Off the Beaten Track in Bras Basah.Bugis
Marina Bay and its gardens may be picture-perfect, but it also has all the trappings of a popular tourist destination - think dining options at sky-high prices and the significant likelihood of getting photobombed by someone else’s elbow when trying to take a selfie by the water.
If you want something off the beaten track, Bras Basah.Bugis is a location downtown that’s packed with local culture and heritage. As one of the oldest districts of our island, it has a rich and diverse history despite Raffles’ original plan for it as a European district.
Close your tripadvisor tab and put aside those Lonely Planet guides. Let the locals show you the way to this lesser-known side of Singapore.
Fu Ban, 50 - That one street leading to Kwan Im Hood Cho Temple
“I can’t remember the exact name of the street but it’s the one that leads from Bugis Village to Kwan Im Temple. There’s always a lively street market going on there. They have fresh fruits ready to eat, dry provisions like dates and nuts, cheap clothing, DVDs, handphone covers and pretty much everything.
There’s even a shop selling scarves. Not sure what you would do with a scarf in Singapore but when you get closer to Kwan Im Temple, more and more of the stalls sell incense, joss, flowers and other temple offerings.
As a tourist, this is probably the closest you would get to a real pasar malam* vibe because pasar malams are dying out in our air-conditioned nation. Whenever I go there, it always feels a bit like going back in time to the 70s.”
Where to go: Near the intersection of Albert Street and Waterloo Street, between Fu Lu Shou Complex and Albert Centre
*author’s note: Pasar malam is a Malay phrase referring to a night market which sells an assortment of food and knick-knacks.
Xin Li, 49 - Xing Hua Vegetarian Restaurant, Fortune Centre
“I’m not Buddhist or even vegetarian but if you are, Fortune Centre on Waterloo Street is the place to go. I used to go there with my husband who was going through a vegetarian phase. There’s a place called Xing Hua Vegetarian Restaurant on the ground floor which offers meatless versions of everything from bee hoon to spaghetti.
If you’re sick of eating falafel and quinoa, check out the special grocery stores. Asian vegetarian cuisine is more than just tofu! They have every kind of mock meat you can imagine. The store owner showed me mock chicken, mock fish and even mock venison in the frozen section.”
Where to go: Fortune Centre, 190 Middle Rd, Singapore 188979
Liew Zhen Hao, 27 - Singapore Philatelic Museum
“My dad is a stamp collector and he used to drag me along to the Singapore Philatelic Museum every year. I don’t really care much about stamps but they have some cool temporary exhibitions. I remember they used to do a special exhibition every year based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac.”
I read online that they’re currently having a special Harry Potter exhibition. Not sure what’s the relationship between stamp-collecting and Hogwarts though. Do you need stamps for owl mail?”
Where to go: 23-B Coleman Street, Singapore 179807
Author’s note: No stamps needed. You pay the owl directly with a Knut.
Chen Jie Xin, 21 - Evernew Bookstore + National Library, Bras Basah Complex
“If you want to get away from the heat and noise and ceaseless crowds, the upper floors of the National Library building are always quiet. If you’re looking for more than just air-conditioning, check out some of the rotating cultural exhibitions. I remember accidentally stumbling upon a retrospective on Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo and his contributions to local literature.
When I had an hour or two to spare, I would go over to Evernew bookstore in Bras Basah Complex and spend hours there rummaging through their sci-fi fantasy collection. They have a ton of books for such a small place and even some weird stuff like a bust of Chairman Mao gazing down on you.
I even found second-hand copies of the entire Twilight series once. My friend and I picked it up and read aloud some of the cringe-iest bits for laughs.”
Where to go: #01-07, Blk 231, Bras Basah Complex, Bain Street, Singapore 180231
Lim Guan Wei, 23 - Tanuki Raw/Kapok
“I haven’t been on the hipster trail for a while now haha, but I recommend Tanuki Raw at the National Design Centre. The space is a combination bar, café and shopping destination, hidden behind shutters. The café has both Japanese and Singaporean offerings. I think the char siew sliders with umami gruyere is quite unique. The adjoining retail space is operated by Kapok. They have a lot of hipster brands and homegrown designer labels. A lot of the clothes and bags look quite cool but they’re a bit expensive for me. Still, it’s nice to chill with a latte and soak up the vibes.”
Where to go: 111 Middle Road, #01-05 National Design Centre, Singapore 188969
Gong Zhi Ping, 58 - Shi Zi Lou Restaurant, Peace Centre
“There is a very underrated restaurant called Shi Zi Lou in Peace centre. They specialise in dim sum and Jiangsu cuisine. The food and service is excellent. It’s not crowded and the prices are reasonable.
Forget your Ikea meatballs. Shi Zi Lou’s signature Lion’s Head meatballs are bigger, meatier and juicier. Unlike many other proprietors, they don’t add too much flour into the meatballs, so meatballs don’t fall apart when you stick your fork in.”
Where to go: 1 Sophia Road, #01-08, Peace Centre, Singapore 228149
Truth be told, you don’t even need a local guide to see Bras Basah.Bugis.
The corner stretching from Prinsep Street to Bugis Junction is so richly packed with culture that you’re bound to find something interesting just by wandering around. It won’t be long before you stumble unto a piece of hidden heritage or a barista blending what she claims to be the best cold brew you’ll ever taste.
Pro tip: Visit on the first or fifteenth day of the lunar monthly calendar. As people arrive to make their offerings at the Kwan Im Temple, the area truly comes alive!