In a walking tour you’ll see many different sides of Singapore. Lucinda Law discovers its colonial and bohemian areas plus a brand-new attraction – an exhilarating balloon ride above the city
1. Raffles Hotel
Exit from the bustling City Hall train station in Raffles Plaza and cross Bras Basah Road to enter the magnificent colonial architecture of Raffles Hotel, one of the world’s last great 19th century hotels. Constructed in 1887, it is a testimony to Singapore’s colonial past and is named after Sir Stamford Raffles who founded what would become modern Singapore. As much cultural monument as luxurious place to stay, the hotel’s old-world charm and grandeur has been the retreat and source of inspiration for Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Charlie Chaplin, among other luminaries. Today, you can still stroll through the lush gardens and courtyards, and shop among the 40 retail shops within the hotel, which include top names like Tiffany & Co or Louis Vuitton. Alternatively, you can relax at the legendary Long Bar with a famous Singapore Sling, right where it was concocted. 1 Beach Rd, tel +65 6337 1886, raffleshotel.com.
2. The Mint Museum
Opposite the Old Raffles Hotel Annexe on Seah Street, a delightful visual feast of rare collectible toys in mint condition awaits you. The Mint Museum is a five-storey building that was converted from a shophouse, which now showcases a collection of toys from more than 25 countries. MINT, the acronym for ‘Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys’, is the dream and vision of its sole proprietor, Mr Chang Yang Fa, who started the collection at the age of six after being presented with a miniature toy car. Each of its four exhibition floors bears a different theme. Starting at level two, the theme of Collectibles has exhibits such as tin toys, climbing monkeys, Beatles, penny toys, Monkees, and many more. On the next floor up, discover the room of Childhood favourites such as Bonzo the Dog, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Golliwogs, Door of Hope Dolls and Pinocchio. The Characters theme on level four is a favourite among visitors, featuring well-known childhood heroes like Popeye, Tin Tin, Batman, Superman, Green Hornet, James Bond, Astro Boy and Ultraman. On the top floor, enter Outer Space, a dazzling display of flying saucers, rockets, planes, robots, space heroes such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Dan Dare. From here, descend to the first floor for a quick bite or drink at the Mint Cafe. 26 Seah Street, tel +65 6339 0660, emint.com. Opens daily 9.30am-6.30pm. Entrance S$10 (£3.30).
3. Bugis Village
Head along North Bridge Road, walking against the flow of traffic. It’s around a 10-minute leisurely stroll to Bugis Village, and on the way you’ll pass Purvis Street, Liang Seah Street and Tan Quee Lan Street, which are famous for their small eateries and local fare. Cut through Bugis Junction shopping centre and cross at Victoria Street to arrive at Bugis Village. Having undergone an extreme makeover since its days of alleyways and sailors’ haunts, it is now urbanised and sophisticated, yet the buzz and festive atmosphere of the flea market are still very much alive as you wander through the street stalls, which sell music CDs, clothing, souvenirs, local delicacies and fruits. You can be sure to find something cheap and interesting, or you can just watch the hustle and bustle.
4. The DHL Balloon
Head back to Tan Quee Lan Street and by then you’ll have spotted the impressive DHL tethered helium balloon. A new attraction in the city, having opened in April, the balloon sails passengers up to a height of 150m (40 storeys) for a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of the sea and city skyline. The experience lasts 10 minutes, and 29 people are allowed to board per flight. The balloon, designed in France, took 40 people 12 hours and 6,500 cubic metres of helium to inflate. Safety-wise, a wire cable connects the balloon to the ground and a hydroelectric winch mans the system (the balloon doesn’t take flight in bad weather). It’s not for those who are afraid of heights; otherwise you can enjoy the floating sensation and admire the unrivalled view. The balloon runs until late so you could make this the last stop in your tour to watch an unforgettable sunset experience. The balloon flies at regular intervals of two to six flights an hour. 171 Tan Quee Lan Street, tel +65 6338 6877. Open daily 11am-10pm. Tickets cost S$23 (£7.70).
5. Haji Lane/Arab Street
A mere three-minute walk from the DHL balloon takes you to Haji Lane and Arab Street, a colourful ethnic enclave for the Muslim population and a national heritage site. Lined with traditional shophouses, the two streets lie parallel to each other with Arab Street taking centre stage until recently, when an eclectic generation of youths bred on indie music, design, hip fashion and lifestyle began setting up highly individualised shops (such as an ice-cream parlour, vintage and lifestyle shop, record shop, and street fashion store) next to the traditional shisha cafes and abandoned textile warehouses in Haji Lane. Notable shops are White Room, a style emporium of quirky accessories, hip designers brands and fashion from top local designers. Straits Records carries obscure collectibles of hip-hop, hard core, indie records and other genres. Bands hang out here, and the store’s American-flag, red and white-striped facade makes it a striking landmark along Haji Lane. This lane is evidence of the unbridled creativity present in Singapore and adds even more character to the fabric, batiks, carpet, cane and rattan shops in Arab Street. Plenty of cafes here offer refreshing drinks, ranging from mint tea to local milk tea (teh tarik). Most shops close by 7pm and are closed on Sundays.
6. Golden Sultan Mosque
Barely two minutes away is Bussorah Street, which is lined with beautifully restored shophouses selling traditional clothes, artefacts, handicrafts, furniture and jewellery. Walk to the end of this street and you’ll see the massive golden dome and minarets of the Sultan Mosque (or Masjid Sultan). Built in 1928, this mosque is one of Singapore’s most important religious buildings, and the focal point for Muslims in Singapore. The glistening necks of the domes are decorated with the bases of thousands of glass bottles and the huge prayer hall can accommodate up to 5,000 Muslims in congregational prayers. The tranquillity of the grounds make them a good place to unwind with a stroll. The mosque is open daily 9am-1pm and 2pm-4pm. Entrance is free.