Before the time of fancy megamalls and Korean fashion, traditional markets were the go-to for every need in Singapore — food, clothes and even home accessories. A true testament to the melting pot of cultures and experiences Singapore offers, these markets are where you can catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the local community. Raw, unfiltered neighbourhoods fused with interesting sights of traditional costumes, trinkets and of course, delectable local food. In fact, you may find them to be some of your best vacation highlights!
Go Bollywood at Little India’s Tekka Centre
Situated in the heart of Little India, Tekka Centre is the epitome of Singapore’s Indian culture — picture flower-garland vendors, traditional sari (an Indian costume worn by women) tailors, provision shops brimming with Indian herbs and spices and the distinctively flavourful Indian cuisine.
On the first floor, you’ll find a bustling hawker center with an astounding variety of cuisines. But since you’re in Little India, you can’t miss trying Indian rojak (literally translates to ‘mixed’), a savory assortment of potatoes, eggs, bean curd, vegetables and battered prawns, served with a sweet and spicy peanut chili sauce. Alternatively, take on a hearty plate of nasi briyani, (traditional spiced rice dish) served with delectable chicken or mutton, vegetables and a gravy or curry. If you’d like something lighter, you can also try the masala dosa (thin crispy crepe made using fermented rice and lentil batter and stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes). All of these are best savored using your hands in true Indian dining style!
When you’re done with your meal, head up to the second floor and you’ll find yourself greeted by rows and rows of vibrant traditional garments. These Indian costumes may vary from saris to Punjabi suits, which are two-piece pants sets worn by Indian men and women (commonly those from the Punjabi community). If you want to bring home a piece of this colorful culture, there are also shops selling shiny bangles and accessories that go best with these traditional costumes.
Address: 665 Buffalo Road, Singapore 210665
Operating Hours: 6:30am to 9:00pm
How to get there: Take the MRT to Little India Station (North East Line) and walk 2 minutes to Tekka Centre
Experience the kampong spirit at Geylang Serai Market
Tucked away in one of Singapore’s oldest Malay settlements, Geylang Serai Market offers a full spectrum of the nation’s Malay culture — where every corner of the market provides a glimpse into the different influences from various communities in the Malay archipelago.
With an array of food stalls on the second floor of the market, this is where you can sample the best of Malay cuisine in one seating. Start with a plate of nasi padang (steam rice with side dishes) with beef or chicken rendang (coconut based meat stew) for a lip-smacking spicy, rich and creamy flavor. Add on a side of begedel ( potato patty) and vegetables if you’d like! Then get yourself a sinfully deep-fried but oh-so-good goreng pisang (banana fritter) or putu piring (rice cake with coconut sugar) for a snack. The grand finale? Wash down your satisfying meal with an ice-cold, traditional cup of teh tarik (‘pulled’ tea)!
Besides the yummy food, Geylang Serai Market also offers a plethora of traditional Malay outfits found on the first floor. But another kind of loot that might interest you are the many fragrant spices that give Malay cuisine that extra oomph. All the spices sold can be grounded upon request and packed. In fact, go ahead and strike a conversation with the stall-owners! You may even get a passed-down recipe or two for your favorite Singaporean dishes — that’ll be a real treat for all your friends and family back home!
Address: 1 Geylang Serai, Singapore 402001
Operating Hours: 8:00am to 10:00pm
How to get there: Take the MRT to Eunos Station (East West Line) and walk 8 minutes to Geylang Serai Market
Travel back in time at Chinatown Street
A lively neighborhood of vibrant lanterns strung across buildings, souvenir shops, and endless choices of street food and unassuming Chinese restaurants — it’s hard to imagine this place was once strewn with opium dens, gambling houses and brothels.
Many parts, however, remain reminiscent of Singapore’s humble past. For instance, the Chinatown Food Street pays homage to the local street hawkers that once ruled the open-air roads — only now we have shelters and cooling systems to make sure you get the full experience without breaking a sweat. Its cuisine ranges from affordable hokkien mee (Chinese-style wok noodles simmered in a flavourful prawn broth) and fried oysters with egg, to a more lavish affair with local favorites like chilli crab and sambal stingray (barbecued stingray with a spicy, tangy paste). Every year, they’re also host to The Fifty Cents Fest where these popular street foods are sold from as low as S$0.50 to a maximum of S$3!
After a satisfying meal, weave in and out the many shops lined up along the Chinatown Street Market. Home appliances? They got it. I-heart-SG t-shirts? Checked. Traditional paper fans with intricate Chinese paintings, oriental qipaos (traditional Chinese costume worn by women) and uniquely Singapore souvenirs? Yes, yes, and yes! It’s no wonder local markets were the malls of yesteryear.
Address: From Smith St, Singapore 058938 to Trengganu St, Singapore 050005
11:00am to 11:00pm (Chinatown Food Street)
10:00am to 9:00pm (Chinatown Street Market)
How to get there: Take the MRT to Chinatown Station (North East Line) and walk 2 minutes to Chinatown Street Market (Chinatown Food Street is right beside it)
Be at the center of it all at Tiong Bahru Market
Despite streets lined with hipster cafes and boutique shops, part of the charm of Tiong Bahru remains its rich history as the nation’s first and oldest public housing complex. Tiong Bahru Market, for one, has been refreshed and relocated a couple of times, yet remains the hub of the neighborhood where people — regardless of race or religion — gather for a good time over good food.
Above the wet market on the first floor lies a hawker center serving all kinds of cuisine — Chinese, Malay, even Thai and vegetarian. Some of the crowd favorites include the famous chwee kueh (steamed rice cake topped with radish relish), springy wanton noodles (minced meat wrapped in dumplings) and good ol’ Hainanese chicken rice Singapore-style. Opposite the savory spectrum is the ice-cold, super shiok (Singlish for ‘satisfying’) Milo Dinosaur Ice Kachang (beans, usually red beans in this case)— milo powder generously poured over a hump of shaved ice, sure to satisfy your sweet tooth. Don’t be frightened by the snaking queues — as Singaporeans would say, it isn’t good if it’s got no queue!
That’s not all you get at Tiong Bahru Market. Similar to the other places, you’ll find provision stores selling all kinds of culinary spices, canned goods and condiments. But for our horticulture-lovers (or if you’re just nuts over flowers), the market is also home to an unassuming flower shop on the first level that many go to for fresh blooms at reasonable prices. An orchid branch, representative of Singapore’s national flower, for example, can go as low as S$0.40 and up to only S$1.20. Press it up in a book or hang it upside-down to dry and you’ve got yourself a pretty and non-space consuming souvenir to bring home!
Address: 30 Seng Poh Road, Singapore 168898
Operating Hours: 7:00am to 8:00pm, closed on Mondays
How to get there: Take an MRT to Tiong Bahru Station (East West Line) and walk 8 minutes to Tiong Bahru Market
While Singapore has developed greatly in the past decades, we’re never one to forget our roots — and it’s one of the beautiful things that makes us the multi-cultural, vibrant city it is today! These traditional markets are but four of the many others peppered around our heartlands. But if you’re in town and wondering where to go or what to do in Singapore, they’re enough to show you a different side of this nation — one that may not be as glamorous, but definitely just as captivating.
If you need a little help navigating your way around town, check out this article too.