1 day in Southwest Singapore – Beyond the City
Looking for something new beyond the usual stroll around Marina Bay? How about checking out this other side of Singapore, not far from the city center, far less crowded, and full of interesting sights? Here’s a guide to spending a day (or 2) in the south western part of Singapore (without going to Sentosa).
Got stuck in the city for too long so I decided to start exploring. Fortunately, I found a nice cluster of interesting things to see / do around the southwestern part of Singapore and thought they’d fit nicely into a one day itinerary. This itinerary starts out at the retro neighborhood of Tiong Bahru, getting through the incredibly scenic Southern Ridges trail, and finally ending at mysterious (and almost abandoned) theme park Haw Par Villa. I’ve also added in a couple of possible detours along the way if you have more time. Enjoy!
1. Tiong Bahru
Tiong Bahru is a colorful neighborhood that has experienced many transformations over its nearly 100 years in existence. It started as Singapore’s first public housing project, featuring distinctive Streamline Moderne architecture (a variant of Art Deco). Before the war, it was the choice place for rich men to keep their mistresses, as it was considered classy to get an apartment there. Post-war, more flats were added, more people moved in and Tiong Bahru lost its exclusivity status (for some time).
Tiong Bahru Market was another first, the first modern market to be built in a housing estate. Over the years, the market has been refurbished and rebuilt, but is still a favorite haunt for foodies looking for local delicacies. Many of the stalls from past eras remain, but it is debatable if the quality of food has. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a one stop place to sample lots of local delights without spending too much, you’d definitely need to stop by Tiong Bahru Market. The wet market on the ground floor is another exciting place to explore.
In recent times, Tiong Bahru estate has managed to attract an array of boutique/ hipster shops. Going alongside decades-old coffee shops and convenience stalls, you might even be tempted to spend a day here just exploring the streets and hanging out in the cafes. To up the hipster quotient, there are pretty murals to be found throughout the estate which make for great Instagram opportunities!
Nearest MRT: Tiong Bahru (a short walk or one bus stop away)
Duration: Easily a day cafe hopping, but if you’re just taking a glance, an hour for food (some stalls have long queues), and another hour checking out the cool streets.
- Sign up for a free guided tour at the Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteers page here.
- Or go on a self guided tour created by the National Heritage Board here.
2. Marang Trail to Mount Faber
To get to our next stop, head over to the bus stop in front of Blk 55, take bus 123 and alight at Vivocity, Singapore’s largest shopping mall. But fret not, we’re not going to be doing any shopping today. Walk in the same direction the traffic till you come to the traffic junction. Cross over and head up Marang Road. At the end of the road, start on Marang Trail, and soon you’ll find yourself in a different world from the busy streets you’ve just left.
Take time to enjoy nature and the uphill climb to the top of Mount Faber.
Nearing the top, the vegetation starts to thin, providing opportunities to sneak peeks across Singapore, such as this view of the cable cars linking Mount Faber to Sentosa, and the the ports in the distance.
Mount Faber, at 105 meters, barely qualifies as a hill, but is one of the taller natural landforms in Singapore. From here, you’d be able to get panoramas of Singapore from multiple sides. Here is one of Telok Blangah housing estate and the Central Business District.
There’s also a fancy restaurant at the peak, but if you’re on a budget you’ll be much better off stocking up either at Tiong Bahru or Vivocity.
Nearest MRT: Habourfront
From previous stop: Take bus 123 from Blk 55 to Vivocity (30 mins) and follow Marang Trail (800m) to the top (20 mins)
Duration: Probably an hour from the previous stop to Mount Faber summit. Not that much to do here, so it’ll be quick. Catch your breath, enjoy the view, spot birds and squirrels and unusual plants/ insects. There’ll be plenty more trees and nature up next too.
3. Faber Trail
Continuing along the Southern Ridges along Faber Trail (towards Henderson Waves), you’ll pass more greenery and views you might never have expected to find in Singapore.
One of the prominent buildings to feature along the trail is the iconic Reflections at Keppel Bay. It is designed by the same person who created the masterplan for the World Trade Center Memorial, Daniel Libeskind.
Faber Trail (Mount Faber to Henderson Waves):
Duration: 30 minutes at a comfortable strolling pace
4. Henderson Waves
At the end of Faber Trail, you’ll find the curvy Henderson Waves. At 36 meters above the ground, it is the highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore. Keep away from the sides if you’re afraid of heights!
Henderson Waves, apart from being a pretty bridge, connects Mount Faber Park to Telok Blangah Hill Park. It forms a vital connection along the Southern Ridges trail. The wooden benches on one side of the bridge look really inviting.
Mount Faber and Telok Blangah Hill were originally part of the same continuous ridge, but the building of Henderson Road in the 70s required leveling the hill between them. In 2008 as part of the Southern Ridges initiative Henderson Waves was built over the road, connecting the 2 hills together once again.
Henderson Waves (Faber Trail to Hilltop Walk):
Duration: Negligible, but a nice spot to take a break
5. Hilltop Walk / Telok Blangah Hill Park
Hilltop Walk will take you from the end of Henderson Waves, through Telok Blangah Hill Park, to Forest Walk. One of the first landmarks you’ll come across is a bungalow standing out among the trees. It was built a hundred years ago in 1918 by a prominent Arab family, hosting many high society parties.
After the war (which ended in 1945), the compound was abandoned. It changed hands several times but has been vacant since a restaurant there ceased operations in July 2016. The grounds in front of it are still open to public.
Further down hilltop walk, going slightly uphill, you’ll see the Terrace Garden, a beautiful, tiered semi-circular garden at the top of Telok Blangah Hill Park.
Though not as tall as Mount Faber, the view from the top of Telok Blangah Hill offers decent views too, opening up on various angles to different sides of Singapore.
Hilltop Walk (Henderson Waves to Forest Walk):
Duration: 30 minutes at a comfortable strolling pace
6. Forest Walk
Ever imagined taking a walk through the forest, without getting a step in the dirt? The Forest Walk, which begins at the end of Hilltop Walk, allows you to do just that.
Forest Walk is an elevated, step-free walkway through the edge of the forest, and a brilliant way to observe local flora and fauna. Information boards along the way provide additional meaning to the leaves and bark you see along the way.
Might not be too suitable for those afraid of heights too.
Forest Walk (Hilltop Walk to Alexandra Arch):
Duration: 30 minutes at a comfortable strolling pace. Or less. This part is mostly downward sloping.
Forest Walk ends at Alexandra Road. This is a good place to stop if you intend to spread this itinerary over 2 days as Labrador Park MRT is a short distance away. Gillman Barracks, which is on the left coming out of Forest Walk, has great places to chill and get some good food or beers. There are also a couple of art installations worth checking out if you’re already at Gillman Barracks. To the right of Forest Walk, near the end, you’d be able to spot the Interlace, another iconic housing project which looks like giant blocks stacked into the sky.
From here if you intend to continue to the Hort Park, Kent Ridge Park and Haw Par Villa, cross the Alexandra Arch to the other side of the road. Meanwhile, another bonus near the area…
[Bonus] Labrador Park
Labrador Park, situated next to Labrador Park MRT, is a peaceful and quiet seaside park. Not as big as East Coast Park but way less crowded and more accessible (for now). Upon reaching the coast, turn right and go all the way in and you’ll find the beach and pier.
The beach here is not open to public due to conservation purposes, but the waters surrounding the pier are among the clearest I’ve seen along Singapore’s mainland, despite Pasir Panjang Port being a stone’s throw away.
The hill behind the beach is home to tunnels and artillery guns from World War 2. You can learn more about them by following the trails uphill. Alternatively, turn back and follow the coast all the way to the other side of Labrador Park, where you will be able to see Sentosa from across Keppel Harbor.
There are a couple more sights/ artifacts along the coastline such as an old machine gun post and the Long Ya Men replica, till the Berlayar Creek, where the boardwalk either goes back inland or goes further out to sea over to Keppel Bay. Look out into the water and you might spot schools of fish here, or even crabs burrowing along the shore.
At Keppel Bay you’ll see Reflections at Keppel Bay again, up close this time, and by Keppel Bay, lots of fancy yachts parked. Heading back and this time out through Berlayar Creek, the boardwalk will take you close to the mangrove swamp, where plants and animals behave a little differently from those in the jungle. Spot monkeys, squirrels, monitor lizards and fascinating aerial roots of the mangrove trees. At the end of the creek, it’s Labrador Park MRT station again.
Nearest MRT: Labrador Park
Duration: Probably an hour cycling to the pier, Keppel Bay, then Berlayar Creek, or an hour more if you want to explore the guns up on the hill.
From Forest Walk: about 2 bus stops down, and the 2 bus stops to get back on the trail to continue on Alexandra Arch
7. Alexandra Arch/ Hort Park
Forest Walk ends at Alexandra Road, and Alexandra Arch will take you across it to our next stop, Hort Park.
To be honest, I didn’t really fancy the Hort Park, but since it is between our stops, let’s take a look!
The Hort Park was created the the place for all gardening related activities. There are also spaces available for events. Walking through the park will take you through different themed gardens and showcase something different about gardening. Having been to Gardens by the Bay too many times though, I couldn’t help feeling a little indifferent. Nonetheless, a nice connector between Forest Walk and Kent Ridge Park.
Near the end Hort Park are a couple of greenhouses, where there seems to be some research/ cultivation going on for plants at Gardens by the Bay. Perhaps this was where they got the magic from.
Hort Park (Alexandra Arch to Canopy Walk):
Distance: Approx 1km
Duration: 30 mins to 1 hour, depending on whether the horticulture displayed is of your interest.
8. Canopy Walk/ Kent Ridge Park
Beyond the greenhouses, the trail goes back into the forest, from the comfort of cultivated land. There is an option to take the Canopy Walk, a elevated boardwalk which will take you above the trees to Reflections at Bukit Chandu. NOT another condominium, this one a World War 2 museum commemorating a fierce battle that happened on the nearby, the Battle of Pasir Panjang. To get to Kent Ridge Park however, don’t head up the Canopy Walk but instead continue on the ground level trail, which goes slightly uphill.
Trees provide plenty of shade as the path follows the ridgeline. Between trunks, the ground is densely covered in ferns, which I didn’t know could look beautiful like that.
Looked like it’ll be a scary place to visit at night. Loving it in the day though.
One thing I couldn’t understand were the benches facing straight into the tall ferns. Somewhere around here was where the fierce Battle of Pasir Panjang took place. It’s quite hard to imagine that this incredibly peaceful and beautiful park had seen one of the ugliest episodes in Singapore’s history, where hundreds of men died over the short 3 day battle.
At the highest point, you’ll find another viewpoint, looking over Pasir Panjang Port. From here, it’s a steep downhill walk (or run) to the bottom of the ridge.
Vigilante Drive (no kidding) leads out of Kent Ridge Park to South Buona Vista Road. On South Buona Vista Road, walk in the direction of Pasir Panjang Road (turn left). A row of shop houses near the end can provide a well needed break. Options include the popular Paddy Hills, or for something quick there is a convenience store (Food-Joy). There are also a chinese restaurant and a bar on this stretch.
End of Hort Park – Kent Ridge Park – South Buona Vista Road:
Distance: Approx 1.5km
[Bonus] Southern Ridges Resources
And that brings us to the end of the Southern Ridges section of our itinerary! Before we continue to our last highlight, Haw Par Villa, here are some resources related to the Southern Ridges trail which you may find useful:
9. Haw Par Villa
From the end of South Buona Vista Road, Haw Par Villa is less than 1km away. If you’re lucky and spot one of those dockless rental bikes, and it happens to be one of those free bike days, grab one and you’ll be at Haw Par Villa in no time. If not it should be a comfortable transit on foot as the path there is flat. At the junction of South Buona Vista Road and Pasir Panjang Road, turn right and proceed along Pasir Panjang Road for 800m till you see Haw Par Villa MRT station. Haw Par Villa is right next to it.
Haw Par Villa, or Tiger Balm Gardens, was built in 1937 as a residence by Aw Boon Haw for his younger brother, Aw Boon Par. The Aw brothers are behind one of the most recognized brands in Singapore today, Tiger Balm. Tiger Balm is sold today as many different medicinal products based on a traditional liniment.
Around the villa, Boon Haw commissioned an elaborate and intricate garden of sculptures depicting scenes from various stories in chinese folklore and mythology. During World War 2, Boon Par, the younger brother, moved to Rangoon (Yangon, Myanmar), where he died before the end of the war. As the story goes, Boon Haw returns after the war and devastated by his brother’s death, demolished the villa. Work on the sculptures continued through generations till 1971. Through this time, the park was open to public. Sculptures in the park though, earned a reputation for being nightmare inducing.
The land was subsequently acquired by the government in 1985 and leased to a private company for it to be converted to a modern theme park. After a huge face lift, the addition of a boat ride and theatres, and the incorporation of the latest technology (at that time), the park re-opened to much fanfare but with a hefty ticket price in 1990 (when I was born). I remember visiting once with my extended family a long time ago when the park was still very popular, and when the boat ride through the 10 Courts of Hell still running and sword fights were performed by actors suspended in midair.
The park struggled to turn a profit and was returned to the Singapore Tourism Board in 2001, when the rides and fancy animatronics were removed, along with the entrance fee. The park has changed operators several times and seems to be gaining a little bit more traction in recent times (finally). Whether that holds up remains to be seen but for now, some sights from the park!
The highlight of Haw Par Villa is the 10 Courts of Hell, depicting undergoing of judgement/ punishment after death. In the courts you’ll observe the different punishments met out for different crimes/ evils committed, all gruesome and almost unnecessarily gory. Warning: graphic images ahead.
There’s no paradise here, only one path leading to hell. To be fair, there is much attention to detail, and English explanations are available at the different courts detailing the crimes and their punishment. The sculptures more than sufficiently depict the punishment at each court.
Trying to pick out the less graphic ones here, head over to Haw Par Villa for the full story!
Outside the 10 Courts of Hell, which takes about 20 minutes, a sudden sea of calm among these Buddhist statues.
Some parts of the park are undergoing refurbishment, which seems like a good sign for Haw Par Villa’s future. At the top of the hill, overlooking Pasir Panjang Port, enjoy the view of the sea the Aw brothers had from their villa which once stood there. There are also sculptures of animals where once animals were kept live on the compound. On the way out, more stories and sculptures. If you’re interested in chinese mythology/ legends/ folklore you can easily spend a few more hours here reading the information boards.
This is part of the ‘International Corners’ added by Aw Boon Haw’s nephew. Visit the park and look for the other International Corners, which are relatively easy to spot given how they stand out, like the Statue of Liberty.
Haw Par Villa:
Nearest MRT: Haw Par Villa (literally right at the entrance)
From the previous stop: Follow Pasir Panjang Road westwards for about a kilometer and you’d see it
Duration: An hour to an hour and a half
That completes our main one day itinerary of attractions in southwest Singapore. It is easy to get to anywhere else from here, with Haw Par Villa MRT station right at the doorstep of Haw Par Villa, or Tiger Balm Gardens, which may be more appropriate given that the villa by Boon Haw and Boon Par is not longer there. If there’s still some energy left in you, take the Circle Line down 2 stops to the final spot for dinner and drinks, at Wessex Estate.
[Bonus] Wessex Estate
Take the Circle Line from Haw Par Villa to one-north, the only station in Singapore which does not start with a uppercase letter. From there, it is a 1.4km walk via Ayer Rajah Avenue, One-north Crescent, Stars Avenue and finally Portsdown Road to Wessex Estate. Wessex Estate is a colonial era residential estate that is now also home to bars and restaurants with a unique rustic ambiance. Along the way, marvel at the futuristic glass buildings around Biopolis and Fusionopolis, dedicated research and development complexes.
After all the glitzy buildings, you’ll abruptly be greeted by buildings that are definitely from a different era. At first glance, I might not even recognize this as part of Singapore! There are a couple of food options around here, depending on what time you arrive.
Colbar (Colonial Bar), established in 1953 not far away and relocated piece by piece here in 2003, has somewhat of a cult following. Its no frills, totally chill atmosphere is a huge draw. Food is okay, but you’ll never find another setting like this in the rest of Singapore.
Chuckwagon BBQ & Grill seemed like a popular place but I didn’t drop by this time.
And that completes this one-day itinerary of southwest Singapore. Quite a lot to put into a day and you might want to pick those that appeal most to you, or split it into 2 days. It can be tiring to finish all in a day, so reward yourself with a nice dinner and a Grab or Uber ride home! Detailed time split of the itinerary ahead.
9.00am to 11.00am Tiong Bahru
11.00am to 11.30am Tiong Bahru to start of Marang Trail
11.30am to 12.00pm Marang Trail/ Mount Faber (1km)
12.00pm to 12.30pm Faber Trail/ Henderson Waves (1km)
12.30pm to 1.00pm Hilltop Walk (1km)
1.00pm to 1.30pm Forest Walk/ Alexandra Arch (1.3km)
1.30pm to 3.30pm Break at Gillman Barracks/ Alexandra Retail Centre/ Explore Labrador Park
3.30pm to 4.00pm Hort Park (1km)
4.00pm to 4.45pm Kent Ridge Park (1.5km)
4.45pm to 5.00pm Break at end shop houses along end of South Buona Vista Road
5.00pm to 5.30pm South Buona Vista Road to Haw Par Villa (1km)
5.30pm to 6.30pm Haw Par Villa
6.30pm to 7.00pm Haw Par Villa to Wessex Estate
7.00 to ? Dinner and drinks at Wessex Estate
Cost: None for the attractions, only for food and drinks/ bus and trains if any
Have you tried it? Let me know know your thoughts in the comments below! Till I figure out the next best place to explore in Singapore, stay tuned!