Seen enough of Singapore’s typical touristy sights? Taking your insta-worthy photos at Marina Bay Sands or visiting the ethnic enclaves like Chinatown and Little India are fun for first-time visitors, but those who want to avoid the tourist crowds and get a glimpse of a more local side of Singapore, here’s our list of non-touristy things to check out.
Did you know that Singapore isn’t just an island nation but an archipelago of over 63 islands? Ditch the tourist favourite Sentosa Island with its casino and theme park and head north instead. You can hop on a ferry to Pulau Ubin, famous as a home to one of Singapore’s last remaining village kampungs and the Chek Jawa wetland nature reserve park, or, if you would rather not take a boat, check out the rustic Coney Island, also known as Pulau Serangoon.
Singapore’s public transport is widespread and efficient, but one fun way to explore the many outdoor attractions in Singapore is on a bicycle. There is a park connector network linking up parks and bike routes, and if you are up for the challenge, you could cycle 150 kilometres all around Singapore. Bicycles are cheap and easy to rent, whether you prefer bike sharing services to more traditional bike rental kiosks found at the parks. Seek out some less touristy cycling routes in Punggol Waterway Park, Lorong Halus Wetlands, Woodlands Waterfront Park or Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.
The Singapore Zoo and Night Safari are popular tourist attractions, but most visitors don’t realise that Singapore has a surprisingly rich plethora of biodiversity left in its wild despite urbanisation and its small size. Bird lovers will marvel at the variety of migratory birds that pass through during the months of September and March – Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in particular is one of the best places for bird watching, though there are plenty of opportunities in Singapore’s other parks and reserves. If you are lucky, you might even spot larger creatures like crocodiles, otters and even a rare pangolin ambling by in the evenings.
The bumboat cruise along the Singapore River is a leisurely way to admire Singapore’s skyline from the water, but for those who like something more active, kayaking is a fun active way to explore Singapore’s shoreline. Have a more leisurely paddle at Macritchie Reservoir or Kallang Basin, or embark on more adventurous kayaking expeditions to explore Singapore’s offshore islands or its mangrove forests in the north with folks like Kayakasia and Adventures by Asian Detours.
Singapore has some great scenic treks, but did you know that there is an underwater trail that you can scuba dive at the Sisters’ Island Marine Park? The trail has handy signposts filled with information about the surrounding reef ecosystem to help you identify what is around you. Another of Singapore’s offshore islands that local divers frequent is Pulau Hantu – Malay for ‘Ghost Island’ – but the only things haunting this spot are wildlife enthusiasts who return regularly to capture photos of the surprisingly diverse creatures hidden in the murky waters around the island.
Take a walk at Singapore’s Bukit Batok Town Park, better known to locals as Xiao Guilin or Little Guilin for its resemblance to the Guilin found in China, thanks to the towering granite rock surrounded by a tranquil lake. Local broadcast networks used to film martial arts scenes here every time they needed an olden Chinese backdrop, but these days you’re more likely to find couples snapping their wedding shots here or spot some wildlife wandering around if you have a sharp eye.
After you have admired the alien-like Super Trees at Gardens by the Bay, strap on a harness and swing through some real trees at Bedok Reservoir. Forest Adventure is a treetop obstacle course that lets you walk across tightropes and clamber across shaky bridges, but the best part is at the very end where you zipline across part of the reservoir to your starting point. Another tree-top adventure you can consider is the MacRitchie Reservoir Tree Top Walk, where you get up close and personal with the tree canopy on a suspended bridge.
Take a break from the shopping malls and spend a leisurely day exploring Kranji Countryside and its many farms instead. Some of the farms are open for touring and sale of fresh produce; drink some fresh goat’s milk at Hay Dairies, learn about frog farming at Jurong Frog Farm or see how prized koi fish are raised at Hausmann Aquarium. Enjoy some farm-to-table fresh meals as well at Bollywood Veggies and GardenAsia Bistro.
Universal Studios Singapore may bring in the crowds these days with its roller coasters, but it will never be quite as weird and wonderful as Haw Par Villa. Once a popular tourist attraction and theme park, Haw Par Villa is a shadow of its former glory today but still just as bizarre. This park is filled with life-sized statues and dioramas featuring stories from Chinese legends and fables meant to impart good ethics and culture, including a moralistic but gory ‘Ten Courts of Hell,’ which depicts how different types of sinners are tortured in hell.
Singapore’s National Gallery and National Museum are great places for an overview of Singapore’s culture and history, but check out some of its smaller and more unusual museums for something different. There is a Musical Box Museum that collects all manner of vintage music boxes, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is home to some impressive dinosaur skeletons and a sperm whale skeleton that washed up on Singapore’s shores, and the Former Ford Factory is now a museum where you can see the actual table used when the then-ruling British surrendered to Japanese forces during World War II.
Take a break from the museum galleries and view some of Singapore’s best artworks right on its streets. Look out for public art sculptures by renowned local and international artists as you tour the sights. Most of the sculptures are located in downtown Singapore. Keep an eye out for cool murals all around the island – many of the local housing estates feature unique murals on their walls, and while Singapore is renowned for its strict laws against graffiti and vandalism, there is also small thriving street art scene.
Support the Singapore art scenes and catch a local performance. The easiest place to start browsing is on local ticket platform SISTIC where you can find most larger ticketed events listed, or check out Peatix, Eventbrite and The A List for more listings. Some popular Singapore cultural festivals to look out for include Singapore Art Week, M1 Fringe Festival and Dans Festival – these showcase a mix of local and international artists.
Singapore’s indie music scene is small but thriving, and a relaxing and fun way to get to know some local bands is to check out bars and cafes that feature live music. Timbre is a local F&B chain that has a daily rotation of Singaporean bands and musicians playing cover hits in the evenings. Some other nightspots that also feature local musos include Hood Bar and Cafe, Artistry Cafe and Blu Jaz.
Eating cheap local street food should be a part of any Singaporean itinerary – it’s often considered the national past time. But rather than frequent popular tourist hawker centres like Lau Pa Sat and Newton, go check out other local favourites like Old Airport Road, ABC Brickworks and Changi Village instead. Do as the locals do and use local food websites like Hungrygowhere or Burpple to help you narrow down the best spots where Singaporeans really like to eat.
Most of Singapore’s hotels and hostels can be found in the city centre near major tourist attractions, but consider staying in a more far flung spot to avoid the hordes of tourists – D’Kranji Farm Resort in Kranji is right next to some of Singapore’s last farmland and best nature reserves, while Punggol Ranch Resort in the northeast is close to the waterway park and other family-friendly activity spots. The more adventurous can get a permit and try outdoor camping in some of Singapore’s parks like East Coast Park, Pasir Ris Park, West Coast Park or Pulau Ubin – just hope it doesn’t rain on you.
This article was originally written by Prianka Ghosh and has since been updated.