I often hear travellers complain that “there’s nothing more to KL than the Twin Towers” which is really a bit dumb. And while the Petronas Towers do overshadow many of lesser known attractions in Kuala Lumpur, we still manage to find new gems on each and every visit to the city. And we’ve been now so many many times that we forgotten to count. But what keeps us coming back, is not so much the top attractions of Kuala Lumpur, but the diversity and excitement of the city, which is similar to other rather fascinating regional destinations nearby, such as Singapore and Penang. Where the city hosts a harmonious mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures, brought together partly by the old, colonial trade routes, and former British rule, which also shares its own influence of the city. But my own intrigue is more in the unique mixing pot of Malaysian food brought by this unique multiculturalism, and, again like Singapore and Penang, Kuala Lumpur should really be on par with these iconic foodie cities (albeit eating is more widespread). Note, for arrival, transport and where to stay in Kuala Lumpur check our beginner’s guide to Kuala Lumpur>
1. Petronas Twin Towers (KLCC)
But starting with the obvious, the crown jewel of Southeast Asia, the Petronas Twin Towers, which preside over Kuala Lumpur and can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the city. Where just the slightest glimpse will have you drawn to them like a moth to light. As they are truly majestic. But to make the most of them we stayed on our last visit right next to them, holed up at the Traders Hotel (Shangri-La) with bottles of wine, where window views frame the towers perfectly. They are the best views of the city. Or if the budget doesn’t stretch just call into the hotel’s Rooftop Skybar which shares similar views. Otherwise, if planning to visit the actual towers, it is possible to scale the to nearish the top by elevator (online booking here) although I never find myself further than getting lost in the ground floors and food courts, of the Suria KLCC Mall below.
2. Bukit Bintang / Jalan Alor
The main tourist drag of Kuala Lumpur would definitely be Bukit Bintang, a 24-hour entertainment district, with lots of food, nightlife and shopping to keep you going for a long holiday. Expect massage shops, trinket stalls, shisha bars and mazes of massive air-conditioned malls. But the reason I frequent the area is for the road which runs parallel, called Jalan Alor, which is an eating Mecca in Kuala Lumpur with thousands of foods, hundreds of menus, and a seemingly endless line of roadside restaurants. I spend a lot of my time there. And while it may not be the “foodies choice” for dining, it does make the perfect introduction to local Malay and Chinese cuisines, and it is also non-halal eating, meaning beer. But the street is otherwise pretty much void of Indian and Mamak foods (Halal) but they are never far and a great roti stop nearby is at Restoran SK Corner.
3. Batu Caves
Located roughly 13km outside of Kuala Lumpur, this quick attraction can easily become a half-day tour. Then add in the 272 steps to reach the caves, and the treacherous daytime heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur, and I won’t pretend it’s the most relaxing and enjoyable of days. Also be aware of the thieving monkeys on the way up (hold your stuff close). Otherwise, Batu Caves is a fascinating complex of Hindu temples, built into the side of towering limestone caves, which has long been the setting for Hindu pilgrimages. And the perfect time to visit would be January / February when the Thaipusam festival takes (we celebrated before in Penang). However, the massive golden Murugan (the Lord in which the temple is dedicated) statue out front, is relatively new, and we visited during the original construction of the attraction.
4. Resorts World Genting
For a more relaxed, and enjoyable excursion from Kuala Lumpur, the newly branded Resorts World Genting (formerly Genting Highlands) makes for the perfect escape to the cooler heights of central Malaysia. It’s only about 30 minutes out as well and cheap shuttle buses (listed here) leave regularly from the city centre. But the best route from here would then be the Awana Skyway cable car, where a 10-minute ropeway climbs to the final stop of the hills at Resort World’s Sky Avenue Mall. Which is an attraction in itself. In fact there’s just a whole lot of new and exciting goings-on at Resorts World Genting, which is best known for its casino resorts, and this includes the much-anticipated 20th Century Fox theme park which is to open in the coming year. It’s just all very exciting at the moment, and the area has become like a mini hilltop city to itself. Also be sure to stop at the Chin Swee Caves Temple as in video below.
5. The Local Mosques
Most mosques in Kuala Lumpur are open to public, regardless of faith or religion, although I was admittedly apprehensive on my first ever visit to the doors of a random mosque. Where I found people to be ridiculously humble and happy, excited to share their culture and beliefs, or just leave me to potter around the mosques on my own. And since then I’ve been back to many mosques, including the more prominental central areas, like Masjid Jamek (below/top) which is found next to the Masjid Jamek LRT station. Then there’s the National Mosque of Malaysia (below/left) which is just a taxi ride out (but there are specific visiting hours for non-Muslims). And there’s the As Syakirin Mosque (top of the page) found just next to KLCC and beneath the Petronas Twin Towers. Where I was warmly welcomed by all. On our more recent visit we even took a free guided tour of the Federal Territory Mosque (below/right), the largest mosque in Peninsular Malaysia, but due to my love for alcohol and pork, I did not convert.
6. Merdeka Square
This old colonial area of Kuala Lumpur is just a 5 mins walk from Masjid Jamek Station (LRT) and Jamek Mosque, and is central to the colourful history, heritage and architecture (Sultan Abdul Samad Building) of Kuala Lumpur’s old colonial days. Where the name “Merdeka Square” literally means “Independence Square” as it is the famed location where the British Union Flag was lowered in 1957, to be replaced by the Malaysian flag which now presides over the region. You’ll see it next to the old cricket green. Otherwise there is plenty to see and do in the area, and next door is the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery which would be the recommended first stop when touring this area, as it shares all the local info and learnings on the area. Also free heritage walk tours start here, available Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, from 09.00am to 11.45am (further info here).
7. Petaling Street (Chinatown)
Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown area is centred around the main Petaling Street, a pedestrian walking street sheltered under a stretched roof and decorated with Chinese lanterns. Through connecting alleys and backstreets you will find some all sorts of intriguing trinkets, although the area is now better known for its cheap crap stalls, where tourists haggle over dodgy goods, and counterfeit handbags. If that’s your thing. But they do at least have some fantastic food in the area, including the famed Hokkien Mee, along with some unforgettable roast duck and chilli crab which we found on our first (and last) visit. Otherwise this would be more of the backpacker area of Kuala Lumpur, and the surrounding area is ideal for cheap hostels, guest houses and budget boutique hotels (as here). Anyway, the main Petaling Street opens from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM, with the street vendors showing up at around 03:00 PM onwards, and to reach Petaling Street I would go by Monorail (an attraction in itself) to Maharajelela Station (or by LRT to Pasar Seni station).
8. The Central Market
Malaysia is more known for its massive mega malls these days, and admittedly I spend more time in the malls than I do outside in the relentless heats and humidity. But many of these malls, which are mostly found in the Bukit Bintang area, are attractions in themselves, including the Berjaya Times Square, which hosts its very own indoor roller coaster and theme park inside. But I am going to promote more the origins and heritage of Kuala Lumpur, with the city’s Central Market, located on Foch Avenue (lol), which at one time was an Art Deco wet market. But now it is a landmark for Malaysian culture and heritage and throughout there are myriads of trinket stalls and unique artsy type stuff, which I’m obviously clueless about. But no doubt it makes for a more intriguing shopping trip than the generic crap sold in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, which is just a four-minute walk away. It is again easy to reach by LRT at the Pasar Seni Station, which is more or less the Malay name for Central Market.
9. Mamak Food
This is a personal obsession of mine, as much of my time in Kuala Lumpur, or anywhere in Malaysia for that matter, revolves around eating Mamak food (Mamak is, more or less, Malaysians of Tamil Muslim and South Indian origin). As I find that Malaysia offers some of the most fantastic Indian food found outside of India. Honestly. And Mamak is found all over Kuala Lumpur where locals are often found sipping Teh Tarik (pulled tea) and fingering rice, curry buffets and roti flatbreads at open air eateries. These ‘restorans’ are also 24-hour eating establishments at times, meaning they make perfect for cheap eats after a late night out. But there is always one down side to them, where, being Halal, they do not sell alcohol, and in general Malaysia’s alcohol is overly expensive (with the third highest tax on alcohol worldwide). So my usual order of Mamak would likely be a Kopi O (sweetened hot coffee), with a Mutton Murtabak (stuffed mutton roti) and sides of curry. And then I’d hit the Nasi Kandar. Unbeatable food.
10. Selangor and the Firefly Tour
The Selangor and Fireflies eco excursion is ideal for those aiming to experience the real Malaysia, away from not only the big city lights, but the seemingly endless landscapes of palm trees which are found in central Malaysia. As this excursion feels closer to Malaysian Borneo than what I’m used to in Peninsular Malaysia. And along the tour there are many stops and attractions, although the highlight for me has to be the Silver Leaf Langurs which run wild around Bukit Malawati Hill, with their bright ginger babies. There’s loads of them, but the ginger babies maybe seasonal. Otherwise, after a relaxing lunch at the small fishing village of Pasir Penampang, the evening tour focuses on the rainforest and mangroves of the Kampung Kuantan Firefly Park, which was really quite fascinating. So its really worth considering to escape the city.