Malaysia’s multi-faced capital is an underrated gem, alive with sneaky monkeys, temples, street food, glittering towers and some pretty hip watering holes.
Just 155 years ago, Kuala Lumpur was a tiny Chinese tin-mining town. At breakneck speed, the city has come to accommodate around 6.5 million people of all different nationalities—the majority consists of Muslim-Malays, Chinese and Indians—and now stretches across dozens of districts and surrounding enclaves, each offering totally diverse experiences should you have the time to explore.
In KL proper, you’ll find the Old City Center, which still has traces of the colonial past—both the Japanese and the British took a run at occupation—in the form of a brilliant mix of mock-Tudor, Neo-Gothic, Moorish and Islamic architecture. There’s the Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the colorful pre-war buildings around Market Square (which now leads into a really commercialized Central Market), St. Mary’s Cathedral and the striking Kuala Lumpur Railway Station (train enthusiasts will appreciate the mini-museum inside), which is just down the street from the National Mosque.
Tip: If you’re a history buff, look into the Free Heritage Guided Tours of Dataran Merdeka, which are offered three times a week from Kuala Lumpur City Hall.
North of the historic center is the China Town, which starts on Petaling Street just a few blocks from the Central Market. Whether you’re in the mood to snap up some souvenirs or you simply want to taste-test every street food stall, it’s hard not to fall in love with this vibrant corner of the city. The pre-war shop houses have been converted into restaurants serving up bak kut teh (pork ribs soup) and countless copycat fashion outlets. If you’re trying to drop some serious dough, though, you’ll want to head to the Bukit Bintang district, which is the epicenter of swanky shopping.
Once you’ve had your fill of elbow jabbing, pop onto the super-efficient RapidKL transit system and head to KL Sentral station in the new center of KL, where gleaming skyscrapers and meticulously cleaned sidewalks await. This part of town is all-biz, but it’s here that you’ll spot the impressive, 452-meter-tall Petronas Towers—gawking is only natural. You can pay MYR50 ($123) to head up 170 meters to the 42nd floor sky bridge to admire the view, but it’s a bit of a tourist trap. If you’re craving a touch of green, then take a little stroll through the charming KLCC Park before heading farther afield.
Take the train all the way out to the Batu Caves (your concierge will probably suggest a taxi, but it’s an easy 25-minute train ride from KL Sentral), where you’ll be met face-first with 272 narrow stairs and an enormous 42.7-meter-high golden statue of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity. You’ll also notice the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, which is the site of the Hindu pilgrimage held on the festival of Thaipusam. Every year, more than 1.5 million people take part, making it one of the largest in the world. As you ascend the colorful staircase into the towering caves above, you’ll have to be mindful of the mischievous monkeys while you take in all the intricate temples carved into the mountain sides. Temples and monkeys are both great for photo ops, but the latter love to steal everything from milk teas to sunglasses. If you’re a more capable rock climber, this is also a popular place to show off.
With Indian, Malay and Chinese flavors all at arm’s reach, there is certainly no shortage of delicious food in KL. For lunch, you’ll want to stop at the bustling Nasi Kandar Pelita (149 Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2162-5532, www.pelita.com.my)—it may seem a little overwhelming at first, but just point to an assortment of things at the buffet counter and you can pretty much guarantee a fantastic sampling of dishes: from entry-level tandoori chicken and curried vegetables to less identifiable options, such as fried fish bits and some kind of animal hearts (we think).
Another great spot for a fast meal is the historic Restoran Kim Lian Kee (49 Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2032-4984) on Petaling Street, which started off as a humble street stall and now occupies a huge two-story, modern café across the street from its original spot. The “black” Hokkien Mee noodles are the signature, but we preferred the buttered shrimp and the chili beef dishes.
If you love Chinese fusion and a touch of history, you won’t want to miss the Old China Café (11 Jin Balai Polis, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2072-5915, www.oldchina.com.my). It’s a charming, old-school eatery that’s covered in knick-knacks. The beef rendang and the Nyonya seafood laksa are particularly delicious.
For a more upscale dinner, try the flavorful Malay food at Bijan (3 Jalan Ceylon, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2031-3575, www.bijanrestaurant.com)—a fashionable restaurant that’s admittedly overflowing with westerners. But the resto doesn’t skimp on the spices and has a few especially mouth-watering dishes: try the Kepak Ayam Goreng (chicken wings in chili sauce), Sup Ekor (ox tail) and Rendang Kambing (fire-cooked lamb shoulder). For dessert, try one of the homemade ice cream flavors, which rotate depending on the season.
Don’t forget about KL’s rep for some of Asia’s best street food. Stroll around Jalan Alor Food Street to gorge on hawker fare such as oyster omelets, beef noodles and yummy curries.
If you’re looking to get smashed in KL, then head straight to Jalan P. Ramlee, which is packed with bars and nightclubs. It’s a little reminiscent of LKF albeit with more live music, plus a great mix of upscale watering holes and dive bars.
For a more glamorous affair, book a table at No Black Tie (17 Jalan Mesui, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2142-3737), which is a funky and very fine live jazz bar. Higher still? Sip on a tipple amid prohibition-style interiors at Tate (G/F, The Intermark, Jalan Tun Razak, (+603) 2161-2368), which you enter through an unassuming white wall that’s all too easy to pass by. Inside, you’ll find gentlemen’s club fixings—leather arm chairs, a pool table, 1920s music and lots of Hennessy-infused cocktails. It’s all foamy mixology concoctions and rare rums here, so be sure to dress to impress.
For views without the tremendous price tag, head up to SkyBar, on the roof of the Traders Hotel (33/F, Traders Hotel, Kuala Lumpur City Center; (+603) 2332-9911), where the drinks aren’t going to blow you away but the view of the Petronas Towers and KLCC Park certainly will.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking to strike some sparks with your partner, then you’ll definitely want to check out Villa Samadhi (8 Jalan Madge, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2143-2300, www.villasamadhi.com.my), which is a “secret” boutique resort in the heart of the city. It’s a little confusing to find: there are literally zero name placards, but once the bamboo fence opens it’s like you’re on your own tropical island. The hotel has just 21 bamboo villas, most of which come with direct pool access. All boast a delicious breakfast and gorgeous interiors—oh, and no kids! Rates start at MYR500 (HK$1,224).
If you’re a sucker for the classics, then it’s hard to turn away from the Mandarin Oriental (Kuala Lumpur City Centre, Kuala Lumpur, (+603) 2380 8888, www.mandarinoriental.com/kualalumpur), which is home to luxurious rooms and fantastic views of the 88-story-tall Petronas Towers. Even if you don’t stay here, pop in and quiz the concierge, who knows the city inside and out. Rates from MYR649 (HK$1,600).
When to Go:
It’s hot all year round—generally around 90 degrees Fahrenheit—so the best indicator is rainfall. Avoid the Sept-November, when you’ll find the highest rainfalls. Visiting in the spring will be hotter, but less chance of rain.
US$1 = MYR3.17 (Malaysian Ringgit), which means US$5 is about MYR16.