Kuala Lumpur (map), the capital of Malaysia, is a fascinating city that’s constantly on the move. Anyone planning to spend some time in Southeast Asia should have ‘KL’ on their itinerary. A sleepy capital city until the early-1980’s, Kuala Lumpur grew in leaps and bounds and is now one of the most visited cities in the world. There are lots of things to do in Kuala Lumpur – the first things most visitors will notice are the gleaming skyscrapers and massive shopping malls, but look closer and you’ll find a heady mix of cultures and cuisines, beautiful colonial and Art Deco architecture, bustling markets and serene pockets of greenery. Here are my suggestions for things to do in Kuala Lumpur for the first-time visitor, as well as ideas for day trips from Kuala Lumpur.
Things to do in Kuala Lumpur
1. Admire the spectacular skyline
Kuala Lumpur’s spectacular skyline begs to be seen from a high vantage point, and preferably in the evenings when the city lights are on. Nothing is quite as impressive as the brightly-lit Petronas Twin Towers in the evenings. There are many places to get an incredible view of Kuala Lumpur such as the KL Tower (a telecommunications tower with an observation deck) and the Petronas Twin Towers. At Banyan Tree Hotel, head to the rooftop Vertigo Bar for unbeatable views of Kuala Lumpur! Head there just before sunset.
You can also stay at hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, Traders Hotel, Grand Hyatt (my personal favourite hotel in KL) and Banyan Tree Hotel which have stunning views of the skyline and the Twin Towers.
2. Stand at the foot of the Petronas Twin Towers
The Petronas Twin Towers, at 452m, were the tallest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2004. Nowadays, they still hold the record for being the tallest twin towers in the world. Getting up close to these imposing towers, you begin to understand how they’ve become a Kuala Lumpur icon. The design, by Argentine architect César Pelli, is both awe-inspiring and timeless. Of all the things to do in Kuala Lumpur, seeing the Petronas Twin Towers up close is a must!
You can opt to visit and cross the Skybridge on the 41st floor and continue to the observation deck on the 86th floor but I always prefer a view of the Kuala Lumpur skyline with the twin towers in it. 😉
3. Explore Chinatown
Chinatown can be found in the old town of Kuala Lumpur. With its busy streets and colonial/post-war buildings, the old town and Chinatown remain the roots of the city. In this district, you’ll find a myriad of shops selling all sorts of food and merchandise, and beautiful religious and cultural monuments such as the Chan She Shu Yuen Clan Ancestral Hall. You can also visit the Petaling Street Heritage House to learn about the history and heritage of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur. In the heart of Chinatown is Petaling Street, an atmospheric outdoor market with hundreds of stalls selling a myriad of merchandise and food. Don’t forget to bargain!
Close to Petaling Street, you’ll find Central Market, a popular place for local art and handicraft.
At the edge of Chinatown, along Jalan Bandar, visit the beautiful Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Completed in 1873, this is the oldest Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur.
4. Visit Kuala Lumpur’s historic landmarks
A stone’s throw from Chinatown are many of Kuala Lumpur’s most famous historic landmarks, such as Merdeka Square (where Malaya’s Independence in 1957 was proclaimed), the Moorish-style Old Railway Station, the National Mosque (with its electric blue dome) and Jamek Mosque at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers (redeveloped as the KL River of Life).
The confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers, widely acknowledged as the birthplace of Kuala Lumpur, has been redeveloped as the KL River of Life. The riverfront features promenades along the banks of the rivers. At certain times of the day (I was there at 7:30pm), visitors are treated to a beautiful water and light show, with the Jamek Mosque as the centrepiece.
This is my favourite thing to do in Kuala Lumpur as the city is a true culinary paradise! From cutting-edge fine-dining to food courts and roadside stalls, Kuala Lumpur offers foodies a dizzying array of cuisines and eateries.
Ease your way into Malaysian/Asian cuisine at one of the food courts which can be found in the basements of many shopping malls. My favourite food courts can be found in Pavilion mall and Lot 10. Try local and other Asian specialties such as assam or curry laksa (spicy noodle soups), fried kuey teow (fried noodles), nasi lemak (rice with a spicy prawn sambal), satay and fried Hokkien mee. Pavilion mall also has more upmarket Asian options on the 6th floor.
For a street food dining experience, head to Jalan Alor (Alor Street). Located parallel to Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Alor is often regarded as the heart of KL’s local cuisine. The hundreds of food stalls serve a mind-boggling variety of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Indonesian specialities. The atmosphere is electric and the many types of food available will leave the first-time visitor in a daze. Try the satay (lamb or chicken skewers served with a spicy peanut sauce) or the grilled stingray.
For a taste of India, head to Brickfields or Little India (the district next to KL Sentral or Central Station). Here, you’ll find ornate Hindu temples and a variety of restaurants which specialise in ‘banana leaf’ (the leaf is your plate, and you choose a variety of curries, fish, meat and vegetables) as well as nasi kandar (white or flavoured rice with a variety of curries and side dishes) and a host of vegetarian options.
6. Shop till you drop
From swanky high-end malls along Bukit Bintang Street and KLCC to roadside stalls in Chinatown, KL is a shoppers’ paradise! There are countless shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysians love their malls!). There’s a stretch of malls along Bukit Bintang Street, with Pavilion and Starhill Gallery as the swankiest malls. Suria, at the foot of the Petronas Twin Towers, is also a popular mall. In the suburbs, you’ll find others such as Mid Valley Megamall and the adjacent Gardens Mall, 1 Utama and Bangsar Shopping Centre (BSC). There are literally too many to mention.
Read about my stay at The Ruma Hotel, a five-star hotel near the major shopping districts of KLCC and Bukit Bintang.
7. Visit Perdana Botanical Gardens
Formerly known as Lake Gardens, Perdana Botanical Gardens is a green lung near the city centre that’s home to a variety of attractions such as the KL Bird Park (billed as the largest walk-in aviary in the world), Orchid Garden, Hibiscus Garden and Butterfly Park.
8. Visit Batu Caves
Located 13 km north of KL, the Batu Caves are an intriguing place. A massive limestone outcrop houses a series of caves, cave temples and numerous shrines. Batu Caves is the focal point for Malaysian Hindus during the Thaipusam festival every year.
Get ready to climb the 272 steps to the main cave temple. To help you along, the steps feature a rainbow of electric colours! Beware of the monkeys – they’re known to snatch belongings. You can easily visit Batu Caves as a half-day trip from Kuala Lumpur.
9. Hike in a tropical forest in the city centre!
Established in 1906, the Bukit Nanas (Pineapple Hill) Forest Reserve is the last remaining virgin tropical forest in the city centre. Now known as the KL Forest Eco Park, there are various trails including a canopy walk. You can easily combine a hike in the park with a visit to the Menara KL (KL Tower) next door. The entrance is at the car park of KL Tower.
10. Go on a day trip
There are many places to visit around Kuala Lumpur. Go on a day trip to the UNESCO Heritage city of Melaka, experience the enchanting fireflies in Kuala Selangor, head up to Genting Highlands (literally a city of entertainment in the sky, at about 1800m!) or visit Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia. You can visit Genting Highlands and Batu Caves on a full-day tour.
Getting to Kuala Lumpur
The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA 1) and the adjacent low-cost terminal (KLIA 2) are the main gateways to Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. KLIA is a major hub for flights to quite literally every corner of Southeast Asia and numerous cities in China and India. KLIA is connected to the city (KL Sentral or Central Station) by the KLIA Express train that takes 30 minutes.
Depending on your nationality, you may need a visa to visit Malaysia. Check the Malaysia visa requirements and apply for an online visa here.
A modern network of highways and bus routes connect Kuala Lumpur with all parts of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Getting around Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur has an extensive network of public transportation ranging from bus services to the LRT/MRT light rail and the KL Monorail. There are also many taxis as well as Grab (the Southeast Asian equivalent of Uber) services.
Where to stay in Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur has some of the cheapest five-star accommodations in the world so go ahead and splurge a little! During the off-peak and shoulder seasons, you can book a room at a super luxurious hotel for between USD 100-200/night (and it can be even cheaper when there are special offers)! My personal favourite hotels in Kuala Lumpur include the Grand Hyatt (my favourite!), Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, The Ruma and the Shangri-La.
Read other Velvet Escape posts on Malaysia:
- Ten things to do in Penang
- Ten islands to visit in Malaysia
- The Kinabatangan River safari
- Nostalgic street art in George Town
Read other articles in the Velvet Escape “Ten” series: