Skip this, see that: The real sites worth checking out in Singapore

October 05, 2016
Jaclynn Seah

Guidebooks and brochures can be really useful in giving you the must-dos when you visit a new place — but if you want to avoid the tourist crowds following the same beaten paths, here are some suggestions from an actual Singaporean on what you can do for that authentic local experience in Singapore.

Futuristic-looking trees in the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

The gardens are great, but surprise! They’re not the only site to see.

Instead of…
Getting your street food fix at Newton Circus or Gluttons Square

How about…
Mingling with the locals in the heartland hawker centres

With the city’s reputation for good street food, many food courts and hawker centres in the central shopping and tourist districts now house several franchise locations of popular Singaporean hawker stalls. While these chains have the advantage of being very convenient for the sightseeing tourist, you’ll have to join locals at their favourite out-of-the-way haunts to really enjoy hawker food the Singaporean way. My favourite non-touristy hawker centre recommendations include Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, Tekka Food Centre, and Tiong Bahru Market — these hawker centres are well-known in Singapore for boasting a wide variety of great food, and are favourite local haunts. This list is a good place to start.

Alternatively, consult some Singaporean food apps and websites like Hungrygowhere or Burpple to see what Singaporeans are hankering for. Or if you have some time, just look for the longest queue in the food centre and start there — Singaporeans are willing to wait a long time for the best food, so you can be sure that whatever it is, it’ll be worth the queue!

Instead of…
Visiting the weird and wonderful Gardens by the Bay

How about…
Discovering the wilderness of Kranji Countryside

Gardens by the Bay is a technological marvel and a relief for anyone looking to enjoy greenery while escaping Singapore’s humidity. There is nothing in the world quite like these alien-looking pods and futuristic trees that attract tourists in droves. But instead of stepping into the future, you could step back in time and spend a day out in the northwestern end of Singapore in a little-visited place called Kranji Countryside. One of the last remaining areas with working farms, it is quite an unseen side of Singapore, and a far cry from the bustling metropolis cityscape that you see in the tourist brochures.

Visit Hay Dairies, a goat milking farm and the only livestock farm left in Singapore; see how bullfrogs are reared for food at Jurong frog farm; and make sure you stop by Bollywood Veggies for a good vegetarian meal. Kranji Countryside is not the most accessible place to visit in Singapore as it is not on the MRT (subway), but recent developments now include a shuttle bus service from the MRT, making this place much easier for tourists to visit.

Instead of…
Visiting tourist attractions on Sentosa Island

How about…
Gear up for a day of nature on Pulau Ubin

Singapore’s most popular offshore island, Sentosa, is great for theme parks and a day of work, but they do not give you a true sense of Singapore’s natural landscape — the infrastructure is built up and the brand names are imported from overseas, as is the white sand on the beaches of Sentosa Island in the south. For a proper Singaporean offshore island experience, I suggest heading north on a ferry to Pulau Ubin instead, an island which has retained much of its island feeling and natural surroundings.

There are no roller coasters here on Pulau Ubin, but renting a bike and riding around the island on dirt tracks is an adventure in itself. You may not see sharks up close like you could in the S.E.A. Aquarium, but you can get down and dirty with the wildlife during lowtide in the natural mangrove wetlands of Chek Jawa. The only starred accommodation you will get on this island is if you decide to camp out at Jelutong campsite under the wide-open sky.

Instead of…
Picking up kitschy merlion keychains or boring chocolates at the duty free shops

How about…
Get some good Singaporean-designed souvenirs

Leave the tacky apparel and cliched tchotchkes for the tourists and pick up some properly Singaporean souvenirs instead. A surprisingly good place to start would be the gift shops located at the centrally located National Museum, Singapore Art Museum, and some of the other cultural institutions. The in-house MUSEUM LABEL has a range of fun and locally flavoured items that make great gifts for yourself and friends. And while you are there, why not check out the exhibits and see a different side of Singapore?

Another thing to look out for are the hipster and designer pop-up markets like Market of Artist and Designers (MAAD) market at the Red Dot Museum or the Public Garden, which organises various events throughout the year — often you’ll find lots of local handmade goodies at these temporary stalls, and even the chance to chat with the crafters in person. A regular event at MAAD is Portraits After Dark, where you can volunteer to sit for portrait sketching by a group of illustrators, and if you like what you see, you can buy it for just $10 — how’s that for an original souvenir?! These markets are seasonal, so check the websites for dates and locations.

And for the online shopper of today, check out portals that carry a range of Singaporean-designed goods like The Farm Store, Naiise, and Supermama.