When travel becomes a thing again, you might have the opportunity to pass through Singapore. But it’s not just a place for surviving airlines to stop over; it’s a lovely city to explore and a place I’m glad to call home. Here is one of my favourite walking routes through the city, taking you through the neighbourhoods of Jalan Besar, Bugis, and Beach Road.
Jalan Besar (literally big road in Malay) is subject to a strange kind of gentrification, where upscale ice cream parlours and cafes survive in a symbiosis with old-school coffee shops and various places of worship.
Start at Chye Seng Huat Hardware, a cafe unmatched in the diversity of its brews, beers and bites. Most of the architecture of the former hardware store has been retained, and there’s something distinctly Singaporean about its selection of kueh (Southeast Asian snacks, often made from glutinous rice) and décor – even as it frequently hosts hip, cosmopolitan events like live DJs.
Walking down Kitchener Road to get back onto Jalan Besar, you’ll pass by Jalan Besar Stadium. Occasionally matches of Singapore’s distinctly second tier football are played there, but as one of Singapore’s most historic football stadiums, its maroon walls still exude a faint whiff of nostalgia.
Berseh Food Center (literally clean) is a criminally underrated specimen of Singapore’s hawker centers: complexes that house numerous stalls serving up an incredible variety of local dishes at low prices. A complete meal can be had for less than 3 pounds. Unfortunately, a sin tax on beer means that a pint will cost this much too. Some excellent stalls sell Teochew delicacies; pig trotter jelly fast disappearing in both hawker centers and restaurants; orh luak, a dish of fried oysters; and you can find the country’s best kaya toast and kopi (local coffee, roasted with butter) at Coffee Hut on the first floor. The food centre has one of only two stalls in the whole of Singapore that offers fried oyster cakes, a Fuzhou delicacy from a region of China where one half of my family hails from.
Continuing down Jalan Besar, turn left to enter Bugis. A more well-known tourist area, but ensure you don’t miss the art galleries. Objectifs Gallery is home to an excellent – and rare – collection of Singapore films, and the exhibits at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts are well curated. Two of Singapore’s shopping malls are located here, fairly cookie-cutter but when in Rome…
Entering Jalan Sultan (Sultan Road) you reach Kampong Glam. Tour guides unfailingly extol the merits of the Malay Heritage Center and Masjid Sultan Mosque, which definitely deserve a visit. However, a short walk away, textile shops and the 1980s-era Golden Landmark Shopping Center beckon. In the latter there are numerous antiques stores (many of which sell gemstones and other forms of jewellery some with Islamic significance and some to boost your feng shui) and small shops that ply Malay and Indian-Muslim delicacies.
For dinner, take your pick between the rival restaurants Zam Zam and Victory: their long culinary history (as well as their long history of feuding with each other through gang hits and black magic accusations) attest to the quality of their murtabak, a doughy pancake filled with onion and meat. Try the mutton one, with a side of teh halia (ginger tea).
Finally, arrive at Beach Road. Another overlooked hawker center, featuring excellent chicken rice and hokkien mee (Hokkien noodles) on the ground floor, but is more famous for its top floor selling army surplus goods- its the best place to find an infamous olive admin t-shirt for that conscription chic look. Across the road you will find Golden Mile Tower which hosts a number of siam dius (Thai discos) and The Projector, Singapore’s best independent cinema that has a soft spot in my heart. Next to it, the similarly-named and perpetually-threatened-with-development Golden Mile Center is a place of gathering for Singapore’s Thai population, featuring excellent restaurants and a supermarket with Vietnamese and Thai products encased in spectacular Brutalist architecture.
End the night with a return to touristic Singapore – a short walk away from here is Marina Bay, home to the durian-like Esplanade, a center for the arts and the iconic Singapore Flyer.