5 Things: A Local’s Guide to Singapore

In “5 Things,” we ask some of our favorite insiders in cities all over the world to share insider travel tips on where to eat, shop, stay, and play in their neighborhoods (plus, what to pack to make the adventure complete). We were so excited when Claire Yang, an arts educator and programmer, reached out to offer a travel guide to a city that many of us are buzzing about these days: Singapore! As a third generation Singaporean, Claire shared, “While lots of travel blogs, sites, and magazines have written about places that were featured in the movie (mostly from a traveler’s or expat’s point of view), [I’d like to share] places that I bring my visiting friends and family to. I would like to tempt your readers to explore the city that is a mix of east and west, traditional and modern, multi-cultural … or as we say here, ‘rojak’ which means eclectic mix (or a super yummy tropical salad).” This seems quite fitting a word, too, for the following guide Claire put together for us! 

5 Things: Singapore

By Claire Yang

What have you read or heard about Singapore? Perhaps you’ve read about the upper echelon of Singapore society in Kevin Kwan’s book Crazy Rich Asians, or seen the less accurate but delightful movie version? Or perhaps you have seen depictions in American crime dramas or property-hunting shows that are filled with scenes of hanging lanterns accompanied by plucky, exotic-sounding music? Jokes aside, Singapore seems to be having a moment in the spotlight. Even two of the world’s leaders decided to hold a ground-breaking summit on the shores of this tiny island-nation.

And yet it was only a little while ago that Singapore seemed like an obscurity. I was born and bred here, but lived outside the country during university and graduate school. It was during these years living in the middle of England and in New York City that I found myself constantly answering questions such as “Is Singapore in China?” (no, it is not), and explaining that it is a city on an island that is a country. And yes, everyone speaks English—or Singlish, a colloquial version of English with its own grammar and vocabulary. It was challenging describing my hometown and the particularities of our culture and I would often end up saying to friends, “You just have to visit.”

I suppose I’d say the same to you, even now! Here’s where I’d take you if you were visiting…


First things first—you have to indulge in some hawker food while you’re here. A hawker centre is essentially a food court that has many food stalls, each specialising in a specific dish or cuisine, many of which are mash-ups of the food cultures that were brought here by our immigrant ancestors. They can be found all over the island and most Singaporeans frequent them daily. My city centre favourites are Tiong Bahru Market, Maxwell Food Centre, Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Tekka Centre and the Amoy Street Food Centre.

What you do is, you take a walk around the hawker centre and see what catches your eye! A good guide to what’s good to eat is if there’s a long line of locals. Spot the line, join the line, ask the people in the line what to order. Then, place your order, pay (with cash), collect your food, take a seat and enjoy it! If you’re in a group, I’d say divide and conquer—order one of each dish that you fancy. This way, you get to try a variety of dishes within one meal. One inexplicable quirk that you should note is that people “chope” (Singlish for “save”) seats using little packets of tissues. If you see one on a table, it means that seat is taken! Move along. This peculiar behaviour is so widely accepted that a Singapore artist even created a performance art piece on it!

Eating is somewhat of a national obsession, so of course Singapore also has a lot to offer outside of hawker centres, too.  Here are a couple of must-tries:

Nasi Padang, which is a common Malay/ Indonesian meal of rice with a variety of dishes. Popular restaurants that serve it include Hajah Maimunah and Warong Nasi Pariaman, both in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood.

Peranakan food at Guan Hoe Soon or PeraMakan, both situated in the historically Peranakan neighbourhood of Katong. Peranakans are the descendants of mixed Chinese and Malay or Indian and Malay marriages, and their culture and cuisine is unique to this part of the world.

Finally, it is a little known fact that Singapore has some award-winning mixologists who showcase their talents in bars regularly ranked amongst the world’s best. It feels like a new bar pops up every other month! 28 Hong Kong Street, Jigger & Pony, Hopscotch, and Native are just a few of the many cocktail bars at which you can enjoy a tipple.


The Tiong Bahru neighbourhood has a few of my favourite stores, so after eating at the Tiong Bahru Market, visit Books Actually to read some poetry, plays, or novels by Singaporean authors, many of which are published by the store’s publishing arm, Math Paper Press. The shop regularly holds readings, and is considered one of the cornerstones of the local literary scene. Next, wander on down the row of shops to Woods in the Books for some fantastic children’s books filled with Singapore stories.

Supermama is a gallery store run by a super mama and her husband, who work closely with the design and craftsman community in Singapore and Asia to produce meaningful and clever design objects. Stop by for some great locally-designed gifts for friends and family.

I’d also recommend visiting a local supermarket if you’re interested in taking home some local sauces or ingredients. I always do that wherever I travel to!


Singapore’s cultures are varied and layered and there are a few great ways to experience them.

Visit National Gallery Singapore, set in the former City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings, to experience modern Singapore and Southeast Asian art. Take your kids to its award-winning Keppel Centre for Art Education, a dedicated learning space for children within the Gallery. There are great programmes, like storytelling and art workshops every 2nd weekend of each month.

Another great museum to visit, especially with kids, is the Peranakan Museum, where one can learn about this unique culture through the museum’s interactive exhibitions.

After a good dose of museum-style art and culture, step out and experience some first-hand in the neighbourhoods of Little India, Kampong Glam, and Katong. Take in the historic architecture and the sounds, smells, and tastes in each area.

Singapore is also known as the Garden City and boasts a number of great green spaces. Visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a dedicated learning garden for children—the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden.

If you’re looking for a less manicured experience of the tropics, take a walk at the MacRitchie Reservoir Park or the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, or catch a tiny boat to the smaller, sparsely inhabited island of Pulau Ubin.

Cap off your time in Singapore by catching a performance at the Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, lovingly nicknamed “the durian” due to the likeness of its facade to the king of fruits. From rock to sacred music, opera to spoken word, ballet to hip-hop dance, there’s something for everyone. If you’re here with your kids, look out for the PLAYtime! series of original theatre performances for 2-6 year olds, or Octoburst!—the Esplanade’s annual children’s festival.


You should know that Singapore is a hotel town. (Airbnbs have been in a somewhat contentious legal situation, even though the Asia-Pacific headquarters of Airbnb is in Singapore.)

Here are a few interesting hotels which are all set in restored historic buildings:

The Great Madras—Situated at the heart of Little India, it looks like something out of a Wes Anderson movie.
The Sultan—Situated right in the heart of Kampong Glam and set in row of old shophouses.

The Warehouse Hotel—Right on the Singapore River. The hotel was set up by one of Singapore’s most successful F&B groups in partnership with chef, Willin Low, so don’t forget to check out its restaurant, Po, for a Mod-Sin (Modern Singaporean cuisine) meal.


For some reason, everything I’m going to say is weather-related: If you can get your hands on an air-conditioned suit, bring one! But if not, pack clothes that can withstand the heat and humidity. Singapore is very close to the equator, after all. But also pack a cardigan or jacket if you intend to spend sometime indoors, as the air-conditioning can be very cold. And short bouts of torrential rain are not uncommon, so bring along a small umbrella that you can pop in your bag, along with sunscreen—and lots of it.

Have a great time!

Thank you Claire for this beautiful, intimate guide to such an exquisite city! (And for all of the family-travel tips!) Have other readers visited Singapore? What would you add from your own travels?

Claire is an arts educator and programmer who is a Singapore native. You can find her at children’s museum spaces, storytelling sessions, drama workshops and theatre shows around town. Like many of her countrymen, she is mildly obsessed with food and staying cool in the tropical heat. All photos are by Jonathan YK Lee, unless otherwise stated.

P.S. More 5 Things guides, plus travelogues from Bali and Thailand.

Thank you to Molly Coyne for her help with this series! Photos in the “Shop” section are courtesy of Books Actually and Supermama. Photos in the “Stay” section are courtesy of The Great Madras and The Warehouse Hotel. Lead photo via Singapore Tourism Board. 

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