Singapore’s northern residential towns of Yishun and Sembawang do not enjoy a good reputation – they are often seen as too far north and too inconvenient to travel to. Yishun, in particular, was the butt of many jokes – including Netflix – for its less-than-positive media attention; and more often than not, they are simply deemed boring.
But for Northern dwellers, these two heartlands (usually mentioned together because of their close proximity) are tranquil, scenic and simply misunderstood. Besides being known for its Insta-worthy colourful HDB blocks, plenty of lesser-known attractions and good quality eats can also be found here, if you dare to venture beyond your comfort zone. Here are our recommendations of some well-kept secrets in Yishun and Sembawang.
Tucked away on the ground floor of a quiet industrial building is this humble, unassuming coffee joint that is well-loved by residents in the area, many of whom have frequented them since their old location at Jalan Gelenggang. Mismatched chairs and tables sprawled around the wide space add to its homely charm, but people are really here for its quality coffee. Using beans sourced from around the world, the coffee here is freshly roasted weekly onsite. Besides cakes, croissants, muffins and scones on display, they’ve also recently introduced fresh pancakes, such as the classic with maple syrup and butter on the side or the What-a-Nut with peanut butter pancakes layered with Nutella and topped with cashew nuts and vanilla ice cream. We also recommend the ham, cheese and egg mayo ciabatta which is served warm and is a delightful companion to your chosen cup of joe.
For a taste of kampung life, head to this expansive community learning campus set up by non-profit organisation Ground-Up Initiative (GUI). Housed in a portion of the former Bottle Tree Park, the site has farming plots, an amphitheater, a communal kitchen and campgrounds. You can volunteer to take part in activities such as weeding, gardening or fertilising, or take part in one of their farm programmes, such as learning harvesting techniques or how to set up your own home farm. They also organise craft workshops such as basic woodworking for adults.
What used to be a dingy space with taps and drains has now been transformed into a manicured park, with cascading pools for people to soak their feet, seating areas and a water collection point with varied tap heights that will supply hot spring water at 70°C. The only natural hot spring park in Singapore, it underwent development and reopened in January 2020. Scoops are available for your use (but bring your own bucket), and you can even boil eggs at the Egg Cooking Station. The place still retains its rustic, kampung atmosphere and is a nice place to wind down in the afternoon.
Well-loved by those living in the area for its warm vibe and hearty food, this café (hidden from the main road along a small lane lined with eateries and beauty salons) is often packed during weekends. Try their Lock N’ Loaded (fried potatoes topped with cheese and a fried egg) or the hearty Shepherd’s Pie, a rich and creamy dish bursting with ingredients under a thick layer of cheese. Its signature Rich Man burger, served with tater tots, is only available on weekends and is a decadent, food coma-inducing dish of chorizo patty topped with slivered caramelised onions, mushrooms, scrambled eggs and drenched with a thick truffle mayonnaise.
Running alongside Yishun Ave 1 and Lentor Avenue, this serene park is a popular spot for jogging, fishing and kayaking. A water play area with fountains and jet sprays will entertain the kiddos, while adults will enjoy an unobstructed view of the reservoir if they walk along the heritage bridge – a wooden structure extending out to the reservoir that also has information panels about the history of the area. Pro-tip: Head away from the main area and towards the portion at Lentor Avenue, under the MRT tracks. Not only is it quieter and a great spot for a picnic, it’s also where many amateur and professional photographers situate themselves as you can catch a glorious sunrise (if you’re lucky and it’s a cloudless morning) here.
6. Brew House
This bar and grill, which opened in July 2020, is located at Hong Heng Mansions along the relatively quiet Sembawang Road and offers a chilled-out ambience with their comfortable brown leather seats, exposed brick walls and wooden flooring. Try their selection of cocktails – one particular drink, the Brain Damage Shot, is particularly intriguing – and pair your tipples with the comfort food available, such as chicken chop, grilled fish with mash, fish and chips, spaghetti with meatballs and smaller bar bites.
Situated under a nondescript HDB block, Holy Cow Creamery is the place residents flock to when in need of an urgent dose of desserts. Their signature charcoal waffle, served warm and freshly made, has been the subject of many Instagram posts. Have it with one of various delicious ice cream flavours made in-house, such as Thai Milk Tea, Earl Grey Lavender, or their newest addition, the Rainbow Rush, a milky gelato with rainbow sprinkles and marshmallows.
8. Wilder Mann
Reasonably priced authentic German cuisine is what you’d get at this no-frills, home-style restaurant. From sausage platters and pork knuckles (available on Friday and Saturday only) to meat loaf and schnitzels, dining here will make you feel like you’re digging into a meal in Germany itself. Complement your meal with the restaurant’s wide selection of German and Austrian beers — our pick is the Grevensteiner Original for its slightly hazy appearance and rich and hoppy finish. If you’re prefer something on the lighter side, the Früli Strawberry Beer from Belgium has a sweet, citrusy mouthfeel.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours or guidelines before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.