Singapore’s Ethnic Neighbourhood Exploration

I love exploring different ethnic neighbourhoods. I believe, why visit one city, when you could explore four? The idea might sound a bit preposterous, but it’s entirely possible in Singapore.

Singapore is the ultimate definition of a melting pot. I love how you can go for a walk here and see a mosque on one corner, a Buddhist temple on the next and then a cathedral further along. Singaporeans come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, but live in complete harmony. Singapore’s neighbourhoods are not to be missed. 

As a result there are many colourful and unique ethnic enclaves in Singapore just waiting to be explored. One of my favourite things to do when I visit this vibrant city is to spend a day exploring a particular area and soaking up all it has to offer from the sights, smells, colours, food and the people. Besides the Singapore you have come to see, there are also three distinct neighbourhoods that are definitely worth a visit.

Singapore’s Chinatown

Just like most major cities around the world, Singapore is home to a little slice of China. Since a significant amount of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese. The cultures within Singapore’s Chinatown are interwoven with the tiny nation’s own heritage. Plus – with some of the city-state’s most incredible architecture and even better food – Chinatown is just one of those places that travellers can’t miss.

What you need to do in Chinatown:

  • Witness the dizzying flurry of architecture, food stalls and shopping.
  • See the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, a towering scarlet-red temple that’s equal parts a spiritual outpost and educational experience. It’s hard to believe that such a massive structure was constructed to house a single tooth! But it’s interior boasts not just a relic room, but ornately decorated prayer rooms and shrines, too.
  • Try some of the area’s most famous dishes. The best place to do it is at the Chinatown Food Complex, hugging the side of a bustling wet market and one of Singapore’s largest hawker centers.
  • Explore the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu Temple. It’s a stone’s throw away and a cultural adventure it its own right.

MRT (train station): Chinatown o Telok Ayer.

Tekka – Singapore’s Little India

The first thing that strikes you about Little India is the buzz in the air, be it day or night. It’s as if the minute you enter Serangoon Road, you are transported to a different land. The smell of spice is wafting out from the shops. Bollywood music is playing. Colour everywhere you look. It’s India without the cows and Tekka is not to be missed. 

Located east of the Singapore River and right along the most economical pockets of accommodation for backpackers. Little India is the most colorful and vibrant part of Singapore. The streets are lined with stores. You’ll find everything from shiny gold jewelry to glitzy Indian outfits. As well as steel kitchen ware and awe-inspiring Indian spices and groceries. Vendors selling carts of fruit, vegetables and garlands of marigolds and fragrant jasmine sit in the vicinity of Hindu temples with their bright carvings of deities looking down at you. Little India is a delicious slice of the real thing, replicating the same feast for the senses that draws tens of thousands to India year after year.

What you need to do in Tekka:

  • Little India Arcade’s maze of storefronts set in a 1920’s shophouse building. The shops sell Indian souvenirs and imitation jewelry, bangle stalls, henna artists and traditional Indian sweets.
  • Try to guess which vegetables are Bhindi (okra), Methi (fenugreek leaves), yams, green beans and many other things you would find in your typical supermarket along buffalo Road.
  • Visit the largest wet market in Singapore at the Tekka Centre. Head upstairs first, for a vast array of Indian clothes. Then downstairs try to find the shop selling freshly grated coconut, the stall dedicated to Thai and burmese cuisine, the stall selling bean curd and bean sprouts and even the stall selling all the parts of a banana plant (considered a delicacy in South India) – stem, flower, ripe and unripe banana and banana leaf.
  • Try the Set Dosa, Rava Idli, Neer Dosa and Bisibelebath (a spicy rice) at MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms), a South Indian vegetarian restaurant chain from Bangalore that serves the most delicious dosas & idlis (a variety of rice and lentil  pancakes) and different kinds of rice dishes.

MRT (train station): Little India.

Kampung Glam – Singapore’s Little Arabia

Kampung Glam is the Arab/ Muslim quarter, and a curious one. Arab Street is a pedestrian street with many commerces. Nearby, Haji Lane is a narrow street with many bars, street art and a hipster vibe. There’s also the Malay Heritage Centre which I haven’t had time to visit.

In the early 19th century, the colorful, predominantly Muslim district of Kampong Glam became home to the Singapore’s Malay aristocracy. It attracted traders from Middle Eastern countries, growing into a diverse Muslim community–containing a blend of Malay, Indonesian and Arab populations.

Today, the area is an aesthetically pleasing and culturally vibrant district. The neighbourhood is filled with rows of textile shops, curry houses and the imposing Sultan Mosque.

What you need to do in Kampung Glam:

  • Photograph Haji Lane. The colourful graffiti-tagged lane boasts numerous shops, markets stalls and the odd hip cafe and restaurant.
  • Visit the Sultan Mosque (Opening Hours: 09:00 – 13:00 and 14:00 – 16:00 Daily
  • Check Out the Persian Carpets shops. Many of the shop keepers in Kampong Glam hail from the same country as the carpets they sell, so strike up a conversation and you might learn an interesting cultural fact that’s not in a standard encyclopaedia, or get recommendations for the best authentic Middle Eastern restaurants in the area.

MRT (train station): Bugis.

Have you visited a city with such strong ethnic neighborhoods like Singapore’s before? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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24 year old dysfunctional backpacker, creative & storyteller. Cannot do a cartwheel, but I can eat an entire lemon so if that’s not impressive I don’t know what is. Follow my (mis)adventures around the world!