I've visited Medan with my parents ten years ago. Went for a rickshaw ride to Kampung Keling which roughly translates to Little India. Medan is probably one of the few places in Indonesia with a Tamil temple frequented by the Indian devotees whose ancestors have migrated to Sumatera years ago. The Indian influence is very much felt with stores selling saris and streets selling Indian food with a hint of Chinese or Javanese taste.
This recent visit brings me to a Medan no different from other major cities in Indonesia. Like most cities in Indonesia, Medan is chasing the trend of modernization. Malls sprawl throughout the city, not to mention Hypermart and Carrefour replacing traditional wet markets. Hotels ranging from five-star name like Marriott to local chains are fully booked by business travelers.
Despite all, Medan still retains its local charm. Jalan Semarang is the local food street. The street is full of kopi tiam (which translates to coffee shop) each selling different kind of local food; dumpling noodle, prawn noodle, fried kwe tiau, roti canai with mutton curry, lap ciong. Not to mention all sorts of local cakes and snacks. Families enjoying their dinners in the no-frill and basic kopi tiam with ceiling fans chasing off the heat. The absence of air con does not deter the locals from congregating, filling the air with chatters.
Jalan Kesawan has a different vibe. This was the most affluent and trendiest street decades ago. Now the only prominent buildings are the Tjong A Fei mansion and Tip Top cafe. The mansion occupies an area of 6,000 m2 and used to house the richest man in Sumatera. It's a shame this beautiful architecture is overlooked and not preserved as the highlight of the city. Although the mansion is not exactly well-kept, it is definitely better mantained than most museums in Indonesia. For the price of Rp35,000 (less than $3.50) per person, you get a guided tour. The 3 living rooms each decorated in Chinese, European and Malay style epitomize the wealth of the family. The collection of photos ranging back to the Dutch era is worth a look.
Tip Top used to be frequented by only the wealthiest in the city. Now, it comes across as a bit run-down with its rattan chairs. The ice cream is not what I would consider the best but the place is full of history. The waiters wear white uniforms that reflect the colonial period. It is still a place worth visit in Medan.