Both a popular hipster hangout and a historical site, the Kampong Gelam district is a thriving community where past and present cultures converge.
You may recognise it by the 19th Century shophouses that line the streets, the iconic golden-domed Sultan Mosque and Instagrammable narrow streets, their walls awash with vibrant murals.
But look closer and you’ll also find unique home-grown boutiques, quirky museum experiences, a chance to create street art of your own, and trendy F&B joints that serve up surprising gastronomic combinations.
Case in point: There is a halal diner that serves Malay-inspired American cuisine, including a saucy, messy, crazy toolang “pizza”. (It’s highly recommended by our Kampong Gelam insider – scroll down to the end of this story for details.)
So, if you’re looking to clear your leave and escape the stresses of work and home, skip the weekend crowds and book a weekday staycation in this historical precinct that’s overflowing with surprises at every turn.
Your Singapoliday starts with these eight fabulous must-see places and attractions (hipsters, you’ll want to bookmark these noteworthy spots)!
Staycay in a 100-year-old heritage shophouse
Want to feel like royalty? Book a staycation at The Sultan, a beautifully restored cluster of Grade A conservation shophouses-turned-boutique hotel, standing in the heart of Kampong Gelam.
You won’t be able to miss its ornate facade with full-length shuttered French windows and tall columns. Conveniently located within walking distance to all the attractions in this list, it’s the ideal place to soak in the nostalgic vibes of old Singapore.
Take a zen moment at the rooftop garden or bamboo walk, and snap the perfect Instagram shot along the traditional five-foot walkway (a key feature of olden-day shophouses!). Book directly here to enjoy perks such as complimentary daily breakfast, as well as a room upgrade or late 6pm check-out.
Try out antique cameras
Ditch your DSLRs and go analog for a day at the Vintage Camera’s Museum that makes for an eye-opening day out. You can’t miss the building’s vintage camera facade – which earned them the reputation of “largest camera-shaped building in the world” – where you enter through the camera lens.
It’s Singapore’s first and only museum dedicated to the art of vintage photography, chock-a-block with the museum owner’s personal collection dating back to the 1800s. It houses about 1,000 cameras, ranging from a behemoth six-metre-long Mammoth Camera to tiny pigeon cameras and even novelty ones like spy cameras disguised as walking sticks.
Many who visit say they thought they’d only poke around for a few minutes, but end up spending a couple of hours touring the museum and even getting hands-on with some of the vintage devices.
Besides the cameras on display, the museum also showcases a collection of rare photographs (including a replica of the first picture ever taken), as well as a trick-eye area where you can snap fun perspective shots for the ‘gram.
Step into a former Malay palace
Just across the road from the Sultan Mosque sits the beautifully restored Malay Heritage Centre. It was once known as Istana Kampong Glam, where Malay sultans and their families lived.
Today, it’s the best place for a deep dive into our rich Malay history, culture and heritage, with the museum’s six permanent galleries detailing the history of the Kampong Gelam neighbourhood and the Malay community, including a showcase of treasured artefacts and multimedia exhibits.
From now till July 25, 2021, immerse yourself in Banjarese culture with their special exhibition ‘Urang Banjar: Heritage and Culture of the Banjar in Singapore’. Guided tours are available, and admission is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents.
Do take time to also explore the surrounding grounds dotted with gelam trees, where you get to view a glimpse of history, such as a replica of a Bugis prahu boat (the Pinisi), a traditional Indonesian boat of yesteryear, and more. A fabulous place to take the kids for a fun history lesson.
Where: 85 Sultan Gate, Singapore 198501
Opening hours: 8am to 6pm (compound); 10am to 6pm (museum) (Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays
Get your nasi padang fix at one of Singapore’s oldest stalls
Situated in a shophouse, this casual restaurant should be your go-to for sedap and unpretentious Indonesian fare done the old-school way.
Founded in 1948, Warong Nasi Pariaman is believed to be our island’s longest-running nasi padang joint, where you can savour a wide variety of fragrant and authentic dishes like ayam bakar (make sure to add a bergedil!), beef rendang and sambal goreng.
What makes it so special? The restaurant abides by traditional methods of preparing the food such as grinding their own spices and stewing over charcoal fire, for perfectly smokey and tender meats.
There’s an air-conditioned upper floor to help you beat the heat, but be sure to come early to chope a seat. The place is usually packed at lunchtime and sometimes even sells out by 1pm, especially on the weekends.
Where: 738 North Bridge Road, Singapore 198706
Opening hours: 7.30am to 3pm (Thursdays to Tuesdays), closed on Wednesdays
Indulge in nasi lemak with a twist
Now that you’ve had a taste of tradition, switch it up with something completely new. We’re talking Aussie barbeque nasi lemak from Soulfood Catering, a humble eatery on the outskirts of Kampong Gelam serving incredible fusion food that will impress even the biggest sceptics.
Run by a friendly interracial couple (Brett is Australian and Yani is Malay), Soulfood marries the best of Australian-style BBQ with the familiar Malay comfort dish. Did we mention each plate is freshly cooked upon order, too?
Crowd favourites include the Paprika & Herbs Chicken Wings (best dipped into their signature garlic cream sauce) and BBQ Boneless Thigh Nasi Lemak, but there’s also versions with runny poached eggs, smoked salmon, and even a surf-and-turf option featuring a hearty steak with scallops and prawns. Kids will love digging into Bangers & Hash, a fresh take on the Western-style Bangers & Mash that replaces mashed potato with hash brown.
Of course, no nasi lemak platter is complete without fiery sambal, and you’ll be glad to know that the stall makes its own piquant sambal chilli in-house.
Where: 13 Pahang Street, Singapore 198614
Opening hours: Noon to 8.30pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays); Noon to 9.30pm (Fridays and Saturdays)
Shop for heritage-chic clothing
It might be one of the narrowest streets in Singapore, but Haji Lane is packed with an eclectic mix of shops and cafes worth venturing into. A must-visit is Utopia Apparels, a home-grown boutique for mod-Asian fashion helmed by mumpreneur and resident designer Sherry See, who personally handpicks the fabrics that best suit her designs.
The label pays tribute to our nation’s rich heritage with eye-catching vintage-inspired pieces that are one-of-a-kind.
Think: vibrant patchwork batik prints on active wear or denim pieces, off-shoulder blouses and wrap dresses that flatter all sorts of body types, as well as a curation of accessories, from oriental infinity knot earrings to artisanal woven bags.
There’s also a range of reusable face masks with complementary batik print designs – kids’ sizes included.
Where: 47 Haji Lane, Singapore 189240
Opening hours: 11am to 8pm (Mondays to Thursdays); 11am to 9pm (Fridays to Sundays)
Creative cocktails inspired by Asian food
Quench your thirst at Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall which, despite its unassuming name, is one of the most unique watering holes in the area. Here’s where you can imbibe in local craft beers and creative cocktails on tap (non-alcoholic options are available, too).
The bar is best known for their Asia-inspired signature concoctions, from Tak Qiu, a nostalgic take on the Old Fashioned cocktail made with milo-infused bourbon, to the Pandan Sling Fizz, a well-balanced and bubblier rendition of the Singapore sling featuring pandan-infused gin and refreshing citrus flavors.
Not sure what to order? Just tell one of their friendly and knowledgeable bartenders to surprise you!
Accompany your drink with their mouth-watering range of hawker-style stir-fries, including Hokkien prawn mee and XO carrot cake, dim sum and gourmet burgers, as you simply relax and soak in the lively atmosphere.
Learn to spray paint street art like a pro
Love the colourful street art murals of Haji Lane and Arab Street? Why not try it out for yourself with an exciting hands-on street art workshop?
Organised by licensed local tour operator Culture Curious, the Kampong Glam Street Art Tour & Workshop is a private art and cultural tour that takes you down the hidden alleys and byways of the historical district, from landmarks such as Parkview Square (affectionately known as the “Gotham building”) and Masjid Sultan to the chill vibes of Beach Road, before getting your creative juices flowing with some spray paint fun!
You’ll learn how to create your own street art designs with basic spray painting techniques taught by professional artists. Then, go right ahead and make your mark on designated walls, and even design your own tote bag as a sweet souvenir.
Where: Meet at the street level entrance of Bugis MRT Station (Exit E)
With more than 12 years’ experience in our local arts and heritage sector, Rachel Chen now runs her own bespoke tour company Culture Curious, which curates walking tours centred around Singapore’s arts culture, history and food. A huge fan of the Kampong Gelam district, we asked the avid guide for her three favourite hidden finds in the area.
In partnership with Singapore Tourism Board