Melaka's attraction is in its cultural heritage, around which a substantial tourism industry has grown. In 2008, Melaka was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
If you're visiting, a little knowledge of history will help you appreciate all there is to see.
Melaka was founded around 1400 by Parameswara, also known as Iskandar Shah in the Malay Annals, the earliest recorded history of Malaysia. He was a prince from Palembang in southern Sumatra who was chased out of his hometown by invading Majapahit conquerors from Java. After establishing a new base in Singapore (Temasek), he was found by the Majapahit, who chased him farther still up the Malay Peninsula. He settled in Melaka and established what would eventually become the region's richest port city. As the site was in a favorable location to take advantage of the two monsoons that dominated shipping routes, Melaka attracted Arab and Chinese traders, both of whom maintained very close relations for trade and political advantage. It was the early Arab merchants who introduced Islam to Malaysia; after Iskandar Shah's death in 1414, his son, Mahkota Iskandar Shah, converted to Islam and popularized the faith throughout the area.
During the 15th century, Melaka was ruled by a succession of sultans who expanded the wealth and stability of the economy; built up the administration's coffers; extended the sultanate to the far reaches of the Malay peninsula, Singapore, and parts of northern Sumatra; and thwarted repeated attacks by the Siamese. The success of the empire drew international admiration.
The Portuguese were the first Western power to take control of the city, as part of their plan to dominate the east-west trade route, to establish the naval supremacy of Portugal and promote Christianity in the region. They struck in 1511 and conquered Melaka in a battle that lasted only a month. After the defeat, the sultanate fled to Johor while the Portuguese looted the city and shipped its riches off to Lisbon.
In the hands of the Portuguese, the port became a sleepy outpost. The new rulers struggled in vain to retain Melaka's early economic success, but their staunch Christianity alienated the locals and repelled Arab traders. In 1641, the Dutch, with the help of Johor, conquered Melaka and controlled the city until 1795. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch were unsuccessful in rebuilding the glory of past prosperity in Melaka, and the city continued to sleep.
In 1795, the Dutch traded Melaka to the British in return for Bencoolen in Sumatra, in line with their interests in Indonesia. Melaka became a permanent British settlement in 1811 but by this time had become so poor and alienated that it was impossible to bring it back to life.
Today Melaka is a provincial backwater. The historic heart of town is distinctive, with narrow one-way lanes hugged by old colonial-style shophouses built by the Dutch and British, and later inhabited by wealthy Chinese and Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) families. The most striking of the town's old buildings are the bright red structures -- an old church and administrative buildings built by the Dutch during their rule. Just steps away are the remains of a Portuguese fort and church, and also close by you'll find English churches.