More than just functional structures, every building here has a tale of its own and a unique part to play in the cityscape. From heritage shophouses and colonial landmarks that have been around for decades to the latest state-of-the-art complexes, Singapore has plenty of history, culture and architectural beauty to take in, everywhere you turn.
Some of the grandest buildings are found downtown, which historically is an area of commercial trade and cultural exchange due to its position along the Singapore River. This district became even more developed under British rule in the 19th and early 20th century, so as you explore the area you’ll come across many European-style buildings.
Perhaps the oldest government building left behind by the British is Old Parliament House, now known as The Arts House. Built in 1827, this distinctively Victorian structure was originally the private residence of a Scottish merchant, before being taken over by the colonial government. Due to numerous renovation and extension works over the decades, the building has many wings and is great fun to explore.
Today, it is a modern arts centre with a focus on literary works and it regularly holds talks, book launches, theatre shows, exhibitions and film screenings. While you’re here, check out French restaurant OCF (named after Raffles’ first wife Olivia Cassivelaun Fancourt) on the second floor and enjoy the fantastic view of the river as you tuck into alluring French plates. For more riverside entertainment, there’s also the live music bar Timbre downstairs.
Go further south towards the mouth of the river and you’ll come across the Fullerton Hotel, which is especially gorgeous at night with its neo-classical columns lit up. The hotel is so much more than just a pretty face. It began life in 1928 as a multi-use building, housing the General Post Office—which is now the classy Post Bar that retains the original high ceiling and wall motifs—and the exclusive Singapore Club, along with other administrative and government bodies. During World War II, it was even a makeshift hospital.
Guests staying in this upmarket hotel enjoy an unobstructed ocean view, and it’s especially popular as a vantage point for events like the Formula 1 night race and New Year’s Eve fireworks. It’s also linked to One Fullerton across the road, a contemporary dining and nightlife hub popular among well-heeled locals. For a historical dining experience, head to The Lighthouse restaurant, within the hotel, which occupies the former lighthouse that once led ships into the port.
Another hotel that is an absolute must-visit is Raffles Hotel, built in 1887 and named after modern Singapore’s founding father, Stamford Raffles. Apart from luxurious suites that have played host to celebrities like Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, there’s also a charming theatre, a beautiful courtyard, a shopping arcade and even a museum of the hotel’s history.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that some of the city’s most forward-thinking shops and galleries are found here. Stop by Front Row for lots of cult indie clothing labels for women and men, and Chan Hampe Galleries to see the latest works by local and regional visual art talents. Of course, no visit here is complete without sipping on a Singapore Sling at Long Bar, where the drink was created.
If you travel up along the river, you’ll come across the curiously colourful MICA Building, which features more than 900 windows with brightly painted shutters. It now houses a handful of government ministries and an art courtyard, but up until the late 20th century it was known as the Old Hill Street Police Station, and was where the Singapore Police Force worked to clamp down on Chinese secret societies. Its neo-classical design means it’s as stylish now as it ever was.
It comes as no surprise that one of food-crazy Singapore’s most iconic colonial structures is the famous Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the Central Business District. Once known as the Telok Ayer Market, this food market goes all the way back to the 19th century, when it extended into the sea so that ships could load and unload food directly. It’s since shifted inland, but the distinctively Victorian cast iron features and unique octagonal shape remain. You can still find great stalls at this cosmopolitan food centre—expect local street food stalls side by side with Italian and Vietnamese ones.
Venture into nearby Chinatown and you’ll also see plenty of historical architecture, this time showcasing the Chinese heritage of Singapore. One of the most distinctive is People’s Park Complex, a bright green and orange high-rise building, one of the local housing board’s very first commercial developments in 1967.
Comprising apartments and offices above a large shopping mall, it was the first complex of its kind in Southeast Asia and proved to be a huge success, making it possible for people to live, work and play in the very same building. Also noteworthy at the time of its construction were the architectural features like the communal play and social space on the roof level and the cutting-edge atrium in the shopping mall.
Also found in the area are the Pearl Bank Apartments, housed in what was the tallest, densest residential skyscraper on the island when it was built in 1976. This locally designed complex boasts an unusual hollow cylindrical structure, rather like a horseshoe, and can accommodate up to 1,500 occupants.
Head west to the historic Baba House to learn about the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) community, whose colourful culture is a crucial component to Singapore (Baba refers to Peranakan men). This 19th century terrace house, which once belonged to a local merchant, has been beautifully restored to accurately re-create the domestic space of a real Baba of the period, with a Peranakan-themed exhibition space on the third floor. Tours of the space are available by phone appointment.
More on this unique culture can be found around Joo Chiat, a traditional Peranakan community showcasing row upon row of shophouses and bungalows built in the early 20th century. The architectural style is unforgettable—expect a photo-worthy riot of candy colours, hand-crafted ceramic tiles and baroque details.
The area is also known for eateries specialising in Peranakan food, so if you’ve worked up an appetite, stop by Casa Bom Vento for home-style dishes with steamed rice, or dig into a hearty bowl of laksa (rice noodles in a seafood-heavy, spicy coconut milk broth) at 328 Katong Laksa. You can also pick up traditional sweet snacks and ethnic souvenirs at conserved Peranakan shophouse Rumah Bebe.
Another ethnic group that has shaped Singapore’s culture and architecture is the Malay community, the majority of whom are Muslims—and you can explore the Arab Street precinct for some stunning examples of their architecture. The pièce de résistance has to be Sultan Mosque, or Masjid Sultan, one of the most significant mosques on the island, with a history dating back to the early 19th century; be sure to dress modestly or wear a cloak if you’d like to enter the grounds.
Close by are some notable examples of modern architecture, including Parkview Square and The Gateway. The former is an Art Deco office building guarded by numerous gargoyles and statues, hence its affectionate nickname with locals: ‘Gotham City’ after the iconic world in Batman comics. Although built in 2002, the building is a thorough tribute to the roaring twenties, with imposing lines in dark brown granite, glass and lacquer. Divine Wine Bar in the lobby even has a jaw-dropping wine rack that’s 12 metres tall, requiring a ‘wine fairy’ to retrieve bottles.
The Gateway, designed by prodigious architect I. M. Pei, is a pair of skyscrapers that are, quite unusually, trapezoid-shaped with razor-sharp edges. Pei also designed Swissôtel The Stamford, one of the region’s tallest hotels at 226 metres. The awe-inspiring building is home to acclaimed fine dining restaurant JAAN and sky-high lounge New Asia Bar on the 70th floor— both excellent places to visit if you like the high life.
Another skyscraper, which made a huge splash when it opened in 2009, is the 2.5-hectare Pinnacle@ Duxton, which comprises seven towering housing blocks and two ‘skybridges’ linking them up to create two long, continuous aerial gardens from which you can take in a panoramic view of the city. It’s a very cool place to live in; especially considering it’s public housing. Admission to the rooftop garden (50 storeys up) costs $5.
Some of the island’s most distinctive architecture can be found in arts and commercial buildings. Take, for instance, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and School of the Arts, two performing arts venues found around the city centre. The former’s gleaming, spiky domes—earning it cheeky comparisons to the durian fruit among locals—is instantly recognisable. The latter has wood-heavy outer walls covered in lush foliage, offering a wonderful visual respite from the concrete jungle. Both venues have vibrant arts and music calendars that are sure to please any culture vulture.
Along Singapore’s famed commercial belt, Orchard Road, there are plenty of retail and entertainment complexes vying for shoppers’ attention. One of the most impressive buildings is undoubtedly ION Orchard, which boasts undulating exterior walls covered in shimmering glass and lights. Apart from tempting retail stores and art galleries, the mall even has an observation deck, ION Sky, on the 55th level. Head up here for an incredible view as you tuck into lovely Australian plates at Salt grill Sky bar.
Another place with views to write home about is Marina Bay Sands, which houses a hotel, casino, entertainment facilities, shopping mall and a world-famous infinity pool on the roof. Designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, it features three towering hotel blocks that are joined at the roof, known as the Sands Skypark (admission is $20 for adults and $14 for children).
Other architectural marvels of Singapore include the lotus flower-inspired ArtScience Museum and and floating Crystal Pavilions on the water.
There’s even more to come from Safdie. His upcoming Project Jewel at Changi Airport, a massive complex that links up the three airport terminals, promises to be an icon in its own right, setting the bar high for airports worldwide. Expect an ultramodern glass and steel façade, a lush indoor garden complete with waterfall and a world-class mix of retail, leisure and travel-related tenants.
With so many fascinating buildings to learn about—and plenty more to look forward to—Singapore is somewhere that heritage preservation and architectural innovation go hand in hand with unforgettable experiences.
An architectural tour of Singapore