By Dr Nicola Cann, Educational Psychologist & Guest Contributor
When I first moved here in 2019 I came with dreams of exploring the most exotic parts of Asia, jetting about on adventures to Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka whenever the opportunity arose… Skip forward three years and bar a few exciting holidays back in 2019, I haven’t left this small city state for 20 months. It’s fair to say that claustrophobia has become a familiar feeling, but in fact it’s also led me to love Singapore in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. It’s easy enough to find the fabulous rooftop bars, Michelin star restaurants, and massive shopping malls, so instead I want to show you the lesser known aspects of this city state in this ‘alternative guide’ to Singapore.
My coffee uncle at Chin San Coffee Powder, weighing out the coffee beans
For the coffee lovers:
Singapore takes coffee to a whole new level. If you’re a coffee fiend like me I urge you to explore the local coffee scene. Sure, there’s a Starbucks on every street corner, but if you really want to understand Singapore’s coffee culture you’re going to need to learn a whole new vocabulary. The local kopi (Singaporean for coffee) is so strong it’ll keep you buzzing for hours, and with the addition of condensed milk, evaporated milk, sugar and butter, your arteries are going to take a hit. Order like a pro by learning the difference between kopi o (black with sugar), kopi c (evaporated milk and sugar), and kopi kosong (no milk or sugar). My favourite place to enjoy a thick cup of kopi is Pek Kio wet market, one of the oldest we markets in Singapore. This is also where I bought my coffee beans from for three years from the friendly uncle at Chin San Coffee Powder. Alternatively you could while away an afternoon in one of the hundreds of trendy minimalist cafes around Singapore, sipping on your cold brew and watching the world go by. Apartment Coffee is one of my favourites.
For the nature enthusiast:
This one might come as a surprise, but in this bustling metropolis you’ll find a range of interesting creatures and plenty of fellow nature lovers. It’s not unusual to spot jungle fowl wandering around the central business district, or to see monitor lizards casually swimming along the canals, but if you’re looking for something more exotic you should head to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a snake or get a close up encounter with a crocodile.
Ok, so this one’s not an actual croc, but you get the idea!
Much of Singapore’s wildlife has been squeezed into the less populated areas (of which there aren’t many remaining), but the Government is increasingly prioritising the preservation of local flora and fauna. There are also many locals who care about conservation, and if you’re keen to have an authentic introduction to Singapore’s biodiversity I can highly recommend going on an excursion with Singapore Adventurous Nature-Lovers. This group runs regular trips around Singapore where you can kayak through mangroves, or roam around a national park at night looking for scorpions with a UV torch.
Kayaking the islands around Singapore
For the culture vultures:
One of my favourite aspects of Singapore is the eclectic mix of cultures evident throughout the city. With four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), and of course the unofficial language of Singlish, the multi-cultural nature of this city-state is evident everywhere. However if you venture beyond the city centre you’ll be rewarded with weird and wonderful experiences that evidence the multitude of influences on today’s Singapore. The city is peppered with temples representing the range of religions Singapore is home to, and all year round there is some kind of festival being celebrated.
For me one of the places that really epitomises Singapore’s traditional values is Haw Par Villa, one of the most unusual theme parks I’ve ever visited. Described on the website as ‘quirky yet enlightening’, Haw Par Villa represents Asian culture, history and religion through life-sized dioramas of folk stories, all of which have a moral lesson and most of which are gruesome. At Haw Par Villa you can enjoy learning about Asian culture whilst simultaneously scaring your children into behaving. Every Singaporean you speak to will have been taken there by their parents as a child.
Haw Par Villa: Terrifying and educational
For the art lovers:
If you’re interested in performing arts then you are also in for a treat. There is always something going on at Esplanade Theatres, from performances to dance workshops and music festivals. Head towards the giant durian and you won’t be disappointed!
There are also plenty more personal experiences to be had, with many passionate locals keen to initiate you into the arts community. Get involved by joining a workshop with Tania Goh at Spanish Dance Singapore. Her passion for Spanish dance is highly infectious and she will take you on a journey of discovery not only of Spanish culture but also of the Spanish dance scene in Singapore. If you’re lucky she might even invite you to a flashmob!
The warm and wonderful Tania Goh leading me and friends in a Spanish dance flashmob.
For the Foodies:
Anyone who knows anything about Singapore will know that the food scene is world renowned. From bustling hawkers to Michelin starred fine dining, and even Michelin star hawkers, there’s something for everyone. The diversity is astounding, with wonderful fusion and hybrid versions of familiar dishes, representing the eclectic mix of cultures. For those of you who love to learn about food as well as enjoy consuming it I recommend Lagnaa Barefoot Dining, possibly the friendliest restaurant in Singapore. Learn to cook like a local, take on their famous Chilli Challenge, or help select the monthly specials by attending a degustation dinner.
Four versions of butter chicken lovingly cooked at Lagnaa
If you want to branch out from Indian, I would also recommend arranging a cooking class with Hungry Mummies Cooking School. Penelope, the founder, is passionate about teaching families how to cook local Singaporean dishes, and helped me create the best Nasi Lemak I’ve ever tasted.
My delicious homemade nasi lemak
For the adventure seekers:
Whilst Singapore is known for luxury and glamour, it is also a place with lots of opportunity for adventure. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. From climbing around in the treetops at Forest Adventure, to the roller coaster thrills of Universal Studios, and a multitude of water sports like wakeboarding and jet packing, you can really work up an appetite for those elaborate dinners.
As I leave Singapore to start a new adventure, I hope I have done it justice in this guide. The quirks and contradictions have become endearingly familiar for me and Singapore will now always be one of my homes. So please go and explore some of these alternative sights, and meet some of the people mentioned here. If you do, I’m sure you’ll end up loving Singapore just as much as I do.
Evidence of the one time I managed to stand up and stay up!
Please note our destination guides contain personal recommendations and not professional advice
If you liked this article check out Seoul: The city that never sleeps