Don’t sleep on the food scene in Kuala Lumpur. This Asian metropolis is one for the senses including your palate. Food stall-lined streets, markets with delicious snacks, and a lively nightlife scene put this Malaysian capital city on our list for places to eat.
We asked Kuala Lumpur-based food writer Yi Jun Loh to show you what to see and eat in Malaysia's capital city if you have just one day.
Hi, I’m Jun. I’ve been living and breathing food in Kuala Lumpur – the capital of my Malaysian motherland – for all of my 30 years. I write about Asian food for publications like Food52 and Saveur, run the Take a Bao podcast about food and routinely explore the nooks and crannies of my city – usually for the express purpose of eating good food. So I’m here to take you on a sensory explosion of a journey through my city.
Why you should visit Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is renowned for its lush rainforests, sandy beaches and divine dive spots – yet its bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur, a confluence of culture, metropolitan modernity and glorious, glorious food, might allure most. From modern mosques to decades-old hawker centers (Malaysian-Chinese food halls where many independent food carts gather), quaint museums to skyscraping architecture, nasi lemak to banana-leaf rice, the city is wildly, proudly multicultural, drawing from the best facets and flavors of disparate cultures, then blending them together into a stunning, lip-smacking city unlike any other.
Morning: A fiery breakfast, and a little sightseeing
Kick-start your day with a hearty breakfast of nasi lemak – the Malaysian national dish, made with coconut rice, sambal (a Southeast Asian hot sauce) and a flurry of condiments – at streetside eatery Nasi Lemak Tanglin. Go easy on the sambal if you can’t handle heat, but be sure to pile your plate full of meaty rendang (or curry).
With your belly full, take a short walk down the street to Masjid Negara (National Mosque). After taking in this majestic structure, built to commemorate Malaysia’s independence, make your way to the neighboring Islamic Arts Museum, home to one of Asia’s largest collections of artifacts, covering Islamic arts, history and the sciences. Immerse yourself in the museum’s neat exhibits, which showcase ancient mosque design and Ottoman ceramics, as well as its serene architecture and intricate ceramic tapestries.
Afternoon: A hawker-center lunch, and a mosey through Chinatown
As the day heats up, take a taxi or Grab (the local version of Uber) to Pasar Seni, also known as Central Market. What began in 1888 as a wet market is today filled with stalls and vendors selling snacks, traditional Malaysian batik apparel and artsy paraphernalia. Wander around the stalls under the market canopy before taking respite from the midday heat for lunch at one of the many nearby eateries.
You’re truly spoiled for choice here. There’s Sin Kiew Yee Shin Kee Beef Noodles; Old China Cafe for traditional Nyonya (Straits-Chinese) cuisine, consisting of intricately spiced stews and pie tees (crispy mini-tarts loaded with sautéed turnips and vegetables); or, a five-minute walk down Petaling St, ChoCha, a restaurant that puts a modern spin on Malaysian flavors and ingredients. While you’re in the area, don’t miss out on a photo op with the fun, Chinatown-themed murals and decor at Kwai Chai Hong (Little Ghost Ln), and get a lick of pandan – known as Asian vanilla – soft serve at Pandan Republic.
Evening: Towering heights, some shopping and…more delicious street food
Ride four stops of the Light Rail transit train (Pasar Seni station to KLCC station) or take a taxi to the Petronas Towers, the most iconic building on the KL skyline and the tallest twin towers in the world. Head up to the Skybridge before its 5:30pm close for a majestic view of the cityscape (look out for fellow giants the Menara KL, TRX and Merdeka 118 towers; the city has a penchant for one-upping itself with an ever-taller skyscraper every few years). After taking in the city’s beauty, lovers of retail therapy can take a mosey through Prada, Balenciaga and other international retailers at Suria KLCC, a mall built into the lower floors of the towers. Alternatively, for a breath of greenery amid the concrete jungle, take a stroll around the fountains and man-made lake of lovely KLCC Park.
If you’re tired from walking, have dinner at OpenHouse, an elevated restaurant set in the mall itself, featuring indigenous Malaysian ingredients like wild ferns and the truffle-like buah kulim. For a more affordable, on-the-ground dining experience, take a taxi to Jalan Alor (Alor St) and gorge yourself full on the hawker food available up and down the street. Eat your way through Chinese stir-fries and pork noodles, satays and grilled seafood (looking out for the exorbitant prices some stalls might charge for this) – and keep an eye (and a nose!) out for jackfruits and durians, too, if they’re in season.
Late night: Cocktails with skyline views
For an elegant nightcap, head up to Bar Trigona – on the list of Asia’s “50 Best” bars – for a signature honey-tinted Old Fashioned, or take in a nighttime view of the city at one of the rooftop bars of Troika Sky Dining. Whenever you’re ready to call it a night, head back to your lodging. While there’s no shortage of reliable chain hotels in the city, you might consider one of KL’s appealing boutique hotels, including KLoé, a place for “creative nomads”; the Chow Kit, for a blend of modernity and Malaysian tradition; or the RuMa, offering a splash of cozy luxury.
Have a bit longer to stay in Kuala Lumpur? Check out Jun’s extended four-day culinary itinerary.