Melaka's old town square
The old colonial town square of Melaka

Melaka, sometimes spelled Malacca, is a small former city-state a few hours south of Kuala Lumpur. The sultanate became an important trading center in the early 15th century, lying halfway between China and India, and with easy access to Siam and the spice islands of Indonesia. The Portuguese arrived almost exactly 100 years later. After less than 150 years, the Dutch in their turn conquered and took over the port, only to be replaced by the British after another 150 years.

With its long history at the crossroads of many cultures, and occupation by many different European masters, Melaka has a rich supply of historical and cultural attractions.

Most people seem to visit on a day trip from either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Most tours will just give you time to walk up St Paul's hill and see a few shops along Jonker Walk. They won't give you time to take in the museums or browse the shops.

The "city center" is essentially divided into two major areas. If you're staying in Melaka for a couple of days, you can easily devote one full day to each of the two areas. The first is the area around the Bukit Melaka, also called St. Paul's Hill after the church now in ruins at the top. This is where the center of power has been since the city-state's founding in the fifteenth century, and where the remains of all the colonial occupiers can be seen.

The other large area to explore is on the other side of the river from the hill, and is generally called Chinatown. This is where the trading houses of the nineteenth century are located, although a few of the buildings are much older than that. While the hill is surrounded by museums, Chinatown now holds an array of restaurants, antique shops and small hotels.