17 July 2019.
Malacca’s old town makes a rather wonderful introduction to Malaysia.
Buildings embellished in pastel tones and tall shuttered window frames rise high above the pavement. Electrical cables criss cross the cloudless blue sky. Chinese lanterns, fuschia bougainvillaea and clusters of bamboo provide provide unexpected explosions of colour. Intoxicating aromas fill the narrow laneways from hidden doorways and lively streetside stalls. Cars, scooters and bikes whizz past in a constant blur of traffic.
Admittedly, there’s not a great deal to actually do in Malacca.
Instead, its compact historic centre is a place to wander aimlessly and discover slowly, slow being a near necessity in the oppressive heat. It’s a place to get lost down delightfuly downtrodden alleyways, discover hidden walls of streets art and leafy cafes, wander through non-descript doorways to find the best laksa of your life, and when it all becomes too much, retreat to the canals for a quiet stroll or an afternoon drink beside the water.
Many people choose to visit Malacca (also written as Melaka) on a day trip as its few sites are easily ticked off in just a few hours, but really, the city is best experienced over a weekend when the streets spring to life for the famous Jonker Night Market.
Planning your trip? These are the best things to do in Malacca.
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Malacca’s historic centre may be small, but when the tour buses arrive and the day trippers begin to filter through the city streets, it can all start to feel a little crowded.
A stroll along the river and its surrounding streets is one of the best ways to escape the throng, especially in the early morning when the city is just shaking off its evening cloak, the air temperature is still bearable and the silent streets are beginning to fill with life.
Shop keepers emerge from hidden doorways to set up for the early risers, cyclists peddle languidly along empty streets, dog-walkers weave between neatly arranged pots of bougainvillaea and the still water casts a perfect reflection of the crumbling, lantern-hung facades that line the waterway.
In the evenings, however, all tranquillity is surrendered as riverside cafes and restaurants spill across the walkway creating a perfect spot for an evening drink.
For a longer experience on the water, a river cruise is one of the most popular things to do in Malacca. It’s also a great opportunity to see some of the large-scale street art pieces that have sprung up on the buildings along the waterway and to see some of the enormous monitor lizards that live amongst the mangroves in the upper parts of the river.
Cruises depart from near the Maritime Museum (the big pirate ship) for MR30 (€6.50) roundtrip and take around 45 minutes. While walking along the river is certainly best in the early morning, the best time for cruising is just before sunset when the lights begin to flicker on and the riverside fills with visitors eager to enjoy the cooler temperatures and warm glow of lanterns.
For more info and to buy tickets, see here.
The beautiful, crumbling streets of Malacca’s old town were my very first taste of Malaysia and they instantly drew me in.
The faded white-washed walls bound with pops of colour from fuchsia bougainvillaea, brightly painted shutters and endless strings of red lanterns create a wonderful backdrop for the ceaseless chaos of Malacca’s Chinatown.
By morning, this grid of narrow streets remains relatively peaceful. Locals walk their bikes through the beautiful arched corridors that shade the pavements, wooden shutters are pulled shut to shield from the intensifying heat of day and the first handful of tourists begin to filter through the quiet streets.
As the day drifts on however, funky smells billow onto the streets as fishy broths, spicy sambals and delectably buttery treats are thrown together in a literal melting pot of centuries of culture and history. Roller doors are hoisted upwards to reveal coffee shops that immediately swell with diners, hungry sightseers jostle for position at busy street stalls and aimless wanderers dodge motorbikes, parked cars and potholes between distracted glances at shop fronts, neon signs and curious hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Early morning may be the best time to see Malacca’s China Town, but from mid-afternoon onwards, when the frenzy begins is, without a doubt, the best time to feel it.
The famous Jonker Walk – Jalan Hang Jebat – forms the main artery through the old town flanked by a pair of far prettier and more subdued streets on either side. These side streets were my favourite place to explore, getting lost in tiny laneways, discovering pretty nooks and covered pathways, and stumbling onto surprising street art scenes in the most unexpected places.
The old town can become disgustingly crowded during the day, but among this tangle of twisting streets, it’s still possible to enjoy a quiet moment of solitude.
Though this part on the city is short on actual attractions, it’s free to visit both the Cheng Hoong Teng Temple and Masjid Kampung Kling Mosque, both located on Jalan Tokong.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Malacca’s Chinatown without mentioning its most famous attraction – the wildly popular Jonker Street Night Market.
As the weekend rolls around, this street springs to life with things officially kicking off at 6 p.m. on Friday and every evening until Sunday. Unfortunately, I just so happened to arrive here on a Monday when the city enjoys a much-needed day off making things remarkably quiet.
Still, it’s one of the best things to do in Malacca, so try to plan your trip to fit it in.
Malacca has a long history of European occupation having fallen under Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, with the ruins of their settlements lying scattered across the city’s east bank.
Climb to the top of St Paul’s Hill where you’ll find the beautiful St Paul’s Church, originally built in 1521, which houses a collection of Portuguese tombstones.
Below sits A Famosa, one of the few remaining sections of the enormous fortification that once surrounded this corner of the city. Keep an eye out for the Dutch East India Trading Company’s coat of arms which was added during renovations when the Dutch took over.
Other hallmarks of the Dutch occupation include the rust red Stadthuys (City Hall), the clock tower and the windmill which all sit just opposite to bridge. You can also see Bastion Middleburg set beside the river.
Despite being one of Malacca’s top-rated attractions though, the ruins are not all that impressive, nor is much information provided for context.
Still, the sites can easily be visited in an hour or two and make a worthwhile stop, especially if you’re into history, before sinking back down to the bustle of the old town where you can experience a different kind of Portuguese influence in the form of a deliciously flaky torta de nata (yes, they’re here!).
Crowds on the hill can be overwhelming so try to visit early in the day or late afternoon.
Much like Penang, foodie’s will likely find the best way to discover Malacca is, quite simply, to eat.
There’s no shortage of foods to try among the streets of Malacca, from sweat-inducing laksa’s (be sure to try both the asam and Nonya varieties), sweet and buttery pineapple tarts, refreshing coconut shakes, a tandoor-oven feast or a bowl of sickly sweet Cendol.
Unfortunately, the growing popularity of the night market has meant that some of Jonker’s authentic ancient shops have had to close up and move elsewhere, replaced by more trendy restaurants and souvenir shops. I was also told at my guesthouse that many of the establishments that line the famous street have tempered their century-old recipes somewhat to better suit the less tolerable pallettes of us tourists.
Still, you won’t be disappointed with an endless array of delicious street food offerings, cute cafes and unassuming hawker centres to satisfy any craving.
When it come to eating in Malacca, following your nose can be half the fun, but if you’re in need of a little direction, these are a few places I ate at.
Poh Piah Lwee | A popular and super cheap place to try poh piah, a thin egg pancake stuffed with crispy pork lard, bean shoots and chilli paste. The laksa here was also good.
Jonker 88 | An institution in Malacca, this endlessly humming and slightly smoky joint is a great place for your first taste of traditional laksa or cendol. The fishy broth is quite different to the more creamy varieties you may be used to back home, but I kind of liked it. Portions are big.
Pak Putra Tandoori & Naan | This tiny restaurant spills across the parking lot and becomes one of the most visited dinner spots in town. Tandoori chicken is prepared fresh for each diner along with a variety of sides and fresh lassi.
Calanthe Art Cafe | A lovely place to escape the city chaos, though I suspect this is the kind of place my guesthouse was referring to as the creamy coconut broth of my laksa here was far more subtle than others I tried but still very much delicious.
Coconut Shakes | A must try for a refreshing drink on the go, though if you can, try to bring your own cup to cut down on plastic waste. You’ll find pop up stalls lining the main streets and really can’t go wrong with any of them.
TOP TIP | After the frenetic weekend consumed by the night market, many restaurants stay closed for most of Monday and Tuesday meaning you may miss out on trying some of the city’s more popular establishments. Yet another reason to plan your stay around the end of the week.
Kampung Morten sits on the outskirts of the historic centre and is one of few remaining traditional Malay villages in the country.
Today, it’s something of a living museum with clean, quiet streets lined with bougainvillaea and mango trees, perfectly manicured gardens and plant-laden patios that climb into steep triangular rooftops iconic of traditional Malay architecture.
Traditionally, the houses were raised on stilts to protect against flooding, while the steep shape of the roof was designed to ward off heat and quickly dispell heavy monsoonal rains.
After the bright colours and chaos of Chinatown, this tiny Pleasantville-esque neighbourhood has a decidedly different feel and is worth a visit. Many of the homes also double as cafes or homestays.
It’s possible to step inside one such house, Villa Sentosa, with mint green walls, chiffon trimmings and patterned furniture. Many online reviews mention an elderly, characterful baba who guides you through the house, prattling off stories, sometimes repeatedly, about the ins and outs of traditional Malay life, however, during my visit the house was simply open to visit with no one about.
As always, remember that these are people’s homes so please respect their privacy and property.
From Jonker Street, it’s just a sweaty 20-minute walk to Morten Village (1.5km) or you might prefer to hire a bike (10RM per day, €2) or take a Grab.
Perhaps not quite as famous as the interactive masterpieces that have sprung up in Penang’s George Town, Malacca’s hidden laneways still boast a surprising number of fun, open-air artworks. From sweeping kaleidoscopic murals to thoughtful street scenes that depict moments from everyday life.
Arguably, the most famous piece in the old town is the Kiehl’s mural which sits at the leafy, pedestrianised end of Jalan Tukung Besi where the lane meets the canal. A number of interesting smaller scenes can also be found in the small alleyway that runs between Lorong Hang Jebat and Jalan Hang Kasturi, parallel to Jalan Kampung Kuli.
Along the river, you’ll also find a number of full-scale pieces adorning the buildings.
Nestled in the south of the country, Malacca is easily reached by bus from just about anywhere in Malaysia, often via Kuala Lumpur, or from Singapore.
Buses leave from the Melaka Sentral bus terminal which sits 5km away from the historic centre. There are regular departures bound for Kuala Lumpur just 2 hours away.
Singapore is a 4 to 5 hour trip including the border crossing and thankfully some companies having designated pick up and drop off points in the old town which makes things far more convenient.