Most tourist maps of Taipei lead to places such as the Taipei 101 skyscraper and other relatively new landmarks. But one of the Taiwanese capital's oldest districts, a dried food hub, is vying for visitor attention as merchants revitalise the streets while preserving an aura of yesteryear.

Over the past five years or so, the Datong District has been rewarding travellers looking for tea, herbal medicine or puppet shows on self-guided tours of low-rises built during the late 19th century and the occupation by Japan, which began in 1895.

"The idea is tourism development that lets people see the old Qing dynasty architecture," says Selena Chen, owner of four-year-old boutique coffeehouse Hare Cafe. "That in turn brings younger business owners and tourism investors."

Datong thrived in the early 1900s, when the Dadaocheng Wharf emerged as Taipei's main stop for boats bringing rice down the Danshui river. Merchant ships from China would reach the pier through the river mouth. Some of the district's original settlers, many of whom had roots that stretched back to China, had fled from another Taipei riverside tract after squabbling over land rights had turned violent.

Shopkeepers near the wharf sold tea leaves, dried mushrooms and medicinal herbs to the populace of the growing capital. The trade never died out but it did begin to wane in the 1960s, as eastern Taipei boomed and drew people to its abundant land and more modern buildings.

Now, as the kilometre-long Dihua Street, at the district's core, comes back to life, coffee houses, craft shops and art galleries are springing up alongside stores still run by the families that established them. Within some of the three-storey row houses - designed to house merchant stores downstairs and their families above - the original interior woodwork has survived.

"This is a living old street," says Wu Chun-mei, owner of the Lau Guei Fang arts and crafts store.

Redevelopment is claiming the northern half of Dihua Street, but the city requires that new structures resemble those that they are replacing - and storekeepers from other parts of the city like what they are seeing.

"We've got cultural history and a lot of old landmarks, and now there are younger people coming in to open cafes with unique themes," says Datong district director Hsieh Cheng-chun.

The speciality of the house at Fflavor Taiwan is mango juice. Next door, a courtyard joins two cafes; one, Peacock Bistro, sells imported bottled beers and ice cream made from Taiwanese tea leaves. Down a couple blocks, Le Zinc's baristas brew coffee and tea amid displays of pottery.

The crowning redevelopment is a complex at 356 Dihua Street, near the Daqiaotou metro station. The anchor tenant, Oriental Cuisine Guizhou, serves spicy food native to southwestern China prepared by a Taiwanese chef who once lived in the mainland. Across a Chinese-style courtyard, Grandmom's Teahouse, as its name does not suggest, pours German beer rather than tea.

Most of Datong's longer-established tea merchants - who are happy to banter and don't mind brewing a test pot for the hesitant buyer - sell Taiwan's signature high-mountain oolong leaves, which can be brewed five times before the flavour expires. Liu Chien-chih, owner of the 75-year-old Dongtai Teashop, on Dihua Street, says he sees at least one mainland customer a day. They may be looking for an unusual specimen among the grey and brick-coloured clay teapots or just a local tea.

"Tea is popular now in every country, so people come here to buy oolong from Taiwan," he says.

Another Datong landmark, Taipei Circle - a glass building full of shops, cafes and exhibition spaces that occupies a roundabout on Nanjing West Road - spins off seven spokes. One leads to the Ningxia Road Night Market, which stretches over three city blocks, opens at 5pm and often gets so packed, it's difficult to enjoy the bowls of noodles and bacon-wrapped asparagus on a stick that are widely sold there.

Another spoke leads west into a network of streets lined with colonial Japanese architecture. Some of the buildings have traditional Chinese facades but the Japanese were partial to European baroque architecture during their time in Taiwan, which came to an end in 1945. Similar architecture can be found elsewhere in Taipei, but in pockets rather than as whole neighbourhoods, as in Datong.

The ambling Datong traveller may encounter an ad hoc roadside puppet show or, if it's a traditional holiday, a temple-sponsored street parade, with floats and drums, elements of traditional Taiwan that go back some 300 years. Offering a better understanding of the art form is the 15-year-old Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum, a four-storey, wood-panelled building on Xining North Road, near Dihua Street. Stroll the narrow corridors and you'll discover how puppets are made and get the chance to operate one from behind a tiny stage.

A jaunt east from Taipei Circle, then south from the Zhongshan metro station, ends at the red brick Japanese-era Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, within which is an ever-changing series of exhibits by Taiwanese architects, sculptors and multimedia tinkerers over two dimly lit floors.

Tourists travelling solo or with friends make up most of Datong's curiosity seekers; groups are rare for lack of bus parking spaces and restaurants big enough to accommodate large numbers.

Maps of the flat, 5 sq km district are provided by some of the craft shops and many visitors rent a bike (for about US$3 per hour) from the Dadaocheng wharf, a link in the more than 250km of riverside cycling trails that run throughout Taipei.