Here’s our kid-friendly guide to the best places to check out in Sembawang, including the famous battleship playground, hot springs, black and white bungalows, last remaining coastal kampong mosque, and more!
Located at the northern corner of the island, Sembawang is one of Singapore’s many residential towns and is home to more than 100,000 residents. Although not as well known for being a heritage destination compared to historic districts such as Kampong Glam, Little India or Chinatown, Sembawang actually has a rich naval heritage that can be experienced through the historic buildings and landmarks that remain standing today. And there are plenty of things to do in Sembawang too!
Try exploring Sembawang through the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) latest self-guided heritage trail, which takes you to black and white bungalows, a century-old neoclassical building, a National Monument, a coastal kampong mosque and the famous natural hot spring on mainland Singapore. Many hidden gems await your discovery in this coastal town! Here are our top highlights.
1. Spot Sembawang trees and play at the Battleship Playground
The name “Sembawang” is derived from the Sembawang tree (Mesua ferruginea), which grows along forested rivers in Southeast Asia and can be identified by its leathery leaves, white flowers and brown roundish fruit. These trees once grew in abundance near Sungei Sembawang but were cleared in the early 20th century to make way for plantations. In recent years, a number of Sembawang trees were planted by the National Parks Board in Sembawang Park. Try spotting them when you visit Sembawang Park!
Also at Sembawang park is the eye-catching maritime-themed playground—a fairly new addition to the park following its renovation in 2011. Resembling a battleship, the playground pays homage to the former Sembawang Naval Base which occupied this area from the 1920s to 1971. Kids will love the climbing structure, slides and sandpit (go early before it gets too hot as there’s minimal shade!).
2. Dine at a century-old historic house by the sea
Sembawang boasts a scenic coastal view looking across to the Johor Strait. During the 1900s, this view attracted wealthy individuals to build holiday homes overlooking the water channel. One such holiday home is Beaulieu House, which was built in the 1910s by Jewish businessman Joseph Brooke David as a retreat from downtown Singapore. Beaulieu means “beautiful place” in French, and this name could refer to both its seascape and the intricate design of the building, as seen from its detailed Victorian-style cast-iron railings and terrazzo clay tiles lining the floor of its front porch.
When the area was acquired by the British in the 1920s to be developed into the Sembawang Naval Base, the house became the residence of C.H. Cole, the Superintending Civil Engineer for the base. It continued to house senior British officers until 1971 when the British withdrew their military forces from Singapore. Since 1981, Beaulieu House enjoys a new lease of life as a seaside restaurant, where you can dine while enjoying the coastal view.
3. Explore the only remaining coastal kampong mosque
Sembawang used to be home to coastal villages such as the former Kampong Tengah, Kampong Wak Hassan and Kampong Tanjong Irau. Although these villages are no longer around, one landmark dating back to the kampong days remains—Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang. Opened in 1963, the mosque is Singapore’s only surviving coastal kampong mosque. Before the mosque was built, the Muslim community in this area only had a surau (prayer house) to serve their religious needs. Village residents then came together to raise funds for the construction of a mosque, bolstered by a $10,000 donation from the Lee Foundation.
Masjid Petempatan is an example of traditional Malay mosque design in Singapore, an element of which can be seen in the carved wooden pillar known as a tiang seri in its prayer hall. A kentong (wooden slit-drum) can still be found at the entrance of the mosque, which was struck as a call to prayer for the surrounding coastal villages in the past.
Also not to be missed is the large rubber tree within the mosque’s grounds! The tree is said to be the oldest known rubber tree in Singapore after the one in the Singapore Botanic Gardens fell in 2013.
4. Admire the black and white bungalows built for British naval officers
The former Sembawang Naval Base was built to protect Britain’s territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Constructed from the 1920s, it was Britain’s largest naval base in Far East, and had a huge impact on the social and physical landscape of Sembawang. The naval base not only housed the dockyard (now Sembcorp Marine Admiralty Yard), but it was also where thousands of British naval officers, sailors and local dockyard workers lived. Although some places of residence such as the Canberra Asian Quarters have given way to new housing flats, the black and white bungalows and smaller arts and crafts style houses can be glimpsed along Admiralty Road East.
For a closer look, head into Queen’s Avenue to see the black and white bungalows that were built as single-family homes for the British officers. These homes differ from the ones found along Gibraltar Crescent, which are the oldest of the houses in the naval base. Built in 1929, the Gibraltar Crescent houses were originally occupied by the engineers of Sir John Jackson Limited and were built for communal housing, as seen by its longer corridors and rooms set further apart.
While exploring this area, you might also notice an unusual building at 318-2 Gibraltar Crescent. Informally known as the Japanese Theatre, this house resembles an English barnyard and was built during the Japanese Occupation by prisoners of war. It was allegedly used to screen Japanese propaganda films during the occupation, and was later used by the British to hold theatre shows and badminton games after the World War II.
Please note that the houses in these areas are private residences. We advise you to respect the residents, keep the noise level to a minimum, and do not enter the compounds. Please also refrain from taking photos and videos of the houses.
5. Visit a National Monument
Sembawang is one of the few residential towns to also contain a National Monument! The Former Admiralty House was once the grandest building in Sembawang as it was the home of the highest-ranking British officer in charge of the naval base. Built in the arts and crafts architecture style between 1939 and 1940, the house was originally known as Navy House or Canberra House, after the nearby Canberra Road.
Built on the top of a hill, the house’s location was both symbolic and practical. Its high vantage point was meant to indicate that the admirals of this house were the most senior in the naval base, and it also gave its occupants a clear view of the Sembawang Naval Base and the Johor Straits where warships would enter for repair works and refuelling. Gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, this house—which has been renamed Canberra House since 2019—will be part of the Bukit Canberra integrated community hub. It is slated to open progressively from 2021.
6. Head to Sembawang Beach
Sembawang Beach at Sembawang Park has to be our favourite beach on the northern side of Singapore! There’s a lovely slice of sand with lots of shade provided by the large trees along the coast. We highly recommend going early in the morning or in the late afternoon, and preferably when the weather’s been good all week – the water quality is great when there’s no rain!
7. Dip your toes in a natural hot spring (temporarily closed)
What better way to end a day’s worth of exploration than to soak your feet in the only natural hot spring on mainland Singapore? Sadly the hot springs at Sembawang Hot Spring Park are temporarily closed due to the pandemic, however, it is usually a popular destination for Singaporeans across the island. The discovery of the hot spring dates back to 1908 when it was made known to the press by a municipal ranger. However, the landowner, Seah Eng Keong, was already aware of the spring and was in the midst of getting the water analysed. Once it was determined to be safe for drinking, Seah embarked on a business venture to have the spring water bottled and sold. Over the years, water from the spring was sold under various brands such as Zom, Vichy Water and Seletaris!
The spring was also popular with the public as the mineral-rich water was believed to have medicinal properties, which allegedly helped relieve arthritis and rheumatism. Until today, locals across the island visit the hot spring for medicinal reasons, with some even carrying buckets to bring the water home! Today, Sembawang Hot Spring Park also houses a small café for patrons to grab a bite while taking in a view of the newly installed floral walk lined with fruit trees—a throwback to the kampong days!
What else you should know about Sembawang
How to get around in Sembawang
If you’re travelling by public transport, Sembawang has two MRT stations: Sembawang MRT and the recently-opened Canberra MRT, both on the North-South Line. There are also a number of buses you can get around with from Sembawang Bus Interchange (located right by Sembawang MRT) so when in doubt, check Google Maps or gothere.sg for a suitable route to get to your destination!
Malls in Sembawang
Sembawang Shopping Centre
Looking for somewhere to eat, or need to run errands after your Sembawang exploration? Sembawang Shopping Centre has a number of casual F&B options including Burger King, Hei Sushi, Saizeriya, Killiney cafe and more. There’s also Giant supermarket in the basement, plus Daiso Japan (one of two outlets in the north!) and even F45.
You can take a shuttle bus to Sembawang Shopping Centre from a number of pick-up points in Sembawang, Yishun and Woodlands. You can find info on Sembawang Shopping Centre’s shuttle bus service here!
Sembawang Shopping Centre, 604 Sembawang Road, Singapore 758459
If you’re coming or going by Sembawang MRT, it’s worth stopping by Sun Plaza! They’ve got all the usual suspects in the fast food scene, including KFC, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, plus a number of grab-and-go F&B stalls and a Koufu food court. It’s also where the only Decathlon in the north side resides, albeit a small one–but it’s a great place to pick up any last-minute items you may need for an outdoor adventure!
Sun Plaza, 30 Sembawang Drive, Singapore 757713
Canberra Plaza is the newest mall to open in Sembawang, and you may have heard of it due to the fact that it’s home to one of four A&W outlets islandwide! Right next to A&W is McDonald’s with its own indoor playground area (which is temporarily closed due to Covid-19) and on the same floor there’s a great halal food court serving various cuisines. There’s also a Daiso Japan here, and NTUC Fairprice if you need to make a quick grocery run. On the rooftop you can find a small water play area for kids (however it is also temporarily closed due to Covid-19). Canberra Plaza is also near Canberra MRT station, connected by an overhead bridge for easy access.
Canberra Plaza, 133 Canberra View, Singapore 750133
Grab your copy of NHB’s heritage trail companion guide and map at Roots.gov.sg, or pick up a hardcopy at Sembawang Town Council, Sembawang Community Club or Canberra Community Club*!
Subject to availability.