Split across two different land masses, Malaysia instantly poses a dilemma. Do you visit Peninsular Malaysia, which borders Thailand to the north and Singapore down south? Or do you head across the South China Sea to Borneo – a jungly island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Kingdom of Brunei? 

Good news: both sides of Malaysia have soft sandy beaches and snorkel-worthy coves, though Malaysian Borneo has superior access to marine life. Borneo is also the best pick for jungle trekking, though you can explore national parks and hilly hiking terrain across Peninsular Malaysia, too – like Taman Negara and the Cameron Highlands. Many parks and beauty spots are almost on top of the cities, making Peninsular Malaysia an excellent choice for families who want to spot hornbills by day, but bed down in modern comfort.

Peninsular Malaysia is also where you'll find the buzz. Gastronomes, shoppers and museum hounds can enjoy their fill in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, food-forward Penang and cultural jigsaw Melaka. Plot your own path with a little help from our list of the best places to go in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur is the best place to go for a whirlwind tour 

If you have grand ambitions but limited time, head to Kuala Lumpur. Parts of KL feel like a quintessential capital city, with chic shopping malls (like Pavilion KL and Suria KLCC), a competitive cocktail scene and a sci-fi skyline – the Petronas Towers rise up like twin rockets, while Menara KL glows like a futuristic lighthouse (head to the 300m-high (984ft) sky deck for an expansive view). But KL offers more than fast-paced urban commotion. 

KL's city swagger comes accompanied by nature and history, courtesy of time-worn temples, kopitiam (traditional coffee houses), and rainforests almost side by side with high-rise buildings. Places of worship like scarlet multi-story Thean Hou Temple and ornate Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad inspire contemplation and wonder.

If you're looking for places to visit in Malaysia in three days, KL has day-trip potential, too. Listen to birdsong at KL Forest Eco Park, picnic by a waterfall at the Forest Research Institute; and less than an hour's drive away is Mah Meri Cultural Village, where you can immerse yourself in indigenous Orang Asli art and history. 

A solo hiker stands on a rope bridge over a river in the jungle
Mulu National Park offers several hiking routes to choose from © stockstudioX / Getty Images

Encounter pristine nature in Gunung Mulu National Park

Remarkably rocky, tremendously old and a theater for eye-popping natural spectacles, Gunung Mulu is arguably Malaysia's best national park. Between Gunung Mulu (2376m/7795ft) and Gunung Api (1710m/5610ft) are old-growth forests, limestone pinnacles and deep caves, home to millions of bats that take flight every twilight – watch the drama unfold at Deer Cave

Where to begin exploring? DIY experiences include the Mulu canopy walk (a suspended ladder through the treetops), an easy ramble to Paku Waterfall or the Botanical Heritage Loop Trail.

If you have tough hiking boots and even tougher endurance, book a guide and tackle the three-day Pinnacles trek. The climbs are steep, but you'll be rewarded by panoramic views of dense jungle spiked with fins of limestone. 

Penang is the top destination for food, drink and sensory pleasures

Penang's foodie status is uncontested. Travelers flock from across Malaysia (and beyond) to experience Gurney Drive's seafood restaurants, slurp Penang laksa at Lorong Baru Hawker Stalls, and follow their noses to barbecued seafood at the Chew Jetties. But even beyond the sizzle of char kway teow (rice noodles with prawns, eggs and more), Penang can tickle your senses.

Inhale the tang of 500 herbs and aromatics at Tropical Spice Garden. Listen to the chatter of macaques at Penang National Park, the country's smallest. Gawp at the architectural splendor of Khoo Kongsi clubhouse and the intricately carved Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Alternatively, get bang up to date with contemporary art at Hin Bus Station.  

Tip for timing your visit: Penang is one of the best places to visit in Malaysia in December, when the west coast enjoys good weather while winds batter the east. 

Kuching is the perfect urban-jungle mash-up

We hear the dilemma: you want access to nature without committing to a tent in the jungle. And you want to experience the buzz of a Malaysian city without the high-octane hubbub of KL. Kuching, the capital of Bornean state Sarawak, is your happy medium. 

Kuching is a launchpad to Borneo's glorious wilderness. From here, you can easily meet orangutans at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, or day-trip to Bako National Park to look for bearded pigs and proboscis monkeys.

But before stepping beyond the city limits, let Kuching work its charms. Stroll the waterfront promenade, where you can see views of Kuching's architectural treasury: the Astana (palace) and its trim gardens, the State Assembly and the swirling Darul Hana pedestrian bridge. Admire Chinese temples, browse the weekend market and learn the history of Sarawak's White Rajas at hilltop Fort Margherita

Tourists sit on a beach at dusk. The sand is white and the sea is turquoise. Lanterns have been lit as the light starts to fade.
Long Beach on the Perhentian Islands hosts parties that go on late into the night © John Harper / Getty Images

Pulau Perhentian are the best islands for sunshine and snorkeling

Mentioning the Perhentians to Malaysian people elicits a longing smile. The Perhentian Islands are synonymous with brilliant beaches and marine life, plus there's a party scene to keep beach bums dancing until the wee hours. The trick is to find your perfect beach.

Searching for spectacular sunsets? Head to Coral Bay. Green turtles? The turtle project on Main Beach. Late-night beach parties? Long Beach. There are numerous beaches where you can go sea kayaking and snorkel among parrotfish and giant clams; hardened divers can go deeper to visit wrecks and commune with clownfish, reef sharks and stingrays. Time your visit for dry season between March and October (but avoid July, when crowds reach their peak).  

Melaka is a cultural smorgasbord 

Nowhere in Malaysia is the tumult of past colonial rule felt more strongly than in port cities, and Melaka is emblematic of this cultural collision.

Melaka is perched on Peninsular Malaysia's west coast, and successive colonists (Portuguese, Dutch, British) vied for control over this trading port and maritime waystation. Today, Melaka harbors a number of variegated food cultures, a hodge-podge of architecture and alluring night markets.

Glimpse Portuguese history by clambering aboard the replica Flor de la Mar ship and sampling baked fish at Medan Portugis. Time-travel forward to Dutch rule by touring the Stadthuys (now a history museum) and salmon-pink Christ Church. Other cornerstones of history are "China Hill" cemetery and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) mansions, notably the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum

Melaka's multidimensional cultures have helped fuel a roaring tourist trade. Colorful trishaws offer joyrides and history tours, while Jonker Walk Night Market is the evening's entertainment, offering everything from open-air karaoke to nibbling on Nyonya zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings).

Take refreshing upland hikes in the Cameron Highlands

Malaysia's most famous hill stations snooze among the vivid green tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Temperatures seldom stray higher than 30°C (86°F), attracting locals and tourists alike to cool off in these 4265ft to 6000ft (1300m to 1829m) heights. Many folks pick strawberries at Raaju's Hill or make a beeline (sorry) for the honey farm – but there are more authentic natural encounters in the Camerons. 

Take a guided hike with Eco Cameron to marvel at orchids and hunt for the whopping rafflesia flower. You can also go alone: numbered hiking trails extend right from main towns Brinchang and Tanah Rata (ask locally about trail safety, as robberies have been reported on some routes). Inevitably, you'll reward your outdoor exertions by sipping a cup of tea (or three) at a plantation. Boh Sungei Palas has some of the best views, with Boh Tea Garden a close second. 

A narrow old street with red Chinese-style paper lanterns strung between the buildings. Two figures are walking away from the camera
Ipoh attracts many day trippers from Kuala Lumpur but is not visited as much by international travelers © simonlong / Getty Images

Ipoh is Malaysia's best unsung destination

To Malay people, Ipoh is deservedly famous. For one, Ipoh's sweet, creamy white coffee is legendary. The town is the capital of Perak, a region of past tin-mining wealth that spawned colonial follies like Kellie's Castle. Then there are the regional delicacies – chicken bean sprouts, bean curd pudding – that bring KL day trippers piling into Ipoh eateries. 

But for international travelers, Ipoh has remained firmly off the map – overlooked on the rush between KL and Penang. So if you're looking for unique places to visit in Malaysia, buck the trend and head to Ipoh. Its hilly outskirts are jeweled with cave temples; statue-studded Sam Poh Tong has a crimson pavilion secreted away among the limestone cliffs. In town, street art by famed Lithuanian muralist Ernest Zacharevic splashes the walls, shophouses on once-notorious Concubine Lane retain their antique flavor, and the train station has attracted the nickname Taj Mahal (you be the judge). 

Tioman Island is the best place to unwind

Picture it: palm trees and hibiscus flowers swaying in the sea breeze, and perhaps a sea breeze cocktail making its way into your hand as you settle in at a bar. This 52.5 sq mi (136 sq km) island begs you to unwind, embrace a slower pace and maybe get that tie-dye T-shirt.

Your only burden? Picking a village where you can settle down, uncrick your neck and maybe catch a wave or two. Kampung Juara is the best surf spot, with two wide, sandy beaches, plenty of places offering board and kayak hire, and, better yet, a turtle sanctuary on Mentawak Beach. Kampung Salang is backpacker central, with access to popular shores like white-sand Monkey Beach and occasional beach parties. To feel far from the beaten track, head to tucked-away villages like quiet, traditional Kampung Mukut. But wherever you sling your rucksack, make time for marine encounters. Tioman has extensive coral reefs (and abundant manta rays), and March to October is prime time for divers.

This article was first published Feb 23, 2022 and updated Jan 29, 2024.

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