Colonial district walking tour

Colonial district walking tour

Historical remnants

More on Melaka

The heart of Melaka’s colonial district is the conspicuous cluster of Indian-red buildings dominating the southern bank of the Melaka River at the foot of St Paul’s Hill. From here, climb over the hillside and circle its base to explore the vestiges and museums of this historical area, enclosed by the ruins of old Portuguese fortifications.

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Dutch Square, or the Red Square, is one of the oldest areas in the city, presided over by church and state: the Stadthuys, Melaka’s former town hall and governor’s residence during the Dutch administration built in the 1650s, and Christ Church dating from 1753. Adjacent to the church, one of Melaka’s first schools and subsequently the General Post Office, now houses the Malaysian Youth Museum and Melaka Art Gallery.

Indian-red everywhere. : Sally Arnold.
Indian-red everywhere. Photo: Sally Arnold

Additions to the precinct during British rule include the carved marble Queen Victoria Fountain commemorating the diamond jubilee of the monarch in 1904 and the Clock Tower, built in 1886 to honour Chinese tycoon and philanthropist Tan Beng Swee. Commissioned by his son, the tower is one of several significant contributions made to Melaka over respective generations of this wealthy family. Their former residence is now Hotel Puri in Heeren Street, and the Tan Kim Seng Bridge near the tower was also a gift from the family.

In the 1980s the original British clock face was replaced by a Seiko clock, causing outrage by Melaka’s older residents, who had suffered under Japanese occupation. If you’re looking for a fun (but far from silent) way to get around Melaka, the Stadthuys is the prime pick up point for the town's famous pimped rickshaws festooned with plastic flowers, stuffed cartoon characters, flashing lights and blasting pop music. Rates are 40 ringgit per hour.

Well worth the climb. : Sally Arnold.
Well worth the climb. Photo: Sally Arnold

From the Dutch Square, climb the path alongside the Stadthuys to the summit of St Paul’s Hill. As you ascend, on your right note the tree with a sign “pokok Melaka” or “Melaka tree”, also known as Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica), said by some to be the source of Melaka’s name.

Crowning the breezy hilltop is one of Melaka’s most atmospheric sights, the roofless ruin of St Paul’s Church. It was built in 1521 and is today filled with ancient Portuguese and Dutch tombstones propped up against the ageing walls. Peer into the empty tomb of Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier, whose body was interred here for a short time and also enjoy the panoramic views over the city. Continuing over the hill, a path on the left leads to what is known as the Dutch Graveyard. Five early Dutch tombs remain, however the majority of graves within the compound are young British army or naval personnel and their families, buried between 1818 and 1838.

Portugal was here. : Sally Arnold.
Portugal was here. Photo: Sally Arnold

At the end of the path at the eastern foot of St Paul’s Hill lies crumbling Porta de Santiago, once the main gate and the only remaining relic of A Formosa, a mighty fortress of laterite blocks surrounding the city built by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, possibly on the site of an earlier Malay fortification. Later the Dutch made modifications to the fort and its defensive bastions and added the VOC coat-of-arms to the gateway—you can still make out the inscription “Anno 1670”.

The garrison was all but destroyed by the British to protect it from falling into enemy hands when the central administration moved to Penang, except for a last-minute save of this gate by history-loving Sir Stamford Raffles. When excavation work began on Menara Taming Sari tower in 2006, a section of the original fort was discovered, and the tower project relocated. Ongoing archaeological digs throughout the city have resulted in the discovery so far of several important bastions based on ancient maps including Middleburg Fort, Frederik Hendrik Fort (named Courassa by the Portuguese), Bastion Henrica Louisa, Bastion Mauritius and Bastion Victoria (previously St Domingo), as well as human skeletons, cannon balls and old coins and pottery.

Sultanate Palace Museum: Fertile selfie territory. : Sally Arnold.
Sultanate Palace Museum: Fertile selfie territory. Photo: Sally Arnold

Curving around the foot of St Paul’s Hill, north of the Porta de Santiago, Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum is a striking example of traditional Malay architecture along with a beautiful botanical park known as the Forbidden Garden—it's great for a breather before you continue your walk.

In front of the Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum, the Proclamation of Independence Memorial is ironically housed in a building formerly the clubhouse for one the bastions of colonialism, the Melaka Club. The club was established in the 1880s as a social centre for the Brits in British Malaya and though dates are unclear as to when the building was built (possibly around 1912) complete with cricket and polo fields, it was a well functioning clubhouse by the time Somerset Maugham wrote of it in his 1923 short story, “Footprints in the Jungle”:

“In the morning you may find there a couple of planters who have come in from their estates on business and are drinking a gin-sling before starting back again; and latish in the afternoon a lady or two may perhaps be seen looking with a furtive air through old numbers of the Illustrated London News. At nightfall a few men saunter in and sit about the billiard-room watching the play and drinking sukas.”

The drive for Independence. : Sally Arnold.
The drive for Independence. Photo: Sally Arnold

Independence from Britain was officially declared on the 31 August 1957 by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, but the news of this date was announced in the Padang Pahlawan in Melaka on 20 February 1956, not far from the memorial. As you circumnavigate St Paul’s Hill, look to the left as you pass Bastion House (now the Malay and Islamic World Museum) for a small tiled green pyramid with a red “M” within a yellow starburst. This inconsequential-looking monument marks the spot the announcement was made.

On the 28th Independence Day celebration in 1985, the Proclamation of Independence Memorial was opened by the father of independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The memorial houses exhibitions documenting the young country’s struggle towards independence along with memorabilia from the early history of the Melaka Sultanate, of interest to history buffs (and lovers of dioramas).

M is for... : Sally Arnold.
M is for... Photo: Sally Arnold

Continuing around the base of the hill back towards the river, the path is lined with museums, many painted the Indian-red of the Dutch Square, however here it’s more quantity than quality. Be that as it may, if you have a particular interest it could be worth a stop at the Museum of the Malay and Islamic World, Stamp Museum, People’s Museum or Museum UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

The exhibitions might be a tad dry, but the historical buildings may not have been: Bastion House (circa 1910), the current home of the Museum of the Malay and Islamic World, was the regional office for the Dunlop Rubber Company and rumoured to have concealed a bachelors’ mess for Dunlop’s planters, where regular drinking sessions led to the building being given the moniker “The Planters’ Arm”. The Stamp Museum was a former private house, possibly one of the oldest surviving in Melaka.

A story by a then-resident that appeared in The Straits Times on November 1, 1953 titled “The Hantu of No. 7” recounts a ghost tale: The building is said to be haunted by a Portuguese nun caught in a tryst with her illicit soldier lover. As punishment she was bricked up alive in the promenade terrace of the house where she still walks wearing her brown habit. The children in the story refer to her as “mummy’s friend”.

Simple but beautiful displays at the Islamic Museum. : Sally Arnold.
Simple but beautiful displays at the Islamic Museum. Photo: Sally Arnold

In a park to the left of the path, Taman Bunga Merdeka, a stone believed to be the very place St Francis Xavier first set foot on Melakan shores is fenced and an iron cross erected. Originally this was in the sea, but reclaimed land holds true the belief that the stone will never sink.

As you approach the river, the Melaka Islamic Museum and Malaysia Architecture Museum are the more interesting and worthy of your time of those along this strip. The building that accommodates the Melaka Islamic Museum has caused many an argument among historians as to its origins as to whether it was built during the Dutch or British periods. A plausible explanation is that it was a Dutch residence for senior officers, then extensively renovated during the British era, adding Malay and Chinese influenced elements. Today the museum is divided into galleries displaying general information and artefacts pertaining to the Islamic world as well as archival documents of Islam in Melaka. Of interest are models of Melaka’s historical mosques, and displays of Islamic motives in local architecture. Some beautiful calligraphy can be seen both in old Korans on display as well as ceramics.

Built in the 1700s of laterite stone, Dutch bricks and wood, the Malaysia Architecture Museum was the former home of Dutch dignitaries during the time of the VOC. As well as a history of Malaysian architectural styles the museum covers cultural aspects including ceremonies performed before building and displays traditional materials and techniques. The exhibitions suffer a little from too much text, however if you have the time, it’s an informative read. Architectural models and artefacts on display will keep the more visually inclined absorbed.

You spin me round like a ... : Sally Arnold.
You spin me round like a ... Photo: Sally Arnold

Once you reach the river you’ll have returned to the Dutch Square. Take a left, and walk south along the bank. Near the Tan Kim Seng Bridge you will see an odd sandstone structure that is a modern ruin so to speak, the remains of a reproduction of a Water Wheel from the times of the Melaka Sultanate. Unfortunately the wooden wheel has been destroyed or is missing, yet the plaque rather ironically states that the wheel symbolises “the evolution of man’s civilisation… the quest for knowledge and history”.

Adjacent is a section of the reconstructed fort, part of the ongoing archaeological project unearthing the garrison surrounding old Melaka. Climb up and peer though the cannon turrets and take a moment to imagine the Melaka River when it was the busiest waterway in the world, swarming with trading ships from Europe and all over Asia. Two hundred metres ahead, you can’t miss the life-sized replica of the Flor de la Mar, a Portuguese ship sunk in the Straights of Melaka in 1511 that now houses the Maritime Museum, Melaka’s most visited museum. Use your ticket for the Royal Malaysian Navy Museum across the road too.

They don't make them like they used to. : Sally Arnold.
They don't make them like they used to. Photo: Sally Arnold

For a bird’s-eye view of the historical area you’ve just walked, take a ride on the kris-shaped Menara Taming Sari, a revolving viewing tower located next to the Royal Malaysian Navy Museum.

Return to the Dutch Square and continue north 200 metres following the Melaka River to St Francis Xavier’s Church, built in the mid-1800s by a French priest. The twin-spired structure was based on drawings of St Peter’s Cathedral in Montpellier, France and constructed on the former site of a Dominican convent dating from 1553. The archaeological dig exposing part of the fortress wall of the Bastion St Domingos lies directly in front of the church. Two statues grace the churchyard, one of St Francis, and the other a Japanese man called Yajiro from Kagoshima who met the saint in Melaka in 1547, and travelled with him on his mission to Japan in 1549, introducing Catholicism to the land of the rising sun. The statues were donated by Catholics in Kagoshima to commemorate the meeting and the 500th anniversary of the birth of the saint.

Outstanding views over Melaka. : Sally Arnold.
Outstanding views over Melaka. Photo: Sally Arnold

From the church, walk a further kilometre north along Jalan Bendahara (or take the more colourful route through Little India along Jalan Bunga Raya) to Malaysia’s oldest functioning Roman Catholic church, the Church of St Peter (1718). Alternatively cross the river to explore Chinatown.

Free guided walking tours of many of the sights mentioned above are conducted in English every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 09:30 to 12:30. To join, register between 09:00 and 09:25 at the Melaka Tourist Information Centre on Jalan Kota, near the square.

Christ Church: Jalan Gereja; Mo–Su: 09:00–17:00.
Malaysia Architecture Museum: Jalan Kota; Mo–Su: 09:00–17:00; free.
Maritime Museum: Jalan Merdeka; T: (06) 282 6526;; Mo–Th: 09:00–17:00, Fr–Su: 09:00–18:30; adults 10 ringgit, children 6 ringgit.
Melaka Islamic Museum: Jalan Kota; Tu–Su: 09:00–17:30 (closed Fr: 12:15–14:45); adults 3 ringgit, children 2 ringgit.
Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum: Jalan Kota; T: (06) 282 6526;; Mo–Su: 09:00–17:00 (closed Fr 12:15–14:45); adults 5 ringgit, kids 2 ringgit.
Menara Taming Sari: Jalan Merdeka; T: (06) 288 1100; (06) 281 3366;; Mo–Su: 10:00–23:00; adults 23 ringgit, kids (below 12) 15 ringgit.
Museum of the Malay and Islamic World: Jalan Kota; Mo–Fr: 09:00–19:00, Sa–Su: 09:00–21:00; adults 15 ringgit, children 10 ringgit.
Museum UMNO: Jalan Kota; Tu–Su: 09:00–17:30 (closed Fr: 12:15–14:45); adults 1 ringgit, children 0.50 ringgit.
People’s Museum: Jalan Kota; Mo–Su: 09:00–17:00 (closed Fr: 12:15—14:45); adults 3 ringgit, children 2 ringgit.
Stamp Museum: Jalan Kota; Tu–Su: 09:00–17:30; adults 3 ringgit, children 2 ringgit.
The Proclamation of Independence Memorial: Jalan Kota; Tu–Su: 09:00–18:00 (closed Fr: 12:00–15:00).
The Stadthuys History and Ethnography Museum: Jalan Gereja; Mo–Su: 09:00–17:30; adults 10 ringgit, kids 4 ringgit; free tour Saturday and Sunday 10:30 and 14:30.

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Tours in Malaysia

These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.

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