Jane Jeffries finds the essence of Singapore, exploring five of the city state's great neighbourhoods.

I've recently had a trip down memory lane while visiting Singapore. We used to live there 30 years ago, long before it had one of the world's most developed economies and the Marina Bay Sands dominated the skyline. They've cleaned it up and created order I didn't think was possible.

Our favourite Indian restaurant in the small enclave of Little India was The Delhi. Back in the early 90s we counted the rats in the open drains as we walked from the car to the restaurant. Reminiscing with the waiter at The Delhi, while devouring our favourite chicken tikka and palak paneer, we talked about how times had changed. Not only are the drains now covered, the rats are gone and if a rodent or cockroach is found in a Singaporean restaurant it's mandatory that it will be closed for two weeks.

Although it's hard not to love the glam of Orchard Rd with one high-end store after another, I've always had an affinity for the back streets. Even in the 90s I loved poking around the slightly grungier neighbourhoods like Arab St, Little India and Chinatown where life was raw and real. These neighbourhoods came about as the Singaporeans, mainly descendants from China, Malaysia and India set up their communities to cater for their food, cultural and religious requirements.


However, as Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore and the first prime minister went about modernising and transforming the country, high-rise housing developments appeared on the space-constrained island and people moved away from the small ghettos to enjoy superior living conditions.

The neighbourhoods were left to deteriorate, with little done to preserve the buildings. However, in recent years Singapore has become aware of how important these historic districts are. They are the essence of what made Singapore and are now being restored. Little India, once a few streets of immigrants selling their wares is now a "cultural precinct" where history is being recorded and the old buildings restored. It's vibrant, colourful and busy and tells a little of what the Indian quarter of Singapore was like before modernisation.

So, leave the shops and make a little time to understand the fabric that makes Singapore what it is today. Here are five neighbourhoods worth visiting.

1 Kampong Glam
Another great enclave is Kampong Glam or the "Arabic Quarter". It has an eclectic mix of generations-old heritage stores, boutiques and craft shops. Much of its charm comes from the former home of the local sultan and the mosque, now designated a national monument. The Islamic place of worship was originally constructed in 1824 by Sultan Hussein Shah, the first Sultan of Singapore.

To explore this neighbourhood, start in Haji Lane and wander into the back alleys. Don't miss Arab St in the heart of this Islamic community. It's a treasure trove of exotic fabrics, Persian carpets, leather, jewellery and baskets.

Restaurants are plentiful so make sure your visit coincides with lunch or dinner.

Getting there: Catch the MRT to Bugis station

2 Chinatown
Once an area for Chinese immigrant population, Chinatown today is a blend of old and new. Historic temples and traditional medicinal stalls sit alongside hip new bars and shops.

The Masjid Sultan mosque located in Kampong Glam in Singapore city. Photo / Getty Images
The Masjid Sultan mosque located in Kampong Glam in Singapore city. Photo / Getty Images

Chinatown's Market St is full of the fragrant smells of traditional cuisine with lanterns creating a festive skyline. The maze of narrow roads includes Chinatown Food Street, where restaurants serve traditional fare like Hainanese chicken rice, noodles and satay. If you are looking for a great lunch, try Yum Char Restaurant off Temple St. There are also temples worth visiting, including Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Sri Mariamman Temple.

Getting there: Catch MRT to Chinatown station

3 Holland Village
The Holland Village neighbourhood is possibly best known for supporting the expat community. Cold Storage supermarket stocks a great range of western ingredients, with Australian cuts of meat available and wine. You can also get a robust breakfast of bacon and eggs.

In the early years, Holland Village was occupied by plantations and nurseries. The Dutch made up the first community to have its presence felt in the area. Later, members of the British Army built homes in the areas, easily recognisable as colonial black and white homes with grand verandas on large sections of land. As the expat community grew, so did the prestigious clubs, which were just a stone's throw away, such as the Hollandse Club, Swiss Club, American Club and the Tanglin Club. The district has a reputation as an exclusive residential area.

Getting there: Catch MRT to Holland Village Station

4 Joo Chiat/ Katong
Much of the colourful charm of this district comes from its Peranakan heritage, when the Peranakan people (of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage) lived here.

The area was once covered in coconut plantations, but became a weekend retreat for wealthy city dwellers. It was populated by a growing English-educated middle-class and Perankan people. These provided a fascinating blend of culture still evident in the cuisine today. Peranakan food is fiery combining Chinese ingredients with Indonesian and Malaysian spices

Joo Chiat, Singapore. Photo / Getty Images
Joo Chiat, Singapore. Photo / Getty Images

The prettiest street to take a stroll down is Koon Seng Rd, a row of shophouses, painted in pastel hues with imposing gates.

Getting there: Catch the MRT to Paya Lebar station

5 Little India
This bustling rejuvenated neighbourhood is the centre of the Indian community in Singapore. It's compact, with its multi-coloured shops and houses lining the streets. The narrow lanes are filled with jewellery stores, tailors and beautiful fabric shops selling beaded saris among other textiles. You'll also notice the many flower stalls, where skilled hands thread the buds into wreaths of all different shapes and sizes for worship in the temples.

Of the many sights to see, do not miss the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple with its embellished vibrant statues of Hindu deities. It is one of the oldest temples in Singapore, built by Indian pioneers who came to live and work in Singapore. The House of Tan Teng Naih is also a multi-coloured house and is the only surviving one of its kind from the period when the Chinese colonised Singapore.

Little India is well-known for its traditional Indian restaurants so wander along Serangoon Road and Race Course Rd and choose from the many great eateries.

Close by is Jalan Besar, a small, hip area with quirky cafes serving specialty coffee, craft beers and dim sum. It has an arty vibe and a thriving culinary scene.

Getting there: Catch the MRT to Farrar Park station or Little India station

Little India, Singapore. Photo / Getty Images
Little India, Singapore. Photo / Getty Images