The top 6 places to drop in to shop (and shop till you drop) in Singapore
While Orchard Road is a ground zero for big names and blissfully air-conditioned malls, Singapore’s status as a shopping mecca is being enhanced by an endless roster of smaller boutiques and stores filled with real personality.
1. Books Actually
The heady smell of paper fills your senses as soon as you walk into this jam-packed little place, where books line the walls and perch on every flat surface, both in the front half of the store and out back where you will also find a quirky mix of second-hand titles, vintage bric-a-brac (bottles, rubber stamps, old toys) and stationery.
It’s so hipster cool; there is someone sitting behind the counter typing on a vintage typewriter, and outside there’s a book-vending machine filled with a lucky dip of tomes wrapped in brown paper. booksactuallyshop.com
Lalu is a local small chain that ticks the box for cute pieces that are on-trend but not obvious or laboured, as well as price, with lots of mix-and-match elements that can be paired up as a two for SD$29 or SD$39 combo.
3. Scene Shang
This chic store on buzzy Beach Road is ‘an ode to the old and a nod to the new’. Scene Shang is filled with an artfully curated collection of furniture, ceramics, lighting and art, much of which is created by local artists and designers. Even the tiny cup of fragrant herbal tea you are presented with as you browse is deliciously chic.
Also on Beach Road, the team behind Supermama’s flagship gallery store work with local Singaporean artists, designers and crafts people, as well as traditional craft facilities in Japan to assemble contemporary pieces that they feel reflects modern Singaporean culture. When we visited a long table was laid with what looked like blue and white Chinoiserie plates, but on closer inspection were printed with Star Wars scenes.
This light, white space on Amoy Street forms the perfect canvas for the bright, colourful design pieces that make up the store’s inventory, from all kinds of lovely hand-made ceramics to bags, toys, lighting and stationery. strangelets.sg
6. Gallery & Co.
Located just inside the entrance to the wondrous new National Gallery of Singapore, the Gallery & Co. is a browser’s paradise of design pieces, art books, children’s books and crafts, funky jewellery and clever souvenirs, like the T-shirt that states ‘No, we are not a province of China’.
Honourable retail recommendations
Little India for spices, sari material and exuberant gold jewellery pieces; The Mustafa Centre, a multi-floor behemoth stretching away from Serangoon Road for a couple of blocks, and home of absolutely everything; Chinatown’s markets where you can find everything from Disney character chopsticks to Chinese antiques.
The Changi Challenge
I’ve been to Changi Airport myriad times, but in my haste to get into town or on my plane, I have never seen half the facilities that it is famous for, and that win it the title of best airport in the world year in and year out.
So, with an hour or so to kill, I decided to take the Changi Challenge and go in search of as many of the good bits that I could find in that time.
First up was the Butterfly Garden, which I located with relative ease.
A soaring indoor/outdoor space filled with the gentle winged creature, it’s not exactly quiet, being next to a runway of one of the busiest airports in the world, but it is quite pleasant to sit in for a while in the evening when the heat of the day has subsided.
I then ticked the free movie cinema off the list, a multiplex in miniature where recent release films are played in an endless loop.
Another favourite is the cactus garden, an outdoor landscape of sculptural cacti where you can sit and watch the planes come and go, or when it is too hot, gaze out onto it from the air-conditioned food court. Still searching for: the giant slide.
3 Singaporean culinary delights worth trying
1. What is 'Mod Sing'?
The culinary vogue for creating modern interpretations of traditional Singaporean dishes has given rise to the much-used term ‘mod sing’, the melding of new ingredients and techniques with traditional methods and recipes to create dishes such as coconut laksa barramundi with turmeric potato cake and baby bok choy (Open Farm Community), and wagyu beef char siew with pickled papaya and cherry tomato (Ding Dong).
At National Kitchen by Violet Oon, a gorgeous dining hall in the stunning new National Gallery of Singapore, Violet Oon, the grand dame of Peranakan cooking, serves up modern takes on nonya (a spicy cuisine that combines Malay and Chinese ingredients and techniques), classics such as rojak (guava, sour mangoes, rose apple, pineapple, cucumber, julienne of pink ginger flowers, jellyfish and crispy crullers tossed in a sweet, sour and mildly spicy sauce) and a hae bee hiam sandwich (spicy dried shrimp floss finger sandwiches).
And if you want to take the whole hybrid thing one step further, Whitegrass (situated in a former Catholic convent diagonally opposite Raffles), the passion project of chef-owner Sam Aisbett (ex-Quay), does a fine dining Oz-Sing-Japanese thing that is creating a lot of buzz.
2.Their Coveted Coffee
Coffee culture has well and truly arrived in Singapore, offering up an alternative to its traditional milky, super sweet brew.
Check out PS.Cafe, a small-scale local chain serving insanely indulgent cakes and decent-brewed coffee; the bright, casual cafe in the National Gallery of Singapore’s Gallery & Co. retail and dining space; and the painstakingly brewed coffee in the ultra-hip CSHH Coffee Bar in the Chye Seng Huat Hardware, a repurposed Art Deco shophouse compound.
Singaporeans also have a current fascination with Scandinavian cafes, where locals indulge in Swedish baked goods in bleached wood surrounds: look out for Konditori on Bussorah Street and Fika on Beach Road.
3. What is a Milo dinosaur?
Milo is a staple for Singaporeans; sit down at any hawkers’ market or kopitiam (traditional coffee shop) and the Milo dinosaur will be on the menu.
And what is it? Quite simply it’s a long glass of Milo filled to the brim with ice and topped off with mounds of crunchy Milo that you can eat with a spoon or stir into the already Milo-heavy liquid below.
In true Singaporean style, the Milo dinosaur has recently got bigger and better with the invention of the Milo Godzilla: Milo, milk, ice and a scoop of ice-cream, which is then also weighed down with more Milo.
A word of warning though: Singaporean Milo apparently comes from Malaysia and it is a lot sweeter than the stuff we are used to here in Australia.
MORE... We know you just can't get enough of Singapore?
3 stroll-worthy neighbourhoods to visit in Singapore
Leigh-Ann Pow discovered that Singapore is a frenetic, fantastical place that evolves and changes and reinvents itself on a dizzyingly constant basis.
Removed from the bustle of downtown Singapore, the Katong neighbourhood, a 15-minute drive from Changi Airport, retains a charmingly unaffected air, with locals coming and going past gelato-hued traditional terraced shophouses.
An enclave of Peranakan traditions, you can happily ignore the lure of showier parts of town, shopping and eating and sightseeing at an altogether slower pace.
Check out the historic edifice of the former Katong Bakery & Confectionery on East Coast Road, shop for Peranakan antiques at Rumah Bebe (also on East Coast Road), stroll the residential streets off Joo Chiat Road and visit the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple.
2. Tiong Bahru
Built in the 1930s as the island’s first housing estate, Tiong Bahru has a delightful halcyon days vibe to it, with its pristinely maintained Art Deco apartment blocks.
The area was an enclave for Chinese businessmen to keep their mistresses, and while it is still largely residential and laid-back, it is undergoing something of a gentrification, with cafes, restaurants and boutiques moving in.
Authenticity can still be found in the daily wet market and in the surrounding streets.
3. Dempsey Hill
A former nutmeg plantation, Dempsey Hill has been transformed into an eating and lifestyle destination, but it still retains something of an out-of-the-way, rustic vibe, with walking trails and abundant greenery.
Make your way up the hill for unique eating opportunities like COMO Cuisine, a restaurant and retail offshoot of COMO Hotels and Resorts, which will boast a collection of eateries and a hotly anticipated outpost of Dover Street Market coming soon.
So good you’ll want to see it again:
Kampong Glam, the former seat of Malay royalty in Singapore, is rich in ethnic diversity and Islamic architecture (the Sultan Mosque), making it the perfect neighbourhood to explore at a strolling pace.
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Our list of top Singapore restaurants to dine at
Singapore has forged its place in the food lexicon as the home of award-winning cheap eats.
Ask any local the best places to eat and they will eschew fine dining and instead send you down narrow streets lined with repurposed shophouses and to outlying neighbourhoods to sample outlets that have earned a mention in Bib Gourmand (Michelin’s directory of 'good meals at moderate prices’ and a must-have app on Singaporeans’ phones) or even a coveted star.
And the best thing is that most dishes come in under the SD$10 mark.
Our top 3 list of restaurants to eat at in Singapore
328 Katong Laksa
A tiny storefront on a corner in the Katong neighbourhood, with outdoor seating on plastic chairs, the traditional Peranakan laksa served here costs around $5-7 a bowl and is so good it has earned the unassuming establishment an actual Michelin star.
On the wall there are pictures of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay who challenged it to the equivalent of a soup-showdown and came off second best.
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle
Equally unassuming, the bak chor mee (minced pork noodles) served at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle at Crawford Lane (use Lavender MRT station) are also a Michelin star recipient. Originally founded in the 1930s, and still family run, the line at lunchtime here snakes out the door and around the corner and can take quite a while to clear.
Locals are adamant it’s worth the wait.
HJh Maimunah Restaurant
Located in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood, Bib Gourmand inclusion Hjh Maimunah Restaurant is bustling at lunchtime with family and friends making their way through plates piled high with spicy and aromatic dishes, from crumbly, dark beef rending to sweet coconut chicken curry and all manner of vegetable dishes drenched in spicy sambal.
There are also a selection of snacks like samosa and tiny sweet doughnuts for a few dollars each.
One of our plates with a selection of five or so vegetable dishes came to just over $3.
New eats to treat yourself to
Ding Dong is a neon bright space serving up mod sing creations; start with a cocktail at the bar before working your way through the menu of small plates designed to be shared.
Potato Head Folk
In a corner shophouse in Chinatown, Australian artist David Bromley was given artistic free range, daubing one entire floor of the building with his distinctive works and filling many of the spaces in between with installations of his distinctive sculptures.
It is all delightfully whimsical, and perfectly complements the menu of burgers, organic dishes and homemade sodas, Potato Head Singapore is definitely a place to visit.
Open Farm Community
Sitting high on a hill above the Botanic Gardens, Open Farm Community is an earthy, honest proposition, with dishes constructed from locally grown and sourced ingredients, many of which come from the market gardens (complete with chickens) that surround the main dining room, providing a lovely green outlook.
The menu, created by big deal UK chef Ryan Clift, is huge on taste and goodness, and represents value for money considering the hearty portions served up. This place became an instant favourite as soon as I stepped in the door.
Open Door Policy
Another little local getting big kudos for its sustainable and now totally gluten- and dairy-free cuisine, which also happens to be filled with taste. Open Door Policy grow their own herbs and vegetables inside the narrow space they occupy in Tiong Bahru that is constantly filled with bright young things.
Located on Robertson Quay, the chosen neighbourhood for ex-pat Australians, Sprmrkt comprises two floors and two concepts: downstairs in Sprmrkt Daily it’s casual outdoor dining overlooking the Singapore River, and upstairs Sprmrkt Kitchen & Bar is a little fancier.
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