The Sungai Melaka has meandered through Malaysia's Melaka City for centuries, but with glitzy new shopping malls opening along its riverbanks and boutique hotels now overlooking its picturesque bridges and art murals, this snaking waterway is being rejuvenated by creative urban planning.

Located on the southwest coast of Malaysia, Melaka City is arguably the country’s most historic metropolis. Its central historical zone, a crumbling set of colonial-era buildings in and around Chinatown, gained Unesco World Heritage listing in 2008, and the benefits are now spreading to the Sungai Melaka.

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Melaka River Cruise boat passing murals on Sungai Melaka © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

Snap street art along the riverbanks

In the early 1400s, Melaka City was one of the region's most powerful trading states and a crucible of Malay Islamic culture. It was a prize target for European colonial powers, and the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all wrestled to leave their mark on the city, making it a fascinating place to explore. Recently, the local government has pitched in too, spending hundreds of millions of ringgit on beautifying the riverbanks, cleaning the polluted waters and sprucing up the city’s vintage pedestrian bridges.

Attractive murals have been commissioned for walls facing the river. Melaka’s founder Parameswara and Ming Dynasty princess Hang Li Po now look down upon the waterway. A primary-coloured, pop art mural of a fairy-tale townscape, created by street artist Fritilldea, is another popular Instagram spot. It covers the side of an old warehouse partly occupied by the interesting Zheng He Duo Yun Zuan gallery, which focuses on Chinese art.

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Detail of mural by Malaysian street artist Fritilldea, Melaka City © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

A history lesson from the water

River companies have started to feel the winds in their sails too. Covered Melaka River Cruise boats shuttle camera-toting visitors upstream from the Muara Jetty, near the Maritime Museum, where a replica of the 16th-century Portuguese galleon Flor de la Mar is docked.

The 45-minute cruise passes blood-red Dutch-era buildings at the foot of Bukit St Paul (St Paul Hill), going beyond the remodelled godowns (old warehouses) of Chinatown and to the gaily-painted traditional wooden houses of Kampung Morten. It even chugs past small stands of mangroves until it reaches its northern terminus, the Taman Rempah jetty.

Passengers will notice a monorail shadowing the riverside. This controversial project, which has been plagued with technical problems and was suspended in 2011, is rumoured to be returning to operation in 2017. Also in the works are river taxis, which will ply the route between the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex at the estuary and Melaka Sentral bus terminal, with five new jetties in between.

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River boat cruise passes the Zheng He Duo Yun Zuan gallery in Melaka City, Malaysia © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

Wander the traditional homes of Kampung Morten

Bounded on two sides by a sharp bend in the river is the Malay village of Kampung Morten. This pretty collection of 85 mostly traditional-style homes is named after JF Morten, the British Commissioner of Lands who loaned money to the original settlers to allow them to buy the land.

The best way to learn about village and meet some of its residents is to join one of the free walking tours that start at Villa Sentosa. This lovely pale green painted house has been home to four generations of the same family, and it's likely that one of its members will show you around pointing out heirlooms, including evocative old photographs, Ming dynasty ceramics, wedding ceremony items and a century-old Quran.

Around the corner from the Villas Sentosa, it's impossible to miss Rumah Merdeka with the national flag painted on the main roof and flags of Malaysia's 14 states and territories arrayed along its brown picket fence.

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Rumah Merdeka home with national flag on roof, Kampung Morten © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

Find a bargain in the malls and markets

Contemporary Melaka abuts Kampung Morten in the form of the slick new Shore Shopping Gallery. Anchored by upmarket Singaporean department store Tangs and the Swiss-Garden Hotel & Residences, the mall also includes an aquarium and the rooftop Sky Tower viewing platform, which has an unbeatable bird's-eye view of the town centre and the meandering Sungai Melaka. For an additional thrill, step out onto its glass floor balcony for a vertigo-defying photo op.

Across the river from the Shore, occupying the site of the former Melaka Central Market is yet another new mall. Vedro, set to open during 2017, will have a striking facetted facade covering a four level building with a rooftop garden and dining area. Further downstream the Trash & Treasure weekend flea market spills out of a riverside warehouse behind the Discovery Cafe. Ruthless rummaging is required here as old magazines, shop signs, bicycles and handmade leather goods sit side-by-side atop other vintage curiosities.

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Antiques and retro goods for sale as Trash & Treasure flea market beside Sungai Melaka © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

Bed down by the river

There are numerous opportunities to stay near the river. Bridge Loft offers five simply decorated rooms in three vintage shophouses near a pretty pedestrian bridge. Check in is at the cafe at unit 5 where visitors can also get breakfast. The Quayside Hotel, convenient for the estuary end of the Melaka River Cruise, offers more space, comfort and style in an airy, warehouse-like building; some rooms have riverside balconies. You can also sit out on a balcony overlooking the river at 1825 Gallery Hotel which takes its name from the completion date of the shophouses it occupies. The rooms offer Southeast Asian chic with mixed original architectural features and contemporary art.

If you do plump for a river-facing room, be warned that as lovely as the water is illuminated at night, this is also when pesky mosquitoes are at their most active. Don't forget mosquito repellent or clothes that cover your arms and legs.

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View of Sungai Melaka from a balcony of 1825 Gallery Hotel, Melaka City © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

Getting There & Away
From Kuala Lumpur International Airport there are frequent direct buses to Melaka Sentral bus station (2 hours).

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