Even travellers who have ventured to Singapore in the past might not recognise the island today: the city-state is urbanising at an astonishing clip, with gleaming casinos and hotels sprouting up on its skyline. Much of this is fuelled by Singapore’s recent economic success in electronics and manufacturing, which has driven up its GDP per capita to the ninth-highest ranking globally.
All that glitter aside, Singapore is rich in historical and cultural complexity. Once a British colony, it’s since attracted immigrants from China and India, and, more recently, businesspeople from Europe and the United States. Each of those visitors left their mark on Singapore, and relics of cultures past can still be found among the glassy skyscrapers and neon-lit clubs. Here’s how to find them.
The 19th century saw a wave of Europeans emigrate to Singapore, employing a host of Hainanese—people from the southernmost Chinese province–to work as cooks and servers in colonial households. The economic depression of the 1930s, exodus of the British colonial class, and the wartime closing of many Japanese-owned shops and hotels set the stage for opportunity in the Singaporean food and beverage industries. Enterprising Hainanese moved quickly to fill the void, using their culinary training to establish cafés and eateries—the distinctive kopitiams—serving a burgeoning working class hybrid creations of Western and traditional Chinese fare. Today, kopitiams—both old and newer, Westernised ones—are on almost every street in Singapore. The drink is kopi, coffee that gets strained through a cloth and treated with condensed milk and sugar. Experience the old-school kopitiam tradition at Tong Ah Eating House (36 Keong Saik Road), an open-air spot in Chinatown founded by the current owner’s great-grandfather. For a cup of kopi in a more modern setting, try PS. Cafe (Block 10, Dempsey Rd., #01-23), a newer chain of kopitiams that boasts patio seating and high design.
To understand the new Singapore, it helps to understand the architect Moshe Safdie. Most ostensibly, the Israeli-born, Boston-based Safdie designed Marina Bay Sands (10 Bayfront Avenue). The luxury hotel might be the epitome of Singapore’s newfound wealth, but it wasn’t designed to be an icon in the sky. Safdie advocates for more thoughtful buildings in dense urban areas (Singapore is an island, so land scarcity is an issue), and argues against the creation of more isolated skyscrapers. Marina Bay Sands, by contrast, is a part of the fabric of the city. Not to be missed are SkyPark, the observation deck with views of the harbour, the skyline, and the hotel’s sensational infinity pool, and the lotus-shaped, Safie-designed ArtScience Museum (6 Bayfront Avenue).
Continue the tour of Safdie’s work in Singapore, and stroll past Cairnhill Road Condominiums (near Newton Circle) built in 2003. In the 1960s the Singapore Housing and Development Board created thousands of homes in high density housing to accommodate a booming population. Unfortunately, the conformist buildings are no match for the burgeoning metropolis Singapore is becoming. Safdie’s condominiums are, instead, early examples of a new ideal for urban living: homes in the sky, with ample shared outdoor space.
Safdie’s next Singapore project will be the most spectacular yet. With the Jewel Changi Airport addition—a sprawling glass greenhouse that will host a waterfall, shopping complex, and restaurants—the architect wants to redefine the social dynamics of airports. Visitors have a bit of wait, however: construction only began in December.
Singapore today is flooded with foreign investors and imported food, but the nation began as a farming village—locally called a kampong. In the newly revamped Kranji neighborhood locals are bringing back locavore, urban farming practices. The Sky Greens (42 Kallang Pl.) vertical gardens best embody the potential for future urban food supply: the 30-foot-tall towers are harvesting leafy greens like spinach, bok choy, and cabbage.
Sky Greens is a stellar sight to behold. Delight other senses nearby, with the Kranji Heritage Trail. The trail has dozens of farms, cooking schools, and day spas that could occupy a whole day of touring. Try out cooking classes at Bollywood Veggies (100 Neo Tiew Road), visit Koi farms like Max Koi Farm (251 Neo Tiew Crescent) or Nippon Koi Farm(51 Jalan Lekar), and end the day at D’Kranji Farm Resort (Neo Tiew Lane 2), an eco-friendly spa that boasts a fishing village and museum.
A trip to Singapore that soaks you in the rich culture and stuns you with its urban design is one experience essential to a life well travelled.
This article originally appeared in Quartz.