Colonial District Walking Tour, Singapore

Colonial District Walking Tour (Self Guided), Singapore

Singapore emerged as the British India Company's trading post in Southeast Asia in the early 19th century. The Colonial District of Singapore, also known as the Civic District, is a historical gem reflecting the island nation's colonial past. Spread across the banks of the Singapore River, the European-style buildings in the area attest to that period.

One prominent landmark here is the Fullerton Hotel, a magnificent Neo-classical building that was once the General Post Office during British rule. The nearby Cavenagh Bridge, a graceful cast-iron bridge, connects the district to the northern bank of the Singapore River.

The Asian Civilisations Museum is a treasure trove of Asian art and artifacts, housed in a beautiful colonial-era edifice. A few blocks away, you'll find the Raffles' Landing Site, where Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, is said to have first set foot on the island in 1819.

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, a stunning twin-building complex, has been a center for the arts since the late 19th century. Nearby, the Arts House, also known as The Old Parliament Building, showcases Singapore's political history and serves as a cultural hub.

The National Gallery Singapore, located in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, houses an impressive collection of Southeast Asian art. At the same time, Saint Andrew's Cathedral, a striking Anglican church further ahead, offers a serene escape from the bustling city.

Last but not least, the iconic Raffles Hotel Historical Building, with its timeless colonial ambiance, has been a symbol of luxury and hospitality for over a century.

Visiting Singapore's Colonial District is like stepping back in time and experiencing the city's history come alive. From its grand buildings to its rich cultural institutions, this district offers a unique blend of the old and the new, making it a must-visit destination for history enthusiasts and tourists alike.
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Colonial District Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Colonial District Walking Tour
Guide Location: Singapore » Singapore (See other walking tours in Singapore)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.7 Km or 1.1 Miles
Author: vickyc
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Fullerton Hotel
  • Cavenagh Bridge
  • Asian Civilisations Museum
  • Raffles' Landing Site
  • Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall
  • Arts House (The Old Parliament Building)
  • National Gallery Singapore
  • Saint Andrew's Cathedral
  • Raffles Hotel Historical Building
1
Fullerton Hotel

1) Fullerton Hotel

The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, located at the mouth of the Singapore River in the financial and arts district, is steeped in history. It's within walking distance of the National Gallery and the city's main shopping area. Originally called the Fullerton Building, it housed important institutions such as the General Post Office and the Singapore Club. Named after Robert Fullerton, the first Governor of the Straits Settlements, it showcased British colonial power with grandeur.

Opened on 27 June 1928, it was the biggest structure in Singapore at the time. Designed to utilize natural ventilation, it had four internal air-wells to cool the interiors. At some point, there was also a lighthouse placed on top of it, called the Fullerton Light, built to replace the Fort Canning Light decommissioned in 1979 for being gradually blocked by high-rising construction in Singapore.

During the 1998-2000 restoration, the Fullerton was transformed into a 400-room heritage hotel, retaining its special architectural features like the General Post Office gallery, the main entrance portico, and the Shanghai plaster panels. The lighthouse now serves as the Lighthouse Restaurant to match the hotel's modern style.

In December 2015 the Fullerton Hotel was gazetted as Singapore's 71st National Monument.
2
Cavenagh Bridge

2) Cavenagh Bridge

Spanning the Singapore River with elegant suspension struts between the Empress Place and Fullerton Building (currently Hotel), Cavenagh Bridge is one of the witnesses of Singapore's eventful history. This is the only bridge to have survived intact in its original form since construction in 1869, when it replaced its rudimentary pedestrian predecessor.

Initially known as Edinburgh Bridge, called so to commemorate the visit by Duke of Edinburgh, it was eventually renamed in honor of Major General William Cavenagh, the last India-appointed Governor of the Straits Settlements. The bridge itself was built in Glasgow and then shipped to Singapore in sections where it was assembled by Indian convict laborers. In 1910, when the nearby Anderson Bridge was completed, the Cavenagh was to be demolished, but, fortunately, that decision was scrapped in favor of converting it to a foot bridge. Presently, as long as the pedestrians who cross it weight not more than 152 kilograms or 336 pounds individually – which is the technical restriction – they are welcome to pass!

Why You Should Visit:
A historic bridge right next to the Fullerton Hotel. Apart from the lovely views up and down the river and the historical significance, which is a big draw to the Cavenagh, there is an undeniably cute bronze family of cats – a cat and two kittens – to be found at the end of the bridge, near the hotel. On the opposite side there are bronzes of the children leaping into the water so tempting to follow their suit.

Tip:
More photo opportunities of sculptures depicting life back in the days of yore are readily available on the south side.
3
Asian Civilisations Museum

3) Asian Civilisations Museum

The robust former Empress Place Building, located at the mouth of the Singapore River, is one of the city's architectural treasures – elegantly proportioned and symmetrically laid out, adorned with many decorative features, such as exquisite plaster mouldings, architraves, and cornices. Completed in 1867 and named after Queen Victoria, it still wears the original Neoclassical Palladian exterior, despite having undergone a series of renovations and extensions, featuring same Roman Doric facade for the principal storey with pitched clay tile roofs, arcaded verandahs and timber-louvered French windows that used to keep the interior cool and well ventilated in Singapore’s tropical climate before air-conditioners were installed and which caught the attention of many migrants sailing into Singapore harbor over the years.

Today, this white two-storey edifice houses the Asian Civilisations Museum that ambitiously tries to pull together the various threads of Asian civilizations, from the Middle East to China, thus helping to better understand and appreciate all the different cultures that went into making Singaporeans what they are – a cosmopolitan nation.

Informative and well-presented, with special exhibits not often seen in public, this museum has a few highlights worth mentioning, starting with the Hindu-Buddhist gallery and its beautifully-lit displays featuring a stunning 18th-century Burmese Buddha head and a large bronze drum. The Chinese influences are also well represented, from tomb remains to ceramics over a thousand years old that have been recovered from a shipwreck found in 1998. All in all, the recovered cargo comprises more than 60,000 well-preserved pieces, including gold and silver items produced in China during the Tang dynasty. In the small Malay World section, look out for a spectacular Kelantan Makara, a huge goggle-eyed mongrel creature once used in rituals, while elsewhere you will find exquisite examples of porcelain, textiles, lacquerware, costumes and traditional huge procession statues.

The museum also has a restaurant, called “Empress”, serving traditional Chinese cuisine in a contemporary waterfront setting, plus a cafe, called “Privé ACM”, where you can relax at the alfresco area, enjoying view of the Singapore River and the city's business district skyline. The museum shop carries souvenirs and a wide range of books on Asian art.

Tip:
You can take one of the free English tours which are very worthwhile, usually beginning in June and running at 11:30am, 1:30pm, and 3pm most days; and if you plan to go to more than one museum, consider getting a multi-museum pass while you're here.
4
Raffles' Landing Site

4) Raffles' Landing Site

The statue of Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, reportedly marks the spot on the northern bank of the Singapore River where the general set foot on the island the very first time on 29 January 1819. Back then it was just an unwelcoming swampland and tiger-infested jungle, while today the area serves as the Civic Precinct accommodating government buildings, a concert hall, galleries, and museums.

For someone who had spent a very limited time on the island (his longest tenure in Singapore was only eight months), Raffles had an extraordinary influence over its development. His name shows everywhere throughout the city, yet his impact extends way beyond the purely civic commemoration. The streets you walk in the heart of Singapore still largely follow the original layout drawn by Raffles. The ethnic districts, such as Little India, were all demarcated by him as well. Even the classic shop-house design – built of brick, with a central courtyard for light, ventilation and water collection – is attributed to Sir Raffles, too. But more importantly, Singapore’s very existence – as one of the world’s greatest seaports – is a direct consequence of Sir Raffles’ vision.

Recognizing the island’s potential as a post to counter the Dutch power in the region, Raffles immediately struck a deal with Abdul Rahman, chieftain of Singapore and subordinate of the Sultan of Johor, to set up a British trading station here. Understanding that the sultan’s loyalties to the Dutch – who were furious at the British incursion into what they perceived their territory – would make the final approval of his deal impossible, Raffles approached the sultan’s brother, Hussein, addressing him as His Highness the Sultan, and concluded a second treaty with both him and the chieftain. Thus, the Union Jack rose over Singapore and sealed its future as the British trading post.

Years on, thanks to its duty-free stance and strategic geographic position at the gateway to the South China Sea, Singapore experienced a meteoric expansion, seeing Chinese, Indian and European migrants coming in search of work and commercial success. By 1860 the city's population had reached 80,000. By the end of the 19th century, with the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of the steamship, Singapore’s position as the regional hub of international trade had been consolidated.
5
Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall

5) Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall is a complex comprising two buildings and a clock tower interconnected by a shared corridor. It is situated in the civic district of Singapore. On February 6, 1919, which marked the 100th anniversary of Singapore's establishment, a statue of Stamford Raffles, sculpted by T. Woolner, was relocated from the Padang to the front of the memorial hall. This statue was enhanced with a new semicircular colonnade and a pool.

Prior to World War II, the memorial hall was repurposed as a hospital to care for the victims of Japanese bombing raids during the Battle of Singapore, which ultimately led to the Japanese occupation of the colony. While the buildings themselves largely escaped significant physical damage during the occupation, the colonnade was destroyed, and Raffles's statue was relocated to the National Museum. Following liberation, the hall was also utilized as the venue for Japanese war crime trials.

In 1954, Swan & Maclaren carried out renovations on the memorial hall. On November 21st of the same year, it served as the location where the People's Action Party was founded. The town hall's interior was reconfigured to allow for the installation of air conditioning and soundproofing, eventually leading to its conversion into the Victoria Theatre. In 1979, the memorial hall underwent another renovation to house the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), leading to its renaming as the Victoria Concert Hall.
6
Arts House (The Old Parliament Building)

6) Arts House (The Old Parliament Building)

Sitting right beside Raffles' landing point and statue is the Arts House (formerly Old Parliament House), a multi-disciplinary arts venue which today hosts exhibitions, concerts and other similar functions. Built in 1827, this is the oldest surviving government building and perhaps the oldest surviving building at all in Singapore. From 1965 to 1999 it served as the seat of Singaporean Parliament until the latter moved to a new adjacent location.

In the course of nearly 200 years, this building has played an active role on Singapore's first, political and then artistic scene. Designed by architect George Drumgoole Coleman as a Neo-Palladian mansion for private use, it was then made a public property, and was first used as a courthouse and other government offices, including the Land Office. In 1839, a new single-storey annex was built on an adjacent plot of land, forming what is now the Former Attorney General's Chambers which was later incorporated into the Parliament House.

Throughout history, this building has undergone several major extensions including those in 1873-1875 and 1901, during which it was extended towards the Singapore River and lost the original Coleman's design. In 1909, two courtrooms were reconstructed and a residence for the Attorney General was added, seeing the architectural style transform from Neo-Palladian to the more Victorian. The building was again refurbished in 1953-1954 to make way for the new Legislative Assembly of Singapore.

As of 26 March 2004, it has been a heritage center for artists, writers and ideas, supporting and presenting programs and festivals aimed at developing and promoting creativity in Singapore. For this purpose, the old building was restored and its furnishings and design, including Tuscan style-columns and cornices, carefully preserved.

Why You Should Visit:
Interactive gallery enabling visitors to immerse in the arts scene of Singapore, to see the latest works of local artists, and to learn about Singapore development over the last 50+ years.
Great selfie opportunity in the chair of the first Prime Minister of Singapore is a bonus.

Tip:
During the day the place is open and free, and usually not busy – you can virtually have it all to yourself (and a security guard). Takes only a few minutes to look round.
7
National Gallery Singapore

7) National Gallery Singapore

The National Gallery Singapore serves as an art museum housing the largest public collection of art from Singapore and Southeast Asia in the world, boasting an impressive collection of over 8,000 artworks. Its mission revolves around fostering an understanding and appreciation of art and culture through various means, with a specific focus on Singapore's cultural heritage and its connections to other Asian cultures and the global art scene.

The gallery is situated within two historic national monuments, the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall, collectively spanning a substantial 64,000 square meters (690,000 square feet). This makes it not only Singapore's largest visual arts venue but also its most extensive museum.

Within its walls, the gallery predominantly showcases modern and contemporary art from Singapore and Southeast Asia, covering the artistic output from the 19th century up to the present day. Two permanent galleries, the DBS Singapore Gallery and the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, house a remarkable collection that tells the evolving story of the region's cultural, social, economic, and political histories.

The cornerstone of the gallery's holdings is Singapore's National Collection, which ranks as the world's most extensive public collection of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art. Originating with a generous donation of 93 works in 1976 by Dato Loke Wan Tho, this collection has grown significantly, encompassing approximately 8,000 pieces by 2010. The custodianship of this valuable collection now rests with the National Heritage Board.

National Gallery Singapore proudly exhibits artworks from prominent Singaporean artists such as Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, and Liu Kang. Their contributions span a wide range of artistic forms, from early 20th-century paintings to contemporary video installations.
8
Saint Andrew's Cathedral

8) Saint Andrew's Cathedral

Saint Andrew's Cathedral in Singapore, the largest of its kind in the country, is an example of Neo-Gothic architecture, notable for its distinctive Madras chunam finish. In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles allocated this land for an Anglican church, but construction didn't start until 1835 when funds were finally secured. It was named Saint Andrew in honor of the Scottish contributors.

The initial church was designed in the Neo-Classical style by George Drumgoole Coleman. After some criticism that it resembled a "Town Hall, a College, or an Assembly Room," a spire was added in 1842. Unfortunately, this spire lacked a lightning conductor, and as a result, the church experienced two lightning strikes in 1845 and 1849. After these incidents, it was considered unsafe, resulting in its closure in 1852 and demolition three years later.

The construction of a second church was initiated by William Butterworth, the Governor of the Straits Settlements at the time. The design was entrusted to Colonel Ronald MacPherson. MacPherson created a Gothic Revival cathedral, reportedly drawing inspiration from Netley Abbey, a 13th-century church ruin in Hampshire, England. The piers in Saint Andrew's nave closely resemble those that survived at Netley.

In the apse, three stained glass windows honor key figures in Singapore's colonial history: Sir Stamford Raffles in the center, John Crawfurd on the left, and Major General William Butterworth on the right. The cathedral also showcases its ties to the Anglican Communion and the See of Canterbury through three items: the Canterbury Stone with a replica of the Canterbury Cross, the Coventry Cross made from salvaged nails from Coventry Cathedral, and the Coronation Carpet used during Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in Westminster Abbey.

During the Japanese invasion, Saint Andrew's Cathedral served as an emergency hospital, and since 1973, it has held the status of a National Monument of great significance in Singapore.
9
Raffles Hotel Historical Building

9) Raffles Hotel Historical Building

The Raffles Hotel stands as a significant historical landmark in Singapore, representing the essence of the city and drawing countless visitors. This luxurious colonial-style hotel was founded by Armenian hoteliers known as the Sarkies Brothers on December 1, 1887. It was named in honor of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British statesman who laid the foundations of the city. In 1987, a century after it first opened, Singapore designated Raffles Hotel a National Monument for its historical importance.

Throughout its existence, the hotel has welcomed prominent individuals from around the world. Notable guests have included renowned figures like Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Taylor, and Karl Lagerfield. It has also left a mark on local history, as it was the location where the last tiger in Singapore met its end. The hotel's Long Bar is renowned as the birthplace of the iconic national cocktail, the Singapore Sling, and its lobby is a celebrated venue for New Year's Eve festivities.

In its early years, the hotel introduced innovative features like powered ceiling fans and electric lighting. Over time, it expanded with wings, a veranda, ballroom, bar, billiards room, and more. During World War II, as Japanese forces took over Singapore in February 1942, hotel guests had a final waltz, and staff discreetly buried silver items, including the beef trolley, in the Palm Court. The hotel was renamed Syonan Ryokan under Japanese rule but was later retaken by the British in 1945.

In 1989 and 2017, the hotel underwent extensive renovations to restore its 1915 grandeur. All guest rooms became suites, the Long Bar moved to a nearby shopping arcade, rooms were updated for comfort and soundproofing, more suites were added, and modern technology was integrated. Food and beverage outlets were revamped, the Writer's Bar got its own space, and the Jubilee Theatre became a stunning ballroom.

Today, the Raffles Hotel shopping arcade boasts 40 specialty boutiques and is home to most of the hotel's restaurants. Additionally, a lush tropical garden graces the premises, adding to the hotel's charm and appeal.

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