Kuala Lumpur (KL) is a city that is all too familiar to me after visiting countless times. As a major transport hub not only within Malaysia but also for destinations around Southeast Asia, the Malaysian capital has long been a popular destination due to its relative ease of access, plethora of eats as well as the iconic Petronas Towers. However, if you spend two or three days in Kuala Lumpur, you will soon discover that there is so much more to the city than just the twin towers. Over the years, a noticeably prominent coffee culture has also developed, giving way to plenty of concept cafes catering to just about every whim and fancy. Around the metropolis, you will also discover pockets of culture, whether it be at the Kampung Baru or Brickfields (the city’s Little India). The abolition of GST (goods and services tax) has also made shopping in Kuala Lumpur a convincing proposition and the malls around Bukit Bintang or KLCC are more than happy to oblige.
If you are looking for ideas of things to do, see and eat in Kuala Lumpur (KL); here is a recommended itinerary that you can do in as little as 3 days.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Downtown KL, Batu Caves, Bukit Bintang & Jalan Alor
Start the day exploring the civic area of Kuala Lumpur. The Sultan Abdul Samad Building is an appealing late 19th century structure known for its Moorish architecture. It was the main government building used during the British colonial administration. Nowadays, it houses the Ministry of Tourism. If you are in the area at 9AM, you can also check out the free 2.5 hour walking tour around Merdeka Square which is just next to the building.
From here, it is a short walk to the imposing Jamek Mosque, a sprawling complex that shares some similar features with the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. The mosque is open to the public outside of prayer times and is well worth a visit. To appreciate the architecture of the complex as a whole, I would suggest climbing up to the monorail station adjacent to it. To get to a higher point, you’d need to purchase a ticket. MYR 1 is the minimum ticket price but the view from up there is definitely worth much more than that.
For a bit of shopping, head to the nearby Central Market (daily 10AM to 9:30PM), an art deco building filled with stores selling all sorts of wares including household items, apparel and souvenirs. The place is admittedly quite touristy but for local handicrafts and souvenirs, the range here is hard to beat.
From that market, it is a short walk to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Petaling Street is where all the action is with its souvenir shops and night market. Towards the southern portion in a side street (Lorong Panggung) you will find Kwai Chai Hong, a charming little spot filled with street murals, brightly painted restored shophouses housing souvenir shops as well as plenty of insta-worthy spots. Kwai Chai Hong reminds me a bit of Penang or even Ipoh with all the street art.
Before leaving the older part of town, make sure to stop by the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and stand in amazement at the beautiful mishmash of British colonial and Mughal architecture. If you want to live it up like during the olden days, walk across the station to The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur for some tea.
While most people recommend heading to Batu Caves in the morning, my personal preference and suggestion is to do it in the afternoon. This is especially if you intend to take photos of the giant statue outside as it faces against the sun in the morning. Situated in the state of Selangor, Batu Caves is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. 272 steps will take you inside the cave and into the Murugan temple.
Spend the rest of the afternoon back in Kuala Lumpur and in its busiest area, Bukit Bintang. Even if you have been to other shopping districts in Southeast Asia such as Bangkok’s Sukhumvit or Singapore’s Orchard Road; Bukit Bintang is still worth a look for its myriad high street brands and elements of Middle Eastern culture. Malls to check out include Lot 10, Sungei Wang and Pavilion. Kuala Lumpur is also a popular destination for people from Arab countries and you’ll find a distinct Islamic flavor in many of the establishments here.
For an atmospheric dinner experience, eat at one of the food stalls in Jalan Alor and sample KL’s hawker culture. Things to try here include char kway teow, bak kut teh and fried oysters. The area is heavily frequented by tourists but you can still get yourself some pretty delicious local fare. If you are looking for a good and decent massage place nearby, you can check out Chaang Thai Massage (daily 10AM to midnight) to soothe those tired muscles. The therapists come from Thailand.
Day 2 – Kampung Baru, Petronas Towers & Mall-hopping
Morning is the best time to explore the traditional Malay village, Kampung Baru located not far from town. Cultural attractions here include Masjid Jamek Kampung Baru, Rumah Limas and Master Mat’s House. Essentially, Kampung Baru is an enclave of quaint and charming Malay-style houses right in the middle of the city. While here, you may also want to have some nasi lemak (a Malaysian staple) for breakfast. A popular spot within Kampung Baru for this dish include Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa (7, Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kampung Baru, 50300 Kuala Lumpur, Open daily: 6AM – 12PM, 5PM – 1AM).
If you are willing to head out to Petaling Jaya (around 30 minutes drive from downtown), the undisputed most popular place for nasi lemak is Village Park Nasi Lemak (5, Jalan SS 21/37, Damansara Utama, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Open daily: 6:30AM to 7:30PM).
After you walking tour of Kampung Baru, head to Publika for a nice contrast. This sprawling shopping mall differs from the ones you find in Bukit Bintang in the sense that it specializes in independent brands and food outlets. You’ll find plenty of hipster cafes here as well. Places to check out include Coffeestain by Joseph, Coffee Societe and Namoo.
In the late afternoon, head to KLCC to check out Aquaria KLCC, the educational and family-friendly oceanarium located mere minutes from the Petronas Towers. This 5,600 sqm complex features several zones showcasing the rich marine life in Malaysian waters. The highlight here is the 90 meter underwater tunnel where you can see sharks, manta rays and other underwater creatures as they gather above and beside you (you can get discounted tickets here).
From Aquaria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur’s most iconic attraction is a mere 5 minute walk through either a well-manicured park or underground tunnel. The best time to admire the Petronas Towers is during sunset (for KL this usually happens between 7PM to 7:15PM). It’s also possible to go up to the building’s observation deck (you can book here for discounted tickets plus free pick-up within any KL city location). My personal pick for the best view of Petronas Towers is from the Skybar of Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur.
Day 3 – Bangsar, Thean Hou Temple, KL Tower
The quieter neighborhood of Bangsar is one of the city’s trendiest with its mix of bars, restaurants and hipsters cafes. Start your day with a cup of coffee at Transparent Coffee (daily 8AM to 5PM), one of the most atmospheric cafes in the area with its hanging ferns and entrance decked with a huge round metallic object. They serve some good breakfast items as well including their sourdough with varying dips and my preferred baguettes – the steak baguette is a good option.
Bangsar has a host of interesting restaurants that it is entirely possible to spend the whole day restaurant / cafe hopping as most places offer not just a feast for the tummy but for the eyes as well. To round up your morning, you can also check out other places such as Pulp (daily 7:30AM to 10PM) and Podgy Kurau (daily except Tues, 9AM to 8PM).
For matcha lovers, there is Niko Neko Matcha (daily except Monday, 12PM to 7PM) which has become something of a local institution where matcha is concerned as they supply green tea to a few other cafes in the city. Even those who are used to matcha cafes in other countries will find the assortment here quite unique. Aside from the usual matcha and matcha lattes, one can also have a sip at matcha mocktails (think matcha infused with various fruit juices) and matcha desserts. The white minimalist interior of this unassuming upstairs joint makes it one of the highlights of a visit to Bangsar.
Close to Bangsar is the Thean Hou Temple, a place of worship dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The architecture here is relatively intricate, with ornate carvings in each hall and pavilion. While temples of this sort are common throughout Southeast Asia, I have yet to see one which exceeds this in terms of detail. It is especially photogenic during the period around Chinese new year and the Mid-autumn festival when hundreds of lanterns would be strung across the complex.
Before leaving Kuala Lumpur, make sure to check out the KL Tower or Menara Kuala Lumpur (daily 9AM to 10PM). While it is definitely possible to catch views of the city’s skyline from many hotels, a visit to this tower is definitely still recommended and that’s primarily because of its sky box. A visual feast for those seeking instagram-worthy shots, the sky box is essentially a glass cage that extends out of the observation deck of the tower. The glass construction (floor, wall, ceiling) gives the feeling of being suspended in mid-air and is definitely not for acrophobes. I visited on a weekend and found the queue of people going up to the observation deck / sky deck to clear up pretty fast. However, once up there, you’ll get a separate queue number for the sky box and that can take up about a 1 to 1.5 hour wait. You can buy discounted tickets here.
If you are heading to Penang, check out this suggested itinerary for Penang.
Day Trips From Kuala Lumpur
If you have more days to spare in and around Kuala Lumpur, you may also want to check out these places:
- Putrajaya – The administrative capital of Malaysia, Putrajaya is a modern (albeit, relatively empty) city filled with palatial structures including some impressive government and religious buildings. The city is around 35 minutes away from Kuala Lumpur and is on the way if you are heading to the airport.
- Ipoh– The sleepy city in Perak is known for its charming shophouses, colonial architecture, nationally renowned cuisine and numerous limestone hills. The place is well worth a day trip or even a night or two.
- Genting Highlands – A popular place for locals and tourists to cool off from the punishing heat of the lowlands, Genting Highlands is home to casinos, theme parks and hotels.
- Melaka – A UNESCO World Heritage Site along the vein of Penang, Melaka is around 1.5 hours away from Kuala Lumpur and features plenty of historical buildings, popular eats, museums and night markets. If you do plan to visit, stay at least one night to fully appreciate the town.
- Seremban – A relatively off-the-radar destination from Kuala Lumpur, Seremban is home to Malaysia’s Minangkabau community. The curved roofs of the city museum and the intriguing architectural style of the royal state capital, Sri Menanti, attest to this.
Getting to Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is accessible from most Asian capitals, often with no need to do a transit. When visiting Kuala Lumpur or Malaysia in general, I typically try booking AirAsia flights as the airline usually has the most number of flights to the city. Alternatively, you can also search here for the cheapest flights.
Getting From KLIA to City
KLIA Ekspres (Airport Train)
The fast KLIA Ekspres trains take you from the airport to the city (KL Sentral) in as little as 28 minutes. Tickets cost MYR 55 but you can purchase here for a 12% discount. There are departures every 15 to 20 minutes. If you arrive during rush hours like between 8AM to 9AM in the morning or 5PM to 7:30PM in the evening, it’s advisable to take the train to avoid the traffic jams.
Taxis / Airport Transfers
In contrast, a ride via GRAB costs between MYR 80 to 100 depending on the time of day, excluding toll fees. Alternatively, you can book for private airport transfers here at a standard rate of MYR 75 regardless of the time of day and also inclusive of toll fees.
A relatively cheap way to get from the airport to city is via the airport bus. It costs MYR 12 for a one-way ticket from the airport and you get dropped off at KL Sentral but be prepared for a 1+ hour ride! You can book bus tickets here.
While Kuala Lumpur’s public transport system underwent a massive upgrade recently with the opening of their MRT, I typically get around via a ride-sharing app like Grab. Thanks to petrol subsidies, fares in Kuala Lumpur are among the cheapest in Southeast Asia. Hops within Kuala Lumpur itself, for instance, will set you back by only MYR 5 – 15 typically.
Where to Stay in Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is one of the most affordable major city to stay in luxury hotels so why not live it up a bit and stay somewhere nicer? Here, it’s very well possible to stay in a 5-star property with a US$100 per night budget. You can get a good 3-star hotel with US$40 and 4-star accommodations for about US$75.
Hilton Kuala Lumpur – Personally one of my favorite places to stay in the city, this hotel stands close to KL Sentral which makes airport connections a breeze. Rooms are recently furnished and there are plenty of food options here. The Japanese (Iketeru), Chinese (Chynna) and Western (Graze) options are all exceptional.
W Kuala Lumpur – This trendy hotel stands just next to the Petronas Towers. You can’t get any nearer than this! Rooms are spacious and come in W’s trademark bold colors.