tech. Haw Par Villa is a somewhat kitschy but exceptionally charming park from the thirties, which offers an insight into the mythology of Buddhism. It does so – to my delight – with the help of more than 1,000 often hilariously goofy sculptures. The highlight is without a doubt the cave showcasing the ten courts of Buddhist hell. According to tradition every sinner has to be judged and adequately punished here, before reincarnating into a new life. The punishments are weirdly specific. Murderers get their head and arms chopped off and rapists are boiled in hot oil. Harsh but fair one might say, were it not that far less obvious sins are up for punishment as well. Ever returned a library book slightly damaged? Well, prepare to be catapulted into a tree full of knives. Ever owned or even looked at porn? Better get ready to be vertically cut in half. It’s going to get busy in that sixth court of hell, I’m sure.


3. Lesser known Singapore parks: visit the Southern Ridges and more

Wat te doen in Singapore: supertrees in Gardens by the bay
Reistips Singapore - Southern Ridges
Wat te doen in Singapore: Henderson Waves bridge in Southern Ridges Park

Singapore’s most famous park – its Supertree Grove is the country’s most iconic view – is of course Gardens by the Bay. Fantastic park, but there are plenty more to visit. The Singapore Botanic Gardens are a World Heritage Site, and the Singapore Zoo is considered one of the best in the world. In the East Coast Park there are beautiful beaches spread out and in the MacRichie Reservoir you can walk through the treetops for hundreds of meters. I decided to head to Southern Ridges on my last visit: a hilly and wooded stretch land connecting a number of separate parks. Civilization is only a hundred meters away, but in some places you feel like you’re in the rain forest – including screeching monkeys. The beautifully designed Henderson Waves Bridge is the showpiece of the Ridges, and allows you to walk from park to park at a height of 36 meters, right above the highway that runs underneath. You get the great view for free, as do the couples who have their wedding photos taken here during the weekend.


4. Distinct Singapore neighbourhoods: the Colonial District and Little India

eistips Singapore - Little India
Reistips Singapore - Chinatown
Reistips Singapore - Marina Bay

The outermost centre of Singapore looks new and futuristic, but around it are other districts with their own character. We already talked about Chinatown, but immediately north of the river is the Colonial District (also called Civic District). Quite a bit of elegant heritage is still standing here; along the quay are a myriad of restaurants and bars with terraces and most of the top museums can also be found in this area. The National Museum of Singapore, the National Gallery, the Asian Civilisations Museum and  the Peranakan Museum (dedicated to the ethnic group originated from the first Chinese to settle in Southeast Asia) are all located in this neighbourhood, as is the iconic Raffles Hotel. Little India is a bit further north and feels completely different, namely – you’ll never guess it – Indian. This is reflected in a different range of food, different music and a little more noise as befits your average Indian city. Indians and Bangladeshis are one of the most important ethnic minorities in Singapore. Many of them were or are migrant workers who basically built the entire city. Right next to Little India is Kampong Glam: the main Muslim district. Here you’ll find most mosques and hookah bars, but they also have little hipster streets crammed with boutiques, cafes and hostels. In Singapore, everything is a bit intertwined.


5. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple: marvel at a chipped tooth

Wat te doen in Singapore: standbeeld in Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Singapore
Reistips Singapore - Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Reistips Singapore - Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple was located just two minutes from my hostel. This gigantic temple looks authentic but is less than 20 years old. Its only purpose is to house a single chipped tooth, once part of the Buddha’s very own radiant toothpaste smile. The piece was discovered in the eighties, and while experts dispute its authenticity and even suggest it might be a cow’s tooth, it was decided to build a 62 million dollar structure around it anyway. Religious relics are serious business here. Whether or not the tooth is authentic and whether or not the Buddha lost it eating toffee we’ll never know, but the resulting complex is impressive nonetheless.

“The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple houses one of the Buddha’s teeth. Whether or not the tooth is authentic and whether or not the Buddha lost it eating toffee we’ll never know, but the resulting complex is impressive nonetheless.”

The temple can be visited for free, and a couple of times a day the local monks hold a service. This is when you can come and enjoy some relaxing uhm-chants that would make the average hippie get the shivers. The tooth itself is revealed on certain times as well, after which it can be freely gazed upon. We truly live in a wondrous world.


6. Changi Airport: Singapore has the world’s best airport

Wat te doen in Signapore: buitenspeeltuin in Changi Airport
Wat te doen in Singapore: massagestoel in Changi Airport

Waiting for the plane is by far the most annoying moment of any journey. You’re either way too early or way too late; you have to get through that excruciating security check just to get fondled by some frustrated high school dropouts, and the guy next to you will – by definition – always smell like a mixture of salami and old sweat. Not so in Singapore. Changi Airport almost always tops the list of best airports on the planet, and not only because it takes just fifteen minutes to make it out of there with your checked-in luggage after landing. No, every terminal is stuffed with cool attractions – both in front and behind the check-in desks. In fact it’s so cool, some Singaporeans actually come and hang out here in their free time, just because it’s fun. What exactly can you find here? Well quite a lot. Just to name a couple of things: a butterfly garden with a waterfall, a rooftop terrace full of cacti and a bar to watch the planes take off from, an open air swimming pool, a koi pond full of orchids and a cinema complex. With Jurassic Mile, they’ve even put a whole jogging route teeming with dinosaurs next to terminal 4 (visit this one before you check in). There are also automated seats giving free foot massages at every gate, which is just awesome. A world away from Brussels Airport, where you’ll have to make due with a praline shop and two old Playstations to kill some time with.


7. Singapore’s cabinet of curiosities: 4 random unique attractions

Reistips Singapore - Marina Bay Sands
Wat te doen in Singapore: gouden draak in Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Wat te doen in Singapore: zicht op downtown vanop Jubilee Bridge

I’ll leave you with some random quirky things in Singapore I haven’t been able to try out for myself but are definitely there.

The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum: Singapore has a whole zoo where only turtles and tortoises can be seen. It’s in the Japanese Gardens and there are more than fifty species to discover. It’s probably not the world’s most exciting zoo, but at least it’s one of the more unique.

-24/7 Salmon Vending Machines: In 2019, a vending machine was installed somewhere in Singapore where you could pick up 200g of fresh Norwegian salmon for a few dollars. Four years later, they’re spread all over the city. At more than sixty locations and at all hours of the day and night, you can now satisfy your craving for fresh fish. Was there ever a better time to be a penguin?

-Singapore has one of the only luminous snail species in the world (the quantula striata). If you’re anywhere near a lawn after a downpour, take a look outside and with some luck you’ll see a couple of them pulsing.

-On an island along the coast stands a little hut called the “German Girl Shrine“. This is a memorial to – yes – a German girl who lived here during WWI and is said to have fallen off a cliff fleeing the British. People leave offerings on the altar to this day: nail polish, brushes and lipstick.


Fancy some other Asian travel stories? Read my articles about Hanoi, New Delhi, Taipei and Hong Kong.


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  • Reply
    February 7, 2019 at 1:56 am

    Yep, there is so much more to Singapore than just what is on the surface. Glad you got to experience another small part of it again! More of each race to get to know in your next trip – and if you come for my wedding!

    • Reply
      February 7, 2019 at 2:42 pm

      I’m sure your marriage will be the weirdest tip of all Lena. :p
      I’ll see if I can make it ^^

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