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Gelam Gallery
Photograph: Gelam Gallery

The ultimate guide to Kampong Gelam

Kampong Glam is home to heritage businesses contrasted against cool cafes, hidden cocktail bars and cuisine from all over the world

By Cam Khalid
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Kampong Glam was once reigned by Malay Sultans, but those days are long gone. The neighbourhood has since transformed into one of Singapore's oldest (and hippest) enclaves. Named after the gelam tree, Kampong Glam was once an ethnic enclave for the Muslim community in the 1800s. Now, it's a melting pot of vibrant cultures from all over the world, majestic cultural buildings, eye-popping street art, a myriad of restaurants and bars, and trendy shops. 

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

Do

Gelam Gallery
Photograph: Cam Khalid

Gelam Gallery

Art Rochor

Scooch on down to the back alleys of Muscat Street for a rad hidden gem, an outdoor art gallery. Two parallel walls burst with a kaleidoscope of colour thanks to over 30 Instagram-worthy works by artists from the region and beyond. Admire the pop culture-dominated creation by multi-disciplinary artist PrettyFreakyFantasy or take a snap of a bold, terrestrial piece by graphic designer Liyana Farzana before exiting to Baghdad Street.

Malay Heritage Centre, exterior
Photograph: Malay Heritage Centre

Malay Heritage Centre

Things to do Rochor

Step through the doors of what was once the royal seat of Singapore’s sultans. Trace the rich history of the Malay community from the days of its earliest settlers and the sea-faring might of the Bugis villagers to the golden years of the Malay entertainment industry. Feed your mind with well-preserved historical artefacts, interactive exhibitions, and the occasional cultural performance and showcase.

Don't miss the Urang Banjar: Heritage and Culture of the Banjar in Singapore exhibition, where you learn more about Singapore’s smallest sub-ethnic Malay community through ethnographic objects, photographs, community stories, treasured family belongings, and other exhibits that are weaved together with their insights and anecdotes.

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Sultan Mosque
Photograph: Terence Ong

Sultan Mosque

Things to do Rochor

The first sultan of Singapore Sultan Hussein Shah built this magnificent mosque In 1824 next to his palace, Istana Kampong Gelam. It’s the biggest mosque in the city, accommodating up to 5,000 people in mass prayer. Look for the curious features at the base of the dome, which is composed of many glass bottles. Visitors are also welcome to enter but not during prayer services, including Friday prayers.

Aliwal Arts Centre

Art Rochor

Here's where arts companies call home including Nine Years Theatre (behind the recent Mandarin rendition of Twelve Angry Men), The A Cappella Society, Word Forward (organisers of the annual Lit Up Festival), Chinese Opera Institute Chew Keng Hao and Re: Dance Theatre, amongst others. Group facilities are available, including rehearsal rooms (which can be made into private black box theatres) and a main theatre for full-on productions. You can also find Coda Culture and Cuturi Gallery around the corner. There are also plenty of photo opportunities within the vicinity if you're looking to freshen up the 'gram.

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Vintage Camera's Museum
Photograph: Vintage Cameras Museum

Vintage Cameras Museum

Things to do Rochor

Give Peninsula Plaza a miss and head down to this one-of-a-kind museum instead. Boasting a repository of over 1000 vintage cameras, the museum is the first gallery in Singapore that's dedicated to a collection of the analog instrument – in fact, the building itself resembles a massive Rollei camera. On display is everything from novel old-school spy cameras – think James Bond – to pistol cameras. Besides equipment, the museum also showcases retro photographs, interesting nuggets on photography, and an authentic replica of the first-ever picture taken on a camera.

Eat

Guilt
Photograph: Guilt/ Facebook

Guilt

Restaurants Bakeries Rochor

The cookies from Guilt are worth skipping your diets plans for. What started out as a home bakery specialising in gooey, chonky cookies has since grown into a full-fledged bakery along Arab Street. Founders Grace Kim and Kirsty Tang brings a touch of whimsy into each sweet creation ($4.50/ $5.50); you’ll find cheekily named cookies based off pop culture. Highlights include the Fifty Shades of Grey, an earl grey vanilla cookie with pistachio and white cocoa butter; Park Bench Jelly, made in collaboration with famed sandwich joint Park Bench Deli; and a coconut kayak cheesecake-inspired Kaya Jenner. 

Mother Dough
Photograph: Mother Dough

Mother Dough

Restaurants Bakeries Rochor

Mother Dough is a force to be reckoned with when we're talking about the best croissants in Singapore. Previously active in the pop-up scene, the bakery eventually settled into a permanent place for their famous bakes and other goods. Besides the crowd favourite and fast-selling almond croissants ($4.20), take some time to give their other freshly baked goods a try. From the chocolate pound cake ($4/slice) to a simple baguette, everything here is baked to perfection. 

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Kulon
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Kulon

Restaurants Indonesian Rochor

Having bakmi, or mie ayam at a street warung is the quintessential Jakarta experience – but we're not going to experience that anytime soon. Closer to home, head over to Kulon, the new kid on Bali Lane for a fix of the popular Indonesian street food. 

A good bowl of mie ayam would consist of springy al dente egg noodles, diced chicken cooked in soy sauce, chopped spring onions and served with simple and flavourful clear chicken broth – and a side of chilli. At Kulon, there are many variations of this beloved noodle dish. The noodle served here is of a thicker variation than the Indonesian street style – but absorbs the gravy perfectly. Have it the classic style with the Bakmi Bangka; or for if you crave stronger flavours, go for the Bakmi Gulai Sapi which incorporates the Javanese beef curry with the noodles. If spice is top priority, take your pick between the bakmi with red – or green – sambal. 

On the menu are also a selection of rice dishes and also burgers with a Javanese edge – think fried chicken burger with sambal – or a tempeh version as well. After a typical Indonesian meal, remember to wash it down with some cold teh botol (sweet jasmine tea) like the locals do. 

Overrice
Photograph: Overrice

Overrice

Restaurants Rochor

You don’t need to be from New York to have heard about The Halal Guys, a famous food truck empire known for serving up spice-scented meats with rice. And now, you don’t even need to travel far to get a taste of the dish. Closer to home, along Arab Street, four Singaporeans have decided to open a rice bowl café inspired by the iconic street cart. At Overrice, the menu bears resemblance to the greatest hits from The Halal Guys. Beef is slow-cooked to retain all its flavour, the chicken comes grilled simply, falafel balls are fried till golden and crispy. But the main draw here is the white sauce, a creamy, mysterious recipe that is used to drizzle over everything.

 

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The Fabulous Baker Boy
Photograph: The Fabulous Baker Boy

The Fabulous Baker Boy

Restaurants Bakeries Rochor

You might be greeted by Beyonce or Diana Ross when stepping into The Fabulous Baker Boy. These are just two of founder Juwanda Hassim’s creative cake creations; there are over 14 elegant tiered treats on display, each with an uncanny source of inspiration. From the aptly named Diva series, sample the Beyonce, a take on lemonade with layers of lemon and yoghurt sponge; or try Ms Celine Dione where Valrhona white chocolate and macadamia sponge comes sandwiched between fresh raspberries and raspberry compote.

Sari Ratu

Restaurants Indonesian Rochor

Sticklers for tradition, Sari Ratu has got to be one of the more authentic places to get nasi padang in Singapore. Choices are aplenty at their main branch in Pahang Street so we don't blame you for taking your time when ordering! All time favourites include the rendang, eggplant in chilli, grilled chicken, fried fish and also the delightful beef tendon curry.

 

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Brine
Photograph: Cam Khalid/Time Out Singapore

Brine

Restaurants Singaporean Rochor

With an open-kitchen concept, Brine isn’t shy about its palatable plates. Here, the folks behind The Laneway Market dish out contemporary cuisine whipped up by chef Christopher Tan who has been finessing his French and Japanese techniques throughout his culinary journey. Sink your teeth into its dry-aged Angus ribeye served with onion jus and anchovy ($43), or opt for the smaller torched beef tartare with miso carrot and carrot chips ($16).

Hjh Maimunah
Photograph: Hjh Maimunah

Hjh Maimunah

Restaurants Malay Rochor

No visit to Kampong Glam is complete without a plate of glorious nasi padang. This Michelin Bib Gourmand listed Malay eatery serves favourites like tahu telor, Sundanese grilled chicken and beef rendang. If you’re really frugal with your choices – the more you order, the more it costs – a plate can set you back less than $10.

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Fika Café

Restaurants Rochor

Halal Swedish food on Arab Street is a rare sight, and modern bostro Fika certainly stands out in the mostly traditional area dominated by shophouses and heritage businesses. Although many come for the halal Swedish meatballs that are served with roast potatoes and a dollop of lingonberry jam ($19), the desserts are the clear winner here. Tea-lovers will appreciate the personal pot service and eclectic selection of Gryphon teas. Avoid the unwieldy, open-faced sandwiches and stick with the sweet stuff: a just-right Swedish chocolate cake, Kladdkaka ($8) and Swedish pancakes with fresh berries ($13) go down a treat.

Konditori
Photo: Konditori

Konditori

Restaurants Cafés Rochor

Fika Swedish Cafe & Bistro’s pâtisserie sister takes it bakes seriously – all freshly made from scratch by hand. With everything from red velvet croissant ($5.90) and sourdough brownie ($6) to the Swedish semla bun ($7.90) and customisable showstopping cakes to pair with your hot cup of joe, Konditori is the crème de la crème of bakeries in the ‘hood for European-influenced sweet treats.

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Zam Zam
Photograph: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Zam Zam

Restaurants Malay Rochor

There’s no preventing the pong of oil and fried dough clinging to your clothes the moment you step into this grungy shophouse unit. But it’s well worth the smell. Zam Zam has been serving up its biryani (from $6) and murtabak (from $5) for well over a century, so you can be pretty much assured of getting the legit stuff. But if it’s biryani you’re after, Zam Zam makes its version Hyderabadi dum style: the meat is cooked together with the orange-flecked basmati, which makes the rice that much more fragrant. 

Alaturka Mediterranean & Turkish Restaurant

Restaurants Middle Eastern Rochor

Awarded a Bib Gourmand in 2016’s Micheline Guide, this Arab street-establishment is one of our favourites thanks to its extensive variety kebabs. The Karisik Kebab ($42) is a popular choice, but opt for the Ispanakli Pide ($18) to accompany your meats. It's the Turkish equivalent of a pizza filled with spinach and cheese. Also try the large Meze Tarbagi ($28), a cold appetiser platter packed with hummus, babakanus, saksuka patlican salata, ezme, yaprak sarmasi & rus salatasi, served with piping hot Turkish lavash bread.

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I Am

Restaurants Cafés Rochor

This people-watching corner spot at Haji Lane also doubles as Dutch-inspired Halal café, I am. Scaling back on the breakfast-as-lunch fare elsewhere, its perpetual crowd flock to the restaurant for their selection of juicy burgers (from $12.90) including the charcoal fire-licked sloppy burger with a comfortingly messy sauce ($14.90) and sharing grub like melty chicken meatball Cheezy Bombs ($6.90) and baked garlic butter prawns ($10.90), all to kick start a day wandering through the street’s little retail nooks.

Chix Hot Chicken
Photograph: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Chix Hot Chicken

Restaurants Chicken Rochor

Think all American fried chicken is just KFC? Y’all got it wrong. Nashville-style country chicken is spicy as heck. Nashville hot chicken is typically marinated in buttermilk, fried and doused with a heavy application of cayenne pepper (often in the form of some magical pepper-infused oil), along with other spices like garlic and paprika. It is sometimes served on the bone with white bread and pickles – possibly to take off the heat a little. Curious? Save the plane ticket to ‘Merica, you can get some in Arab Street.

Drink

Bar Stories
Photograph: Bar Stories / Facebook

Bar Stories

Clubs Rochor

Set up in 2009, Bar Stories is among the first in the wave of bars shaking up crafted drinks in the city, with ardent foodie, David Koh, now at the helm of its drinks-making operation.  Make reservations for prime seats in front of the bartender, and take the staircase next to The Crostini Bar to find Bar Stories. The small bar counter cleverly tucks you into a recessed space to make the conversation easy with the team, who take orders for bespoke cocktails (from $20) here. David keeps the programming organic and fluid by procuring interesting ingredients and inspirations like Kyoho grapes and kaya toast for the surprise drinks. 

Bhai Sarbat
Photograph: Bhai Sarbat

Bhai Sarbat

Restaurants Rochor

It's an open secret – Bhai Sarbat serves up the best teh tarik in town and the long queues and crowds at the small stall on Bussorah Street is proof. Sweet, spicy and everything nice, the best way to round up your Kampong Gelam experience.

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%Arabica
Photograph: Cam Khalid/Time Out Singapore

% Arabica

Restaurants Cafés Rochor

On a mission to bring Kyoto coffee magic to our shores, this café goes beyond the textbook espresso-based brews (from $4.50). It roasts its own house blend, comprising beans from Latin America, Africa and Europe, for a balanced, well-rounded flavour. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, the Spanish latte (from $7.80) – made with condensed milk – is your best bet.

IB HQ

Bars and pubs Cocktail bars Tanjong Pagar

Housed on the second floor of a quaint shophouse in Kampong Glam, IB HQ (or the Indigenous Bartender Headquarters) is run by husband and wife team Kamil Foltan and Zurina Bryant. Kamil has stirred and shaken at the likes of Tippling Club, The Black Swan and Potato Head but at IB HQ, his focus is on cocktails made using locally sourced ingredients prepared in a novel way. Drinks are priced at $24 and include an osmanthus gimlet and Bloody Maria, a twist on the classic mixed with umeshu, shoyu, hibiscus, calamansi and Kagome tomato instead.

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Blu Jaz Cafe
Photograph: Blu Jaz Cafe

Blu Jaz Cafe

Music Music venues Rochor

It’s hard to miss Blu Jaz Café. Bathing the corner of Bali Lane with its bright blue neon lights, the alfresco joint typically attracts a bustling crowd of young and old with its regular live music sets and open mic sessions (when it's allowed to do so again). The space has hosted a list of household jazz names and impressive young talents. It's also a great place to kick back with a drink and catch up with some ol' pals.

Flying Monkey
Photograph: Flying Monkey

Flying Monkey

Restaurants Indian Rochor

No monkey business, only seriously good Indian food and cocktails at this joint on Bussorah Street. Served tapas-style, expect bites like tandoori chicken ($10) and tulsi cod ($15) fresh from the on-site tandoor. For big plates, the Nalli Gosht ($26) is a lamb shank dish that’s simmered overnight in a creamy peanut and cashew curry ‘til the meat falls off the bone. The cocktails are infused with Indian flavours, too. Expect drinks like the Goa Mamma Lassi – an alcoholic twist on the classic mango lassi – featuring a mix of mango, passion fruit, Aylesbury Vodka, Plantation Dark Rum, milk and yogurt.

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Maison Ikkoku

Restaurants Cafés Rochor

This is indeed the ‘house of the moment’ (maison ikkoku) – artisanal coffees, Spam sushi and kong bak pau (a traditional Chinese pork belly sandwich) are served in the ground-floor space under half-sawn furniture hanging decoratively from the ceiling. A cocktail bar also resides on the top level, the fertile imagination of Ethan Leslie Leong, formerly of Drink Culture and nearby Bar Stories. Japanese ‘latte-art specialist’ Hiroshi Sawada trained the coffee baristas.

Shop

Baju by Oniatta
Photo: Baju by Oniatta

Galeri Tokokita

Shopping Fashion Rochor

Behind every batik fabric is a story. The meaning of ‘batik’ itself refers to the technique of making intricate patterns onto a piece of fabric. It is a delicate art and often a time-consuming one because so much thought and skill is put into making a sheet of batik fabric. The motifs on each piece of cloth also have meaning behind them – and this is what owner Oniatta Effendi showcases with every collection she releases. Whether it is a Merdeka jacket with parang (blade) prints which symbolises victory and power or a men’s shirt with the Garuda (a mythical bird) print which represents masculinity, it’s a joy to learn the stories being the garment you’re wearing.

SIFR Aromatics

Shopping Gifts and souvenirs Rochor

Step into Sifr Aromatics and it comes to life in a heady riot of fragrance and colour, thanks to shelves of gorgeously designed bottles of perfume. Far from your ordinary perfumery, it offers a unique, customised approach. Expect a mix of natural and synthetic potions to give a well- rounded scent. A combination of five or more oils is then mixed, shaken, and bottled in 12-millilitre vials. Sifr has been featured on Lonely Planet and Conde Nast Traveler has called it “one of the finest custom perfumers in Southeast Asia”.

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Supermama

Shopping Boutiques Rochor

This minimalist husband-and-wife co-owned souvenier shop is the perfect place to pick up thoughtful, one-of-a-kind gifts for that special someone (or yourself).Think asymmetrical bowls, dimpled cups and painstakingly handpainted plates inspired by modern Singapore culture. Because most items are available in limited quantities, your best bet’s to pop in and find out what’s in stock.

Lure Haven
Photo: Lure Haven

Lure Haven

Shopping Rochor

Bet you didn’t think of heading to Bussorah Street for some fishing essentials. This three-storey premium Japanese fishing store boasts myriad brands from the Land of the Rising Sun. Before you pack for your next fishing sesh, stock up on all the necessary equipment for luring, jigging and popping.

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The Nail Social
Photo: Kevin Ou

The Nail Social

Health and beauty Rochor

Tucked on the second floor of a shophouse in Haji Lane is The Nail Social, which, as its name suggests, is a socially conscious salon offering manicure, pedicure and foot massages. Founders Cheryl Ou and Germaine Monteiro set it up in 2014 with the aim of employing and training underprivileged local women. The pair were experienced nail technicians prior to setting up The Nail Social, and they make sure each customer feels at ease: there’s no lack of conversation, but you’re left to your own devices if you’d prefer things that way. Variety is the operative word here. There are close to 100 colours in both the regular and gel ranges. Guests also receive an iPad loaded with Netflix, games and books. And you can’t knock the free homemade lemonade and wine (the latter only on Fridays and Saturdays).

Kin Soon

Shopping Art, craft and hobbies Rochor

It’s ribbons galore at Kin Soon, otherwise known as Minton House of Ribbons, where shelves overflow with colourful strips of material. This family business has been in the industry since 1975, and it’s also a wholesaler for ribbons and packaging materials, where you can pick up a full roll for only a dollar. For wholesale purchases, you might get up to 20 percent off your purchase, depending on the quantity. Customisation services are available, too, with an average of one to two weeks waiting time. 

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