Sat in between its arguably more famous and almost certainly more popular neighbours, Bangkok and Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is often overlooked by many backpackers and travellers, but this is a huge mistake. It may not have the legendary backpacker status of Bangkok or the pristine sheen of Singapore, but Kuala Lumpur does have so much to offer those who take the time to scratch underneath the surface and see what is there.
The reality is though, most people just spend a day or two in the city, using it as a convenient transit hub on their journey around SE Asia, or getting their bearings before heading off to explore Malaysia’s diverse countryside, jungles and islands. The trick is how to use that time effectively and fill your days with a glimpse of what Kuala Lumpur has to offer. Give yourself a few days in the city and fill your time with some of these highlights.
The Colonial District.
The colonial district is a great way to see an important part of the cultural and historical character of Kuala Lumpur. The perfectly manicured lawns of Merdeka square is where Malaysia declared independence from British rule in 1957, and is surrounded by stunning colonial architecture that is a vivid reminder of those times, as well as some stunning examples of Moorish architecture in the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
Just a short walk away from Merdeka square is Chinatown’s central market. I have a love/hate relationship with this building. On the one hand it is really touristy and very expensive, and has been extensively remodelled and gentrified into what is essentially a large tourist tat market, on the other it is a great showcase of the cultural heritage of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia as a whole, as well as having multiple annexes filled with street artists and craftsmen, making it a pleasant place to explore for a short while. Take my advice though, enjoy browsing the wares, but don’t buy anything here. You can often find the same goods for a fraction of the price in a number of side street shops around Chinatown.
I absolutely love Petaling street and come here every time I return to Kuala Lumpur. Generally only coming to life from the early evening onwards, it is an open air market where you can buy literally any type of knock off you can think of, from dodgy DVDs and fake Rolex watches to brand name handbags and purses, and to be fair they aren’t bad quality! If you like that sort of thing of course! It is touristy as hell and full of touts and vendors who will call out to you and think nothing of quoting you a price 20 times what it should be, but it is also a hell of a lot of fun! You can have a great time honing your haggling skills here as long as you keep the right frame of mind to enjoy it.
There are also a number of fantastic traditional street food vendors and Chinese food restaurants here. For the best prices head to the areas just outside of the main cross of Jalan Petaling, but you really do have to try the satay chicken from the vendors! Absolute heaven!
Berjaya Times Square mall.
One thing KL is famous for is shopping, and the overabundance of huge, sprawling malls is a huge testament to that, so it would be a shame if you didn’t devote at least a little bit of time to one of Asia’s favourite pastimes while you are here, especially when you see what they have on offer, and I’m not talking about the goods!
The Berjaya Times Square mall is unbelievably huge! It is one of the largest malls in the world, and is big enough to hold multiple storeys of shops (a good mixture of brands and quirky independent stores), food courts, a multiscreen cinema and even a whole theme park inside! It is worth the visit just to see it!
Okay, yes this is another Westernised mall filled with high end brands and goods. If you like shopping however then you will enjoy browsing in the air conditioned comfort. Just be prepare to get your credit card out with the high end Asian and Western brand stores.
The main reason to visit here though is that it provides immediate MRT access to two of Kuala Lumpur’s great attractions, the Aquaria KLCC which is located in the mall, and the Petronas Towers, which are directly on top of it!
The Aquarium is attached to the KLCC mall via a linked underground tunnel and is a great way to spend a couple of hours. They have a range of exhibits including an Oceanarium, and put an emphasis on shark and turtle conservation projects.
The Petronas Towers are to KL what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Houses of Parliament or Big Ben are to London. Every other postcard features them and no trip to the city will be complete without at least seeing these quintessential structures.
If you want to see the view from the observation deck (which is only half way up), you really do have to queue up early, as they go on sale at 8.30 am and are limited to a certain number every day. If you want to see the Petronas towers at their best however, then see them in the late afternoon and wait for the sun to set and the lights to go on. The park outside is perfect to sit back and enjoy one of the best views in the city.
Perdana Botanical Gardens.
More commonly known as the lake gardens, this is another great example of the British colonial legacy in KL and is the perfect area to escape the madness of the city for a little while. Your soul will thank you as you take some time out just to stroll around the lake surrounded by manicured gardens or even have a picnic. If you come in the early morning before the heat gets too intense, you can take your time to soak in the relaxing atmosphere amongst the early morning joggers and Tai Chi practitioners.
Bird Park and Butterfly Park.
A short walking distance from the Lake Gardens is the KL Bird Park and Butterfly Park, two excellent parks that will help you get back to nature just a little bit. The birds are very used to people and will often get very close. Both of these parks are pretty much next to each other so can both be visited together.
This attraction is technically just outside the city limits of Kuala Lumpur, in Selangor, but is still easily reachable by train. One part impressive geological feature, one part impressive Hindu temple and shrine, the Batu caves are a unique must see attraction if you are in KL. The steps up to the temple itself will test the unfit, so make sure you take it slow and easy if you can’t handle it! But trust me, the views from the top as well as inside the caves are more than worth the effort!
Kuala Lumpur may not hold some of Malaysia’s best or most popular attractions, but it still has more than enough to keep you occupied for at least a few days. You may not initially warm to it, and the taxi drivers will definitely induce a murderous rage inside you, but the longer you spend in this sprawling, chaotic, slightly run down and quintessentially South East Asian city, the more it grows on you.
What about you? What are your favourite things to do in Kuala Lumpur?
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