The Garden City of Lights
Once more, back to the vibrant capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. An ever growing jungle of concrete where the sky is the limit. Booming more and more since how I saw it in the previous trips back in 2011 and 2016, now quickly transforming radically the skyline into another dimension. And not that it needed to really do anything about it since it is already one of the finest and most recognisable in the world with some masterpieces such as the Petronas Twin Towers or the Menara KL; but since space is the major limitation in an already overcrowded downtown core there’s nothing else that looking up. Merely three years later and the change is brutal. Unfortunately there is an ever growing concern and problem, the lack of any pavements to even walk the streets. How is it possible they do only care about building towers occupying every possibly limit, and zero space for a pavement? We find this very inappropriate and terrible, because slowly they are destroying the Central Business District. That said, you have been advised walking is difficult and dangerous to cross the roads.
Malaysia, although a Muslim country, is absolutely open-minded, friendly and respectful. A proper westernised country where the only time you will know you are in a Muslim country is when you hear the call to prayer over the loud speakers of the minaret mosques. Here religion is a fusion of cultures, and each respect the others on their beliefs. Mosques, Catholic churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese temples or synagogues coexists together and are a major reason for the success and great development of Malaysia.
It’s incredible to think how the city was only founded in 1857 as a small centre for the Chinese, Malay and Sumatrans tin miners. Destroyed several times in wars, suffering from fires, floodings and diseases, but was always rebuilt until it was made the capital of the British colony in 1880, moving it from Selangor and growing non-stop from this point. All the grand colonial structures date from these days, quite a wealthy city originally fueled by the tin production and more greatly, the rubber industry in the 20th century. But a country rich in gas and petrol reserves, precious minerals, plantations among a strategical location translated in becoming a super-power for finance, insurance, business, tech, education, transport and tourism. Did you know it is the 7th most visited city in the world as it stands today?
And although development took its toll in heritage architecture where entire districts full of historic shophouses were razed to the ground in order to build a vertical city, the legislation for urbanism and conservation laws were some of the first in Southeast Asia, together with the brilliant example that is Singapore, therefore all that was worth to keep and preserve went through restoration projects highly gentrifying neighbourhoods, thus becoming a beautiful place of contrasts, although a lot more is needed all over the city, especially the decaying Chinatown.
The city is well divided in different areas such as the Chinatown, Little India, the Golden Triangle with its Central Business District and Bukit Bintang, the incredible massive shopping destination. While distances are not the largest, it is still a city where you need to plan and get used to its public transportation. Luckily, it is one of the most developed in the entire Southeast Asia in terms of good transports, and moving between the areas is great thanks to buses, metro and the monorail. This last one will highly be the method you will actually use the most, not to mention the most enjoyable.
Temperature in the city is around 28 degrees every day of the year, and generally scattered showers do happen through the day. Generally lasting few minutes, sometimes it can ruin a couple of hours of the day. If it does rain, it really does, so be prepared with an umbrella as you never know when it could happen.
Food-wise talking? This is your little paradise. While not so popular as Thai or Indonesian, it is nevertheless too good and home to one of my all-time favourite dishes ever, the Laksa Soup. This is glass noodles in a spicy coconut soup with either seafood or chicken and vegetable. Simply delicious! but be careful with the level of spice you can tolerate. Then a must are chicken or pork satay served with palm oil peanut sauce, this is another of their national dishes you can find everywhere, especially in Chinatown and the countless hawker stalls in the streets or mega shopping malls. Never be afraid of eating street food, it is considered one of the cleanest and for sure healthiest together with Thailand and Singapore, hence noodles, rice, vegetable on the wok, curries of satay is the best from the stalls. Do try the Mee goreng mamak, that is, yellow noodles with chicken or pork, shrimps, vegetables and soy sauce; and a nasi lemak is always good, rice cooked in coconut milk usually served with hard boiled eggs, chicken or pork curry and vegetable.
For more information and history about the city check Wikipedia or Wikitravel sites. Malaysia’s currency is the Ringgit (RM). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Kuala Lumpur
- Golden Triangle The most precious part of the city located towards the north east. Encompassing 3 different neighbourhoods delimited by 3 major roads forming a triangle itself, it is the main motor of the country.
-Kuala Lumpur City Centre Simply known as KLCC is the country’s business heart and also the showcase to the world of the strong power and economy. Most of the landmark skyscrapers are designed around a central park, with more and more towers coming in the few remaining plots.
-Petronas Towers The iconic landmark of the city to the rest of the world. As the name suggest, it belongs to Petronas, a Malaysian oil and gas company. Designed by genius architect Cesar Pelli (1926-2019), using motifs found in the Islamic Art, it is still the tallest twin towers in the world since 1998. You can either go to the Skybridge or to the observatory deck at level 86. For tickets, opening hours and information please check the official website, but at a glance, it’s 80RM per adult. The nearest LRT station is KLCC on the Kelana Jaya Line.
-Suria KLCC One of the major shopping malls in KL, this one is part of the same Petronas complex, just at the base, opening towards the park.
-Le Nouvel These residential twin towers, also joined by a bridge are some of the latest recently completed among the countless yet to come under construction all over the city. Designed by world architect Jean Nouvel, they became a landmark due to the 230 species of climbing plants across the entire height. You find these towers at the opposite side of the KLCC Park.
-KL City Walk A walkway covered passage created in between the towers and full of up-scale and luxurious shops.
-Bukit Nanas Also known as Pineapple Hill, is one of the oldest forest reserves in the country, yet very small. The very last remaining tropical rain-forest in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, of what used to be entirely covered before the city. Located at the west of KLCC area, where the major thoroughfare Jalan P. Ramlee links it with the Petronas.
-Menara KL One of the tallest TV/Telecom towers in the world, and a truly landmark in KL skyline. Several bars, restaurants and a viewing platform are located at the top, the Sky Deck 360, offering great views of the entire city. Check the official website for all the information about fares, and opening hours. The nearest monorail station is Bukit Nanas.
-Convent Bukit Nanas Established by nuns from Singapore in 1911 in English Gothic revival style as a Secondary School. You have the full view of it from above the Menara KL
-Saint John’s Institution Founded in 1904, is one of the oldest schools in Malaysia and most renowned. Built in red and white English neo-Romanesque style, sits just south from the Convent.
-Saint John’s Cathedral Dating from 1883, it is the mother church of the Roman Catholics in Malaysia.
-Telecoms Museum Next door to the Cathedral, in neo-classical style.
-Bukit Bintang It’s the major shopping area of the city where you will find many malls, most of them specialised in technology, and very large hotel properties. The monorail stations for this area are either Bukit Bintang or Imbi.
-Berjaya Times Square It is one of the largest shopping centres in the world, and the one having the largest indoor amusement park. It is directly across the monorail Imbi Station.
-Low Yat Plaza Located opposite the Berjaya by its northern side, is one of the many built in the area at the very beginning of the ear of the electronics shopping malls.
-Sungei Wang Plaza Another of the old malls, across the road from Low Yat.
- Heritage Row Northwest from the Bukit Nanas Forest, retains some colonial shophouses and it is one of the principal nightlife districts with lots of restaurants, pubs, discos and event spaces. Recently restored it has undergone massive gentrification. It’s meters away from the Medan Tuanku monorail station.
- Old Town West from the Bukit Nanas Forest, the original settlement of the city by the confluence of the rivers Gombak and Klang, home to the finest English colonial structures.
-Dataran Merdeka Independence Square as it translates. This is the heart of the former British colony, surrounded by the landmark buildings from the era. The nearest LRT station is Masjid Jamek on the Kelana Jaya, Sri Petaling and Ampang Lines.
-Saint Mary’s Cathedral At the northwestern corner of the square, built in 1894 in English neo-Gothic style, becoming the first brick church erected in the native States of Malay Peninsula.
-Countdown Clock Also by the north side, is an art installation with a water curtain wall and a countdown to the New Year.
-Panggung Bandaraya By the northeast corner, one of the impressive Moorish revival style buildings in bricks, nowadays the city’s theatre.
-Old High Courts Attached to the theatre, just behind it. Another wonderful Moorish revival construction.
-Masjid Jamek Behind the theatre and old courts, across the bridge over the Gombak River. Built in 1909 is one of the oldest in the city, and the prettiest for its architecture and history. It forms the confluence of both rivers, and there is a great view from the Leboh Pasar Besar Bridge.
-Sultan Abdul Samad Building The major colonial landmark possibly in the entire country. Along the entire eastern side of the square, completed in 1897 in neo-Moorish style, was the Town Hall and several other government departments during the British administration.
-Old Post Office The next building right after the Abdul Samad. Almost symmetrical in design to the Panggung Bandaraya at the north edge.
-National Textile Museum On the southeast corner of the square across the road from the Old Post Office. It completes the entire east side of buildings all in neo-Moorish style. Built in 1896 as the head office of the Federated Malay States Railway.
-National Music Museum At the south side of the square, across the Textile Museum. Originally built in 1891 as the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China; the first bank to open a branch in Kuala Lumpur. The current building is from 1909 as the first was too small.
-Kuala Lumpur City Gallery Built in 1899 in neo-Renaissance style as the Government Printing Office of the newly founded capital of the Federated Malay States.
-Flagpole At the southern side of the square, yet visible from everywhere in the area. It was here were at midnight of August 31, 1957, the Union Jack flag was lowered and the Malaysian raised for the first time after the independence from the British rule.
-Royal Selangor Club Along most of the western side of the square. Founded in 1884 was built in neo-Tudor style, becoming very popular among the wealthy and rich people from the upper classes of society.
-Tourism Bureau While not directly in the square, it’s behind the Selangor Club and worth to mention here for the beauty of the building. Dating from 1903, was the Empire Hotel, then the Peninsular during the WWII. Then taken by the Institute of Architects and abandoned until its restoration in 2015.
-Gombak and Klang rivers confluence This section of both rivers is of especial beauty at night with the blue lights installed, and the jets of water creating a film of continuous water. The best place to see is from the Leboh Pasar Besar Bridge which links Dataran Merdeka with Chinatown.
-Medan Pasar The Old Market Square, meters ahead after the Leboh Pasar Besar Bridge. A nice square with some colonial structures in between new towers. Heading south you will find the Katsury Walk (the covered street with lots of vendors) and the art-deco Central Market too.
-Chinatown One of the largest in Southeast Asia, filled with shops and restaurants everywhere. The best are the street food vendors where you can get delicious chicken/port satay.
-Petaling Street The main covered thoroughfare and major landmark in the area.
–Sri Mahamariamman On the parallel street to Petaling. Built in 1873 it is the oldest Hindu temple in the city.
-National Mosque of Malaysia South from Dataran Merdeka along the main road, parallel to the river, or if you follow the route step by step as I list in this guide, it’s west from Chinatown, from the southern side of Jalan Petaling, across the bridge over the river. Completed in 1965.
-Malayan Railway Headquarters A very large and prominent colonial structure designed to match the train station just across the road, both in neo-Moorish style, very similar to the Brighton Palace in the UK.
-KL Station Across the road from the Railway Headquarters, dating from 1910 it is one of the most beautiful and finest buildings in neo-Moorish style in the country.
-The Majestic Hotel One of the most luxurious, built in 1932 with touches of art-deco, recently restored it retains the flair of a bygone colonial era. Opposite the KL Station
-KL Sentral Station The major international railway station in the country, opened in 2001 as KL Station was too old and small to handle the traffic.
- Brickfields Located around and southwest of the KL Sentral Station, its name derives from the once thriving factories of bricks that were built in order to reconstruct KL from bricks after the flood and fire of 1881.
-Little India Just southwest of the train station, with the main sight the Jalan Tun Sambanthan street, decorated all the way with Indian arches.
- Batu Caves Far north in the city, by the northernmost edge is this famous Hindu temple within a limestone cave perched on a hill and set among a piece of lush jungle. Built in 1891, it is home to the world’s tallest statue of Hindu deity Murugan. A set of steps lead the way up to the main entrance, and be careful with the many monkeys in the area, are quite aggressive in search for food. From either KL Sentral or KL Station take the kmuter line to the last stop Batu Caves station.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport is one of the largest and fastest growing in Southeast Asia, and also one of the most modern. Connecting to 6 continents, it is not just a tourist destination but a major hub between Europe and Oceania. The flag carrier Malaysia Airlines is also growing fast, keeping one of the highest standards in safety and comfort.
From the airport you have various options to get downtown, depending if you are arriving to the main International Terminal (KLIA) or to the Low Cost Terminal (LCCT or KLIA2). Any of these 2 terminals is linked by the KLIA Express train to KL Sentral which also passes though KL Station, this means you can connect at both stations with the metro system or the monorail to your final destination. The train is not the cheapest option, it’s 55 RM per person per way. However, an often hidden information is that the alternative cheaper train is the KLIA Transit. The only difference is that this train dos stop at all station sin between rather than direct. Lastly for the cheaper option, take one of the many and frequent buses to KL Sentral. Simply come outside the terminal and follow the signs for the buses, there are several companies on the route. As for time, it is 28 minutes by train against an hour, if not more depending on traffic. Consider if you are in a group of 3 or more, the taxi will be then one of the better options not to mention the most comfortable, around 74 to the city centre.
As for the LCCT (KLIA2), you can also take the very frequent Air Asia Skybus for just 9RM per way. Once you are outside of the airport main doors, turn left and walk down past the main terminal until you see a small bus station. From here simply follow signs that says “Air Asia Skybus”.
A smaller airport, Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, or commonly known as Skypark located west of the city serves low-cost carriers with destinations through Malaysia and neighbouring countries.
Coming overland is straightforward from anywhere in the country, with superb quality buses and an ever improving railway network. The most common destinations for a tourist are Selangor, George Town or Malacca. As for neighbouring countries there are countless connections to Thailand and Singapore, no matter if long distance buses or trains, but consider taking a flight instead and benefit from the super low fares in this side of the world, saving precious time for enjoying more of the cities itself.
Kuala Lumpur is one of the most comprehensive cities in the region with such quality and extent of public transportation available; efficient, safe, reliable and clean, it takes you everywhere. Like in any major city nowadays, you can get a prepaid touch in travel card. They call it Touch ‘n Go card, and costs 10 RM. Then you can simply top up value as you need it, and for every time you use it the fare will be discounted as if you would need to pay for single tickets. It is of course valid on all kinds of public transportation, this is metro, monorail, commuter trains or buses., but also you can use it in multitude of places like restaurants, cinemas, shops… Single trips on the metro and monorail costs between 1.60 and 3.20 RM depending on distance.
Lastly, there is Grab available everywhere in Malaysia, this is the equivalent of Uber but better, and cheaper! Simply download the app, register and you are done. You do not even need to provide a debit/credit card as you can pay cash. You will always know the total fare, and the precise location of where you are going. This comes very cheap to be honest, and the most comfortable way to move around without any doubt, especially if you are 2 or more people as it turns to be cheaper than public transportation then.
As one of the best cities in Southeast Asia where to find incredible good hotels, it does not mean prices are low. Those are in fact much higher than any of its neighbours like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Of course excluding here Singapore, which is in its own league. The choice is vast, similar to Bangkok even considering this city is just a quarter in size and population. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click, LateRooms or Ebookers.
In the most recent trip in 2019 we stayed at the splendid Dorsett Kuala Lumpur at 172 Jalan Imbi. Located between Imbi and Bukit Bintang monorail stations, right in the centre of the biggest shopping heart of the country surrounded by malls and plenty of restaurants and bars, was a great experience. We managed to book an entire Suite apartment at their annex tower which is brand new built, with an infinity pool at the rooftop, gym and sauna that only a Suite category booking can access. The staff was brilliant, super helpful, fun and kind. The extra large apartment very beautiful and carefully designed and cared for, a terrace with views over the city and the Petronas Towers in the distance. Comfortable and quiet, and excellent breakfast. We could not ask for more!
In 2013 we found an outstanding property. Le Meridien, 2 Jalan Stesen Sentral, KL Sentral. This is in fact a complex of two twin towers, being the other one a Hilton hotel, and a massive pool shared by both hotels at the same level together with big gardens. The room was big, the views awesome, not to mention how clean it was, and the enormous high quality breakfast. Absolutely one of the best hotels we have ever been. As an extra, ask in reception if you can go up to the top floor. Once there, and by the emergency exit stairs, you will be one of the most stunning views of the whole skyline, including the Petronas Towers. This is a much better view than the one you get from the top of Menara KL.
Back in the first ever trip to Kuala Lumpur in 2011, we managed to stay at the Hotel Capitol. A modest but big 3 stars property almost next door to the Berjaya Times Square shopping centre. This resulted in a great location, as the main transport method you are likely to use in the city is the monorail which was few meters from the hotel. Friendly and caring staff, large room with city views, comfortable and quiet, and a nice breakfast; we could not ask for more and definitely it’s highly recommended, moreover considering the refurbishment and make over they did the posterior years after our stay.