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More than Marina Bay: How Singapore is shaping up to be the ASEAN capital of cool

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Jul 21, 2022 6:48 pm Updated Jul 28, 2022 8:30 pm

In a world where nonchalance is the norm, there is nothing cooler than pouring your heart and soul into something. Welcome to Singapore, a melting pot of culture where the people are kind and everything is made with heart.

The last time I visited Singapore, I was a teenager who lazily trudged behind my parents while we visited the usual tourist spots like Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay. I had seen it through jaded eyes at the time, so when the opportunity knocked that I would get the chance to explore the underrated parts of the island with new eyes, I saw it as a sign.

The colorful Koon Seng Road houses that entices all tourists.

Similar to my once-jaded self, the world is also entering a rebirth. Along with other Asian countries, Singapore is opening its borders to fully vaccinated tourists to immerse themselves in their great island and explore its many riches. And just like tourists now, it is hungry for things beyond the norm.

Dubbed as the most popular tourist destination for Filipinos, Singapore has proven itself time and time to be a country founded on a marriage of cultures, not races. Whether you're the type to play safe when traveling or looking for a proper adventure, Singapore has everything you're looking for time (and money) well spent.

Grab your walking shoes, sunglasses, and passport: Here are the underrated sights, sounds, and surprises of Singapore that you can't miss.

The main events:

Tiong Bahru and its quirky shops

Our first stop was Tiong Bahru, a quaint housing estate that is the ideal first destination for anyone who wants to meet Singapore where it is: as a quirky blend of the old and new.

After you eat a delicious hearty meal at its Hawker Center food stops, you can freely explore the street with its enchanting vintage buildings. The quiet neighborhood houses a selection of modern cafes and lifestyle shops, so much so you can't help but wonder how they thought up the name of some of them.

Here are a few of the quirky shop names we came across:

With Tiong Bahru literally translating to "new cemetery," the gentrification is clear in its streets, as you can will see both elderly tenants and yuppies walking the sprawling space. For tourists, it's the perfect place for Instagrammable photos and to know a little more about what's in store for the future of Singapore.

Aside from the idyllic yet colorful shops, there are also a number of murals scattered around Singapore that serve as a kind of easter egg for true travelers.

Though you're not expected to take a photo with each mural, it's a welcome surprise wherever you visit the island that there's always a distinct art style you can depend on.

Just some of the interactive murals you can find around the Singapore neighborhoods

Must try: Creamier ice cream shop and The Monument Lifestyle store

The colorful shophouses of Joo Chiat/Katong and Koon Seng Road

If there's one thing Filipinos are always looking for in our travel photos, it's culture and color. Head on over to the wonderful street of Joo Chiat/Katong (yes, it has two names) to get your fill of more trendy cafes and Singapore's Peranakan culture.

Peranakan is the term for individuals with a mix of Chinese and Malay blood born and raised in Singapore—and Joo Chiat/Katong is where their culture thrives. Similar to the Philippines, there's something endearing about a culturally rich country like Singapore having its own proud subcultures.

Upon strolling through the gorgeous shops that have been kept clean and intact for years, don't forget to grab some souvenirs and perhaps learn more about Peranakan culture from Rumah Kim Choo, a heritage gallery that offers workshops, private boutique tours, and delicious rice dumplings. The establishment has been open since 1945 and is a staple for any trip to Joo Chiat/Katong.

Their rice dumplings go for 4.50SGD (P182) to 5SGD (P202) per piece. They also offer 20SGD (P810) bundle packs for less!

Traditional Peranakan snacks that you can get at 8 Kim Choo Holdings Pte Ltd.

Once you've explored the shops, get ready for a touch-up as you'll soon reach 7 Koon Seng Road, one of Instagram's most famous spots for photoshoots in Singapore. With Peranakan culture at the forefront, try to look past the aesthetically-pleasing pastel colors and take notice of the beautifully detailed motifs and tiles with each structure.

However, keep in mind that Koon Seng Road is a quiet residential subdivision, so it's best not to crowd the colorful entrances, and always be respectful of the actual residents.

The famous colorful houses are also blocked by a wide road for motorists, so look left and right before you achieve that amazing IG-worthy shot.

What a photo of Koon Seng Road looks like from across the street. Photo from Gaby Gloria.
What usual Joo Chiat/Katong shops look like.

Must visit shops: Cat Socrates and Awfully Chocolate

Chinatown theatrical tours

One does not simply go to Singapore without exploring all the cultures it has to offer. Aside from the well-known delicacies of Chinatown, there is also a treasure trove of sights waiting to be experienced. If you're looking for a tour that will fully immerse you in Chinatown's history, look no further than Let's Go Singapore's Theatrical Tours.

Similar to Carlos Celdran's Walk This Way guided tours of local historical landmarks such as Intramuros, Binondo, and Quiapo, Let's Go Singapore offers tours with professional actors taking you through Singapore.

Meet Fei Jie.

For our tour, we met our guide by the name of Feng Jie from the 1950s that was "magically transported" to the year 2022. Feng Jie introduces herself as a majie, or what is referred to as Chinese domestic workers that went to Singapore to provide for their families.

Together with her knowledge of Chinatown's roots and "personal experiences," we went exploring with the amazing actor while she gave us a detailed and impassioned tour through the eyes of, well, a time traveler! 

Let's Go Singapore's theatrical tours go for 60SGD (P2,429) per head. They also offer bike, food, nature, and boat tours of Singapore's various sights.

Must do: Grab some famous Kaya spread at Tong Heng pastries.

Spotted: Conan The Detective and Ultraman in Chinatown.

Vespa Sidecar Tour

As much as I wanted to make this travel guide as evenly reviewed as possible, I can't lie: The Vespa Sidecar Tour was the highlight of this writer's Singapore trip.

Serving as one of Singapore's UNESCO World Heritage trips and the world's first vintage Vespa sidecar tours, Singapore Sidecars essentially lets your ride in the sidecar of a drool-worthy Vespa while your guide takes you down Singapore's roads less taken. You can pick from a variety of colors, and I chose the red one that perfectly stood out from the rest.

You can take your pick of Vespa and tour guide.

Depending on your tour guide and your overall mood, it can either be a chatty tour of Singapore as you breeze through quirky alleys and wave to the locals that will even take your photos for you.

During our 60-minute ride through the vibrant neighborhood of Kampong Gelam, we passed by adorable school children, friendly foreigners, and (forgive my tears) a wedding prenup photoshoot at the National Museum of Singapore. Now that's something you don't see every day.

My tour guide, Yusri, was a quiet, unassuming man who almost whispered the factoids of the Kampong Gelam as we wove in and out of the local sceneries, but when he posed for photos, he automatically did the 'hang loose' pose and made a gaping mouth face.

Riding a Vespa is an experience in it and of itself, but riding it through Singapore is truly a sight beyond words. As our caravan neared the skyway, we saw an impeccable view of the Marina Bay Sands that almost brought a tear to my eye.

The gorgeous view that took our breath away.

Now, this was Singapore—something that brings comfort and familiarity from years ago, presented in an entirely new execution that is almost too good to be true, and yet here it is in the flesh. Blink, and it's gone.

At the end of the hour-long trip, I was already teaching Yusri Filipino words and calling him kuya. I told him that he should remember that for his future Filipino tourists, and his now-genuine smile seemed to say that he would.

Kuya Yusri and I. I finally caught on his favorite hand pose by the end of the tour.

The sidecar tour is one of those experiences that make you soak in the sun, feel ecstatic for the future, and allow you to be fully present in the moment—and isn't that what we all really want from our travels?

For this experience, you might have to save up more than usual as the Vespa Sidecar tour goes for 180SGD (P,7289) per head. But promise, it's totally worth it.

Must do: Nothing. There is no pressure for this main event. Simply enjoy the moment and Singapore's gorgeous views.

Side quests:

If you have a few extra days and want to further explore, head to these shops for a look into the emerging destinations and local wonderful shops of Singapore. 

Curated Records 

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Curated Records is an independent vinyl store tucked in the quaint shophouses of Tiong Bahru and Kampong Gelam. This is a must-visit for music lovers and vinyl enthusiasts, as they hold an extensive collection of old and new titles.

True audiophiles can spend hours on end flipping through their collection, and that's exactly what the owner, Tremon Lim expects from his customers. Follow their Instagram account here.

Tip: Once you buy a record, you can sample it and have a mini-listening party in the store's open music room. 

Vintage Camera Museum

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Before the dawn of instant filters and mobile phones, vintage cameras were all the range. In Vintage Camera Museum Singapore, the entire history of photography is on display from the first ever portable camera to the world's smallest camera. Other displays include spy cameras, pigeon cameras, and more.

This is a must for anyone interested in the art of photographers and essentially anyone who uses a camera these days (so, everyone!) 

Tip: Some cameras can be held for photos. Just make sure to ask the owner.

Opera Gallery

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Nestled at the entrance of ION Mall in the busy district of Orchard is Singapore's Opera Gallery, a modern and contemporary gallery that will give you a glimpse of Singapore's emerging and beloved artists. Opera itself has 13 locations worldwide, with other Asian entries in Seoul and Hong Kong.

While a trip to the sprawling malls of Singapore isn't new, Opera offers a breath of fresh air before you stock up on shopping and souvenirs for your loved ones back home. Not to mention it's great for some IG-worthy shots.

Tip: Opera Gallery is free to visit and stroll around, just make sure to be respectful of the art pieces at all times.