Updated: 12th June 2020
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Super-charged airports, skylines illuminated by light shows and forests complete with electronic trees; Singapore is, to be honest, pretty cool in all its corners. There is, however, one pocket of the city that always reels me back.
Each time I return to Singapore, I find another neighbourhood to explore, but this area of Singapore’s Chinatown, which I’ll never grow tired of, is perfect for enjoying by both day and night.
With bustling hawker markets, colourful temples, accommodation for all budgets and plenty of hip and chic bar-restaurants along Keong Saik Road, this is Singapore’s little corner of cool, away from the futuristic entertainment districts – ready to dive in?
Kick back with cocktails on Keong Saik Road
Just on the outskirts of Chinatown, Keong Saik Road managed to rejuvenate itself form a rundown red-light district, to a street of fancy facades and fusion food.
There are plenty of chic and happening spots here to wine, dine, and dance, and these are a few of my favourites.
Don Ho make an awesome modern-twist on the famous Singapore Sling, with plenty of little tapas-style plates that can be enjoyed at the bar or tables. The floral patterns and clean lines make this a fab early-evening venue with friends.
As the night grows older, and the cocktails start to take effect, weekends call for a visit to Potato Head. Famed for its iconic location in Bali, the Singapore outpost covers a few floors on the corner of Keong Saik, where stacked burgers meet you first before the top level comes through with lovingly crafted cocktails on the colourful roof terrace or cosy library-style bar.
There are countless more options in this small spot of Singapore. Eel lovers will want to head to the slightly hidden Man Man, so popular expect a wait at the door, while Brunch is well catered for in all forms, and more traditional Kuan Food Court sits at the bottom of the street.
Call Chinatown home for your stay
Over the years I’ve stayed in all corners of Singapore, from the beaches of Sentosa to the Instagram favourite, Marina Bay Sands – but Chinatown has always been my go-to for reliable, well-priced accommodation.
On Keong Saik Road, amongst the art deco buildings and colourful fronts, boutique hotels have set up shop, oozing uber-cool finishing touches that verge on hipster.
At Q Loft Hotel 1929 you can chill out on reclaimed dentist chairs in the lobby or take an al fresco bath on your roof terrace, while Naumi Liora offers a more refined heritage feel with its Victorian tiled foyer and neo-classical carvings on the walls.
For those who are looking for a more budget-friendly option, I can personally vouch for Adler Hostel from my backpacking days, a fair-priced, clean and welcoming spot, that offers quality coffee, relaxing communal areas, and curtain enclosed dorm pods.
Contrast contemporary cuisine with market culture
Moments away from the new neighbourhood of cool, the buzzing night market of Singapore Chinatown await.
As street food is not a thing in Singapore, you’ll love the vibe here as an alternative. A hotbed of sizzling plates, lively hawker stools and vibrant colours, this is a far cry from the rooftop cocktails at Potato Head.
Whatever your palate is craving, you’ll be as spoilt as I was in this corner of the city, from favourites such as Hainanese Chicken or Satay to Singapore Crab and more traditional Chinese cuisine. The stalls vary in size, from small spots with communal tables and stools to more formal sit-down affairs. The market gets super busy, both with locals and tourists, and the food quality is exceptional in Singapore, so any health market worries you might think of, are for sure unfounded here.
Just nearby, is the Maxwell Food Centre, another fantastic spot to sample local dishes at great prices. Not quite as colourful or photography friendly as the Food Market Street by the metro, it’s also a bit less hectic, and your sense will focus more on the plethora of dishes available, rather than the noise and bright lights. Although I’ve always managed to miss it, the second floor of the Chinatown Complex, which looks like a rather bland shopping centre from outside, is also packed with food options.
If you would prefer to join a food tour, there are plenty of options available. From those that include Hawker and Michelin samplings, to grander tours, including three-wheeler guides, dinner and boat sailing.
Marvel at the religious monuments
When it comes to religion and monuments in Chinatown, its diversity can all be found crammed into one small corner of the city.
The largest, and most striking here, is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which looks spectacular by both day and night, and if you’re lucky, you’ll witness Monks practising their chats inside as my parents did.
Designed in the bright red style of the Dang Dynasty, you could well mistake its age, in fact being relatively modern. Inside is home to the sacred Buddha tooth, hence the name, and although it’s intricate and the museum factual, unless you are a Monk, you won’t be entering the relic room yourself.
Another smaller, but super picturesque Chinese temple, Thian Hock Keng, is moments away. This one is older, dating back to 1840.
Islam is also represented in the Chinatown quarter, with Masjid Jamae, dating back two hundred years, one of the first buildings you’ll notice if you walk from the CBD.
Two Hindu temples can also be found in the area, as well as those in Little India further across the city. Sri Mariamman Temple is a beauty, with an imposing entrance decorated with sculptures, and a tranquil and colourful interior. On Keong Saik Road, the smaller but still worth a visit Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple awaits.
There is plenty of history and culture to enjoy in the Chinatown part of Singapore, and you can get a good grasp of it from the Chinese Cultural Centre. Many of these streets have stories, from years gone by when they were used for different purposes, and also understanding how temples have moved, and boundaries refined, to create the Chinatown in Singapore that is known today.
For sure, as you walk along Keong Saik Road and its neighbouring streets, you’ll feel a world away from the modern, high-rises in Downtown. The small balconies, wooden shutters and bright painted frontages or murals like on Amoy street are a visual stimulation, a vast comparison to glass and steel, and this pocket of Singapore, for me, is one corner of cool that should be celebrated.