Offbeat Singapore: Alternatives to touristy spots

Get off the beaten path and discover different sides to Singapore. Wide open spaces, rare glimpses into old trades and foodie gems await.

Changi Beach Park
  • Cheong Kamei
  • June 2019

There’s the glitzy side of Singapore opens in new window dressed up in superlatives and stunning skylines. Then there’s a quieter and slower side that is less explored by travellers. Toh Thiam Wei, founder of free walking tour company Indie Singapore, opens in new window tells you where to seek out charming pockets of local life.

For heritage: Balestier

Known for home lighting and bathroom supply shops, Balestier flies even under locals’ radar. But take a stroll through this historically-rich neighbourhood and you will discover surviving businesses and sights from a past era.

Lam Yeo Coffee Powder

Lam Yeo Coffee Powder
Lam Yeo Coffee Powder. Photo credit: George Wong.

Little has changed inside Lam Yeo Coffee Powder since it opened in 1959. “It retains the long-standing tradition of caramelising coffee beans with sugar and margarine to give them the luscious black exterior that’s unique to local coffee,” Toh shares. To bring a taste of Singapore kopi back home, ask for the traditional blend — it’s a highly protected recipe invented by the founders, and the beans are ground upon order to ensure freshness.
328 Balestier Road

Sin Hon Loong Bakery

Sin Hon Loong Bakery
Sin Hon Loong Bakery. Photo credit: George Wong.

“Way before you see this traditional bakery, you’ll smell the delicious aromas of baked fresh bread,” Toh enthuses. Here, you won’t get a dizzying array of bread. The team of 15 ageing artisans have dedicated most of their lives to handcrafting one humble product — the soft and airy bread that’s used in kaya toast. While most of the bread is distributed to kopitiams and retail chains, you can still pick up a loaf for yourself or, better still, get a sandwich slathered with Planta margarine, kaya or peanut butter.
4 Whampoa Drive

Lim Kay Khee Optical House

Lim Kay Khee Optical House
Lim Kay Khee Optical House. Photo credit: George Wong.

“Rumour [has it] that the owner Mr Lim was once offered SGD$5 million for his shop lot,” Toh says. It’s a good thing he wasn’t swayed by the offer because his shop is one of the few old-school businesses left in a city that’s constantly trying to reinvent itself. Everything here is pretty much vintage: from the floor tiles to the stools, ceiling fans and equipment used for eye testing. But it’s the treasure trove of spectacle frames from past decades that draws in-the-know millennials to the store.
330 Balestier Road

Whampoa Dragon Fountain

Whampoa Dragon Fountain
Whampoa Dragon Fountain.

Once, this 4.8-metre-tall dragon was a majestic fountain in a large park. In the ’80s, the park was downsized to make way for an expressway; the water supply was cut off in the ’90s; and for years after, there was little upkeep (if you look up, you’ll notice one of the claws is broken). Over the years, many other dragon features built in the same era were demolished to make way for new developments but the Whampoa Dragon Fountain has stoically weathered all these changes, and remains a centrepiece of the estate.
Blk 85 Whampoa Drive

To escape the hustle and bustle: Changi Village

Changi Village is idyllic and quiet — two words few people would use to describe Singapore. Head here for wide open spaces and rustic beauty.

Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin
Pulau Ubin.

Most locals head to this 1,020-hectare island to bike, hike or fish but there’s so much more to Pulau Ubin than unspoilt nature. It’s a microcosm of kampung life — there’s a village chief, a temple guardian and even a town crier who broadcasts news from the mainland. At its peak in the ’70s, over 2,000 people lived on this island. Today, there are less than 40 residents — some have spent all their lives there, others moved there from the mainland in search of a quieter life — but they remain a reminder that not that long ago, Singapore was more village than concrete jungle.

Changi Jetty Boat
Head to Changi Point Ferry Terminal to take a bumboat to Pulau Ubin. Photo credit: George Wong.

Changi Point Coastal Walk

Changi Jetty Boardwalk
Changi Jetty Boardwalk.

“This is an easy 2.2km walk that will take you through the picturesque coastline, mangrove swampland, cliff-side photo spots and old colonial houses,” Toh shares. Because this is a relatively remote part of Singapore, it is rich in wildlife — be sure to look out for the metallic blue-coloured Pacific swallow and the critically endangered oriental pied hornbill.
6 Changi Village Road

Little Island Brewing Co

Little Island Brewing Co
Little Island Brewing Co.

At Little Island Brewing Co opens in new window, you don’t just get any ol’ beer — its award-winning resident brewmaster Steve Spinney is responsible for the craft brews including That Old Black Magic, a complex and creamy dry Irish stout, and Queen of Tarts, a sour ale with hints of calamansi. A cold pint in hand and the sea breeze in your hair … it’s everything a holiday should be.

Changi Village Hawker Centre

International Nasi Lemak, Changi Village Hawker Centre
International Nasi Lemak.

Changi Village is considered a far-flung location even for most Singaporeans but many still make the journey to this hawker centre for some of the best nasi lemak in the city. International Nasi Lemak is famous for its aromatic pandan-infused coconut rice, and items like fried fish and otah sell out by midday. Mizzy Corner Nasi Lemak is another hot favourite — fans swear by the shatteringly crisp chicken wings.
2 Changi Village Road

For hanging out:

Singapore has its fair share of hip bars but hanging out means different things at these spots in old neighbourhoods.

Heap Seng Leong coffeeshop

Heap Seng Leong coffeeshop
Heap Seng Leong coffeeshop.

Kopitiams were traditionally centres for socialising in Singapore — blue-collared workers hung out there to discuss news. Match-making even took place at local coffeeshops — families would sit at different tables to suss each other out and a matchmaker would act as the middleman and pass messages between the two. Heap Seng Leong is located in an ageing neighbourhood so you’re likely to still see older folk spending hours there drinking beer and talking animatedly.

Heap Seng Leong coffeeshop
Heap Seng Leong coffeeshop.

Order a kopi gu you (thick black coffee served with condensed milk and topped with a slab of butter), charcoal-grilled kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs, and be transported back to Singapore in the ’70s.
#01-5109, 10 North Bridge Road

Kreta Ayer Square

Kreta Ayer Square
Kreta Ayer Square.

There’s touristy Chinatown and then there’s Kreta Ayer Square — a public courtyard where residents gather to practise tai chi or play Chinese chess. It also hosts events like getai — live stage song and dance performances for spirits that are believed to roam the earth during the Hungry Ghost Festival. The living are welcome too but avoid sitting in the front rows — they are reserved for “other” guests.
30A Kreta Ayer Road

Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club

Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club
Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club.

Every morning from as early as 6am, bird enthusiasts all over Singapore carefully hoist ornate bird cages with song birds up six-metre high poles. Bird-keeping is a tradition that’s social in nature — the birds train and become better singers when they are in each other’s company, and hobbyists get to spend the day sharing tips, drinking tea and appreciating different chirps. Toh recommends heading here on a weekend where it’s more crowded and bird-singing competitions take place.
Blk 159 Ang Mo Kio Ave 5