5 Reasons to Add Kuala Lumpur to Your Travel Bucket List

November 15, 2016

Multi-cultural, vibrant and frenetic, Kuala Lumpur has everything you could want from a city: delicious street food, epic skyscrapers and an abundance of culture. Bridget Nurre Jennions uncovers all Malaysia's capital has to offer. She's made us crazy about KL.

Kuala Lumpur - known locally as “KL” - sometimes gets a bad rap for being a less sophisticated version of its southern neighbour, Singapore. While the city offers up some towering modern architecture, endless shopping and a buzzy party scene, its true draw is the fascinating blend of cultures that have co-existed in Malaysia for centuries. KL is more than just a layover to places further afield; Bridget Nurre Jennions shares five reasons to extend your stay in this eclectic city.

1. KL's Culture Overload

Close up of Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur

Okay, whether this is “cultural” or not can be debated, but no visit to KL is complete without seeing the Petronas Towers, once the world’s tallest buildings, but still the world’s tallest twin structures. Named by Malaysian state oil company that claims much of its office space, the towers are the city’s icon and are a great way to get oriented when you first arrive.

85 MYR (about £16) gets you access to the Skybridge, which connects the towers on the 41st and 42nd floors, as well as the Observation Deck on the 86th floor, which offers panoramic views of the city. Purchase time-stamped tickets or 2-in-1 tickets online in advance and skip the queues, or buy your tickets early in the day and enjoy some time exploring the massive Suria KLCC shopping mall beneath the towers before your ticket time. If you’d like a little food or a cocktail with your view, head over to Marini’s on 57 -- the rooftop restaurant and bar in Petronas Tower 3.

Now that you have the lay of the land, hop on the LRT (part of the integrated train system that is the fastest way around the hectic city) to Pasar Seni, the closest stop to KL’s must-see museums - the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and the National Museum - as well as the giant 1960s-era National Mosque. These three provide important insight into Malaysia’s development as a tolerant, majority Muslim country.

Although the Muslim community makes up just 60 percent of Malaysia, it is also necessary to explore the city’s Indian and Chinese influences to get the full picture of this multi-faceted society. Located just a 40-minute train ride north of the city, take a tour of the Batu Caves, one of the most significant Hindu sites outside of India. Each year, thousands of pilgrims come here in January/February to celebrate the Tamil Hindu festival of Thaipusam at the temples and shrines inside the limestone caves. Climb the 272 steps to explore the caves and enjoy a spectacular view of the city below.

2. Mouth-Watering Street Food on Jalan Alor

Fish at Jalan Alor street food market

Nowhere is Malaysia’s blend of cultures more evident than in the country’s food: an explosion of flavours and influences. While there is enough high-end international cuisine in the city to suit the needs of any foodie, you must rub elbows with locals in the city’s various hawker centres and street markets to get a true taste of Malaysia. Found in the heart of the city center, the Jalan Alor food street is everything you want it to be: with spicy smells wafting at you from every direction and friendly vendors gesturing you over to taste their creations. You’ll see stalls churning out nothing but salty sweet bacon and others slinging a variety of noodles, but you can’t miss the ikan bakar - Malaysian charcoal-grilled fish. With the preparation applied to anything from red snapper to stingray, there is a “burnt fish” to suit any palate.

KL is also famous for the city’s many “banana leaf rice restaurants,” which are found mostly in neighborhoods with big Indian populations. In the southern Indian tradition, food is served directly on wide banana leaves and typically eaten with your hands. Vishal Food and Catering in KL’s Brickfields/Little India neighborhood is a favorite among locals.

3. KL's Top-Notch Nightlife

Kuala Lumpur skyline at night

Whether you are a sucker for craft cocktails, dark jazz bars, or poolside lounges with a view, KL has you covered in the nightlife department. After an evening of exploring Jalan Alor, nip around the corner for something a bit more serene: KL’s premier jazz bar, No Black Tie. With shows nearly every night around 9 p.m., grab a bottle of wine and leave the frenzied city behind for an hour or two. While there are plenty of other great bars in the Bukit Bintang area for pre- or post-drinks, Pisco Bar -- right next door -- is a perfect pick. The bar is a great example of how cosmopolitan KL takes influences from around the world -- like the cool citrusy pisco sour -- and makes them feel at home in the tropical Malaysian climate.

There are also plenty of ways to get above the din of the KL concrete jungle and see the cityscape by night. The city is lousy with great poolside and rooftop bars with views of the Petronas Towers - like Sky Bar, Luna Bar, and Atmosphere 360 - or of the botanical gardens, like Mai Bar and the chic Crystal Bar at the new St. Regis near KL Sentral.

4. Green Space Urban Escapes

Peacocks at Kuala Lumpur bird park

One of the most remarkable things about KL is the city’s commitment to maintaining green space right in the heart of the madness. In fact, right at the foot of Petronas Towers, you can find the 50-acre KLCC Park: the perfect place to rest your tired feet after a morning of sightseeing and shopping. One of Malaysia’s oldest forest reserves, KL Forest Eco Park, sits in the shadow of the city’s second highest building, KL Tower, and hosts a vast network of bridges allowing you to walk along its canopy. However, the Perdana Botanical Garden is really the city’s crown emerald. Home to the world’s largest open-air aviary, the KL Bird Park, the 226-acre botanical garden also boasts a butterfly park and the National Planetarium.

5. Go on a Weekend Escape to Pulau Pangkor

Sea villas at Pangkor Laut resort

Incredible as KL is, it's only beginning of the incredible adventures that Malaysia has to offer. Using the capital as your hub, it is easy to widen your circle of exploration for a few days in other great destinations in western Malaysia. While it’s possible to access them by train and taxi, you’ll probably want to rent a car when you head north to the Cameron Highlands. You will likely smell the tea plantations - planted during British colonial times - before you you reach them. As it was for the colonialists, the highlands remain a slightly cooler respite from the country’s jungle climate and host a range of spas and wellness activities to invigorate even the most hardened city slicker.

If waterfront relaxation is more your ideal weekend activity, head straight up the coast and splurge on a stay at the Pangkor Laut Resort. Hidden behind sleepy Pulau Pangkor, this private resort island is the ultimate luxury retreat. With five restaurants, two bars, and an award-winning spa village, you will want for nothing here. You can opt to stay either in the resort’s beautifully-finished overwater bungalows or garden lodges, but don’t miss the disarmingly tranquil Emerald Bay on the backside of the island.

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Bridget Nurre Jennions An Emmy-winning TV journalist and an international development specialist in Kosovo, Bridget is a born traveler (45 countries and counting). She has written for various publications – including Lonely Planet – and has a regular column about travel in the Balkans for Paste Magazine.