Its location on the Malacca Strait made the eponymous city of Melaka in Malaysia a pearl in the Malay Empire… and later a target of conquest by European powers.
Today, Melaka’s accretion of centuries of history and culture make its UNESCO-recognized old quarter an endlessly fascinating place to explore on foot. You’ll see for yourself in the walking tour we’ve constructed here, covering the Chinese-Malay hybrid culture of the Peranakans in the heart of Melaka's Chinatown; the harmony of three faiths on Temple Street; the colonial experience in Dutch Square and the St. Paul historical complex; concluding at the Independence Memorial, where the Malaysian Prime Minister declared "Merdeka" from British rule.
Starting your Melaka Walking Tour
This walking tour takes between 3-4 hours, depending on how long you pause at each stop. Try to undertake this in the mid-afternoon to avoid the searing noontime heat. Dress in light cotton clothing, and bring water, comfortable shoes, and a hat to ward off the worst of the humid climate.
Start your journey at the Melaka Tourist Information Center (Google Maps) between Dutch Square and the Melaka River - here, you can get free maps of the area and other notable parts of the city.
From the Tourist Center, cross over into Chinatown over the Tan Kim Seng Bridge, over the river that was the historical lifeline of Melaka. In its heyday, Melaka was a busy colonial trading port, filled with ships and other watercraft doing the business of several consecutive empires.
Baba Nyonya Heritage Centre: Throwback Tycoon Home
Instead of going straight up Jalan Hang Jebat, turn left immediately upon crossing the bridge, walk about 200 feet west down Lorong Hang Jebat, then turn right at Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Google Maps), the street formerly known as Heeren Street in the Dutch colonial era.
In colonial times "Heeren" (as it was known then) was home to Melaka's richest Chinese merchants. Today, its shophouses have been taken over by coffee shops and souvenir stores. One house pays tribute to the prosperous culture based here once upon a time: the Baba Nyonya Heritage Center (website | Google Maps).
This museum presents Peranakan (assimilated Chinese) life during colonial times.
Like many rich merchant households at the time, the house is crammed with stuff appropriate to the affluence of the family living within: wood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, intricately carved lacquer screens, and chandeliers imported from Victorian England. A guided tour is available to help you make sense of the place and its little touches.
Wah Aik Shoe Store: Tiny Shoes from a Thankfully Lost Tradition
You'll find a number of interesting curio and antique shops as you walk down the old Heeren. Wah Aik Shoe Maker still sells shoes for bound feet – one of the last shoemakers in the world to make these.
In the 19th century and well into the 20th, a few Peranakan matrons still practiced the grisly Chinese tradition of foot binding. Bound feet were a sign of femininity and privilege; only women who could expect to be waited on hand and food could so cripple themselves in the pursuit of fashion.
Wah Aik Shoemakers (website | Google Maps) was founded early in the 20th century to cater to Malacca's dainty-footed ladies, still numbering in the thousands before World War II. While foot binding has completely died out in Malacca, Wah Aik Shoemakers still lives on, now catering instead to Malacca's robust tourist trade.
The tiny silk shoes are still for sale here, as are the beaded shoes, or kasut manek, that Peranakan maidens used to embroider for their future husbands - but the buyers now tend to be tourists wanting to take a piece of Malacca history home.
Gan Boon Leong Statue: Memento to "Mr. Universe"
The stroll to Cheng Hoon Teng Temple takes you straight through Melaka's Chinatown. Walk west down Jl Tun Tan Cheng Lock, turn right at Jl Hng Lekir, go straight until you reach Jl Hang Jebat, the famous Jonker Street.
Along the way, you’ll pass a somewhat quirky token of local lore.
Jonker Street is the political home base for Malacca politician Gan Boon Leong, who was a professional bodybuilder in the 1950s. While Datuk Gan is mostly retired from politics, his presence remains in a pocket park at the street's geographic center. A muscle-bound statue of Datuk Gan in his prime (Google Maps) stands in the center of the park, flexing its pecs as it smiles.
Street of Harmony: Three Faiths Sharing One Path
From Jonker Street, turn left through Jl Hang Lekiu, then walk until you reach the intersection with Jl Tokong (Temple Street), notable for its many houses of worship (thus its nickname, the “Street of Harmony”).
ON the intersection, of the two streets, you’ll first find Kampung Kling Mosque (Google Maps), whose minaret’s pagoda-like form is typical of the architectural syncretism so beloved by the Melakans. The mosque was built for the use of the South Indian Muslims (Kling) who once lived here.
Further down Temple Street, you'll find Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Temple (Google Maps), an ancient Hindu temple (the oldest in Melaka) catering to the city's South Indian Hindus. The temple was first constructed in the late 1700s in honor of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, or Vinayagar, the Hindu remover of obstacles.
Finally, at the end of Jl Tokong, you'll find Cheng Hoon Teng (website | Google Maps), one of the oldest and finest Chinese Buddhist temples in Malaysia. Founded in the mid-1600s by the kapitan, or headman, of the Chinese community at the time, the temple still welcomes locals who supplicate the heavens for good luck, successful business, or risk-free childbirth.
For a full accounting of the three major houses of worship on Jalan Tokong, read our explainer on Melaka’s Street of Harmony.
Christ Church & Statdhuis: Seat of Empire
Cross the river again, and step onto Dutch Square (Google Maps) to see what the colonizing Dutch left behind: namely Christ Church and the Stadthuys (State House). The buildings in the square are all a rich maroon color, but this was not always so.
When they were originally built, the Dutch Square walls were all exposed brick; later authorities plastered them and painted them white. In the 1920s, the British painted the walls salmon red. Only recently were the buildings painted the maroon color they have today.
The biggest building in the Square is the Stadhuys, which served as Malacca's center of government from the Dutch era all the way to post-independence 1979, when the government quit using the Stadthuys as the State Governing Center and converted it into an Ethnography Museum.
To the Stadthuys' left, you'll see Christ Church: built in 1753, it's the oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia. The church's bricks were brought in all the way from Holland. The pews in the Church are about 200 years old, and must have been there at the very beginning.
St. Paul's Hill: Xavier’s Last Resting Place
St. Paul's Hill (formerly Malacca Hill; Google Maps) behind the Stadthuys is home to one of the last remaining Portuguese structures on Melaka: St. Paul's Church. This church is only a ruin, constructed in the 1520s as an act of gratitude by a merchant who had survived an ocean storm.
The church changed hands several times over the centuries - first to the Jesuits in 1548 (St. Francis Xavier himself received the title deeds), then to the Dutch in 1641, then to the British in 824. By the time the British took charge, St. Paul's had long been abandoned, and the British used the ruins to store their gunpowder.
Today, the Church's walls house an open tomb, where St. Francis Xavier's body was interred before it was moved to its present location in Goa, India. The church also houses cannons left over from the Dutch.
In 1952, on the 400th anniversary of Xavier's death, a memorial statue was constructed in front of the church. The saint's last miracle was said to have been performed here - when they disinterred him for transport to Goa, the saint's body was found to be incorrupt.
Porta de Santiago: Last Remnants of a Mighty Fortress
Walk down the hill to Jl Kota, where the last remnants of the Portuguese occupation can be found.
The street of Jl Kota traces out where the walls of the Portuguese fort A Famosa used to be; all that remains of the walls is a single gate, what we now know as Porta de Santiago (Google Maps).
A Famosa was built by the occupying Portuguese forces in 1512. The Portuguese employed hundreds of slaves to build the fortress walls, and scavenged stone from nearby palaces, cemeteries, and mosques to complete the structure. Later, the fort was expanded to enclose nearby European settlements, transforming A Famosa into a fully functional European Christian city.
When the Dutch took over, they added the date of their conquest ("Anno 1670") and the crest of the Dutch East India Company above the gate. The fortress was handed over to the British in the early 19th century, to protect the city from the depredations of Napoleonic France.
The British decided to demolish the fort, denying its use if it were to fall into enemy hands. At the last minute, Sir Stanford Raffles ordered a stop to the destruction, only managing to save Porta Santiago from obliteration.
These days, Chinese couples pose for their wedding photos in front of Porta de Santiago, supposedly to ensure that their marriages will last as long as the gate.
Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum: Malaysia’s Camelot
On your way from Porta de Santiago, you'll pass by a gravesite for Dutch colonists before arriving at the Istana Melaka, or the Malacca Sultanate Palace (Google Maps).
The Palace is a replica of the structure built by the extinct sultanate of Malacca, the rulers of the city before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1500s. The plans were derived from the Malay Annals' account of Sultan Mansur Shah's palace, which housed the nobleman who ruled Melaka from 1456 to 1477.
Today, the Palace houses the Muzium Kebudayaan (Cultural Museum), which celebrates the Malay side of Melaka's history. The museum safeguards more than 1,300 items from Melaka's past: photographs, drawings, weaponry, gifts from foreign emissaries, and musical instruments, divided between eight chambers and three galleries on three floors.
For an inside look at the palace replica, read our feature on Melaka’s Sultanate Palace Museum.
Proclamation of Independence Memorial: Birth of a Nation
Walk in the direction of the Sultanate Palace's gardens, and you'll come across the last stop of the walking tour: the Proclamation of Independence Memorial (Google Maps).
Before independence, this building was known as the Melaka Club, a British building constructed in 1912. Today, this building stands as a silent witness to Malaysia's history. The building now commemorates the moment when, just across the road, Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed the country's independence to thousands of cheering Malaysians at Warriors' Field (Padang Pahlawan) in 1957.
The Independence Obelisk now stands on the field in memory of this event, marking the spot where the last British governor of Malacca handed over his offices to the new Malaysian Governor of Malacca on August 31, 1957.
Today, the building houses freedom memorabilia from multiple eras of Malaysia's history, the earliest dating back to the first sultanates in the area. Independence (or in Malay, "Merdeka") is the history exhibit's overarching theme, showing the long struggle for independence waged against the Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonizers.