Known simply as KL to locals, Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and is truly a bustling metropolis filled with historic monuments, skyscrapers, lush parks, busy malls, and lively night markets. There’s never a shortage of things to do!
Interestingly, Kuala Lumpur directly translates into “muddy confluence” in English, which doesn’t conjure the most appealing image, although the name does reign true when it comes to its temperature – surrounded by a humid jungle filled with green banyan trees and fragrant plumeria, the city is persistently hot and wet with temperatures around 30 degrees celsius all year round. The best time to travel to KL is between May to July, or December to February to avoid the wettest months.
Culturally, Malaysia is an interesting mix of around 60% Malays, 25% Chinese, 10% Indians and 5% identifying as others. With a Malay majority, Malay is the country’s national language, however, being a commonwealth country that was colonized by the British over 100 years ago, English is abundantly used wherever you go.
One of the biggest aspects that makes Malaysia so culturally different from Singapore is that while Singapore has a majority Chinese population, the Malay majority in Malaysia means that the Malays are the only ethnic group that can own land, and hold political dominance. Islam is also the official religion in Malaysia.
We travelled to KL in January, and while we didn’t realize at the time, happened to be there for Chinese New Year! Unfortunately, the Coronavirus outbreak also happened in the midst of our trip, but without any known cases in Malaysia, luckily it didn’t curtail any of the celebrations. The streets and temples were adorned with lanterns and there were installations and performances throughout the city!
While visiting KL during a holiday can be a unique experience , there’s a slew of fun things to do all year round! Here’s a list of my top 20 things to do during my one week visit to the Malaysian capital.
1. Go up the Petronas Towers
Unquestionably the most iconic landmark in Malaysia, a trip to the Petronas Towers are a must. The Petronas towers were formerly the tallest buildings in the world from 1998-2004, when it was surpassed by Taipei 101. Currently, they still hold the record of being the heist twin towers in the world.
The view of the towers are remarkable both from the ground and up on the observation deck. If you’re planning a visit up to the towers, I highly recommend buying tickets online, as there are limited tickets each day. Tickets cost 80 MYR (approx 19 USD).
2. Stroll around in KLCC Park
Behind the Petronas towers is the KLCC Park. It’s a wonderfully well kept park where you can relax and soak in the city views. In the park, you can find a variety of rare species of trees and plants, as well as a lake, fountains, waterfalls and a pool.
3. Try Nasi Lemak and other local dishes
Try some tasty local foods including Nasi Lemak (one of Malaysia’s most famous dishes), Roti Canai (an Indian inspired fried bread), Curry Laksa (a curry soup noodle) and Cendol (a dessert consisting of sweet noodles and shaved ice).
Down your food with a glass of Milo, a chocolate malt drink is a must in Malaysia, as it’s served everywhere where food is served. It’s loved by kids, adults, locals, expats and everyone in between. The best part is that there’s a Milo for every mood – whether served hot, cold, iced, jellied or spiked!
While there’s an endless source of street food and tasty food courts in KL, if there’s one restaurant you must go to in KL, it’s Madame Kwan’s. It’s a popular Malay food chain restaurant, and you’ll find all your staple Malaysian dishes here. I highly recommend their Nasi Lemak. It was so tasty, we went here 3 times during our trip!
4. Take in the history at Merdeka Square
As the place where Malayan independence was declared, you can count on finding a variety of interesting cultural and historical buildings in the square. This is the spot where the Malaysian national flag was hoisted for the first time on August 31, 1957.
Here you can find The Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which is the most photographed building in KL. It used to be used by the British administration in Malaysia to house government departments, but today it’s where the Supreme Court and High Court are located.
In this area you’ll also find the National Museum, which is an interesting place to learn more about Malaysian history, and the Masjik Jamek.
5. Soak in the views on a rooftop pool
The heat in KL can be brutal at times. Luckily, there’s plenty of opportunities to cool down. One of my favorurite ways to beat the heat is at a rooftop pool. Luckily, hotels in KL are much cheaper than in Singapore, and you can find lots of great hotel options for around a $100 USD/night (compared to $400+ at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore).
I’ve stayed at the Aloft KL Sentral, the Mandarin Oriental and the FACE Suites while I was in KL. They’re all great in their own way, but I have to say the view from the FACE Suite rooftop pool is unbeatable — even with construction obstructing the view of Petronas Tower (although that was definitely a total bummer).
6. Check out Chinatown and Petaling Street
Because of the intense heat during the day, the city truly comes to life after sunset. This is definitely true when it comes to Petaling Street, a vibrant area known as the “heart” of Chinatown, that’s paved with stalls and food courts. You can buy everything from tasty food, to an assortment of souvenirs, clothes and more.
Aside from Petaling Street, there is a variety of historic buildings and temples you can find by walking around the area. Chinatown is also seen as an up-and-coming area, with several trendy cafes and cocktail bars popping up in recent years.
7. Sri Mahamariamman Temple
Not far from Petaking Street is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia, built in 1873. The temple contains carvings of Hindu dieties, embellishments, motifs and precious stones. It’s open to non-Hindus as well, as long as you take off your shoes, and cover your knees and shoulders.
8. Check out the Central Market
The Central Market building was built in 1888 as a wet market, and has since been renovated into a heritage site. Tons of stalls line the market, and you can find anything from handicrafts, artworks, clothing to food.
Next to the Central Market, you’ll also find the Sin Sze Si Ya Temple, which the oldest Chinese temple in KL.
9. Grab some food at the Jalan Alor Street Food Night Market
Once known as the red light district, Jalan Alor in the Bukit Bintang area is now known as the most famous and biggest street food area in KL. The street comes to life at night, with hawker stalls and street restaurants selling food, drinks and snacks from all over Asia!
10. Wander through the hanging bridges at KL Forest Eco Park
What remains of the original rainforest in the city can be found at KL Forest Eco Park. The KL Tower can also be found here.
The park is covered with canopy walkways that are 30 m above ground, and is a great place to explore and take in the views. Remember to bring lots of water since despite all the shade from trees, the park can be really humid!
11. Visit a mall (or most likely several!)
One thing that’s common in Asia is the plentiful supply of malls. As a Canadian, malls are great because they’re a great place to escape the cold. In Asia, malls are necessary for escaping the heat. With the intense mid-day heat in KL, you will most likely find yourself in a few different malls to cool down.
The most popular mall is the Suria KLCC, which is located right by the Petronas Towers. It’s also the biggest one in KL. Since we were there around Chinese New Year, all the malls were decked with decorations and displays!
12. Check out the Perdana Botanical Gardens
Also known as the Lake Gardens, this is the biggest park in KL. It was established back in 1888 by the Brits and is a really lovely park filled with a big lake, charming white bridges, a sculpture garden, Orchid garden, and several other gardens that have a very European vibe to them.
There’s also several museums near the park, such as the KL Bird Park, KL Butterfly Park, Islamic Arts Museum, National Planetarium and the Royal Malaysia Police Museum.
13. Rejuvenate with an afternoon tea at Nobu
A relaxing way to beat the midday heat or a down pour is to go for an afternoon tea. I usually love afternoon teas at a sleek hotel, but I was intrigued by the Japanese-Peruvian afternoon tea they offered at Nobu in KL, located on the 56th floor of the 3rd Petronas Tower.
I’ve been wanting to go to Nobu in NYC, especially since the downtown Nobu is a few blocks from my work. For those who have never heard of the restaurant, it is a Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant-chain founded by Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. It’s a popular restaurant amongst celebrities, although I wasn’t really intrigued until I heard that Obama is a fan. Having been to several of his fav restaurants in Hawaii and Washington, DC, I definitely trust his judgement when it comes to food!
And Nobu certainly doesn’t disappoint. Getting to the restaurant was an interesting experience, since you had to go through an X-ray check. There’s a dress code (smart casual) as well that they strictly enforce as we saw a French couple get turned away for wearing shorts.
You can choose from the Premium or Signature High Tea. We went for the Premium set since the food was pretty light. Overall, the food was delicious!
14. Thean Hou Temple
The Thean Hou Temple is a bit hard to get to (you can take public transit there, but it also requires quite a walk through some major roads that don’t have great crossings…a problem that seems common in KL), but also well worth the effort to get there.
Opened in 1989, it is a Buddhist and Taoist temple, built to honor the goddess, Thean Hou, and is also called the Temple of the Goddess of Heaven.
15. Grab a drink at the Helipad Lounge Bar
For an awesome view of the city, the Helipad Lounge is an active heliport by day, and converted into a bar at night! It’s a great place to unwind for the day, and to soak in the 360-degree views around you while enjoying some drinks!
16. Grab a pretzel at Auntie Anne’s
I know it feels weird to include pretzels from an American fast food chain on this list, but hear me out. While the Auntie Anne’s in the US offers tasty enough pretzels, the Auntie Anne’s in Malaysia is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Offering a crazy menu of flavors, you can get green tea, seaweed and caramel almond flavored pretzels, just to name a few!
The lines are always long, and the pretzels are always hot, fresh, and guaranteed to blow you away.
17. Slurp on dumplings at Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fun is a dim sum restaurant that I discovered in Hong Kong and have been obsessed with ever since. Although only Din Tai Fung location in Hong Kong is given a Michelin star, I can assure you that having been to different Din Tai Fung restaurants in Singapore, LA and now in KL, their quality of food is exceptional no matter where you go.
The Din Tai Fung in Malaysia (and a few other Muslim countries) is officially called “Din by Din Tai Fung” since they don’t serve pork. Nonetheless, make sure to try their signature xiao long bao…it’s what dreams are made of!
18. Party on Changkat Bar Street
Changkat Bukit Bintang is a popular nightlife area as it’s a busy street lined with tons of international bars and restaurants. If you’re looking for a standard Irish pub, this street has you covered. Known as KL’s Piccadilly Circus, it’s popular with both locals and expats alike.
19. Visit the Batu Caves
Located just outside of KL, the Batu Caves is an easy 20-30 min train ride away. The caves are inside of limestone cliffs and filled with Hindu shrines and temples. The large, golden statue at the entrance with its colourful steps are totally insta-worthy, although as one of the most touristy things to do in KL, the intense heat and the large crowds makes this place to not be the most pleasant attraction to visit.
20. Visit the pink mosque in the city of Putrajaya
One of the most impressive mosques I’ve been to isn’t in KL, but in the nearby city of Putrajaya, the administrative center of Malaysia. It’s a bit difficult to get to with just public transit from KL, so we took a Grab (the SE Asian version of an Uber) which was easy, cheap and took about 30 mins each way.
The Putra Mosque is definitely an incredible sight and photos can’t even capture how amazing looks in person. Named after the first PM of Malaysia, Tungku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, it combines Middle Eastern and Malay architectural influences. Built in 1999, it’s one of the newest mosques in the world.
The mosque is made of rose-tinted granite and can accommodate 15,0000 worshippers at a time!
While the mosque is open to the public, there are special visiting hours for non-Muslims:
Saturday-Thursday: 9am-12.30pm, 2-4pm, 5.30-6pm
Friday: 3-4pm, 5.30-6pm
There’s also a strict dress code but they have a free robe counter, so put on of those on, and you’ll be good to go into the mosque.
Near the mosque, you can also find the Dataran Putra, the Seri Wawasan Bridge, Putrajaya Wetlands, the Ministry of Finance Complex and Seri Perdana. It’s definitely worth the trip to Putrajaya!
In my next post, I’ll be talking about my experiences at the Cameroon Highlands to visit the BOH tea planation and Mossy Forest, which we also went to on this trip to Malaysia.