The story begins way back, before what is considered Singapore's modern history. In the 14th century, the river was the area of settlement of a port city known as Singapura (Lion City) and subsequently Temasek (Sea Town), which gives its name to many local institutions and organisations today. Vessels from the great Asian kingdoms of that era anchored in the harbour of this important trading post, hailing from lands in India, China, and Southeast Asia. Even then, the river was the site of a “great city”, as recounted in colourful detail in the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu). At this point, the Singapore River was home to diverse cultures – Malays, Chinese, Indians, Orang Laut (indigenous “Sea People”), as well as Javanese and Siamese. However, the kingdom of Temasek was subsequently overrun, by either a Siamese or Javanese force, and declined in importance after that century.
The Singapore River by night.
The arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles, considered by most to be the founder of modern Singapore, revived the island's fortunes. Raffles is believed to have first set foot on the riverside in 1819, where he established Singapore as the first free port and entrepôt in the region, centred around the mouth of the Singapore River. With the growth of trade in the region, and its prime location on the crossroads of important trade routes among other factors, Singapore flourished. In the era of junks, bumboats and tongkangs, this developed into a key port of call for ships from all around the world, bringing cargo that would be unloaded on the shores the Singapore River. The replica bumboats of the popular Singapore River Cruise are authentic enough to take you back in time, and are a legacy of the flurry of commercial activity along the river.
Fast-forward to a century later, when rapid urbanisation and the expansion of trade in Singapore had taken its toll on the river. The Singapore River had grown polluted, as a result of heavy marine traffic, riverine activities, and burgeoning urbanisation. Post-independence, Singapore's government turned its eye back on the river, and it took 10 years to clean up the mess, making possible the refreshing waterfront activities that exist along the river today. The shophouses and godowns along the river now house a range of cafés, restaurants, and clubs. Today, the Singapore River is a prime spot for residents and tourists alike to appreciate a blossoming arts scene, enjoy the bustling nightlife, or simply take a breather.
Sunset on the Singapore River.
Three quays line the Singapore River - Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, and Robertson Quay, each offering something different. Boat Quay is a choice destination for alfresco dining and merry-making, with restaurants and pubs lining the promenade. The five blocks of restored warehouses in Clarke Quay house restaurants and nightclubs, serving as one Singapore's prime nightlife destinations. Robertson Quay offers a more tranquil ambience, with alfresco wine bars, arts houses and cafés. The Singapore River is the perfect location for an evening out, no matter what you are looking for.
The North Bank of the Singapore River.
Flowing through the heart of the city, the Singapore River is a timeless juxtaposition between old and new, work and play. The Singapore River has been a lifeline for Singaporeans since ancient times, through the colonial era and the early days of the nation's independence. The century-old godowns and shophouses along the river, and colonial-era civic institutions of the north bank stand in stark contrast to the striking skyscrapers of the downtown skyline on the south bank. The Singapore River remains an incredible microcosm of Singapore's rich historical and cultural heritage, and is a truly classic destination that is rarely, if ever, missed.
For a self-guided tour along the Singapore River, check out our Singapore River Heritage Trail!