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A mural in Singapore's Chinatown.
A mural in Singapore's Chinatown. (FTWP)
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Singapore

A mural in Singapore's Chinatown.
A mural in Singapore's Chinatown. (FTWP)
  • By Shibani Mahtani
  • Photos by Ore Huiying
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Some people write off Singapore as staid. They just aren’t looking hard enough.

The small city-state is much more than its reputation for cleanliness, safety and predictability. One of the most ethnically diverse cities in Asia, it’s also quickly transforming into a cultural destination for the region. Its architecture — meticulously planned and painstakingly preserved — is a testament to its influences: colonial monuments left behind by the British, public housing complexes dreamed up by Singapore’s early leaders, and iconic hotels and skyscrapers that arrived recently astride a wave of new wealth. Look even closer, and you’ll see quiet movements emerging: space made for local artists and writers, or conversations broached on race and LGBT rights, once taboo topics.

But above all, this city and its people are defined by their food, a truly exceptional cuisine that reflects the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian populations who call Singapore home. It is only through eating your way around this city that you can truly feel its pulse and start to understand its fierce pride.

Meet Shibani Mahtani

Shibani Mahtani is the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Washington Post, covering countries that include the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. She joined The Post's foreign desk in 2018 after seven years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Southeast Asia and later in Chicago, where she covered the Midwest.

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mail-solidEmail shibani.mahtani@washpost.com
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IN THE ACTION
Marina Bay
Home to the Marina Bay Sands hotel and its famous rooftop infinity pool, Marina Bay offers Singapore’s quintessential “Crazy Rich Asians” experience. The hotels here also bump up into the bustling downtown, home to Asian headquarters of the world’s largest corporations and banks. But dotting the area are parks, peaceful walks along the glittering bay and waterfront, and some of the best food the city has to offer. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Chinatown
Still close to the city’s heart, Singapore’s large Chinatown is where you’ll find some of the most interesting and intimate boutique hotels. Consider the luxurious Six Senses Duxton, a 49-room hotel decorated with Chinese art, and the more minimalist KeSa House, which opened in 2019, both located in 19th-century shophouses. The neighborhood is also one of Singapore’s most walkable, packed with boutiques, culturally significant Hindu and Buddhist temples, and trendy bars. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
Mr. and Mrs. Mohgan’s Super Crispy Roti Prata
Head to this spot early for some of the best prata in town — before it sells out. The fried-dough dish, stuffed with fillings such as cheese or egg and doused in curry, originated in South India but has since been adapted into something entirely Singaporean. Somasundram Mohgan, the quiet man behind the hotplate, has been flipping prata for over three decades, and the result is some of the crispiest you’ll find in town, pairing perfectly with a variety of curries. Order a Milo Dinosaur (a chocolate malt beverage topped with undissolved Milo powder) to wash it all down.
BTW: Try the prata “kosong” — the Malay word for “empty,” which in this case means without any fillings — to experience the fried dough in its purest, crispiest form. The assam fish curry is a not-to-miss pairing and soaks up perfectly.
300 Joo Chiat Rd., Tin Yeang Restaurant, Singapore 429356
BREAKFAST
Tong Ah Eating House
A breakfast of kaya — a green coconut jam flavored with pandan, a fragrant tropical plant — on toast paired with runny, soft-boiled eggs is a beloved staple. At Tong Ah, the kaya is homemade, and the bread arrives perfectly charred. Make sure to add a few shakes of white pepper and a dash of soy sauce to the runny eggs. Pair it with a kopi-C, a traditional coffee with evaporated milk. The sweetness can be cloying, so ask for it “siew dai,” or less sweet, if you prefer.
BTW: The runny eggs, while a local favorite, are not to everyone’s taste. But you can ask for them to be more well done, and your server will gladly oblige.
35 Keong Saik Rd., Singapore 089142
LUNCH
Coconut Club
The nasi lemak here may not look traditional, and it certainly is more expensive than your average food-court version, but so much effort — starting with two years of research before opening — has been put into it. The rice is cooked in home-squeezed coconut milk, extracted from only the best Malaysian coconuts. The sambal, a chile paste made more pungent and flavorful by the addition of shrimp paste, is likewise made in-house. Choose from a variety of sides to go with your aromatic rice; the ayam goreng berempah (spiced fried chicken) is the most famous and popular option, but the fish varieties are delicious, too.
BTW: Save space for dessert: either the cendol, generously topped with gula melaka (palm sugar), or the kuihs, traditional Malay cakes that are a labor of love.
28 Ann Siang Rd., Singapore 069708
LUNCH
Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice
Singaporeans get into heated arguments over where to find the city’s best chicken rice, practically the national dish. There’s no consensus, and so much to weigh: How fragrant is the rice? How juicy is the chicken? How does one stall’s chile compare with another’s? But having grown up within walking distance from the original Wee Nam Kee, I will always be partial to its flavorful rice and consistently good chicken, paired with all the condiments. There are other popular dishes here, such as the hotplate tofu and sambal kangkong, but the roasted chicken rice really is the star. Of the several outlets across the city, this branch is the closest to the original, which started across from the popular Novena Church.
BTW: You can specify the cuts of meat you want, but if you want to try the roasted variety, come early before it sells out.
101 Thomson Rd., #01-08 United Square, Singapore 307591
DINNER
Mellben Seafood
Skip the tourist traps along the Singapore River and head north instead to this open-air restaurant in a popular residential neighborhood for one of the city’s most famed offerings: crab. Mellben cooks its giant crabs in more than a dozen ways, but the iconic chile crab, the black pepper crab and the salted egg yolk are favorites. The clay pot crab bee hoon soup is a must-order; locals will order extra vermicelli noodles to soak up the thick broth.
BTW: Don’t be afraid to use the metal crackers to help you pry open the crab shells, revealing the perfect sweet meat inside. Dress for the part; expect splashes and spills.
232 Ang Mo Kio Ave. 3, St 22, #01-1222, Singapore 560232
DINNER
Candlenut Kitchen
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Dempsey Hill (former British army barracks that are now converted into upscale restaurants and boutiques) is the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant. Peranakans, or Straits Chinese, are descendants of the early Chinese settlers to then-British Malaya, and their food reflects early inter-marriages between the Chinese and Malays. Their cuisine was once at risk of near-extinction in Singapore, but it has been brought back through the dedicated work of chefs like Candlenut’s Malcolm Lee. Go for the Ah-Ma-Kase (a play on the Japanese omakase, or “chef’s choice”) if you want to sample the full range of this cuisine’s flavors. If you opt for a la carte, don’t miss the buah keluak, a Peranakan mainstay with a bold, distinctive flavor.
BTW: Some find buah keluak, an intensely flavored nut that has to be cooked for days to be edible, a bit strong for their taste. So if you think that’s you, the buah keluak fried rice is a little more accessible. For those who want to brave the flavor of durian but are too afraid to conquer it in its fruit form, try the durian pengat for dessert.
Block 17A Dempsey Rd., Singapore 249676
LATE-NIGHT
Chinatown Complex stalls
There are over 200 stalls here selling local food, from soup dumplings to satay (grilled meat on sticks), clay-pot rice and other traditional dishes. But locals enjoy hanging out late and sipping on local and imported craft brews served up by Smith Street Taps and the Good Beer Company. The former has them on draft, the latter in bottles. Other hawker centers have jumped on this trend, but these guys were the pioneers.
BTW: Not every stall stays open late, but the craft beer stays open till 11 p.m. on weekdays and until almost midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, as do the satay stalls.
335 Smith St., Singapore 050335
LATE-NIGHT
Atlas Bar
There are some serious “Great Gatsby” vibes here, a tribute to just how much Singapore’s cocktail scene has evolved beyond the saccharine Singapore Sling. Once you enter this Parkview Square bar, you’ll be greeted by an homage to the Roaring Twenties and some of the best cocktails the city has to offer. There are vintage gins dating to 1910, but be warned: They come with the corresponding price tag.
BTW: Gin is the spirit of choice here. There are more than 1,000 varieties and cocktails that go beyond the usual gin-and-tonics. The Bitter Soma is a favorite.
600 North Bridge Rd., Parkview Square, Singapore 188778
(Leah Chong for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Get the EZ-Link transit card to use our cheap, efficient transit system. The tourist pass gets you unlimited rides for about $7 a day and about $14.50 for three days.
  2. Please, no chewing-gum jokes. Yes, its sale is banned, except for dental and nicotine varieties. No, you won’t get fined for chewing it. (You will see Singaporeans jaywalking without fear of fines or canings. We aren’t that straight-laced.)
  3. Download the apps Grab and Gojek, the local versions of Uber and Lyft.
(Leah Chong for The Washington Post)

Do

Hike the Southern Ridges
Tailor this to how far you want to walk, but the full trail stretches slightly over six miles and brings you along hills, ridges and paved parkways. The panoramic views from Mount Faber are a treat, the forest walk through Telok Blangah Hill is ideal for nature spotting (don’t feed the monkeys!), and the Henderson Waves, a striking pedestrian bridge that connects the two, is a highlight. Use your smartphone map to guide you, as well as the abundant road signs. A major trail originates just outside Mount Faber Park near the Marang Cemetery (mapped below).
BTW: The best time to go is in the morning, when it’s cool enough for both you and wildlife to emerge.
45 Marang Rd., Singapore 099280
Coney Island
Also called Pulau Serangoon, this offshore island, with untouched beaches and quiet trails, is best enjoyed on a bicycle. It feels a world away from the glitzy skyline, but it’s really only a 30-minute ride from the city center or a quick ride from Punggol bus interchange (mapped below), which is connected to the MRT stop. Spend at least half a day exploring the island, and bring your own water — drink options are nonexistent. Beyond the many bird species here, including the resident baya weaver, you may encounter some long-tailed macaque monkeys. Just don’t feed them.
BTW: Carry lots of mosquito repellent, avoid shorts and bring lots of water.
70 Punggol Central, Singapore 828868
National Design Center
There’s always something fun going on at this hub for Singapore creatives. A former school campus, it now hosts workshops, pop-up markets featuring Singaporean designers, and exhibitions on Singapore design, architecture and craft. Kapok, on the ground floor, is worth checking out for local souvenirs and clothing from independent brands.
BTW: While you are there, explore the Bugis neighborhood, packed with old temples, churches and heritage architecture.
111 Middle Rd., Singapore 188969
Chomp Chomp
Hawker centers like these were created when the Singapore government decided to move street vendors into more sanitary complexes, and so recently renovated Chomp Chomp has been standing here since 1972. It boasts some of the best seafood barbecue in the city — along with great ventilation in Singapore’s humid climate. Experience the city’s boisterous and bold food culture with the barbecued stingray, the carrot cake (which is nothing like the cream-cheese-frosted cake, but rather a savory dish made from radishes) and the hokkien mee.
BTW: It gets crowded, so bring a packet of tissue to “chope” (or reserve) a table while you stand in line for your food. Keep your table number handy when you order, and the hawkers will bring your items over to you.
20 Kensington Park Rd., Singapore 557269
Bollywood Veggies
This city is not exactly known for its produce and has no space for vast farmland, but Ivy Singh-Lim and Lim Ho Seng are among those trying to bring the city back to its more sustainable roots. This 10-acre farm, dreamed up by the couple in 2000, now hosts guided tours, terrarium-making classes, a culinary school and a bistro that prides itself on farm-to-table dining.
BTW: Fruits, herbs and vegetables are sold here, so consider leaving with something for the road.
100 Neo Tiew Rd., Singapore 719026
The Projector
Golden Mile Tower is an odd collection of businesses, with Thai amulet shops and computer stores. But tucked away on the fifth floor is this cinema that curates independent films. You can catch a variety of cult classics, local films and selections from major festivals, and the snacks are pretty good, too.
BTW: Check out their list of events and films before your visit. There’s always something going on.
6001 Beach Rd., #05-00, Golden Mile Tower, Singapore 199589
Shibani Mahtani
Born and raised in Singapore, Shibani is the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Washington Post. She started her career in the city, and while she is now based in Hong Kong, she still reports on Singapore and visits often to get her fix of the local food. She takes great pride in rebutting those she meets around the world who dismiss Singapore as boring.
Ore Huiying
Ore is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Singapore. Her favorite place there is her family farm at the outskirts, an oasis of serenity amid the bustling city.
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CITY GUIDES