Worldwide icon-chevron-right Asia icon-chevron-right Singapore icon-chevron-right 17 historical buildings in Singapore and the stories behind them

17 historical buildings in Singapore and the stories behind them

We uncover the stories of Singapore's rich heritage behind these historical buildings

Malay Heritage Centre
Photograph: Shutterstock/ferryelegant
By Time Out Singapore editors |
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However brief the Singapore narrative may seem, delve deep enough you may just uncover how rich our heritage actually is. From to a convent school that’s now a lifestyle enclave to government-offices-turned-museums, it’s no wonder that these sites are a hit among locals and tourists alike.

RECOMMENDED: Tourist attractions Singaporeans never go to and interesting architecture and landmarks in Singapore

Malay Heritage Centre
Photograph: Istana Kampong Gelam
Things to do

Istana Kampong Gelam

Rochor

THEN The palace of the Malay royalty and the seat of sultanate since 1843. However, the Kampong Gelam estate including the Istana became state land when Singapore gained independence.

NOW In the late 1990s, the government announced plans to transform the former Istana into a Malay Heritage Centre to spotlight the rich arts and cultural tradition of the Malay community. Since opening its doors in 2005, the Centre honours the Malay culture with five permanent galleries, family-friendly festivals and interesting programmes.

Sultan Mosque
Photograph: Terence Ong
Things to do

Sultan Mosque

Rochor

THEN The first sultan of Singapore Sultan Hussein Shah built this magnificent mosque In 1824 next to his palace, Istana Kampong Gelam. It’s the biggest mosque in the city, accommodating up to 5,000 people in mass prayer.

NOW Located in the hip ‘hood of Kampong Gelam, the mosque stands out among the heritage shops, cool cafes, fusion restaurants and quirky boutiques. It continues to gather worshippers from every corner of Singapore for prayers.

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Thian Hock Keng Temple
Photograph: Thian Hock Keng Temple
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Thian Hock Keng Temple

Tanjong Pagar

THEN Not only is it the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, but it’s also the most important temple to the Hokkien community here. Dedicated to Mazu the Goddess of the Sea, the temple originally began as a small joss house at the waterfront in the early 1820s before relocating at Telok Ayer Street in 1839.

NOW The temple has attracted many visitors with its design. The impressive entrance is guarded by lion and tiger statues, and the interior is peppered with intricate carvings and colourful encaustic tiles. And like any place of worship, do be mindful and respectful when visiting.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
Photograph: Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple/T. Kavindran
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Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

Rochor

THEN The oldest Hindu temple dedicated to Goddess Kali – think over a century old. During the Japanese air raids in World War II, the temple sheltered civilians and provided them with food.

NOW Due to its redesign in 2014, the temple doesn’t look a day old. The elaborate details that don its exterior attract many visitors in Little India.

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The Majestic
Photograph: Unsplash/Thyla Jane

The Majestic

NOW It was formerly known as the Majestic Theatre, a popular Cantonese opera house. Then in 1938, it was renamed Queen’s Theatre, a cinema screening the latest Cantonese blockbuster films. But during the Japanese Occupation, it started screening other films instead, notably Japanese propaganda films.

NOW Resuming the name The Majestic in the early 2000s, the renovated building became a shopping centre. The main star of the building remains the facade which is decorated with colourful tiles depicting Cantonese opera scenes.

Changi Prison
Photograph: Singapore Prison Service

Changi Prison

THEN A maximum-security prison completed in 1936 to house up to 600 criminals serving long-term imprisonment in British Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, it became an internment camp for civilians and Prisoner-of-Wars (POWs).

NOW Despite the new prison complex that was built in 2004, much of the original prison including the entrance gate, wall and turrets have been retained to remember those who suffered during the Japanese Occupation. It remains as a civilian prison today.

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Fort Canning Park

City Hall

THEN Formerly known as Government Hill, it was home to Sir Stamford Raffles and other governors before becoming an essential part of Singapore’s defense. But prior to that, it was also known as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill in Malay) as it was believed that the kings of ancient Singapore were laid to rest there and that it was haunted.

NOW It has attractions, sculptures, and relics from Old Singapore, some dating back to the 14th century. It’s lush, green space also holds music festivals.

St Andrew's Cathedral
St Andrew's Cathedral
Things to do

St Andrew's Cathedral

City Hall

THEN The centrally located place of worship served as a temporary hospital during the World War II.

NOW Not much has changed – it's still a place of worship these days. The Anglican Cathedral is Singapore’s largest and welcomes all visitors who are keen to marvel at its architectural splendour. 

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Chijmes

City Hall

THEN Known as Covent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), Chijmes used to be the campus of an established Catholic girls school.

NOW A lifestyle enclave brimming with bars, restaurants and cafés – household names include Privé, Coriander Leaf and Whitegrass Restaurant. It's also a popular wedding venue

Fullerton Heritage
Fullerton Heritage
Clubs

The Fullerton Waterboat House

Raffles Place

THEN Owing to the views that it commanded, The Fullerton Waterboat house was once the Master Attendant’s Office – where all water activities were overseen – and was subsequently used to provide fresh water to incoming ships.

NOW Just beside The Fullerton Hotel and opposite the photogenic harbour, the lively venue houses famed restaurants and bars like Boathouse and has, by far, one of the most Instagram-worthy Starbucks (yes, really) outlets in Singapore.

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Things to do

Asian Civilisations Museum

City Hall

THEN Known as Empress Place Building, the property functioned as a government office where various administrative departments were stationed during the colonial era.

NOW With seven galleries showcasing more than 2,000 artefacts from the civilisations of China, South-East Asia, South Asia and West Asia, the Asian Civilisations Museum one of Singapore’s most impressive. The first floor of galleries charts the story of trade across the region, while the second floor presents systems of faith and belief and the third features materials and design used in Chinese ceramics from the Han to the Qing dynasty.

MICA
National Heritage Board
Art

Old Hill Street Police Station

THEN The building used to be one of the finest police barracks in the world, vacating the premises only in 1980.

NOW Its facade is hard to miss – the building has 927 rainbow-coloured windows that calls out for a second (and third) glance. Home to the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the iconic building’s main courtyard (the ARTrium) frequently plays host to various ad-hoc Arts events – large-scale visual art exhibitions to a diverse range of performances.

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St James Power Station
St James Power Station
Clubs

St James Power Station

Habourfront

THEN Singapore’s veteran power station that supplied electricity to nearby residential areas and shipyards.

NOW The nocturnal venue a boasts a wide range of popular nightlife destinations – everything from karaoke venues to Vietnamese discos.

National Gallery
Photo:Darren Soh and National Gallery Singapore
Art

National Gallery Singapore

City Hall

THEN Its sprawling premises was once where the Supreme Court and City Hall – two of the most prominent buildings in the course of Singapore’s political history – resided.

NOW The largest visual art gallery in Singapore showcasing mostly local and Southeast Asian pieces – the National Gallery is one of the best museums in Singapore

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The Battle Box
Photo: Victor Chick WH
Things to do

The Battle Box

City Hall

THEN Built between 1936 and 1941, this space formerly served as the head command operations bunker for the Malaya Command.

NOW The Battle Box is now a popular educational destination for tourists and locals alike. The hour-long tours offered here take you into the namesake underground command centre, where the decision to surrender was made and re-tells the story of how Malaya and Singapore succumbed to the Empire of Japan in just 70 days. Guides also explain the roles that the bunker played during the war while showing you around replica and genuine rooms used by the military of the era.

Music

Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall

City Hall

THEN A makeshift hospital used to treat casualties of the Japanese air raids in 1942. Following the Japanese occupation, the Victoria Memorial Hall then served as a venue where war criminals were put on trial.

NOW Host to various world-class performances and home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), the concert hall is now an integral pillar to Singapore’s nascent performing arts scene.

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Old Ford Factory

Bukit Batok

THEN Apart from cementing Ford Motor Company’s expansion into South East Asia, the factory also became known as the site where the British surrendered to the Japanese.

NOW Old Ford Factory is now a museum which, through pictorial exhibits and film documentaries, details the conditions that residents in Singapore and Malaya endured during the Japanese Occupation.

We've map it out

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