If you live in SE Asia and want a quick, cheap trip to Portugal, head on down to the quaint Unesco World Heritage city of Malacca, Malaysia. Sitting in the terracotta-tiled bar of the stylishly Mediterranean Casa del Rio hotel while sipping a sangria by the river, you might just catch yourself saying: “Wait, this is Malaysia?!”
Perfect for a two-day getaway, there’s plenty to see and do in this history city. And bonus for those of us who live in Penang or Kuala Lumpur: there’s a cheap direct flight there on Malindo Air.
Malacca mixes centuries old remnants from a variety of cultures with modern buildings and unique restaurants bursting with character. Around every corner, you can see influences from the various cultures that colonized this corner of Malaysia over the centuries, including the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Japanese, and of course, Malaysian.
Top 9 things to see and do
1. Jonker Street
This hopping street is a treasure chest full of cute little shops, yummy restaurants (including a decent selection of Portuguese and Mediterranean cuisine), music-filled bars and tons of people. It’s especially busy on weekends when tons of vendors set up little stalls along the street. But if you’re there midweek, you may just get to have it all to yourself.
Be sure to look for the Chinese shop that sells paper items to burn so their ancestors can enjoy those things in the afterlife. Yeah, apparently that includes beer and paper Gucci handbags. One lucky ghost is going to be stoked for his chauffeur-driven limo!
2. St. Paul’s Hill and Church
Built in 1521, this is the oldest church building in all of SE Asia. A Portuguese nobleman who survived a violent storm on the South China Sea built the chapel out of gratitude, and it’s pretty cool to see some of the original construction still standing today. You’ll have to walk up a steep set of stairs for a little bit to make it to the chapel, which sits atop a hill, and there you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the city. Inside the chapel, you’ll also get to see gigantic ancient tombstones. You’ll probably also get to make some new friends – a few sets of Korean tourists were dying to take photos with us, which was pretty damned funny.
3. Stadthuys – Red Building and Red Square
Walking to/from St. Paul’s, you’ll cruise by the Stadthuys. Dutch for “city hall,” it was built in 1650. If you’re into history, head into the History and Ethnography Museum, which has artifacts and preserved ancient clothing that people wore throughout the ages in Malacca.
4. Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum
Baba Nyonyas are people of Chinese descent who intermarried and blended their culture with that of Malays. This museum highlights the history of the ethnic Baba Nyonya culture.
5. Have a meal/drink by the river at Sid’s
If your inner compass hasn’t yet been fully spun around, hop on over to Sid’s Pub for a drink by the river at sunset. This iconic British pub overlooks the river and historic Dutch and Portuguese ruins, so you’ll get a multicultural experience along with your mojito.
6. Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
This Chinese temple is the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia. It practices the “Three Doctrinal System” of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. It’s located right in the heart of it all at 24 Jalan Tokong.
7. Shop for local treasures
There are quite a few little art galleries and craftsmen/women shops tucked into little corners of old town, just waiting for you to stumble upon them. From ceramic studios set amid lush jungle-like gardens, to quirky paintings adorning colorful walls, there’s a lot to discover. My fave is a really talented local jewelry maker who magically transforms colored wire into incredibly beautiful rings, necklaces and earrings (which are insanely affordable and make great gifts) – his shop is Joe’s Designs Handcrafted Jewelry on Jalan Tun Tan Chen Lock.
8. Get an aerial view from Menara Taming Sari
Climb aboard the floating donut to get a slowly rotating aerial view of Malacca from the Menara Taming Sari. It’s a really great way to get your bearings and the layout of the city from up here. Plus, it provides some nice view of the buildings around town.
9. Get yo gansta on in one of these pimped out rides
I mean, c’mon now. Nothing says “Player” like riding around in a pulsating pink Hello Kitty tricked out trishaw, now does it? I really have no idea why these tricked out rides are a thing in Malacca, but they are everywhere! And they are awesome.
Where to stay
If you really want to be transported to another place, stay at the gorgeous Casa del Rio, right on the river. It’s just a block from the main drags, but it feels like a country unto itself. They’ve gotten all the Mediterranean details right, from the wrought iron railings, to terraces and balconies draped with colorful bougainvillea, to their grand arches and stucco finish. And the rooms are spacious and well appointed. It’s rare to find a truly fabulous hotel in Malaysia, and the Casa del Rio is one of those gems.
There are also lots of adorable little guest houses and boutique hotels in Malacca to suit every budget.
When to go
It’s never a bad time to visit Malacca – it’s typical tropical weather year-round. But if you really hate rain, avoid June and November, which are usually the wettest months.
When NOT to go
If you can, avoid going on a weekend. It’s a madhouse and packed with visitors from nearby Singapore and KL. Prices get jacked up, restaurants are packed and there are tourists on every centimeter of pavement. But then again, if you like packed pubs and a really hopping atmosphere, maybe a weekend visit is the ticket for you?
Some friends recently asked me if it’s worth it to go to Malacca. I’d say yes, but only for a couple of days, and only if you’re nearby. It’s not someplace I’d travel from a great distance to see, but it’s a nice little getaway if you live in SE Asia. The city has a lot of charm. We really enjoyed the Mediterranean restaurants, which are quite different than what we have on offer in Penang, the town has a fun, vibrant and historic vibe, and it’s pretty interesting that it feels absolutely nothing like Malaysia there. So yeah, I’d say it’s worth a trip.
If you go, I hope you have a great time! 🙂