A trip to Singapore is never complete without a visit to the island-state's ethnic enclaves. Imagine the full cultural scope of Asia, compressed into a handful of districts scattered throughout Singapore - that sums up the experience of visiting the ethnic districts that serve the Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities that call Singapore home. Apart from the cultural high, you'll also get your fill and more of shopping and dining at every ethnic stop.
Chinatown - The Immigrant Chinese Experience
Chinatown was born out of Sir Stamford Raffles' policy of allocating a district to each ethnicity in Singapore - his 1828 town plan allocated the area south of the Singapore River to the island's immigrant Chinese, who built Chinatown's narrow streets and shophouses.
Today, Chinatown's unique history can be seen right at street view, starting with the enclave's colorful shophouses (some of which have been converted into hotels and museums - even ad agencies!). If you want a more concise, immersive look at the area's history, visit Chinatown Heritage Center.
The Chinatown Food Street and Night Market is a must-see for visitors who want to sample the district's take on traditional Chinese food. Visit the oldest Taoist temple in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng Temple, to get a look at the religious activities of the old-time Chinese residents of Singapore. On Sago Street, you can find the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, another major religious destination for Singapore's Chinese Buddhist community.
Not all of Chinatown is culturally Chinese; Sri Mariamman Temple, a Hindu center of worship, and the Masjid Jamae, a mosque, are located at the heart of Chinatown.
Chinese New Year in Singapore is the best time to visit Chinatown, as whole streets host bazaars and roadside stalls selling lucky foods, lamps, and souvenirs.
- MRT Stop: Chinatown MRT station (NE4)
- Shopping Centers in Chinatown, Singapore
- Chinatown Images - Images of Singapore
- Images of Shopping in Singapore - Chinatown
Geylang Serai - Modern Malay Culture
Geylang Serai, east of Singapore's central business district, is home to the Malay Village, an exhibition of traditional Malay culture. There are shops, restaurants, and a museum which all hearken back to the traditional Malay "kampong" or village, offering visitors an immersive look into the Malay way of life.
The shophouses and hawker centers along the main stretch of Geylang Road offer great cheap eats, and you can wander down the numbered lorongs (streets) in search of better dining bargains.
The lorongs of Geylang, unfortunately, comprise one of Singapore's authorized red-light districts, centered on Lorongs 14, 16, and 18. The district's legal flesh trade, combined with the presence of a large number of budget hotels, makes Geylang one of Singapore's seedier districts, although nowhere near as seedy as its counterparts elsewhere in the region.
- MRT Stop: 10-minute walk from Paya Lebar MRT station (EW8)
- The Inn Crowd - Food Safari at Geylang (offsite)
Little India - A Whiff of the Subcontinent
Little India has the most unique aroma of all of Singapore's ethnic enclaves - chalk it up to the spices and scents sold and used through its many streets. Little India is home to the 24-hour mall known as Mustafa Centre, where retail literally never sleeps. Other souvenir shopping stops include the Little India Arcade, Tekka Market, and the stalls over on Campbell Lane, where traditional saris can be fitted and bought.
- MRT Stop: Little India MRT station (NE7)
- Review of Muthu's Curry
- Images of Shopping in Singapore - Little India
- Singapore Hotel Picks - Little India, Singapore Hotels
Katong/Joo Chiat - Peranakan Culture Central
The Straits Chinese, or Peranakan, represent a fusion of Malay and Chinese culture that lives on in Katong's vintage architecture and the Katong Antique House. Visit Koon Seng Road and East Coast Road for a closer look at shophouses and terrace houses with a uniquely Peranakan flair.
The Katong area is also well-known for its great ethnic food, mostly concentrated along East Coast Road's hawker stalls.
- Bus to East Coast Road: take SBS 10, 12, 14, 32, 40 or 155 from Bedok MRT station (EW5)
- Bus to Joo Chiat: take SBS 15 or 155 from Paya Lebar (EW8) or Eunos (EW7) MRT stations.
Kampong Glam - Old-Time Malay Traditions
Kampong Glam used to be home to Singapore's old Malay royalty. The former Istana, or royal palace, now houses the Malay Heritage Center and its eight galleries showcasing the history and culture of Singapore's Malays.
Wednesdays at the Malay Heritage Center are reserved for interactive performances featuring dancers in traditional Malay costumes, and hands-on demonstrations of Malay musical instruments.
The district has also gentrified to some extent with new fashion stores and hip restaurants and bars opening in the area. But Kampong Glam really comes alive during Ramadan, as outdoor food stalls and bazaars crop up to feed hungry Malays after sundown.
Nearby Arab Street used to be an enclave for Singapore's Arab community. A significant Arab and Indonesian presence still calls Arab Street home, their members having opened numerous antique shops, fabric outlets, and souvenir stores. There's even a tombstone store here, managed by a real stonemason.
Singapore's largest mosque, the Sultan Mosque, can be found at the corner of Arab Street and North Bridge Road. The Sultan Mosque was built in the 1920s, and its golden dome is hard to miss. Visitors are welcome from 9am to 1pm, but must dress modestly to enter the area.
- MRT Stop: Kampong Glam is a 10-minute walk from Bugis MRT station (EW12)
- Malay Heritage Center - Official Site (offsite)
- Images of Shopping in Singapore - Bugis and Arab Street