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Istana Open House: Tips for visiting the home of Singapore’s Presidents

Singapore may not be run by any monarchy these days, but did you know that we still have a palace or two around the island that you can visit? The Istana is the official residence and offices of Singapore’s President and while access is restricted most of the time, the grounds are open to the public 5 times a year. I put together this little Istana Open House guide after my visit for anyone who wants to see the Istana on their own.

What is the Istana?

The Istana is one of Singapore’s oldest buildings, built back in 1869 – it is over 150 years old. It was built by British engineer John McNair on a plot of land owned by Charles Prinsep who owned a failed nutmeg plantation here.

(If those names seem somewhat familiar to you, that’s because they have roads named after them – McNair Road and Prinsep Road just around the corner.)

The Istana was formerly called Government House back in the day when the British were in charge and the various Governor-Generals that ran Singapore lived there. But after Singapore gained self governance in 1959, the name was changed to Istana, which is the Malay name given to the residences of Singapore’s former Sultans (Kings or leaders).

Today, the Istana is formally recognised as the offices and residence of Singapore’s President – fun fact: only 2 Presidents have ever lived on the Istana grounds, and even then they didn’t stay in the main building because they found it too grand.

The Istana also hosts foreign dignitaries and guests, and important functions (usually ones that the President is patron of) are also held here. I used to manage events for work that were held within the Istana’s main building, so I rarely got to see the massive gardens outside until this open house visit.

Note: there is another istana in Singapore – The Istana Kampong Gelam in the Malay quarter Kampong Gelam was once where Singapore’s early Malay ruler and his descendants used to live all the way until 1999. The government took back the land and converted the palace into what we know as the Malay Heritage Centre today.

Istana Open House Main Building Exterior
The main building at the Istana

When is the Istana Open House?

The Istana Open House typically happens 5 times a year during specific public holidays:

  • Lunar New Year – Jan/Feb
  • Hari Raya Puasa – Depends on the year
  • Deepavali – Oct/Nov
  • Labour Day – 1 May
  • National Day – 9 Aug

A note that Lunar New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali are dependent on lunar calendars, so the day for the festival each year isn’t fixed.

During the Istana Open House, visitors can enter via the main entrance along Orchard Road. You can take self-guided or guided tours around the main building on top of the hill as well as the extensive gardens of the compound.

When I visited in 2024, there were performances, stalls and food stalls in the main outdoor area, and tours conducted both inside the main building and in the gardens. All proceeds from the entrance fee and tour fees are donated to the President’s Star Charity.

Istana Open House Flag
The raised President flag means that the president is in residence! You might notice it’s not the same as the standard Singapore flag.

Entering the Istana

Honestly I’ve been quite leery of visiting the Istana during the open house as I’m not a fan of crowds and queueing, but the entrance process couldn’t have been any smoother. The Istana’s main entrance is located along Orchard Road, right next to Plaza Singapura and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station, so very conveniently located.

There are 2 queues split into Singaporeans/PRs and Foreigners – make sure you join the correct queue! There are lots of people on site to herd you to the right queue.

For Singaporeans and PRs entering the Istana, the staff at the gate do a visual check of your IC or Singpass and you’re good to go. There was a small snaking queue along the pavement in front of the main entrance, but it never stopped moving and in about 5-10 minutes we cleared the queue quite easily. No payment needed, free entrance!

For foreigners entering the Istana, the entrance process takes a bit longer as you will need to make payment to enter. It costs S$20 for adults – might be a bit steep if you have a family with you, but you are entering a space that not many tourists will see after all.

Both queues get pushed along to the security queue, and as long as you aren’t carrying anything illegal or weapon like (sharp objects, cans and canned drinks apparently are a no-no though my takeaway ice tea in a cup was fine).

It took me about 15-20 minutes to queue and enter the Istana at about 1030am, which I thought was pretty efficient with the sheer amount of people around.

Istana Open House Lawn
The long lawn at the entrance of the Istana

My recommended way to explore the Istana

When you pass by the Istana along Orchard Road, you usually only see the decorative white Istana gate and the guards on either sides with some grass beyond – that’s because the Istana grounds are pretty extensive and cover over 40 hectares! Wear good shoes and prepare to do a lot of walking inside.

The Istana’s main building is located on top of the hill that you can’t see from the main road, so it’s a bit of a slog to walk up there. The gardens are extensive and are a mini Singapore Botanic Gardens in itself – fun fact that the gardens are managed by NParks.

I don’t think you need to enter the Istana super early in the morning to beat the crowds – when I visited it was maybe about 1030am/11am by the time I entered the grounds and I thought the crowds then were still manageable. You could go earlier in the morning if you don’t want to face the midday heat.

My advice for visitors is not to linger in the gardens when you enter, but make a beeline straight to the top of the hill to enter the Main Building as there tends to be a long queue for that. Get that out of the way and then take your time to linger around the gardens after touring the house.

Istana Open House Booths
Booths to book tours at outside the building

Istana Open House tours

Here’s more about the tours that are available at Istana Open House. A note that pictures are not allowed in the main house, but ok in the gardens so I don’t really have any indoor pix to show here.

Istana Open House Price List
Price list for Istana open house tours in Feb 2024

Tours of the Istana Main Building (Free and Easy)

These tours allows you free and easy to the house and what most people opted to do, so the queue was very, very, very long and stretched down the hill.

The Istana Main Building tour entails following a 1-way path from the entrance of the house through the various rooms of the main building, like the reception hall and the main function hall. There were many items on display, namely gifts from various heads of states to Singapore.

Cost: S$2 for SG/PR, S$10 for foreigners. One-time entrance ticket.

Tours of the Istana Main Building (Guided)

There are guided tours where a volunteer guide you walk around the house in a small group and shares stories about the architecture, history and people of the Istana. You get more information about the house beyond what you see, and the tour ends before you exit the house so you can choose to explore the house on your own before exiting.

Top tip: I suggest you make booking these tours the first thing you do when you enter. If you look at the price list above, you can see that the earliest available slots were for 2pm – that was at about 1130am. By the time the tour was over, all the guided slots were fully booked so the only option was for the self-guided tour.

Cost: S$4 for SG/PR, S$20 for foreigners. Registration required on site for specific tour time slots.

Tours of the Istana Gardens (Guided)

Registration for these garden tours (Nature Guided Tours) were located in a separate booth NEXT to the house tours queue. They seemed less popular than the house tours as we were able to join a tour that was ready to go without having to wait.

We walked through the outdoor areas of the Istana where they sometimes hold state functions and learned about the flora and fauna here, including things like former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s favourite flowers, the swans at the lake and the Japanese gardens amongst many other stories.

Istana Open House Map
Map of the Istana grounds – you can see how large it is

Cost: S$4 for SG/PR, S$10 for foreigners. Registration required on site for specific tour time slots.

My personal recommendation

I have two suggestions for experiencing the Istana Open House depending on whether you are local or not, largely because of the difference in ticket prices charged for each group.

For Singaporeans: I highly recommend taking a guided tour of the house if you can because the guide gives the architecture some context and points out more interesting things to look at when you are there. S$4 is such a steal for an hour-long guided tour, it’s a lot more meaningful than the self-guided tour because there aren’t a lot of explanations along the way.

We started queuing in the self-guided house queue at around 1130am or so. I went to check out the paid guided house tour slots which had no queue, though the earliest available slot for guided house tours was 2pm. We realised that booking that would give us time to hop onto the guided garden tour from 12-1pm and grab a quick lunch before taking the guided house tour.

S$8 for 2 tours AND not having to spend an hour or more standing in line? Worth it!

Istana Open House Swan Pond
This pair of swans have the pond all to themselves on most days sans tourists

For foreigners: the prices do feel a bit steep, not only do you have to pay to enter the grounds, but again to enter the house and to take a guided tour, which can add up pretty quickly especially if you are in a group (Entrance $20 + guided tour of house $20 + guided tour of gardens $10 = $50 per pax!)

If you’re on a budget, my suggestion would be to wander around the gardens on your own (maybe linger near a guided tour to overhear from facts?), and maybe do the self-guided house tour ($10) for a glimpse indoors.

It’s not cheap, but just remind yourself that the money is going to charity…

Honest opinion: I probably would not recommend a casual foreign tourist with limited time in Singapore to visit the Istana – there are other more interesting places to that are more entertaining and won’t cost as much. But if you are interested in politics, history or just want to say you’ve done something a little off the beaten track in Singapore and see something other tourists don’t normally have a chance to see, then you could consider doing the Istana Open House.

More on the Istana Open House at the official Istana website.

If you’re not here during any of the 5 Istana Open House days, there is an Istana Heritage Gallery located in the Istana Park right opposite the main entrance along Orchard Road. Just look for the metallic Festival Arches.

This might be a better option for tourists as it is free and there are panels that give more context to the things you are seeing. I would combine this with a visit to other nearby attractions like the National Museum of Singapore or Fort Canning Hill, or spend the day chilling along the shopping belt Orchard Road.

Istana Heritage Gallery [Google maps]. Open 10am – 6pm, closed on Wednesdays. Free admission.

Have you been to the Istana Open House already? Share your tips here if you have. Or check out other offbeat things to do in Singapore.