Even though Singapore is a relatively young and small country, there are many signs of our shared history and heritage hidden away in almost every nook and cranny around the island. And we’re not referring to monumental statues that have gained international attention like the Merlion or Sir Stamford Raffles down by the Singapore River.

Deep within our heartlands, as you navigate the labyrinth of streets and community plazas that dot our landscape, you’d bound to uncover several heritage spots with many exciting stories hidden beneath its façade. Every weekend can now play host to the discovery of another facet of Singapore’s history and there’s much about the lion city for us to (re)discover.

From iconic children’s playgrounds to magnificent trees that have withstood the test of time, you just need to know where to look, to unravel the stories you’ve only heard or read about in our history books.

So, put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and have your Singapore map in hand as we traverse our little red dot in search of these hidden — albeit historical and cultural — gems of significance on these themed walking trails.

1. Revisit the Old School Days

National Design Centre Building in Singapore

The National Design Centre (NDC) features all things design related from design exhibitions, learning and resources. Image credit: Design Singapore Council Facebook

Remember those times when your days were filled with chatting with your classmates about projects, games, and exchanging whispered gossip over recess with your clique? For many of us, school grounds are home to a big part of our childhood memories which bind us together not just as a school but as a larger community through the generations.

In fact, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the country’s conservation and development plans, has earmarked several of such schools across our island to ensure the heritage hidden behind these built facades is not lost.

Start your journey along Middle Road at the building diagonally across the street from Hotel InterContinental Singapore. Home to the National Design Centre (NDC) today, the building used to be home to several schools during different periods. It started as the home to St Anthony’s Convent from 1879 to 1994; then the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1995 to 2004; and the Chinese Opera Institute from 1995 to 2009.

The Fifty Years of Singapore Design

Featuring over 200 iconic, pivotal and popular designs on show at the National Design Centre, visitors can catch a glimpse of how design has evolved from the 1960s and contributed to Singapore’s economy and development. Image credit: Design Singapore Council Facebook

With art and design being a big part of the building’s history, it’s only apt that the NDC is situated within the grounds today. Step into the air-conditioned comforts of the building to explore the Fifty Years of Singapore Design exhibition. It showcases through artefacts, how design has evolved and contributed to Singapore’s economy and nation development through the years.

Then, make your way to Waterloo street, located just five minutes away, will take you to the site of the Stamford Arts Centre which used to house Gan Eng Seng School and Stamford Girls School in from 1947 to 1951 and 1955 to 1948 respectively. Following extensive upgrading works to the building, which resulted in the centre’s reopening in 2019, the arts centre now functions as a space to nurture the local arts community.

Traditional dance troupes performing in the Stamford Arts Centre, Singapore

Like the school grounds it used to be, the Stamford Arts Centre continues to be a hive of activity so be sure to drop in anytime and treat yourself to the various live traditional arts programmes on show. Image credit: Traditional Arts Centre Singapore Facebook

What used to be classrooms where students would sit quietly and listen attentively to their teachers have been transformed into music studios and theatre black boxes which routinely play host to intriguing art events.

A wide shot of the Stamford Art Centre building as seen through the ages.

Originally built in 1920 by the Japan Club, the Stamford Art Centre building has continued to be lovingly restored and maintained through the years. The collage above shows how the centre looked in 1969 (top left), 1972 (bottom left), and what it looks like today (Top and bottom right)! Image credit: Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore Facebook

End your adventure at the site of the Former CHIJ (Town Convent) and St Nicholas Girls’ School, which is home to CHIJMES in the heart of City Hall today. With a long list of bustling restaurants and cafes situated within the complex, it is hard to imagine that the building had its humble beginnings as an orphanage and chapel founded by an order of French Catholic nuns in 1854.

Make a beeline for CHIJMES Hall — which was formerly called the Chapel of CHIJ. Here, sharp-sighted architecture lovers would be able to spot several neo-gothic inspired awnings and fixtures which continue to adorn its walls. More breath-taking than that are the intricate French-stained glass windows in the Chapel which are made up of over 30,000 pieces of stained glass filled with motifs of flowers and birds.

A wide shot of the CHIJMES Hall as seen from the inside.

Even though it was first built in 1901, this Neo-gothic Chapel has continued to withstand the test of time. It’s easy to see why the chapel continues to be a popular spot for couples looking to host their weddings! Image credit: Watabe Wedding Singapore Facebook

Finally, settle down at one of the many eating places within CHIJMES to refuel or just indulge in people watching. If you’re in the mood for Japanese cuisine, head to Hakata Ikkousha Ramen to savour some authentic, umami-rich ramen prepared using three kinds of Shoyu (or soy) sauce. Each sauce is made from a secret recipe of over 20 kinds of spices which has been carefully chosen to complement the flavours in the soup!

 

National Design Centre
Address: 111 Middle Road, Singapore 188969
Admissions: Free entry to the building and exhibition. Open from 9:00am to 9:00pm daily.

Stamford Arts Centre
Address: 155 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187962
Admissions: Free entry to the building. Open from 9:00am to 9:00pm daily.

CHIJMES
Address: 30 Victoria Street, Singapore 187996.
Hakata Ikkousha Ramen is located at unit #F1-07, open from 11:30am to 10:00pm daily.

2. Take in the sights of Singapore’s first town - Toa Payoh

Toa Payoh neighbourhood hub

Designed to be a self-contained town, Toa Payoh today spots many modern amenities. The neighbourhood hub serves as a town centre and shopping complex. Image credit: ActiveSG

Toa Payoh neighbourhood indoor gym

They also have a sports complex with an indoor gymnasium. Image credit: ActiveSG

Block 179 holds particular significance as it used to be the highest apartment building in Singapore back in those times, so be sure to take a ride on the lift to the highest level and take in a bird’s eye view of Toa Payoh town from above.

The swimming complex and stadium located at Lorong 6, which are still standing today, hosted several games during the international meet. Take a jog around the track or swim a lap or two and soak up the historical significance of these destinations in our nation’s history. It is an incredible source of pride for Singapore because it proves the country was able to pull off an international sporting event less than a decade after independence.

Dragon playground at Toa Payoh

Playgrounds such as the one pictured above, which have been designed to look like dragons, are unique to Toa Payoh. Other specially designed playgrounds in and around Singapore include the dove, pyramid, clocks and even elephants. Sadly, these have been progressively upgraded to modern and less ornamental playgrounds with a swing set, seesaws and slides.

Along Lorong 6 is where you’d be able to spot a large ornate Dragon Playground fashioned out of concrete with a long ‘spine’ made out of colourfully painted steel rings which your little ones can slide or climb through.

First built in the 1970s, the design of this playground has become an icon of Singapore because of its unique appearance. It is also part of the HDB’s first series of animal-themed playground designs for housing estates — other animal designs include a pelican, giraffe, and tortoise.

Within walking distance to the Dragon playground is Block 53 which sits on the northern tip of what is Toa Payoh Vista. It is also the only block of flats in Toa Payoh which spots a Y-shaped design. Beyond just its façade, the block also played host to several important dignitaries who have graced our shores, including Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and even Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne and Prince Philip of the United Kingdom.

United Temple in Toa Payoh in Singapore

The United Temple in Toa Payoh was the first institution in Singapore to bring together temples founded by and catering to different dialect groups, as well as dedicated to different deities. Image credit: Roots.gov.sg

End your trek around Toa Payoh at Block 177 along Lorong 7, here you will find the United Temple, which houses five different temples founded during the town’s Kampong Era. Each of these temples caters to different communities such as Hokkien, Hainanese, Teochew and Cantonese.

After you are done with all that walking, don’t forget to also check out the best food places that have continued to operate in Toa Payoh from yesteryears. Block 94, located along Lorong 4, is where you’d be able to tuck into a fragrant plate of Lee Fun Nam Kee Chicken Rice. Unlike usual Hainanese Chicken Rice, this restaurant specialises in Soya Sauce Chicken.

A plate of soya sauce chicken from Lee Fun Nam Kee Chicken Rice

Besides being masters of the sweet soya sauce braise, the crispy and fragrant Char Siew slices from Lee Fun Nam Kee Chicken Rice restaurant is another popular dish too. Image credit: Lee Fun Nam Kee Chicken Rice

Another favourite among residents is the Kim Keat Hokkien Mee stall located a short walk away at Block 92. Served piping hot in a claypot, the Hokkien mee also features plump pieces of shrimp and squid.

 

Block 179
Address: Toa Payoh Central, Singapore 310179.

Toa Payoh Stadium
Address: 297 Toa Payoh Lorong 6 Singapore 319389
Admissions: Free entry. Open from 7:00am to 9:30pm

Toa Payoh Swimming Complex
Address: 301 Toa Payoh Lorong 6 Singapore 319392
Admissions: Free entry. Open from 6:30am to 9:30pm

Block 28 (Dragon Playground)
Address: Toa Payoh Lorong 6, Singapore 310028

Block 53
Address: Toa Payoh Lorong 5, Singapore 310053

United Temple
Address: 177, Toa Payoh Lorong 7, Singapore 319318
Admissions: Free entry.

Lee Fun Nam Kee Chicken Rice
Address: #01-04, Block 94 Toa Payoh Lorong 4, Singapore 310094
Opening hours: 11:00am to 3:00pm, 5:00pm to 9:00pm daily.

Kim Keat Hokkien Mee
Address: #01-264, Block 92, Toa Payoh Lorong 4, Singapore 310092
Opening Hours: 11:15am to 7:30pm daily. Closed on Tuesdays.

3. ‘Salute’ our nations’ heroes

A neighbourhood fire station in Singapore

Join the free open house at your nearest neighbourhood SCDF Fire Station, that happens every Saturday. Image credit: Singapore Civil Defence Force Facebook

Ever since Singapore gained independence in 1965, the importance of having a military and civilian security force made up of Singaporeans has always been deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. Our ability to have an open, strong, and free multi-cultural and multi-religious nation is not without hardships nor the sacrifices of our forebears.

And there are multiple venues across the lion city which can serve as a significant reminder of the important role every one of us plays in securing Singapore.

Start your adventure at your nearest Neighbourhood SCDF Fire Station which organises an Open House every Saturday between 9 and 11 am. Each tour — which lasts about 45 minutes — is chock full of live demonstrations and hands-on interactive activities which showcase the various equipment as well as capabilities of the fire station.

Singaporeans posing for a we-fie at a neighbourhood fire station in Singapore

Don’t forget to pose for a we-fie at the end of your tour as a memento! Image credit: Singapore Civil Defence Force Facebook

The tour should include a water-hose demo, which is bound to be popular among your kiddos. Here, the firefighters will allow junior to get behind the hose and experience the force of controlling the hose as powerful jets of water shoots out from it. Finally, you can end your experiential trip around the fire station with a memorable we-fie, taken while on board one of the station’s fire engines.

Then, make your way to the Police Heritage Centre, which houses many important interactive exhibits and displays which capture the rich history behind the Singapore Police Force (SPF) from its colonial roots to its present day.

The installations and artefacts on show in the Police Heritage Centre in Singapore.

Be sure to also check out the Commemorative Gallery in the Police Heritage Centre to get to know the men behind Singapore Police Force’s first three local Commissioners of Police. Image credit: Police.gov.sg

The gallery is divided into eight areas which delve into significant events in the force’s history such as the racial riots in the 50s, the rise of Secret Societies, and even the Hotel New World Disaster. The Command Gallery situated within the centre tells the story behind some of the notable road names in Singapore and the person it is named after. Also, on display is the SPF’s collection of ranks and insignias which have evolved over the years.

Even though it may seem like a lifetime ago, Singapore’s history before nationhood and independence is a journey that is fraught with many conflicts and hardships. As the history textbooks and several surviving wartime attractions can attest to, World War II has left an indelible mark on the lion city as a country. Checking out some of these attractions with your little ones in tow will impress upon them the importance of our independence as a country and how it is not something to be taken for granted.

Head to Fort Canning Battle Box in the heart of town and embark on an unforgettable journey back in time and see how a high stakes meeting in the 1930s unfolded and how this would inevitably change the course of Singapore’s history.

Tomb of Keramat Iskandar Shah at Fort Canning Park Singapore

Other than the Battle Box, take the afternoon to explore the grounds of Fort Canning Park and you’d likely come across a number of historical gems like the tomb of Keramat Iskandar Shah – the last king of Singapura.

South Battery at Fort Canning Park Singapore

As well as the Southern Battery cannon which the British forces used to defend the hill from hostile forces.

Hidden away in these bunkers under Fort Canning Hill, British commanders led by Lieutenant General Percival had to decide how the British forces would either stand to defend Singapore against her Japanese aggressors or surrender.

On this guided tour, you and junior will get to venture into the command centre itself to unravel the drama and tension behind the British force’s decision to surrender. As you zip through the snaking tunnels and are guided from room to room, you’d watch as the war is played out through a land, sea, and air assault on the ‘Singapore Fortress’.

 

Neighbourhood SCDF Fire Station
At various locations across the island including Central Fire Station.
Address: Central fire station, 62 Hill Street, Singapore 179367
Opening Hours: Only Saturdays from 9:00am to 11:00am.

Police Heritage Centre
Address: 28 Irrawaddy Road Singapore 329560
Opening hours: 10:00am to 5:30pm on Tuesdays to Fridays, 10:00 am to 1:00pm on Saturdays; Closed on Sundays and Mondays. Free Entry.

Battlebox: A story of Strategy & Surrender Guided Tour
Address: 2 Cox Terrace, Singapore 179622 (situated within Fort Canning Park)
Opening hours: Open on Wednesdays to Sundays including Public Holidays. First tours start from 9.45am and the last tour begins at 4.30pm daily. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Tickets cost $10 per child (aged 7 to 12); $20 per adult. As part of Covid-19 measures, group sizes are restricted to only five individuals.

Note: As you’d be on your feet for nearly the entirety of the tour, be sure to be dressed in comfortable walking shoes. Due to the Covid-19 measures, entry into the Battlebox is only possible for guests on this guided tour.  

 

While Singapore is often known as a place for great food, unbeatable shopping experiences and museums that can satisfy your art fix, it is also home to many iconic landmarks and buildings that capture the rich tapestry of the Lion City and her people.

And in this time when travelling for leisure outside the shores of Singapore may not be possible, these trails offer Singaporeans an even more valuable opportunity to rediscover our roots and the ties, and stories that bind us together.


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