Dominated by a modern skyline that houses the well-known, and quite impressive, Petronas Towers, Malaysia's capital city Kuala Lumpur is a metroplitan city and a true melting pot of cultures. Here, Chinese, Indian & Malay groups have lived together (mostly in harmony) for generations and that cultural mix can be seen in the architecture, the incredible wealth of food, and the people. Memories of a colonial past are evident as you walk the sultry streets of Kuala Lumpur as is the predominately Muslim presence, with Islamic details and elaborate mosques on many streets. Eating and shopping are perhaps the hallmark of KL life, with the scene ranging from hawker stalls and street markets to fine dining establishments and megalithic malls. I'm going to be honest, I didn't love KL. It seems like a place you stop over for a couple days, rather than stay for any extended period of time, but visit and make your own opinion, perhaps something will speak to you.
THINGS TO KNOW
Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia as a whole are Muslim. Although the expectations imposed on foreigners are less stringent than those for the locals, try to dress a bit more modestly and avoid public displays of affection. Nothing will happen to you if you don't do this, but you may get unwanted stares and attention.
Pretty much everyone in Malaysia speaks English. More often than not you will be greeted in English.
The airport is FAR, approximately an hour in normal conditions to/from the city center. There are also two terminals, KLIA & KLIA2. Although they are somewhat close, they are different airports, so make sure to plan accordingly.
With its tropical hot, humid climate, walking in Kuala Lumpur can be uncomfortable. If the distance is more than 20 mins walking, I recommend grabbing an UBER, or even better in my KL experiences, GRAB (another Uber like car service). Kuala Lumpur also has a monorail system that is reliable, and often a better option during peak traffic hours.
WHERE TO STAY
The Face Suites - Apartments meet hotel at the Face Suites, fairly new residences with plenty of space and modern amenities. The best part of this hotel is the infinity pool on the roof with stunning views over the Kuala Lumpur skyline.
WHAT TO EAT
Merchant's Lane - One of a handful of establishments in Chinatown that have taken old, somewhat rundown buildings and turned them into rustic chic, hipster havens. Merchant's Lane is great for a hearty breakfast or lunch - I recommend the Kuli Eggs for breakfast or the beef stew for lunch. Coffee is tasty also!
Chocha Food Store & Botak Liquor Bar - Another of the above mentioned instagrammable places in Chinatown, Chocha Food Store is a former brothel turned multiroomed restaurant and courtyard. The color palette & tile all lend themselves to creating a cool, somewhat derelict environment. Upstairs, in the evenings, Botak Liquor opens for some tasty cocktails in a similarly well designed space.
Leaf & Co - The food is a bit meh here, but the coffee, especially the tea lattes make it worth a visit. The vibe is eclectic with a unique concrete block feature wall and various odds and ends around. They also have stable wifi and outlets, making it a good spot to get a few hours of work in.
VCR Cafe - The only acceptable avocado toast I have found thus far in South East Asia can be found at VCR cafe. Coupled with tasty coffee, wifi (can be spotty in the Bukit Bintang location), and plenty of seating, VCR is another good option for a working cafe. The Bangsar location has more stable wifi and the same menu.
Feeka - As it ended up being the closest cafe to my apartment, Feeka quickly became my go to place. With a menu of breakfast and lunch options, as well as coffee, cakes, wifi, and comfy seating, Feeka was probably glad to see me go at the end of the month. The staff is super friendly and greet you whenever you come in or leave. If you can handle humidity, there is a nice patio with tables and chairs as well.
Lokl - Cozy coffee shop with a handful of items for breakfast and lunch. I recommend their salads for a dose of freshness in an otherwise quite heavy food scene.
The Other Half - A bit out of the way in KL suburbia is The Other Half cafe, located on the second floor of an office building. Despite its rather unusual location, The Other Half is a large and beautiful space with high ceilings and a fun feature wall. The brunch-like options blend western and eastern flavors together and the coffee is equally good.
Agak Agak - Small, but cozy minimalist space in Bangsar serving homey local dishes. Their cakes are also quite good, so be sure to order something sweet as well. At peak hours it can be quite busy!
Pulp Coffee - Around the corner from Agak Agak (above), Pulp is a lovely wood covered cafe serving tasty brews and a handful of food items and cakes.
Annalakshmi - Housed in a cultural center, all the proceeds from the restaurant benefit the center. Although they have an extensive menu of indian classics, the buffet is your best option. On any given night there are some 15 vegetarian dishes supplemented by rice, naans and beverages for you to enjoy, all at the incredible price of 25 ringgit (roughly $6 at current exchange rates). One of the best value meals in KL!
Din Tai Fung - When you need a xiao long bao fix (in my case, once a week), look no further than Din Tai Fung located in the Pavilion Mall. This is one of the better locations of this global chain in my opinion and the prices are 1/3 of those of their USA counterparts. Don't miss the truffle xiao long bao.
Madras Lane Hawker Stall - You can't go to Malaysia without trying laksa, a spicy noodle soup dish. Laksa comes in many forms, but my personal favorite is curry laksa, distinguished by its use of coconut milk. If you stroll Madras Lane near Petaling Street, the middle street stall was my favorite spot for Curry Laksa. Expect to overheat rapidly and bring cash!
Toriden - Located on the 4th floor of Isetan (the Japan Store - it's totally gorgeous, go!), Toriden is where you go for high end Japanese style hot pot. They are known for their chicken hot pot, but they have a variety of other dishes to sample as well.
Hong Kong Hot Pot - The more everyday hot pot place in Bangsar with a variety of soup bases including two vegetarian options. Simply check off the ingredients you'd like and cook away.
The Dungeon Food Court - Located below the Lot 10 shopping mall in Bukit Bintang is the mother of all food courts. You can find pretty much any type of asian food down here and the quality is significantly better than what you can find in other malls.
Isabel - Opened days before my departure from KL, Isabel is a charming, modern restaurant serving classic malaysian dishes with a modern bent. The space features striking black & white tile floors, soft tones, and plenty of plants. They also happen to have the best wine selection I found in KL as well as the best cappucino I had in KL.
Hawker Stalls / Street Food - In general, some of the best food I ate in Kuala Lumpur was on the street. Street food is abundant and can virtually be found all over the city. I can't give you specific locations, but do yourself a favor and get out on the street to sample the local favorites. Some things to try are grilled skewers, roti canai for breakfast, claypot chicken and rice, coconut ice cream, fruit, and so much more! If you smell something weird, it's probably durian. Walk away.
WHAT TO DO
Immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of Chinatown with a visit to Petaling street and the surrounding area. A variety of goods and foods are for sale, so spend some time perusing the offerings and DO bargain. If you're looking for higher quality knock off bags than what you're seeing on the streets, ask a vendor to see their "upstairs room."
See where Kuala Lumpur was founded. Kuala Lumpur translates to "muddy confluence," where the Klang & Gombak rivers meet. Today, the confluence is best seen at night when the river and its fountains are illuminated in blue lights.
Get your exercise in. There are a variety of hikes one can do in and around KL to work off all the food you will inevitably be eating. Some recommended hikes are Bukit Nanas, Bukit Gasing, or Bukit Tabur.
Visit the National Mosque of Malaysia to better understand the primary religion of Malaysia and how it differs from Islam in other countries.
Nerd out (like I did) on detailed models of mosques around the world at the Islamic Arts Museum. The museum is moderately sized and can be visited in a couple hours. They also have a restaurant on site that serves a tasty lunch.
Enjoy the Orchid Garden in the Botanical Garden. The garden also has nice views overlooking the city from a distinct angle.
Be bougie with an Afternoon Tea at the Majestic Hotel. The hotel offers several rooms to enjoy the tea service in, but I found the Orchid Conservatory to be particularly special. Afternoon Tea with both hot and cold bites, scones, and cakes is $26/person. Be sure to reserve in advance.
Shop till you drop. Literally. If not from endless walking, from getting lost so many times in the massive structures that house most of the malls in Kuala Lumpur.
Smile at monkeys holding their babies at the Batu Caves. In a limestone outcropping, a series of caves and temples can be visited after ascending a series of stairs. Dress appropriately for a temple. (Note: *I personally wasn't wowed by this place, but others in my group were, so do your own research*)
Stand under the architecturally impressive Petronas Towers. Completed in 1996, the Petronas Towers were once the tallest building in the world, but still remain the tallest twin towers in the world. Designed by Cesar Pelli and built in the postmodern style, the towers are striking and dominate the skyline from many vantage points.
Photo by Stephen Walsh
Get out of the city and hike the not-so-secret Secret Waterfall at the Chilling Fish Sanctuary. Wear shoes you don't mind getting wet as you will cross the river 5-6 times (about knee height, sometimes higher depending on the season and recent rains). The walk is not overly strenuous and can be done by most anyone, with maybe a bit of extra help for children at the river crossings. Wear a bathing suit so you can take a swim at the end!