BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE CIVIC DISTRICT

By LINDA JAMES | Updated June 13, 2023 | AREA GUIDES

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The Civic District is arguably Singapore’s main area for historical and cultural sites. There’s Fort Canning where the British decided to surrender Singapore in World War II, both the National Museum and the Peranakan Museum, the regal St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator. The crowning glory – and one popular with tourists – is the historic Raffles Hotel.

Once known as the Colonial District, many of the buildings and the lawn of the Padang certainly evoke images of a time gone by but are now interspersed with, and surrounded by, modern developments and high rises.

Getting There

The area has a number of MRT stations depending on where exactly you want to go. You could go to Dhoby Gaut MRT (NS24/NE6/CC1), Bencoolen MRT (DT21), City Hall (EW13) or Bras Basah MRT (CC2).

There are also many buses such as the 14, 16, 36, 124, 167, 174, 190.

What to See & Do

Battlebox Museum

The Battlebox was a World War II British underground command centre built 9m inside Fort Canning Hill in 1936. The Malaya Command, which defended Malaya and Singapore in WWII, was headquartered here and this was where the British made the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February, 1942.

There’s a range of exhibits and artefacts and visitors can do a 30-minute guided tour then explore the underground bunker on their own.

Address: 2 Cox Tce
Open: Friday to Sunday and public holidays, 9.30am-5.30pm, Monday to Thursday closed
Cost: 30-minute guided tour
Getting there: near Dhoby Ghaut MRT (NS24/NE6/CC1), 7 min walk, Fort Canning MRT (DT20), 10 min walk; buses – 106,143,166
More information: https://www.battlebox.com.sg/

Capitol Theatre

This is one of Singapore’s architectural and historical treasures although it has been modernised over the years. Many local and international pop stars hold concerts here. The Art Deco building has a dome-shaped ceiling and two winged-horse sculptures on the stage. The 5-star Kempinski hotel is also here. 

Address: 17 Stamford Rd
Open: varies with show
Cost: varies
Getting there: near City Hall MRT station
More information: info@capitol-theatre.sg

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd

This cathedral is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Singapore dating back to 1843. It’s now a designated national monument.

Address: Queen St
Open: Monday to Friday 9am-6pm
Cost: Free
Getting there: near Bras Basah MRT (CC2), 3 min walk, Bencoolen MRT (DT21) 6 min walk, City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25) 7 min walk; buses – 106,130,175,197,61,80
More information: https://cathedral.catholic.sg/

Chesed-El Synagogue

There are only two synagogues in Singapore and this is the newer one, designed in the Palladian style with ancient Greek and Roman architectural features such as arches, Corinthian columns and a covered porch.

Address: 2 Oxley Rise
Open: Contact below for access
Getting there: Near Dhoby Ghaut MRT (NS24/NE6/CC1) 8 min walk, Fort Canning MRT (DT20) 9 min walk; buses - 106,123,143 
More information: https://www.chesedel.org/

Church of St Gregory the Illuminator

This was built by colonial architect George Coleman in 1835 and dedicated to St Gregory, who was the first monk of the Armenian church. It now a national monument and is considered to be one of Coleman’s masterpieces.

Armenians have a long history in Singapore, with many migrating in the 1800s. Two well-known Armenians were the Sarkies brothers, who founded several five-star hotels in Southeast Asia including the world-famous Raffles Hotel in the late 19th century.

The church has a stark white exterior with a thin, lofty spire, a portico and Doric columns. In the small prayer hall, there are more than 20 arched windows and doorways.

In August, the church is covered in LED lights for the annual Night Festival.

Address: 60 Hill Street
Open: daily 10am-6pm(due to Covid-19 restrictions, email community@armeniansinasia.org)
Cost: Free
Getting there: Near City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25), take Exit B, 7 min walk, Basah MRT (CC2), 8 min walk, Clarke Quay MRT (NE5), 8 min walk; buses – 12,147,197,51,61 at bus stops 04142 and 04149.
More information: https://www.armeniansinasia.org/contact

City Hall

In front of the Padang near the Supreme Court building, City Hall was built on a solid plinth with a grand stairway between the Corinthian colonnade and the main building.

It features both Neoclassical and Modernist architectural elements and its steel structure is covered with a symmetrical faux stone façade, colonnade and entablature.

It was initially the Municipal Building in 1929 and sheltered people from the Japanese air raids during WWII becoming the headquarters of the occupying forces after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February, 1942. The Japanese also assembled Allied prisoners-of-war here before marching them to the infamous camp in Changi.

However, it was also here that the Supreme Commander of the Southeast Asian Command, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, accepted the surrender from General Seishiro Itagaki on 12 September, 1945 after which there was a massive victory parade on the Padang.

When King George VI granted city status to Singapore in 1951, it was renamed City Hall. Former PM Lee Kuan Yew read the proclamation of Malayasia here on 16 September, 1963, which ended colonial rule and formed the Federation of Malaysia with Singapore as a member state. When Singapore gained independence on 9 August, 1965, the building was home to the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture, and offices of the Judiciary.

Today, the National Gallery of Singapore is housed here and in the old Supreme Court.

Address: 1 St Andrews Rd
Open: 24 hours to view exterior
Cost: Free
Getting there: near City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25), 2 min walk, Esplanade MRT (CC3), 6 min walk; buses – 10,106,131,147,162,166,197
More information: https://www.roots.gov.sg/places/places-landing/Places/national-monuments/former-city-hall

Fort Canning Park

If you visit the Battlebox Museum, take the time to check out the nine historical gardens. There are trail guides available. You might even be lucky enough to catch some free entertainment because it’s used for a wide variety of festivals, theatre and dance productions.

Address: 170 River Valley Rd
Cost: free
Open: daily
Getting there: Near Fort Canning MRT (take Exit B, turn left to Jubilee Park. You can also take the covered escalators); Clarke Quay MRT (take Exit E, turn left and walk along Coleman Bridge. Turn left again at the end of Coleman Bridge and head towards the pedestrian overhead bridge on River Valley Rd. Cross the overhead bridge); near Dhoby Ghaut MRT (take Exit B, cross Penang Rd, turn left and take the tunnel to Fort Canning Park)
More information: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/parks-and-nature-reserves/fort-canning-park

National Gallery Singapore

With 64,000sqm of Singapore and Southeast Asia art, this gallery promotes the appreciation of art and culture through the social, economic and political histories of Singaporean and regional cultures.

There are works by local artists Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang as well as the likes of Raden Saleh (Indonesia), Latiff Mohidin (Malaysia) and Nguyen Gia Tri (Vietnam).

There’s also an art education centre to encourage families to get involved in a range of learning activities.

Address:1 St Andrew’s Rd
Open: daily 10am-7pm
Cost: General admission $S20 (adults) and $S15 (7-12yrs) and free for residents; all access pass $S30.
Getting there: near City Hall MRT
More information: https://www.nationalgallery.sg/

National Museum of Singapore

There are two permanent exhibitions – Singapore Gallery and Life in Singapore: The Past 100 Years – designed to help visitors learn about Singapore’s culture and history through a range of immersive video and sound shows to art installations and festivals, film screenings and performances.

The building dates back to 1887, but has been modernised with glass and metal extensions. There are cafes and restaurants, and a shop for souvenirs.

Address: 93 Stamford Rd
Open: Daily 10am-7pm
Cost: Free for Singaporean residents and children 6yrs and under; others $S15 adults and $S10 students
Getting there: near Bencoolen MRT (DT21), walk 350m, Bras Basah MRT (CC2), walk 250m, Dhoby Ghaut Station MRT (CC1/NE06/NS24), walk 450m, City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25), walk 600m; buses – 106,124,162,166,175,502
More information: https://www.nhb.gov.sg/nationalmuseum/

New Supreme Court

The design of this building reflects the court hierarchy with the civil courts on the lower floors and the criminal courts above. Sitting over all of them is the Court of Appeal in a spaceship-like structure at the top of the building, which has a public platform with views of the city.

Address: 1 Supreme Ct Ln, Singapore
Open: Monday to Thursday 8.30am-6pm, Friday 8.30am-5.30pm
Cost: Free
Getting there: near City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25), take Exit B, 7 min walk, near Clarke Quay MRT (NE5), 8 min walk; buses – 166,174,75,961
More information: https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/visit-us/supreme-court

Old Hill Street Police Station

This colourful building has 927 windows painted in the colours of the rainbow – and is extremely popular with Instagrammers. The colour intensity of the windows on the first four storeys gradually increases on the upper windows to highlight the cantilevered balconies.

Once home to the Singapore Police Force, the station was built because the area was home to some pretty dodgy gangs in the 1930s. Back then, it was one of the taller buildings and was nicknamed the “police skyscraper”.

Not only were the station and cells here, but police actually lived here with their families lived. At the time, it was also one of the most modern buildings in Singapore with flushing toilets and elevators.

It now houses the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Communications and Information.

Address: 140 Hill St
Open: you can see the exterior 24 hours
Cost: free
Getting there: Near Clarke Quay (NE5), 6 min walk; buses - 147,166,197,51
More information: https://www.roots.gov.sg/places/places-landing/Places/landmarks/police-heritage-trail/old-hill-street-police-station-140-hill-street

Old Parliament House

Built in 1827, this is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Singapore and it is now known as the Arts House, a venue for exhibitions and concerts. 

The site is very historic and once housed the Parliament of Singapore from 1965 to 1999. In 1989, stoneware and earthenware dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries was found here.

This is also meant to be where Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819.

Address: 1 Old Parliament Ln
Open: daily 10am-10pm
Cost: Free
Getting there: near City Hall MRT (EW13/DT25), 10 min walk; buses - 10,166,174,75,961
More information: https://www.theartshouse.sg/

Peranakan Museum

Just west of Hill Street, this three-storey building was once a school for Chinese children – the first in Singapore. Now it houses a collection of beautiful Peranakan artefacts, such as pagoda trays inlaid with mother of pearl and silverware, reflecting the life and culture of this important community.

Address: 39 Armenian St
Open: Daily 10am-7pm, Fridays 10am-9pm
Cost: No entry fee for locals; adults $S6, children free
Getting there:
More information: www.peranakanmuseum.org.sg/

Raffles Hotel

Tourists flock to this heritage hotel to enjoy afternoon tea (for about $S80 per person) or to sip Singapore Slings in the Long Bar where throwing peanut shells on the floor is still encouraged!

The hotel was built in 1887 and named after British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of colonial-era Singapore. It’s now owned by Qatar Government company Katara Hospitality and managed by Accor.

There have been many facelifts and extensions over the years and it featured in the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie.

Address: 1 Beach Rd
Open: 24 hours
Cost: free
Getting there: near Esplanade MRT (CC3), 3-min walk, City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25), 7-min walk, Bugis MRT (EW12/DT14), 12-min walk; buses - 100,106,502,57
More information: https://www.raffles.com/singapore/

St Andrew’s Cathedral

One of the legacies of British rule from 1826 to 1963 is the number of Christian churches in Singapore. This one has a white-wash façade with intricate stonework, a tall spire and stunning stained-glass windows.

The original cathedral was destroyed by lightning in 1852. There’s a visitors’ centre and free guided tours are available.

Address: 11 St Andrew's Rd
Open: 9am-4pm 
Cost: Free
Getting there: Near City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25); buses 162,166,174,197,51,80
More information: https://cathedral.org.sg/

Shopping

Funan Riverside is an industrial chic mall with seven levels of shopping, a huge green wall, indoor and outdoor cycling paths, and an urban farm on the rooftop. There’s also a Cash Refund desk for visitors to get instant tax refunds.

Address: 107 North Bridge Rd
Open: daily 10am-10pm
Getting there: near City Hall MRT station

Sri Thandayuthapani Temple

The glass-panelled roofs of the shrines here are angled to catch the sun’s rays when it rises and sets. Also known as the Chettiar Hindu Temple, this is where the Thaipusa procession is held in February when Hindu devotees wear kavadi, or portable shrines pierced to the body, as a sign of faith and penance.

The Navarathiri Festival in October celebrates the goddesses Dhurga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi in 9-days of dancing, music and worship.

Address: 15 Tank Rd
Open: 5.30am-noon, 4.30pm-8.30pm
Cost: Free
Getting there: near Fort Canning MRT (DT20), 4 min walk, Dhoby Ghaut (NS24/NE6/CC1)	10 min walk; buses - 123,143,195
More information: https://www.sttemple.com/

The Padang

This is an iconic feature of Singapore that has been the centre of many historical events. The Padang (Malay for an open playing field) is the site of National Day Parades as well as the victory parade when the Japanese surrendered Singapore.

It’s now used for sports such as soccer and rugby and includes the Padang Cricket Ground.

Address: between St Andrews Rd and Connaught Dr
Open: 24 hours
Cost: free
Getting there: near City Hall MRT (EW13/NS25), 6 min walk, Esplanade MRT (CC3), 9 min walk; buses - 100,106,197,57,75
More information: https://www.roots.gov.sg/Collection-Landing/listing/1182383

Where to Stay

Luxury

Capitol Kempinski

Two two historical landmarks – the Art Deco Capitol Building (1933) and the Victorian Stamford House (1904) – were merged to accommodate this five-star hotel.

All of the restaurants here are named after famous performance venues such as La Scala, Broadway and Chalerm (except for Berthold and Frieda, which are named after the founder of Kempinski and his daughter).

There are 157 rooms from 32sqm to the Stamford Suites’ 58-61sqm.

Address: 15 Stamford Rd
Price: from $S423
Getting there: 4 minutes from City Hall MRT station via a direct underground passageway
More information: https://www.kempinski.com/en/singapore/the-capitol-singapore/

The Raffles

In keeping with its historical foundations, the décor here is all teak wood flooring, antique furnishings and oriental carpets. As one would expect the rooms are lavish suites with private balconies and separate dining, bedroom and dressing areas.

The 115 suites have Nespresso coffee machines and complimentary non-alcoholic mini bars and come with 24/7 butlers to help with packing, serve coffee, tea or cocktails, and make reservations.

Fourteen dining options (French, Western, Asian and fusion cuisines) means you will never go hungry.

There’s a rooftop swimming pool, spa and fitness centre as well as a museum and theatre.

The hotel is 5 minutes from Raffles City Shopping Centre and a 10-minute train ride from Orchard Rd.

Address: 1 Beach Rd
Price: Suites start from $S1259 
Getting there: a 5-minute walk from City Hall MRT station 
More information: www.raffles.com/singapore

Conclusion

The Civic District is where you’ll find Singapore’s key historical and cultural sights – the Raffles name is everywhere! From Fort Canning to the National Museum, St Andrew’s Cathedral, National Gallery and the very popular Raffles Hotel, there’s lots to see and do.

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