Looking for more places to visit in Singapore? Learn about some of the key historical sites here. These can be found everywhere, from Sentosa in the south to Kranji in the north, and from west to east too; they’re at beaches, in buildings, in parks and under the ground! Here we take a look at 12 of the prominent ones where Singapore history comes to life.
Where: 2 Cox Terrace, Fort Canning Park (short walk from Dhoby Ghaut MRT)
When: Thursday to Sunday, 9.30am – 5.30pm
Among the best known of Singapore’s military sites, the Battlebox in Fort Canning is home to an authentic secret WWII Command Centre built nine metres underground in the 1930s. There’s a labyrinth of rooms and corridors to explore, along with wartime artefacts to check out.
The most important area is what’s referred to as the “Surrender Conference Room”. It was here that Lieutenant-General AE Percival met with his generals on the morning of 15 February 1942 to decide whether or not to surrender to the invading Japanese army.
You can visit this historical site in Singapore via a 30-minute guided tour. Find out more at battlebox.com.sg.
- Despite the name given to the underground complex, no fighting actually took place here in WWII.
- There were 29 rooms in the Battlebox, including the signal room and the cipher room, with vacuum suction tubes used to pass messages from room to room.
#2 Lau Pa Sat – A hawker centre with history
Where: 18 Raffles Quay (Telok Ayer or Downtown MRT)
When: Open 24 hours (depending on the stall)
Lau Pa Sat started life as a small fish market in 1824; the iron structure we know today was erected in 1894. It was built using prefabricated cast iron, in the same manner as the Eiffel Tower in Paris (and only a few years later than it). Today, it’s among Southeast Asia’s oldest Victorian structures.
After this part of Singapore was entirely transformed as a commercial district in the 1960s and 1970s, the market, known as Telok Ayer Market, was converted to a hawker centre. More disruptions followed, with the building of an MRT tunnel below the site in the late 1980s. The cast-iron structure was entirely dismantled and put into storage at the time, before being put back together in 1989. That’s when it was renamed Lau Pa Sat.
- “Pa Sat” comes from the Hokkien version of the Persian word “bazaar”.
- The iron Lau Pa Sat building was designed by 19th-century municipal engineer James MacRitchie, whose name is well known from the title of one of Singapore’s main reservoirs.
Where: 93 Stamford Road (near City Hall MRT and three other stations)
When: Daily, 10am-7pm
Originally known as Raffles Library and Museum, the National Museum has a history of over 170 years. It’s been in the current location on Stamford Road since 1887; the official opening in that year took place on the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
The museum developed in the 20th century, with extensions carried out in various decades. Luckily, it was left alone during the Japanese Occupation in the Second World War. The most iconic display for much of the century was a 13-metre skeleton of a blue whale, which hung from the ceiling until 1969.
Major renovations in the early 2000s included the introduction of a stunning glass-clad rotunda inspired by famous architect IM Pei, who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre.
- The National Museum is home to 11 “precious artefacts”, including the Singapore Stone, an inscribed slab of rock found in the Singapore River and possibly a thousand years old.
- Look closely at the building exterior and you’ll see sculptures of unicorns in the façade. These represent Scotland, whose official national animal is the unicorn. (No, really!)
#4 Masjid Sultan Mosque – Majestic historical site in Kampong Glam
Where: 3 Muscat Street, Kampong Glam (nearest MRT is Bugis)
When: Monday to Thursday and weekends, 10am-12pm, 2pm-4pm; Friday, 2:30pm to 4pm
The gleaming gold domes of Masjid Sultan (or Sultan Mosque) make it an instantly recognisable landmark in Singapore’s Kampong Glam district. While the current building dates to 1932, a mosque first stood in the area from 1824. By the start of the 20th century, it had become too small to house Singapore’s growing Islamic community. A new building was planned as a result; it was designed by Denis Santry, a member of the island’s oldest architectural firm, Swan & Maclaren, and a former president of the Institute of Architects of Malaya. It took four years to build.
From 2014 to 2016, a S$3.65 million facelift saw the mosque renewed, rewired and retiled, with new facilities added including lifts for the elderly.
A great time to visit the area is during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, when there are night markets to see and food stalls to enjoy. And, when COVID-19 restrictions aren’t in place, it’s possible for non-Muslim visitors to do a free-and-easy tour around the permitted areas of the mosque by themselves. Visit sultanmosque.sg to find out more.
- The mosque doesn’t fit precisely into Singapore’s urban planning grid, because it’s oriented in the direction of Mecca.
- The base of each of the two huge gold onion domes is decorated with the ends of glass bottles. These were collected by Sultan Hassan Shah as donations from poor Muslims, so they too could be involved in the construction.
Where: 80 Telok Ayer Street, Far East Square (Chinatown and Telok Ayer MRTs are both close by)
When: Daily, 10am-10pm
This is thought to be one of Singapore’s very early Chinese temples, if not the earliest, dating back as far as 1820. It was only a tiny shrine at the time, built by Hakka and Cantonese immigrants.
Aside from honouring the god Tua Pek Kong, who was worshipped by Confucianists and Taoists, the temple would also become a headquarters for the Hakka and Cantonese communities. It was restored in 1869 and again in 1990, when it reopened as a small museum.
It’s worth a visit today, not just to look at the museum’s bits and bobs, but also for the incongruous sight of the tiny temple facade sitting side by side with modern shophouses and across the road from office skyscrapers.
- Today, the temple also serves as part of the premises of boutique hotel AMOY.
- In 2015, the temple’s timber beams were found to be suffering from termite infestations; they were repaired using new waterproofing technology.
Where: Siloso Road, Sentosa (take the Sentosa Shuttle, or park at Beach Station Car Park and walk)
When: Daily, 9am-6pm
This well-preserved coastal fort once functioned as a key part of the country’s defences; it was one of 12 gun batteries of this kind along the coast. The top section of Mount Siloso was demolished in the 1870s to provide a platform for the military installation.
There’s a popular old story that, during the Second World War, the guns were “pointed the wrong way”; that’s why they couldn’t halt the Japanese advance from the north. In fact, several of the guns were able to rotate 360 degrees, and they did indeed fire to the north. The bigger problem was that they used armour-piercing shells designed for ships, and weren’t accurate enough to use against ground troops.
Today, you can visit the Surrender Chambers at Fort Siloso and see an interactive video documentary, complete with wax models of Japanese and British troops. There’s also a rich mine of WWII relics on the site, including coastal cannons, the ruins of reinforced military facilities and tunnels and more.
- The newly built Skywalk trail at Fort Siloso gives a great aerial view of the site from 11-stories above the ground.
- The fort likely gets its name from the Malay word for “rock”, though another origin is said to be the Spanish/Tagalog word for “jealous”.
#7 St Andrew’s Cathedral – Singapore’s religious history on show
Where: 11 St Andrew’s Road (near Esplanade MRT)
When: Daily, 9am-6pm
St Andrew’s Cathedral is located on the site of the earlier St Andrew’s Church. This original structure was first allocated a plot in the 1822 Town Plan of Sir Stamford Raffles, and erected in 1836.
One feature of the old church was the Revere Bell, an 80cm copper bell with clapper that was presented as a gift by Mrs Maria Revere Balestier, the daughter of Paul Revere. Today, the bell is in the National Museum, and is looked upon as a symbol of friendship between Singapore and the United States.
A spire was added to the original church building in 1842, but it didn’t have a lightning conductor. The church went on to suffer two lightning strikes, in 1845 and 1849, before being declared unsafe, then closed and demolished.
The cathedral rose in its place, and today serves as the “mother church” of more than 20 parishes and 50 congregations across Singapore.
- Among the materials used to build the cathedral was chunam, a type of plaster made by steeping coconut husks in a mix of water, egg white, lime from shells, and sugar.
- The cathedral takes its name from the patron saint of Scotland; this is to honour the members of the Scottish community of Singapore who helped finance its construction.
#8 Kranji War Memorial – The military history of Singapore
Where: 9 Woodlands Road (10-minute walk from Kranji MRT)
When: Daily, 8am to 6.30pm
The Kranji War Memorial consists of three cemeteries that honour Commonwealth military personnel who died in the line of duty during the Second World War. These include men and women from the three branches of the military – Air Force, Army and Navy – and from as far afield as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Malaya and the Netherlands.
Large memorial services are held here each year when pandemic restrictions allow, including on Anzac Day (25 April) and on the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day (11 November). On other days, guides are available to lead visitors through the cemeteries and explain details of their historical significance.
- There are over 4,000 military personnel buried at Kranji, of which more than 800 are unidentified.
- The site is also home to the State Cemetery, where Singapore’s first two presidents (Yusof bin Ishak and Benjamin Henry Sheares) are buried.
Where: 244 South Bridge Road (close to Chinatown and Telok Ayer MRT stations)
When: Daily, 6am-9pm
Built in 1827, Sri Mariamman Temple is not only the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, but also one of the city’s oldest structures. It was founded by Indian entrepreneur Naraina Pillai, a Penang government employee who travelled with Sir Stamford Raffles on his second visit to Singapore in 1819.
During the colonial period, the temple served as a focal point for community events in addition to worship. It was even home to the Hindu Registry of Weddings, as it was the only place permitted to sanction Hindu marriages at the time.
The amazing roof tower of sculptures and ornaments is known as a gopuram. All the objects are made of plaster and painted a variety of bright colours.
- The temple was one of eight structures in Singapore that were the first to be gazetted as national monuments, in June 1973. To date, 73 buildings that have been recognised in this way, with the most recent additions being three bridges (Cavanagh, Elgin and Anderson) in 2019.
- An annual fire-walking ceremony known as Theemithi is carried out here in October and November.
#10 Historical Site of the Battle of Pasir Panjang
Where: Kent Ridge Park (parking on Vigilante Drive)
One of the decisive fights of the Second World War was waged at Pasir Panjang (it’s also known as the Battle of Bukit Chandu). The waterfront and British military depots here were considered valuable prizes by the Japanese.
An intense two days of combat (12-14 February 1942) saw Malay, British, Australian and Indian troops battalions commanded by Second Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi take on the well-armed Japanese 18th division. The Allied forces fought to the end, even engaging in hand-to-hand combat to hold the ridge. But with their accompanying air support, the Japanese proved too strong.
One day after the battle was lost, the British surrendered.
Today, Kent Ridge Park, Labrador Park and the museum known as Reflections at Bukit Chandu (currently closed for restoration) serve as a memorial to the soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice, as well as a representation of Singapore’s defence. In the 47-hectare Kent Ridge Park, you can find informative boards and sites on the history of the area.
- Before its important role in WWII, Pasir Panjang Ridge was used for growing rubber, pepper and pineapples; until 1910, there was also an opium factory at the base of the hill.
- Pasir Panjang means “long sand” in Malay, a reference to the beach that once sat at the foot of the ridge.
Where: 158 Telok Ayer Street (nearest MRT station is Telok Ayer)
When: Daily, 7.30am to 5.30pm
Thian Hock Keng is Singapore’s oldest and most famous Hokkien temple, opening as a modest “joss house” as early as 1821. It was built in honour of Mazu (Ma Cho Po), the Guardian of Sojourners, and Chinese immigrants would pay their respects there in exchange for a safe journey.
While it received a few modifications over the decades (a wrought-iron gate made in Glasgow was added in 1906), the first major project of restoration took place between 1998 and 2000. The work received a prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2001 Award for “Culture Heritage Conservation”.
When you visit, keep an eye out for the many dragon motifs, stone lions, coloured tiles and beautifully lacquered wood.
- When it was first built in Raffles’ Day, the temple was lapped by the sea. Today, thanks to the process of land reclamation in Singapore, it’s in the middle of a busy downtown area, with not a whiff of the ocean!
- The temple was constructed without the use of a single nail.
#12 The Civilian War Memorial Historical Site in Singapore
Where: Stamford Road, between Raffles Hotel and the Padang (closest MRT: Esplanade)
During the Japanese occupation of Singapore from February 1942 to September 1945, it’s estimated that as many as 50,000 people were killed. The Civilian War Memorial close to the Padang honours these World War II civilian deaths, while representing multiracial unity within Singapore.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew inaugurated the monument on 15 February 1967, on the 25th anniversary of Singapore’s surrender to Japanese forces. It was officially recognised as a national monument in 2013.
- The four white pillars of the monument are identical in size and style; they rise more than 65 metres above the peaceful park below.
- A common nickname given to the structure is “The Chopsticks”, for obvious reasons!
For more helpful tips, head to our Living in Singapore section.
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