Modern Singapore, like its history, people and cuisine, is a glorious mix of influences, imbued with history but at the same time at the forefront of the modern world. The visitor is spoilt for choice and can indulge many special interests, be they colonial architecture, contemporary art, unrivalled shopping or the extraordinary mix of restaurants and night life. There is also the chance to explore one of the world’s great botanical gardens, enjoy an exhilarating range of children’s activities, live the luxury resort lifestyle, or simply wander among streets and neighbourhoods that have changed little since the country gained its independence.
It is easy to have a narrow view of Singapore and to see it only as a glorified shopping mall, or ‘Asia Lite’ as some rather foolishly refer to it. Yes, the retail side can be overwhelming, and it can seem that the city is all about money and ostentatious displays of wealth, and to some extent all of this is true. But at the same time, exploring Singapore is also all about watching a relatively new country find its way under a multitude of influences, and also seeing a dynamic and entrepreneurial society in action, that at the same time has a strong sense of shared values and a great respect for tradition, and the family.
The most interesting attractions and places to see in Singapore are therefore a manifestation of all that is best in the country, in that they reflect the past while also looking forward and show a wide range and mix of influences.
Marina Bay Sands
Marina Bay Sands (10 Bayfront Avenue) is one of Singapore’s newest landmarks, but it is already one of its most recognisable, and in many ways symbolises the modern city—bold, innovative and iconic. It features a hotel, casino, theatres, shopping and conference facilities, all within its stunning three towers, capped by one of the world’s most exhilarating rooftop bars and pool (the views have to be seen to be believed), and was designed by the Israeli/Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, who is said to have taken decks of cards as the staring point for his design. There are wonderful views to be had of the complex from all around Marina Bay, but one of the best is from the Merlion, and the ancient symbol of Singapore and its newest both contrast with and complement each other magnificently. Some of the city’s best restaurants, bars and nightspots are located within the complex, including such leading lights as Sky on 57, DB Bistro Moderne, CUT, Punjab Grill, Avalon, Pangaea and Ku Dé Ta.
Orchard Road is undoubtedly Singapore’s most famous thoroughfare, and not without good reason, as this 2.2km stretch of road is home to over 5,000 retail, dining and entertainment locations, from the swankiest of international brands to more humble establishments, all managing to jostle together and create an atmosphere that is uniquely Singapore. The first department store, TANGS, appeared on Orchard Road in 1958 (it was demolished in 1982), but it was only in the 1970s that it began to assume the prominence it enjoys today. Plaza Singapura was the first mall to be built in 1974 (it’s still standing), but since then growth has continued at an astonishing pace, to the extent that malls dominate the street like perhaps no other in the world. As well as the more obvious attractions, many of the thoroughfares that run off or near to Orchard Road are also well worth exploring. For instance, the Goodwood Park Hotel on Scotts Road, built in 1900, is an example of the best of colonial architecture, while Emerald Hill and the roads that run off it (Emerald Hill Road, Hullet Road and Saunders Road) contain wonderful examples of early 20th-century Singaporean terrace houses.
Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Located on Marina Bay, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay (1 Esplanade Drive) is the home of the performing arts in Singapore and features a programme of international concerts, performances and theatre events throughout the year. The outstanding facilities has led to Singapore becoming a major touring venue for the world’s leading international artists and so the theatres’ contribution to the city’s cultural life cannot be underestimated. However, there is also a strong community and access program and so local artists and performers also play a crucial role in the theatres’ offerings. Affectionately (or perhaps mischievously) known as ‘The Durian’ due to its distinctive and eye-catching design, there is a 1600-seat concert hall and a 2000-seat theatre, as well as a library, an outdoor performing space, a recital studio and a theatre studio. Opened in 2002, the design features two round frames covered with triangular glass and sunshades, and these combine to give the buildings their ‘spiky’ appearance. Tours are available and throughly recommended, as they enable visitors to see the building ‘behind the scenes’—both 45-minute and 2-hour versions are available, conducted by knowledgeable guides.
The Singapore River was once the economic heart of the city, in that in its early years as a trading post commercial ships used the river to transport goods in and out of the city, and the quays were lined with go-downs, warehouses and shophouses. Although its role has evolved over the years, it still plays a central part in Singapore life as it now forms the hub of much of the city’s entertainment and tourism industries. A walk or cruise along the river is a treat, and the visitor encounters many interesting districts and sites. Some of the places of interest to see and visit along the river include: the Asian Civilisations Museum (1 Empress Place), which gives an interesting perspective on the history of the wider region; the Raffles Landing Site (9 Empress Place), and a statue commemorating the city’s founder; The Fullerton Hotel (1 Fullerton Square), a wonderful neo-classical construction built in 1928 and for many years at the heart of colonial Singapore; Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Roberston Quay, once thriving centres of commerce and trade but now the home of countless restaurants, bars and nightclubs; the Merlion (1 Fullerton Road), the mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish that has become the symbol of Singapore; the river’s many historical bridges, such as Cavenagh Bridge Singapore’s only suspension bridge and one of the oldest in the city, Coleman Bridge, constructed in 1840 and, as a complete contrast the The Helix Bridge at Marina Bay. This small selection of the many wonderful sites that line the riverbank give some clue as to why exploring the Singapore River continues to unlock so much of the city’s history and culture.
Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Road) is perhaps the best-known symbol of Singapore’s colonial history. Certainly the most famous hotel in Singapore if not the world, opened in 1887 it has been immortalised in literature and cinema many times, and is associated in the public imagination with colonial grandeur and style. That grandeur remains in its liveried Sikh doormen, 19th-century lobby, and the polished teak verandahs and tropical gardens, and the white marble colonnades of Palm Court. Highlights of any visit to Raffles include enjoying afternoon tea in the old-world formality of the Tiffin Room, or sampling a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar. The Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade is also a draw for visitors, housing brands such as Tiffany & Co., and CYC the Custom Shop. Visitors can take tours of the hotel that also include visits to other Stamford Raffles-related locations.
East Coast Park
East Coast Park (along East Coast Parkway and East Coast Park Service Road) is often referred to as Singapore’s playground and it certainly provides a host of amenities for Singaporeans and visitors alike. 185 hectares in size, it was constructed from reclaimed land in the 1970s and has a man-made beach. The area is the home to Singapore water sports, with sailing, water skiing and many other aquatic activities available, as well as cycling and roller blading (there is a 15km track along the park’s perimeter). Part of the popularity of East Coast park lies in the fact that it’s so easy to get to, with good public transport links and lots of car parking, so a day out to enjoy the fun and fresh air and to get away from the sometimes stifling humidity of the city is always an option. A family friendly location, it is a great place for picnics and games, and is also home to many restaurants (unsurprisingly, seafood menus dominate), an excellent hawker centre, and there are many lively bars and nightspots as well, while ‘pop up’ food and drink stalls are now a regular feature. If you’re feeling slightly less active, the beach is the perfect place for a stroll and to enjoy the views out over the ocean.
Chinatown is the district that runs from Hong Lim Park south-west to Cantonment Road, with New Bridge Road generally considered its major thoroughfare. Some of Singapore’s most interesting architecture is here, with much of the area declared a National Heritage Site. Perhaps of most interest to the visitor are the rows of classic shophouse, a combination of the Victorian and Baroque styles, some of which are in their original (now slightly faded) state, while an increasing number are now being restored by young entrepreneurs and converted into trendy boutiques, cafés and bars. This blend is what makes Chinatown a vibrant district still, despite its long history—it’s no museum, frozen in time but still a bustling hive of commerce. Nevertheless, the history of the Chinese in Singapore is encapsulated within its streets, through the Clan Associations that still have their bases here and the stores selling traditional Chinese medicine, herbs and works of art. Another interesting aspect of the area and its history is that there are significant Hindu temples and mosques in the district, a potent symbol of multi-faith Singapore. Chinatown is one of those areas that is best explored on foot, with perhaps no destination in mind, as surprises can be found around many corners, although there are sights that no visitor should miss, such as: the Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda Street); the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum (288 South Bridge Road); the Sri Mariamman Temple (244 South Bridge Road); the Al-Abrar Mosque (192 Telok Ayer Street); as well as making sure that you stroll down Club Street and Ann Siang Road.
Little India is the district east of the Singapore River and north of Kampong Glam that is the centre of Tamil culture in the city. Serangoon Road is the main road of the district but the maze of smaller streets to its north and south are teeming with activity and interesting sights. For instance, the shophouses around Dunlop Street are particularly enjoyable to explore, selling all manner of arts & crafts, foods and everything else from jewellery to electronics, while the Little India Arcade (48 Serangoon Road), the Tekka Centre (665 Buffalo Road) and the Mustafa Centre (145 Syed Alwi Road) give a good flavour of the character of this most vibrant of districts. There are also many temples, mosques and other places of worship that visitors should see, such as the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road), a Hindu temple build by the first Indian pioneers to live and work in Singapore, the Abdul Gafoor Mosque (41 Dunlop Street), built in 1859 and featuring Arabian- and Renaissance-style architecture, and the Central Sikh Temple (2 Towner Road), the first Sikh Gurdwara in Singapore and which houses 15,000 people. Other architectural places of interest include the ornately painted shophouse Tan Tang Niah (37 Kerbau Road), built in 1900 and now designated National Heritage Site, and the shophouses on Clive Street, especially the coffee shops selling the old-style Singapore drink.
Arab Street is the main thoroughfare of Kampong Glam and has come to be a shorthand for the entire district, and is where many Muslim Malays settled in Singapore, and it has largely remained a Malay Islamic area. The Masjid Sultan, or Sultan Mosque (3 Muscat Street), built in 1824 and with a prayer hall that can house 5,000 people, is at the centre of the community, while the roads surrounding it are full of small shops selling clothing, antiques cafés and restaurants. The area is also home to an increasing number of newer, hipper stores, especially on Haji Lan and Bali Lane, and this is bringing another new flavour to the neighborhood. A short stroll away is Bugis, where you can find Bugis Junction (200 Victoria Street), an enclosed row of shophouses and Bugis Street (3 New Bugis Street), a large covered street shopping market.
The Civic District
Also referred to as the Colonial District, the Civic District on the banks of the Singapore River encompasses the area that was once the heart of British Singapore and continues to be the location of many government and national institutions. There is a great deal to marvel at here, and the area invokes the past in a way that both acknowledges the island’s history but also marks its moving on. For instance, what was once Old Parliament House (1 Old Parliament Lane), the seat of the first independent parliament from 1965 – 1999, is now The Arts House, a venue that holds exhibitions and concert by contemporary Singaporean artists. Singapore Cricket Club (Connaught Drive) located at The Padang was once the playground of the colonial ruling elite and while its sporting tradition continues, it now has a multi-racial and diverse playing group and membership. The Old Supreme Court Building (1 St Andrew’s Road) and City Hall are currently being converted into the National Art Gallery of Singapore, due to open in 2015. However, many older buildings still retain perform their original functions, such as St Andrew’s Cathedral (11 St Andrew’s Road), the Armenian Church (60 Hill Street) while Raffles Hotel is a short stroll away (1 Beach Road). Others sites of interest are the Esplanade Park Cenotaph and the Civilian War Memorial in War Memorial Park (Beach Road) built to honour civilians killed during the Japanese Occupation.
Changi Chapel and Museum
The Changi Museum relocated to its present home (1000 Upper Changi Road North) in 2001 and honours those who were incarcerated in the notorious Changi Prison during the Japanese Occupation. The museum is undoubtedly one of the most important places to visit in Singapore, and it is impossible not to be moved by the stories of stoicism and courage that are re-told here. Simple in its philosophy and displays, the museum does not rely on technology but rather the poignancy of the inmates’s own words and plainly-told recounts of the main events of the war and the prison. Artefacts from the time are the dominant visual images, and these wonderfully re-tell the stories of death and survival that were Changi. Especially moving are the artwork and everyday objects that the prisoners managed to craft under the most trying of circumstances, as these typify their efforts to lead lives as normal as possible under extraordinary circumstances. The museum also serves as an important educational institution and resource centre, and there are guided and audio tours.
National Museum of Singapore
Singapore has had a national museum since 1887, and in its current form is the perfect blend of the old and the new. The original building was designed by Colonel Sir Henry Edward McCallum as the former Raffles Library and Museum, and his elegant neo-classical monument has now been added to sensitively with an extension constructed from glass and steel. The largest museum in the city, it houses Ten National Treasures including the Singapore Stone, and there are four permanent exhibitions, including the Singapore History Gallery which adopts a narrative, multi-media approach, detailing the struggles of early settlers and the drama of major national events. The museum also hosts a wide range of temporary exhibitions from around the world as well as innovative festivals and there are also food and beverage options available. The National Museum of Singapore is located at 93 Stamford Road.
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