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Kuala Lumpur (KL) was my home for many years. I visit KL several times a year and I always have a great time. KL is a fascinating city that is constantly on the move. It offers stunning architecture, an amazing array of cuisines, a broad variety of shopping and an exciting and varied nightlife. Anyone planning to spend some time in Southeast Asia should have KL on their itinerary.
The first major landmark anyone visiting KL will see is the Petronas twin towers. They certainly dominate the skyline, and though they are no longer the tallest buildings in the world (they still are the tallest twin towers), they are simply breathtaking, and all the more so when they're lit up at night. They're located at the KL City Centre (KLCC), a development that includes the large Suria shopping centre at the base of the towers, an expansive park, several hotels (including the Mandarin Oriental), the Aquaria, the KLCC Convention Centre and several other office and condominium towers. It's possible to walk across the Sky bridge that connects the towers at the 47th floor - tickets are free but you'll have to go early (before 8:30am) as only 1200 people are allowed in each day and it's on a first-come-first-serve basis. An alternative is to visit Menara KL (KL Tower). At 420m, the tower is shorter than the twin towers but it is situated on a hill, making it possible to have an eye-to-eye view of the spires of the twin towers. A great time to visit is when the sun sets - the views of the city are truly stunning.
KL is not all about modern buildings and airconditioned shopping malls. It's fascinating to just take a stroll around the Merdeka Square/National Mosque(Masjid Negara)/Train Station area. The former central station, with its Moorish arcs and minarets is especially intriguing. Similar in architecture is the Sultan Abdul Samad building that faces the field at Merdeka Square. Close to the National Mosque, with its blue/green half-open umbrella-like dome, you'll find the Islamic Museum, which is also worth a visit. From the Merdeka Square area, walk into Jalan Hang Lekiu. At the bridge that crosses the Klang river, you'll have a great view of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, and of the wonderfully romantic Jamek Mosque, with its Mogul inspired architecture. In this area, look out for wonderful examples of Art Deco architecture from the pre-WWII era. At the other end of the bridge, turn right towards Central Market (which is a perfect stop for local handicrafts) and further to the colourful and eclectic Chinatown. Petaling Street is the place for fake designer bags and watches and you're expected to bargain. In Chinatown, you can also visit the Sri Mahamariamman temple, one of the largest Hindu temples in the city, and the Sze Ya temple, the city's oldest Buddhist temple.
Another street worth visiting for a feel of KL in the colonial times is Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman and its surroundings. Jalan TAR is also the place to go for fabrics, especially silk. The starting prices are usually quite steep so bargain! Stop for lunch at the Coliseum, a KL institution.
One of my favourite parts of the city is the Lake Gardens area. Enjoy an afternoon stroll under the canopy of trees while visiting the many parks in this area, such as the Hibiscus and Orchid Gardens, the Bird and Butterfly Parks (both recommended), and end the afternoon at the Carcosa Seri Negara (the former residence of the British Governor) with scones and tea!
If you have time for a day trip from KL, you can visit Shah Alam (the site of the impressive Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Azia Mosque, or the Blue Mosque), Malacca (Malaysia's oldest town, with its Portuguese fort, Dutch colonial buildings and many antique shops - in the 16th century, this town was the centre of a vast sultanate that encompassed large swathes of present-day Malaysia and Indonesia) and Putrajaya, Malaysia's new administrative capital. Just 45 minutes from KL, Putrajaya is a brand new, high-tech, beautifully planned city, and boasts stunning (eclectic) architecture (the main mosque, Palace of Justice and the Convention centre are my favourites), gigantic man-made lakes and gorgeous bridges.
Malaysian love to shop. I believe the favourite national pastime in the weekends is strolling through one of the many, many shopping malls. KL has loads of them. In the city centre, Suria KLCC (at the twin towers) and the Bukit Bintang/Jalan Imbi areas dominate the shopping scene. Suria KLCC is one of my favourites as there's a wide choice of labels and there's a Top Shop! At the Bukit Bintang area, you have a variety of malls such as the high-end Starhill, the mid-end Lot 10 and the wonderfully chaotic Sungei Wang (great bargains here for electronics)/Bukit Bintang Plaza. Starhill Gallery, with its upmarket boutiques (Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, etc..) is certainly worth visiting as it features a stylish interior and a variety of some of the best restaurants in KL. Opposite Starhill is the Pavilion, a ginormous mall with more designer boutiques and a stunning atrium. Not far from Sungei Wang, there's another massive mall: Berjaya Time Square which features Cosmo World, Malaysia's largest indoor themepark(!).
If you're still not done with shopping, then head to the Mid Valley City Megamall, about a 15 minute drive outside the city centre. This mall is possibly Southeast Asia's largest - I believe it's about a mile long. The serious shopper can definitely spend a day or two there. Next door, shoppers can continue to splurge at The Gardens, a brand new, up-market mall with a whole range of designer boutiques and ditto restaurants (check out the beautiful Chinoz).
The major suburbs all have their own shopping malls. In the Damansara suburb, there are several major shopping malls such as One Utama (another massive mall around the same size as the Megamall) and The Curve. In the swanky Bangsar suburb, there's the Bangsar Shopping Centre and the Bangsar Village (I & II). And Subang Jaya has its Subang Parade.
For those who are more into alfresco shopping, head for Petaling Street in Chinatown for souvenirs and the latest (fake) fashion accessories. Don't forget to bargain furiously!
One last note, the shopaholics in Malaysia go crazy three times a year (March, August and December) - that's when the Mega Sales are held. All shopping malls will be packed with bargain-hunters. During these periods, unless you're a die-hard, avoid the main shopping malls during lunch time, weekends and in the evenings. Best time to go is before noon.
If Malaysians' favourite pastime is shopping, then they certainly live to eat. And I don't blame them. The multi-ethnic fabric of the population translates into a staggering array of ethnic and cross-ethnic cuisines, and that's not counting the 'imports' such as Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc..., and the fusion stuff (Western-style Malaysian, Malaysian-style Western, Western-style Thai, you get the picture!).
As a tourist, you should not miss the delicious Malaysian satay (chicken, mutton or beef on a skewer and grilled on a charcoal bed and served with a spicy peanut sauce), nasi lemak (fragrant rice served with dried anchovies, a spicy curry, roasted peanuts and cucumber), Penang fried kueh teow (fried flat noodles with shrimp and egg), Hainanese chicken rice (fragrant rice with steamed chicken), roti canai (fried pancake served with curry) and curry laksa (noodles with chicken or shrimp in a spicy coconut milk broth).
The best places to enjoy these popular Malaysian dishes are at the hawker stalls, coffee shops or at the food courts of shopping malls. Jalan Alor (in the Bukit Bintang area) and Petaling Street (Chinatown) are the most popular hawker centres. I can also recommend the food courts at Lot 10 and Suria KLCC. Other recommended places to try these local favourites include the Madam Kwan chain of restaurants (in Bangsar, Suria KLCC and Megamall) and the Little Penang chain (Megamall, Suria KLCC, The Curve).
The abundance of excellent Western restaurants has really taken off in recent years. One of my favourite Italian restaurants is Nero Vivo, a cozy place with excellent and reasonably-priced food, at Jalan Ceylon (near the Bukit Bintang area). Just down the road from Nero Vivo is another of my favourites, Frangipani, which has an uber-trendy interior and wonderful contemporary French/Italian cuisine.Opposite the KLCC is another of my favourites, sevenatenine (789), located at the Ascott Hotel. Great food, slick loungy interior, and stunning views of the twin towers from the upper floor.
The Feast Village at the Starhill Gallery shouldn't be missed. The 'village' features a striking interior and consists of a variety of restaurants (Thai, Western, Chinese, seafood, Lebanese, Indian, etc..) which are connected by beautifully illuminated pathways. I can recommend Fisherman's Cove, which has a gorgeous Asian boat-like setting; and serves a staggering variety of seafood prepared in often ingenious ways. While you're there, check out Shook!, the Feast Vilage's anchor restaurant which boasts a stunning interior and truly impressive walk-in wine cellars. Shook! offers an extensive menu - they probably have the heaviest menus in town - and the dishes are prepared in one of the four open kitchens. Also at Starhill is possibly KL's best Japanese restaurant, Gonbei. Expect excellent food, a cozy decor, a wide selection of sakes and wines, and a bill to match.
Some of the five star hotels also have very noteworthy restaurants, such as Senses (exquisite Asian fusion) and Chynna (a very colourful Chinese) at the Hilton and Lafite (Western) at the Shangri-la.
The suburb of Bangsar (about 20mins from the city centre - outside rush hours) has an amazing variety of eateries ranging from hawker fare to fine-dining. For some great, cheap Indian food, head for Nirvana or Devi's. There's also the Telawi Bistro (Asian fusion), La Bodega (tapas and sangria), Cippola (authentic Italian cuisine at very reasonable prices), the Talk (fantastic Japanese tapas), Madam Kwan (Malaysian specialties), DeliCious (at Village II) and many more; all can be found in the Jalan Telawi area which is packed with restaurants, cafes and bars. Another of my personal favourites is Cava (located at the quiet Jalan Bangkung, away from the Telawi area), a Spanish restaurant that serves fabulous tapas and paella - I spotted Mel Gibson having dinner here once.
Closer to the city centre, there's the Heritage Row, which is a row of renovated colonial houses that now house a variety of restaurants and bars.
When KLites are not shopping to relax, they can be found at the many cafes with family/friends. There are three areas with an abundance of cafes (and which are great places to just watch people): the Suria KLCC (the outdoor cafes that face the park), Bintang Walk (the pedestrian area that stretches from Starhill Gallery to Lot 10) and the Jalan Telawi 2 area in the suburb of Bangsar. Bintang Walk is a great spot all day long while the Suria KLCC area is a good spot in the afternoons and weekends. Bangsar is especially interesting in the evenings and weekends.
KL has a throbbing nightlife though the venues are pretty spread out across the city and its suburbs. In the city centre, head for the Jalan P. Ramlee area, near KLCC. There is a great variety of restaurants, cafes and bars here, including the Beach Club (open-air bars and terraces), Poppy Collection (bar and lounge), Rum Jungle, Bar Mandalay/Passion and La Queen. Another bar I can recommend in this area is the Luna Bar, located atop the Menara (Tower) Pan-Global building. The bar has a swimming pool (!) and offers some pretty spectacular views of the twin towers and the city. In the vicinity, at Jalan Ampang, is Zouk, a large, futuristic-looking disco which is very popular in the weekends. Another place that offers fantastic views of the twin towers and the KL skyline is the Sky Bar at the top of the Traders Hotel at the KLCC.
Bukit Bintang is another popular area. My favourite is Frangipani's on Jalan Ceylon - the bar/lounge upstairs is especially busy in the weekends.
Bangsar has a multitude of bars and restaurants. In the Telawi area, you'll find among others, Absolute Chemistry, Bar Flam, Alexis and T Club.
The Hilton Hotel, located halfway between the city centre and Bangsar, has what is probably the city's current (September 2007) place-to-be: the ultra-trendy Zeta Bar, which features a black marble interior and flashy fibre-optic lighting.