A Guide to Exploring Singapore's Hawker Markets

Bring cash and come hungry—a guide to where to find street food culture around Singapore

Even Anthony Bourdain agrees: In a recent interview with Where, he said that if you're looking for the signature street food experience, you might as well head to Singapore.

The city's street food is no longer actually on the street in stalls where vendors "hawk" for customers with loud shouts or the tock-tock-tock beating of bamboo sticks. Today, it's all organized in street food hawker centers. Start your exploration of Singapore's street food at these three top Singapore street food hawker centers plus one very surprising place to find down-home, street-style food:

Maxell Road Hawker Center

Maxwell Road Hawker Center
Lunchtime at the Maxwell food center brings professionals, young couples, families to dine. The top dish is Hainanese chicken rice. (©Geoff Kohl/WhereTraveler)

Located just steps from Singapore’s bustling central business district, the Maxell Road Hawker Center is a perfect place to start your food journey. Packed with stalls, don’t miss the opportunity for a sweet, fresh fruit drink, and then find Tian Tian, which serves classic Hainanese chicken rice. The presence of a line of locals at any of the stalls tends to indicate what a 5-star rating would tend to be on Yelp or TripAdvisor. After stuffing your stomach, venture to the Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple that’s across the street at the entrance to Kreta Ayer, the ethnic heart of Singapore’s Chinatown, which makes for a pleasant exploration itself. Being the closest to the business district and tourist stops, it’s not surprising to see tourists in the Maxell Road Hawker Centre, but don’t let that dissuade you; the food here is not for show.

Changi Village Food Centre

Changi Village Food Centre, Singapore Hawker Center
At the Changi Village market, look for unique dishes in a predominantly Muslim section of the market. (©Geoff Kohl/WhereTraveler)

This hawker center in the community of Changi Village is at the heart of something of a resort community, a pleasant escape from the urbabn core of Singapore. Look for a variety of satay skewers—lamb, chicken, mutton, tripe, liver and lung—and pick up on the heavy Malay influence on many dishes here. If Chinese-influenced dishes are more your taste, you’ll find them down one row. In fact, that’s the most unique element of this hawker center; the street food seems more organized by vendor type than any other center. Drinks over here. Chinese over here. Muslim tastes here. Nonetheless, it’s all classic street food in one place. Work off a meal with an afternoon hike on nearby Pulau Ubin, a parklike island where you can rent bikes or hike the shores. Or visit the Changi Museum, where touching historical exhibits document the POW camps that existed when Singapore was occupied by the Japanese during World War II.

Tiong Bahru Food Centre

Tau Suan at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, Singapore
At the Tiong Bahru Food Centre, a vendor serves up tau suan, a sweet soup-like dish of split mung beans with fried sweet dough. (©Geoff Kohl/WhereTraveler)

In the Tiong Bahru neighborhood, you’ll find art deco style everywhere—owing to its construction in the 1920s and '30s. It was one of the state’s first public housing projects (in this case the project was upscale apartments for the wealthy), but today the area has become increasingly popular for expats. At the Tiong Bahru Food Centre of hawker stalls, look for tau suan, a sweet soupy dessert of split mung beans and deep fried dough with sweet starch. Continue the dessert theme with an order of carrot cake; formerly a snack, it’s now served as a main course. Afterwards, explore the neighborhood (especially around Yong Siak Street), which has gone from a sleepy housing estate to a vibrant district of culture, with stops at Plain Vanilla Bakery, which holds literary readings and attracts a hipster crowd; at Yoga Movement studio; at 40 Hands Coffee (owned by Australians); and at Books Actually (a Singlish bookstore).

ION Orchard Food Hall

Fresh crabs on ice in Singapore food hall
Crabs on ice in the food hall at the basement of the ION mall on Orchard Road. (©Geoff Kohl/WhereTraveler)

The most surprising place to find Singaporean street food is the basement of the luxurious Orchard Road shopping mall ION Orchard, a few stories below the gleaming showrooms of brands including Dolce & Gabbana. The basement here works a bit like Dante-designed world. As shoppers descend the levels and end up below ground, the dining options shift from formal restaurants to a food-court setting that brings in hawker-style dishes. Fresh crabs sit on ice ready for kitchen prep. Two plucked chickens hang from a decidedly sanitary stainless-steel rack, attracting diners to what is at its core the classic menu of a Singapore food style. Diners walk off with plates of chicken and rice, and a side of chicken innards runs just $0.80—leaving travelers plenty of extra dollars for that Burberry coat you can find on level 2.