Balestier, Newton, Novena and Toa Payoh are in central Singapore.
Strung along the North-South Line just north of Orchard Road, these four rather dissimilar districts serve to absorb Singapore's urban sprawl and house its inhabitants. None are particularly attractive from a tourist's point of view, but they are popular for short and longer-term stays in Singapore — quiet and reasonably priced, but close enough to be convenient.
Balestier offers one of Singapore's largest clusters of cheap hotels, second only to Geylang. As you might guess, here too the main customers are patrons of the nearby brothels and gambling dens, although they maintain a very low profile and this isn't really a cause for concern.
Newton and Novena are rapidly gentrifying suburbs just north of the city, housing a significant expat population and services geared to them. Just one MRT stop further north, though, is the canonical Singapore heartland suburb of Toa Payoh (pron. "Twa(r) Pah-yoh"), housing well over 100,000 Singaporeans in HDB housing blocks.
Newton, Novena and Toa Payoh are easily accessed on the North-South MRT Line. Balestier does not have convenient access by MRT, although it's possible to hike over from Toa Payoh or Novena stations (10-15 minutes). However, there are quite a few bus services along Balestier Rd, with the most useful ones being SBS 145 to Bugis, City Hall, Boat Quay and Chinatown, 130 to Bugis and City Hall, and 124 to Orchard Road and City Hall.
Toa Payoh has no sights as such, but it's an interesting example of the elusive "real Singapore". Just take the MRT to the station and walk around the vast sprawl of Toa Payoh Central, much of which is taken up by an outdoor shopping arcade filled with little neighborhood shops and places to eat.
- 1 HDB Hub, 480, Toa Payoh Lorong 6 (Exit A at Toa Payoh MRT). Monday to Saturday 08:30-17:00. The headquarters of the Housing Development Board which is responsible for public housing in Singapore. It is not generally a tourist destination but is definitely worth a visit for people interested to learn more about everyday life in Singapore. There is a free interactive exhibition about HDB housing in the Basement (HDB Gallery) The ground level has some models of upcoming housing developments. There is an area with showflats on the 3rd storey (via a link bridge), showing all the different flat types currently being built in original size. Free.
The Balestier area has two sights of minor interest:
- 2 Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple, 14 Tai Gin Rd (Off Balestier Rd), ☎ . Daily 06:30-21:00. Completed in 1990, equipped with an eye-catching golden spire, it is the only Buddhist temple outside Myanmar to be built in the traditional Burmese architectural style. Inside, the most remarkable features for the lay visitor are the Buddha statues enhanced with swirling LED halos. Be sure to climb up to the third floor to see the largest and most stunning of the lot. Free.
- 3 Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, 12 Tai Gin Rd (off Balestier Rd). Built in the late 1800s as Wan Qing Yuan (晚晴园), the villa was offered in 1906 to Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, who stayed here eight times while in exile. The villa has been lovingly restored and was reopened to the public in 2001, but the contents of the museum inside are a little dull unless you have a keen interest and solid background in Chinese history. $3.
- 1 Singapore Polo Club, 80 Mount Pleasant Rd (bus 54, 162, 166 from Novena MRT), ☎ . Dating back to 1886, the colonial-style clubhouse is a good spot to quaff a gin tonic below lazy ceiling fans while watching toffs pootle about on the polo field. Practice sessions Tu, Th, Sa and Su at 17:00, plus scheduled competition events, all free and open to non-members. Riding lessons also available, although these are primarily intended for members and residents and various conditions apply. Even if you aren't a polo fan, the daily $19.90 three-course lunches at the Mountbatten Room are a pretty good deal.
- 2 Toa Payoh Sports Hall and Swimming Complex, 301 Toa Payoh Lorong 6 (Toa Payoh MRT), ☎ . Daily 09:00-20:00. Huge swimming pools, basic ClubFITT gym, badminton courts. Gym $2.50, pool $1.
Most of Balestier's shops — over 40 at last count — are devoted to selling light fixtures and other interior decoration items. Unless you want to surprise the folks back home with a lovely Singaporean toilet bowl, it's probably best to head to other shopping centers instead, particularly since Orchard Road is one or two MRT stops away. Both Novena and Toa Payoh have large shopping centers (but not very interesting) around their MRT stations.
- 1 Square 2, 10 Sinaran Dr (Novena MRT). Atop the MRT station, Square 2 is consciously modeled on the hip malls of Seoul, packed with 500 small boutiques selling Korean fashions, electronics, accessories and food.
- 2 United Square, 101 Thomson Rd (Novena MRT, then pedestrian underpass). Sits diagonally across the Thomson Road/Newton Road/Moulmein Road intersection from the other two malls at Novena. United Square is oriented towards children and education. Alongside the food outlets you'll find plenty of stores selling clothes and toys, as well as tuition centres offering to coach your youngster into an Olympic fencer or violin virtuoso. A branch of Cold Storage supermarket lurks in the basement.
- 3 Velocity, 238 Thomson Rd (Novena MRT), ☎ . Formerly Novena Square, this is by far Novena's largest shopping mall. The main theme is higher-end branded sporting goods, including a large California Fitness gym, but there is also a decent selection of restaurants, a Kopitiam food court and a Cold Storage supermarket.
Food around here is cheap and plentiful.
- 1 Newton Circus (Newton MRT). Known for its seafood, but is also one the few places in Singapore where touts and overcharging can be a nuisance — double-check the price of any seafood you order. Still, the hawker centre has always had a special spot in the hearts of Singaporeans, especially those in the heartlands. Other than its famed seafood stalls, the hokkien mee, oyster omelette, popiah, BBQ chicken wings, ice kachang, satay and fried rice are popular with locals. No smoking.
- Novena Peranakan Cuisine, 273 Thomson Rd #01-02 (Novena MRT, opposite Novena Velocity), ☎ . The restaurant promises "typical home-cooked nonya food", and that's what you get, with Peranakan classics like ayam buah keluak (chicken with keluak nuts) and babi pontek (pork stew). No frills, but well priced with lunch sets from $3.80 and mains from $6. $10.
- 2nd Mini Steamboat Delight, 273 Thomson Rd #01-04 (Novena Garden, opposite Novena Square), ☎ . Choose chicken (mild) or tom yam (lethal) soup, add in your choice of ingredients and chow away. The menu is vast and includes lots of exotic (and expensive) seafood choices, but if you stick to the basics portions are cheap and generously sized. Try the fish glue ($4), a spicy fish paste that tastes much better than it sounds. $20.
- 2 Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice, 101 Thomson Rd #01-08 (United Square), ☎ . This no-frills restaurant wins no prizes for appearance or service, but it gets packed every evening with crowds who want to sample their famous chicken rice. The roasted chicken is better than steamed, ask for boneless to make it easier to eat. Also try the shui jiao (dumpling with minced pork and prawns). Recently relocated from Novena Ville, which is being redeveloped. Other branches in Katong and Marina Square. $5.
Balestier is locally famous for two products: the flaky bean jam pastry tau sar piah, and the pork rib soup bak kut teh. Thanks to the crowd they serve, most restaurants in Balestier are open until the wee hours.
- Founder Bak Kut Teh, 347 Balestier Rd, ☎ . Has a respectable claim to being the first bak kut teh joint on the road, and is certainly the only one with air-con. The sour pickled vegetables and pig's organ soup are also worth a try. Watch out though: their soup is very peppery indeed. $8.
- House of Tau Sar Piah, 529 Balestier Rd, ☎ . Not necessarily the original, but certainly large and popular. Offers a wide variety of fillings, try the savoury tau sar piah with a salty butter filling. $0.50-0.70/piece.
- Loong Fatt Eating House & Confectionary, 639 Balestier Rd. Arguably the original tau sar piah shop, which has received Makansutra's highest rating of "Die, die must try".
- Teo Seng Teochew Porridge, 457-461 Balestier Rd, ☎ . 09:00-16:00 daily. Large eatery serving up Teochew-style porridge, which means a bowl of watery soup (or steamed rice if you wish) and lots of tasty side dishes. Best experienced with a larger group, so you can sample. $4+.
- 3 Whampoa Makan Place (Whampoa Market), 90 Whampoa Drive, Singapore 320090. The market in the Whampoa area serves many delicious foods that have existed for many years and is a great representation of the culture in and around the area.
- Brauhaus, 101 Thomson Rd, #B1-13/14 United Square, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. M–Th 11:00–02:00, F-Sa 11:00–03:00, Su 17:00–01:00. Staggering list of beers from around the world, on the expensive side, but cheaper than in the tourist traps of Boat Quay/Clarke Quay. Shows Premier League football and other major sporting events on a large screen outdoors.
- Montero's Pub, 1 Newton Rd #01-01 (Goldhill Plaza Podium Block), ☎ . 17:00-01:00. A Western-style neighborhood pub with pool table and a good selection of beer. A place to relax. $6-10.
- Fragrance Hotel, 255, 263, 418 Balestier Rd, ☎ . Singapore's largest chain of cheap hotels has no less than three outlets along Balestier Road, all of which are unexciting but perfectly acceptable. From $89.
- Value Hotel Balestier (Value Hotel Nice, Value Hotel Thomson), 218, 302 and 592 Balestier Rd, ☎ . Three more cheap chain hotels, slightly more upmarket than Fragrance. Rooms from $89 nett; the Value Hotel Thomson is the best of the three and even features a pool, but is also slightly more expensive at $129 nett.
- Hotel Royal, 36 Newton Rd (8 min from Novena MRT), ☎ . Hotel houses no fewer than four dodgy nightclubs, which kind of sets the tone, although it completed a much-needed renovation in 2005. The Jade Room restaurant here is famous for its "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall", an extravagant Chinese soup that will cost you around $100/person. Note: Don't confuse this with Royal@Queens or Royal Plaza! $100+.
- Quality Hotel, 201 Balestier Rd, ☎ . Solid, recently renovated mid-range hotel. Probably the best digs in this part of town. Weekend (Sa and Su) buffet lunch (11:30-14:30) $16.24 net; weekday buffet lunch, dinner and supper available at lower prices. A la carte only $2.80++ for laksa or prawn mee plus free drink, but served outdoors only from 18:00-24:00. Free shuttle service to Novena MRT and Orchard Rd. $145.
- Sheraton Towers, 39 Scotts Rd (Newton MRT), ☎ . Comfortable but rather dull business hotel. There's nothing (except Newton Circus) in the vicinity, but Orchard is just one MRT stop away. Somewhat overpriced unless you get good discounts. $250-.
- @ Corner, 1 Goldhill Plaza #01-11 (Opposite Novena MRT on Thomson Rd). Large net cafe popular with gaming addicts. Promotional rates from just $2/hour.