The fact that Singapore’s CBD and the Civic District nestle together cheek-by-jowl is in many ways a perfect symbol of Singapore — the icons of the slower-paced, colonial past rubbing shoulders with the skyscrapers and high finance institutions of the ultra-modern and dynamic Asian tiger.
The CBD can generally be said to be the area south of the Singapore River encompassing the financial district (bounded by Cross Street to the south, Ben Street to the west and then east to Bayfront Avenue), Marina Bay Sands, and the areas further to the south, including Chinatown, down to the Ayer Rajah Expressway (although technically, the CBD spreads as far west as Orchard Road).
The Civic District is on the northern shores of the river (up to Rochor Road) and bounded by Bencoolen Street to the west and Nicholl Highway in the east. It was formerly the colonial administrative hub of Singapore and encompasses the earliest civic buildings (many now artfully and dramatically repurposed), former sites of trade and industry, and other icons of Singapore’s past, very often constructed in a grand neo-classical or neo-Georgian style. The Civic District technically falls within the CBD, but it nevertheless stands on its own as a unique locale that offers more in the way of history and culture than anywhere else on the island. We recommend following the National Heritage Board’s Civic District Trail as the best way to get to know the area and its landmarks.
But even within these two broad areas, there are other smaller neighbourhoods that likewise have their own unique and distinctive characters, and so this is the part of the city that perhaps offers the greatest variety of locations and lifestyles. Places like Chinatown, Bugis and Arab Street are all very different in both style and character, and so together this collection of vastly different neighborhoods, despite being considered as a geographical whole, encapsulate Singapore’s undeniable diversity.
This also applies to the accommodation and lifestyles on offer in the CBD and Civic Districts as well. Unsurprisingly, you won’t find any suburban style homes with their own gardens here, but nevertheless there is plenty of variety in the type of housing stock on offer. For some, CBD living and raising a family are incompatible, and it certainly does present challenges (particularly in Singapore where there is generally some form of traffic noise and construction going on 24/7), but for those who want to experience über-urban living, with plenty of art, culture and history thrown in, setting up home in or around the CBD provides an unrivalled lifestyle package.
For instance, there are high-end luxury apartments, condominiums and penthouses in and around Marina Bay that are extremely well appointed (amazingly so, in some cases) and, as a consequence, often outrageously expensive, but there are also plenty of other places in the district where you can find quality housing that is more within most people’s reach.
Condominiums are the most popular choice for many expatriates, both for the standard of accommodation they provide and their overall convenience, and you’ll find them throughout the CBD and Civic District. They vary in age (some having been constructed last century, a lifetime ago in Singapore), and new developments are being created constantly, and so the condition and cost can vary quite substantially. Nevertheless, you can expect to find a good standard of amenities, in terms of sporting and recreation facilities, swimming pools and communal living spaces, and most are spacious enough, both indoors and out, to be able to provide an excellent family home.
If condo living doesn’t appeal, there are other options available and these too can be very enticing in their own way. There are plenty of high-rise and low-rise apartment blocks in the area, and these are often an affordable lifestyle choice for singles and couples, as they give you the benefits of inner-city living but without (necessarily) an enormous rent bill. You can find these in and around places like Bugis, Beach Road, North Bridge Road, Tanjong Pagar and Shenton Way, as well as in some commercial buildings that also include condominium facilities. These apartments may not always be in the first flush of youth, although of course new developments are always going up, but they nevertheless offer a very acceptable standard of living on a par with any similar accommodation in a western country.
In these well-established areas of the city, you can also find what are known as walk-ups—older, low-rise apartment blocks without a lift—and these are becoming extremely popular with a younger, hipper crowd who value the atmosphere and ambience of a more ‘traditional’ neighbourhood over and above the latest domestic mod cons. These are undoubtedly places with real character, and this too is often reflected in the residents and in the cafés, bars and restaurants that have sprung up in the surrounding streets. You might also be lucky enough to come across a converted shophouse, as many of these are now being given a second life as cool, inner-city apartments, although as most get converted into dining or drinking venues or premises for creative businesses, and also because they have to be extensively renovated, they can be rather rare and expensive.
Ultimately, the advantage of CBD living is of course the convenience of having many of the city’s best cultural, entertainment and shopping hotspots if not actually on your doorstep, only a short walk or trip on the MRT away.
Compared to other districts in Singapore that have a great deal more residential property, there are perhaps fewer health facilities right on your doorstep in the CBD and Civic Districts. This is not to say that there is poor provision, but rather you might not have the sheer breadth of choices that you can find elsewhere.
Nevertheless, residents are still extremely well catered for in that Raffles Hospital (585 North Bridge Road) is right at the heart of the district, just off Victoria Street, and this has outstanding facilities, a 24-hour A&E department as well as an intensive care unit.
There are also 4 medical centres, all run by Healthway Medical, as well as two dentists who specialises in expatriate dental care and services. And while there are no polyclinics within the area, there are nevertheless a very large number of private doctors and surgeries. Singapore Health provides comprehensive listings of GPs and medical centres by neighborhood on its website.
There are no international schools within the CBD or Civic Districts, but this doesn’t present too much of a problem given that there are schools within fairly easy reach in all directions.
The closest schools to the north of the CBD are Insworld Institute (No 2 Serangoon Road, The Verge #03-18) and the Global Indian International School (1 & 3 Mei Chin Road); to the west, the closest are Eton House (178 Clemenceau Avenue, #06-00 Haw Par Glass Tower) and Chatsworth International School (37 Emerald Hill Road).
However, most of the leading international schools can be reached without involving too much commuting time and international schools in Singapore all provide bus services to and from school in the morning and afternoon. Contact the schools directly and they will provide you with information regarding the bus services that they run.
The public transport links in and out of the CBD and Civic District are extensive. All four MRT lines run through or around the CBD, meaning that it’s easy to find a station with the line that you want, while connections are also easy to make. Dhoby Gaut MRT is a major hub, with trains on the Circle, North South and North East lines all stopping there. The public transport provision is only set to improve further when stages 2 and 3 of the Downtown Line open in 2016 and 2017 respectively, when new stations will appear in the both the east and west of the district.
Buses run everywhere throughout these important business areas, and so travelling within the district or beyond by bus is very straightforward. Bus stops are located on all major thoroughfares and at most landmarks, and the service from these is comprehensive, serving as they do workers who come in and out of the CBD every day for work from all over Singapore. There are also premium bus routes running in and out of the CBD. These are express bus services that run from suburban areas and speed up commuting times, but they do charge a more expensive fare (see Getting Connected).
In the CBD, taxi drivers are not allowed to pick up or drop off passengers along main roads (where buses run) between 7am-10pm (except on Sundays and public holidays) in order to prevent adding to traffic congestion. Instead, commuters can be dropped off in building driveways and at designated taxis stands/stops and pick up/drop off points. Each of these is assigned a unique location code for easy identification, and passengers can use these when arranging a pick up with a taxi call-booking centre. Alternatively, you can wait for a taxi at a designated taxi stand (there will usually be an estimated waiting time displayed) or at a designated area within the premises of most major commercial, retail and office buildings. Most CBD MRT stations also have taxi stands near their entrances.
A new means of getting about the CBD has recently arrived on the scene. Lompang (from the Malay word tumpang, meaning ‘to hitch a ride’) is a mobile app that allows you to put out a request to any registered scooter riders in the area who will then come and pick you up and deliver you to your location for SGD$5.00.
Shops and Services
Although within easy reach of Orchard Road, there are nevertheless a range of outstanding shopping options within the CBD and Civic Districts, all of which have their own distinct character and specialities.
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (10 Bayfront Avenue) seeks to provide for Singaporeans and visitors alike all of their earthly needs under one roof—and very nearly succeeds. From high-end retail, to theatres, to fine dining, Marina Bay Sands pretty much has it all.
Across the bay to the north is Suntec City (3 Temasek Boulevard), currently undergoing a significant refurbishment and a popular destination for those looking for high street fashion labels, such as GAP, H&M, Uniqlo and Esprit, with a particularly eye-catching feature being the Fountain of Wealth, the largest fountain in the world, apparently. Nearby is Millenia Walk (9 Raffles Boulevard), an upscale mall known for its distinctive architecture and open street shopping environment, and home to a number of premium lifestyle and clothing stores, such as Bose, Rimowa, The Hour Glass, Commune, and Grafunkt. Raffles City Shopping Mall (252 North Bridge Road) is also worth visiting for its fashion designer labels, such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Shanghai Tang, as well as its range of lifestyle and homeware stores.
There are also some older, more low-key malls that provide a range of more affordable fashion and homeware options, such as People’s Park Complex (1 Park Road), Chinatown Point (133 New Bridge Road), OG People’s Park (100 Upper Cross Street) and Pearl’s Centre (100 Eu Tong Sen Street).
It’s not all mall shopping, however, and there are some further intriguing and engaging retail options available.
The shophouses and stalls of Chinatown are home to a range of traditional merchants and hawkers, selling handicrafts, antiques, clothing and accessories, as well as some very upmarket antique stores and rather more downmarket souvenir joints. The areas around Ann Siang Road and Club Street are home to Singapore’s new and growing trendy café and bar scene, making it one of the liveliest and most interesting parts of the city.
For younger shoppers, Bugis Junction (200 Victoria Street) is a place for trendy, budget street wear, as well as the department store BHG and Japanese homewards store Muji, while there is a food court on the 3rd floor that has a good range of budget eats. Bugis+, on the opposite side of the road (201 Victoria Street) is also a shopping mecca for the young at heart, and features 9-screen cinema complex and a food court that seems to specialise primarily in Japanese ramen shops.
The area isn’t entirely about shopping, however. Esplanade Theatres on the Bay (1 Esplanade Drive) is Singapore’s home of the performing arts and most of the country’s major museums and art galleries are located here, including the Asian Civilisations Museum (1 Empress Place), the National Museum of Singapore (93 Stamford Road) and the National Gallery Singapore (61 Stamford Road), the latter two now housed in the gloriously restored and reconfigured former City Hall and Supreme Court Buildings, opposite The Padang.
The district’s diversity is also further represented by its places of worship. Those of particular interest and significance include: the Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral (11 St Andrew’s Road), designed by Colonel Ronald MacPherson and completed in 1862; the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, known simply as the Armenian Church, Singapore’s oldest Christian church and built in 1835 (60 Hill Street); Wan Im Thong Hood Cho, a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple established in 1884 (178 Waterloo Street); Sultan Mosque (3 Muscat Street), also known as Masjid Sulatan and the city’s largest mosque; and Sri Krishnan Temple (152 Waterloo Street), a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna.