I have been wanting to write this post for a very long time – a post on the top things to do and see in my hometown, Melaka. However, I have been hesitant because there is a lot of content posted about Melaka and publishing another listicle post on this historical city might not make a huge difference.
Many friends and acquaintances have asked me about what should they do, where should they stay and what food should they eat in Melaka. To be honest, I’m not an expert about my hometown. When I’m not travelling, I go back to Melaka once a month to visit my parents and to spend time with family. I hardly venture out of the neighbourhood to gallivant in the city because I don’t want to deal with the traffic jam especially in the tourist areas. I don’t know where is the best place to have this or that food because the best food is Mom’s food at home (sorry, our house is not opened to the public :-)). The shoppers and foodies who come to Melaka with the objective to find the best bargain or to have the best ‘coconut shake’, probably know a lot more about my hometown than I!
After much consideration, I thought, oh what the heck, I will write the post anyway especially for first-timers and for those who have not visited Melaka in a long time. And as a local, I will share my honest comments on what makes the place or food fascinating, and what is not.
Melaka is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in South-East Asia. Once a strategic trading port for over 700 years, Melaka or Malacca as it was known during the early years, had witnessed merchants, traders, travellers and conquerors passing through, making the city their home and blending in their respective heritage and traditions with local culture.
The legacies of this diversity are still present in the city amidst historical ruins and buildings, places of worship and neighbourhoods.
A’Famosa Fort is a former Portuguese fort built in the 16th century under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque when he conquered Malacca from the Malacca Sultan. What you see now standing tall in the city centre is actually just the surviving gate of the fort called Porta de Santiago. The fort is one of the oldest European architectural remains in South-East Asia.
At the rear of the fort is a flight of stairs leading up to St Paul’s Hill on which you will find the remains of St. Paul’s Church and a statue of St Francis Xavier statue with a severed right arm. The church was used by St Francis Xavier as his base for his missionary works in the Far East. To know more about A’Famosa Fort and particularly about the missing right arm of St Francis Xavier, check out my post ‘Portuguese Connection to Melaka’.
Note: A’Famosa Fort is not to be confused with A’Famosa Resort. The former is a Portuguese fort located in the city centre of Melaka whereas the latter is a hotel resort-cum-theme park located in Alor Gajah district which is about an hour’s drive from the city.
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2)Malacca Sultanate Palace
Situated at the foot of St Paul’s Hill and next to A’Famosa Fort is the Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum. The museum is a replica of the Palace of Sultan Mansur Shah during the heyday of the Malacca Sultanate before the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. The museum showcases stories and legends of the Malay kingdom, and displays more than 1,000 items of costumes, jewelries, weaponry, and traditional music instruments.
The museum palace is one of its kind in Malaysia and I had visited the palace several times whenever friends wanted to go sightseeing in Melaka. But my last visit was nearly ten years ago, hence I’m not sure if the curators have continued to maintain the museum well. Having said that, for a small fee, it’s worth visiting.
3)Stadthuys and Christ Church (Dutch Square)
The Dutch took over from the Portuguese in 1641 and ruled over Malacca until 1724. While A’Famosa Fort was the symbol of what was left behind by the Portuguese, the historical structures representing Dutch rule that still stand today in the city are Stadthuys and Christ Church which is known by a few names: Dutch Square, Red Square or the Clock Tower Area.
Stadthuys and Christ Church are painted red and widely promoted as symbols of Dutch rule in Malacca. As a result, many people assume the following:
- Any red building in that area is Dutch-made. That is not true. The Stadthuys and Christ Church were originally painted white by the Dutch but the British painted the buildings terracotta red in 1911 for practical reason – a red exterior is easier to maintain compared to white exterior.
- The only Dutch buildings left in Melaka are just Stadthuys and Christ Church. That is not true as well because there are the Dutch administrative buildings and Dutch Village located nearby but many are not aware for not much is said about the history behind those buildings.
To uncover Dutch history in Melaka, you can read more interesting facts in my post ‘8 Historical Truths About Dutch Melaka (Malacca)’.
4)Psychedelic trishaw ride
Trishaws have become an icon in Melaka. No, wait, let me correct myself – colourful, garish and psychedelic trishaws have become an icon in Melaka. You will find many of them lined up outside the Stadthuys to take tourists around the city centre for a fee.
Also known as cycle-rickshaw in other parts of the world, the trishaws in Melaka were once a common form of transportation. I remembered sitting in a trishaw with my babysitter when I was five or six years old, and in the 1980s, I had seen some of my classmates going home in a trishaw after school ended. When Melaka was declared a historical city in the 1990s, trishaws were outnumbered by cars and buses, eventually nobody used the trishaws as a public transport.
The colourful trishaws began when a few trishaw pullers decorated their vehicles for tourists, and soon the others followed. Now you will find numerous Hello Kitty or Frozen trishaws, some with flashing lights, flags, and PA speakers for music.
Note: Go on a trishaw ride, if you really must. Otherwise, the garish and loud trishaws are for photo-ops, and nothing else.
Just across the Malacca River and the Stadthuys (Dutch Square) is the city’s most touristy area – Jonker Walk – where the road is lined with handicraft and antique shops, cafes and restaurants, and heaving with tourist crowds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights when the area is turned into a lively and vibrant night market. Jonker Street or used to be known as Jonkerstraat in Dutch means “Nobleman Street” where many Dutch traders and merchants’ townhouses were located.
Although it is fun to experience Jonker Walk for its night market, do take the opportunity to explore the area on weekdays when it’s quieter – you will not have to queue at eateries and you will definitely encounter better customer experience.
While tourists throng Jonker Walk but many forget to explore Heeren Street (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), a road parallel to Jonker Walk. Heeren Street or Heerenstraat in Dutch means “First Class Gentleman Street” where the rich Dutch used to live during the 17th century.
By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Dutch townhouses on Heeren Street were taken over by the wealthy Straits-Chinese (Babas and Nyonyas), a community of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage.
Who are the Babas and Nyonyas? They are a community of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage who mainly live in the former British Straits Settlement of Penang, Melaka and Singapore. This community is also known as Peranakan means “local born”, and they trace their origins to 15th and 17th centuries when their ancestors were thought to be Chinese traders who married local Malay/Indonesian women. Peranakan males are known as Babas while the females are known as Nyonyas. An assimilation of both cultures is prevalent among them – they retained many of the Chinese traditions, customs and religion but adopted language, attire and food from the Malays and Indonesians.
Do visit the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum on Heeren Street, a privately-owned museum managed by the family of Chan Cheng Siew. The museum provides a glimpse into the opulent and bygone lifestyle of a Peranakan family, a fantastic way to discover their rich and colourful culture. Unfortunately, the ticket prices are increasing every year and the museum guides are becoming haughty and rude. Having said that, if you haven’t been to the museum and would like to learn more about the Peranakan culture, this heritage museum is the best in town.
Note: Given that my mother’s family is Melaka Peranakan, the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum in Melaka gives an accurate insight into the Peranakan culture compared to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in Penang. The former is still actively managed by the Chan family and the museum guides are people who are closely connected to the family whereas the latter is a former mansion owned by a 19th century Chinese tycoon who had collected thousands of Peranakan antiques and collectibles. A property developer bought the mansion in the 1990s and turned the site into a museum showcasing Peranakan artefacts and culture but the guides at the mansion are not Peranakan themselves, hence they are not able to articulate well the history and culture of the Peranakans. As such, I feel that it’s reasonable to spend on that pricey ticket for the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum in Melaka to learn something that is more accurate and insightful.
More cultural diversity can be found at “Harmony Street”, an intersection of three roads: Jalan Tukang Besi (Blacksmith Street), Jalan Tukang Emas (Goldsmith Street) and Jalan Tokong (Temple Street). Locals also call this area “Temple Street” because of three main houses of worship standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground.
Harmony Street is flanked by Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, Kampung Kling Mosque and Sri Payyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, with traditional houses and shops in between. This cluster of temples and a mosque on a short stretch of road, not only reflects the three main ethnic groups of Malaysia – Malay, Chinese and Indian – but demonstrates the religious pluralism that co-existed together since the 17th century.
8)Melaka River Cruise
Your trip to Melaka is incomplete if you do not cruise 🙂 The Melaka River was once a stinking, murky waterway with the rear view of crumbling shop houses and dilapidated houses on stilts. Fortunately, the state government has cleaned up the river and gave the waterway a major facelift over the past ten years or so. The river is now widened, clear with a tinge of emerald green, and almost free from pollution. It was a major revitalization of the Melaka River: historical buildings and bridges were preserved, the rear side of the shop houses were painted with colourful murals, and pavements were built on the river bank for pedestrians.
Now tourists are able to enjoy a 45-minute cruise on the Melaka River. For more details, you may check out my post and video of the cruise ‘Harmony Street and Melaka River Cruise’.
Because the Baba and Nyonya community mainly lived in the former British Straits Settlement of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, Melaka has always been associated with Nyonya food.
Due to the assimilation of Chinese and Malay/Indonesia cultures in the community, Nyonya food or Peranakan food is a fusion of Chinese ingredients with Malay/Indonesian spices and cooking methods. Key ingredients typically used in Peranakan food are coconut milk, galangal, candlenuts, pandan leaves, shrimp paste (belacan), bean paste (taucho), tamarind juice, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and others mixed with chillies and shallots, thus creating a cuisine that is aromatic, spicy, tangy and sometimes herbal.
While ethnicity influences the Peranakan cuisine, geography also has an impact on the ingredients used. Nyonya food in the northern part of Malaysia, for instance, Penang, is distinctly different from Nyonya food originating from the South, namely, Melaka and Singapore. Nyonya food in Penang has influences from neighbouring Thailand whereas Nyonya food in Melaka and Singapore is influenced by Indonesia. One example of this is the famous Penang Assam Laksa in which the tamarind paste is used as a souring agent. The laksa dish in the south especially in Melaka is sweeter and richer in coconut milk and spices which is attributed to the fact that Melaka was once a spice trading hub in the archipelago.
Interestingly, Nyonya food in Melaka is similar to Portuguese-Eurasian dishes. The Portuguese ruled Malacca for 130 years during which a unique community of inter-marriage between the Portuguese and local Malay women was produced; a mixed legacy that is also prevalent in their cuisine which uses lots of spices and local ingredients to Portuguese food.
The question that I often receive is: where to find good, authentic Nyonya food in Melaka?
Because my mother’s family is Peranakan, we are the worst critics when it comes to finding the perfect Nyonya restaurant in Melaka. We criticize every dish and comment that this or that ingredient is missing from the dish. Fortunately, we have found a few restaurants which cook good, authentic Nyonya food, and they are as follows:
Address: 385, Jalan Ujong Pasir, Taman Sinn, 75050 Melaka
Tel: 06-2831009 or whatsapp 019-2788653.
Reservations is highly recommended because it’s a small restaurant and the establishment gets filled up very quickly. The restaurant is located in the Ujong Pasir neighbourhood, approximately 15 minutes’ drive from the city centre.
Address: 123, Jalan Merdeka, Taman Melaka Raya, 75000 Melaka
Tel: 06-284 0737
Reservations is highly recommended because the restaurant is located right in the business centre of Melaka, thus it gets filled up quickly too. Makko was one of the first Nyonya restaurants opened since the 1990s, and their quality of food has remained somewhat authentic over these years.
Note: I can’t comment on all Nyonya restaurants in Melaka but there is one restaurant which I would like to discourage you all from going, that is, Ole Sayang Restaurant in Taman Melaka Raya. Although Ole Sayang Restaurant was one of the earliest Nyonya restaurants opened since the 90s and the authenticity of the food was commendable twenty years ago, the quality of food and customer service have declined. The restaurant compromises quality over quantity by catering their food mainly for busloads of tourists.
There is no shortage of accommodation in Melaka – luxury hotels, boutique hotels, heritage hotels, budget hotels, guesthouses and backpackers’ hostels. Personally, I can’t recommend a hotel from each category because I stay at my parents’ house when I go back to Melaka (why would I stay in a hotel??) but I had been invited to stay at two boutique hotels in the city, and they are as follows:
Address: No. 31 Jalan Hang Kasturi, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia.
Tel: +606 281 2109, +606 281 7509, +6017 602 1226 (Whatsapp)
Timez Hotel was formerly a pre-war heritage building and is now a boutique hotel with a modern facelift. The hotel is strategically located on Jalan Hang Kasturi – a minute walk to Jonker Walk night market and 10-15 minutes’ walk to the city’s historical attractions. The hotel also has a fascinating Swedish-made lift, something which guests will talk about because it’s unusual. The hotel also has an in-house restaurant called Super Rabbit Café which is open to guests and casual visitors.
Check out other reviews on Timez Hotel here.
2)The Settlement Hotel
Address: No. 63, Jalan Ujong Pasir, 75050 Melaka,
Tel: +60 6 292 1133
The Settlement Hotel is located at the fringe of the Portuguese Settlement on Jalan Ujong Pasir, a 15-minute drive from the city centre. The hotel was once a four-storey government building but is now fully restored and refurbished as a stylish four-star boutique hotel. Check out the Long Table Bar, a 27-foot wooden table carved from a single tree trunk that serves as a dining table during meal times.
Check out other reviews on The Settlement Hotel here.
*Opinions expressed in this non-exhaustive post are entirely mine. You may enjoy (or may not) enjoy some of the sights or the food served in the restaurants mentioned above – to each his/her own. This post was written mainly to answer queries that I often receive from friends and acquaintances whenever they learn that my hometown is Melaka 🙂
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