Guide to the Colonial District of Singapore

Singapore's Old Parliament House

Singapore's Old Parliament House

The Colonial district, sandwiched between the Singapore River and Orchard Road, is the historic core of the city, sitting proudly among soaring skyscrapers and futuristic quayside developments. It is characterised by wide open green spaces and elegant boulevards and still houses many imposing government buildings.  It is easy to stroll around and explore at leisure, delighting in its old world charm.

Singapore’s colonial district boasts the city's most picturesque architecture, all lovingly preserved around manicured lawns and water features. At its heart is the green oasis of the Padang. This is the quintessential foreign field that is forever England.

This large patch of grass still hosts the occasional cricket match and has been at the centre of Singapore’s most historic events. This is where Singapore finally fell to the Japanese during the Second World War and later where independence from British rule was finally achieved.

Nostalgic colonial charm still pervades at the adjacent Singapore Cricket Club (Open: 09:00 to midnight (Monday–Thursday), 09:00–02:00 (Friday, Saturday, Public Holiday, 09:00-22:00 (Sunday, Public Holiday); Entrance fees: price on application; Connaught Drive, tel: +65 6338 9271, fax: +65 6337 0119, email: scc@scc.org.sg, website: www.scc.org.sg). Founded in 1851, it was once an elite stronghold for upper class Brits and still maintains an aristocratic appeal. Flanking the Padang is the Supreme Court and the grandiose City Hall (3 St Andrews Roadtel: +65 6732 6622). This colossal Romanesque style building still houses government departments, but visitors can explore art exhibitions and a multimedia gallery. Admission is free of charge. 

Gothic St Andrews is pure England

Gothic St Andrews is pure England

A few metres farther north is the delightful gothic revival Cathedral of St Andrews (11 St Andrew’s Road, tel: +65 6337 6104, fax: +65 6339 1197, email: sac@livingstreams.org.sg, website: www.livingstreams.org.sg). Completed in 1860, this is a real throwback to rural Victorian England and has lovingly preserved whitewashed masonry and intricate stained glass rose window. It is a place of worship for a diverse Christian congregation made up of Eurasians, expats, ethnic Chinese and Malays.

Directly facing trendy Boat Quay is the Raffles landing site, where Sir Stamford Raffles reputedly took his first steps on Singapore land. This is the cultural heart of the Colonial district with many fine period buildings now housing art galleries and museum collections, all within a single block. The most impressive of all is the Asian Civilisations Museum (Open: 13:00–19:00 (Monday)09:00–19:00 (Tuesday-Sunday), 09:00-21:00 (Friday). Admission: adult/SGD$8 (Admission charges may vary during special exhibitions); tel: +65 6332 7798, fax: +65 6883 0732, email: nhb_acm_vs@nhb.gov.sg, website: www.acm.org.sgwhich displays an eclectic collection of Southeast Asian antiquities, tribal art and oriental treasures. More on museums.

Directly opposite is the ornate neo-classical façade of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (currently closed for major renovations, reopens in 2013). This is home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and also hosts high brow opera, dance and theatre performance.

Another noteworthy sight is the nearby Old Parliament House – a quaint colonial image of whitewashed arched verandas overlooking lush manicured gardens. It is now home to a cutting edge arts centre which has been renamed and relaunched as The Arts House (1 Old Parliament Lane: Open: Monday-Sunday: 10:00-22:00 (daily, closed at 17:00 on eve of Chinese New Year and Christmas), Box Office: The Arts House Level 1: Open: 10:00-20:00 (Monday-Friday), 11:00-20:00 (Saturday), closed Sunday; Admission: free, except for ticketed events; tel: +65 6332 6900, fax: +65 6336 3021, email: enquiries@toph.com.sg, website: www.theartshouse.com.sg).

Of course, no trip to Singapore is complete without a visit to Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Roadbooking here). This is without doubt the most emblematic image of colonial Singapore and, despite its reputation as an upmarket tourist trap, still exudes a timeless charm. Sipping a Singapore Sling in the nostalgic Long Bar is the time honoured thing for most tourists, but it also houses a plethora of swanky souvenir boutiques and a museum to explore. If your wallet will stretch far enough, you can spend the night in one of its plush suites, however you will be paying for its iconic status and history as much as its creature comforts. More on hotels.

Travel tip
If foot slogging in the midday sun leaves you trembling with fear, you can take a cruise along the Singapore River by bumboat, taking in most of the appealing architecture of the Colonial District. Pick one up at the quay next to the weird and wonderful Merlion statue. An even better option is to take one of the famous Ducktours (1 Raffles Boulevard, Suntec Convention Centre #05-520, Suntec City, tel: +65 6338 6877) which operate amphibious vehicles throughout the day and take in all the sights of the Colonial District on land and water. More on city tours.

Thankfully, there are no huge shopping malls to obscure views here, although you do not need to travel far to get your shopping fix. Marina Bay, to the south and Raffles City are too of the largest and just a short hop away on foot. There are countless other smaller centres dotted around the neighbourhood if you simply cannot resist the urge. Nearby Boat Quay is the perfect refuelling spot with numerous top notch restaurants and waterfront cafe bars serving up global cuisine. More on restaurants.

Finish off with an hour or two in Fort Canning Park (Open: 07:00–19:00 (daily); 70 River Valley Roadtel: +65 663 62 398, fax: +65 6604 7141, 24-hour hotline1800 471 7300, email: jennifer_toh@nparks.gov.sg, website: www.nparks.gov.sg) a surprisingly large stretch of lush greenery right in the midst of the civic district. It is a great place to simply chill out and recharge batteries, but there is a fair bit to see and do here too. It houses the original Botanic Gardens, you can go boating and bike riding or stroll among the Asian Sculpture Garden.

Military history buffs might want to check out The Battle Box (Open: 10:00–18:00 (last tour starts at 17:00, daily); Admission: adult/SGD$8, child/SGD$5, guided tour/SGD$5; 51 Canning Rise, tel: +65 6330 0510, fax: +65 6333 0590, website: www.thebattlebox.com) a maze of subterranean tunnels which was the British Army’s WW2 command centre during the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. 

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