Singapore is often thought of as a slightly soulless city full of towering sky scrapers and air conditioned shopping malls. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find historic streets lined with colourful shophouses, although these shop / house combos are often towered over by massive skyscrapers (this is still Singapore after all). Singapore’s shophouses are a reminder of the city state’s legacy as a booming trade centre that has been attracting merchants from all over the world for almost 200 years. Today these shophouses are home to an array of businesses, from boutique hotels and bars to old trading stores that probably haven’t changed much in generations.
I recently went in search for as many shophouses in Singapore as I could find. I wandered through the old streets of Chinatown, Little India, Jalan Besar, Kampong Glam, Clarke Quay, Boat Quay, Joo Chiat, Orchard Road and Geylang — here are the photos I took and some tips on how to find some of Singapore’s most picturesque shophouses.
The streets in and around Little India are home to lots of old shophouses. Gia and I went for a walk down Jalan Besar (very close to Little India) and strolled down some of the side streets which are packed with shophouses. This isn’t a particularly touristy part of Singapore and thankfully the streets weren’t too full of traffic. The shophouses on Syed Alwi Road span many eras and architectural styles and are some of the best that I’ve seen in this area. Our tour of Jalan Besar was cut short by a massive downpour; make sure you bring an umbrella if you’re planning on walking the streets of Singapore as it rains a lot. The area close to Little India MRT (close to Buffalo Road) has some colourful shophouses, the likes of which you won’t find in other areas of Singapore.
Chinatown is one of my favourite areas of Singapore. The streets close to the MRT station are always packed full of tourists and souvenir stalls, but walk a little further and things get a lot less hectic. Some of the nicest shop houses in Chinatown are found around Duxton Hill, Amoy Street, Tanjong Pagar Road, South Bridge Road and Keong Saik Road. Chinatown is large and there is a high concentration of shophouses — make sure you explore it!
We spent a couple of nights at Hotel 1929 in Chinatown. It’s on Keong Saik Road, one of my favourite shophouse roads in Singapore. As recently as the year 2000 this was a red light district — the building we stayed in was one of those rent by the hour kind of establishments. It’s a really nice little hotel and it’s always fun to stay somewhere historic. These days Keong Saik Road is home to lots of little bars and restaurants and is a great place to base yourself while exploring Chinatown and beyond.
Further reading: Check out Gia’s review of Hotel 1929 over at Mismatched Passports
One of my favourite places to see shophouses in Singapore is Kampong Glam. The shophouses themselves are interesting but it’s the exotic backdrop of the Sultan Mosque (Masjid Sultan) that really makes it special. Head to Bussorah Road for the best photos (and a rare chance to see a street in Singapore without cars). You can find good Turkish food and sheesha in this area, although the restaurant touts can get a little annoying. Kampong Glam used to be the gathering place for Southeast Asian Muslims before their pilgrimage to Mecca, but it’s better known these days as Singapore’s street art hot spot.
If you’re looking for some riverside partying and dining you’ll want to head to either Clarke Quay or Boat Quay. There is a small number of old shophouses in this area and many of them have been converted into bars and restaurants. It’s one of the nicest areas of Singapore and there’s so much else to discover nearby, including grand colonial era buildings and the iconic Marina Bay. The shophouses in Boat Quay are towered over by some of Singapore’s tallest skyscrapers, which makes for an interesting contrast.
Orchard road is well known as Singapore’s modern shopping metropolis, but there are also some historic shophouses nearby. Emerald Hill Road, which runs off Orchard Road, is an upmarket residential area full of well restored shophouses. If I was rich I’d seriously consider living there. Nearby Cuppage Terrace which is full of bars and restaurants, is also a good place to see shophouses.
Katong / Joo Chiat is home to some really ornate shophouses — some of the best ones can be found on Joo Chiat Road, Koon Seng Road and Tembeling Road. East Coast Park, which is home to one of Singapore’s best beaches, is also nearby.
Geylang is infamous for being Singapore’s red light district. It’s a bit rougher than most other parts of the inner city but it’s not too bad (this is Singapore after all!). These shophouses aren’t quite as immaculate as the others you’ll see in Singapore, so it’s worth visiting Geylang to see a more working class side of the city.