Why visit one city, when you could explore four? The idea might sound a bit preposterous if you’re short on travel time, but it’s entirely possible in Singapore.
Tiny but very, very mighty, the booming city-state of Singapore is famous for plenty of things – futuristic playground Sentosa, laws banning durians on trains, and epic nighttime laser shows just to name a few. More than anything, though, Singapore has one very important feature that makes it a must-see spot in 2015 – incredible cultural diversity!
Within Singapore’s island borders is not one or two cultural districts, but four – and exploring each and every one of them inside a day isn’t impossible. Here’s why each of them is well worth a lengthy stroll or two – and what you’ll find in each!
Traditional Peranakan-style homes in Joo Chiat District.
Joo Chiat District
Given Singapore’s incredible cultural diversity, it comes as no surprise that within the tiny city-state blossomed one of the most colourful and unique ethnic enclaves in the world. Walk into Joo Chiat District and you’ll immediately find yourself wondering just how many colours can fit onto one house. Pastels, ornate designs and plenty of gold makes the architecture in Joo Chiat District the most distinct in the city. Couple that with to-die-for food, incredible history and an amazing story, and you’ve got the home of Singapore’s Peranakan people.
From decades of marriages between Chinese or Indian men and Malay or Indonesian women bloomed the Peranakan culture, which borrows elements from each ethnic group. The result is arguably the most colourful versions of each in a single vibrant mosaic. Joo Chiat has become the unofficial home of many Peranakan families, which lent to its transformation into the tapestry of pastels it is today. While you’re there, keep an eye out for traditional Peranakan fare – also called “nonya cuisine” – with dishes like ‘laksa’ or ‘otak-otak’.
The scarlet-red Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.
Just like most major cities around the world, Singapore is home to a little slice of China that’s as colourful and vibrant as it is culturally district. Since a significant amount of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, though, the cultures within Singapore’s Chinatown are interwoven with the tiny nation’s own heritage. Plus – with some of the city-state’s most incredible architecture and even better food – Chinatown is just one of those places that travellers had better not miss.
Depending on what you’re looking for, Chinatown is a dizzying flurry of architecture, food stalls and shopping. If gargantuan Chinese-styled temples are on your travel to-do list, head to Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, a towering scarlet-red temple that’s equal parts a spiritual outpost and educational experience. It’s hard to believe that such a massive structure was constructed to house a single tooth, but it’s interior boasts not just a relic room, but ornately decorated prayer rooms and shrines, too.
Naturally, no traveller should leave Chinatown without partaking in some of the area’s most famous dishes – and the best place to do it is at the Chinatown Food Complex, hugging the side of a bustling wet market and one of Singapore’s largest hawker centres. For a taste of something different, nearby Sri Mariamman Temple – Singapore’s oldest Hindu Temple – is a stone’s throw away and a cultural adventure it its own right.
The glittering exterior of Sultan Mosque.
Thanks to Singapore’s geography, Malay culture permeates nearly every element of the city’s cultures, but in no place is it more vibrant than Kampong Glam. The epicentre of Malay culture and history, Kampong Glam boasts more than just a Malay Heritage Centre and tasty food. Here, you’ll likely find enough souvenirs to last you a lifetime and all of the sensory overload that makes Singapore unique.
If shopping is on your list, make sure to save some cash for the road stalls here bursting with household wares, textiles and traditional carpets. You’ll likely have to dodge hordes of school children scuffling to and from classes and brave the smattering of exotic smells along the way, but the experience is worth it. Regaining your energy is especially easy in Kampong Glam, too, since foodie fixtures and trendy bars are plenty here. Find the best places to grab a bite on Arab Street or Bali Lane, home not just to great food, but amazing shopping as well.
That said, no one should ever leave the colourful confines of Kampong Glam without taking in the majesty of Sultan Mosque. The glittering gold domes alone look like something out of a story book, but this massive religious centre is the beating heart of the district’s Muslim community. Build in the mid-1800s to house nearly 5,000 worshipers at one time, the Sultan Mosque is something of an architectural marvel. Although first and foremost a place of worship, visitors are welcome during certain parts of the day.
The Tekka Centre in Little India
Tekka (Little India) District
It’s no secret that Indian culture is colourful, flavourful and above all, invigorating. It comes as no surprise then that one of Singapore’s most exciting cultural corners is Tekka, referred to lovingly as ‘Little India’. A stroll away from neighboring Chinatown and nestled along the Serangoon River, Tekka sprouted from what was first a hideaway for Tamil convicts! Now, though, Tekka is a colourful blend of Tamil and Singaporean flavour. Chinatown residents routinely head to Tekka to shop, where spices and ingredients are easy to find and cheap. And just like cooking ingredients, you’re likely to find amazing traditional Tamil food in the district as well, if you know where to look.
The best places to explore the commercial corner of the city is along Serangoon Road, a major shopping street where Tekka Centre is located. If you’re on the hunt for culture, though, Tekka is home to dozens of mosques, Hindu temples and traditional architecture. The best and most significant are the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Abdul Gafoor Mosque and Shree Lakshminarayan Temple – spot the latter by looking for garish red domes. Between bouts of temple hopping, make sure to keep an eye out for gold shops along Serangoon Road, where Indians often stock up on the precious metal to show status.
Experience the vibrancy and diversity of Singapore’s cultural enclaves with the best travel companion possible – a local guide! Our whirlwind Melting Pot Tour in Singapore is the perfect day-long excursion to explore the very best of each district. Make it a part of your Singapore and Malaysia Highlights tour for an unforgettable journey in Asia’s most colourful nations.