The Istana (palace in Malay) is the official residence of Singapore’s president, located at the very end of Singapore’s bustling Orchard Road behind a large white gate flanked by sentries. The building was completed in 1869 and originally served to house the governors in the British colonial government.
An independent Singaporean government moved into the Istana in 1959; today, its six function rooms are used by senior politicians to host ceremonies and receive foreign guests. Most days people can only peek at the building behind its imposing gates, or witness the changing of the guards if they’re there on the right Sunday.
But the Istana opens its gates five times a year, giving travellers an opportunity to tour its sprawling, 40 hectare grounds — it’s definitely worth doing if you’re in Singapore on the right day.
Open house occurs around Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa, Labour Day and National Day. If you’re here at the right time — check the official website for dates – head here early as the entrance queue gets long fast. Bring your passport to use as ID and be prepared for security checks.
What’s there to see? Begin with the variety of flora and fauna in the beautifully manicured gardens and ponds. The landscaping is carefully done by senior curators at the National Parks Board and you will find native Asian species such as rubber and coconut trees, spice trees such as nutmeg and cloves, and a Japanese garden with pine trees. Grass carp, koi, waterhens and turtles swim in the ponds.
Performances in line with the occasion at the time are put on, and educational activity booths set up by various organisations, such as Singapore museums, are on display. Kids are very much welcome and will enjoy running around the large grounds and the craft activities, such as making badges from old stamps.
The Istana building itself can be toured for a fee of $2, which lets you see the function rooms and view gifts presented to the president and prime minister by heads of foreign delegations. Photography is not allowed, which makes an even more compelling reason to visit it. The building still serves as the working office of the President and Prime Minister, so there are understandable security concerns.
You’ll also get to see Singapore’s president and first lady in the flesh. Their appearance won’t be scheduled, but on our visit, they came out to greet people at 11:00. You may get a handshake or if even a photo. Hint: a baby in tow may help with your chances on this front.
If you're not in Singapore for one of the open days, don't fret, all is not lost. On the first Sunday of the month (except July and August), a large crowd gathers outside the gate to watch the changing of the guards ceremony -- a Singapore tradition since 1969 and, as you might expect of a former British colony, modelled after the ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
The guards who stand watch at the Istana are from the Singapore Armed Forces Military Police Command and watch over the palace for one month. The ceremony marks the arrival of their replacements who begin their silent march down Orchard Road toward the Istana at 17:45.
The changing of the guards ceremony starts around 18:00 when the new guards arrive at the Istana’s grand white gate. A military band keeps the beat and the sight of 36 white-coated soldiers twirling their rifles in synch is an impressive sight to behold – it’s definitely worth delaying your shopping trip by 15 minutes for. The relieved guards then march back down Orchard Road accompanied by the band, and the whole procession is finished by 18:30.
This is a rare chance to witness the pomp and circumstance of Singapore’s military and should not be missed if your visit times with the monthly ceremony.
How to get there
Near Dhoby Ghaut MRT station
By Fen Chia
Last updated on 6th April, 2015.