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What to see and do in Kuala Lumpur?

A few suggestions for sites to see in Malaysia's capital city of KL.

As with Malaysia as a whole, its capital Kuala Lumpur – more commonly abbreviated to simply KL – does manage to live up to Tourism Malaysia’s marketing slogan ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ with its rich ethnic mix including many of the myriad various Indian and Chinese cultures along with indigenous Malay, while Indonesian and Thai influences also abound. Their blurb goes on to list ‘mind-blowing’ destinations and while we’d hesitate to go quite that far, our following, personal suggestions for things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur certainly include enough fascinating and fun sites to keep anyone occupied for a couple of days.

With the World Heritage sites of Penang (George Town) and Melaka, (Malacca) within easy reach, the delightful Perhentian Islands or Langkawi a short domestic flight away and Malaysia’s Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak beckoning 2 or 3 days is usually as much as most visitors can allow for the capital. Our things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur suggestions then are far from exhaustive and, with the exception of Batu Caves, we’re limiting our list to a few downtown favourites within easy reach of each other.

What to see and do in Kuala Lumpur
Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur

The compact, centrally located area of KL bordered by Jalan Sultan to the east and south, Jalan Pudu to the north and Jalan Tun H S Lee to the west is commonly referred to as Chinatown. Petaling Street forms the main drag and focus of the vibrant collection of street markets, cafes, restaurants and bars. In the daytime, you can roam the streets – check out some of the fabulous street art, atmocpheric temples and surviving period architecture – while come the evening it’s time to find a well-placed terrace with a chilled juice or local beer, sample some of the fantastic array of food and street food on offer and just watch Chinatown go by. The area is busy and bustling but the locals are friendly and laid back so this vibrant area would also be our choice for accommodation.

Merdeka Square

From Chinatown, it’s a short walk, via the old Central Market and Klang River Bridge to what was the heart of colonial KL, Merdeka Square. This features the spectacular Victorian architecture of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building – former British government offices – opposite which lies the mock Tudor buildings of the Royal Selangor Club as well as the 1895 St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral. In between is Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, the former Selangor Club cricket pitch where the Malaysian flag was first raised on independence at midnight on 31 August 1957.

Petronas Towers

We can’t go far on this list without mentioning the iconic Petronas Towers. When the twin towers were finished in 1998 they were the tallest buildings in the world and at just short of 500m they are visible from pretty much anywhere in downtown KL. A skydeck is open to the public and while the $10.45 entry ticket could be worse, tickets per day are limited and issued on a first come first served basis so on a busy day you may be disappointed, and on most days you can queue for a while. Yes, on a clear day, the view is stupendous but it does depend on how much time you have to spare. (Our favourite view is at night time from ground level but more on that later.)

Chinatown street art
Chinatown street art
National Museum

As a history buff, the National Museum – or Muzium Negara – is high on our personal list. A location close to the picturesque Perdana Botanical Gardens means a visit can be combined with the Gardens while if you’re in Merdeka Square it’s a short hop by taxi. The exhibits cover the full span of Malaysian history from the Peninsula’s prehistoric period up until the present day so you’ll need to allow time. Time restraints mean we’d usually skip it on a standard KL day tour but, if you have a second day in town, it’s certainly worth bearing in mind.

Perdana Botanical Gardens

The aforementioned Gardens lie between Merdeka Square to the northeast and the Museum to the south so, together, the sites would form a varied and rewarding half-day walking tour. The extensive and picturesque gardens offer some much-appreciated greenery and a break from the traffic in downtown KL and while they also include a bird park, (said to be Southeast Asia’s largest) and the KL Butterfly Park, plentiful hiking trails in the park mean you ought to be able to spot quite a few of both anyway.

Jamek Mosque

Or Sultan Abdul Samad Jamek Mosque to give it its full name, has in our opinion the most spectacular architecture of KL’s mosques and a convenient location just north of Merdeka Square make it a shoo-in on any Kuala Lumpur walking tour. Unlike many city mosques, it’s also open to non-worshippers so a half-hour guided tour is certainly worthwhile although, if time is short, some of our favourite views are of the exterior.

Petronas Towers at night from the Saloma Bridge, Kampong Baru
Petronas Towers at night from the Saloma Bridge, Kampong Baru
Kampung Baru

Despite a location close to the foot of the ultra-modern Petronas Towers, the area known as Kampung Baru has somehow managed to preserve a traditional-style, village, neighbourhood feel. (Kampung means village.) This is what most of KL would have looked like 100 years ago. The area today is something of a foodie destination so the best time to visit is the evening when the main drag is lined with local-style restaurants and street food vendors. The short walk from the Kampong Baru train station also passes by the Saloma Bridge which has both its own light show and the Petronas Towers as a backdrop. (Our favourite view and one that many visitors miss.) Not sure how long this downtown oasis will last so you’re probably better off visiting sooner rather than later.

Batu Caves

Last but not least are the spectacular Batu Caves. They are situated in what are today KL’s northern suburbs but are easily and comfortably reached by a rail link from the city centre and, in our opinion, well worth the time to get there. Exiting the train station the first thing you’ll see is a near 45m tall statue of Skanda, the Hindu god of war. The figure is locally known as Murugan – the Tamil name for the deity – as the site is of particular religious significance to the Indian community.

Behind the giant Muragan are the 272 steps leading to the caves, located halfway up the limestone cliffs. There are tea shops at the bottom so worst case scenario, grab a cuppa, admire the view, and check out your travelling companion’s photos once they’ve walked back down.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Batu Caves
Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves

These are just a few suggestions for what to see and do in Kuala Lumpur and fit comfortably into 2-day tours and 2 evenings but also worth mentioning in dispatches – if you do have more time to spare – are the following. Little India; lacks the vibrant street life of Chinatown but certainly has a wide choice of excellent Indian restaurants while the Islamic Arts Museum (Malaysia) gets very good reviews and has another convenient location.

Note that our standard Kuala Lumpur tour, on our Peninsula Malaysia tours, allows a day and a half plus two evenings and covers most of the above list although if you do have another day to spare – or perhaps flight connections oblige – then so much the better. There’s plenty to see and the city’s cheap and easy to get around.