Bugis Street is Singapore’s most iconic area, with a striking history to boot. Pre-WWII, it was a hotspot for Japanese prostitutes. From the 50s until the 80s, the area became famous worldwide for its nightly gathering of transwomen, who hung out around the area and were later immortalised in the film Bugis Street (1995). It’s now a prime destination for tourists and locals alike, thanks to its textured history and shopping spots. Here’s our guide on how to appreciate the art and heritage of Bugis in the best way possible.
Located right in the heart of Bugis and constantly flooded with shoppers, due to the numerous stores catering to all tastes, this is a must-visit spot, once you get off at the Bugis MRT station. It’s one of the more aesthetically pleasing malls because of its integration of outdoor and modern-day indoor mall architecture, preserving the history of the area exceptionally well. Expect to see cafes, boutiques and anything else that will strike your fancy.
Here’s one of Singapore’s premier rooftop bars that has a classical Singaporean vibe, coupled with a quirky sensibility. It even has its very own mama shop (an old-fashioned sundry store) to boot. Expect cocktails that are crafted with a strong local twist and enjoy familiar local cuisine — like their own iteration of the glorious Ramly Burger. Have fun soaking in the atmosphere overlooking the city skyline, as it’s one of the best views you will have of Bugis and Singapore.
Built in 1884, this gorgeous temple is a great representation of traditional oriental temple architecture. It’s dedicated to the goddess Kuan Yin or Avalokitesvara, otherwise known as the Goddess of Mercy. This temple is especially packed on the eve of Chinese New Year. It’s a great reflection of Bugis pre-WWII architecture and history, as it was one of the few buildings to come out unscathed. Just be careful of the crowds due to its small space. Also, if you want to have a meal later, the famous Albert Centre Market is a stone’s throw away.
Another part of Singapore’s historical architectural heritage, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque was built in 1846 by the eponymous Malaccan merchant lady as gratitude for being saved in an arson attack and burglary that happened in her home. Its eclectic style — both Islamic and European — adds to its beauty, as it sits serenely amid other more modern buildings in the area. The mausoleum of its patron is found within as well — a testament to her lasting legacy in Singapore.
Singapore’s oldest museum dates back to 1849. This museum focuses on Singapore’s history, with incredible exhibitions that take you back to a bygone era. Housing numerous cultural, artistic and historical works, as well as artefacts ranging from old books, to negatives and drawings, you can easily get lost in this time capsule, designed in a Neo-Palladian and Renaissance manner. There are also film screenings and other art displays you can enjoy that change periodically.
Visit Singapore’s most talked about hipster lane. You could easily miss the lane, but it’s well worth your time to explore. Both sides of the lane are refurbished shophouses that mostly cater to a fashionable crowd, looking for unique pieces, or bar hoppers, looking for watering holes to pass the time. Expect alternative styles and chic locals to populate this charming spot. Even if you’re not fashion-savvy, this avenue is still a nice spot for viewing antiquated shophouses with various designs.
Both a museum and a cultural centre, this destination focuses on the heritage of the indigenous Malay population. Here, you can enjoy exploring the well-worn traditions of the wider Malay World, which also include the Bugis people — from where the Bugis area gets its name. There are permanent galleries to get lost in and exhibitions of art, film, drama and other creative works — both contemporary and historical. It’s also located in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood, which was the original settlement of the Malay population.
Cross the street when you exit Bugis Junction, and you’ll encounter numerous stalls packed against each other in a narrow lane that stretches out quite a bit. See handicrafts, souvenirs, phone cases, sex toys and snapbacks, fighting each other for your attention. This area often gets crowded. Best described as a flea market, crossed with a street bazaar, this spot is great for cheap bargains with goods from across Asia that are mostly peddled by young budding tradesmen and women.
Arabs were also among the early settlers in Singapore, and this area is a testament to their presence. It’s considered one of Singapore’s cool areas due to recent redevelopment that maintained the area’s original identity, while morphing it into a well-trodden night owl’s hangout. A number of cafes line the avenue in front of the grand and majestic Sultan Mosque. There are quaint gift shops and even a nifty museum that showcases life in Singapore during the 60s and 70s.
Chijmes (The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School) stands tall, cushioned between office buildings and malls. Chijmes started as a convent and girls’ school in 1852, but it was deconsecrated and transformed into what Chijmes has now become: a plaza fitted with restaurants, bars and cafes. The dreamy courtyard is a throwback to simpler times. The interior transformation is just as fascinating as the external contrast between Chijmes and the surrounding area. The massive Chijmes Hall is available for rent or for viewing and boasts a stunning early Gothic design.