Sidewalk vendors, push carts, holes in a wall – even in cities with rich reputations for fine dining, some of the best meals are on the streets.
Places like Hong Kong have blurred the line between haute cuisine and quick comfort food, as humble dim sum diners win Michelin stars.
That’s still the exception, but most chefs on the street aren’t looking for that kind of recognition. They’re cooking for crowds who pack around their stands day after day.
Here are the 23 best cities in the world for street food, from quick snacks to moveable feasts:
1. Bangkok, Thailand
It’s impossible to avoid street food in Bangkok, where sidewalk vendors in different parts of the city operate on a fixed rotation.
Some take care of the breakfast crowd with sweet soymilk and bean curd, others dish up fragrant rice and poached chicken for lunch.
The late-night crowd offers everything from phad thai noodles to grilled satay.
Chef Van, of the French brasserie 4Garcons on Thong Lor Soi 13 in Bangkok, favors street food in Chinatown – known locally as “Yarowat.”
He recommends hoy tod nai mong, a crisp fried mussel pancake: “The chef and owner makes them one by one on the charcoal stove.”
Another favorite: Kuay tiew kai soi sai nam phung: “It is noodle soup with chicken wing stew with young egg and pork intestine! I’ve had it since I was a kid.”
2. Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any city in the world, but Japanese cuisine often gets reduced to one thing: sushi.
Tokyo food lover Taro Namekawa likes to bring guests somewhere different, Teppen: Nakameguro, for grilled food.
“They are very famous for grilling extremely fresh ingredients in front of you, with special kinds of charcoal that can grill fresh ingredients with high heat quickly to trap all the goodness of them inside.”
They serve sushi too, but the grilled meats and vegetables draw in young and old Japanese diners, especially workers on their way home.
“I like this place because it gives a surprise element to my foreign guests when they visit town.”
It also has the benefit of being near the Meguro River, one of Tokyo’s most beautiful spots for flower watching.
3. Honolulu, Hawaii
Hawaiian food is a creative mishmash of cuisines, combining local traditions with the culinary tastes of successive waves of migrants from the mainland United States, Asia and Latin America.
The result includes an array of raw fish salads known as poke (poh-kay), as easily available as a sandwich in other cities.
Tuna and octopus are the two most typical options, prepared with flavors inspired by everything from kimchi to ceviche.
The city also has a thriving food truck culture. The best is a bit of a drive.
On the Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa on the North Shore, a shaded parking lot full of trucks gives a culinary tour of Hawaii.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck covers shrimp in a sauce filled with chunks of caramelized garlic.
It’s so good that it’s become a cliched place to visit – except that Giovanni’s really is delicious.
Opal Thai churns out phad thai that would make a Bangkok vendor jealous, while Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken schools visitors in the right way to prepare a Hawaiian classic.
4. Durban, South Africa
Perhaps it’s because of Durban’s lovely year-round weather, or maybe it’s the Indian influence, but the city is southern Africa’s reigning street food champ.
Local culture and cuisine is a blend sourced from Zulu, Indian and white South Africans, who each bring a little something to the mix. The city is known for its curries, which over the generations have adapted to South African ingredients and tastes.
Little Gujarat, on Prince Edward Street downtown, is a humble but revered institution that remains true to the classic Tea Room takeaway, says Louis Fourie, a Durbanite and tireless advocate for the city.
It’s vegetarian-only, and offers the distinctly Durban bunny chow – a hollowed out half-loaf of bread filled with curry, like an edible takeaway container.
Sunrise Chip & Ranch, better known as Johnny’s Rotis, is open 24 hours a day for comforting rotis.
“It’s great to soak up the munchies, said Foerie. “The ultimate Durban street food experience supported by generations.”
Afro’s Chicken, which sits by the beach, grills up its poulet to order and offers shaded seating with an ocean breeze.
5. New Orleans, Louisiana
There’s a saying in Louisiana that the gas stations serve better food than some of the country’s finest restaurants.
For locals, street food first conjures images of the once ubiquitous Lucky Dog cart, made famous (or more aptly, infamous) in “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
That’s certainly an experience, but closer to the mark is a plate lunch, served up at gas stations and convenience stores.
Debates over where to get the best plate lunch can rival the passions reserved for truly important things – like football.
Traditionally plate lunches meant comfort food like red beans and rice, served with andouille sausage and a heavily buttered slice of French bread. Or perhaps a muffuletta from Central Grocery, famous for the sandwiches brought in by Sicilian immigrants.
More recent waves of migration have helped entrench taqueria trucks and pho noodles just as firmly into the city’s street food scene.
For visitors seeking something distinctly New Orleans, chef Gigi Patout recommends fried alligator from Acme Oyster House. “We always said it tastes like chicken,” she said.
For something sweet, she suggests the New Orleans School of Cooking for pralines. “They’re made in front of you, it makes you want to buy them.”
6. Istanbul, Turkey
The most recognizable Turkish street food is probably simit – like a cross between a bagel and a pretzel.
Freshly baked, dipped in molasses and crusted with sesame seeds, they entice snackers from push-carts all over Istanbul.
Istanbul’s street food offerings stretch far beyond. Because so many people from around Turkey and the region migrate here, the city’s sidewalks are a walkable sampler platter.
Durum are basically kebabs turned into wraps. They can appear on menus of fine restaurants, but just as easily on street corners.
Turkish pizza, properly called lahmacun, presents a simple but satisfying meal at all hours of the night.
Under-appreciated overseas, Turkish ice cream is ubiquitous and immensely satisfying, especially in pistachio.
Turkey’s best kebab restaurants
7. Hong Kong
For a city where scouring an entire district and eating street foods – or sou gaai (street-sweeping) in local lingo – is considered a preferred weekend activity, it’s no surprise that Michelin decided to launch its first-ever street food guide in Hong Kong.
Hop Yik Tai (121 Lam Street, Sham Shui Po) serves some of the most silky cheong fun (steamed rice rolls soaked in soy, sesame and hoisin sauce) in town.
Fei Jie’s (Shop 4A, 55 Dundas Street, Mong Kok) braised turkey kidneys and pig intestines attract a line of fans every day.
Indoor corridors beneath the Tai On Building, a residential complex, come alive every evening as it’s turned into a vibrant late night food market.
Shau Kei Wan Main Street East and Kowloon City are two popular sou gaai destinations.
They’re home to the city’s best sweet tofu custard (Kung Wo Soy Product Factory, 67 Fuk Lo Tsun Road, Kowloon City) and Cantonese egg waffle (Master Low-Key Food Shop, Shop B3, 76A Shau Kei Wan Main Street East).
8. Paris, France
Dining in Paris can be an experience in itself. The haute cuisine is, of course, the subject of entire books, schools and libraries. But the city’s humblest food also inspires.
On a cold day, nothing’s more welcome than the appearance of street vendors roasting chestnuts.
And crepes, oh the crepes. They can be restaurant fare, but finding one on the streets around Montparnasse is even better. A buckwheat crepe with gruyere, ham and egg – crispy around the edges, soft in the middle – satisfies at any time of day.
As does a simple spread of Nutella with a sliced banana.
9. Mexico City, Mexico
People used to Tex-Mex north of the border often don’t know what to expect when they order Mexican food in Mexico.
It’s practically a different cuisine. Even the humblest taco stand in Mexico City has fresh tortillas and grilled meats, or tlacoyos (fatter than tortillas) topped with favas, cheese and a dollop of green salsa.
In recent years interest in native Mexican cuisine has exploded, making use of indigenous ingredients and methods for flavors impossible to experience anywhere else.
Tours like Eat Mexico guide newcomers through it all, from atole drinks of rice and masa for breakfast to late-night tacos and mexcal.
10. Cairo, Egypt
Some Egyptian street food has become takeaway fare internationally, with falafel, shawarma and kofta evolving into part of the global urban snack experience.
In Cairo there’s still a world of other dishes to sample that haven’t yet made their way overseas.
Koshary mixes rice, pasta, lentils and chickpeas, topped with a vinegary-tomato sauce.
Throw some fried onions on top for good measure and it’s the tasty essence of street food: warm, flavorful, cheap and filling. For dessert, hot tea helps wash down the kunafa, crystallized honey that’s better than any of Willy Wonka’s confections.
World's best cities for street food
11. Marrakech, Morocco
Smells of food fill the streets of Moroccan cities, and nowhere is the quality or diversity greater than in Marrakech.
“Marrakech is all about street food,” says Anna Koblanck, who writes a blog on African food travel.
“In the evenings, the city gathers among snake charmers and musicians at the Jemaa el-Fnaa square to taste the incredible spread of Moroccan delicacies that are on offer from the street stalls.
“You’ll find everything from freshly squeezed fruit juices to snail soup and sheep heads. It’s a full-on feast for all the senses, and not particularly pricey.”
“My favorite Moroccan street snack is the Meloui, a kind of pancake made of folded pastry that you buy hot off the stove.
“I had one in the market in Fes that was made with a spicy onion-based filling that was simply divine. It’s a very heartwarming bite, a sort of comfort street food. You see these sold everywhere in Morocco, often in the food markets.
“Moroccans have a serious sweet tooth, and you find a lot of cookies and pastries sold in the stalls in the souks. It’s a pretty, colorful and very tempting spread of sugar and calories – mountains of delicately shaped and beautifully decorated creations.”
12. Cartagena, Colombia
Walking through Cartagena is like wandering through one postcard after another, and the abundance of street carts, food trucks and kitchen windows make the journey so much better.
Almost every plaza has someone serving arepas, sort of like cornbread, sort of like a pancake, filled with cheese or eggs – and always butter.
Open grills fire up skewers, chorizo, and other carnivorous delights.
On the lighter side, ceviche comes in little cups drenched in a red cocktail sauce reminiscent of old hotel restaurants.
Towards the end of the day, when it’s time to cool off and relax, the Plaza de Trinidad has a stand serving mango pulp and vodka.
13. Portland, Oregon
Portland occupies a particularly privileged spot, near the ocean and surrounded by fertile green lands that produce excellent wine and the kind of small farms that make any straight-to-the-table business a viable option.
With an abundance of fresh and local ingredients, this is a city where street food rivals the finest restaurants.
“One of my ultimate favorite cheap eats is khao man gai at Nong’s,” said longtime Portland resident Chika Saeki.
“For $8.75 you get a large plate of poached chicken (you can choose white, dark or both), jasmine rice, her special sauce and a side of clear soup.
“That’s it. It’s perfect, and hits the spot every single time.
“Another spot that I frequent is Lardo. As the name implies, all wonderful things made of pork can be found here. But given it’s Portland, there’s a vegetarian option as well.
“My favorite is the pork meatball bahn mi sandwich ($9). The bahn mi is made with French bread made fresh from the bakery next door and the meatballs are packed with flavor. Combined with picked vegetables and Sriracha mayo, it’s my all-time favorite sandwich.”
14. Dakar, Senegal
Early in the morning, vendors appear on street corners with freshly baked baguettes, ready to be brought home for breakfasts or enjoyed on the sidewalks with simple fillings like deliciously greasy eggs.
Or with Chocoleca, the Senegalese version of Nutella that combines chocolate and peanuts instead of hazelnuts.
It’s like a jar of melted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. For lunch, it’s time for thiebou dieune, the national dish with many spellings but a singular devotion.
The thieb is rice and the dieune is fish, which can have a spicy stuffing, accompanied by veggies like carrots, potatoes or eggplant. The dish is cooked in a broth that makes it rich and flavorful. The intensity of the spice is usually not too heated, but the chilies on the side must be added gingerly.
15. Bali, Indonesia
OK so this one isn’t a city. But as a destination, Bali has an almost mythic quality.
It’s entranced writers for decades with its mix of spiritual retreats and surfing, stunning geography and relaxed culture. The food is as wide-ranging as everything else on Bali.
“Traditionally the best Balinese food is ceremonial, with these days some of the best dishes served in streetside restaurants,” said Bali-based Samantha Brown, co-founder of Travelfish.org, an independent guide to Southeast Asia.
“One not to be missed dish is babi guling, a Balinese take on suckling pig, where various dishes using the entire pig are served. Nothing goes to waste.”
“While Ibu Oka’s in Ubud is the usual recommended place to go, Warung Babi Guling in Sanur is my pick (and doesn’t attract the tourist hordes).”
6 dishes every Bali visitor needs to try
16. Port Louis, Mauritius
Food in Mauritius is a mix of African, Indian, French and Chinese.
The emphasis, understandably, is often on seafood and beaches. Food trucks set up tables near popular spots like Grand Baie with quick Asian fare and fresh seafood.
Most bakeries also offer “gateaux napolitaines,” a Mauritian pastry that is essentially a jam-filled biscuit (made with only the good stuff, butter and flour) and then covered in pink icing.
But in the capital Port Louis, people head to the sidewalks for dhal puri, Indian crepes made with ground split peas and filled with veggies, coriander and as much (or as little) chili as a human can take.
One of the best is at the corner of Sir William Newton and Remy Ollier roads, between noon and 1 p.m. Latecomers leave hungry. When the vendor runs out, he scoots off on his moped.
17. Mumbai, India
The eateries on Mohammad Ali Road don’t all have menus, or even signs, but the crowds show where to go and what to eat.
The fancier options like Janata have an air-conditioned room to escape the heat or the rain while tucking into colorful kebabs or delicate partridges.
Farther along are hearty biryanis, sweet mango lassis and malpua pancakes.
For a smaller snack, Anand’s stall fries up golden vada pav, essentially seasoned balls of mashed potatoes jazzed up with garlic, chili and herbs. And the caramel custard known as firni satisfies even the most jagged sweet tooth.
18. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Perched on a plastic stool on the sidewalk, with a steaming bowl of pho, watching the chaotic traffic on the streets all around – it’s a perfect afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City.
There are other options than pho, of course, but the clear broth and warm noodles are one of the world’s great comfort foods.
Banh mi sandwiches are another Vietnamese street food exported successfully around the world.
Here the baguette could be filled with a diverse selection of meats including pate, sausage and shredded pork skin.
For top-notch people watching, Pham Ngu Lao Street has a place that serves BBQ pork and rice, close to many popular sites like the Ben Tranh Market and the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum.
19. Miami, United States
Miami is home to amazing Cuban food, none more so than the humble Cubano sandwich. Ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, toasted like a Panini to fill the mouth with crunchy, chewy, savory goodness.
This is the sandwich Jon Favreau makes playing the title role in “The Chef.” In the movie, the sandwich is so good it revitalizes his career.
Is a Cubano actually that powerful? Yes, it is.
20. Rome, Italy
Italian food has traveled so widely and become intertwined with other cultures around the world that tasting the original is a revelation.
The pizza at Pizzarium, near the Vatican, aka Bonci pizza rustica, carefully concocts slow-leavened doughs from stone-ground flour that gets topped with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
They also bake breads that will convert even the staunchest low-carb acolytes.
Chef Gabriele Bonci also has a patisserie called Panificio Bonci, a perfect spot for an espresso and exploring ancient methods of bread-making with heritage grains being grown again on small farms.
21. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Life on the beach in one of the world’s most beautiful cities is exhausting.
Which is why Carioca cuisine includes treats meant for eating by the water. Empada pastries are filled with savory bits of chicken or cheese and make a great lunch.
For cooling off, Brazil’s wealth of tropical fruits have been juiced and frozen into popsicles called sacoles.
Tapioca branches into new frontiers in Rio, where it’s fried into a crepe that’s crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle.
The savory options usually involve cheese or chicken, but it’s the sweet ones filled with bananas and coated with sweetened condensed milk that shouldn’t be missed.
22. Sydney, Australia
Street food is one of the many ways in which Australia has benefited from Asian and Middle Eastern immigration. New flavors and new ways of eating have taken hold in the streets of Sydney.
The Sydney Fish Market remains a wonderful place to get fresh seafood, which Peter’s Seafood Cafe will cook from their shop window.
Served simply but expertly, there’s fish and chips as well as BBQ octopus and soft-shell crab.
But Vietnamese, Chinese and Middle Eastern food are what’s really being served up across a city that embraces banh mi, noodles and babaganoush.
The global fare shows up in neighborhood dives but also in the Carriageworks Farmers Market, which offers local breads and cheeses as well as Chinese dishes by TV chef Kylie Kwong.
23. Beijing, China
Much of Beijing’s street food is now available off the streets and in organized food courts, where customers buy a card that they load with cash and swipe at each vendor.
The Jiumen Snack Street, surprisingly well-hidden among the narrow paths of the hutongs around Houhai lake, hosts many of the vendors who once shouted at patrons on the sidewalk.
Now they shout at patrons in a building. They claim to offer 200 kinds of snacks, drinks and desserts, but that could be a low count.
Many of the same dishes are on offer on Wangfujing Snack Street, a pedestrian way that includes a night market and lots of food on sticks, including unusual nibbles like scorpions and seahorses.
Both places offer foods from all over China, including spicy Sichuan dishes and steaming bowls of noodles. Wangfujing also sells souvenirs, making it popular with both foreign and domestic tourists.
Griffin Shea is a writer and bookstore-owner based in Johannesburg, South Africa.