Singapore’s Arab Quarter Delights

Smell the sweet scent of hookah pipes as you peruse the busy shopping districts and Middle Eastern restaurants in Singapore’s Arab Quarter.

For travelers who grow weary of all that’s clean, new and high-tech in Singapore, the sweet smell of shisha (hookah) in Kampong Glam, also known as the Arab Quarter, is like a breath of fresh air. Here, shops crumble, hookah bars line narrow streets and the only thing that shines is the golden dome of the Sultan Mosque, built in 1928, which has served as the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community and its colorful, heritage-rich neighborhood.

The Arab Quarter was originally home to Singapore’s Malay royalty in the 1800s. Although the sultan’s rule is over and his palace has been refashioned as the Malay Heritage Centre, the area still serves as a gathering place for Malay-Muslims to eat, pray and shop. Consider taking a walking tour run by The Original Singapore Walks to learn the finer points of Kampong Glam’s history on your Singapore vacation.

Arab Street Restaurants

Another option to an organized tour is to just follow your nose. Some of the best local Middle Eastern and halal (sanctioned by Islamic law) restaurants are on Arab Street, which runs through the middle of Arab Quarter. At Café Le Caire, eager waiters set up impromptu alfresco seating on the sidewalk, so you can sip your rich Turkish coffee while people-watching. Bring a few friends and split a mezze—a large sample platter of starters such as hummus, olives and incredibly smooth babaganoush that’s both filling and, for S$15 (US$10), is an excellent deal.

Arab Street Shopping

Walk off your meal by wandering farther down Arab Street, which is also a textiles mecca—intricately woven carpets cost from S$30 (US$20) and are better than anything you would find at IKEA. One street back is Haji Lane, a nondescript alley that’s home to trendy boutiques selling everything from silk to designer jeans. Continue on to Bussorah Street and browse the antique stores, spice stalls and shops selling traditional clothing, jewelry and handicrafts. [Read more about shops in the Arab Quarter and other shopping tips in our Singapore Shopping article.]

Arab Street Entertainment

Feeling parched after all that shopping? Head to Bali Lane, on the outskirts of the Arab Quarter, to find both alcoholic and non-alcoholic refreshments. (Alcohol typically isn’t served in the Quarter, but more restaurants—particularly on Haji Lane—have obtained liquor licenses recently, so it’s not entirely dry.) For shisha, special Arabic drinks and belly dancing, try Nabins on Bali Lane. For a Western menu, funky décor and some of the best live music in town, go a few doors down to Blu Jaz Café.

And finally, for an experience worth writing home about, put on your finest duds and head west of Bali Lane to the Parkview Square building. It’s hard to miss—it’s the giant art-deco complex that looks like Gotham City holding sentry over the Arab Quarter. Inside Parkview Square is Divine, a semi-exclusive wine bar with “angels” on staff. Waitresses wearing silver tutus and fairy wings hook into a pulley system and “fly” up the 40-foot wine rack in search of your pinot noir. The prices are steep with bottles starting at S$80 (US$55), but for the novelty of the gilded decor, entertaining service and live jazz music, it’s worth the visit.

Destinations: Singapore

Themes: Urban Endeavors

Activities: Sightseeing