Research things to do in Singapore, and you’ll find the same tourist attractions listed over and over again. Shop the luxury brands on Orchard Road, get a bird’s eye view of Marina Bay on the Singapore Flyer, eat in Chinatown, ride the movies at Universal Studios Sentosa and wash it all down with the original Singapore Sling at Raffles’ Long Bar. While all these things may be fun in their own right, they are also not entirely unique or inspiring, and for God’s sake there are better things to drink for $30 than a Sling!
The average trip for tourists to Singapore lasts 1-3 days, so it can seem daunting to get off the beaten path in such short time, but I can assure you Singapore offers much more than the tourist brochures would have you believe. The city-state is full of art, culture, history, nature and entertainment far beyond what you’ll find at Marina Bay and Sentosa Island. The island’s size and great transportation system makes getting to even the far reaches relatively easy, so if you plan to visit, take a chance on some of my favorite “off the beaten path” things to do in Singapore.
1. Pulau Ubin
Pulau Ubin is the last of Singapore’s traditional kampong fishing villages, situated just a short ferry ride from the northeastern mainland. Also known as “Granite Island”, the residents of Pulau Ubin were once sustained by granite mining in addition to fishing and cultivation of rubber and coffee.
Today the 1020-hectare Pulau Ubin is more nature preserve than village. Rent a bicycle from one of the vendors in the main village to explore the 10km network of mountain biking trails around the island and the Ketam Mountain Bike Park.
Another highlight is the Chek Jawa wetland preserve, a unique intertidal zone consisting of 6 distinct ecosystems. Start the wetland walk at the restored Tudor style cottage, which now serves as a conservation and education center. Step out back to start the 1-km boardwalk through the coastal zone and mangroves for an opportunity to see an assortment of birds, wildlife, marine life and botanical beauty along the way.
For a bird’s eye view of the islet and surrounding coastal area, climb the 20 m Jejawi Tower rising out of the mangrove. Spend the rest of the day getting lost along the many bicycle trails, granite quarries and secluded beaches the island has to offer.
To get to Pulau Ubin, take a taxi to the Changi Point Ferry Terminal. From Orchard Road the price is approximately S$20. To save some cash, you may consider taking the MRT to a nearby station, such as Pasir Ris, then taking a taxi the rest of the way. At the ferry terminal, bumboats service the island from sunrise to sunset for S$2.50, and will typically depart when 10-12 guests arrive. You may have to wait around, although occasionally the captain will decide to depart with fewer than the minimum on board.
There is an information kiosk near the jetty upon arrival, but I found the signs and directories in the huts scattered about the island to be more helpful. While there are several bicycle vendors in the main village, when I arrived at 9:00 am only one was open, so my selection was limited. Consider arriving a little later in the morning if you want the best choice of mountain bike for the more difficult trails. There are a few simple restaurants in the main village, so plan to enjoy an excellent seafood lunch after a long day of hiking and bicycling before returning to the hustle and bustle of the city.
2. Kusu Island
Kusu Island is an interesting little reef outcrop located 5.6 km from the mainland in the Southern Islands. Though it is only 8.5 hectares, Kusu Island is home to three Malay kramats, a popular Chinese temple, a tortoise sanctuary and lovely beach picnic areas.
Kusu means “tortoise” in Chinese, and legend has it that the island was formed as a giant tortoise stranded himself on the reef to save two sailors, a Chinese and a Malay. Today the island is home to a tortoise sanctuary maintained by the Sentosa Parks system as an homage to the legendary tortoise.
The Chinese temple Da Bo Gong was built in 1923 in honor of two deities, Da Bo Gong and Guan Yin. At the top of a hillock, accessed by 152 stairs are shrines (kramats) to a Malay saint, his mother and sister. Ever year during the ninth lunar month thousands of devotees flock to these shrines to seek prosperity, health and peace. It is a remarkable feat given the size of the island. A few sepia photos of the Kusu Pilgrimage are mounted in the kramat.
During the week the last ferry from Kusu Island departs at 4:00 pm. I learned this as I purchased a ticket for the 2:00 pm ferry from the Singapore Island Cruise booth at Marina South Pier which stops first at Saint John Island, meaning I would only have 50 minutes to explore Kusu. I was disheartened, but the weather forecast was bleak for the following day and the ticketing agent assured me one hour would be sufficient to see and do everything on the island. While technically this is true, if you’re going to make the most of your off the beaten path excursion, plan to take an earlier ferry.
On Sundays and public holidays there are five departure times, so getting there and away is more convenient. Pack a picnic to enjoy on the small, clean swath of beach. Take a friend with you, or hangout with the singular stowaway monkey that calls the island home.
As an aside, you could go earlier and enjoy Saint John Island before hopping on the next ferry to Kusu. I didn’t have time for this, but Saint John Island offers its own interesting history, so it may be worth the stop. There are holiday camps on Saint John, which may appeal to anyone really seeking to stay off the beaten path.
3. Bukhit Timah Nature Preserve
Bukit Timah is the highest point in Singapore at 163 m, and the lush tropical rainforest encompassing this hill has been preserved for hikers, bikers and the occasional monkey to enjoy right in the heart of the city-state.
The preserve is 163 hectares of primary rainforest, which shelters what is left of Singapore’s native flora and fauna, particularly macaque monkeys. There is a steep paved path directly to the summit, but spend time on one of the five side trails for a more challenging hike scrambling through mud and over massive dipterocarpaceae roots.
The preserve is home to some of Singapore’s Heritage Trees, a conservation initiative which protects mature trees throughout the city. Currently the park is undergoing restoration projects, so admission is limited to the weekends, but daily access will be available once the efforts are complete.
4. Little Arabia
Singapore’s Little Arabia comprises only a few small blocks, but is beaming with character. It is lesser known than its ethnic enclave counterparts such as Chinatown or Little India, but this neighborhood also offers great shopping, food, history and culture.
The highlight of the neighborhood is the Sultan Mosque, the largest Muslim mosque in Singapore. Take a turn down the adjacent Haji Lane to window shop the very hip and stylish boutiques.
Arab Street, the pedestrian street leading to the mosque, features more affordable silk and handicraft boutiques. I purchased my favorite pashmina here, and it’s one of the few places in upscale Singapore where you just may be able to barter a deal. Nearby is the Malay Heritage Center, where for the price of leaving your shoes at the door you can learn about the rich Malay-Singaporean history of the area.
5. National Museum of Singapore
I stumbled upon the National Museum of Singapore by chance as I headed to Little India one morning. My only goal for Little India was to eat lunch and it was still early, so I decided to kill some time in the museum, and was very happy I did.
On the first floor is a small exhibit focusing on post-WWII Singapore and independence from Britain. Nearby is a two-story multimedia archive which relives the history of Singapore from its primitive tribal days in the early 14th century. Free audio guides with hours of information are provided upon entry to walk you through the masterfully curated exhibits.
The museum is vast, I spent nearly two hours enjoying the multimedia presentations and exhibits and didn’t even finish everything. The special exhibit at that time honored the life of one of Singapore’s most influential playwrights, Kuo Pan Kun, and featured a number of multimedia exhibits to share his works.
Admission to the museum ranges from S$6-10, and is free for students. Occasionally the museum will run specials for international students as well. When I was there, the museum was offering complimentary copies “Ode to Masuri S.N.”, the translated poetry of the man considered the “Father of Modern Malay”. The price of admission is a phenomenal deal for such an excellent museum, especially if you leave with a free token at the end!
6. Eastern Singapore: Katong and Joo Chiat
The neighborhoods of Katong and Joo Chiat in the eastern region are just two more cultural ingredients in the melting pot that is Singapore. The neighborhoods were once retreats for wealthy coconut plantation owners in the early 20th century, populated primarily by English, Eurasians and most notably Peranakans. Today the intricate and colorful facades of the Peranakan row houses are the only remnants of the vibrant pre-war culture in eastern Singapore.
The neighborhood now is full of cafes and eateries serving Malay, Indian and Nonya delicacies, among others. There is ample shopping, including the bustling Geylang Serai Wet Market, replete with tanks of live fish as well as produce, meats and spices. There are plenty of textiles and crafts markets throughout the neighborhoods, offering beautiful silken saris, khimars and handicrafts inspired by the Indian and Malay influences thriving here.
7. Fort Canning Park
The Garden City offers plenty of green spaces, but Fort Canning Park is a green space steeped in history. In the 14th century Malay Kings called the “Forbidden Hill” overlooking what is now the central business district home, and later it served as the headquarters for the British Army’s Far East Command Centre.
The history of the park is greatly preserved. Visitors can visit the Battle Box where the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made in 1942. Other highlights include a spice garden, ASEAN sculpture garden, Keramat (burial ground) for Malay ruler Iskandar Shah, Old Married Soldiers Quarters, sally port and more. The park often hosts concerts, theatrical productions, film screenings and other events, so check out their events page to see if anything is on during your visit.
8. Holland Village
Holland Village is a neighborhood in the northwest region of the city known for exceptional eateries, artisan markets and expatriate watering holes. Holland V, as it’s lovingly referred to by residents, is touted as Singapore’s bohemian enclave. The cool, relaxed, free-spirit culture here is a stark contrast to the rest of the clean-cut city. Spend a day exploring the artisan markets set within colonial architecture and enjoy the café culture at one of Holland V’s many great eateries. Check out the Holland Village Shopping Centre, a two-story indoor craft and home decor boutique market that offers everything from upscale home furnishings to affordable handmade souvenirs.
9. Little India
I was hesitant to include Little India on this list because I had an unpleasant experience which tainted my view of the neighborhood, but upon reflection I decided it was better to discuss in full honesty so that readers could make their own informed decision.
Little India is a vibrant neighborhood. The fragrant aroma of spice and incense hangs thick in the air, the architecture is colorful, and the food is cheap and delicious. You can also find an assortment of cheap electronics, music, movies, silks and much more available on the street, in the shop houses and in the sprawling 24-hour Mustafa Center.
A visitor to Singapore would be remiss in skipping this neighborhood, particularly for the food. However, solo female travelers should remember to dress appropriately and expect a little ogling when walking alone. This really isn’t news to the seasoned solo female traveler, but as I typically always have my knight-in-shining-armor in tow, I am usually a little more complacent about these things. I should have known better, and because I didn’t go in expecting it I was angry about how I was looked at by the men aimlessly strolling the alleys. It is worth noting that my experience occurred just days after the Delhi bus attack, so my opinions were already a bit colored by the event. I left the neighborhood steaming and vowed never to return and tell anyone looking for a recommendation to avoid the neighborhood at all costs. In retrospect, that advice is misguided. Singapore as a whole is an incredibly safe place for solo female travelers, and Little India is worth experiencing, so long as you go in knowing what to expect and take the necessary precautions to stay alert and protect yourself.
As you can see, Singapore offers a number of interesting neighborhoods and attractions to explore. No matter how long your visit lasts, make some time to get off the beaten path.
Make this list a Top 10 list! What other off the beaten path attractions do you have for Singapore? Leave a comment below.