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15 things to do in Kuala Lumpur | Insight Guides Blog

15 things to do in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur’s best attractions that you can’t afford to miss, from iconic architecture to religious sites, and traditional antiques to sizzling food stalls
Petronas Twins Towers in Kuala-Lumpur at evening
Petronas Twins Towers in Kuala-Lumpur at evening. Photo: Shutterstock

1. Marvel at the Jamek Mosque

Kuala Lumpur’s story began at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Today, the triangular piece of land where the two rivers meet is the location of the Jamek Mosque (Masjid Jamek). This is Kuala Lumpur’s first brick mosque, built in 1909 and designed by Arthur Benison Hubback. The mosque has two striped minarets, from which the call to prayer is made five times daily, and three domes above the prayer hall; it was the first mosque in the Federal Territory to sport an onion-shaped dome.

A wall surrounds the compound, preserving the mosque as a peaceful place of prayer and saving the historic confluence from being overwhelmed by the surrounding buildings. With a backdrop of coconut trees, the soothing symmetry of the arches frames a cool oasis that seems almost unreal in the surrounding press of humankind, noise and urban grit. Tour this area and experience the mosque's peaceful atmosphere for yourself on Insight Guides' Hidden UNESCO Sites of Malaysia holiday. Visitors must be properly attired, meaning no bare arms and legs, in order to be allowed into its compound.

2. Feast at Jalan Alor

No visit to KL would be complete without enjoying the gastronomic experience that is Jalan Alor, the city's biggest collection of roadside restaurants. On offer is mainly Chinese fare such as noodles and rice, but there is the odd south Indian stall selling roti canai (flaky bread served with curry) and Malay stalls where aromatic satay is barbecued. Making a choice can be overwhelming, but you cannot really go wrong with the food here. At night, an additional row of makeshift hawker stalls appears in front of the shops, so that you might be dining while pressed up close to the cars inching their way along the road. You'll find more good food along Tengkat Tong Shin, which is parallel to Jalan Alor. 

3. Climb the city’s tallest towers

The Petronas Twin Towers are still the most breathtaking sight in Kuala Lumpur (see if you agree by exploring the city on Insight Guides' Traditional Malaysia & Wild Borneo holiday). It was said that they had to keep pouring concrete into its foundation for days, that the towers were slanted, that the government ran out of money half-way through the project – the rumours were rife. Unsurprisingly, during the three years (1994–6) that it took to build the 452-metre-tall (1,480ft) Petronas Twin Towers the stories and hype that surrounded it ballooned in proportion. The towers did make the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s tallest building, and they held the record from April 1996 to October 2003, until the Taipei 101 tower topped it by 56 metres (190ft). In any case, it achieved its goal of putting Malaysia firmly on the global radar as a modern city – which one hopes was worth the US$1.2 billion price tag.

Good views can be had from the adjoining KLCC Park, although shutterbugs also like to photograph the towers from the fountain-lined pavement by the Tower 2 exit. The cross-sectional form of the buildings is patterned after a traditional Islamic geometric motif, consisting of two interlocking squares inset with small circles, forming an eight-pointed star. Eight is a lucky number for the Chinese (it is homophonous with the word for prosperity in Chinese), and it’s no coincidence that 88 floors make up the tower.

Visitors are not allowed to go up to the top of the towers unless they know someone who works there – Tower 1 is occupied by national petroleum corporation Petronas, Tower 2 by various multinational companies. However, tourists can go half-way up the towers to the double-deck viewing platform called the skybridge. Located at levels 41 and 42, at 170 metres (560ft) above street level, the view from the bridge is not as spectacular as one might imagine. Still, those wanting to satisfy an “I was there” urge should start lining up from 8am onwards at the information desk of the Tower 2 foyer. Only 1,300 tickets are issued a day and they run out fast.

4. Goggle at KL’s impressive cityscape

West of the KLCC is where the city’s “other tower” stands – Menara Kuala Lumpur, popularly known as the Kuala Lumpur Tower or KL Tower. This pink telecommunications tower rises out of the lush greenery of Bukit Nanas. People comparing the KL Tower with the Petronas Towers are usually puzzled because the former looks taller. This is because the KL Tower is perched atop a hill, its pinnacle reaching 515 metres (1,690ft) above sea level. But the tower’s actual height is 421 metres (1,380ft), which still makes it the second-tallest building in town.

Visitors are only allowed to go up to 276 metres (900ft). An ear-popping super-fast lift delivers you to the observation deck here, where a self-guided audio tour and telescopes provide a good, if vertigo-inducing, overview of the city – including the Petronas Towers, weather permitting. The view at dusk, when the cityscape is enveloped by darkness, is especially spectacular. 

Entrance of Batu Caves. Photo: ShutterstockVisiting the Batu Caves is a must for your trip to Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Roam the Batu Caves

About 13km (8 miles) from downtown Kuala Lumpur, are the Batu Caves, set in a limestone hill and synonymous with the spiritually charged Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The hill is riddled with caves and passages, but it is one particular cave midway up its rockface – called the Temple Cave – that has brought it much fame. Explore this holy site on Insight Guides' Taking in the Splendour of Malaysia holiday.

In 1878, the caves were “discovered” by American naturalist William Hornaday; the site soon became known to the public and was turned into a popular picnic spot for British colonials. Shortly after, word spread among the local Hindu population that Batu Caves was a holy site for the deity Murugan (also known as Subramaniam). Given the Hindus’ predilection for sacred caves, they started making pilgrimages here. Today, standing at the base of Batu Caves and visible from afar is a gigantic 43-metre (140ft) tall gilded statue of Lord Murugan, to whom the temple is dedicated. From the base, 272 steps lead up to the main Temple (or Cathedral) Cave. This is a large chamber measuring some 80 by 100 metres (260 by 330ft); the cave opens at one end to a skylight from which shafts of light pour in dramatically at certain times of the day.

6. Experience the glamour of KL’s grandest buildings

You can’t miss the majestic, Mughal-inspired Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad), especially when travelling on Insight Guides' Hidden UNESCO Sites of Malaysia trip. Facing the expanse of greenery known as the Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, this was the first Mughal-style structure built in Kuala Lumpur. This is by far the most imposing building on Jalan Raja and arguably the centrepiece of the historic district. A factory was actually set up to supply the millions of bricks required to construct it. Both symmetrical and rhythmically patterned, and anchored in the middle by a square clock tower flanked by two circular towers, the building was like nothing Kuala Lumpur had ever seen.

Today, the building houses the Finance Division of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture and the Textile Museum, which serves as a repository of stunning textiles from various traditions and influences from around the country. There are fine examples of batik and songket from the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu as well as the ceremonial pua kumbu weavings from the Ibans of Sarawak. In the days before the Petronas Twin Towers, this grand structure was the pre-eminent and endlessly photographed icon of the city. It is still popular with photographers, and is particularly pretty at night when it is all lit up.

7. Discover the city’s unmissable museum

If you only have time for one museum while on your holiday in Kuala Lumpur, it should be the Islamic Arts Museum. Dedicated to the history and pursuit of Islamic arts around the world, this is a treat and a treasure. The Italian-designed building hosts temporary exhibitions on the lower floors, while the permanent collections occupy the two upper floors. Of note are the detailed architectural models of famous monuments and structures of the Islamic era, such as India’s Taj Mahal and the mosques of the holy city of Medina. Painstaking work also went into reconstructing the Ottoman Room, which harks back to the era that is considered the “Renaissance” of Islamic art (1453–1923). Other displays include manuscripts, ceramics, metal-work and arms.

8. Take a watery adventure

If you're looking for things to do in Kuala Lumpur that all of the family will love, this is it. Aquaria KLCC is the country’s only oceanarium, with more than 5,000 marine creatures, including sharks, eels and colourful coral. This is an interactive “edu-tainment” rainforest display and aquarium. The Living Oceans tunnel, with a moving walkway and assorted fish (including sand tiger sharks, moray eels and giant groupers) swimming around you, is a highlight. Feeding sessions for the various creatures, including sharks and piranhas, start at 11am and go on till 3pm. For an extra fee, visitors can also dive with the sharks – under supervision, of course. Experience all of this and more on Insight Guides' Traditional Malaysia and Wild Borneo holiday

Lion Dance Show Celebration of Chinese New Year at Central Market Kuala Lumpur. Photo: ShutterstockKuala Lumpur's Central Market hosts plenty of celebrations, including Chinese New Year. Photo: Shutterstock

9. Shop at the city’s chaotic Central Market

Since it opened in 1986, the Central Market has remained one of the city’s most popular tourist stops, hawking culture in the form of food, performances and exhibitions, as well as a gamut of souvenirs, from portraits done on the spot and tacky “I Love Kuala Lumpur” T-shirts to delicate batik silk scarfs, antiques and pricey pewterware. The Central Market made history as the city’s first heritage building to be rescued from demolition and converted on such a large scale for a different use – in this case, as a mall. 

10. Experience KL's alternative art scene

The Annexe Gallery is KL’s alternative, no-holds-barred art space, filled with works that will stimulate and inspire. Located behind the Central Market, the gallery dubs itself “the art and soul of KL”. Be sure to catch something here, as you might be surprised at the quality and diversity of the work from some of KL’s most inspired artists. Cultural performances regularly take place in the main foyer area and on the outdoor stage, in the form of film screenings, art fairs, dance, music, performance art and more.

11. Wander through the Conservatory of Rare Plants and Orchids

A guided tour will give you access to a real gem – the Conservatory of Rare Plants and Orchids, housed in a 40 by 30-metre (130 by 98ft) plant house. Beautifully laid out on the grounds and hanging from the ceiling are 1,500 plants that are rare or are becoming rare because of habitat destruction or over-collection. Among these are the delicate slipper orchids, one of the 300 species of orchids housed here; the pretty begonia Rajah; and the four unusual Johannesteijsmannia magnifica or “umbrella leaf ” palm species. Book a week ahead for the guided tour. A free three-hour guided tour is conducted for Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) members on the first Saturday of each month at 9am (it's simple enough to sign up online).

12. Crane your neck at the city's Giant Flagpole

The monumental buildings seen around Dataran Merdeka include one more structure, a veritable high point of the area – the tallest flagpole in Malaysia and one of the tallest in the world. It anchors the southern end of the field at a neck-aching height of 95 metres (310ft); the Guin- ness World Record holder in Aqaba, Jordan, is 37 metres (121ft) taller. The original flagpole that stood here was of much humbler stature and is long gone, but the flag of Malaya that was raised for the first time on 31 August 1957 is on display in the National History Museum (also worth a visit, if you have the time); this is just behind the giant flagpole and somewhat overlooked because of the grandeur of the structures around. Tour both sites on Insight Guides' Indulgent Malaysia holiday

Malaysian Hokkien Mee. Photo: ShutterstockTasting Malaysian Hokkien Mee is one of our top things to do in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Shutterstock

13. Taste the delights of Hokkien Mee

This all-time KL hawker favourite is a flash-fried dish of thick noodles in a sticky dark sauce with slices of pork and seafood. Try it out at Hong Ngek Restaurant where you can also tuck into sweet-sour pork ribs, yin-yang pomfret in two styles (steamed and deep-fried), and healthful double-boiled winter melon soup. 

Alternatively, learn to cook this world-famous dish for yourself on Insight Guides' Uniquely Rustic Malaysia trip during a private home-cooking lesson. 

14. Gawp at the twinkles of Kampung Kuantan Fireflies

When night falls, lights “come on” along the riverside at Kampung Kuantan. This is one of the few places in the world with such a large colony of synchronously flashing fireflies, or kelip-kelip (literally, to twinkle) as they are called locally.

Local boatmen will take you out on the river, four to a boat, past the parade of what are actually beetles and not flies, on the drooping branches of the berembang (Sonneratia caseolaris), a mangrove species. Males flash at a rate of three flashes a second, the females less frequently. The males time their flashing together to enable the females to detect the rhythm, while warning predators off at the same time. The colony has shrunk in recent years, perhaps due to the influx of tourists, the loss of habitat and the building of the Sungai Selangor dam upstream in Kuala Kubu Bharu, which has affected the water levels. The journey itself is, however, magical. Your local boatman will regale you with firefly facts, and then you drift along silently in the cool night, watching nature’s mesmerising display. The phenomenon is best experienced on a moonless and rainless night.

15. While away an afternoon at the Museum of Asian Art

Take a taxi to Universiti Malaya, the country’s first and premier university which has two attractions worth visiting. To get to the university’s Museum of Asian Art, or Muzium Seni Asia, go through the Jalan Universiti entrance and follow the road till you reach a four-way junction, then turn left. When you come to a fork, turn left again and follow the signs. On display in this handsome three-storey museum are some 6,000 pieces of art spanning 4,000 years of history in Asia. The museum’s permanent collection has a strong Southeast Asian focus, and ceramics comprises about 60% of its collection. 

The museum has the world’s largest public collection of kendi (a handle-less water container with a spout), which spans 1,000 years and represents different countries in East and Southeast Asia. The shapes and designs of the kendi are fascinating indicators of the cultural and social practices in the region as well as trade patterns during different periods of history. 

The museum also has the largest collection of early Vietnamese pottery outside Vietnam, as well as Malaysia’s most important collection of Thai ceramics from the Ban Chiang period (from as early as 4000 BC) and from the key ceramic-producing areas of Sukhothai and Sawankhalok. Of note is the extremely rare ceramic Sawankhalok elephant, which has a mahout and a rider on its back, and a warrior at each of the beast’s legs. Also noteworthy is the textile collection, which includes the ancient patola (double-ikat) cloth, a precious trading commodity at the height of the Melakan empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. The main exhibits change every two months, and eight temporary exhibitions are held annually. Guided tours are available if you book a week in advance.

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