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Sometime after the tin slump of the 1980s, Ipoh earned a reputation for being a retirement destination, or just a pit stop on the way to Penang.
These days, it’s going through a tentative revival, thanks to the recent crop of hotels, cafes, museums and street art in the historic center.
“Before, there wasn’t one place where people gathered,” says Julie Song of Burps & Giggles, a cafe that’s contributed to the city’s new face.
“Now, everyone who comes makes Old Town their first stop.”
But the capital of Malaysia’s Perak state has always possessed the qualities that make places like Penang so compelling to travelers: a rich architectural, cultural and culinary heritage – but without the crowds. (Though weekends are a different story.)
And that’s not all. Surrounded by Paleozoic limestone hulks, Ipoh is also a gateway to the area’s beautiful caves and hot springs.
Here are some suggestions on things to do in Ipoh, as well as some dining and hotel recommendations.
Kong Heng Square
A few years ago, landscape architect Ng Seksan and his friends took over this block, breathing new life into Old Town.
“We wanted to keep the old tenants, such as the Kong Heng kopitiam and the Indian barber,” Ng says.
Today, these establishments exist alongside chic cafes, boutique hotels and fashion and craft stalls.
“It’s the greenest urban block in Ipoh,” says Law Siak Hong of the Perak Heritage Society.
Trees are left to grow over and inside buildings, creepers tumble over rooftops and flaking walls.
Yasmin at Kong Heng Museum (open weekends only) showcases the films of the late Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad, known for her moving explorations of race.
Flanked by a colorful crew of restaurants and shops, “Concubine Lane” is so nicknamed because the late tin tycoon Yau Tet Shin reportedly kept his second wife here.
A living architectural museum
Many buildings from the colonial era, spanning a range of styles from the Gothic to the Modern, still stand.
Among the most visible are the century-old Railway Station, designed in the British Raj style, and the stately old Town Hall across the road.
For quaint shophouses, just walk around Old Town.
Highlights include the Sinhalese Bar, founded in 1931, with its cowboy-style swing doors. It’s a great place to enjoy a beer before carrying on.
There are murals by Ernest Zacharevic – the Lithuanian artist often credited with making street art trendy in Malaysian cities – and local artists like Eric Lai.
Trail maps are available at the local Ipoh tourism office.
“The Vale of Tin and Sin”
Ipoh lies at the heart of Kinta Valley, once the world’s richest tin-producing field.
It attracted a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European fortune seekers, growing from a river village into one of British Malaya’s richest towns.
To learn about the history of tin and how miners lived when they weren’t working, visitors can book themselves in to visit Han Chin Pet Soo.
The museum was previously home to the Hakka Tin Miners’ Club, founded in 1893, which in its early days was open only to men – a place to socialize, smoke opium and gamble – though exceptions were made for “dancing girls.”
Out around Kinta Valley are former tin-mining towns and other historical attractions to explore.
A guided tour may include Papan, Batu Gajah, Gopeng, the Tanjung Tualang tin dredge and Kellie’s Castle.
K. Rajasegaran (+60 12 524 2357) and V. Kuppusamy (+60 12 508 6429) offer custom tours around Ipoh and Perak.
Law Siak Hong (+60 17 506 1875) of the Perak Heritage Society occasionally leads tours.
Masters of tradition
Tan Khar Mee (Kin Teck, 4 Tingkat Pasar; +60 12 455 3242), 73, has been making lion dance heads for more than four decades.
He also worked on the set of the 1999 film “Anna and the King,” and is open to teaching visitors the craft.
Teh Wing Liang (Zhong Shen Trading, 59 Jalan Bunga Saroja, Pasir Pinji; +60 12 452 3287), 42, has been making lion heads since he was 15 and says his style is more modern.
“I paint each one differently from the next. I make it up as I go along,” he says.
To see how Ipoh’s famous heong peng biscuits are baked – in concrete well-shaped ovens, fueled by coconut husks – it’s best to visit the house at 362 Jalan Gunung Rapat in the morning.
Yao Cai Yu at the Central Market (Jalan Dato’ Onn Jaafar) makes wooden clogs, and Lau Chee Wah (Lau Hooi Kee, 15 Lorong Bijih Timah) makes traditional bamboo blinds.
John Lee of Ipoh Secrets offers custom tours that help break through the language barrier
Up close with limestone hulks
When the Chinese came to Kinta Valley, they built temples in limestone caves.
Perak Tong, dating from the 1920s, has one of the most beautiful interiors, filled with colorful murals of deities. There’s also a hilltop pavilion with city views, though visitors will need to climb more than 400 steps to reach it.
Sam Poh Tong, apparently discovered by a monk in the 1890s, is a little dilapidated, but its gardens have an enchanting, wild quality. It’s got faded terraces, a tortoise pond and a striking red temple out back.
Tambun Cave has prehistoric paintings of men and animals, plus abstract shapes found on its cliff face.
The Gua Tambun Heritage Awareness Project runs tours on the first Saturday of each month.
This list focuses on Ipoh’s specialties rather than the usual Malaysian staples.
For Western food, there’s Kong Heng Square or the string of bars and pubs on Jalan Lau Ek Ching.
Most hawkers open in the early mornings and shut after lunch, or as long as stocks last.
Malaysians tend to have heavy breakfasts, so go early. Some hawkers also take irregular days off.
White coffee and toast
First, a quick run-down of the white coffee varieties.
“Pak kopi” comes with condensed milk and evaporated milk. “Pak kopi C” with evaporated milk and sugar.