Cosmopolitan, chaotic and constantly changing, Kuala Lumpur (or KL, as Malaysia’s capital city is affectionately known by locals and travellers alike) offers an authentic Southeast Asian experience — and is a truly compelling place to visit.
Too often dismissed as simply a travel hub, the tendency is to rush through KL. My advice is take a few days to explore what is absolutely one of Asia’s most dynamic cities. You won’t be disappointed.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur.
The Petronas Twin Towers are KL’s most iconic landmark. They’ve been featured in Hollywood movies and are recognised as the world’s highest twin structure. A proud symbol of Malaysian innovation, the Towers’ Skybridge and Observation Deck give visitors a bird’s eye view of the cityscape below.
For a peek at the living past, go to Kampung Bharu. This traditional Malay community was established at the turn of the 20th century and today still maintains its customs, identity and way of life as it has over generations.
Alongside Malay influences, KL’s rich cultural heritage also draws strongly from the proverbial melting pot of ethnicities who call this place home. Discover bustling Chinatown or the Indian enclave of Brickfields on a guided walk with food tour operator Simply Enak. Knowledgeable and engaging hosts will introduce you to wet markets, old-style shops and popular local dishes, including arguably the best ‘nasi lemak’ you have ever tasted.
There’s no end of delicious delights to indulge in in Kuala Lumpur.
You can find sensational street food in a climate-controlled and English-speaking setting at Lot 10 Hutong — a seemingly endless warren of well-known hawker stalls clustered under one roof. A dizzying array of dishes is on offer: from countless varieties of ‘nasi goreng’ and noodle soups to Taiwanese bento-style boxes, curry puffs and even a durian café selling only pastries filled with the country’s favourite (and very pungent) fruit.
For a taste of colonial customs past, take afternoon tea at the historic Hotel Majestic. This quintessentially English ritual is served in your choice of setting (with different price points). Whether you opt for the classic tea lounge or the breathtakingly beautiful greenhouse setting (amongst 1,000 orchids), you get the same tiered service of sandwiches, scones and savouries — and an equally gracious affair.
Want to try fine dining with a difference? Dining in the Dark is a novel restaurant concept whereby guests, guided by visually impaired ‘darkness experts’, are taken through a multi-course dinner in pitch black surrounds. Enjoy guessing the flavours, which are revealed only at the end of the meal.
Shopping is second only to eating as Malaysia’s favourite pastime and for a welcome respite from the heat and traffic outside, there is no shortage of behemoth air-conditioned shopping malls in which to splash your cash or window shop.
Suria KLCC in the city centre offers the full fashion spectrum from top-end designers to high-street labels, while a wide range of affordable local and international brands can be found at Nu Sentral in the CBD.
If you are after a more organic shopping experience, the heritage-listed Central Market (Pasar Seni) — originally a wet market at its inception in 1888 — is unbeatable for traditional arts, crafts and quality souvenirs.
Over at the Petaling Street open-air bazaar, you can haggle with stallholders over T-shirts, bags, wallets, watches and other touristy knick-knacks of varying quality.
For a unique introduction to the story of KL, book tickets to MUD the musical — a lively theatre production that traces the journey of three friends who venture from their rural homes to this then-frontier town, in search of fortune and a new life. While the characters are largely fictional, scenes are set against a genuine timeline of historical milestones and cultural references. Audience participation is encouraged (don’t worry, it’s not too intimidating), which only adds to the fun and immersive nature of the experience.
The beautifully restored theatre itself is one of the oldest performing arts buildings in the city, and located in the oldest part of KL, where settlement literally began in the mid-1800s. Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel offers heritage walking tours of the area as part of a MUD tour package, or simply grab a map from the foyer and go exploring yourself.
For relaxing things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur, head to KLCC Park, which provides 50 acres of walking and jogging tracks, a man-made lake with water fountains and a tropical garden flourishing with 1,900 native trees. It’s an oasis of greenery in the heart of the city.
In the evening, head for the Heli Lounge Bar — a working helipad by day that transforms into a unique bar concept after dark. Wait-staff dress up as pilots and serve cocktails with names such as ‘Chopper’ and ‘Jet Fuel’. Self-proclaimed as ‘KL’s best kept secret’, this hidden gem has an exposed rooftop showcasing completely wall-free, jaw-dropping 360 degree vistas of the city skyline and urban sprawl below.
For a chic take on cocktail hour, check out Marini’s On 57 — the nation’s highest and swankiest rooftop bar. The door list, dress code and hard-to-find entrance (not to mention three separate elevators to whizz you to the top) only reinforce the bar’s exclusive status. Once inside, the vibe is fun, chilled and unpretentious.
Book a table for 6pm, settle back with one of their signature drinks (and a delicious sausage platter) and watch the spectacular sunset through floor-to-ceiling glass partitions.
The easiest way to navigate KL is via the light rail network, which seamlessly and efficiently connects the city end-to-end.
For a free ride around town, hop on one of the pink Go KL buses. They provide a frequent and reliable service across various ‘high-demand’ commercial, education and tourist hubs. There’s even free Wi-Fi on board!
Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but be careful with the red (budget) taxis as they sometimes refuse metered trips and will negotiate a flat fee to take you to your destination. The blue (executive) taxis are slightly more expensive, but they lawfully abide by the metered fare.
Do you have any tips for top things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Cindy Bingley-Pullin considers herself a writer, wanderluster, corporate bee and happy homemaker. In between analysing spreadsheets in the office, she pursues her combined passions of travel and freelance writing. Her work has appeared in Virgin Australia’s Voyeur, International Traveller, Fitness First magazine and the Sydney Morning Herald.