The area south of the mouth of the Singapore River was swamp until land reclamation in the mid-1820s rendered it fit for building. Within just a few years, Commercial Square here had become the colony’s busiest business address, boasting the banks, ships’ chandlers and warehouses of a burgeoning trading port. The square was later Singapore’s main shopping area until superseded by Orchard Road in the late 1960s; today the square, now called Raffles Place, forms the nucleus of Singapore’s Financial District (also referred to as the CBD, or Central Business District). Until recently, if the area figured in the popular imagination at all, it would have been because of the rogue trader Nick Leeson, whose antics here brought about the Barings Bank collapse of 1995, though his transgressions seem like small beer when set against the global financial improprieties of recent years. East of here, the southern jaw of Marina Bay, Marina South, is home to yet more banks and features risk-taking in a different vein as the site of the striking Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino.
Just north of Raffles Place, the pedestrianized row of waterfront shophouses known as Boat Quay, almost at the old mouth of the Singapore River, is one of the island’s notable urban regeneration successes. Derelict in the early 1990s, it’s since become a thriving hangout, sporting a huge collection of restaurants and bars. The area’s historical significance may be easier to appreciate through its street names – Synagogue Street nearby, for example, was indeed the site of Singapore’s first synagogue.
Raffles Place makes a good prelude to a stroll along the south bank of the river to Boat Quay or across Cavenagh Bridge to the Colonial District, but the main reason to visit the Financial District itself is to feel like an ant in a canyon of skyscrapers. To see what things look like from the top of that canyon, the best place to head is One Raffles Place, the complex to the west of the square, with truly stunning views from its rooftop bar, 1-Altitude. The three roads that run southwest from Raffles Place – Cecil Street, Robinson Road and Shenton Way – are all chock-a-block with more high-rise banks and financial houses.