Staid, efficient, clean, dull. Singapore has been described as all these things but change is coming. Singapore now has its finger firmly on the pulse, and in-the-know locals are spoiled for choice with indie bookstores, craft markets and speciality coffee shops popping up across the island. Experience an unexpected side to Asia's most glamorous city in one of these neighbourhoods on the rise.
Tiong Bahru: Singapore’s latest (and greatest) indie enclave
The buzz began in 2011 when 40 Hands Coffee (an espresso-coffee café; 78 Yong Siak St) and Books Actually (an indie bookstore that also publishes under its Maths Paper Press imprint; www.booksactually.com; 9 Yong Siak St) opened shop. Today, a whole slew of boutique joints have turned the area into Singapore’s coolest enclave. Tiong Bahru’s status as a hipster haven was unofficially cemented when Books Actually was selected to host a pop-up Monocle store coinciding with publisher Tyler Brûlé’s visit to Singapore.
This neighbourhood has a little bit of everything. Grab a beer or cocktail at Open Door Policy (www.odpsingapore.com; 19 Yong Siak St) and Social Haus (11 Yong Siak St). Shop for crafts, handmade jewellery and indie fashion at Nana & Bird (www.nanaandbird.com; 78 Chay Yan St), Strangelets (www.strangelets.sg; 7 Yong Siak St) and Fleas & Trees (68 Seng Poh Ln). Boys can drop by We Need a Hero! (57 Eng Hoon St) for a wet shave, haircut or a 'boyzilian'. Come dinner time, Twoface Pizza & Taproom (www.twoface.sg; 56 Eng Hoon St) dishes out beer and thin-crust pizzas with gourmet toppings such as smoked duck, truffle mayo and rocket.
If fixies aren't your thing, seek refuge in the old school Tiong Bahru market. This hawker centre has been around since 1955 and is proof that newer isn’t necessarily better…or in this case yummier.
Lavender: coffee, pies and table tennis
Get off at Lavender MRT and head towards Jalan Besar Road. Look out for Chye Seng Huat Hardware (www.cshhcoffee.com; 150 Tyrwhitt Road). This unassuming art deco building, a former hardware store, is now home to a coffee roaster and speciality coffee bar. Knock back espressos or pour-over coffees before heading upstairs to the Tyrwhitt General Company (www.tyrwhittgeneralcompany.com) to peruse limited edition art prints and a range of crafts and fashion essentials. Check the website for classes on print making, bookmaking, and even leather work.
Head to Windowsill (www.windowsillpies.sg; 78 Horne Road) for lunch and slice of lovingly handmade pie. The seasonal food menu changes every two weeks but you probably won’t be the first to skip mains and head straight for dessert: the grasshopper pie (a flourless chocolate cake topped with fresh mint cream and crowned with shards of dark chocolate and salty chocolate cookies) and s’mores and banana almond brittle pie will leave you paralysed with indecision.
For a bit of kitschy fun, drop by Happy Table Tennis (www.happytabletennis.blogspot.com; 48 Horne Road) where you can rent a table, ball and bats for $10/hour to work off all those calories.
Chinatown: old is new is old
Chinatown has many guises: it's partly a tourist trap, but is also home to an array of Chinese clan associations, a mosque, an elaborate Indian temple and even the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.
Chinatown is also no stranger to resourceful entrepreneurship, from secret cocktail haunts to hand-painted shoes. For a hush-hush drinking hole, look for the unmarked door fronting 28 Hong Kong St (www.28hks.com; 28 Hong Kong St). This cocktail bar thrives on secrecy and word of mouth - the website only has an email address and the bar rejects media requests for reviews. Make sure you book ahead if you want a seat. Cocktails such as the Corpse Reviver, Whore’s Bath and Literate Lass are sure to tickle more than your tastebuds.
The Vault (www.thevault.com.sg; 237 Sth Bridge Rd), a New York-style bar, also shakes up fancy cocktails - but it’s the bimonthly Sunday Artists’ Market that keeps us coming back. Browse and buy art, hand-made crafts, leatherwork, painted shoes, unique T-shirts and much more. Check the website for details on the next installation.
Chinatown Market on Smith Street is to go-to spot for cheap grub, and thirsty travellers will salivate at the selection of boutique beers at the Good Beer Company (stall 02-58). Tucked away in the corner, owner Daniel Goh serves up more than 50 beers and ciders. Try Taiwanese lychee beer, Trappist ales, pear and apple ciders, and even local beers made by Jungle Beer microbrewery.
Kampong Glam: a study in contradictions
Kampong Glam is on the rise, so make sure you check it out before the crowds. Traditionally a Malay enclave anchored by Singapore's largest mosque, the area is experiencing a renaissance in its shopping, cafe and yes, even bar, scene. Head to Haji Lane for sheesha bars, popular live-music haunt Blu Jaz Café (www.blujaz.net) and an ever-changing line-up of independent boutiques (we blame the escalating rents).
Nearby Maison Ikkouku (www.maison-ikkoku.net; 20 Kandahar St) is a three-storey shophouse with a great café on the ground floor, a menswear boutique on the 2nd level and a cocktail bar up the top.
Little India: much more than culture
This Indian enclave is unkempt, colourful and redolent with spicy aromas. Its cheap(er) rents and low-fi feel have also allowed buzzing backpacker joints and bars to flourish.
You’ll find ‘meat, mead and music’ at Broadcast HQ (www.broadcasthq.com; 109 Rowell Rd) a restaurant by day, bar and club by night. Like the music? Pick up some old-school vinyl from the music sections downstairs after shaking it on the dance floor upstairs.
Sniff out Liberty Coffee (www.facebook.com/libertycoffee; 131 Rangoon Road), a café/roastery that opens when the owner has time out from his day job as a pilot. Devotees monitor the Facebook page for announcements and duly flock down when the locks are popped. If Liberty isn’t open, try Jewel Cafe & Bar (www.facebook.com/JewelCafeAndBar; 129 Rangoon Rd) for coffee, booze and thick, juicy burgers.
If you’re still after low-fi, try visiting the Thieves Market (Sungei Road) where you’ll find old-timers hawking everything from old Olivetti typewriters to LPs to mobile phones (that may or may not work). Hurry as the government are planning on relocating the market to make way for a new subway station…and perhaps a new bar or three.