You might get more roti for your ringgit in Kuala Lumpur than in many other big Asian capitals, but who doesn’t love a freebie? There are plenty of worthwhile attractions in Malaysia's buzzing capital that won’t cost travellers a single sen.
Join a walking tour
Slip on some comfortable shoes and take in Kuala Lumpur’s essential sights on foot. Potential trails include the colonial heart of the capital, Merdeka Square; Kampung Baru, a green Malay village within the metropolis; and Brickfields, KL’s vibrant Indian district. Free walking tours are available for each of these parts of the city (usually run by KL City Hall; visitkl.gov.my) – just remember to tip your guide.
Visit KL’s most underrated museum
While the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum & Art Gallery may not sound enthralling, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Situated within the Central Bank of Malaysia’s Centre of Learning Excellence, the interactive displays and exhibitions charting the nation’s role in the global economy, along with the Central Bank’s striking art collection, are well worth perusing.
Find sanctuary in KL’s green spaces
KL Forest Eco Park – also known as Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve – is a patch of partly indigenous rainforest in an unlikely location at the bottom of the Menara KL tower. Visitors can explore its nine hectares of jungle via trails, and the 200m-high canopy walk is an exciting way to remove yourself from the bustle of the city.
Another peaceful spot is Lake Perdana at Perdana Botanical Garden. The man-made lake amid a 92-hectare nature haven is an idyllic place to relax, surrounded by immaculate gardens where tropical and medicinal plants thrive. Free guided walks of the gardens take place from 8am-10am on weekdays.
Finally, KLCC Park is the perfect setting to chill at sunset and gaze upwards as the majestic Petronas Towers begin to glow. The 20-hectare park in the heart of the capital is home to 1900 species of plant life, as well as a jogging track, a paddling pool and Lake Symphony – a series of musical waterfalls that come to life twice daily.
Learn about crime-busting through the ages
The fascinating Royal Malaysian Police Museum chronicles the evolution of policing in Malaysia. More than 8000 artefacts are on display here, including historic uniforms, police boats, patrol vehicles and myriad weaponry – from knuckledusters to rifles. Gallery C presents some curious items that were recovered from police operations to bust organised crime outfits and secret societies.
Enjoy serenity in KL’s places of worship
Masjid Jamek is a visually striking mosque, admired for its distinctive Indo-Saracenic design features. Surrounded by palm trees, it’s a magnificent edifice to explore and an important icon of KL, where around 46% of the population is Muslim. Remember to dress modestly and remove your shoes when entering the building.
The temples of KL’s Chinatown may appear understated compared to those in Penang, but they're impressive nonetheless. There’s Guandi (or Kuan Ti), a busy yet beautiful red-columned temple dedicated to the Taoist god of war; Guan Yin, a colourful fusion of European baroque and oriental styles; and Chan She Shu Yuen, with elaborate terracotta friezes depicting Chinese mythology.
Finally, travel 13km north of the capital to reach awe-inspiring Batu Caves, a series of iconic limestone landforms that have come to house Hindu shrines. The main cave is free to visit, and the psychedelic Ramayana Cave is only RM2, and well worth forking out for. The 272-step climb at the cave’s entrance – past the gigantic golden statue of Hindu deity Lord Murugan – offers a sensational vista across the city.
Admire eclectic Malaysian architecture, old and new
Merdeka Square (or Independence Square) is surrounded by attractive colonial buildings that tell tales of Malaysia’s past. The stunning Sultan Abdul Samad Building dominates the square, and exemplifies British Raj era architecture with its arched balconies and domed turrets. Look out for the 100m-high flag pole that proudly marks the spot where the Malay flag was first raised in 1885 to signify the nation’s independence from British rule.
Also located on Merdeka Square is KL City Gallery (klcitygallery.com). Its exhibitions give an overview of KL's history, its attractions, as well as its diverse architecture – a miniature model of the Petronas Towers lights up, glittering just like the real cityscape does at night.
To see a slightly more humble colonial remnant, pay a visit to the headquarters of national heritage society, Badan Warisan Malaysia. Here you’ll find a 1920s stilt bungalow that formerly housed British officers – its carved teak walls and wooden shutters are a stark contrast to the neighbouring steel skyscrapers.
Peruse national artwork and traditional crafts
Housed in a grandiose Mughal-style building off Merdeka Square, the National Textiles Museum is worth popping in to. The rich embroidery and tapestries present motifs from a cross-section of Malaysian regions as well as beautiful examples of traditional clothing from headdresses to chastity belts. Visitors can also learn about the origins of batik, tie-dye and block printing in Malaysia, and how these methods have developed over centuries.
Finally, the tiny Art House Gallery Museum of Ethnic Arts in KL’s Central Market Annexe has the feeling of an attic full of treasures. Claiming to be the first privately-owned ‘mini-museum’ for Malaysian artwork, it is a great place to educate yourself on the rich and varied artistic styles of the nation. There are also pieces sourced from the Indonesian archipelago, some of which share similarities with artwork from Borneo. The gallery is full of dream-like watercolours, tribal print tapestries and other curious crafts, making it a delightfully colourful finale to your budget tour of KL.