A skyline punctuated by minarets, Mogul-style domes and skyscrapers; colourful, food-stall-lined streets shaded by a leafy canopy of banyan trees – this is Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia’s sultry capital is a feast for all the senses. Here you'll find historic monuments, steel-clad skyscrapers, lush parks, megasized shopping malls, bustling street markets and lively nightspots.
Essential parts of the vibrant mix are the incense-wreathed, colourfully adorned mosques and temples of the country’s Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. A reverence for these ancient cultures is balanced with a drive to be plugged into the modern world, a desire that's reflected in a creative contemporary-art and design scene, an ambitious riverbank-regeneration project and dynamic architecture: the new Exchange 106 tower is taller than the iconic Petronas Towers.
Today's KL-ites are separated by barely a handful of generations from the tenacious Chinese and Malay tin prospectors who founded the city, carving it out of virgin jungle. By the time the British made it the capital of Peninsular Malaysia in the late 19th century, erecting grand colonial buildings, KL had only been in existence for a couple of decades.
Since then, KL has been centre stage on Malaysian history. Stadium Merdeka was where, in 1957, the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared independence. The city also celebrated as a new national government came to power in 2018.
To fully connect with locals, join them in two of their favourite pastimes: shopping and eating. Malaysian consumer culture achieves its zenith in KL, where you could spend all day browsing glitzy air-conditioned malls such as Pavilion KL, Suria KLCC and Mid Valley Megamall in search of designer fashion and bargains. Bangsar and Publika are the places to go for local labels and the work of offbeat independent designers. Alternatively, explore Central Market for locally made souvenirs and handicrafts; and hunt out the few remaining artisans and antiques dealers still keeping shop in and around Chinatown.
Despite the heat, this is a city best explored on foot. Walk and you can catch all the action and save yourself the frustration of becoming entangled in one of KL's all-too-frequent traffic jams. Walking, you'll discover parts of KL retain the laid-back ambience and jungle lushness of the kampung (village) it once was. What's more, you'll be sure to come across some of the city's best dining spots: the hawker stalls and traditional neighbourhood kopitiam (coffee shops) that beckon you over with the aroma of freshly cooked food and the promise of refreshment with tropical juices and cooling drinks.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kuala Lumpur.
Although the Petronas Towers are taller, the 421m Menara KL, rising from the crest of Bukit Nanas, offers the best city views. The bulb at the top contains a revolving restaurant, an interior observation deck at 276m and, most thrilling of all, an open-air sky deck at 300m, access to which is weather dependent. Risk vertigo to take your photo in the sky box, which puts nothing but glass between you and the ground below.
This graceful, onion-domed mosque, designed by British architect AB Hubback, borrows Mogul and Moorish styles with its brick-and-plaster banded minarets and three shapely domes. Located where the Gombak and Klang rivers meet, Masjid Jamek was the first brick mosque in Malaysia when completed in 1909. It remained the city's centre of Islamic worship until the opening of the National Mosque in 1965.
Sitting atop leafy Robson Heights, this vividly decorated multistorey Chinese temple, dedicated to Thean Hou, the heavenly queen, affords wonderful views over Kuala Lumpur. Opened in 1989 by the Selangor and Federal Territory Hainan Association, it serves as both a house of worship and a functional space for events such as weddings. In recent years it's also become a tourist attraction in its own right, especially during Chinese festival times and the birthdays of the various temple gods.
Inhabiting a building that's nearly as impressive as its collection, this museum showcases Islamic decorative arts from around the globe. Scale models of the important Islamic buildings, fabulous textiles, carpets, jewellery and ceramics all vie for attention; the relocated 19th-century Damascus Room interior is a gold-leaf-decorated delight. Don't forget to gaze up at the building's intricate domes and tile work.
KL's urban roar is replaced by buzzing insects and cackling birdlife at this forest of tropical hardwoods, covering 9.37 hectares in the heart of the city. One of the oldest protected jungles in Malaysia (gazetted in 1906), the park is commonly known as Bukit Nanas (Pineapple Hill).
This 70-hectare lush, beautifully landscaped park is most commonly known by its colonial-era moniker: the Lake Gardens (Tasik Perdana in Malay). This is KL's largest green space, and you can spend the better part of a day exploring the rolling terrain.
On a palm-fringed plaza, with fine views of KL's skyscrapers, stands this bombastic monument. Commemorating military sacrifices in the name of Malaysian freedom, the National Monument's centrepiece is a bronze sculpture of soldiers (one of them holding aloft the Malaysian flag), created in 1966 by Felix de Weldon, the artist behind the Iwo Jima monument near Washington, DC. A royal-blue pool and curved pavilion heighten the grand impression.
Kuala Lumpur's oldest Chinese temple (1864) was built on the instructions of Kapitan Yap Ah Loy and is dedicated to Sin Sze Ya and Si Sze Ya, two Chinese deities believed instrumental in Yap's ascension to Kapitan status. Several beautiful objects decorate the temple, including two hanging carved panels.
Search out this innovative project space, where various contemporary design and technology skills are taught and can be practised. Laser engravers, 3D printers and virtual-reality gadgets are among the resources available. An offshoot of the sustainability initiative Biji-biji (www.biji-biji.com), you can also buy products here, such as cool bags and purses made from old car belt straps and up-cycled fabric offcuts.