Photo: Cheng Hoon Teng Temple.


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Melaka (Malacca) has been drawing the crowds for centuries, first as a trade centre and focal point for colonial power plays, now for its rich history and good food.

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This cosmopolitan trading port city lies midway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and was known to the world long before either. Expanding Malay kingdoms, Indian, Chinese and Arab traders plus Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialists have all left their mark, not only on the character-filled architecture and the distinctive cuisine, but in the blood that runs through the veins of Melaka’s people.

No shortage of colour. Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

No shortage of colour. Photo: Sally Arnold

The city was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2008, which has encouraged restoration projects and a new wave of development: Outside of the historic area, land reclamation projects are expanding the city both upwards and outwards with multi-storey malls, hotels and new tourist attractions. But even when Melaka is bursting at the seams with weekend crowds, it’s easy to be cast under her spell, and the city remains a top spot on any Malaysian itinerary.

Melaka’s early story is mixed with myth and legend, first recoded in the romanticised Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) written in the 17th century and based on word of mouth accounts and folktales. Conflicting versions (more than 30 manuscripts) have seen historians argue until they are blue in the face ever since.

Plenty of understated charm. Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Plenty of understated charm. Photo: Sally Arnold

It begins with Parameswara, who hailed from Sumatra, a Hindu (or perhaps Buddhist) Prince of the once expansive, but then waning Srivijaya Empire. Feeling the push from the Javanese Majapahit Empire on one side and from the Siamese (Thai) Ayutthaya Kingdom on the other, in the 1390s he established a settlement on the island of Temasek (modern-day Singapore). The continuing pressures forced a move north where he founded the Sultanate of Melaka.

A charming tale tells that he was hunting along the banks of the (now) Melaka River, stopping for a rest under a shady melaka tree when a tiny but ballsy mouse deer chased his hunting dogs into the river. Parameswara took this Sampson and Goliath act as an auspicious sign to build the capital of his new kingdom, henceforth known as “Melaka”, and by lucky coincidence it was a strategic position on the (now) Straits of Melaka, the blossoming trade route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. Some historians will argue that Melaka’s name is derived from Arabic, but naming places after trees and geographical markers is common practice throughout the archipelago. Today a mouse deer is on the coat-of-arms and statues of the diminutive creatures grace the town square.

No shortage of spots to eat. Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

No shortage of spots to eat. Photo: Sally Arnold

Melaka’s trade position strengthened, particularly ties with Ming Dynasty China with a visit from famous Admiral Cheng Ho (Zeng He) in the early 15th century. Chinese settlers who followed were charmed by the local lasses and their offspring became known as the Peranakan or Straits Chinese. Parameswara was succeeded by his son Megat Iskandar Shah who at some point in the history of the kingdom embraced Islam, growing trade with Arabia and Northern India.

The Portuguese conquered in 1511 and turned the city into a walled fortress, hoping to take control of the spice and silk trade. From that point, and for the next 400 years, Melaka remained under European influence—the Dutch rose to power in 1641, followed by the British in 1824. With the exception of four years of Japanese occupation during World War II, Melaka remained a British colony until Malaysia gained independence in 1957.

Kampung Morten: A village within a city. Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Kampung Morten: A village within a city. Photo: Sally Arnold

Today remnants of this rich heritage can be seen in a bounty of relics including Portuguese fortresses, Dutch town halls, Chinese temples and various churches and mosques dotted around the city’s historic quarter. Many have been preserved as museums of history or culture.

Fill a day or more walking around the haunting historic sights in the colonial district jam-packed with museums (although some are crushingly dull). Make sure you climb to the top of St Paul’s Hill to the atmospheric ruin of St Paul’s Church, where the Jesuit St Francis Xavier was once interred, then cross the river to explore Chinatown. It’s pleasant to wander along the riverbank with its abundance of cafes or take a river cruise, best at night to see the city lights reflected in the water. View the city from above from Menara Taming Sari or the Shore Sky Tower.

Explore Kampung Chetti. Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Explore Kampung Chetti. Photo: Sally Arnold

You don’t have to venture far to meet some of Melaka’s unique communities born of her cosmopolitan past. Chinatown is home to the Peranakan Straits Chinese—be sure to try the delicious fusion Nyonya food. Visit Kampung Chetti for blended Malay and Indian culture and Kampung Potugis, the place for fresh seafood, where the descendants of the seafaring Portuguese make their home. Right in the middle of the city you can explore a traditional Malay village (with a very British name) at Kampung Morten.

Kids will love the Maritime Museum in a replica ship, but if the history lesson gets too much, a handful of local attractions may entertain: Melaka Alive Pirate Adventure offers a fun pirate history show, and the Shore Mall throws in an oceanarium, toy museum and 3D interactive park.

Did we mention the food? Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Did we mention the food? Photo: Sally Arnold

If you’re sweltering from the heat, cool off in the public swimming pool or head to the beach at Pantai Klebang, 10 kilometres west of town, with many historical mansions along the way. However it’s more of a lure for the sea breeze and local food than the swimming.

The city gets busy on weekends (and hotel prices rise considerably) when the big drawcard is the Jonker Walk Night Market. The surrounding Chinatown streets become a pedestrian area as stalls and hordes fill the thoroughfares. It’s good to plan your trip to include one weekend night to experience this, but you’ll find the town easier to manage and generally more pleasant on quieter weekdays. Note that many museums, restaurants and shops take a weekday off.

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Melaka’s historic heart is easy to navigate and explore on foot, bicycle or pimped-up trishaw. The Melaka River bisects the city, with the colonial district on the east bank and a swathe of modern malls and high-rise hotels behind along Jalan Merdeka, and Chinatown on the west bank. Here you’ll find Perenakan shophouses, temples and mosques, restaurants, art galleries and souvenir shops along with the bulk of Melaka’s guesthouses and smaller boutique hotels.

Penang comes to Melaka. Photo taken in or around Melaka, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Penang comes to Melaka. Photo: Sally Arnold

Somewhat confusing for the first-time visitor, many of Chinatown’s streets are known by their former names but helpful street signs list the contemporary official name along with its popular appellation. Three major roads run in a northwesterly direction from the river, linked by a series of small cross lanes: Heeren Street (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), Jonker Street (officially Jalan Hang Jebat), and the third changes name along its course: Temple Street (Jalan Tokong), Goldsmiths Street (Jalan Tukang Emas) and Blacksmiths Street (Jalan Tukang Besi), collectively known as Harmony Street. Often the whole of Chinatown is referred to simply as “Jonker Street”, Melaka’s most popular tourist thoroughfare.

A note for smokers: You’ll have to puff elsewhere. The whole of the heritage zone is a non-smoking area.

Melaka Tourist Information Centre opposite the Dutch Square is the meeting place for free guided walking tours of the colonial area (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), and the place to pick up a map. Office staff are friendly, but have limited knowledge and don’t always open at stated times. For a knowledgeable local guide, we recommend Mr S.A Lingam T: (0192) 096 890;

We hope you don’t fall ill in Melaka, but the town is booming with the medical tourist market and decent hospitals are not hard to find. Mahkota Medical Centre is a large private hospital near the Malls on Jalan Merdeka and the public general hospital is five kilometres north of the town centre.

Melaka’s friendly English-speaking tourist police have a station on the river in Chinatown next door to Sid’s Pub on Lorong Hang Jabat. T: (06) 288 3732. The post office is on Dutch Square.

Hospital Melaka: Jalan Mufti Haji Khalil, Melaka; T: (06) 289 2344;
Komplex Renang MBMB (50-metre public swimming pool); Jalan Kota, Melaka; T: (06) 283 8796;; adults 5 ringgit, kids 3 ringgit per session. Proper swimwear required, lockers available.
Melaka Alive Pirate Adventure: Jalan Parameswara, Melaka; T: (0378) 618 084;; adults 28 ringgit, kids 23 ringgit. (discounts online); Open Mo–Su: 10:00–19:00.
Mahkota Medical Centre: 3 Mahkota Melaka, Jalan Merdeka, Melaka; T: (06) 285 2999, emergency: (0628) 52 991;
Melaka River Cruise: T: (06) 281 4325;
Melaka Tourist Information Centre: Ground floor Bangunan Surau Warisan Dunia, Jalan Kota, Melaka; T: (06) 283 6220;; open Mo–Su: 09:00–18:00.
The Shore Oceanarium: 2F-01, The Shore Shopping Gallery, Jalan Persisiran Bunga Raya, Melaka; T: (06) 282 9966;; adults 35 ringgit, kids 25 ringgit. Open Mo–Su: 10:30–21:00.
The Shore Sky Tower: Tower 1, level 42 and 43F The Shore Shopping Gallery, Jalan Persisiran Bunga Raya, Melaka; T: (06) 288 3833;; adults 25 ringgit, kids 18 ringgit. Open Su–Th: 10:30–22:00; Fr–Sa: 10:30–23:00.
The Shore Toy Museum: Level 1, The Shore Shopping Gallery, Jalan Persisiran Bunga Raya, Melaka; T: (06) 288 3833; adults 30 ringgit, kids 20 ringgit. Open Mo–Su: 10:30—21:00.


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Melaka.
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 Read up on where to eat on Melaka.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Melaka.
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