Part of the fun of traveling is picking up a thing or two from shops off the beaten path that only locals know about, where you get a great bargain, and also the experience of a slice of local culture and flavor that you rarely find along popular tourist traps. These stores often specialize in hard-to-find items such as vintage cameras, collectible sneakers, and local art at very reasonable prices. And as an added bonus, you get a walk down history and a piece of Singapore nostalgia, as these stores are housed in old school buildings of decades past.
Ready to go shopping, get a great bargain, and experience past and present Singapore while doing it? Join me as I unveil these Top 5 hidden gems!
Bras Basah Complex
With a somewhat quirky name that never fails to elicit a snigger from locals, Bras Basah Complex is a cultural cornucopia that’s 5 full floors of books, literature, music, and art. Built-in 1979 with an open-air atrium in the middle of the building, reminiscent of classical Chinese architecture where living spaces surrounded an open courtyard, it evolved from 2 rows of shophouses offering stationery and printing services in the 70s to the respectable grand dame that she is today.
Looking to purchase some art from local art galleries? Bras Basah has got you covered with 16 art galleries in the building, offering contemporary art from local artists to international artists, with a range of price points to suit every budget. If it’s coffee table books about Singapore, or if you are looking for rare architecture or interior design books, Basheer Graphic Books, a stalwart institution, has got you covered. It’s a known spot for designers, photographers, and professionals in the creative industry as the go-to spot. If you are simply looking for books or a beautiful travel journal to jot down your experiences, the plethora of little bookshops and stationery stores have got you covered.
Opening hours: 10am to 7pm:
Address: 231 Bain St, Singapore 180231
Nearest subway station: City Hall MRT station
Beach Road Army Market
As the name suggests, Beach Road Army Market offers army equipment and camping and hiking gear at affordable prices. Housed within the Golden Mile Food Centre, which offers delicious local food at bargain prices, the iconic Army Market sprung up to provide supplies to National Servicemen. These are able-bodied men who are conscripted into the Singapore military at the age of 18 for 2 years as part of the mandatory National Service all male citizens must go through.
Even if you aren’t an outdoor enthusiast, the food makes the trip here worthwhile. Jam-packed with around 111 shops, it’s a one-stop-shop for outdoorsy types, with backpacks, hiking apparel, and various camping gear available. Competition is fierce among vendors, and for the budget-savvy traveler, bargaining is welcomed and expected in the market. Make a trip of it by popping down to the food court below for a spot of lunch from one of the famous hawker stalls, wash it down with an ice-cold glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, and head on up for a round of shopping.
Opening hours: 11am to 6pm, although the food court closes later, around 8:30pm
Address: 505 Beach Road, #02-159, Golden Mile Food Centre, Singapore 199583
Nearest subway station: Lavender MRT station
People’s Park Complex
From hundreds of thousands of bolts of fabric in myriad colors and textures to ivory buttons, french lace, and ribbons of every color under the sun, this is the place local tailors, designers, and sewing aficionados go-to for supplies. Situated in the heart of Chinatown, it was the first shopping mall of its kind in Southeast Asia when it was built in 1973 as a replacement for the original People’s Market on the same site, a famous bazaar that was destroyed by a fire in 1956. The fabric section of the building comprises a food court on the ground floor, where the author and her parents slurped on many a bowl of noodles from Koo Kee Yong Tau Foo for decades.
Hundreds of little stores occupy the 2nd and 3rd floor, filled with bolts of fabric where fabric is sold by the meter. Customers can either peruse the walls of materials on display for selection or pick out what they like from makeshift books of cut-out samples of fabrics. As for tailoring supplies, it’s not uncommon for first-time visitors to feel overwhelmed by choice, with boxes of buttons and lace crammed from floor to ceiling along the walls and zips and spools of thread bursting at the seams of drawers. Simply tell the shopkeeper what you are looking for, and she will pull out boxes of relevant items for you to choose from. Specialized items such as Chinese frog buttons and french lace are also available; just ask. If they don’t have what you are looking for, usually, the vendor will recommend another store in the building that may have your item, given how tight-knit the community is.
Opening hours: 11am to 9:30pm, but some stores close earlier than that; best to go before 7pm
Address: Park Rd, Singapore 059108
Nearest subway station: Chinatown MRT station
Queensway Shopping Centre
Looking for some seriously chic and affordable eyewear? Or in the market for athletic footwear and limited edition sneakers? Then look no further, for Queensway Shopping Centre is your answer. With an octagonal facade and a sunken central concourse, a popular feature of malls built in the 1970s, the center opened in 1976 to much fanfare, as Singapore’s first public escalators were installed within. Similar to the other places mentioned above, it houses hundreds of little shops that offer sporting equipment and eyewear. Thanks to the abundance of stores in the center, if one shop does not carry a shoe or jersey in your size, simply pop on to the next store – chances are, you will find what you want at a better price. Eyewear stores with on-site optometrists and same-day turnaround are available. At the same time, edgy designs (yours truly came out after an hour sporting a neon green and purple metallic frame) exist side by side with popular designs and big brand names.
Opening hours: 8:45am to 10:15pm, although most stores open at 11am.
Address: 1 Queensway, Singapore 149053
Nearest subway station: Queenstown MRT station
Standing right across the famous St Andrew’s Cathedral (that still functions as a place of worship for those so inclined), Peninsula Plaza is unofficially known as Little Burma, home to Burmese restaurants and traditional Burmese clothing. But a lesser-known secret of Peninsula Plaza is its pride of place among photography enthusiasts. Built in 1980, composed of lofty column arches reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, numerous camera stores sit beside highly specialized photography retailers that peddle one-of-a-kind vintage cameras, rare equipment, and various accessories. Prices at these stores are fixed, but some are open to bargaining, and shopkeepers won’t be offended if you ask politely. For the old-school purist looking for film cameras and vintage photography items, check out Black Market Camera: they have one of the widest selections available in Singapore.
Opening hours: 8am to 10pm, although it’s safest to go after 10am.
Address: 111 North Bridge Rd, Singapore 179098
Nearest subway station: Cityhall MRT station