Travel 6 minutes 09 January 2024

Raffles Hotel Singapore: A Tale of the Iconic 19th Century Hotel

Throughout its 135 years of history, the Grande Dame of Singapore has hosted countless dignitaries and celebrities for good reason. The storied property on Beach Road is not only rich in history, but also in luxurious experiences that will be remembered through time.

If the walls of Raffles Hotel Singapore could talk, oh, the stories they could tell. From an escaped circus tiger staying the night beneath the hotel’s Bar & Billiard Room, to a young Rudyard Kipling editing his manuscript for The Jungle Book out on the veranda, the Grande Dame of 1 Beach Road has played host to countless dignitaries, celebrities, and novelists for over 135 years — and for good reason, too.

Raffles Hotel Singapore, which opened its doors to guests in 1887, is one of the few remaining 19th century hotels in the world.

L-R: Architectural details of the Raffles Square and Palm Court
L-R: Architectural details of the Raffles Square and Palm Court

Today, Raffles Hotel Singapore, with its neo-renaissance architecture and colonnaded portico, stands out amid its towering glass and steel-clad neighbours. It has, through the years, been passed through the hands of multiple owners and undergone numerous transformations — what began as a 10-room waterfront bungalow has evolved into an expansive multi-winged, 115-suite institution.

The historical landmark may have withstood the test of time, but it was not without peril. The hotel was once dangerously close to being torn down in favour of more lucrative, shiny skyscrapers before the Singapore government gazetted it as a national monument in 1987, the same year it celebrated its centennial anniversary.

Its latest refurbishment came off a 2015 acquisition by Accor when a tired Raffles Hotel Singapore got a much-needed facelift led by architecture and design firm Aedas and celebrated interior design guru Alexandra Champalimaud, who has also had a hand in the refurb of numerous iconic hotels including New York’s Plaza, London’s Dorchester, and the 18th-century Monkey Island Estate in Bray.

When the hotel reopened in 2019, I paid a visit, eager to witness the fruits born by the two-year renovation, and I was not disappointed. As the English playwright and one of the hotel’s renowned guests, Somerset Maugham, once wrote, “Raffles Hotel Singapore stands for all the fables of the exotic East” — and it is easy to understand why.

Raffles Hotel Singapore
Raffles Hotel Singapore

A New Lease of Life

Upon arriving at the hotel’s gravelled driveway, the door of my taxi was ceremoniously opened by a stoic Sikh doorman dressed in familiar ivory livery. “Welcome to Raffles Hotel Singapore,” a baritone voice greeted me. The hotel’s original fluted Victorian columns, polished marble floors, and dark timbered beams frame the Grand Lobby, while a charming grandfather clock — one of the oldest pieces of furniture in the hotel — chimes in the background. If you happen to find yourself in the hotel lobby in the morning, keep an eye out for a member of the hotel’s staff coming out to wind up the said clock.

So, what exactly has changed? It feels as though nothing much has, but at the same time, everything. The danger of renovating a legacy property is either drowning it in nostalgia, or changing far too much and, therefore, obliterating its personality. With seemingly minor edits, the entire hotel appears to be inexplicably modernised and updated. This delicate sleight of hand is undeniably Champalimaud’s true skill.

“Renovating such a renowned and storied building that has a wealth of immaterial value embroidered within its makeup was a humbling experience for the team,” managing director of Raffles Hotel Singapore, Christian Westbeld, shared. The hotel team, along with Champalimaud, consistently edited their process throughout the restoration to layer history with a contemporary approach. The result is an elegant update that is at once subtle, discreet, and yet, unmistakable.

The Grand Staircase opens up the lobby at Raffles Hotel Singapore
The Grand Staircase opens up the lobby at Raffles Hotel Singapore

In the lobby, dated lighting fixtures have been removed; and in its place, a modern crystal chandelier hangs from the third floor’s skylight. Grand but not intrusive, the chandelier appears to fit right in. In the iconic Long Bar where bartender Ngiam Tong Boon invented the Singapore Sling in 1915, Champalimaud and her team combined the bar’s original plantation style and palm-shaped ceiling fans with new monochrome rattan chairs and marble-topped tables, giving the space a new lease of life.

The State Room Suite Parlour
The State Room Suite Parlour

The Quiet Luxury Affair

Staying at Raffles Hotel Singapore is a luxurious affair, and their check-in process sets the tone for this right-off-the-bat. The hotel’s check-in takes place in the comfort of your room; and in lieu of a flimsy plastic card, guests are given leather-bound key cards embossed with the hotel’s logo.

If you are booked into one of the hotel’s 12 Personality Suites, you will receive a card embossed with one of the personalities who have resided at the hotel instead. These suites, inspired by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, and Somerset Maugham, bear memorabilia unique to the personality featured.

There are, altogether, 115 suites spanning nine categories. And while the suites in each category vary in size and view, they all come equipped with a three-part layout — a parlour for living and dining; an airy bedroom with a ceiling fan; and a Bianco Dolomite marble-clad double vanity bathroom with a Victorian-style bathtub and separate stalls for a shower and toilet.

L-R: The Palm Court Suite's Veranda and the Promenade Suite's Bedroom
L-R: The Palm Court Suite's Veranda and the Promenade Suite's Bedroom

The hotel has also managed to retain its age-old charm while updating and elevating the experience for the guests — digital tablets with the ability to control everything, from the room’s temperature to lights and curtains, are available in every suite alongside mechanical gold and black lighting fixtures from a time past. Details like these are, without a doubt, what set Raffles Hotel Singapore apart from the city’s endless slew of hotels.

Each suite also comes with a dedicated butler, with whom you will be introduced to after your check-in. They will be available 24/7 to assist you with anything throughout your stay — from helping you plan a birthday party, to making dining reservations, to drawing up a bath at your preferred time.

“Our butlers are trained to be keen observers,” Westbeld explains when we asked what sets the butlers at Raffles Hotel Singapore apart. “It is not surprising for them to make suggestions to a guests’ itinerary or put forward ideas on how they can enjoy the different hotel experiences or the city’s tourist attractions.” The Raffles service ethos, he shares, is meant to be like a gentle breeze — attentive, intuitive yet perfectly discreet.

After checking in, the Raffles world is your oyster. You may choose to remain holed up in your suite with a book from the shelf — a curated collection of literature written by the novelists and playwrights who have, too, been a guest of the hotel — or venture to the rooftop pool, spa, or gym, for a spot of wellness.

The hotel is also home to a team of resident historians who lead complimentary history tours within the premises on a daily basis. Join one of the sessions to learn about the hotel’s rich history, as well as gain access to parts of the property that would otherwise be out-of-bounds. Just make sure to register your interest with the concierge in advance as there are limited spots available.

L-R: The Berlingots at MICHELIN-starred La Dame de Pic Singapore and Long Bar's famed Singapore Sling
L-R: The Berlingots at MICHELIN-starred La Dame de Pic Singapore and Long Bar's famed Singapore Sling

"Feed at Raffles"

Activities out of the way, it is now time to heed the advice of Kipling and “Feed at Raffles”, a phrase he coined during a visit as he was so enamored with the hotel’s food. With six well-appointed dining establishments and three bars within the hotel, we think Kipling is onto something.

The Long Bar is a must-visit for many travelers for a two main reasons: it is the birthplace of the iconic Singapore Sling, and you get to relive a fun bit of history by snacking on peanuts directly from the gunny sacks and sweeping the empty shells mercilessly off the table and onto the floor.

Offering a nice respite from the crowd is the charming Writers Bar, a watering hole tucked into a cozy pocket of the hotel like a well-kept secret. Here, guests may pop in for a classic nightcap or opt for one of the cocktails inspired by the many literary luminaries that have graced the hotel through the decades — from author of the novella Darkness of the Heart, Joseph Conrad, to Raffles Hotel Singapore’s the first-ever Singapore Writer-in-Residence Madeleine Lee.

If you have time for one indulgent meal at the hotel, make that a dining experience at MICHELIN-starred La Dame de Pic. Opened by one of France's most decorated female chefs, Anne-Sophie Pic, the Singapore outpost features some of her signature dishes such as the Berlingots and White Mille-feuille dessert, which is a stunning finale to a remarkable meal. Service here is thoughtful, warm, and not intrusive, mirroring much of the hotel’s own hospitality ethos.

If time luckily permits, the hotel’s other dining outlets are also worth a visit. In one of the oldest parts of the hotel, the Bar & Billiard Room, authentic Tuscan cuisine is served at MICHELIN Selected Osteria BBR by Alain Ducasse with sterling silver and crystal — a hallmark of the Raffles quality. Towards the back of the hotel, Jereme Leung helms his namesake restaurant, 藝 yì by Jereme Leung, another MICHELIN Selected restaurant, and plates up contemporary Chinese cuisine that focus on single-source and seasonal ingredients.

At MICHELIN Selected Butcher’s Block, one dives into a meat-focused menu; and at Tiffin Room, North Indian delicacies inspired by the royal culinary heritage of the Maharajas. Finally, the Grand Lobby is where the refined ritual of afternoon tea takes place. As Henry James once wrote, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

The Colonnade Walkway
The Colonnade Walkway

A stay at Raffles Hotel Singapore doesn’t come cheap. A night in its lead-in category — a Studio Suite King — will set you back approximately SG$1,000 so the question is: is it worth it? My thoughts are yes, it absolutely is.

The extravagance of space in the suites, as well as the hotel grounds, are monumental. The moment you are whisked from the driveway to your suite for your check-in, it is easy to forget you are in downtown Singapore. This is quite a feat when you stop to consider that the country is only 49 kilometres from its widest tip to tip. Raffles Hotel Singapore is an impressive universe unto itself.

That’s not forgetting the 24-hour butler service that will cater to your every whim, some of the country’s best culinary offerings at your fingertips, and sweeping lawns flanked by centuries-old traveler’s palm trees. All that, combined with the hotel’s brand of discreet, intuitive service and plush room furnishings makes for a remarkable visit.

But what truly sets the Raffles Hotel Singapore apart from the slew of hotels in the city state lies in its history. While most city hotels tout views of the city’s skyline as its main draw, Raffles Hotel Singapore welcomes guests to explore the stories and legacy within its walls of over 135 years. A stay at Raffles Hotel Singapore isn’t simply about finding a comfortable place to lay your head, although that is undoubtedly a given, it is about being a part of the Raffles narrative like so many others before me, contributing a thread or two to the rich tapestry of its storied past.

As the saying goes, all great hotels are universes unto themselves, and Raffles Hotel Singapore is undoubtedly a great hotel. With that much to do and see within its walls, it is difficult to find the motivation to venture outside. If you absolutely must, a quick chat with your butler will set sightseeing plans in motion. Alternatively, you may opt for one of the hotel’s curated experiences — a four-hour shopping extravaganza with a personal stylist, or a local cultural experience which includes a private exhibition tour at the National Museum led by a curator.

Me? You will find me lounging on a rattan chair in the veranda overlooking the hotel’s quiet, idyllic courtyard on a balmy afternoon with a drink and a book in each hand. Luxury may mean different things to everyone, but for me, it is epitomised by the tranquility that comes with monumental space. Here, on the sprawling grounds lined by century-old travelers’ palms and frangipani trees gently swaying in the tropical breeze, it is easy to comprehend why I am, like so many others before me, enthralled by the magic of Raffles Hotel Singapore.

All images are courtesy of Raffles Hotel Singapore


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