History and culture ooze from the very core of Malacca. Serene Malay villages, unchanged in centuries, sit next to colonial relics from the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Throw in some religious harmony fostered by generations of tolerance, a blend of cultures (and food) throughout their Imperial days and well-preserved architecture as well. Culture Trip lists the top things to do in Malacca, including time travel river cruises, an almost forgotten Portuguese village and layers of colonial history.
UNESCO-listed Malacca holds superlative titles, blends three colonial eras and was the birthplace of the Malay ‘Golden Age’. Culture Trip explains our favourite things to do in Malacca for historical heritage, bargain hunting and where to learn about its fascinating past.
Jonker Street is the soul of Malacca. The former residential centre of the old city bursts with life and activity. Colourful and decorated shophouses, each different from its neighbour, line the winding and branching streets. Stop by the vibrant cafés to rest your feet or hunt for bargains and relics in the antique shops. In the evening, Jonker transforms into the city’s beating heart with energetic travellers, riverside bars and unlimited street food. Weekend travellers can hit the nationwide-famous Jonker Street Night Market on Friday and Saturday nights.
The fastest way to see the best of Malacca is by joining the free Old Malacca Heritage Tour. Guides take travellers around the city’s heritage sites (Dutch Square, St Paul’s and Chinatown) offering historical commentary. Follow the trail and learn about the Malay golden age under the Malacca Sultanate through three eras of colonial rule to the present day. Guides offer suggestions on the best restaurants too. Tours last two and a half hours starting outside Tourism Malaysia.
Visiting the remains of the 500-year-old A’Famosa (or ‘The Famous’ in Portuguese) is among our favourite things to do in Malacca for history buffs. Alfonso Albuquerque commissioned the fortress when the first Portuguese fleets arrived in 1511. Back then, the fortress sprawled across the hill encapsulating houses, four-storied watchtowers and five churches. Only the crumbling Porta de Santiago gate remains of one of the oldest European structures in Asia.
In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca and signalled the start of nearly 450 years of colonial rule. As the centuries passed, the Dutch and later British diluted Portuguese influence and legacy. Apart from a tiny section of A’Formosa, hardly anything of their early influence remains on the surface. But a tiny settlement to the southeast of the city near Portuguese Square tells a different story. The wooden village might resemble any other Malay Kampung, but look a little closer and find an earth-shattering difference. This village houses a handful of early Portuguese descendants with a distinct Catholic aura found nowhere else in Malaysia.
Red buildings surround the Dutch Square, along with the oldest Dutch building in the east and the oldest Protestant church outside of Europe. Stadhuys, the reconstructed Stadhuis or Town Hall, is the centrepiece dating back to 1660. Apart from its historical and photogenic appeal, the square showcases the best 180 years of Dutch influence in Malacca.
Temple Street’s religious harmony and centuries-old temple
Jalan Tokong Besi has many names and titles depending on who you ask, but Temple Street or Harmony Street tends to be the most fitting. Among the lines of shophouses sits Malaysia’s oldest Buddhist temple (Cheng Hoon Teng), the Kampung Keling Mosque and the 18th-century Sri Poyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple. The small branch off Jonker Street is a testament to Malacca’s religious tolerance over the centuries.
The Malacca River penetrates the city and is lined by riverside bars and restaurants. But this photogenic area has a much broader role in the heart of old Malacca. From the 15th-century Malacca Sultanate through 500 years of colonial rule, the river acted as the main highway. Malacca River Cruise’s 45-minute journey traverses this centuries-old trade route of over nine kilometres (5.6 miles). Anticipate cruising past restored houses, religious buildings and see a slice of rural Malaysia that once dominated the city. Join either the daylight, sunset or after-dark cruise starting at either Muara Jetty (near Maritime Museum) or Taman Rempah Jetty (near Hang Jebat Bridge).
The 43rd-floor observation deck at the top of Shore Sky Tower provides panoramic views reaching 50 kilometres (31 miles) in all directions. Malacca’s highest point acts as a haven for both photographers and thrill-seekers. On a cloudless day, the Straits of Malacca and colossal cargo ships bobbing in the water are visible. Adrenaline junkies can test their nerve walking along the glass bottom ledge with seemingly nothing below their feet for 43 stories! Culture Trip recommends Sky Tower as one of the top things to do in Malacca on a sunny day for families, couples and solo travellers. Tickets cost RM 25 ($6.10 USD).
Nyonya meals and street food on the Malacca food trail
Malacca is the food capital of Malaysia. Hungry tourists can taste everything from street food to the city’s famed cendol (shaved ice and green jelly) and regional delicacies. Malay, Indian and Chinese restaurants fill the streets amid a smattering of low-cost food courts. Add in the centuries of colonial influence and the Peranakan (Baba-Nyonya) fusion of Malay and Chinese styles of cooking, and you have a thriving food culture in Malacca rivalling Penang. We recommend Chung Wah’s for chicken rice balls and Amy Heritage to taste Nyonya cuisine.
Sunken ships, local art and Malacca’s story at the museums
Malacca bursts with museums and galleries showcasing its colourful tale. From a former sunken Portuguese vessel to the Stadthuy’s ethnographic museum, culture lovers are spoilt for choice. Learning more about their fascinating past should be among every traveller’s list of things to do in Malacca – a little context make the attractions and photographs meaningful. Check out the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum (inside three restored 19th-century buildings along Jonker Street), Melaka Art Gallery and Malacca Maritime Museum.