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Istana Woodneuk
Photograph: Chan Lianghong James / Flickr

5 places in Singapore that used to be palaces

Did you know about these former palaces that were once home to royals?

Dewi Nurjuwita
Written by
Dewi Nurjuwita

Mention istanas (or palaces) in Singapore and Kampong Gelam, once a sultanate, might immediately come to mind. In fact, you can now spend a night under the stars at the grounds of the former Istana Kampong Gelam to experience what it's like to live like a royal. But did you know that there are various other places that used to be palaces in Singapore? Some have been torn down, but a number of these still stand – one is now home to a cool cafe/bar concept. We track down a few of Singapore's lost palaces once home to royalty.  

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Istana Woodneuk

Hidden from plain sight, Istana Woodneuk is surrounded by overgrown vegetation at the former Tyersall Park bound by Holland Road and Tyersall Avenue near Singapore Botanic Gardens. The abandoned two-storey palace is a reminder of its glorious past, with a history dating back 200 years.

It was first owned by Captain John Dill Ross, when it went by the name Woodneuk House. The building was sold to Sultan Sir Abu Bakar Ibni Al-Marhum Tun Temenggung Raja Daing Ibrahim in 1860 and was renamed Istana Woodneuk. Its other lives include Generals' headquarters and a military hospital (it was subject to the bombing of the Japanese in 1942, killing approximately 700 medics and patients). 

Istana Kampong Gelam
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Probably the most famous palace in Singapore, the historic Istana Kampong Gelam still stands at its original location. In fact, it is now home to the Malay Heritage Centre, which houses a museum dedicated to the history of the Malay community. 

The palace was originally built by Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor in 1819 on land given to him by the British East India Company. The structure that exists today was commissioned by Sultan Hussein's eldest son, Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah of the Johor Riau–Lingga Empire in 1835. Over the years, it has hosted royal weddings and tea parties organised by the Malay community in Kampong Gelam. The unique building design combines elements of Classical European architecture (such as round arches and pilasters of the Doric order) with traditional Malay architecture.


Mount Emily Villa

Located amidst lush greenery near Dhoby Ghaut, the century-old villa on top of Mount Emily is now home to over 11 artists, creative organisations and chill out bar Kult Kafe as part of Emily Hill. But its origins have stumped historians for decades – until recently, that is. 

The structure was believed to be built in the late 19th century by Syed Hashim Kassim, the Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura in Indonesia. Not much else is known about the palace, but it was eventually bought by Japanese dentist Jukichi Ikeda in 1935 before housing the Japanese consulate-general in 1939. 

Istana Bidadari

Everyone knows Bidadari Cemetery, but did you know that there used to be a "palace" in the area way before it was used as burial grounds? The Bidadari Cemetery was actually named after Istana Bidadari, a 45-acre estate owned by Temenggong Abu Bakar in the mid-1860s. He gifted it to his second wife, a Danish woman named Zubaidah Binti Abdullah (born Cecilia Catharina Lange). 

Now, you won't find any palaces or cemeteries, but the Bidadari Memorial Garden (currently closed to the public). The old gates and gateposts of Bidadari Cemetery now form the entrance to the memorial garden. 


Istana Lama (Temenggong Rd)

Telok Blangah was once home to an Istana Lama (old palace) owned by Temenggong Abdul Rahman had an Istana Lama in 1824. The European-style mansion stood on a large 200 acres of land given by the British as a resettlement deal after the 1819 treaty. 

You won't find a palace there today. Instead, the Temenggong Mosque (built in 1890) stands in its place. Temenggong Abdul Rahman and his son Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim were buried in a tomb beside the mosque, which is still owned by the Johor Sultanate till this day. 

Down for urban exploring?

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