Touring Singapore sideways and staying in a heritage hotel, it’s a thrill exploring the city’s cultural charms.
Jump in!” yells my guide from the seat of his shiny sky-blue Vespa. He points to my perch – a sleek, refurbished vintage sidecar attached to his wheels. I’ve ridden motorbikes before and love the feeling of being connected to the road ahead, but as a passenger in a sidecar, the experience is even more immersive. As we speed away from my digs at The Fullerton Hotel, I already feel so close to the action. My guide is Simon Wong, the owner and director of Singapore Sidecars, the world’s first vintage Vespa sidecar tour. As I set out to explore the history of the Lion City, I know this is definitely going to beat the bus.
With its colonial heritage and vibrant mix of ethnicities, Singapore is rich with culture and historical sites. I wanted to take all of it in, but as a photographer, I’m less about trailing museums and more about getting up close to something tangible. A heritage site in its own right, The Fullerton had recommended Singapore Sidecars as an alternative history tour, a totally tailor-made trip all from my small seat on wheels.
I ask Simon to choose a cultural route, and we started with one of the city’s most colourful sites, Kampong Glam. Also known as Arab Street, this maze of alleys is one of the many vibrant cultural precincts in Singapore, with old shophouses lining the streets that surround the striking Sultan Mosque. We pull up to a hole-in-the-wall teh tarik (hot milk tea) stall, where we watch the vendor theatrically pour us a pulled tea. Simon takes me to a traditional perfume shop called Sifr Aromatics that is heady with aromas of flowers, wood and spices and packed with a trove of exotic glass vials filled with locally found scents. Though the shop is new, the young owner, Johari, blends all his perfumes by hand with unique skills and recipes passed down from his ancestors.
The sidecar offers a chance to see Singapore’s most famous sites from a different vantage point. As we exit Kampong Glam through the iconic, mural-flanked Haji Lane, we dodge selfie-sticks and wannabe models that congregate around its hip cafes, shops and bars. As we slow down to navigate the obstacles, I realise that we ourselves have become part of the colourful scene.
“These Vespas get the same attention that a Lamborghini or Ferrari does,” says Simon. As I watch the star-struck faces go by, I feel as though that’s an understatement.
The tour is also a great way to experience the city from a local’s perspective. In Chinatown, Simon takes me and the group we have just joined to Thian Hock Keng Temple (also known as the Tianfu Temple), specifically its rear wall. There, we’re greeted by an incredible mural that depicts the early Chinese pioneers of Singapore. The Hokkien temple itself is one of the oldest and most important in the city, established in 1839, so the mural is a befitting modern enhancement. In the quaint neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru, we arrive at Ah Chiang Porridge shop. We’re not here for its delicious congee, but for their tau huay (tofu pudding). Cold, smooth and slightly sweet, it is the perfect treat to beat Singapore’s constant humidity.
We finish up in Little India, where we pass the Tekka Centre, which proffers a kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetables at its market stalls. From my sidecar, I can even sniff the simmering spice aromas that seep from restaurants such as MTR Vegetarian Restaurant, famous for its South Indian dosa sets. When it comes to exploring this city as closely as possible, it’s not so bad being a third wheel.
The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
With more than a century of history to explore, guests at this grand dame have plenty of opportunities to dive deeper into the building’s heritage and the storied past of its neighbourhood.
Set on the hallowed grounds of the 1829 Fullerton Fort, the original Fullerton Building was built in 1928, becoming an important commercial hub as well as housing the country’s General Post Office. The property was meticulously restored in 2001 as The Fullerton Hotel, with many elements of its original Palladian architecture kept intact — original cornices and wall motifs are featured in Heritage rooms, while grand six-metre Doric columns guard the plush Governor and Presidential suites. In 2015, it was officially proclaimed as a National Monument.
Even the hotel’s modern aspects are influenced by its past – the Asian Heritage Signature massage at the spa includes chi-balancing and traditional Chinese pressure-point techniques, and ginger and black pepper oils to rejuvenate muscles; a menu of hawker-style plates served in a five-star manner entice at Clifford Pier; and the Post Bar uses its location as the former transaction hall of the GPO to inspire on-theme cocktails. Try the Fullerton Concours, with gin, cherry liqueur, ginger juice, calamansi juice infused with sour plum and club soda.
If you want a closer view of the precinct’s bygone era, two complimentary guided tours make a hands-on way to discover lesser-known pockets. On the Fullerton Monument Tour, guests can learn the story of the original building, plus gain exclusive access to preserved areas of the hotel. On the Maritime Journey Tour, guests will walk the hotel’s legendary riverside-– from Clifford Pier, where the country’s forefathers first stepped onto the island, to the iconic Fullerton Waterboat House, which provided supplies to trading ships.
The area surrounding the hotel offers more historic and cultural sites to easily visit on foot. Grab a Heritage Trail Map from the concierge and walk to seven nearby landmark destinations. This includes the Raffles Landing site, where Sir Stamford Raffles first arrived in 1819; the National Gallery Singapore, which includes the architecturally noteworthy City Hall and the former Supreme Court; and the Old Parliament House – the oldest surviving government building in Singapore that now plays host to a modern arts centre.
SIX CULTURAL CORNERS
The gold-tipped Sultan Mosque sits in the centre of the colourful neighbourhood known as Kampong Glam, made up of hundreds of picturesque shophouses, many of which trade in the Middle Eastern fare of wares. After visiting the mosque, take a stroll down Haji Lane to view the impressive street art and cute knick-knack shops littered along the narrow alley.
National Museum of Singapore
Within this colonial building is a cutting-edge, creative world designed to engage visitors.
Tiong Bahru Market
Located in the Art Deco-era Tiong Bahru precinct, the famous Tiong Bahru Market features arguably some of the best hawker food in Singapore. Go for lunch upstairs, wander the produce market downstairs, and then head over to Tiong Bahru Bakery for a latte and perfectly flaky croissant.
Tekka Centre, Little India
It’s easy to spend hours getting lost in Little India’s maze of bustling, character-filled streets, but don’t miss the Tekka Centre to try unique tropical fruits as well as affordable Indian eats.
Once a prominent red-light district, Keong Saik has become a place to visit for its award-winning bars and modern eats. Sip cocktails on the rooftop of the uber-cool Potato Head Singapore.
Despite being in Chinatown, the Indian Sri Mariamman Temple gives the origins to its location’s name, ‘Temple Street’. As Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, it continues to be a prominent destination for South Indian immigrants.
Singapore Sidecars: sideways.sg/
The Fullerton Hotel Singapore: fullertonhotels.com/
Singapore Tourism: visitsingapore.com