It’s not everyday that the chief concierge of your hotel takes you out on a tour of his city. But here I am, bright and early in the lobby of the Shangri-La Singapore about to be taken out by Rajkumer, the Shangri-La’s chief concierge, a Singaporean of Indian descent and a man passionate about his city.

I’ve always thought Singapore was somewhat misunderstood. Before my first visit as an adult a few years ago, a fellow backpacker in India told me that there wasn’t much to see in the city apart from the Marina Bay Sands. I spent over a week exploring and found him to be incredibly wrong. Truth is, you’ll see a lot more of the real Singapore if you avoid the Marina Bay Sands altogether. A few years later and I’m back, and ready to dig even deeper into the complexity of cultures, religions and Asian fusions which make up the city of Singapore. Rajkumer is keen to show me all which makes him proud to be Singaporean. And I’m keen to discover.

Little India

Our first stop is Little India, and the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple on Seragoon Road. From the moment we walk in, the swirls of incense whirl through my nostrils and memories of South India come flowing back. Brahmin Priests, bare chested and touting white sashes and orange ribbons make prayers in the center of the room as locals gift bananas and cartons of milk to the gods. This is the temple Rajkumer’s family pray at, and one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore. Dedicated to the goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil, the temple in its earliest days was visited by migrant workers from Tamil, India who worshipped to feel safe in a foreign land.

Nowadays, it’s the heart of Little India, an area which is a proud homage to India. The colorful shophouses display bright marigolds, women’s saris and gold jewelry, and you’ll find an array of excellent and authentic Indian cuisines here. Grab a warm chai and hunt for some of the vibrant street art in the area. The markets are rainbow shades and spice-packed. Walking the streets of this area makes me yearn for the sub-continent, but an afternoon here, complete with a crispy dosa and hot mug of chai satisfy at least some of those cravings.

Arab Street

Singapore made up of a number of different ethnic groups – primarily Chinese, Indians and Malaysians. One of the most prominent religions is Islam, and after our morning at the Hindu temple, Rajkumer takes me to Arab street, where we gaze at the stunning Masjid Sultan. The gold dome stands out among the small rainbow shop houses which also make up this area, and many of the older districts of the city. The Arab Street area (also known as the Kampong Galm district), is filled with Iranian carpet shops, Turkish cafes and a distinct hipster vibe running through Hajj Lane which is filled with independent shops and cafes.

Chinatown

The third of the unique cultural areas of the city is Chinatown, and it’s our next shop. Rajkumer is keen to show me the Chinese Heritage Center. Unlike a usual museum, this place is located in a traditional Chinatown shophouse, and is laid out in the same way that Chinese migrant workers would have lived when they first arrived in Singapore. It’s a fascinating and detailed insight into the lives of people when Singapore began. Having seen a traditional Hindu temple and mosque, we next head to one of the biggest Buddhist temples in the city- the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum. Unlike the past two religious buildings, this one is quite new and was built in 2007. The ornate inside is typical of Chinese Buddhist temples, and the atmosphere is peaceful and silent as it should be.

Outside, Chinatown is one of Singapore’s most vibrant and chaotic districts. During the day, the older population gather in squares to play Chinese chess, chat and share food. At night, the markets open up selling all sorts of souvenirs and typical tat, alongside some gems. The food stalls here specialize in typical Chinese cuisine, although it’s possible to find great Indian and Malay food here too.

Joo Chiat

Our next stop is to the Joo Chiat area, home of the Peranakan Heritage Center and more rows of beautiful shophouses. Peranakan culture is something I had been unaware of before this visit to Singapore, but it’s a culture which is at the heart of Singapore. Essentially the culture which came about when Chinese migrants to Singapore and the Malaysian peninsula married local Malays, the culture is often thought to best represent the style of food in Singapore. We head to an original food spot in the area, Kway Guan Huat which makes Popiah, a type of spring roll which is very popular in Singapore. It’s filled with either crabmeat or mushroom. Unfortunately the shop is closed for refurbishment but the local chef Zita does a good job of explaining the history of the shop to me. She too is of Peranakan heritage, and is keeping this unique food alive in the city.

Having glimpsed the main cultural corners of the city, it’s time to eat. Having expressed my appreciation for Indian food, Rajkumer takes me back to Little India and to one of his favorite food spots. We feast on curries plated on banana leaves and big cups of mango lassi.

What Rajkumer has shown me on this tour further proves what I already felt about the city on my last visit. Singapore is so much more than Marina Bay Sands and glitzy hotels with rooftop swimming pools. It’s a mix of vibrant cultures, religions and cuisines. And it’s an incredibly exciting place to be.

5 Places to explore to glimpse a local Singapore

1. Little India and the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

2. Kampong Glam district and the Masjid Sultan Mosque

3. Joo Chiat the the Parnakan Heritage Center

4. Local Hawker Centers around the city- see if you can find Indian, Malay, Chinese and Paranakan cuisine all in one!

5. Chinatown and the excellent Chinese Heritage Center

I was kindly invited to Singapore by the Shangri-La and Singapore Airlines.