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1960s: The birth of a nation

Singapore's skyline may be one of the most famous in the world today, but it was very different back in 1965. The iconic buildings making up the skyline today didn't exist 50 years ago though there are plenty of clues of how Singapore was like if you know where to look.

In 1965 the mouth of the Singapore River was dominated by former post office and now five-star hotel The Fullerton. It’s a popular venue for taking afternoon tea while enjoying the live music performances.

Located nearby is the Padang, where the late Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew announced Singapore’s independence in 1965.

And of course no list of historic buildings in Singapore would be complete without mention of Raffles Hotel, arguably one of the most famous in the world and birthplace of the Singapore Sling. With regulars including author Ernest Hemingway, you’ll be in good company. 

1970s: Going green

Photo by Edward Tian

By the 1970s Singapore was beginning to industrialise, but Singapore River became badly polluted. In 1977 a successful 10-year clean-up began.

Today it’s the ideal way to explore the heart of the city. Take a stroll along the riverbank and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of some of Singapore’s best culinary treats at the buzzing Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Where else in the world could you sip drinks by the river, indulge in fine dining or be fired 60 metres up in the air on the G-Max Reverse Bungy?

For a more relaxed way to see the river, and learn about the city’s history at the same time, hop onto the Singapore River cruise.

Alternatively, learn about the region at the spectacular Asian Civilisations Museum, which hosts over 1,300 artefacts telling the story of the region for the last 2,500 years.  

1980s: Getting to know Chinatown

A short ride on the MRT (which coincidentally opened in the 1980s) from the Singapore River is the historic Chinatown district, where raucous street hawkers and traditional teahouses still ply their trade, albeit mixed in with chic restaurants and hipster cafes.

The days when the shophouses were crammed with immigrants and opium dens are long gone, but much of the traditional architecture has been preserved thanks to extensive work in the 1980s.

The best way to experience Chinatown is through your taste buds. Chinatown Complex on Smith Street houses a hawker centre popular for local fare such as char kway teow (stir fried noodles), while Maxwell Road Food Centre along South Bridge Road is not to be missed.

The food stalls are popular with both locals and tourists and it’s easy to see why. Try the chicken rice or congee with pork and century egg, before finishing off with ice kachang – ice shavings topped with condiments.

Chinatown is also the ideal place to pick up souvenirs of your trip. Bak kwa (barbequed meat) is a traditional gift at Chinese New Year and makes a perfect treat for loved ones back home. 

1990s: Local communities

Singapore’s transformation continued in the 1990s, with the cleaning up of one of the city’s most colourful districts, Bugis.

There are several temples and mosques that are well worth a visit, such as Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho on Waterloo Street and the Malay Heritage Centre on Sultan Gate, but the highlight of Bugis is the shopping. Bugis Junction is built around a collection of restored shophouses with a roof for all-weather shopping, while across the road the newer Bugis+ offers a range of big name brands.

For a browsing experience with a Singaporean twist head over to the nearby Arab Street and check out rows of preserved shophouses teeming with cafes, arts, crafts and curios. As the name suggests, the area was originally settled by Singapore’s Arab traders, and it remains the place to go for Middle Eastern delicacies. 

2000 to present day: City in a garden

At the turn of the century the Singapore we love today was taking shape, but the city still had a few surprises up its sleeve. 2008 saw the opening of the Singapore Flyer, then the world’s largest observation wheel.

Marvel at the people below at Marina Bay, or gaze out to sea or across the island to see just how much this garden city has changed over the years. And did we mention the sunset?

No trip to Singapore would be complete without a visit to Marina Bay Sands. Whether you want to eat, shop, gamble, take in a show or even ice-skate, MBS is the place to go.

Next door is Gardens by the Bay. Part of the government’s plan to create a city in a garden, two glass conservatories host plants from around the world, replicating conditions as diverse as tropical highlands and 2,000-metre high peaks.