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Exploring The Historical Districts of Singapore

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

Kampong Glam

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!

Graffiti at Haji Lane, Kampong Glam, one of the historical districts in SingaporeGraffiti in Kampong Glam, one of the historical districts SingaporeA back alley in Kampong Glam, on of the historical districts in Singapore

Little India

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.

Colourful building in Little India, one of the historical districts in SingaporeHindu gods in Little India, one of the historical districts in Singapore

Chinatown

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.

A walking street in Chinatown, one of the historical districts in SingaporeA red dragon in Chinatown, one of the historical districts in SingaporeShopping street in Chinatown, one of the historical districts in Singapore

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.

Shophouses in Katong, one of the historical districts in SingaporeA shophouse in Katong, one of the historical districts in Singapore

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.

The Fullerton Hotel in the downtown area, one of the historical districts in SingaporeCourtyard at Raffles Hotel, in one of the historical districts in Singapore

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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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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18 Comments

  1. April 24, 2014 at 6:02 pm — Reply

    Kampong was our fav neighborhood, we lived nearby, so it was a place we frequently visit for eating out and visiting all those hipster bike stores. 🙂

    • April 24, 2014 at 11:26 pm — Reply

      Do you mean Katong? It seems like a great place to live, if I ever move back to Singapore that’s where I’ll be living!

  2. April 25, 2014 at 2:23 am — Reply

    Nice photos! I love those graffitis at Kampung Glam and the colourful building at Little India! : )

    • April 25, 2014 at 9:52 pm — Reply

      Thanks, Kampong Glam is great, if only more places in Singapore were like that!

  3. April 27, 2014 at 12:48 am — Reply

    Looks like an amazing place! Would love to see it one day. Also, very nice pictures! 🙂

    • April 28, 2014 at 12:22 pm — Reply

      Thanks Maria, Singapore is a great place to visit!

  4. April 27, 2014 at 9:57 am — Reply

    Looks so colourful and pretty! I really want to go to Singapore 🙂

    • April 28, 2014 at 12:23 pm — Reply

      Some parts of it are haha, some areas are just filled with shopping malls and apartment buildings though.

  5. April 27, 2014 at 2:48 pm — Reply

    I loved the historical districts of Singapore – for such a small place it has an amazing variety of cultures. I spent the most time in Chinatown – I know you get those everywhere but this one was massive and felt more authentically Chinese than some of the others. It was also a great place to eat and drink (I’ve never had chrysanthamum tea or durian anywhere else!).

    • April 28, 2014 at 12:24 pm — Reply

      Yeah, the food in all of the historical districts is really good!

  6. April 27, 2014 at 11:42 pm — Reply

    Cool post Jon. Haven’t made it to Singapore yet, but it seems a very diverse city :)!

    • April 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm — Reply

      Thanks Manouk, if you do enough travel in Southeast Asia you’re bound to end up here eventually!

  7. May 10, 2014 at 11:52 pm — Reply

    Without knocking any Asian countries, it’s astounding to see such beautiful architecture in Singapore–it’s almost unparalleled. To think that it is not only so organized as a city, but also holds such wealth of culture…

    I’ve never been there, but your post definitely makes me want to go. I think I’ll fit it in my year’s plan 🙂 thank you for sharing this lovely experience.

    • May 13, 2014 at 10:39 pm — Reply

      Cheers Rashad, it’s definitely worth checking out. There is so much to do and the mix of cultures is really interesting.

  8. May 12, 2014 at 10:55 pm — Reply

    I never went to Singapore because I thought it´s another busy city in the area but your pictures make me change my mind 🙂

    • May 13, 2014 at 10:40 pm — Reply

      It’s a pretty unique place, very different to Bangkok etc. I’d recommend having a look!

  9. May 2, 2016 at 11:45 am — Reply

    There’s this joke that goes

    Why was the Grim Reaper disappointed when he went to Singapore?

    Because he couldn’t find any soul!

    All in all, Kampong Glam is my favorite ‘hood. It’s a perfect blend of local food institutions mixed with cafes & indie stores, including the excellent Straits Records store!

    • May 2, 2016 at 1:06 pm — Reply

      Haha yeah it’s definitely not as edgy as most cities — there are pockets of soul to be found though!

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