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Raffles to Marina Bay

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Get acquainted with Singapore's past and its future in central Singapore. Also known as the 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. 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 their cricket grounds.

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. For drinks that don't cost S$25 apiece (and that's before tax+service) cross the street to CHJIMES, once a Catholic convent and now a trendy spot to dine and drink. 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 MRT.

While some of the buildings in central Singapore have been unchanged for centuries, the newest additions push the limits of engineering. At 226 metres, Swissôtel the Stamford is one of Southeast Asia's tallest hotels and the New Asia Bar on the 71st floor has unbeatable views and happy hour specials. At 165 metres, the Singapore Flyer edged out the London Eye as the world's highest ferris wheel when it opened in 2008. Currently, the most spectacular example is Marina Bay Sands complex, a three-tower hotel and casino with an open-air park balanced on top.

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. 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 Lau Pa Sat and Gluttons Bay. Budget accommodation is, however, completely absent. While we wouldn't suggest staying in the area unless you have an expense account, the colonial walking tour and a visit to one of the world-class museums are a must.

Central Singapore, also known as the Civic District or Downtown Core, refers to the area sandwiched between Bugis and Chinatown. To the west its boundary is Fort Canning Park and the fringe of Orchard Road and to the east its boundary is the waters of Marina Bay.

City Hall MRT is located in the heart of downtown at the junction of North Bridge and Stamford Roads. Above the station is Raffles City (not to be confused with Raffles Place) with a labyrinth of underground pedestrian malls that link it to other malls like Suntec City and Marina Square and the Esplanade Theatre.

Continuing north along North Bridge Road is CHJIMES, a convent converted into chic restaurants and wine bars, then the elegant but grossly overpriced Raffles Hotel. The one-way streets behind Raffles are home to interesting cafes and shops. Hang a left at Bras Basah Road where you'll find the Bras Basah MRT station, part of the newly completed Circle Line, then the Singapore Art Museum.

If you were to exit City Hall MRT and go south along North Bridge Road you'd pass St Andrews Cathedral, Funan Digital Mall, and eventually cross the Elgin Bridge over the Singapore River and into Chinatown. The restaurant-intensive banks of the river are covered separately in The Quays.

On the southern side of the Singapore River, near its mouth at Marina Bay, is Raffles Place MRT station. Exit I leads to Lau Pa Sat — a Victorian-style market turned hawker centre — and Exit H spits you out on the bank of the river beside the Financial District.

Walk past the glass skyscrapers housing international banks toward the mouth of the river and you'll see The Fullerton, another colonial hotel that rivals Raffles in grandeur and room rates. Cross the Cavenagh pedestrian bridge to another cluster of colonial beauties — The Arts House at Old Parliament, Asian Civilizations Museum, and Victoria Theatre — or continue toward the mouth of the river and take the underpass to Merlion Park for cheesy photo ops with Singapore's half-lion half-fish mascot.

Continue north over the Esplanade Drive Bridge to the Esplanade Theatre, nicknamed "The Durians" for obvious reason. Turning east at the intersection of Esplanade Drive and Stamford Road leads through Esplanade Park — not Singapore's most attractive greenspace — and back to City Hall MRT. Turning west after the Esplanade Theatre the road becomes Raffles Avenue and leads to the Singapore Flyer and The Helix, a pedestrian bridge to the Marina Bay Sands complex. The nearest MRT station is currently Promenade Station, a 10-minute walk away, with Bayfront Station at the massive new complex itself opening in 2012.

There are many opportunities to part with your money in central Singapore and ATMs are always at hand. Look for them every mall, MRT station, convenience store and at the abundant banks.

WiFi is omnipresent, but internet cafés are much harder to find. Try Cyber House on the first floor of the Bras Basah Complex, a 5 minute walk from City Hall.

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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.

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