Singapore
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National Museum of Singapore

Bras Basah to Fort Canning Park

Singapore's Colonial District and some fantastic museums

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Popularly known as The Colonial District, the area to the north of the Singapore River boasts many interesting sites, related to Singapore's ancient past, as well as to its colonial era. This is also the area where some of the city's best museums can be found.

  

Our starting point will be at the classic Raffles Hotel.  Popularly known as "The grand old dame", the Raffles is one of the world's classiest and most luxurious hotels, and a must-see for visitors to Singapore.

 

The hotel started its life as a humble ten-room colonial bungalow, back in 1887. It continued to expand over the years, with the addition of further wings, buildings and rooms, until it became a true pearl of beauty and elegance... The current Renaissance-style main building was completed in 1899.

 

Many famous guests stayed at the Raffles along the years... from Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Charlie Chaplin and W. Somerset Maugham, to Queen Elizabeth II, Michael Jackson, Rudy Giuliani and Elizabeth Taylor...

 

The hotel was also the location for some of the city's historic events... It is said that Singapore's last surviving wild tiger was shot here in 1902 (under the hotel's Bar & Billiard Room). It is also the place where the famous Singapore Sling cocktail was invented.

 

Visiting this ultra-sumptuous hotel is almost like taking a sentimental journey, back to the splendorous days of British colonialism in Southeast Asia (without having to experience colonialism's less splendorous sides...)

 

When visiting the hotel, don't miss the lovely Raffles Hotel Museum, where you can see a lot of the hotel's historic paraphernalia, and the aristocratic Bar & Billiard Room.  The museum is located at the 3rd floor of the Raffles Shopping Arcade and is open daily, 10am - 7pm, entrance is free.

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The main entrance to the hotel is from Beach Road and the easiest way to get there is from MRT-City Hall: take the Stamford Rd./Swissotel exit (A), walk out to Beach Rd., cross Bras Basah Rd. and after a few steps, you will see The Raffles on your left.

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On the other side of the Raffles, along Seah Street, you will see the excellent Mint Museum of Toys.  This fabulous museum is relatively new and is the first museum on earth, devoted solely to toys and kids' games.  More than 50,000 toys are displayed across five levels, including vintage 19th century toys and rare toys from all over the world.  Obviously, it's a must-see for families with children but adults are also likely to enjoy the nostalgia and have a good time... (Let's be honest... adults are even more likely be fascinated by those old nostalgic pieces, than kids...)

 

Open 9:30am - 6:30pm daily, entrance fees are SG$15 per adult and SG$7.5 for kids (2-12) and over 60s

For more information, you can call them on 6339 0660 or visit their website

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From the Raffles, walk back and turn right to Bras Basah Road, continue along it for a few minutes and you will see the Chijmes complex on your left side.

 

This beautiful complex (pronounced Chimes) comprises of what used to be a Gothic-style chapel and, adjacent to it, the building of the former St. Nicholas catholic girls' school.  The architecturally inspiring buildings underwent restoration and preservation a few years ago and were converted into an extremely popular dining and entertainment hub, on which you can read more in our Restaurant and Nightlife Guide.

 

Onwards with Bras Basah, cross Victoria street and pass the restrained-Renaissance-style Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore's oldest Roman Catholic church.

 

Almost opposite the cathedral, on the other side of Bras Basah Road (corner of Queen) is the Singapore Art Museum.  Located within the former Saint Joseph's Institution building, a beautiful historic building with classic architectural motifs of a Mediterranean "palazzo", that used to accommodate one of Singapore's oldest Catholic boys' schools.

 

The museum exhibits more than 5,000 pieces of art within its 14 galleries. It specializes in modern and contemporary art, and most of the works are coming from Singapore and Southeast Asia (as a matter of fact, it boasts the largest 20th Century Southeast Asian arts collection, to be found in a public institution, anywhere in the world).  Nevertheless, there are some excellent international collections, as well as temporary exhibitions.

 

The museum is open daily, 10am - 7pm (it stays open until 9pm on Fridays).

 

Admission is SG$ 10 for an adult and SG$5 for students and over 60s (kids below 6 can enter free). There is free admission on Friday evening (6 - 9pm), on weekend lunchtime (12 noon - 2pm) and on most public holidays.

 

Guided tours in English (at no extra charge) are available at 2pm on Monday, 11am and 2 pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11am 2pm and 7pm on Friday, 11am 2pm and 3:30pm on Saturday and Sunday.

 

The museum is properly geared for people with wheelchair, as well as for families with a baby pram... there are spacious elevators, ramps and so on...  They also provide free use of locker for the visitors.

 

For more information, call them on 6332 3222 or visit their website, where you can also check what exhibitions are currently on.

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After leaving the Singapore Art Museum, turn right and continue to walk along Bras Basah up to the corner of Bencoolen street (a couple of minutes away). Turn left to Bencoolen and walk down to the junction, where Stamford and Orchard roads are meeting Bencoolen. In front of you, on the other side of the junction, you will see The National Museum of Singapore.  This is one of the city's largest and most impressive museums and it certainly justifies a long visit...

 

The museum, which was closed for more than three years for restoration, and reopened on December 2006, is located within a humongous, beautiful complex that combines the original 1887 Neo-Palladian & Renaissance buildings, with new extensions that use modern architecture of steel and glass.  

 

The museum focuses on the history and the culture of Singapore and most of the exhibitions here are using interactive technology which makes the visit a more interesting experience.  The museum's main feature is the Singapore History Gallery, where the visitor simply "walks through the historic events that shaped Singapore's past", from ancient times until our days. Each one of the numerous stations along the route features a "scene" from city-state's history (reflecting either a "story" of an unknown person who happened to live in Singapore at that time, or depicting a historic event...).  You should arm yourself with a bit of patience, if you really want to enjoy the visit to the Singapore History Gallery, as there's a lot to see...

 

Also very recommended are the four Singapore Living Galleries, focusing on subjects that shape the daily life of ordinary Singaporeans, like Food, Fashion, entertainment and Photography...

 

There are also some temporary exhibitions (visit their website if you want to know what is currently on).

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The museum is open 10am - 6pm daily (the Singapore Living Galleries stay open until 8pm)

Admission is SG$ 10 for and adult and SG$5 for students and over 60s (only babies can enter free). Entrance to Singapore Living Galleries is free from 6 to 8pm

 

Free guided tours (in English) of the Singapore History Gallery are available at 11:00am and 2pm, Monday to Friday and on 11:30am, 2pm and 3:30pm on Saturday and Sunday.

 

You can also take the self guided tour, using your own mobile phone.

The museum is properly geared for people with disabilities.

 

For more information, call them on 6332 3659 / 6332 5642 or visit their website.

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Walk out of the museum, turn right to Stamford Road and walk along it. Turn right again, into Armenian Street, and after a few steps you will see the Peranakan Museum on your right hand side (39 Armenian Street).  Housed in the Old Tao Nan School building, a beautiful 1910 colonial building with both Neo-Classical and French-Renaissance architectural features, the museum is dedicated solely to the Peranakan culture.

 

'Peranakan' is a Malay term which literally means ‘locally born' and basically describes those non-Malay who were born in the region.  The best known Peranakan communities are those of the descendants of Chinese traders who migrated to Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Southeast Asia two hundred years ago, married local women and developed a distinctive culture, lifestyle and cuisine, which is like a fusion between China and Southeast Asia... But there are also non-Chinese Peranakan communities, like the Chitty Melaka (descendants of South Indian Hindu merchants  and local Malay women) and the Jawi Peranakans (descendants of South Indian Muslim traders and local women).

 

The museum's 10 galleries emphasize mostly on Chinese-Peranakan communities, as they were the ones who contributed more towards the culture and history of Singapore... There are hundreds of rich and lavish exhibits... From wedding dresses and holiday costumes to unique furniture, special crockery, religious objects and what not...

 

Visiting the museum is highly recommended, mostly because the Peranakan culture is so unique to this part of the world...

 

The Peranakan Museum is open daily, from 9:30 am to 7 pm (to 9 pm on Fridays) and from 1 to 7 pm on Monday.

Admission is SG$6 for an adult and SG$ 3 for children and over-60s

There are free guided-tours in English, as follows: On Monday at 2pm, Tuesday - Friday (11 am and 2pm) and Saturday - Sunday (at 11am, 2 pm and 3pm)

 

For more information, call 6332 7591 or visit the website of the Peranakan Museum

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Continue walking along Armenian Street till you get to the T-junction at its end, on the corner of Coleman.  The lovely Singapore Philatelic Museum, right in front of you, is housed in a charmingly restored 1904 colonial building, with red tiles roof and French louvers.

 

It's obviously a must see for the stamp collectors among you, although almost everyone will find it interesting. The exhibitions are quite tastefully set and make use of interactive devices. Other than rare and precious stamps from all over the world, you will be able to learn about the history of philately in Singapore and to visit one nice exhibition that shows how a new stamp comes to the world... from the concept stage, all the way to the final product.

 

Open 9am - 7pm daily (1 - 7pm on Monday)

Admission is SG$ 5 for an adult and SG$ 4 for children (3 - 12). Entrance is free on most public holidays.

For more information, call them on 6337 3888 or visit their website.

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As you walk out of the Philatelic Museum, turn left to Canning Rise and walk up the street, pass the National Archives of Singapore where you can see some old prints, maps and photos, and continue up the hill to the entrance of Fort Canning Park.

 

This splendid park is packed with attractions and historical monuments, so you should try to spend at least one or two hours when visiting it. It is possibly the site of ancient Singapore, and because of the hill's prime position, overlooking the natural port at the mouth of the Singapore River, it was already built and fortified in ancient times.

 

Archaeological excavations exposed some pre 14th century structures that might have been a part of ancient Temasek (Sea town in Javanese).  Since its destruction, at the beginning of the 17th century, the local Malay tribesmen refused to set a foot on the hill and it became known as Bukit Larangan (the "Forbidden Hill" in Malay). Another reason for staying away from the hill was because the locals believed it was the site of palaces built by their ancestral kings.

 

Despite of the warnings, Sir Thomas Raffles chose to build his first residence on the hill, as he was impressed with its commanding views and strategic location.  A keen botanist, he also built Singapore's first botanical garden there in 1822.  The house served as a residence for the colony's British governors until 1859, when the entire hill was taken over by the army and the residence was demolished, in order to make room for the construction of the military fort.

 

There are two historic walks in the park: The 14th century walk of history and the 19th century walk of history (Click on the links to download detailed PDF guide-maps). It is recommended to see them both, as they are not particularly long and pass through most of the park's interesting spots.

 

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The park's highlights include:  The impressive 1846 Gothic Gates, through which you enter the park when coming from Canning Rise, the Archaeological Excavation Site and the Keramat (tomb) near the Gothic Gates, Fort Gate - the last remain of the original British fort (which was demolished in order to clear space for the reservoir), the Battle Box - The bunker of the British fort and the headquarters of the British forces during the Battle of Singapore. Here you can get a guided tour and see an interesting presentation, recapturing the fierce battle against the Japanese invaders, during World War II.  The Spice Garden is a replica of the first experimental botanic garden in Singapore, established by Sir Stamford Raffles, and the ASEAN Sculpture Garden, with sculptures from the Southeast Asian countries of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.

 

The park is open daily and entrance is free, except to the Battle Box presentation/guided tour (SG$ 8 per adult and SG$ 5 for a kid, open daily 10am - 6pm, last admission at 5pm).

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From the park, walk back using the same route you came, pass the National Archives and the Philatelic Museum and turn left to Hill St., immediately after turning you will see the Armenian Church on your left.  Dedicated to Saint Gregory the Illuminator, this beautiful bright-white church (Singapore's oldest) was built in 1835 by Singapore's Armenian community, with the support of Armenian communities in Java and India.

 

The church was designed by early Singapore's most famous architect, George Coleman, and is considered as his masterpiece and as one of early Singapore's most notable buildings.

The Neo-Classical structure features elegant Doric colonnades and clean lined pediments on the north, south and west fronts of the Church, and a sharp octagonal spire on top.  The Armenian Church is a declared national monument.

From the church, turn right to Hill Street, walk back to the junction of Coleman St., cross it and you will find yourself next to the red-bricks building of Singapore's Central Fire Station. Completed in the early 1900s, this is the city's oldest existing fire station and the home of the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery: A small museum where you can learn about the history of fire fighting and civil defence in Singapore, and see some antique fire engines and other firefighting equipment.

 

The museum is open 10am - 5pm, Tuesday - Sunday (closed on Mondays)

Admission is free.  For more information, you can call them on 6332 2996

 

This is where the excursion comes to its end.  From here you can either take a short walk to Coleman Bridge and Clarke Quay (where you can do the Singapore River excursion) or you can walk back to MRT-City Hall.

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