Singapore, a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural Southeast Asian island nation off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, is more than just a quick stop en route to the region’s more talked-about destinations like Bali or Bangkok. For centuries, immigrants from China, India and Europe have made the 276 square miles of Singapore home, creating a cultural mix of 5.4 million people unique to this part of the world.
Bypass Singapore’s famed zoo, its casino complexes and Sentosa—the theme park-esque island resort off its southern coast—and spend your holiday sampling Singapore’s lesser-known culinary delights or exploring its overlooked parks and nature preserves. Admire the temples, churches and mosques. Lose yourself among the colonial-era Palladian, Renaissance and Neoclassical civic buildings. Contemplate the modern and postmodern office towers that punctuate the skyline. And when you’re on the streets, fitting in like a local, attempt to converse in Singlish, an English-based language comprised of English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Tamil vocabulary, which are all languages and dialects spoken by the majority of Singaporeans.
Singapore is celebrating its Jubilee year, or its 50th year of independence, throughout 2015 and commemorative events line the calendar. From February’s Chingay, a “We <3 SG”-themed street parade, to the October opening of National Gallery Singapore, which will house the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art, no matter when you visit, there will be cause for celebration.
Begin the day at Tong Ah Eating House on Keong Saik Road, one of the city’s many kopitiams, or old school coffee shops. Kopi means “coffee” in Malay and tiam means “shop” in Hokkien. Some seven hundred kopitiams dot the island and they can be often found on the ground floor of Singapore’s public housing estates. Kopitiams are where people from the neighborhood gather to slow down and appreciate the beauty and rhythm of the community. For some sustenance, order kaya toast, a slice of bread or a roll smeared with pandan-flavored coconut custard and topped with thick slabs of cold butter. The traditional morning dish is served with hot kopi or teh (tea) and soft-boiled eggs seasoned with soy sauce.
Kopitiams operate using a special lingo. To order like a pro, ask for kopi-c, coffee with evaporated milk; kopi-o, black coffee with sugar; or kopi-o kosong, unsweetened black coffee.
Sungei Buloh Photo by Flickr/Brian Jeffrey
Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, in the Northwest, is a jewel of an ecosystem where you can spot exotic migratory birds like whimbrels and plovers and resident herons and sunbirds. Stroll along the 1,640-foot long Mangrove Boardwalk, which winds its way through the mangrove trees. In the 19th century, mangroves were found all along the coastline of Singapore, but were cleared for industry and housing. Today, forests of mangroves can only be found on offshore islands and nature reserves. Look out for Singapore’s monitor lizards, which can grow up to 6 feet long.
Next, travel about 14 miles from the city center to the nearby Kranji Countryside, Singapore’s rustic corner that few visitors know exists. The farms here champion farm-to-table practices and educate city-dwellers about where their food comes from. Lunch at Poison Ivy, a bistro at farming collective and organic growing education center Bollywood Veggies’. The menu carries Indian fare commonly eaten in Singapore such as samosas and co-owner Ivy Singh-Lim’s creations, such as otah (fish paste with spices) omelets and banana curry, which you will not be able to find anywhere else. Produce like eggplant, okra and pumpkins are often available for sale, as well as the farm’s 20 varieties of bananas.
The Kranji Countryside Express runs daily from the Kranji mass rapid transit (MRT) station and stops at both Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Bollywood Veggies.
Singapore is home to a small Eurasian population. The minority’s origins can be traced back to some of the region’s oldest colonial settlements: Singapore, Malacca, Penang, Goa, Macau and Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. Quentin’s Eurasian Restaurant is the Eurasian Community House’s in-house restaurant. The building also houses a small museum about the history and heritage of Singapore’s Eurasian community and serves as a gathering and recreational center for that population. Work up an appetite by learning about Eurasian sports and how World War II affected Eurasians at the Eurasian Heritage Centre. Then, head downstairs to Quentin’s to sample authentic Singapore Eurasian cooking such as patchri, which is eggplant in a sweet, sour and spicy sauce, and curry debal, which is chicken cooked in a fiery and rich curry.
After dinner, kick back at Blu Jaz, a laid-back music venue in Kampung Glam, Singapore’s historic Malay quarter. The three-floor lounge hosts a variety of live bands and DJs from across the region.
For a late night nosh, head to Geylang, one of Singapore’s red-light districts which functions as Singapore’s business center in daylight, but come sundown transforms into a bumper to bumper sea of party-seekers hopping from hole-in-the-wall club to seedy bar. Foodies flock to curbside plastic tables to chow down on snacks under 10 Singapore dollars (8 USD) like on frog congee (frog rice porridge) at G7 Sinma Live Seafood Restaurant, tau huay (silky bean curd) at Rochor Beancurd House and beef kway teow (rice noodles and beef cooked in black bean sauce) at Lorong 9 Beef Kway Teow.