Approaching Kuala Lumpur for the first time brings with it a ridiculous measure of excitement. At first, the twin-pronged skyscrapers of the Petronas Towers loom large. They’re then joined by the spindle of the majestic KL Tower, which casts a long shadow across the colonial architecture and historic Chinese shopfronts of Petaling Street. Here, street food dishes such as hokkien mee noodles and asam laksa showcase the city’s diverse flavours, underlining how Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures are woven into the city. This is KL’s opening gambit, but there’s much more to discover in the Malaysian capital than guidebook entries. Here are some of our favourite lesser-known things to do in Kuala Lumpur, to give you a taste of why the city should be visited now.
1. Go for cocktails on a heli pad
KL has plenty of soul-stirring rooftop bars. There’s SkyBar, on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, with cabana booths and signature drinks including a pandan-leaf-infused gin cocktail. There’s also Vertigo, on the 59th floor of the Banyan Tree hotel, with a wraparound terrace and sucker-punch views of twinkling downtown towers. Then, there's the Heli Lounge Bar, a chopper pad by day and gin and juice palace by night. Verging on the right side of kitsch, with aeronautical design and airplane panel décor (see the Boeing-747 turbine recycled as a DJ booth), the bar is one of KL’s hippest joints. A visit will give you an entirely fresh spin on the city.
The view from Heli Lounge © Heli Lounge Bar
2. Chill out in a repurposed brothel in Chinatown
Against an incongruous mishmash of frenetic markets and futuristic skyscrapers, KL locals have become adept at eking out under-the-radar spaces to slip away from the crowds. Which explains the hard-to-find Merchant’s Lane, an upstairs cafe tucked inside an anonymous block that was once a house of ill repute. It’s near popular Petaling Street market – not that you’d know it – and stripped back with bric-a-brac furniture, floral artwork and a gorgeous leafy terrace. The menu, meanwhile, runs the gamut from Cantonese stew and sweet chilli prawns to chicken redang stew and satay burgers. Thirsty? The lemongrass tea and matcha lattes are delish, too.
3. Eat with the monks at Dharma Realm Guan Yin Sagely monastery
This in-the-know canteen is a great snapshot of modern KL. It’s tucked behind the pagoda-topped Kun Yam Thong Temple and always heaving with office workers who pile in to load up on veggie and MSG-free grub from the self-service buffet. The mystery is how there’s so much on offer (and how so many people can squash onto the shared benches). For only a handful of Malaysian ringgit – about £2 – you can take a culinary tour of the country from curry mee soup to bean pancakes and yong taofu (tofu-stuffed vegetables). 161 Jalan Ampang; +60 3-2164 8055
Join the throngs of office workers enjoying a healthy temple food lunch © Anansing/Shutterstock
4. Taste rare Trigona honey produced from native bees
Move over Manuka. If you want to take the pulse of what’s hot in KL’s food and drink scene, head to swanky Bar Trigona on the sixth floor at the stupefyingly-cool Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur. A riff on the classic speakeasy, the Insta-ready bar specialises in cocktails infused with honey harvested from indigenous, stingless trigona bees. Try the Trigona Old Fashioned, a muddle of bourbon and cedar wood bitters over a snooker ball-sized ice cube, then garnished with a honeycomb cocktail stick to stir. In a word? Buzzy.
5. Join a million worshippers at a self-mortification festival
Prepare to have your senses shocked. The annual Thaipusam festival is celebrated by KL’s Hindu community on first full moon of the year (next: 21 January 2019), and with it comes an intense, rainbow-coloured parade that snakes all the way to the limestone Batu Caves at the edges of the city.
That’s just for starters. It’s also a celebration of self-mortification, with dozens of devoted pilgrims worked-up into a trance to prove their godliness. Some come with hooks through tongues or cheeks, others are on parade with skewers through their limbs. The most extreme? Some devotees pull heavy chariots to the caves, hooking them into folds of skin on their back. Squeamish? Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
A devotee celebrates at the annual Thaipusam festival © Muslihat/Shutterstock
6. Seek out street art from the 'Malaysian Banksy'
You could say that designer, street muralist and documentary maker Fahmi Reza is Kuala Lumpur’s most controversial graffiti artist. The cartoonist and outspoken activist has become a pin-up for art with attitude, primarily for portraying his country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak as a clown. He’s been arrested – and more recently acquitted – and several of his pieces have disappeared from KL’s streets.
To learn what all the fuss is about – and to see around a dozen other murals from national and international spray-painters – hit the streets with Unseen Tours. A laudable social enterprise started to help the city’s less fortunate, it runs highly-recommended 3-hourr art tours that crisscross Kula Lumpur's inner city neighbourhoods. This is definitely one of the most unusual things to do in Kuala Lumpur, and will give you a local's feel for the city at the same time.
7. Savour a high-brow high tea
In KL, the classic English afternoon tea has evolved into a see-and-be-seen showcase for chefs and their cuckoo-crazy cakes, inventive macarons and sublime scones. It may not be one of the the most things to do in Kuala Lumpur, but when thunderstorms and monsoon downpours send everyone running for cover, you'll be sitting pretty. There’s history to the ceremony, too; the ritual was brought to Malay shores by British officers during colonial times.
The spirit of London’s high tea parlours is alive in The Lobby Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, where more than 40 types of tea accompany tiers of petite sandwiches and even wagyu beef sliders. You could go glam at The Lounge at the Four Seasons, with truffled egg triangles and Sarawakian pineapple tarts, or join an equally-fabulous crowd at The Orchid Conservatory at The Majestic Hotel. Served in an indoor greenhouse garden, its floral teas and cakes are complemented by fragrant orchids.
High Tea might not seem like one of the top things to do in Kuala Lumpur, but it's hard to beat © petereleven/Shutterstock