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Little India
Photograph: Unsplash/Keane Chua

The ultimate guide to Little India

The vibrant ethnic enclave is a tantalising blend of traditional restaurants, contemporary street art, and more

Written by
Time Out Singapore editors
,
Cam Khalid
&
Izza Sofia
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Did you know that Little India once had a racecourse, cattle herders and brick kilns? Before it was given its current name in the 1980s, the cultural and historical district was simply known as Serangoon

It wasn't even assigned in the Raffles Town Plan as an area for the Indian community in Singapore. In fact, it was mostly inhabited by Europeans in the 1840s before cattle trading took root in 1860. Business started booming, and the area became a mostly Indian trade as traders employed Indian migrant workers. 

Today, the vibrant ethnic enclave retains its unique heritage with a tantalising blend of restaurants dishing out traditional South Asian dishes, buildings stamped with contemporary street art, and age-old temples like the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. Whether you're looking to learn more about Singapore's Indian community, get your fill of biryani, or shop for beautiful sarees, Little India is the place to be.

RECOMMENDED: Ultimate guide to Singapore's neighbourhoods and the ultimate guide to Chinatown

Do

Sajeev Photo Studio
Photograph: Sajeev Photo Studio

Sajeev Photo Studio

Photos, love and romance – they never go out of style. A Sajeev Photo Studio, run by K Sajeev Lal and his wife, they've been photographing young male foreign workers for years – creating portraits for them to send home to South Asia in search of brides. The studio's walls are plastered with these portraits, and upstairs, you'll find backdrops with a peculiar mix of landscapes and sceneries. These include offerings of Singapore pride – the Merlion, tall buildings and scenic bridges of the city. There’s even one with an SIA plane in the foreground. Arrange a session at the studio and be surprised at your studio shots!

Thandapani Co
Photograph: Thandapani Co

Thandapani Co

Thandapani Co is as historic as it is expansive. Located in Dunlop St and established in the 1960s, the Indian market is best known for its spices. Foodies, home chefs, and professional gastronomers alike all rave about the wide selection of spices and herbs. Here, you can find turmeric, nutmeg, sadhakuppai (a type of cumin seed), sajeera and hard-to-find chilis and spices. The shelves are also well-stocked with signature house mixes for popular Indian dishes. This spice mecca has continued to remain popular among restaurants in Little India so you might find yourself rubbing elbows with some of the city’s culinary elite. And while Thandapani Co has grown over the years, we love that the traditional look-and-feel of the shop has still been retained. 

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The Theatre Practice
Photograph: The Theatre Practice

The Theatre Practice

The white and blue shophouse on Waterloo Street is home to the longest-standing professional bilingual theatre institution in Singapore. Founded in 1965, it continues to showcase Singapore's diverse mix of cultures through English and Mandarin plays. Today, you can watch a performance, stage your own in its black box theatre, or drop into its Practice Tuckshop to browse books by local celebrated playwrights or mix with the welcoming community over a cup of coffee. 

  • Things to do
  • Rochor

The colourful Sri Krishnan Temple was established on Waterloo Street in 1870. What makes it special? This is Singapore's only South Indian temple dedicated to Sri Krishna and his consort Rukmini. Pay a visit to admire its main entrance, which is richly decorated with statues depicting the 10 incarnations of Hindu deity Vishnu, his mount Garuda, and a wedding scene. Take a close look at the gopuram (main entrance tower) too – it's studded with semi-precious stones. 

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  • Museums
  • Rochor

It’s hard to miss this four story building on Campbell Lane with its exterior inspired by the baoli (Indian stepwell). Inside, the India Heritage Centre holds over 440 artefacts dating the rich history of the Indian and South Asian communities in Southeast Asia. Artefacts include wartime publications donated by Singapore’s sixth president Mr SR Nathan, temple jewellery from the Saigon Chettiars’ Temple Trust and personal heirlooms by pioneering Singapore Indian families. Not to be missed as well is the spectacular three-metre-tall wooden Chettinad doorway from the late 19th century that’s adorned with 5,000 intricate carvings.

  • Sport and fitness
  • Leisure centres
  • Kallang

They say everywhere can be a playground – that's certainly the case for Airzone, the world's first indoor suspended net playground. Occupying the mall atrium space between different floors in City Plaza Mall, be prepared to explore the multiple play areas where you can dive in a ball pit, crawl through a maze, climb to the top and try out the slides or just hang out on the suspended nets.   

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  • Things to do
  • Rochor

Down Tekka Lane, look out the kaleidoscopic House of Tan Teng Niah. Built in 1900, this colourful building complete with eight rooms is the last surviving Chinese villa in Little India. It belonged to the towkay Tan Teng Niah before it was restored and conserved in the 1980s for commercial use. Now, it's an eye-catching backdrop fit for the 'gram.    

  • Hotels
  • Rochor

Singapore’s answer to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – minus the purple uniform-clad concierge and lobby boy. This pastel-hued, tropical-wallpapered dream pad is complete with Instagrammable opportunities at every nook and cranny – even in each spacious cocoon. There are fives beautifully decorated room types adorned with retro furniture and bold wallpaper. Go big or go home with a night’s stay at The Great Suite (from $195), complete with a study and circular bathtub for a relaxing bubble bath. 

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Museum of Independent Music
  • Music
  • Rochor

While Lush 99.5FM is no more, the love for local music continues to live on at the Museum of Independent Music where Tarmizee Taksen and Anvea Chieu have catalogued Singapore’s music scene in its entirety: vinyl from the ‘60s (The Quest) to cassette tapes made in the ‘90s (The Oddfellows), to more obscure genres like grindcore and screamo. Aside from listening to the artists showcased, there are also video documentaries and the odd piece of memorabilia like a Yamaha RGX 110 Electric Guitar belonging to the veteran guitarist Suhaimi Subandie of local band Stompin’ Ground.

Little India’s murals
Photograph: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Little India’s murals

What’s a day without some #OOTDs? Track down various murals located on Clive Street, Upper Dickson Road, Kerbau Road, Hindoo Road, and Dunlop Street. A collaboration between LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore Tourism Board, and the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, the street art depict everything from the changing landscape of Little India, to a traditional dancer by street artist Traseone, and a collaborative work of buffalos amongst colourful flowers and patterns.

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Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity
  • Theatre
  • Rochor

Got an actor inside of you that's bursting to come out? Or just itching to step out of your comfort zone? Get a taste of what it means to be an actor at the HCAC, where they have trial classes and short intensive courses that will help you hone your skills in improvisation and method acting. Even if you don't aspire to make it onscreen or the big stage, these classes will help you to build confidence and practice public speaking skills that you can use in your personal and professional life. 

Eat

Banana Leaf Apolo
  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Rochor

This restaurant chain founded in 1974 by S. Chellappan is well known for upholding the South Indian tradition of serving food on banana leaves. One of the highlights on the menu: fish head curry that quickly gained popularity among diners. With a secret blend of spices and pineapple, the savoury dish became a signature for the restaurant. The success of the restaurant led to multiple branches across the city, as well as an expanded menu that introduced North Indian dishes to their offerings. Pace yourself, so as to have an appetite when you reach the dessert of fried dough balls that are soaked in a sweet, sugar syrup called gulab jamun.

  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Rochor

The history of one of the city’s oldest restaurants stretches back to 1924, when a Brahmin family opened up a joint along Selegie Road serving traditional Indian vegetarian dishes. That original branch is still dishing out all manner of flatbread and curries, but now it has four sister outlets, thanks to the late MK Ramachandra. The second-generation owner – and well-documented cat lover – is responsible for transforming his dad’s restaurant into the chain it is today. On the food front, the prata is a safe bet, but our pick goes to the onion rava masala thosai: potato curry wrapped in a crispy shell of the fermented pancake that’s studded with onions. 

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Moghul Sweets
Photograph: Moghul Sweets

Moghul Sweets

Ready for a sugar rush? Moghul Sweets offers a large variety of authentic Indian sweets. Balls of laddoos are exhibited along with other desserts such as Pinni, Kesari Pedha, Karachi Halwa, Mathura Pedha, Pink Tikkee, Suji Halwa, Dil Kush, and Chocolate Burfi. Prices are affordable too, so don’t be afraid to pack a few laddoos to go with your afternoon tea. 

  • Restaurants
  • Food court
  • Rochor

Eatbox, a popular street festival in Singapore, opened this year as a permanent indoor concept – a massive food hall that spans across two storeys at Tekka Place. Come hungry, as there are a plethora of novel concepts ranging from mookata to jazzed up local desserts. Try out juicy, pan-fried satay at Satay Ummi, relive your Bangkok days with Thai street food at Thachang Shaker Bar, and enjoy a solo mookata at Chickata, and more. Then satisfy your sweet tooth with crispy dough fritters (you tiao) stuffed with chewy muah chee and topped with sweet treats (like Biscoff spread and crumbs) of your choice. Come evening, Happy Hops will also serve up freshly pulled pints of beer and finger food.

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  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Kallang

The brightly lit shop at the corner of Verdun Road is often packed with regulars tucking into crispy dosai and fluffy uttapam. When it comes to South Indian vegetarian fare, Arya Bhavan is one of the most authentic spots in town. Crowd favourites include the ghee rava masala dosai, chilli parotta, podi idli, mushroom 65 – to name a few. The place is also popular for its rice thali sets which are available for lunch. Don't skip the hot beverages, the milky masala tea and coffee with jaggery sugar will make your dining experience complete. 

  • Restaurants
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For what it’s worth, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife frequent this vegetarian eatery – we were told they were there just days before we visited. Madras New Woodlands serves predominantly South Indian dishes that are lighter than your average greasy piece of prata. Try pongal, a sticky mix of rice and lentils cooked in milk and served with three sauces. You’re supposed to mix them all together and eat it in one go. The paper thosai is also popular – light and crispy, it retains its crunch even after being drenched in curry. 

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Muthu's Curry
  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Rochor

Among the scores of Indian restaurants in Little India, Muthu’s is easily the most dressed up. To boot, the kitchen more than holds up its end. The smell of spices hits you the moment you push through the front door. The menu is small (try the creamy butter chicken, and the crispy onion-flecked brinjal) with a very good vegetarian section, but the star attraction is the fish head curry. Even the small serving is a huge bowl of tart pineapple- scented sauce bathing a fleshy whole fish head. The fancy serving island – dotted with hot trays of luridly coloured curries and a hulking tandoor – offers a takeaway option.

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Another in the clutch of cafés on Rangoon Road in Farrer Park, Brunches Cafe is a vintage-themed spot serving all-day breakfast, gourmet sandwiches, and café standards. Their high tea set, with slices of cake, mini tarts, and sliders, is limited to ten sets a day, and is served in a birdcage. Apart from brunch staples like the eggs benedict, Brunches Cafe also serves vegetarian options such as the truffle-infused mushroom dish and brioche french toast. Diners can also buy the furniture that they sit on or shop at the vintage retail corner. 

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Meatsmith Little India
  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Rochor

It’s hard not to get excited by the thought of a good biryani, let alone crab biryani served with fresh crabmeat, together with flying fish roe that lends some crunch. Served at Meatsmith Little India where the menu is all about barbecue-style dishes but with an Indian twist – seriously, why hasn’t someone else thought of this earlier? Aside from the show-stealing crab biryani, there’s also pork ribs with coconut chutney, potatoes dusted with a spicy gunpowder seasoning, tandoori chicken cooked low and slow; all cooked in a tandoor oven, spit roaster, or smoker, so the food is next-level delicious and juicy.

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  • Markets and fairs
  • Rochor

Home to one of the best wet markets in town, the pasar’s adjoining food centre has become a hawker institution offering great grub from a range of cuisines. Great things are always said about the biryani at Tekka Centre, and The chicken dum biryani served at Yakader (#01-259) is the reason for its popularity – buttery, yet not greasy, the chicken is impossibly tender and beautifully spiced. Other good Indian cuisine options on offer include the very decent bowls of butter chicken, best with the crispy garlic naan, at SJ Tandoori (#01-218); and the mixed plates of shrimp fritters, fishballs and potatoes drenched in a spicy thick orange sauce at Temasek Indian Rojak (#01-254).

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  • Restaurants
  • Rochor

Tekka Market is home to dozens of stalls that claim to be the best in the same thing: biryani. Yet among them all, Allauddin’s comes out top. Its reputation lies in the biryani rice. Perfumed with heady spices, the fluffy basmati reawakens the taste buds instead of weighing down the palate. So despite its generous portion, you won’t have trouble scooping up every single grain of rice and shred of mutton. Special mention goes to the vegetable dhal and achar that add zing to the meat and rice. 

  • Restaurants
  • Singaporean
  • Rochor

Known for its hearty localised pasta dishes and rich indulgent cakes, The Malayan Council is the best place to go in Little India of some comfort food. Dig in a huge plate of smoked duck lemak chilli padi pasta or share a serving of Singapore chilli lobster – which comes with the mandatory fried mantou buns for mopping up the sauce. Finish off the meal with a slice of ondeh-ondeh cake which comes with crunchy gula melaka bits and coconut cream. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Rochor

We like the basic-but-effective Komala Villas, which has been open since 1947 and has branches on Race Course, Buffalo, and Serangoon Roads. The food comes in hearty sets on metal trays – go for the whopping vegetable biryani set, which comes with chapati, papadum, saffron rice, veggie curry, daal, raita, and a whole range of pickles and sauces.

Drink

  • Bars and pubs
  • Hotel bars
  • Rochor

With over 1,000 bottles of whiskey – from the ultra-rare to the award-winning favourites – on its shelves, The Whiskey Library is one of the best places in Singapore to sip and savour a dram. Housed in The Vagabond Club, the luxurious boutique hotel with its red velvet banquettes, a stunning collection of art and locally handcrafted furniture, the bar oozes sophistication to the highest degree. Enjoy a pour of your favourite Scotch – its collection comprises mostly limited-edition single-cask bottles – or get the bartender to whip up an old fashioned to pair with an international selection of cigars.

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  • Restaurants
  • Kallang

This neat coffee spot in the Farrer Park neighbourhood serves espresso drinks to complement café fare like chicken cheese burritos, Croque monsieurs, and hot favourite popcorn-topped panna cottas at wallet-friendly prices. But the main draw for the java-jonesin' are its cold-brewed bottled coffee and chilled Valrhona dark cocoa brews, which the devoted can take home to ration sips.

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  • Bars and pubs
  • Rochor

Quench your thirst for booze and gossip at the sister outlet of Haji Lane's Singapura Club. A laid-back spot for a quick catch-up with the pals, the heritage-style bistro and taproom serves up the usual suspects like the margarita, champagne, wine, IPA, and lager, as well as its very own take on the Singapore Sling (aka Singapura Sling), and chai. And if you're feeling peckish, add some bar bites like satay, fries, and naan to your order.

Shop

  • Shopping
  • Shopping centres
  • Kallang

A Singapore institution, Mustafa is open round the clock, offering 75,000-square-feet of bargains. It’s a treasure trove of discount shopping, carrying everything from skincare and electronics to sportswear and luggage. Sumptuous sari fabrics can be found in the basement, and beauty products at ground level, a supermarket with fresh produce and flowers at its uppermost floor, and even a corner for London souvenirs, of all things. 

  • Shopping
  • Boutiques
  • Rochor

The brainchild of sisters Sindi and Shruti Suria, Pottu Kara Maami started as a home-based boutique before setting up shop in Little India. It offers saree-seekers a variety of options from modern silhouettes embellished with embroidery, sequins, and block prints to traditional pieces like mangalagiri cotton sarees, and kanchipuram sarees. It's even got an online store, complete with a catalogue at your fingertips. With its stunning collections, there's no doubt you'll be spoilt for choice.

 

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  • Shopping
  • Rochor

What started as a small shop in Little India has grown into a multinational company with outlets in Malaysia and an export house in India. The go-to shop for textiles, Haniffa is a fabric haven – whatever colour or design you desire, you'll find it here. It also boasts an exclusive range of silk sarees that aren't easily available elsewhere. Going beyond textiles, the store has expanded to include jewellery, electronics, and even food products in its repository.

Mud Rock Ceramics
  • Shopping
  • Rochor

Blame it on the growing automation of our lives where hands are reduced to just typing and swiping, it's no wonder maker crafts like pottery is growing in popularity. Besides selling handmade ceramics, pottery tools, kits and glazes, Mud Rock Ceramics also conducts classes at its Maude Road space, so you can get a feel for throwing pots, slab building and glazing. But if getting your hands dirty isn’t for you, then put in a custom order, or drop by and hope to purchase one of their creations.

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Jothi Store & Flower Shop
  • Shopping
  • Rochor

Here's where you can pick up a fragrant garland. But if flowers aren’t your thing, they retail everything from coloured rice used for kolam, pooja (offering items), copper goods, Indian cosmetics, and all manner of henna items. They’re also one of the few shops in Little India selling freshly made paan, the red coloured betel leaf liquid.

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