The neighborhoods in Singapore are a part of a diverse melting pot that blend in a beautiful way. One can experience the colors of Little India, head to Chinatown for $3 lunch at a traditional food hawker stall, and wind down with a night of luxury shopping on Orchard Road. There is something for everyone’s budget in Singapore, truly. Whether you’re staying for a day or a month, Singapore has a lot going on under it’s seemingly sterile surface.
Although Singapore can be slightly on the more expensive side, there is plenty to do in each neighborhood to make sure you won’t go broke. My travel partner and I stayed in cheap(ish) parts of Little India and were able to hop from one place to another easily by public transportation. The MRT subway system is both comprehensive and affordable. Best of all, it’s impeccably clean and people actually get up for the elderly.
Singapore is a multicultural island nation that is both a city as well as a country, consisting mainly of a Chinese, Malay, and Indian population. The official language is Malay, but you’ll find most things written in four languages, including English, making the city-state easily accessible for many traveling from English-speaking countries to get around.
Popular Neighborhoods in Singapore:
Singapore remains my top place to recommend as a starter city to Southeast Asia. Each of the main Singapore neighborhoods vary wildly from the next, though all meet and blend together for something worth spending a bit of time exploring. It’s the perfect spot to ease into the culture shock of Southeast Asia that’s sure to ensue in cities like Bangkok or Siem Reap. Depending on your travel style, tastes, and budget, there’s a neighborhood in here for you.
Little India, as its name promises, is the centre for the Indian community of Singapore and one of the most vibrant districts. Located at the east of Singapore River, it’s just across Chinatown and north of Kampong Glam. One can explore the mix of beautiful Hindu and Chinese temples, mosques and churches.
Some of the cheaper hostels and hotels can be found inside Little India, a bustling area that shouldn’t be overlooked when booking. It can be a little more noisy here at night versus other areas in Singapore, but it’s great for short stays with direct access to the action.
The shopping scene varies wildly here. From all-night shopping centers to small, tucked away stalls, there’s a shopping experience to fit any sort of need while here. If you’re looking to experience the 5th level of hell with the layout of a triple-stacked Ikea, take a walk through the 24-hour Mustafa Shopping Center. With every sort of household item, beauty product, fabric, and souvenir, this is truly the epicenter of shopping in Little India.
The layout is incredibly challenging to navigate, nothing seems to have any rhyme or reason to where it may be located. We spent close to two hours wandering through the aisles and retracing our steps several times. No one seemed to know where or what tampons were, and good luck trying to find the exit out.
Tip: Head to Zam Zam restaurant for some delicious, no-frills Singapore-style Indian food. Go for their famous murtabak; a thin dough pouch fried and stuffed with a combination of minced meat and eggs. They’ve been around since 1908, so clearly they’re doing something right here. Watch as waiters quickly take your order before you’re even done trying to pronounce the name of what you’re ordering and skillfully whisk massive trays of food around the restaurant. Just please, please do not attempt to use the bathroom here. You’ve been warned.
Kampong Glam & Bugis
We booked our hostel in Bugis and had a great time exploring the Arab/Muslim quarter. Drenched in color and containing some of the best bars and shops, Kampong Glam was one of my favorite places to explore. Haji Lane has plenty of boutique stores and spots to eat, oftentimes teeming with backpackers listening to live music on the streets at night. Find locally made handicrafts here to bring back a beautiful souvenir from Singaporean artists.
Arab Street is equally picturesque, lined with rows of colorful restaurants with a stunning view of the Sultan Mosque at the end of it. The golden dome seems to gleam whether the sun is stuck behind the clouds or out in full force.
Note: Most of the restaurants and grocery marts do not permit the sale of alcohol, and more than once did I not realize I was ordering a very expensive alcohol-free drink with my meals.
One of my favorite neighborhoods in Singapore had to be Chinatown. The buildings are painted in pretty pastels, and colorful paper lanterns swing softly in the breeze above the streets. Spice shops permeate the air outside when you walk by, invading your nose with exotic scents. Some the prettiest temples in Singapore are located in Chinatown, especially the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. One of the most iconic of the area, the bright red building seems to stick out in a primarily grey intersection nearby the food hawker stalls. Make sure to be dressed properly before entering, women must have their shoulders and knees covered, and avoid shorts for both sexes.
Pagoda Street, as well as the surrounding area, has plenty of open-air markets making it a fun little place to shop for souvenirs or spices during the day. Nearby is Sri Mariamman Temple, one of the oldest shrines in Singapore and most prominent representations of the Hindu culture. The outside is adorned with once-colorful figures and animals, now faded and weathered in appearance after over half a century since it’s last restoration. I found the experience to be a bit underwhelming personally.
For food, we stuck with the ever-popular Maxwell Road Hawker Centre. A traditional food hawker stall center, many dishes are inexpensive ($2-5) and filling. We wandered amongst the food stalls, and put our packet of napkins down (the unofficial way to mark your spot) before seats were snatched up. Expect to battle it out with the locals and sit with others as it gets filled quickly. Oftentimes, you’ll find people lingering long after their meal is through.
Diving into the more modern and luxe parts of Singapore, head to Marina Bay for a glimpse into Singapore’s many innovative buildings and features. The infamous Marina Bay Sands Hotel contains the iconic infinity pool (only open to hotel guests) that overlooks the city, as well as many luxury stores. Though not really a part of my idea of a good time, someone looking to drop some serious cash without doing a ton of walking can find everything right inside the massive (and dare I say awful-looking) building.
Situated right outside is the sprawling Gardens by the Bay containing the Supertree Grove, many free cultural gardens, the Cloud Forest, and the disappointing Flower Dome. The Supertree Grove, a park made up of 11 massive metal trees with plants covering the “trunks” was Singapore’s 16-story answer to the largely concrete city. A nightly show happens around 7:45pm and a less-crowded one at 8:45pm, both of which are free to watch. Grab a spot on the benches or turf, lay back, and enjoy. They were playing Christmas specials when I went, and I honestly wanted to cry at how well done it all was.
Spend the few bucks ($5 SGD) on the walkway amongst the Supertree Grove on the OCBC walkway if you’re not afraid of heights. Use all of your 15 minutes (although they will try to hurry you along) to soak up a view of the city. Keep your money in your pockets when deciding whether the $20 “special” for the bar on top the main tree is worth it- it’s not.
DO: Catch the interactive exhibits in the ArtScience museum. It’s pricey, but the museum is very well thought-out and surprisingly not crowded. Check the exhibitions beforehand to see which are worth visiting. If you still feel like spending money after, the multi-story Cloud Forest was an amazing way to spend the afternoon. You could see the Supertree Grove through the hazy dome, and each level provided a totally different experience as you walked through the mist.
Admittedly, there’s not much I can say on this area as I purposely chose only to travel through it to get to the Singapore Botanic Garden. But if you’re looking for a place to shop at recognizable brands (Forever21, H&M, Uniqlo) as well as luxury stores (Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Cartier, etc) this is perfect.
Where you should go instead:
I don’t think I’ll ever stop raving about the Singapore Botanic Garden. For one, it’s free. Two, its possibly THE best botanic garden I’ve ever been to. Its sprawling size and incredible landscaping will set you back a few hours as you wander through.
Located on the outskirts of Orchard Road, it’s right on the MRT line making it easy to get to. Honestly, I completely went into this slightly disinterested in seeing a botanic garden while I was here. Won’t they largely be the same plants and greenery as everywhere else I’m going? Yet, this Singapore neighborhood guide was inspired by this damn place in the end. The National Orchid Garden exhibit is worth the $5, showcasing thousands of orchid species where some hybrids are named after notable people in history.
Try: Halia restaurant inside the Botanic Garden. You won’t regret cooling off the in the air-conditioning after spending a few sweaty hours wandering around. It was a bit on the pricey side, but so very worth whatever we spent. The food was incredible and the portions perfect for our starving stomachs. We absolutely melted over the refreshing drinks made with herbs right from the gardens.
Clarke Quay/Boat Quay
These areas didn’t make it onto our itinerary this time around, but it’s supposedly a beautiful area along the river. Popular for food and great nightlife, with many restaurants set in the old, multi-colored houses. The more I read about it, the more we may have missed the mark on not coming here. But you’ll just have to go and see for yourself and let me know!
Is there anything you’d add to this guide to the popular neighborhoods in Singapore? What were some of your favorite places to visit in Singapore? Let me know in the comments!