(CNN)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.
“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.
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.
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.
“C kosong” with evaporated milk and no sugar. “O” with sugar and no milk. And add “peng” to the end if you want it iced.
The coffee beans are roasted with margarine, without sugar, giving the coffee a lighter color.
For a light breakfast, it’s paired with margarine toast topped with half-boiled eggs.
Sin Yoong Loong (15A Jalan Bandar Timah/Leech St), founded in the 1930s, is among the most popular places to find this local treat.
Chang Jiang (7 Jalan Windsor), a modern cafe that traces its origins to a 1970s kopitiam, serves equally good white coffee.
Nga choy kay
Reputed to be Ipoh’s quintessential dish, nga choy kay means “beansprout chicken”, but usually refers to three dishes — kway teow (flat rice noodles) soup, poached chicken and peppery beansprouts.
You can order for one, but they’ll still be served separately.
Ipoh’s bean sprouts are said to be crunchier and juicier because, it’s believed, the surrounding limestone hills give the water a special quality.
Lou Wong (Jalan Bandar Timah/Leech Street) is most popular with tourists, but the local favorite is arguably Cowan Street Ayam Tauge & Koitiau (44 Jalan Raja Ekram; +60 12 520 3322), which also does delicious braised chicken feet.
It’s reputed to have irregular opening hours, but Thursday to Sunday evenings seem a safe bet.
Kai see hor fun
Kai see hor fun is also a kway teow soup, but the difference is in the prawns. The broth has an orange sheen made by boiling chicken bones with prawn shells.
And everything comes in one bowl — topped with poached chicken slices, prawns, beansprouts and spring onions.
Thean Chun’s version (73 Jalan Bandar Timah/Leech Street) is one of the best.
Restoran Moon De Moon (148 Hala Wah Keong, Simee) — closed on Mondays and Tuesdays — is also touted for its kai see hor fun, as well as curry mee, a spicy noodle dish.
People flock to Xin Quan Fang (174 Jalan Sultan Iskandar) for Ipoh curry mee, which tends to have less milk in it. There’s also a dry curry version.
“My grandfather’s recipe includes Indian spices, like star anise,” says owner Kok Wai Bing.
We recommend ordering the curry mee soup with your noodle of choice, and a mixed bowl of roast and barbecue pork, prawns, chicken and beansprouts.
Don’t forget their special gravy, reportedly a mixture of curry oil, garlic, pork lard and lime.
Paris Restaurant (164 Jalan Sultan Iskandar/Hugh Low Street) has moved into its third generation of cooks.
It specializes in perfectly springy, flat egg noodles, topped with bean sprouts and minced meat caramelized with soy sauce and fish sauce, with an accompaniment of chilli and garlic-ginger sauce.
It’s also possible to order it with a bowl of soup with meatballs and fishballs.
On weekends, it’s best to arrive well before 11 a.m. They sell out fast.
Contrary to the name, there are no suspicious substances in this rice dish. It’s just really good.
The nickname has become inextricably linked to the Nasi Kandar Ayam Merah stall at the Yong Suan kopitiam (2 Jalan Yang Kalsom), founded in the 1950s.
Ask for the usual — biasa — and you’ll get a plate of fluffy steamed rice served with their specialty ayam merah (a red-hued fried chicken), okra, salted egg, cucumber and a generous dollop of chilli and curry sauce.
Sar kok liew
This is a patty of yam bean and fish paste, rolled up in a bean curd sheet, and deep fried.
It’s Ipoh’s signature variation of yong liew — vegetables stuffed with fish or pork paste, which also come boiled.
If you like yours crispy, go to Dai Shu Geok (“Big Tree Foot”, Jalan King, Pasir Pinji) and have it with a bowl of assam laksa.
Otherwise, Ipoh Echo food columnist SeeFoon Chan-Koppen recommends Kwong Hong (684 Jalan Besar Gunung Rapat): “It has many varieties of green vegetables, and the dipping sauce is yummy.”
Yu kong hor with boiled octopus
Tuck Kee (61 Jalan Yau Tet Shin) only opens in the evenings.
Recommended is the wat tan hor — kway teow immersed in a creamy egg gravy, peppered with pork slices, prawns, vegetables and lard fritters — or yu kong hor, the dry version topped with a raw egg and then stirred in.
Either way, it isn’t complete without the boiled octopus doused in garlic oil and soy sauce.
Sin Eng Heong (4 Jalan Mustapha Al-Bakry) is synonymous with Ipoh’s famous kaya puff — filled with a jam made with coconut milk and egg — and on weekends you’ll see a long line outside the bakery all day.
However, the founder’s son has opened his own shop, Sin Eng Hoe (50 Jalan Yau Tet Shin), nearby and assures that he uses the same recipe.
Tau fu fa
This is a dessert made of soybean curd, usually slurped hot and traditionally sweetened with ginger sugar syrup.
Funny Mountain (49 Jalan Theatre) is the name on everyone’s lips, but Woong Kee (32-38A Jalan Ali Pitchay) is also a firm favorite.
WHERE TO STAY
Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat
This is the place to come for a luxurious communion with nature amid limestone hills — yet it’s just a 15-minute drive from the city.
Each villa has its own plunge pool with water piped in from the hot springs, and there are four communal garden pods.
Non-guests can pay to use the facilities.
They include a pool, a steam and sauna cave, and an air-conditioned cave to relax in. It’s also possible to dine in the cave cellar, which has an extensive wine collection.
One of Ng Seksan’s Sekeping collection of properties dotted around Malaysia, this hotel creates the illusion of a “retreat” in the middle of all the action.
The main quarter is located above the Kong Heng kopitiam in what was once a hostel patronized by Chinese opera troupes.
Much of the original building remains, mixed with open brick and reclaimed wood, wire fencing for bed bases and concrete sheets for walls — melding the industrial and natural without compromising on style.
There are more rooms in an annexe next door and above the Container Hotel, as well as a pool and a rooftop hangout.