A blog about special neighbourhoods, local atmosphere and stellar coffee.

Singapore - Tiong Bahru, a harmonious blend of old and new

Tiong Bahru, an Art Deco inspired neighbourhood, blends the old and the new. Traditional businesses, community market and hawker centre harmoniously coexist with trendy boutiques, vanguard eateries, and third wave coffee shops.

Singapore has experienced a rapid cultural modernisation and many familiar, traditional neighbourhoods are forging paths to new, surging hip enclaves. Fortunately, most districts have managed to maintain and blend these two identities and heritage. A great example is Tiong Bahru, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, that is a charming mixture of rustic old and eccentric new. Although heavily gentrified today, its long-established centre is still buzzing with ironmongeries, homeware shops, traditional hairdressers and a community market. These coexist harmoniously with trendy boutiques, French boulangeries, and third wave coffee shops. It is an enchanting place to get lost in its beautiful, authentic off-streets and discover its hidden corners.

I never visited Tiong Bahru in the evening, I don’t actually even know why as it is my favourite Singaporean neighbourhood. I suspect the main reason being that I loved it so much during the early hours that I always marched there after waking up to get some excellent pick-me-ups and enjoy the atmosphere. Being a vibrant community, there was always a nice energy in the morning; trucks being offloaded, the smell of freshly baked bread filling the streets, people walking to work or getting dishes from the market. Whilst buzzing, it also has a tremendously calm aura. And as an added bonus, some of the best cafes in Singapore are located in the area.

Coffee, coffee, coffee

Tiong Bahru Bakery

One of the cornerstones of the neighbourhood is Tiong Bahru Bakery (56 Eng Hoon St). It is one of the most beloved cafes in Singapore, specialising in traditional French baking with a national twist. As fresh morning croissants are my delicious occasional treat, I had to check this place. The café was always energetic with sit-in customers and locals grabbing take away loaves and coffee. Yet, it felt very homey, unpretentious and family-friendly. Pastry chefs regularly brought in piping hot pastries ensuring everything was fresh. They also serve tarts, eclairs and sandwiches. I had my solid choice almond croissant and it was as nice as I had read; crispy with flaky layers and almost gooey almond paste although it could have been slightly stronger in flavour. The pastry is best paired with their eye-popping coffee, using Common Man Coffee Roasters equally famous beans. Located in a corner of an old building, Tiong Bahru Bakery also has some tables outside with a prime vantage point to watch the neighbourhood’s buzz while enjoying some freshly baked goods and a strong brew.

Merci Marcel

Another delicious haunt for the freshest morning croissants can be found just next door. Merci Marcel (56 Eng Hoon St) combines casual French Riviera elegance with colourful, airy tropical themes. Light ochre and white tiled floors, rattan bar stools and sofas were enveloped in green foliage, while Riviera-toned cushions and local artwork gave splashes of colour. There are three different seating areas; light-filled bistro area at the front, Art Deco infused indoor patio at the back and an outdoor terrace with sofas sheltered by big plants. Merci Marcel felt airy, contemporary and surprisingly much calmer than many other cafes. Although there is a nice, small breakfast menu, I just fancied a good coffee and a croissant. The coffee was excellent, perfectly balanced between a strong espresso and creamy milk. The croissant was one of the best I have ever eaten; warm, flaky outside, fluffy inside, with simple salty buttery flavour. It was served with sweet berry jam. Merci Marcel also offers tapas inspired meals and wines in the evening, but for me this was essentially a great breakfast spot, a perfect way to start the day in a calm, delicious way.

Forty Hands

The forerunner for the coffee revolution in this humble neighbourhood is Forty Hands (78 Yong Siak St) that has become a Singaporean institution. Their beans are provided by Common Man Coffee Roasters and the baristas do extensive training, so that you can expect really good coffee where all the right flavours are balanced well. Although you can pop in just for a casual cup, just as I did, there is also a big emphasis on food. For me Forty Hands felt more like a buzzing eatery than a quiet cafe. Their Western-style brunch is as famous as their coffee, but they are also known for offering some of the best tau sar paus (red bean paste bun) in the city. Located on the ground level of an Art Deco inspired block of flats, from outside Forty Hands blends in well with the sleepy residential atmosphere. Yet, inside the decoration is dark and quirky with exposed pipes, dark tiles and urban art works. The space is narrow but it also features a more spacious covered patio at the back. It is not easy to get a table though, and on my two first attempts it was way too crowded and noisy. But when exploring coffee shops in Singapore, a little visit to the coffee revolutionist is worth a wait.


There are a handful of cafes in Tiong Bahru that have followed Forty Hand’s footsteps by investing in good beans. While these are located in a myriad different settings for different preferences, you can expect to find good coffee when visiting the neighbourhood. I had to try Whisk (58 Seng Poh Rd), as the white Art Deco building where it’s housed really caught my eye. Inside the white palette continues and the decoration is bare and classic. The place feels airy, highlighted by spare furnishing and big windows. It’s not a place to enjoy the most innovative and energetic vibes of this vanguard neighbourhood, but for a book, freelancing or a dreamy moment it really works. And the coffee was delicious, I really enjoyed every drop of it. I wasn’t too keen on their food, but it is a good stop for those with a sweet tooth as Whisk specialises in creamy, decadent tarts and macaroons.

Plain Vanilla Bakery

Plain Vanilla Bakery (1D Yong Siak St), a local pickup point for sweet treats has one of the most quaint outdoor terraces in the neighbourhood. Facing the street, the covered terrace is lined with potted and hanging plants as well as charming mint green bicycles with wicker baskets. If you are lucky to get a seat on the terrace, enjoy watching the street life while also benefiting from an aircon. More seating can be found at the back of the cafe as well as on their more simplistic side terrace facing Chay Yan Street. Inside the Scandinavian inspired decor is dominated by whites, pastels and light wooden elements, the focal being their inviting pastry counter. The menu is almost as sweet as their decor, as Plain Vanilla Bakery specialises in cupcakes. They also offer savoury delights such as tarts, fresh sandwiches, and brunches. With a focus on quality, they only use the finest ingredients. If you get inspired by the calm decor you can purchase beautiful crockery and small home items sold by their sister company Plain Vanilla Home.


Tiong Bahru also boasts a handful of eclectic shops, trendy barbers, a spa made of shipping containers and a yoga studio, coexisting harmoniously with long-established businesses, a beloved community market and its hawker centre (30 Seng Poh Rd). The neighbourhood is all about independent trading and quality rather than quantity. Books Actually (9 Yong Siak St), a fascinating little bookshop is a requisite visit. They have publications you would struggle to find on High Street and also a great collection of local authors. Woods in the Books (3 Yong Siak St) takes children, youngsters and those young-at-heart to a colourful wonderland of books. They also stock carefully selected little toys and accessories. I loved browsing in little boutiques such as Maissone (38 Eng Hoon St) for contemporary home accessories, Floral Atelier (40 Eng Hoon St) for beautiful flowers, handmade cards and candles, or Nana & Bird (1M Yong Siak St) for trendy clothes and accessories. A hole-in-the-wall music specialist Curated Records (55 Tiong Bahru Rd) has a great selection of records for audiophiles.


Between sipping coffees and browsing, I loved walking along the palm tree lined streets, capturing the architectural beauty. Tiong Bahru is one of the only remaining low-rise areas in this country of futuristic high-rises. It boasts a distinctive Streamline Moderne architecture that is a later stage of Art Deco movement. The soothing forms of these streamlined buildings with their spiral staircases, curves and porthole windows are vintage and timeless at once. The whitewashed walls are contrasted with various skilful murals by the most famous local street artist Yip Yew Chong, representing old customs and traditions. Although Tiong Bahru is a relatively small neighbourhood you can easily spend hours there. I usually prefer smaller, less touristy neighborhoods and Tiong Bahru is one of the most characterful and charming in Singapore, traditional and progressive at once.