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Downtown Singapore

Travel Guide

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It's easy to imagine Singapore as a single sprawling air-con mall with good public transport and smooth pavements, but that would be both lazy and inaccurate. It's also easy to think of Singapore as being overpriced and only worth a night or two before heading elsewhere where your money will stretch further. That would also be a mistake. Lastly, it's easy to think of Singapore as being sterile, characterless and boring. This is also most definitely a mistake.

There's nowhere quite like Singapore in Southeast Asia. If anything, it tends to remind us more of Sydney (but with better food) than any of the great Southeast Asian cities, but the vast differences of the city state are all the more reason to visit and explore. Yes, you'll most likely spend more money here than say in Bangkok or Saigon, but that's partly because there is just so much to do in the city and its surrounds.

In broad strokes, downtown Singapore can be divided up into a number of areas, each with its own character and points of interest for travellers. While the city is awash with malls, shoppers may be particularly attracted to Orchard Road, while those with an interest in museums and galleries will be better served by heading to the banks of the Singapore River and Raffles. Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and Geylang each have their own fabulous eating scenes. Lovers of open spaces will be relieved to learn that no Southeast Asian capital has devoted as much of its downtown to parkland and catchment as Singapore.

Slow down and explore the amazing Gardens By The Sea.
Slow down and explore the amazing Gardens By The Sea.


All of this is extremely well interlinked via the affordable and comfortable SMRT, but on offer as well is a great bus network plus plenty of taxis for when you're heading to one of the few spots not within a 10-minute walk of an MRT station. There's no city that is quite as easy to get around as Singapore.

Below we cover some of the main districts of interest to travellers, commencing in the backpacker and flashpacker favourite of Chinatown.

Chinatown


It may seem redundant to have a Chinatown in a predominantly Chinese city, but you'll change your mind when you see it. Though Chinatown lies on the fringe of Singapore's central business district, they feel a century apart. Here glass skyscrapers are shrunk to three-storey shophouses, people recharge with herbal teas instead of Starbucks, and life goes by at a slower, if perhaps noisier, pace. Though the signs are in English, the voices ring out in Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.

All decked out for Chinese New Year.
All decked out for Chinese New Year.


Long before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived and designated it a Chinese enclave, the area southwest of the Singapore River had been settled by merchants and farmers from China. As the influx of Chinese immigrants continued, the new arrivals started businesses, established trade guilds and built temples to thank the gods for their safe arrival in this new country. As Chinatown grew it became overcrowded with residents sleeping in shifts in the small living quarters above the shophouses and the flourishing of secret societies, opium dens and brothels. For a glimpse into the lives of these early immigrants visit the Chinese Heritage Centre.

Chinatown remained somewhat of a slum until the 1960s when the government began construction of high-rise HDB apartments and relocated thousands of residents. The least decrepit of the shophouses with their signature five-foot-wide covered passageways were declared conservation buildings and most of Chinatown underwent extensive urban renewal.

Today's Chinatown has been sanitised and gentrified, but is no less chaotic. The Chinatown Street Market runs from morning to night and the narrow streets burst at the seams with herbal medicine shops, massage parlours, antiques dealers and souvenir shops selling fake silk cheongsams and Merlion magnets. The wet market in the basement of the Chinatown Complex sells produce so fresh it's still flopping and the shophouses have been converted into everything from boutique hostels and guesthouses to architecture firms.

While many people come to Chinatown to worship at important religious sites like the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple or Hindu Sri Mariamman temple, even more come to eat. Chinatown is a food lover's paradise with fabulous hawker fare at Maxwell Food Centre and shops selling delicacies from every region of China. Feast on kaya toast, dim sum, roasted duck, spicy hotpot and some of the city's best vegetarian fare. After 18:00 Smith Street becomes "Food Street" with footpath food stalls and outdoor seating.

At the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.
At the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.


The core of Chinatown is the one-way streets, many of them pedestrianised, running between New Bridge and South Bridge Roads. The Chinatown Heritage Centre is in the middle of Pagoda Street, the Sri Mariamman Temple is at the end of Temple Street, and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is at the junction of Sago Street and South Bridge Road. The Chinatown Street Market runs between them along Trengganu Street and spills over into any extra space. East of South Bridge Road is Club Street and Ann Siang Hill which has been taken over by trendy boutiques, wine bars and European-style cafes. It can also be used as a shortcut to Telok Ayer Street, one of Chinatown's oldest thoroughfares and site of century-old temples including Thian Hock Keng. To the southwest you'll find heritage hotels along Keong Saik Road and Duxton Hill, a formerly seedy area that's become the new hotspot for art galleries, specialty boutiques and trendy restaurants.

Chinatown is always photogenic, but puts on an even more spectacular showing for Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Keep an eye out for holiday markets, stage shows and dragon dances through the streets. The seventh lunar month, usually August or September, is Hungry Ghost Month with food offerings left on footpaths and paper money burnt at temples to appease angry spirits.

Best served by the Chinatown (NE4/DT19) SMRT station, the stations of Telok Ayer (DT18) to the east and Outram Park (EW16/NE3) to the southwest are also within walking distance. Walk north on New Bridge or South Bridge Roads and you'll reach Singapore's scenic Quays district that serve as a buffer between Chinatown and the historic centre of the city, while heading east on Cross Street or Upper Pickering Street will take you to Singapore's financial district, beyond which you'll find Marina Bay.

Singapore Quays


The Singapore River is of great historical importance and its mouth is, supposedly, where Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819 before signing the treaty that resulted in the establishment of a British colony. The river flourished as the main artery into Singapore and, in the 1840s, the area now known as Boat Quay was established as an enclave for the Chinese coolies and traders flooding into the new city. The development continued upriver with Clarke Quay, named for Singapore's second colonial governor, as a spot to moor the trading barges and Robertson Quay for shipyards and warehouses.

Wander the Quays before the hordes arrive.
Wander the Quays before the hordes arrive.


Many of the British East India Company's most valuable products — rubber, tin, rice, spices — were traded and transported right on the Singapore River. Though it was never quite the Chinese pirate-ridden port portrayed in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the Singapore River of the 19th century was certainly a rough place with squalid living quarters, opium dens and secret society headquarters.

It wasn't until the 1960s that the Singapore River ceased to be a hub of commerce as ships moved to the new high-tech ports outside the city centre. The bumboats disappeared, the shophouses were abandoned, and the city was left with a filthy, lifeless river. The clean-up of the Singapore River was spearheaded by Lee Kwan Yew, the city-state's first prime minister, and declared a success in 1987. Around this time the dilapidated shophouses of Boat Quay were declared a conservation area and the restoration work began that would eventually convert them into watering holes for expat bankers and cafes for their families.

Boat Quay is nearest the mouth of the Singapore River and looks across the water to colonial beauties like the Old Parliament. The restaurants and bars that now occupy the historic shophouses have such impressive views it's possible to look past the high prices and pushy service. Boat Quay is walking distance from the financial centre of Raffles Place. Nick Leeson, the British broker blamed for the collapse of Barings Bank, was a regular at Harry's Bar. A block back from Boat Quay, along Circular Road, you'll find more reasonably priced bars and restaurants, though obviously without the river views.

Clarke Quay has been developed as a sort of adult playground with international restaurants, trendy nightclubs and a reverse-bungee ride. Depending on your tastes, the crayon-box colours and lilypad umbrellas that came with its multimillion dollar makeover are cute or completely absurd. Continuing up the river is Roberston Quay, the mellowest of the Quays and a great place for a family meal or a quiet glass of wine. The culinary offerings are as diverse as the expats who live in the expensive riverside condos and include Italian, Japanese, French and Australian restaurants. Robertson Quay is a favourite for Sunday brunch and, depending on the schedule at the DBS Arts Centre, dinner and a show.

Don't forget to look up.
Don't forget to look up.


Though the Quays rank high for ambience they're low on actual attractions, and one of the few worth its price tag is the boat tour of the Singapore River. There are several points where you can hop onboard and the tour cruises through all three Quays up to the Merlion at the mouth of the river. Thanks to Marina Barrage (which you can visit out near Gardens by the Bay), the water you'll be floating on is all fresh -- part of Singapore's catchment system for fresh water. Merlion Park -- the home of Singapore's bizarre half-lion half-fish mascot -- continues to be a big draw and the surrounding area has flourished with expensive waterfront bars and seafood restaurants.

For both Robertson and Clarke Quays, the best SMRT station is Clarke Quay (NE5) station, but for Boat Quay, Raffles Place (NS26/EW14) is marginally closer to the eastern end of it. While it's possible to walk from Boat Quay to Marina Bay, most opt for taking the SMRT, but what is within easy walking distance is the historic centre of Singapore which we'll refer to as Raffles after the namesake hotel that sits in the midst of it.

Raffles


Also known as Singapore's downtown core or civic district, this area houses the vast majority of banks, multinational corporations, museums, historical sites and government offices past and present. There are also enough shopping centres and five-star hotels to rival Orchard Road. This area north of the Singapore River is where Sir Stamford Raffles began to build Singapore as a British trading post and much of the colonial architecture, though now dwarfed by skyscrapers, has survived.

Raffles woz here.
Raffles woz here.


A statue of Raffles has been erected at the best-guess of where he landed in 1819 and is surrounded by some of the oldest surviving buildings like the Victoria Theatre and Old Parliament House — now an art gallery. The open field to the north, now known as The Padang, was the Brit's cricket grounds, while to the west lies Fort Canning -- a hilltop park and garden well worth a few hours of your time -- it's so pretty Raffles built his house there.

The Raffles Hotel conjures up more colonial nostalgia with its white-gloved staff and high teas. We suspect there's been a significant price hike since Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway penned their tales of life in the colonies over cocktails, but the Long Bar remains a major tourist draw as the home of the Singapore Sling. Singapore's earliest Christian churches are scattered around the central area, but you can't miss the sky-high steeple of St Andrew's Cathedral beside City Hall SMRT.

Immediately to the north of the Padang, towering to some 226 metres, is Swissotel the Stamford, one of Southeast Asia's tallest hotels. Its New Asia Bar on the 71st floor has unbeatable views and happy hour specials. Head east and, at 165 metres, the Singapore Flyer edged out the London Eye as the world's highest ferris wheel when it opened in 2008. Cross over the bridge to the south of the Flyer and you'll reach the Marina Bay Sands complex, a three-tower hotel and casino with an open-air park balanced on top. Beyond that lie the spectacular Gardens by the Bay and Marina Barrage.

There are many places in central Singapore to splurge on a meal, including the new celebrity chef restaurants at Marina Bay Sands, but cheap meals are still possible at hawker centres like Gluttons Bay. Budget accommodation is, however, completely absent. While we wouldn't suggest staying in the area unless you have an expense account -- and even then, shop online for a discounted rate -- the colonial walking tour and a visit to one of the world-class museums are a must.

While City Hall SMRT (NS25/EW13) is arguably the centre, Esplanade (CC3), Promenade (CC4/DT15) and Marina Bay (CC1/DT16) are convenient for, well, Esplanade, the Flyer and Marina Bay respectfully. To the west Bras Basah (CC2) and the major interchange at Dhoby Ghaut (NS24/NE6/CC1) are convenient for Fort Canning and Orchard Road, the latter being the epicentre of Singapore's high-end shopping scene.

Orchard


An endless stretch of shopping centres, chain restaurants, and upscale hotels, Orchard Road is the shopaholic heart of Singapore. The name originates from the fruit and spice orchards that lined the street during colonial days, but the plants died and the district was redeveloped as a commercial and residential zone for Singapore's elite — an apt description even today.

Glass and brass on Orchard Road.
Glass and brass on Orchard Road.


Not a city that clings to its past too tightly, authorities demolished the colonial buildings during Singapore's boom to make way for modern mega-malls. A few historical buildings remain including the Istana and the sprawling Thai Embassy — but no one goes to Orchard Road for a history lesson: it's all about the shopping.


Orchard Road is a shrine to consumerism. It measures 2.2 kilometres long, yet there is hardly a gap between the malls. By our count, it's home to at least 25 shopping centres, 15 five-star hotels, four multi-screen cineplexes, three private hospitals, 13 Starbucks, and hundreds of places to eat (and, somehow, they're always busy).

Like many things in Singapore, Orchard Road is not cheap. There are more Dolce & Gabbana boutiques than dollar stores and Continental breakfast at the Hilton or Marriott costs more than a dorm bed in Little India. The best season for bargain-hunting is during the much-hyped Great Singapore Sale in June and July. The sales are nowhere as spectacular as the massive crowds would suggest, but you may get lucky and find a deal. Think free memory card and carrying case rather than 50% off.

Most malls offer a "tourist privilege card" year-round that gets you small discounts at certain shops and a free coffee — bring your passport and collect it at the information counter. Remember that international tourists can also claim a tax refund on purchases over S$100, excluding meals and hotels.

How the other half life: Open day at The Istana.
How the other half life: Open day at The Istana.


Factoring in a couple of breaks inside the air-con comfort of a mall, it's possible to walk Orchard end to end in a couple of hours. Orchard is very pedestrian-friendly with benches, crosswalks, underpasses, and wide footpaths to accommodate the hordes of shoppers.

Change pace with a visit to the Botanic Garden at the far western extreme (actually beyond the end) of Orchard Road. While it's straightforward to walk from here to Little India via Bencoolen Street, most will opt for catching the SMRT. Orchard is served by three SMRT stations -- Dhoby Ghaut (NS24/NE6/CC1) to the east, Somerset (NS23) roughly in the centre or Orchard (NS22) to the west.

Little India


With its throngs of people, chaotic commerce and pungent smells, a visit to Little India will quickly dispel any notions of a sterile Singapore. In fact, if you added a few free-range cows and honking rickshaws to the mix, it could pass as the real deal.

Singapore need not be too pricey.
Singapore need not be too pricey.


Historically, Little India was an extension of Chulia Kampong, the Indian "ethnic quarter" established during British colonial rule. As the original enclave became overcrowded, the South Indian Tamil population moved to this riverside area, where they farmed tropical fruit and raised livestock. While the only trace of these agricultural activities is in street names like "Buffalo Road", the Hindu temples, sari shops, classical Indian music and dance centres, and vegetarian-friendly restaurants remain in full force.

Though Singapore's official policy has shifted from ethnic segregation to racial harmony, Little India continues to serve as a gathering point for Singapore's Indian community as well as new arrivals from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Nearly all of Singapore's construction is done by temporary workers from these South Asian countries and they swarm to Little India by the thousand every Sunday, their one day off.

Little India is also a culinary paradise featuring the best of each Indian region's cuisine. Feast on rich mutton curry from Kashmir, the vegetarian staple of dosa masala from Tamil Nadu, coconut seafood from Kerala, and browse the ingredients to make them at the wet markets and spice shops. With Bollywood music and burning incense in the background, the small shops are an exotic alternative to Orchard Road; you'll find Ayurvedic medicine, mobile phones, glittering saris and souvenir T-shirts just for starters.

Tradition meets modernity.
Tradition meets modernity.


Midway between Little India and Bras Basah you'll find Waterloo Street, where the historic Hindu and Buddhist temples draw so many worshippers that the road has become pedestrianised with palm-readers and incense sellers spilling onto the footpaths. The surrounding area has a high concentration of budget hotels and vegetarian restaurants, and Sim Lim Square electronics mall is a few minutes away on Rochor Canal Road.

Near the start of Serangoon Road where it crosses the Rochor Canal are two Little India landmarks: Tekka Centre and the Little India Arcade. Tekka Centre is sensory overload, with a wet market, cooked food and traditional clothing. Across the street from Tekka, the Little India Arcade is a maze of shops selling everything Indian from statues of deities to handmade sweets like jalebi and gulab jamun.

A block east is the backpacker quarter along Dunlop Street, where cheap bars, convenience stores and internet cafes have cropped up to fill the needs of international travellers. A few hostels can also be found on the quieter outskirts of Little India and midrangers like Perak Hotel are scattered throughout the area. Be wary of budget hotels with banners displaying rates under S$100 — much of their business is by the hour and the cockroaches are complimentary.

Continuing along Serangoon Road, the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple with its intricate roof is one of the most important Hindu temples in Little India and not to be missed. Pooja (offerings) are scheduled at 08:00, 12:00, 18:30 and 21:00. A few blocks past the temple take a right at Syed Alwi Road to reach renowned 24-hour Mustafa Centre, the best place for in Singapore to change money, book a flight, and buy absolutely anything from saffron to a new watch.

Even further north along Serangoon Road is the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu and best known as the starting point for the annual Thaipusam festival. The yummy but out-of-place French Stall restaurant is a few doors down then it's a short detour to the Buddhist Leong San See and Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya temples on Race Course Road.

Breakfast of champions.
Breakfast of champions.


Little India pulsates with sights, sounds and colours 365 days a year, but puts on an even more spectacular showing for holidays and festivals. In January or February is the Thaipusam festival which commemorates the birth of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity of great importance in South India. Devotees undertake a pilgrimage through the streets of Singapore performing acts of devotion: some carry pots of milk or baskets of fruit, but the gruesome highlight is devotees who skewer their faces and carry large, ornate kavadis piercing their chests and backs -- and that's after they've walked on hot coals, barefoot, at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple.

The biggest event on the Hindu calendar is Deepavali, "the festival of lights", which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. This festival is held in mid-October or November (the exact date is determined by the cycles of the moon) and you'll find Little India bursting at its seams with festive decorations, cultural shows and holiday bazaars.

The two most convenient SMRT stations are Little India (NE7) and Farrer Park (NE8) both along the western side of Little India. A third station, a 10-minute walk away, is Lavender (EW11) which is closer to arguably Singapore's most enthralling area, Kampong Glam.

Kampong Glam


Just east of the city centre, Bugis and Kampong Glam is a neighbourhood with one foot in the past. The old and new are juxtaposed on every corner with business hotels beside street markets and the crowds on the footpaths and MRT are as likely to be on their way to the mosque as they are to the mall.

Sultan Mosque after dark.
Sultan Mosque after dark.


Bugis is named for the Bugis tribe, seafaring people from Indonesia reputed to dabble in piracy, who came to Singapore in the early 19th century to trade and established kampongs (villages) in this area. After the arrival of the British one of these settlements, Kampong Glam, was designated the home for wealthy Muslims, including Malay royalty and Arab merchants, who built the Istana Kampong Glam palace and Sultan Mosque — two magnificent buildings that still stand today.

In the post-WW2 era Bugis became a centre for an entirely different type of trade — sex work. Fuelled by sailors on shore leave, Bugis Street gained a reputation for sleaze with squalid bars, brothels and transsexual shows. The party didn't last long: Old Bugis Street was razed in the mid-80s to make way for the new MRT, but its sordid history is immortalised by Paul Theroux's novel Saint Jack and the film of the same name. Needless to say, this story of an American pimp trying to do business on the mean streets of Singapore in the 1970s was initially banned by the local government.

The sleaze is long gone, but Bugis still has an eclectic assortment of attractions. Squeeze into the Bugis Street Market to shop for cheap souvenirs, read a newspaper at the modern National Library, or feast on murtabak (stuffed flat bread) and teh tarik (frothy milk tea) at one of the Halal Malay restaurants. Arab Street remains a centre for contemporary Muslim culture with Persian carpet stores, hookah bars and the call to prayer sounding out from the Sultan Mosque. Hip Haji Lane is the haunt of Singapore's counterculture kids and the five-foot way is lined with independent boutiques, tattoo studios and artsy cafes that double as bars after dark. By Singapore standards, this is a refreshingly hip area.

Not much left of the Kallang Gas Works.
Not much left of the Kallang Gas Works.


Towards the eastern extreme, along Beach Road, you'll reach the Golden Mile Complex -- think of it as all of Thailand crammed into a mall and you'll get the idea. Keep heading east and you can cross the Rochor River to reach what was once the Kallang Gasworks, but today parkland, cycling tracks and sleepy cafes.
Kampong Glam is best served by three SMRT stations -- Bugis (EW12/DT14) to the south west, Lavender (EW11) to the north, or, a 10-minute walk away over the highway, Nicoll Highway (CC5).

Geylang and beyond


Forget what you've seen downtown or along Orchard Road — this is genuine Singapore. In Geylang the shops sell more sandals than high heels, a hawker dish still costs S$3, and durian is not a dirty word. The area is largely residential so, with the exception of their arrival or departure from Changi airport, few visitors venture this far east. Depending on your perspective, East Singapore's minor attractions like markets and parks are either a bore or a relief compared to the ultra-modern city centre.

The Geylang skyline.
The Geylang skyline.


Rent a bike or take a really long walk at East Coast Park which stretches 15 kilometres along Singapore's southeast coast all the way to the airport. Most people stay out of the water due to its questionable cleanliness, but that doesn't stop people from picnicking on the beach or feasting on fresh, affordable seafood at the East Coast Lagoon Hawker Centre.

East Singapore is also home to colourful heritage neighbourhoods worth a visit for their architecture and food. Historically, Geylang was the designated area for Singapore's ethnic Malay population and their presence remains with the Malay Cultural Village and Geylang Serai Wet Market. During the month of Ramadan the area comes alive with night bazaars selling curries and kueh (sweets) once the fasting hours are finished. In an odd mix, Geylang is also Singapore's red light district, it's pretty tame by southeast Asian standards though, and the Vietnamese food is great!

Katong was once the home of Singapore's wealthy Peranakan merchants who built mansions along the coast. Due to land reclamation they no longer have sea views, but the beautiful terrace houses with elaborately embellished facades remain. Look for them around Joo Chiat Road. Katong is also known for its variation of laksa, a spicy seafood noodle soup.

If you don't mind being a 15-minute MRT ride from the city centre, Eastern Singapore is home to good value hostels like Betelbox and Fern Loft.

The most convenient SMRT to Geylang is Paya Lebar (EW8/CC13) to the west or Eunos (EW7) to the east but it is a good 20 minute walk from either to Joo Chiat Road.

Grab a quick bite at BK Eating House.
Grab a quick bite at BK Eating House.


Orientation


As most hotels and cafes offer WiFi, dedicated internet cafes have become scarce across Singapore. If you have a smartphone, prepaid sim cards can be purchased both at the airport and at minimarts throughout town.

International access ATMs are just about everywhere, though most frequently in shopping complexes and MRT stations.

Singapore Visitor's Centre is a wonderful resource with events listings, maps, brochures and computers that are free to use. It's located at the junction of Orchard and Cairnhill Road and open 09:30-22:30 daily.

The Singapore General Hospital near Outram Park MRT is the city's largest and has a walk-in clinic and travel clinic while Raffles Hospital, one of Singapore's finest medical facilities, is located beside Bugis MRT station.

Related reading

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Text and/or map last updated on 18th October, 2014.

Last reviewed by:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.

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