Crystal surfaces typically melt into a thin liquid layer at temperatures slightly below the melting point of the crystal. Such surface premelting is prevalent in all classes of solids and is important in a variety of metallurgical, geological and meteorological phenomena. Premelting has been studied using X-ray diffraction and differential scanning calorimetry, but the lack of single-particle resolution makes it hard to elucidate the underlying mechanisms. Colloids are good model systems for studying phase transitions because the thermal motions of individual micrometre-sized particles can be tracked directly using optical microscopy. Here we use colloidal spheres with tunable attractions to form equilibrium crystal-vapour interfaces, and study their surface premelting behaviour at the single-particle level. We find that monolayer colloidal crystals exhibit incomplete premelting at their perimeter, with a constant liquid-layer thickness. In contrast, two- and three-layer crystals exhibit conventional complete melting, with the thickness of the surface liquid diverging as the melting point is approached. The microstructures of the surface liquids differ in certain aspects from what would be predicted by conventional premelting theories. Incomplete premelting in the monolayer crystals is triggered by a bulk isostructural solid-solid transition and truncated by a mechanical instability that separately induces homogeneous melting within the bulk. This finding is in contrast to the conventional assumption that two-dimensional crystals melt heterogeneously from their free surfaces (that is, at the solid-vapour interface). The unexpected bulk melting that we observe for the monolayer crystals is accompanied by the formation of grain boundaries, which supports a previously proposed grain-boundary-mediated two-dimensional melting theory. The observed interplay between surface premelting, bulk melting and solid-solid transitions challenges existing theories of surface premelting and two-dimensional melting.