The mere mention of the Raffles Hotel conjures up an image of timeless luxury: this is among the last remaining bastions of old Singapore. It all began when the Sarkies brothers—who founded the E&O in Penang and The Strand in Yangon—bought what was then a private bungalow by the sea, opening the Raffles in 1887 with just 10 rooms. Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad were among the first guests and the two authors spread word of the nascent hotel. Since then, famous writers (Somerset Maugham, Pablo Neruda), heads of state (Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II), movie stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Depp) and singers (Michael Jackson, David Bowie) have all been welcomed as guests. The legendary grande dame has hosted countless special occasions for everyday Singaporeans and influential figures like former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who married at the Raffles in 1950 and celebrated his birthday here every year until his passing. More recently, a sensitive makeover by New York–based interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud has ushered in a new chapter for the beloved Southeast Asian icon.
It’s hard to believe the Singapore Strait once fronted the hotel (hence the Beach Road address). Guests who stayed at the Raffles over a century ago could never have imagined the area morphing into what it is now with the help of land reclamation. These days, the monumental colonial-era government buildings that make up the Civic District are dwarfed by ultramodern office blocks and hotels. Within walking distance are attractions such as National Gallery Singapore, the Asian Civilisations Museum, CHIJMES—a dining and entertainment hub housed in a converted 19th-century convent—and the Raffles City mall with its silvery high-rise towers. Yet the three-story Raffles is a leafy oasis within the hyper-modern sprawl. At the same time, it promises easy access to Singapore’s excellent public transit system: an exit of Esplanade MRT can be found on the other side of Beach Road, and the City Hall MRT interchange is but one block away.
Thanks to a careful two-year facelift, the neo-Renaissance main wing from 1899—and indeed the rest of the property—gleams brighter than ever before. Champalimaud’s studio gave the updated interiors a classic-contemporary aesthetic in tune with the Raffles’ nostalgic character, so much so the white-and-cream colonial hotel seems preserved in time. Many of the original late 19th-century furnishings—antique rocking chairs, old pianos—remain. The grandfather clock by the entrance has only been moved twice since 1887, during large-scale renovations. (At eight o’clock every evening, it chimes to the tune of “I Will See You Again.”) There’s also a huge gramophone with the original records, including one Christmas track played every December. The original white columns in the soaring, skylit lobby still stand, but the 8,200-piece crystal chandelier is a new addition. Tropical plants and trees abound in courtyards, where, beyond the foliage, skyscrapers stretch upwards.
All 115 suites at Raffles Singapore feature four-poster beds, white marble bathtubs, and comfortable batik-print cloth slippers. While manual knobs for light controls work just fine, there’s also the option of using the in-room iPad to adjust the settings—or you could call on your personal butler. State Room suites have front terraces that face the lush courtyards and spacious balconies at the back. The 12 Personality Suites are named after famous people who have stayed here. The Somerset Maugham suite is stocked with his books, while portraits of Ava Gardner decorate her eponymous suite. For a truly opulent experience, nothing beats the two-bedroom 263 square-meter Presidential suite, which comes with an impressive selection of books pertinent to Singapore and a personal chef upon request.
Food and drink
The Raffles is most well-known for the Long Bar where the iconic sweet, pink Singapore Sling cocktail was invented by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915. (It’s the only place in the city-state where littering—discarding peanut shells on the floor—is permitted.) The Writers Bar with its swanky gold counter pays homage to authors who stayed at the hotel; cocktails here are inspired by Singaporean and Raffles writer-in-residence Madeleine Lee’s poems. At Yì by Jereme Leung, whose name means “art” in Chinese, dishes like spicy Sichuan chicken and wok-fried seafood mee sua are delicate and artfully presented. The Butcher’s Block doesn’t just serve heavenly steaks—the bouchot mussels and heirloom tomatoes are divine, too. Operating since 1892, Tiffin Room is the oldest restaurant in Singapore. It offers a semi-buffet breakfast with à la carte plates such as nasi lemak, pancakes, and eggs Benedict; the menu showcases North Indian fare at lunch and dinner. The long-standing Bar & Billiard Room has been reimagined as Italian venue Osteria BBR by Alain Ducasse, whose specialties include a delightful homemade tagliolini. Then there’s La Dame de Pic for French fine dining with a dash of Singaporean flavor.
Next to the 24-hour gym on the third floor, the Raffles’ rooftop swimming pool has 360-degree views of downtown Singapore and provides a great vantage point from which to admire the sunset. Fancy a day of pampering? Arrive early at the Raffles Spa to enjoy the vitality pool, sauna, and ice fountain. Treatment options range from the 60-minute Rescue and Release massage utilizing Swedish techniques to an indulgent full-body gemstone massage.
If requested in advance, butlers can prepare rooms for families with children, filling them with toys, teddy bears, board games, Nyonya kueh, and cookie jars. Video games and children’s books will also keep the little ones entertained; an activity sheet at turndown encourages guests to embark on an educational treasure hunt through the grounds. The adjoining Raffles Arcade has shops that sell jigsaw puzzles, postcards, and stationery.
The Raffles has its own herb garden where pandan, laksa leaf, roselle, and different types of pepper and basil are grown for use in the restaurants. Drinking water in the suites comes in cartons made from paper and recycled plant-based plastics, and bath amenities are provided in large refillable containers. Twenty percent of the hotel premises is non-air conditioned, relying on fans or natural ventilation. Raffles Singapore plants native trees in Indonesia’s threatened rain forests as part of a program run by ecoSPIRITS, which uses low-carbon and low-waste technology to source premium spirits worldwide.
Sign up for a tour with one of the resident historians who will regale you with colorful anecdotes about the hotel. You’ll see the grounds where the last tiger was shot and killed in Singapore in 1902, and the lawns where the staff buried silverware and other valuable items during the wartime Japanese occupation, and the terrace where Michael Jackson dined with an orangutan in 1993.
Reviewed by Dana Ter