Walking Amongst Singapore's Colonial History in the Civic District


The Map

The Facts

  • Start or End: I started at City Hall Train Station (Google Map Directions) and finished at the Cavenagh Bridge on the Singapore River (Google Map Directions), but there are several alternate transportation options and starting points to explore the Civic District.
  • Length: 5.7km (3.5mi) in about 1.5hr
  • Grade: Easy. Paved the whole way and flat.
  • Date Walked: 25th of October 2013

The Story

On my final day in Singapore I take in some of the colonial history and find the eighth wonder of the world ... an outside escalator. Plus I learn what Philatelic means.

Oh no! Today is my last day in Singapore. Early tomorrow morning it is back home to Perth. Better get the most metrotrekking out of Singapore as I can. So I wake up early and get straight into it. This morning's destination is the Civic District. The Civic District is the birthplace of modern Singapore and is home to many historic colonial buildings.

I start my walk at the corner of North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road and head in a north-west direction along Bras Basah Road. My first destination is the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the oldest surviving Catholic Church in Singapore, which was built between 1843 and 1847.

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I have seen many Cathedrals in my time so I could not be arsed crossing the road for a closer inspection. Instead I continued along Bras Basah Road to the Singapore Art Museum. Funnily enough the Singapore Art Museum and the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd have some shared history. The construction of both buildings were funded by money raised by Father Jean-Marie Beurel and the site on which the Singapore Art Museum building stands was previously home to Singapore's first Roman Catholic chapel built in 1833. Additionally, the Singapore Art Museum building was originally built for St Joseph's Institution, a Catholic boys' school.

Further along, Bras Basah Road becomes Orchard Road and at this junction is the Cathay Building, with its original art-deco glass and brown tiled façade. Behind the façade is a modern complex containing a shopping mall, Cineplex, residential apartments and a gallery documenting the history of the building.

Continuing along Orchard Road I noticed a large treed area with a big gate in the distance and lots of guards. Can I go in here? Can I take a picture? What does google maps say ... Istana? What the hell is Istana? Better Google it ... Ohhhh ... that's where Singapore's President lives. I wonder if he would be ok for a pop in. Probably best I don't go to the heavily guarded area and instead cross the road to Istana Park, an extension to the main entrance of the Istana and open to the public.

Istana Park is small at only 1.3 ha, but there is plenty of greenery packed in. I only take a short stroll around Istana Park and have a rest under a large sheltered area. The main feature is the Festival Arch which stands above a large pond. The Festival Arch is said to represent the gateway to the Civic District, so I guess my metrotrek around the Civic District is a little back to front. Anyway, time to head back into the Civic District via Penang Road, which lies on the southern side of Istana Park and joins the eastern section of Orchard Road.

At the junction of Orchard Road and Stamford Road is the National Museum of Singapore which was built in 1887, making it the oldest museum in Singapore. It is a grand old building and is said to one of Singapore's architectural icons. Not sure if I remember this building pictured in the Singaporean tourist pamphlets though? I am sure the tourist advertising material focused much more on the Marina Bay Sands and ArtScience Museum buildings, you know, the more modern out-there pieces of Singaporean architecture. Anyway, it is probably more of an architectural icon for architects and building-spotters than uneducated tourists like me. Anyway, I thought it was a cool looking building.

What I found to be much more exciting was the wonder of mankind hiding behind the National Museum of Singapore ... an outside escalator! Yes that's right, an inside escalator on the outside. It isn't even covered. I have never seen this before. What happens if it rains? Unfortunately it wasn't the magnificent achievement I thought it was because it didn't work anyway, so in the end it was just a fancy looking staircase. My guess is that it is for people with a disability, but it isn't much help if it doesn't run. It was weird to walk up a broken outside escalator.

The outside escalator leads from the National Museum of Singapore to Canning Rise, a road on the eastern side of Fort Canning Park. Along Canning Rise I find the Singapore Philatelic Museum. Ok, what the hell is Philatelic? I don't even know how to pronounce it. The only word I know that comes close is "psychedelic". I really don't think a country with an extremely strict drugs policy would have a psychedelic museum with exhibits based on LSD, Timothy Leary and the Beatles. However, the proximity to the outside escalator maybe making sense. Surely the person who come up with the idea of an outside escalator was on something. Anyway enough of my idiocy, philately is the study of stamps, postal history and postal related items. They really should just call it the Singapore Postal and Stamp Museum. An interesting feature of the Singapore Philatelic Museum is that it also functions as a post office and has an actual operational colonial posting box out the front, the only one in Singapore.

Off Canning Rise is Armenian Street and the Peranakan Museum. Ok, I have heard the word 'Peranakan' a number of times during my stay in Singapore but I am not completely sure what it means. I do know it refers to a culture or a group of people. Better Google it ... 'peranakan' is a Malay word which means 'locally born' and refers to the descendants of foreign traders who married local women in Southeast Asia centuries ago. In a nutshell, Peranakan is a Southeast Asian culture made up of Chinese, Malay and Indian elements and the Peranakan Museum is the place to learn all about it. However, I am not in a learning mode and I am cheap (I haven't entered any of the museums today at all) so I just admire the Eclectic Classical style of the exterior of the building and do not enter (I am too early anyway).

From the Peranakan Museum I head along Loke Yew Street and walk east down Hill Street to the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which was built in 1835, making it the oldest church building in Singapore.

Further down Hill Street is the Old Hill Street Police Station, now the Ministry of Communication and Information, which I have visited previously and is still one of my favourite buildings in Singapore. If it wasn't for the coloured windows it would be boring as bat shit though.

From the rainbow colours of the Old Hill Street Police Station I follow the Singapore River east to North Bridge Road, pass by the Elgin Bridge and head north, passing by Parliament House and the New Supreme Court Building which I have visited previously. Further down North Bridge Road is St. Andrew's Cathedral, the largest Cathedral in Singapore and also the oldest Anglican house of worship in Singapore. Of all the Church buildings I have visited today this would have to be the most striking.

I turn east down Stamford Road (which is where I took the above picture of St. Andrew's Cathedral) and head to the War Memorial Park located on the corner of Stamford Road and Beach Road. The War Memorial Park is home to the Civilian War Memorial, definitely one of the more sombre places on my walk today. The four towering 68 m pillars emerging from a shallow pool of water is dedicated to civilians who died during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II. It is estimated that approximately 50,000 civilians, particularly Chinese civilians, were murdered and buried in mass graves by the Japanese. Beneath the memorial is a burial chamber containing the ashes of unknown civilians found in the mass graves. It is a beautiful memorial, but definitely has a horrible history. On a lighter side, the monument is also called the "Chopsticks". I think why is obvious ...

From the Civilian War Memorial I head into the greenery of Esplanade Park where there are a number of monuments, the most notable being the Tan Kim Seng Fountain. The Tan Kim Seng Fountain is a beautiful Victorian-styled, three-tiered iron fountain unveiled in 1882 and dedicated to Tan Kim Seng, a wealthy Straits Chinese businessman and philanthropist. The philanthropic deeds of Tan Kim Seng are numerous, one of the most notable being the donation of funds to build Singapore's first reservoir and waterworks. Makes sense to dedicate a fountain after him then. I wonder if the water from the reservoir he helped build has ever flowed through the fountain dedicated to him?

I have definitely gone from one extreme to another with the monuments. From the chilling atrocities behind the Civilian War Memorial to the Tan Kim Seng Fountain, dedicated to the kindness of a man devoted to improving Singapore.

Strolling through the lush lawns of Esplanade Park I admire the towering umbrella-shaped Raintrees and bright-red flowers of the Frangipani. In no time at all I am crossing the Cavenagh Bridge over the Singapore River. It is definitely time to have a rest under the shadows of the towering skyscrapers, apply some sunscreen and work out my next walk. A walk along the Banks of the Singapore River looks tempting.


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Hello, I'm Marc and welcome to metrotrekker.

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