Exploring Singapore's Café Culture In 24 Hours

While most people spend their layover in Singapore scrambling to hit well-known hawker stands, I chose to sip lattes and gnash on gourmet vegetarian cuisine at some of the city's coolest cafés.
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While most people spend their layover in Singapore scrambling to hit well-known hawker stands, I chose to sip lattes and gnash on gourmet vegetarian cuisine at some of the city's coolest cafés.

Hip coffee joints are popping up all over Singapore's spotless streets and a desire to slow things down just a bit has many Singaporeans lingering in chicly-designed cafés that can easily fit in among some of Seattle's best java spots.

If you only have 24 hours in this stopover hub -- and are looking for something a bit different from what the guide books are telling you -- why not weave in a cup of single-origin "joe" and some delectably sinless vegan dumplings while touring this eclectic city and its rich culture? You may find that embracing a casual pace without having to give up those must-see spots -- all in a day's time -- is just the kind of layover you'll need after a tedious journey halfway across the globe.

9:00 a.m. Shake off your jetlag with a long breakfast at Epicurious Cafe. This cozy spot, situated beside the Singapore River, has indoor and outdoor seating perfect for fostering long conversations or a morning muse. The food, coffee, whole leaf tea and smoothies are what make Epicurious a favorite among locals. For an earthy, yet decadent breakfast, try the Green Eggs and Ham, a delicious compilation of scrambled eggs infused with a delicate basil pesto and topped with a sprinkle of nutty Parmigiano Reggiano -- all laid to rest on a bed of Parma ham that spills over a slice of crunchy baguette. For a lighter start, opt for a glass of fresh squeezed juice (take your pick) and some housemade granola.

The café is a short walk from the water taxi (at Robertson Quay), which provides a scenic ride showcasing the many shops and restaurants along the quays. The cruise is a good introduction to Singapore's past and present as its narrated tour gives passengers a sense of how Chinese immigrants gradually developed their businesses along the river's edge.

11:00 a.m. Hop off the water taxi at the Fullerton Bay Hotel stop, and head south towards One Shenton Way. Here you'll find Jewel Coffee, a trendy spot where Singapore's financial district crowd shrugs off their stress by sipping single-origin espressos over a long lunch.

Owner Adrian Khong dabbled in finance at one point himself before flying off to Oregon to study the coffee industry. Applying what he learned in the U.S., Khong returned to Singapore and opened his popular American-inspired minimalist café. Known mostly for its cool high-end brewing machines that produce popular double shot, single-origin espresso-based drinks, Jewel Coffee also offers delicious casual fare like pancakes, eggs, pastas, salads and sandwiches.

12:00 p.m. Meander over to the nearest taxi queue and ask the driver to escort you to the Chinatown Heritage Center. Three restored shophouses beautifully showcase the struggle of sinkhehs (Chinese migrants) who first settled on Singapore's shores. The life-like exhibits impeccably recount the seedy underground practices of gambling dens, secret societies, brothels and the destitute living conditions many endured as Singapore's earliest settlers.

After exploring the heritage center, make your way through the open markets and shops of Chinatown to Oriole Coffee. Owner and rockstar barista Keith Loh is infatuated with high-tech gadgetry when it comes to brewing his mostly organic, "conscious" blends. The all-day café serves indulgent fare, so no need to worry about finding a place that will satiate your growling tummy for lunch. If you still have room for dessert, order the kaya toast (a Singapore specialty) and wash it down with a cup of the signature Oriole Yellow Bird blend.

4:00 p.m. Take a taxi to the Fullerton Bay Hotel and head up to the rooftop bar and pool area. Here you can admire one of the most stunning views of the Singapore skyline and river. Order a Singapore Sling or a cup of lavender tea while admiring the vistas from a plush cabana chair.

I recommend staying at this exquisite hotel as it has one of the best locations in the city. The impeccable design fuses old world charm with sleek modern accents paying homage to Singapore's rich colonial history. The hotel is located beside the precinct's new Customs House, the area's hot new dining and nightspot zone, and is in close proximity to Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, Chinatown, the Singapore Art Museum, Asian Civilizations Museum, Gardens by the Bay and the Victoria Theater and Concert Hall.

5:00 p.m. Freshen up in your room with a aromatic bath or rain shower then be on your way for a light and healthful dinner. Take a taxi to Real Food Café where you'll find a cool hipster eatery complete with funky lighting fixtures and an inventive organic vegetarian menu that can be customized based on such needs as vegan, gluten-free and sugar free. Patrons don't mind waiting for their meals to be prepared fresh on the spot because there are plenty of books, magazines and shelves filled with purchasable organic food items to peruse.

Dishes here are light and seriously delicious. The organic fair-trade coffees and teas are on par with those offered in some of Singapore's best coffee shops. The Beetroot Burger, a handmade patty of beetroot, carrots, sweet millet and zucchini enveloped in a soft whole wheat bun, surpasses any faux burgers (or hamburger for that matter) in flavor, texture and taste that I've ever tried. (I will also point out that I usually despise beets, but not so much in this case.)

Another fabulous option is the vegetarian dumplings, stuffed with an array of tasty vegetables such as carrots, mushrooms, bean curd, French beans and chestnuts and plopped in a salty vegetable broth swimming with soupy noodles. End the meal with a slice or two of gluten-free, yet oh-so-decadent hazelnut chocolate cake and wash it down with a cup of coffee or a glass of pollen honey water.

7:00 p.m. Head over to Clarke Quay for some live blues and rock music at The Crazy Elephant. This happening bar hosts some of Southeast Asia's best guitarists and international greats like Rick Derringer, Eric Burdon and Walter Trout. Laze the night away, swaying to the blues, cold beer in hand, at a table with a riverside view.

11:00 p.m. Retire for the evening to your luxe room, or linger a little longer over the views from the rooftop bar or The Landing Point at the Fullerton Bay Hotel.

7:00 a.m. Before you head on to your next Southeast Asian destination, make one more worthwhile stop before taking to the skies. On the outskirts of Little India on Kitchener Road lies Toast Box (one of many in Singapore), a modern café that serves kaya toast, a popular breakfast item and snack amongst Singaporeans, which consists of kaya, a spread of eggs, sugar and coconut milk flavored with pandan, on toasted bread. Wash it down with the house made tea with milk and set out to explore the colorful shophouses and temples of Little India.

9:00 a.m. On your way to the airport, ask the driver to make a quick stop at CoffeeSmith. Order a "Papa Palheta" at the light-wooded bar and a ciabatta panini for the road. As you take in one last glimpse of the city as your taxi glides along the well-paved streets, you'll be relaxed and ready for the next leg of your trip -- coffee in hand -- and satisfied with a most successful 24-hour layover in Singapore.

Singapore's Cafe Culture