Singapore’s mania for shopping almost rivals its obsession with food, and barely a year goes by without a vast new retail monolith flinging open its doors. Prices may be higher than in Malaysia and Thailand, but Singapore beats its neighbours for sheer convenience and familiarity. Electronics and computers are no longer the steal they once were, but they can be cheaper provided you do your homework and shop around. Clothes are cheaper than in most Western countries, and you can pick up reasonably priced Asian antiques provided you know what you’re doing.
This 2.2km shopping boulevard inspires awe and horror in equal measure. Packed with more than 20 shopping centres, from label palace ION Orchard to the high street staples of 313@Somerset, the sheer scale of this retail onslaught is overwhelming. As if there weren’t enough malls already, another giant – Orchard Gateway – opened in 2014. You have two options on Orchard Road: dive in, or run screaming.
Blink and you’d walk right past this narrow alley in Kampong Glam without a second thought, but Haji Lane is a place of pilgrimage for Singapore’s hipsters. Boutiques here open and close faster than local fashion bloggers can keep up with, but you can be sure to find a great range of cool womens and menswear, accessories and homewares during any visit – along with a handful of cute cafes and bars. One of the more popular stores that has stood the test of time is quirky womenswear boutique Dulcetfig.
Singapore's hottest new shopping enclave rivals Haji Lane for its selection of hip fashion and lifestyle boutiques such as Nana & Bird and BooksActually. Reward your efforts with a leisurely brunch at Tiong Bahru Bakery, PS Cafe Petit (pscafe.com/pscafe-petit-at-tiong-bahru) or 40 Hands Coffee (40handscoffee.com).
A world apart from the gleaming malls of Orchard Road, Little India’s ramshackle streets are a treasure trove of art, antiques, textiles, food and music, while the infamous 24-hour Mustafa Centre department store is an experience in itself. Keen bargainers can score cut-price electronics here, while computer enthusiasts will do well at Sim Lim Square. Heading down towards Kampong Glam, you’ll find handicrafts, textiles and boutiques and, sandwiched between the two areas, the thoroughly un-Singaporean ‘thieves’ market’. A short walk away is the old neighbourhood of Bugis, which, while strictly located neither in Little India or Kampong Glam, has something of the atmosphere of both.
Holland Road Shopping Centre
It’s anyone’s guess whether this ageing shopping centre will survive Singapore’s mania for redevelopment, but if it does, this magnet for expats and fashionable Singaporeans is a great place for art, handicrafts, gifts, homeware and offbeat fashion. Lim’s Arts & Living is a virtual encyclopaedia of home furnishings, Island & Archipelago (Shop 05, Level 2) offers retro, beachy dresses, while EMF (Shop 24, Level 2) has a large selection of secondhand books for sale, rent or trade. Framing Angie (Shop 02, Level 3) is a gallery that’ll also frame pictures. On Level 3 there’s a series of massage and reflexology shops to soothe shop-weary limbs.
Dempsey Rd, southwest of Singapore Botanic Gardens off Holland Rd, has boomed in recent years, as more and more of the colonial army barracks buildings have been turned into high-end restaurants and bars. Happily, many of the art and antique shops that populated the area before the boom have survived, and during the daytime it’s a peaceful, almost rustic area to wander around, perusing anything from Kashmiri carpets and teak furniture to landscaping ornaments and antiques. Try Shang Antique, which specialises in Southeast Asian antiques, some of them around 2000 years old, with price tags to match. Pasardina Fine Living (No 13) has just about everything decorative and Asian for the home, while Asiatique (No 14) stocks Indonesian furniture made from recycled wood. Eastern Discoveries (Block 26, 01-04) has a superb range of antiques from around the region.
With its vast size, distinctive wavy shape, odd Flintstones-style facade and waterfront location facing Sentosa Island, VivoCity was unveiled in 2006 as the new poster child of Singapore retail – the mall that would lure the city’s shoppers away from the madness of Orchard Rd. To help achieve that, planners cunningly inserted the new Sentosa Monorail into the building, forcing people into the mall. It hasn’t quite achieved the intended iconic status, but there’s no denying it’s a pleasant place to shop, with lots of open space, an outdoor kids’ playground on Level 2, a rooftop ‘skypark’ where the little ones can splash about in the paddling pools and a large Golden Village cineplex. With more than 90,000 sq metres of space, it also crams in just about every category of purchasable item known to humanity, and once you’re done shopping there’s a range of restaurants and bars with outdoor seating where you can sit and soak up the sea breeze. To get there, take the MRT to HarbourFront.
Taxes & Refunds
Visitors leaving from the airport (not land or sea) can get a refund of the 7% GST on their purchases, under the following conditions. To qualify, you must spend a minimum of $100 at the same retailer on the same day for not more than three purchases. Get a copy of the GST refund form from the shop (they aren’t available at customs). Present the refund form, items and receipts to customs at the airport. They stamp the form, then you can claim the refund, which is processed here.
This article was originally published in June 2012, and updated by Destination Editor Sarah Reid in October 2014.