Stand on the 140-year-old Cavenagh Bridge and in one sweeping vista, see the transformation of Singapore from a busy 19th-century trading port to modern financial centre unfolds.
The waters of the Singapore River reflect the city-state's dramatic rise since Sir Stamford Raffles stepped ashore on its banks in 1819. From a natural harbour for the fisherman and traders that witnessed the British arrival, to a jumble of bumboats ferrying spices, cloth, food and a thousand other goods from ships to godowns on its banks, the river has now transformed into a vibrant dining and entertainment venue, mixing night-life and high-tech adventure with oases of historic calm. The people who ply the Singapore River’s banks are no longer coolies, traders, samsui women, and practitioners of vanishing trades, but tourists, bankers, yuppies, and party types each moving to their own rhythm instead of a collective pulse.
At one end of Cavenagh Bridge, the graceful Asian Civilisations Museum, part of the former customs house, charts the history of the river with a permanent exhibition. Here, you can see how the ranks of immigrants from all over Asia swelled the sprawl of temples, warehouses and shops along the banks, culminating with a decade-long programme ending in 1987 that restored the clean waters that tourist-filled river taxis enjoy today.
On the other end of the bridge, a promenade from the refurbished waterside warehouses of Boat Quay to Clarke Quay reveal numerous restaurants and bars serving up food and drink influenced by every imaginable culture. Once derelict, the area’s new lease of life makes it one of the most popular destinations for locals and visitors alike for a night out today. Down by Robertson Quay, a mostly residential enclave brings a relaxed vibe that makes it one of the family-friendliest places downtown. Here, kids run around diners while dogs and joggers exercise along the river.
The different races and religions that were drawn to Singapore led to a remarkable diversity of temples, mosques and shrines where communities of immigrants found solace through prayer in the early years of hardship. Between Clarke and Robertson Quays at Magazine Road, a plaque dating back to 1898 reads ‘Help the world and the people’ on the Tan Si Chong Su temple, a favourite for worshippers and visitors alike with its intricate carvings and ornaments. Also in the area is the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, considered Singapore’s oldest mosque and a testament to the unity of the early Muslim settlers of various backgrounds that came together to establish it in 1820.
There are numerous ways to soak up the grandeur of the Singapore River. Many of the best sights and discoveries are found on foot. To experience one of the oldest transportation modes, hop on a trishaw for a leisurely ride, at a negotiable fee. Or if you can't decide if you want to sightsee by water or land, do both on the amphibious Duck bus, which takes you on a city and harbour tour. Those looking to explore the locale in depth would do well to marry a walking adventure with a Hippo River Tour. The option of unlimited cruise stops along nine jetties on the river brings the freedom to stop at malls, and discover nooks and crannies that one might otherwise miss for lack of time. The Hippo cruises go on till 10pm, allowing a vantage point for watching the lights of Singapore’s expansive city skyline, bars and restaurants come on, illuminating the historic waterway.
Hungry? Satisfy those cravings with our supper guide here.