The Malaysian capital is a city of fascinating contrasts, rich culture and wonderful street food. Discover Kuala Lumpur’s many facets while sightseeing, from the historic colonial architecture to the stunning Petronas Towers. Experience the tropical nightmarkets, see the vibrant street art scene. A great tip for a museum visit and KL’s surprising pockets of greenery and wildlife.
Malaysia is a country with a deeply held traditional respect for the past. It also has high tech industrialisation, natural resources and a growing economy. Over one-and-a-half million people are crowded into this densely populated metropolis.
Start off your day with a walking exploration of its rich history and architecture. The smooth, empty grass of Independence Square – Dataran Merdeka – is surrounded by historic buildings. From the Moghul-style Sultan Abdul Samad Building built in 1897 to St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral and the Selangor Club, which once used the square as its cricket ground. The flagstaff here marks the beginning of the independent Malaysian state in 1957.
Try to hit Chinatown when you are ready for lunch – there are great buffet-style eating places under the overpasses on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Make sure you try the sweet Malay coffee. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth you might want to make yourself familiar with these famous Malay sweets. If you are looking for souvenirs there are vendors selling everything from flowers to sunglasses. This area is also dotted with historic shop houses and various temples. I’d recommend you stop by the Guandi Temple (Jalan Tun H S Lee) and sit quietly as the local people coming and go, lighting incense, and making puja. It’s also the home of the legendary 59kg copper Guan Dao (Chinese pole weapon). See if you have the power to lift it!
Celebrating KL’s urban culture is a thriving street art scene. Take a walk along the Sungai Klang river bank for hundreds of metres to see the vibrantly creative graffiti art from the Kul Sign Festival. Take a look at their public art facebook page here. The art runs along the river bank but you get a good view from The Pasar Seni LRT Train Stop.
From here you can walk to the pristine, beautifully designed precinct surrounding the Petronas Towers, with parks, pools and fountains framing the 88-storey-high twin towers that have become symbolic of Malaysia’s fast-forward development. Along with the KL Tower, these skyscrapers really set the KL skyline alight. You can go to observation decks about halfway up the Petronas, or the Menara Tower has a great view of the city.
The drinks may be overpriced, and the service is often inept, but no KL venue can match the views from Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel. Particularly at night, it seems like you can almost reach out and touch the Twin Towers.
Perhaps end your afternoon with a bit of downtime back at the hotel before hitting one of Malaysia’s essential experiences – the colourful night markets, which offer treasures both for bargain hunters and lovers of street food.
In Chinatown the noise and bustle of Petaling Street and the surrounding lanes is offset by rainbow fairy lights looped from palm trees around the Central Market. Strings of red and gold paper lanterns rub shoulders with bright neon signs. Street vendors fan smoking barbecues and a dried fish stalls smell particularly savoury.
Typically Malaysian night markets start in the late afternoon and are booming by 6pm with locals and tourists shovelling down tasty dishes like spicy noodles and Chinese dumplings. The night market in Chinatown (around Jalan Petaling) has an overwhelming array of street food. From roti and satay to clay pot dishes and grilled bananas, there is something for everyone. Don’t miss the char kuah yeow (fried noodles).
For a fine dining experience – and why not treat yourself when the prices are reasonable compared to back home – head to Cilantro Restaurant & Wine Bar (MiCasa All Suite Hotel, 368-B, Jalan Tun Razak, Tel: +603 2179 8082). Chef Takashi Kimura and staff cook creative Japanese and Malaysian fare that is quite extraordinary. They also have a good wine list.
By 22:00, the nightlife scene in Kuala Lumpur comes alive. To kick off the evening, head to Bangsar for Kuala Lumpur’s more sophisticated bars and pubs. Tourists often go to the bars around Chinatown.
Though many think that Changkat Bukit Bintang is the default go-to nightlife strip in KL, it can be a snarly mess at times. To avoid that, walk a few streets down Jalan Mesui – the cooler counterpart of the main street. Pisco is a two-floor Spanish tapas bar with a music policy that runs across everything from funk, soul and house to nu disco. And everyone is very friendly.
For dancing, KL’s big clubs usually prefer glitz over quality in their music; at Vertigo you get the best of both. Big names like Calvin Harris, DJ Craze and Tiga have played here before and their regular nights’ music range from EDM to nu-disco.
KL is starting to pop with some hidden hipster spots worth hunting down. If you really want an adventure, a red London telephone booth hidden at the back of Samba Brazilian Steakhouse is the secret entrance to an awesome speakeasy bar. Pick up the telephone to be buzzed in. WTF (Whisky Tango Foxtrot) is not just quite as tiny as it initially appears. A gangster style mob boss sliding door on the back wall opens to reveal further seating hidden behind. Ranging from traditional Scottish malts to trendy Japanese whiskies, you’re sure to find a drink to suit your tastes here.
The Tourist Information Centre can tell you about traditional dance and music performances if you want to do something a little different.
Depending on how late you stayed out, I recommend you put your running shoes on and get out of the hustle and bustle. Despite the concrete and glass jungles, the colonial legacy and modern town planning has left KL a surprisingly green capital. Take a jog through Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens, a beautifully set up park that surrounds the city with lush tropical greenery. The lush 92 hectares of Lake Gardens near the parliament buildings has three forest reserves within the city limits and a surprising amount of wildlife. This is a lovely place to relax, you can go boating on the lake, stroll or ride on a shuttle bus around the gardens.
If you’re a lover of nature, KL Bird Park and Lake Gardens is home to the world’s largest in-flight aviary (a giant netted area where birds can fly freely, yet still caged).
Not far from Lake Gardens it is worth going into Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Art Centre for an hour or so. Over 30,000 square metres it displays decorative work from centuries of Islamic culture from the Arab heartlands to China, India and south-east Asia. I think it carries a special multi-cultural message in this day and age. Through illuminated books, jewellery, textiles, weapons and delicate underglazed fretwork on earthernware tiles it examines how cultures absorb the arts of others and form new amalgams of creativity, unifying through diversity.
Another popular destination just a few kilometers and short train ride outside of the central part of the city, is a huge cave system surrounded by jungle covered limestone cliffs – Batu Caves (one of the most sacred Hindu places of worship outside of India). When you get there, you can climb the series of steps to the top, enter the giant mouth of the cave, and navigate your way to the very top Hindu temple. I usually go in the morning, hike to the top, and then come down for a vegetarian banana leaf lunch. Many monkeys are roaming around the area hunting for food. Just keep your food inside your bag if you don’t want to be chased by them. They are very alert when they hear plastic packages!
Continue the multicultural experience by heading to Brickfields or Little India (around Jalan Jasjid India), a surprisingly relaxed enclave where you can listen to tabla rhythms and tuck into a banana leaf full of steaming rice and dhal. The exotic Sri Maha Mariamman Temple with its elaborate gopuram reflects Kuala Lumpur’s nearly 10 per cent Hindu population. Enjoy a late lunch before catching the bus to the airport!
Public Transport Kuala Lumpur has a good public transport system to save your feet in the heat.
Leaving the airport There are regular buses/trains from both KLIA and LCCT airports to KL Sentral that run nearly 24 hours a day and are very cheap.
For a birds eye view of the main attractions You might want to look up the KL Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour. While touristy, these buses are a great way to orient yourself in the city. www.myhoponhopoff.com
At Batu Caves Wear light materials because it’s a bit humid in the area and watch out for hungry monkeys!
Never be afraid to try hawker-style food but beware of pickpockets.