Kuala Lumpur is a popular layover hub for flights in and around Asia, and it's likely the first place travelers visiting Malaysia will land. Add to this that cheap flights make it an easy "border hopping" destination for expats looking to extend their visa in neighboring countries like Thailand.
The main purpose of our trip to KL was the latter. We needed to get a visa extension, found an inexpensive flight. Boom. Decision made.
I'm going to be totally honest and tell you I was not thrilled about going to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has been a country I've wanted to explore for quite some time, but the thought of just getting the visa stapled to our passport and exploring only the capital city left me feeling, well, like I was missing out on an entire country.
Plus, I had heard a rumor that "there isn't much to do in Kuala Lumpur". I took this as a challenge and started researching my a$$ off, and you know what I found? This is far from true.
There are actually a ton of things to do in Kuala Lumpur.
So whatever the purpose of your visit to this melting pot of a city -- be it a layover, a stop on your Southeast Asia itinerary, or a "border hop" — we've put together a list of all sorts of activities and experiences to keep you busy while exploring this truly diverse metropolis.
Intro to Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur literally translated means “muddy confluence”. Not the most attractive name for a city, is it? This modern metropolis rises from jungly forests and often times humid air hangs heavy, so "muddy confluence" is somewhat fitting.
The defining characteristic of this city to many who visit is the diversity it boasts. It is a city that Malay, Indian and Chinese people proudly call home, and the local cuisine is a delicious blend of all three cultures. The country of Malaysia was conquered by British, Dutch and Portugese, each leaving their mark and although the country's official religion is Islam, you'll see signs of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Walk around the city and you'll see modern skyscrapers next to mosques in the traditional Islamic design.
There's no arguing that Kuala Lumpur is an interesting city with plenty to do, but truthfully, it isn’t one I’d consider a favorite. For me, there was a certain charm - a je ne sais quoi - it was missing for me to list it my list of faves.
But that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy my time there. We explored, adventured and ate our way through Kuala Lumpur, and I can't wait to explore more of Malaysia.
Tip: If you have time to see more of the country than just the capital (lucky you!), this article walks you through some of the best places to visit in Malaysia so you can create a perfect itinerary!
What to do in Kuala Lumpur
And though we were far from able to fit all the activities we wanted to do in our 3-day trip to KL, we packed quite a bit in and were busy the whole time. We're sharing the highlights as well as all the things on our wish list for next time. From the typical tourist spots to well off the beaten path, here's our list of the top things to do in Kuala Lumpur.
1. Go on a cultural walking tour
We are huge advocates of Free Walking Tours. We've gone on more around the world than we'd care to count, and we find that we often learn things about a country or city that help us better understand the history, culture and people.
Plus, these tours often bring us to places we would never explore on our own. The Kampung Baru walking tour in Kuala Lumpur was no exception, and it was one of the highlights of our time in Kuala Lumpur.
Our guide, Shah, was passionate about his country, super informative and kindly answered all our questions — silly or not. This tour is run by the Kuala Laumpur Tourism Bureau, which puts on a variety of different types of tours throughout the week to better acquaint tourists with Kuala Lumpur.
On this tour, you'll explore the cultural and historical neighborhood of Kampung Baru. You'll get to see some of the last remaining traditional houses in the city, juxtaposed next to modern skyscrapers, which is quite a cool sight.
Shah told us that within the next few years, most of the traditional Malay houses will be torn down for new developments, so if you're lucky enough to be in the city before this happens, be sure to check them out!
We even got to try a few foods along the way, and Shah pointed out some restaurants that are well known among locals, where most of us ended up having dinner following the tour.
How to do it yourself:
The Kampung Baru walking tour runs every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday and the meeting point is at the Sultan Sulaiman Club at 4:15 p.m. (Facing the buliding, go to the left entrance and walk to the back of the building where you'll find a restaurant. This is where you'll start the tour.) The tour is restricted to 25 people and lasts 2.5 hours.
Check out the Visit Kuala Lampur website for a list of all their free guided tours around the city.
If you aren't in Kuala Lumpur on the day that the Kampung Baru tour is being held, we would still recommend exploring the neighborhood on your own.
2. Float Past Magical Fireflies on the Selangor River
If you prefer nature to big cities, we have an idea that might excite you. There are few places in the world where you can experience the magic of synchronous fireflies (a.k.a. a ton of these magical insects glowing in unison on one tree or bush). Check out this article from BBC Travel for more info on this phenomenon, plus some sweet pictures!
A couple years ago, we experienced this sight in the Philippines on a night kayaking trip, and it was breathtaking. It was so enchanting in fact, that when we heard these fireflies can be found just outside Kuala Lumpur near the seaside village of Kuala Selangor, we decided to squeeze a trip to see them into our itinerary.
The experience in Kuala Selangor was quite different than the Philippines. Instead of kayaking and with an English-speaking guide who gave us tons of information, we hopped in a wooden row boat with two others and a young man rowed us up the river in silence.
The whole experience took about 20 minutes, but it was still very cool to see the fireflies lighting up the mangroves in unison. If you want to get out of the bustling city and see a small fishing village and Mother Nature at her finest, this could be a cool addition to your time in Kuala Lumpur.
How to do it yourself:
We honestly didn't find a ton of information about this online other than some threads in Trip Advisor forums and tour packages on Viator. We considered taking public transportation, but the last bus of the day to KL leaves Selangor around 6 p.m., which makes it impossible to see the fireflies.
We ended up finding the name of a driver that was recommended on Trip Advisor, and he kind of gave us our own private tour. Typically, this excursion includes a stop at Monkey Hill (described below in #2) as well as a seafood dinner in the fishing village of Kuala Selangor.
At 380 MYR (Malaysian Ringgit, which is about $89.80) for both of us (plus money for dinner 60 MYR ($14 USD) and the boat ride 53 MYR ($12.50 USD) per boat), this wasn't a cheap experience, but it was about the same price as the tour packages. The drive the Kuala Selangor takes just over an hour, and if you also stop at Monkey Hill and have a seafood dinner, expect the whole trip to last a total of around 5 hours.
Note: If you would like the contact info for the driver we had (he was great!), shoot us a message and we'll send you the email address.
A cheaper alternative: If you want to see the fireflies, but don't care so much about the seafood dinner or monkey hill, consider taking an Uber or Grab (SE Asia's version of the car sharing app). We met two young backpackers that hired an Uber to drive them to the fireflies and they paid 80 MYR ($18.90 USD) each way for both of them.
The only tricky part would be ensuring you have service to order a ride back to the city, or perhaps you could talk your driver into waiting for you. Just be aware that the entire firefly boat ride takes just about 20 minutes, so it is a long drive for a very short experience. It is a matter of personal opinion if that is worth the hour-long drive.
Types of boats: There are two options of boats you can take. The government runs wooden paddle boats while a private business has motorized vessels.
- Wooden paddle boat: 53 MYR ($12.50 USD) per boat; each boat holds 4 people, so if you split it with others, it will cost you 13.25 MYR ($3 USD) per person.
- Electric boat: holds 15-22 people and costs 20 MYR ($4.70) per person.
How much does it cost? This depends on how you arrange your visit:
- Tour company: Viator sells packages for $55-60 USD per person, including transportation, dinner, and boat ride.
- Hire private driver: About 380 MYR ($89.84 USD) for the transportation, plus dinner (we paid 60), and boat ticket (13.25 per person) = around 466.5 MYR ($110 USD) total for TWO PEOPLE.
- Uber only to fireflies: 160 MYR ($37.80 USD) for transportation both ways and boat ride.
3. Melawati Hill (Monkey Hill)
I’m torn about how I feel about this. Most tour groups make a stop here on their way to see the fireflies. We actually didn’t plan on going to this attraction, but our driver told us halfway through the ride that we would stop at Melawati Hill to see monkeys.
I don’t believe in feeding wild animals, and so places like this actually really turn me off, but since we were already there, we made the most of it and observed the silver leaf monkeys (black fur) who roam around this lighthouse viewpoint.
Unlike the long-tailed macaques (gray fur) that can be quite aggressive and mischievous, the silver leaf monkeys were actually really sweet and the babies, covered in orange fur, were adorable! I teased Ben that he must be related since he's a ginger :)
Honestly, I enjoyed seeing the monkeys, but didn't feel right about all the people feeding them. I wouldn't advise making a special trip here, but if you intend to see the fireflies in Kuala Selangor, it is on the way.
4. Bukit Tabur (East) Hike
After checking out the stunning photos of this hike (Google image it!), we were convinced this was a must for our time in Kuala Lumpur. However, after a couple packed days we just decided that waking up at 6 a.m. to hike in the heat didn't sound appealing, so we skipped it for this time. We will most certainly do this hike during our next trip to Kuala Lumpur. Mark my words.
How to do it yourself:
We did a ton of research. A TON. And it was actually quite difficult to find solid information about this hike. Some people warned how dangerous it was and claimed it took 5-6 hours to complete, while others say it was a moderate hour-long hike.
There are a few different routes, but we kept finding conflicting information about which one to take. Plus, we had even read reports of needing a permit and sections of the trails being closed. But at the core of everything we read, people absolutely raved about this hike as being one of the coolest places in KL. We decided that since it was so difficult to find solid information on, we'd go with a guide.
- Open Sky Adventures has rave reviews on Trip Advisor and leads several outdoor trips that look amazing.
- Our hostel ran tours and it sounded like a grand time. (We stayed at BackHome Hostel.)
Price: Considering this is a hike, the fee is quite steep. At 150 MYR ($35.46 USD), you are paying for transportation, a guide and a meal, but most reviews we've read seem to claim it's worth the price.
How long: The guided groups tend to leave early in the morning, between 6 and 6:30 a.m., so you see sunrise and avoid the midday heat, and the return time is typically between 11 a.m. and noon.
5. Laugh the night away at Crackhouse Comedy Club
If you're looking for a laugh, head to the Crackhouse Comedy Club. Shows are every Friday and Saturday night, as well as Wednesdays. At just 20 MYR on Wednesdays ($4.75 USD) this is a quite affordable night out, and shows are in English.
This was something we were pretty bummed that we missed out on (due to timing), and will definitely be putting it on our list for our next visit to Kuala Lumpur.
6. Get Fancy at High Tea
Being that Malaysia was colonized by Great Britain, it comes as no surprise that tea time is a tradition that caught on with the Malay people and is still practiced today. There are several places around town that you can experience high tea - complete with your favorite brew and a variety of delectable treats and finger foods! This article describes some of the best spots in KL to get high tea.
7. Take a Food Tour or Cooking Class
We love taking cooking classes overseas and feel like you can learn a ton about a country through its cuisine. We also recently went on our first street food tour in Bangkok (#1 on this list), and think Kuala Lumpur would be a fun place to go on this type of tour as well.
8. Eat your Weight in Street Food
Malaysia is known for food, and let’s just say that this was one of the things we were most looking forward to during our time in KL. With Chinese, Indian and Malay options all around town, it’s hard to stop eating in this country.
Interesting fact: Malaysia has the highest rate of obesity in Southeast Asia, and I can understand why! There’s so much yummy-looking food everywhere! (And I’m not one to judge, as I hail from the US where we are ranked number 19 for obesity in the world. Yikes!)
The two places I kept seeing online to get street food were Hutong 10 and Jalan Alor. I will say that both of these seemed much more geared toward tourists than locals, and the prices reflected this.
It’s a fun place to check out, grab a beer (tall Guinness for 23 MYR/$4 USD – yes, please!) and do a bit of people watching. And the food is surely worth a try, but most of the restaurants seem to have the exact same menu, so to us it didn’t seem all that special.
There are many other street food hubs around the city that are frequented by locals, but one area in particular that we found to have a great selection was Jalan Raja Muda Musa street in Kampung Baru. And unlike Jalan Alor street, we were the only foreigners in sight.
But don’t limit yourself to eating here. One wise piece of advice we got was this: “Don’t go too far for a specific restaurant, because there are 10 places just as good on the way”. It’s true. There is no shortage of great places to eat in this city. Just pop into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s busy with locals and you’ll probably get some tasty food!
What foods to try in Kuala Lumpur:
There are seriously so many foods to try in Malaysia, and specifically in Kuala Lumpur. Here are just two that we enjoyed.
Nasi Lemak: Known as Malaysia's national dish, this one is worth a try (if you eat meat!). Fluffy coconut rice is served with traditional chili paste, fried chicken, boiled egg (or fried), and crispy anchovies (I didn't care for this part, so I picked them out). It is usually eaten for breakfast, but you can find it just about any time of day. (pictured above left)
Putu Bambu: We probably would have passed this by had we not tasted it on our free walking tour (see #1). These tasty little treats are made of rice flour, cane sugar, a pinch of salt and served with grated coconut. The green color is from the pandan leaf. They are steamed inside a hollowed out piece of bamboo and they're freakin' delicious! (pictured above right)
9. Check out the Petronas Towers
These iconic towers are the symbol of Kuala Lumpur and are fun to see in person. The best views are in the KLCC park and at the base of the towers. In our opinions, they are far more picturesque at night when lit up. The Petronas Towers are one of the most Instagramable spots in Kuala Lumpur, so be sure to bring you camera.
10. Visit Batu Caves & Dark Cave
You will surely make a visit here during your time in KL, and you should. This is a pilgrimage site for Hindus as well as a popular tourist attraction.
Here’s what to expect:
Entrance fee: Free! (Dark Cave, which is next to Batu, requires you take a guided tour to enter and costs 35 MYR/$8.27 USD)
What to wear to Batu Caves
Ladies: Be sure your shoulders and knees are covered. It was so hot when we were there that I wore shorts and a tank top for the day, but packed a sarong to wrap around my waist and a t-shirt to cover up once we reached Batu.
Guys: We found there were't any restrictions on mens clothing. Though I don't remember seeing many guys in tank tops, so you might want to wear a t-shirt.
As you reach the entrance to the stairs, you may be asked to carry a brick (or two!) to the top, as it is volunteers who help transport building materials. You will climb up 272 stairs, which will take between 5 - 15 minutes, depending on how many breaks you take.
At the top, you'll enter the cave, and climb up a shorter flight of stairs, which will bring you to a series of Hindu statues and shrines in the cave. There are lights inside as well as a large opening that lets in natural light, so you don't need to bring a flashlight or anything.
In total, we spent about 45 minutes at Batu Caves, and that was plenty for us. Besides walking up all the stairs and taking some photos, there really isn't all that much to do.
That said, we have heard good things about Dark Cave, which you will pass by on your left while you climb the stairs to Batu. We passed because we were pressed for time, but you can check out reviews on the Trip Advisor page. Tours leave about every 15 minutes and last 45 minutes. The fee is 35 MYR ($8.27 USD).
How to get here: We would strongly urge you to either take an Uber (or Grab) or take the train system. Avoid taking a taxi, as they are known for taking you the long way to Batu Caves. This happened to us, and our fare was more than triple what it should have been.
11. Cheers with a View at a Rooftop Bar
Kuala Lumpur has no shortage of nightlife, and two popular places to enjoy a drink with a view are the Heli Lounge Bar and the Sky Bar at Traders Hotel. Take in the view for the cost of a drink rather than paying the 80 MYR ($18.90 USD) fee at the Petronas Towers. Don't forget to research the dress code before heading out for the night!
Tip: If you're on a budget, try going to these bars during happy hour. Times listed below:
- Sky Bar at Traders Hotel: Daily Specials from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., plus Wednesday is Ladies Night and women can enjoy pre-selected cocktails for free from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
- Heli Lounge Bar: Happy Hour daily from 7 - 9 p.m.
- No Black Tie: The bar on top of Reggae Mansion, No Black Tie, which is just behind the pub street (Changkat). Tickets for the live music is about RM50-RM100 which includes 1 drink of your choice.
12. Dine in the Dark
For a super unique experience, Dining in the Dark is just what the name implies. Experiencing your meal without your sight is said to let your other senses take over, allowing your to get to a whole new level with your food!
13. Shop at Central Market
If you like markets, this one is big and located in the center of town. It is more of a tourist market than anything, but still fun to check out.
14. Run Through Water at Merdeka (Independence) Square
This square is home to one gigantic Malaysian flag and a park, but the highlight for us was the water curtain. This art installation, called "The 2020 Countdown Clock", is one gigantic waterfall "mushroom" of sorts that opens a gap when you stand in front of it. You can then walk inside and there is a large screen that will take your photo to add to a wall of pictures of other visitors.
Note: The curtain only opens at certain times of the day. We got there just before it turned off. The operating hours are:
- 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
- 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- 9:30 p.m. to 12 a.m.
If your timing allows, try visiting this attraction at night. This fountain is lit up in all different colors at night and looks pretty cool!
15. Dine at a Michelin Restaurant (or two!)
I actually don't think I've ever dined at a Michelin rated restaurant, so we thought KL might be a good opportunity to try it out. We perused this list of Michelin star restaurants and chose Din Tai Fung.
We ordered their famous pork xiao-long-bao as well as vegetarian mushroom buns, and we've gotta say they're some of the best we've ever tasted.
Obviously it was a bit more expensive than a lesser-known dim sum shop, but it still wasn't terribly priced. We paid 26 MYR (just over $6 USD) for a pretty filling midday snack for both of us.
16. Explore Little India & Chinatown
If you are interested in Indian culture or enjoy a good curry, you may want to explore Little India. There were some streets we walked down that had shops and restaurants and smells that literally made us wonder if we had been transported out of Malaysia to the streets of Delhi. And Chinatown is worth a wander too!
How to get there:
To get to Little India, take the metro to the Kuala Sentral station and head south. After 5 minutes of walking, you will see a elephant fountain and a street lined with permanent decorations. Follow that street (and the smells) and you will be in Little India.
To get to Chinatown, find the Central Market (#13) on a map and walk left (heading east on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock) out of the main entrance. After about 3 blocks, you will see the big sign signaling the start of the Jalan Petaling street. This is the start of Chinatown, and strangely it has a weird resemblance to Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.
More helpful information on Kuala Lumpur
Now that you have some ideas (probably too many ideas!) of things to do in KL, let's discuss some practical details. What should you pack? What's the best way to get around? Where should you stay? What other nearby towns are worth visiting? And lastly, what are our honest thoughts about Kuala Lumpur? We've got everything you need to know!
Transportation in Kuala Lumpur
Try to avoid taxis. We were warned about the taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur, and though we only took one during our time there, we had a bad experience (read about it under Batu Caves #10).
Better alternatives are:
- Grab (ride ordering service): often times your hotel can assist you with these if you don't have a data plan.
- Train & Metro system: cheap and pretty well-connected
If you do take a taxi, we've been told that the red taxis are better than the blue ones, and we were also told to ALWAYS use the meter. If the driver refuses, take a different taxi.
Where to stay in Kuala Lumpur
Luxury Hotel - Traders Hotel by Shangri-La
Mid-range: Couples Stay - The Kuala Lumpur Journal Hotel
Budget: Social Atmosphere - Backhome Hostel KL (We stayed here and loved it. Awesome location, free simple breakfast, friendly staff, and has a delicious coffee shop attached (LOKL Coffee Co).
What to wear in Kuala Lumpur
This is for my ladies!
I was a little confused about what clothing to pack for our trip to Kuala Lumpur. Being that Malaysia is a Muslim country and many women dress modestly, I was unsure if tank tops and shorts would be appropriate for me to wear. I did a bit of research, and found that they would be just fine. Since KL is so diverse, you'll see many types of clothing being worn on the streets.
I would say that it felt more conservative than what I've experienced in Thailand, but I did feel comfortable wearing shorts and a tank top (especially when the temperature was hovering around 100°F (37°C!)). Of course, when you visit religious or holy sites, have appropriate layers with which to cover up your shoulders and knees.
Have more time in Malaysia?
These nearby towns would make a great addition to your visit to Kuala Lumpur if you have the time!
About a two hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, this colorful seaside town has a strong Portugese and Dutch influence and is known for colonial architecture and amazing food.
Located 3 hours north of Kuala Lumpur, this lush highland is known for cooler temperatures and stunning tea fields, making it a popular spot for locals and travelers alike. This is at the top of our list for the next time we visit Malaysia.
Known as the food capital of Malaysia, this town is 4 hours from KL, has great beaches and is another hot spot to do a "border run" from Thailand. This is a great Penang travel guide!
Why not make it a beach vacation by visiting some of Malaysia's best islands!?
Final thoughts on Kuala Lumpur
While I wouldn't consider Kuala Lumpur a favorite city, I was surprised by just how much there is to do in this diverse metropolis.
One thing I’ve learned time and time again is that a country is not defined by its capital city. Kuala Lumpur is just a small piece that makes up Malaysia, and I can’t wait to return someday to see a bit more of this country.