Approaching Kuala Lumpur for the first time brings with it a ridiculous measure of excitement. The skyscrapers of the Petronas Towers loom large. They’re joined by the spindle of the majestic KL Tower, which casts a shadow across the colonial architecture. But there’s much more to discover in the Malaysian capital. Here are some of our favourite things to do in Kuala Lumpur, to give you a taste of why this city is worth a visit.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei — your essential guide for visiting Kuala Lumpur.
1. Go for cocktails on a helipad - one of the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur
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 aeroplane 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.
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 the popular Petaling Street market 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.
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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-based dishes 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).
When it comes to eating in Kuala Lumpur, you could have a different dish every day of your life —street food here is not a trend, but a way of life. If exploring local cuisines is part of your programme - read our guide to the street food dishes you have to try in Kuala Lumpur.
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 the first full moon of the year, 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.
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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 graffiti artists – hit the streets with Unseen Tours. A laudable social enterprise started to help the city’s less fortunate, it runs highly-recommended 3-hour 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 feel for the city at the same time.
7. Savour a high-brow high tea
The classic English afternoon tea has evolved into a see-and-be-seen showcase for chefs and their impressive cakes, inventive macarons and sublime scones. It is one best things to do in Kuala Lumpur during monsoon season. When thunderstorms and downpours send everyone running for cover, you'll be sitting pretty.
There’s a 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.
8. Shop in Bukit Bintang district
For tourists and locals alike, strolling the Bukit Bintang – the broad corridor on either side of Jalan Bukit Bintang – is one of the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur. There’s a mall here to suit everyone. The gigantic, massively modern Pavilion KL, is packed with international chains and designer outlets.
The southwestern end of Jalan Bukit Bintang is lined with royal palms and inexpensive clothing shops. The pavement around Lot 10 has evolved into a parade of buzzing, smart cafés and shops.
By night the centre of attention, at least for dining, switches to nearby Jalan Alor, which boasts some great alfresco Chinese eating. Close by, Changkat Bukit Bintang and Tengkat Tong Shin hold even more excellent bars and restaurants, serving differing cuisines.
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9. Explore the Batu Caves
The Batu Caves sit right on the northern edge of Greater KL, where forested limestone thumbs poke out of a ridge of hills in the suburb of Gombak. In 1891 local Indian dignitaries convinced the British administration that the caves were ideal places in which to worship (probably because their geography was reminiscent of the sacred Himalayas).
Arriving at the site, you can’t miss the immense staircase leading up into the limestone crags, and the gigantic golden statue of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war. A number of minor temples stand at ground level, but most visitors head straight up the 272 steps to the caves, pausing only to catch their breath or take photos of the marauding macaques who make their presence all too known.
10. Marvel at the architecture of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building
The Sultan Abdul Samad Building is a famous historical site and popular tourist attraction that is often used as a setting for national festivals and events in Kuala Lumpur. The building was designed by British architect A.С. Norman in the Indo-Saracenic style, the elaborate architecture combining Indian, Islamic and European influences.
The Sultan Abdul Samad Building currently houses the offices of the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia and the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. The building is best known to tourists for its distinctive clock tower and copper dome, which has become an iconic symbol of Kuala Lumpur.
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11. Discover Malaysia's National Mosque
Opened in 1965, Masjid Negara (National Mosque) features an unusual theme: the 73m-high minaret resembles a folded umbrella, and the imposing blue 16-point dome looks like an open one. Surrounding it are paved courtyards and colonnades, all rectangles of white marble bisected by pools of water.
The prayer hall can hold up to fifteen thousand worshippers, though size gives way to decorative prowess in its finely detailed stone archways and engravings of the Koran, inspired by Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. To enter as a visitor (outside of prayer times), you must be properly dressed: robes can be borrowed for free at the mosque entrance.
12. Visit the Petronas Twin Towers
Very much the symbol of modern Malaysia, the twin columns of the Petronas Towers rise 451.9m above KL’s downtown area, towering over the enormous Suria KLCC mall at their base. The tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004, they’re now not even the tallest buildings in KL.
Despite a definite Art Deco feel, the unusual eight-pointed cross-sectional profile obviously draws on Islamic art, while the profusion of squares and circles on the interior walls symbolize harmony and strength. One tower was built by a Japanese team, the other by rivals from Korea.
While the Japanese topped out first, the Koreans had the honour of engineering the Skybridge, which joins the towers at both the 41st and 42nd floors. The views of KL’s sprawl from the Skybridge are pretty spectacular, thanks not least to the blue, glassy towers soaring either side of you – but they’re not quite as good as from the Observation Deck on the 86th floor.
13. Learn about royal history at Istana Negara
Istana Negara (National Palace) is the official residence of the King of Malaysia and the venue for many state ceremonies and official events. In 1957, after Malaysia became independent from Britain, it was transformed into the official residence of the King of Malaysia.
A distinctive feature of Istana Negara are the 22 domes that represent the 13 states of Malaysia and the nine districts of Kuala Lumpur. The palace is closed to the public, but visitors can witness the changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place daily at 12:10 PM. Although a new palace complex was built to replace Istana Negara in 2011, the old palace is still used for important state ceremonies and events.
14. Stroll around Butterfly Park & the Orchid Garden
The beautiful Butterfly Park is an unexpected delight. Enclosed in invisibly fine netting, this garden of tropical vines, shrubs and ferns nurtures 120 species of gorgeous butterflies. Some with 15cm wingspans – flitting about amid the undergrowth and feed stations baited with pineapple and banana. There are also tranquil ponds full of giant koi, and a small but informative insect museum.
If you’re into tropical plants, visiting the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens is one of the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur. There are said to be more than eight hundred Malaysian orchids alone, all lining paved walkways in brightly coloured, formal arrangements. The hibiscus collection is laid out along terraces and includes Malaysia’s national flower, the bright red bunga raya.
15. Have fun at Sunway Lagoon
Though it’s not a must-see, Sunway Lagoon is Malaysia’s most famous, and one of Asia’s most popular, water parks, and is certainly one of the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur if you’re spending a few weeks here. One of its main draws, the Vuvuzela ride, sees participants boarding a chute from an eleven-storey-high tower and plummeting into a huge horn-shaped waterslide.
It’s not all about slides and pools, however, as there’s a total of ninety attractions. The site also includes an amusement park, wildlife park and the Lost Lagoon, Asia’s first Nickelodeon-themed attraction. The Sunway Resort Hotel & Spa is also based on site, which is handy if you find yourself too worn out to return to KL at the end of the day.
- For families: Vortex KLCC Apartments
- For celebrity treatment: Grand Millennium Kuala Lumpur
- For shopping location: citizenM Kuala Lumpur Bukit Bintang
- For a weekend getaway: Opus Residences Kuala Lumpur
- For city views: Expressionz Suites
Where to stay in Kuala Lumpur:
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