On the western side of the Malay Peninsula, the historic and storied city of Melaka (Malacca) is just a few hours drive from both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The city is a fascinating jumble of history; Chinese temples, Malay palaces, Portuguese churches, and Dutch colonial administrative buildings all vie for attention, giving the history lover plenty to see and do in this old city on the Straits.
Begin your exploration of Melaka with a boat tour along the city's river! Boat tours depart every half hour, and at 16RM (about $4 USD) won't break your budget. A river tour takes around 45 minutes to 1 hour, and cruises past some of the oldest and most scenic parts of Melaka. Go during the day to see the sights more clearly, or at night to see the beautiful lights illuminating the old shops, restaurants, and cafes along the river.
If you are short on time in Melaka, or just want to really get an excellent feel of the old parts of the city, a tour along the river is the best way to go. Afterwards, visit one of the cafes or restaurants along the atmospheric river walk for a cup of coffee or a beer and watch the boats cruise past.
Church of St. Francis Xavier
The Gothic-style Church of St. Francis Xavier is named after Melaka's most famous priest, the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) who spent quite a bit of time in Melaka. The namesake of Pope Francis is called the "Apostle of the East". Constructed in 1856, the Church of St. Francis Xavier is the center of Roman Catholicism in the city, and free to visit and look around.
The church holds mass in English, Tamil, and Mandarin.
The church is open to visitors. It's cool, quiet, and peaceful inside. Many people come in to pray or to sit and reflect in the quiet sanctuary.
Dutch Square (Red Square)
Not far away are the eye-catching red buildings of the Dutch Square. These red buildings, from the administrative Stadhus to the Protestant Christ Church, are important colonial remnants, left from Dutch rule of the Straits. Originally a Dutch Reform church, Christ Church was consecrated as an Anglican church after the British gained control of the colony.
The Stadhus, the administrative center of Dutch colonialism in Melaka, was built in 1650, making it the oldest remaining Dutch building in all of Asia!
Dutch Square has a lively and festive feel. Drivers with wildly decorated rickshaws cart visitors around, musicians perform for a few ringit, and tourists from all over the world visit to explore this unique and beautiful city square.
Statue of St. Francis Xavier and the Ruins of St. Paul's
Neither the Church of St. Francis Xavier nor Christ Church however are the most important church in town. That honor goes to, despite being a ruin, the Church of Saint Paul. Built in 1521, St. Paul's served as the home base for St. Francis Xavier himself as he undertook his missions across Asia. St. Francis was buried at the church after his death in 1552 before his body was moved to Goa, India. At this time, the bones of St. Francis' right hand were removed for the creation of a relic.
Now a historical site, a statue of St. Francis was constructed in 1952 at the church. Interestingly, the day after its unveiling, a tree fell on the statue breaking off his right hand - the same hand which was removed from the body of the real St. Francis.
Although the church is now an empty ruin, there is more to see on the hill. The church's historic graveyard is open to visitors, and is worth exploring and looking around.
Another site worth visiting is the Independence Memorial, a free museum detailing Malaysia's independence and unification. Malaysia is a federation made up of thirteen states or sultanates and ruled by a king elected from among the Malaysian sultans. The sultanates are ruled by hereditary sultans, and the states, where the monarchy was abolished by the colonial rulers, have governors. Modern Malaysia was formed in 1963 after gaining independence from the United Kingdom.
Palace of the Sultan of Melaka
Although the current Sultan's Palace is just a replica of the original (which was destroyed in a fire), it's an interesting place to visit. The palace was reconstructed in the traditional method, without the use of any metal nails!
Inside, exhibits and reconstructions show what life was like for the historic Sultans of Melaka. The museum is interesting, and best of all, air-conditioned!
After visiting, explore the "Forbidden Gardens" that surround the old wooden palace.
Cheng Hoong Teng Temple
Malaysia is a melting pot of people from all over the world. One of the largest ethnic communities in the country are the Chinese-Malay, who first arrived in the country hundreds of years ago as traders. The Cheng Hoong Teng Temple ("Temple of the Green Cloud") dates back to the 16th century, though the building has been rebuilt and restored a few times since.
This temple was constructed to serve the spiritual needs of Chinese traders and workers living in Melaka, and is dedicated to Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, the three religions of China.
It is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia.
There's plenty more to see in Melaka if you've got the time, but two to three days is plenty to see the main historic sites of the city. When you are ready to move on, it's just four to five hours by bus to both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.