A lot of Singapore’s history has been buried under endless high rise buildings and other urban developments. Life has changed a lot here in the last 50 or so years, and while many would say the progress is a good thing, it seems the soul of Singapore has been diluted in the process. A few pockets of the past remain, and these are where Singapore breaks free from its robotic suburbs and becomes something truly interesting. The historical districts of Singapore have a great mix of colour, chaos and expression, something that is sorely lacking in other parts of the country.Here is a list of the some of the best historical districts in Singapore to explore
Disappointingly, this isn’t the home of glam rock in Singapore, but it is the most artistic and colourful of Singapore’s historical districts. It was originally the Arab quarter, and the mosque that dominates the area is probably the best in the country. These days it’s home to almost all of Singapore’s graffiti (it’s illegal here) and some of its best cafes. This is my favourite place to come at night, as the streets come alive, and the smell of sheesha and kebabs fills the air. You won’t find Gary Glitter in Kampong Glam (thankfully) but you’ll find an alternative scene that is rare in Singapore. Due to its slightly edgy nature and its awesome architecture, Kampong Glam is my favourite of the historical districts in Singapore!
I’m a huge fan of Indian food, so Little India has become one of my favourite areas of Singapore. It’s noisy, colourful, dirty and a bit rough around the edges, which makes it everything the rest of the country isn’t. If you are into shopping you can find just about anything at The Mustafa Centre – a huge department store which is open around the clock. I haven’t been to India yet, and while I’m sure this is a very watered down version of the real thing, you definitely get the feeling you are no longer in u ptight Singapore.
Updated April 2016: Looking for a good mid-range hotel near Little India (and central to most historic areas of Singapore)? We stayed at Parc Sovereign Hotel – Tyrwhitt recently and it’s an excellent choice. It’s close to lots of old shop houses and some great hawker centres. Read a full review over at Mismatched Passports.
I know, pretty much every major city in the world has a Chinatown, and if you’ve already seen a lot of them then you could probably give this one a miss, but it is a nice place to kill a few hours. You can find lots of old shophouses in Chinatown, but most people journey there to buy cheap souvenirs and eat. While I’ve never actually bought anything, it’s always interesting checking out the cheap plastic toys, magnets, traditional Chinese medicine and tourist t-shirts. There is even a whole shop dedicated to annoying cartoon character Tin Tin.
Katong/Geylang: The most “local” of the historical districts in Singapore
Katong never seems to attract many tourists, but its range of restaurants and bars, combined with its colourful shophouses, makes for a nice visit. Katong is definitely better at night, but if you make it here during the day you could always walk over to East Coast Park, one of Singapore’s best beaches. Katong is a lot more laid back than Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, so head there if you are aren’t a big fan of crowds.
Geylang, the old Malay quarter (also the red light district) is close to Katong but a world away in terms of atmosphere. It’s pretty shady and I’ve even had a “sales pitch” while walking down the street at lunch time! It also has some nice shophouses and places to eat, so if you can brave the prostitute storm it is worth checking out. Katong is probably the least touristy of the historical districts in Singapore, you’ll mostly see locals eating and shopping.
The Civic District
Singapore has some really nice colonial British buildings which are spread out over an area known as the Civic District. The centrepiece would have to be Raffles Hotel, probably the most famous building in Singapore. There is plenty of old world charm to soak in, but some of it is eroded by the shops and restaurants housed inside. There are hundreds of malls in Singapore so I find it weird that they had to turn Singapore’s nicest building into another one. The shops can be easily avoided, and a walk around the grounds of the hotel would have to be one of the highlights of a trip to Singapore. Everyone says you should get a Singapore Sling at The Long Bar in Raffles Hotel, but I refuse to pay over $20 for a drink! The bar is straight out of another century though and is worth checking out (apparently the last tiger in Singapore was killed here but I’m not sure if that’s a great thing to boast about!).Clarke/Boat Quay are also home to some nice colonial buildings and a great way to see them is on a boat trip, or while enjoying a few beers by the river.
You could easily spend a couple of days exploring Singapore’s historical districts. If you combine this with all the other activities on offer you start to see that Singapore isn’t just a “stop for a couple of days between flights” destination, it has more than enough to keep anybody interested for at least a week.
Further reading: Interested in finding out more about Singapore’s historical districts? Check out this page on the Encyclopedia Britannica website.
Have you been to the historical districts of Singapore? Let me know!
Disclaimer: I was hosted Parc Sovereign Hotel – Tyrwhitt, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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