During the last few decades, Kuala Lumpur (or “KL” for short) has experienced tremendous changes. On my first visit back in 1990, the capital of Malaysia was not yet an economic or technological powerhouse; the city was easy to travel around and there were not too many high-rises. But strong Asian economic development since the early 1990’s has given this 155-year-old city a new look and a new vibe with its tall skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and expansive shopping malls.
Credit for Kuala Lumpur’s burgeoning reputation as a popular Asian city can be given first to the movie “Entrapment.” The sexy thriller starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery was partly filmed at the city’s Petronas Towers, which, before the turn of this century, stole the title of “world’s tallest building” from Chicago‘s Willis Tower (then known as the Sears Tower). Although the Petronas Twin Towers are not the tallest in the world anymore, they are probably the most recognizable skyscrapers in Asia.
Malaysia is an ethnically, racially and culturally diverse nation. The majority of inhabitants are either Malay or Chinese, with the rest consisting of Indians and Arabs. There are several religions, Islam being the largest.
One word of warning: While Kuala Lumpur boasts numerous gardens and lush greenery, the air can be quite hazy, occasionally almost dangerously so for people with breathing problems. Another caveat: While the city has numerous attractions and shopping centers, many are spread rather far apart — so a taxi is often the most efficient way to get around.
Kuala Lumpur Attractions
Start with Kuala Lumpur’s vantage points to get a good overview. The aforementioned Petronas Twin Towers feature an extraordinary Skybridge between the twin buildings at the height of 558 feet. You can catch an even loftier view from the Kuala Lumpur Tower (called Menara Kuala Lumpur). From more than 900 feet up, visitors can enjoy truly superb views of the city, except during those hazy days.
Despite the rapid pace of building in the past few years, Kuala Lumpur is still replete with historic buildings offering a sleepier ambience. Royal Selangor Club, representing the city’s colonial era and located in Jalan Raja (the city’s central area), is one of the most iconic of historic places in Kuala Lumpur. It’s located on Merdeka Square, which has a flagpole with a record height. With its lush gardens, King’s Palace (Istana Negara) is a regular photo stop during sightseeing trips, though it’s not open to the public.
If you’re not daunted at the idea of climbing 272 steps (yep, we counted them), Batu Caves is an awesome limestone cave. Discovered and publicized by American naturalist William Hornaday in 1878, Batu Caves has become a popular spot for Hindu pilgrimages. A wild population of monkeys causes an added challenge on the steep climb, as they are very aggressive while seeking something to eat. The site is located eight miles north of the city center. You can get there by train, bus or taxi from downtown Kuala Lumpur, or take a tour with Viator.
Visitors dressed conservatively are welcome at the National Mosque (Masjid Negara), an attractive building with a towering 239-foot minaret. It was built in 1965.
Islamic Arts Museum displays a variety of treasures from the Malay archipelago as well as from China and India, including jewelry, textiles, ceramics and armor. The collections are displayed in a unique open layout, which the museum says inspires “a sense of continuity embodied in the Islamic spirit.”
Enjoy a walk through the lush Perdana Botanical Garden (formerly the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens), which includes an orchid garden, waterfalls, ponds and a topiary collection.
An hour’s bus ride from Kuala Lumpur is the mountain retreat of Genting Highlands, one of the most popular resorts in Malaysia. Located 6,500 feet above sea level, Genting Highlands is a bit like Las Vegas — with an amusement park, the largest show restaurant in the country (often with some of the most famous entertainers in Southeast Asia), and the only place to legally gamble in Malaysia. On top of that, there are several hotels, a water park and golf courses. Viator has several day trips to Genting Highlands.
Kuala Lumpur Restaurants
Kuala Lumpur’s dining scene offers something for everyone, ranging from Western fast food chains like McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks (and, yes, Hard Rock Cafe, too) to ethnic specialties. The majority, naturally, feature the cuisines of Asia. While Malaysia is a Muslim nation, alcohol is available in most of the restaurants.
Shopping centers, such as Suria KLCC underneath the Petronas Towers, feature food courts for a quick bite.
Hawker food is speedy and affordable. The best areas for hawker food are places like Jalan Imbi and Jalan Barat, as well as Chinatown. Everyone probably knows what satay means (marinated and grilled meat), but other popular options include hokkien mee (noodle soup with prawns, ribs, bean sprouts and chili paste) or ikan bakar (grilled fish), just to name a few.
Hotels typically offer good restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. Look for authentic Japanese at Iketeru at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton, or try Lafite Restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel for French dining.
Starhill Gallery in Bukit Bintang (close to the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott Hotels) features an extensive selection of good restaurants. We like Fisherman’s Cove (seafood) and Koryo-won (Korean).
Shopping in Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is a paradise for shoppers. To us, it ranks above Asian counterparts like Singapore and Hong Kong because prices are phenomenal — this is a great place to shop for quality at a massive discount. In particular, there are a number of expansive shopping malls downtown.
With a very international and bustling atmosphere, Bukit Bintang is one of the busiest areas for shopping, dining and entertainment; think of it as Kuala Lumpur’s version of New York‘s Fifth Avenue. There are numerous shopping malls from Starhill Gallery to Piccolo Galleria, Sungei Wang Plaza and Lot 10. These are great places to shop for affordable clothing, among other things. If you’re looking for local food, there are food hawkers in Jalan Bukit Bintang.
For Malaysian handicrafts and unique souvenirs, don’t miss the Central Market. Extensive renovations a few years back added such features as Jonker Street (Malacca-style stalls offering assorted handicrafts), the Batik Emporium (the largest in the city) and an art gallery.
Chinatown offers a jumble of bargains on everything from souvenirs to designer knock-offs.
Join the locals in the city’s night markets (pasar malam), which are open one night a week respectively in neighborhoods across Kuala Lumpur. Browse for household goods, fresh produce, trinkets and local food.
–written by Teijo Niemela