Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia and its largest city. Despite the city’s overwhelming size and population of nearly 2 million, Kuala Lumpur is still an inviting and welcoming city for the adventurous traveler. In fact, it’s the sixth most visited metropolis on the planet. About 9 million visitors flock to Kuala Lumpur, also known as KL, every year. The city’s service-based economy relies heavily on the tourist trade, so your presence there will be embraced and celebrated.

The abundant tourist trade in Kuala Lumpur means several benefits for the savvy traveler. Many of the city’s denizens speak at least some English, especially if they’re involved in restaurants, Kuala Lumpur hotels, transportation, or other services geared toward tourism. Prices for food and services are also competitive, and you can respectfully bargain with some merchants to obtain lower prices. Despite its notoriety as a booming metropolis, Kuala Lumpur is an inexpensive place to visit — as with most of the destinations in Malaysia.

Batu Caves
The Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur.

Customs and Culture Points

Don’t let a lack of English signage discourage you from trying local restaurants. Grabbing a bite at a cart, stall, or out-of-the-way restaurant — as opposed to those found within shopping centers and hotels — is not only much cheaper but also almost always more delicious. Practice some Malaysian to master basic food language so you’ll have an arsenal of words such as beef, chicken, noodles, vegetables, vegetarian, and anything else you’d seek for your palate.

Visitors should keep in mind that the culture in Kuala Lumpur is quite conservative. Kissing, hugging, and other displays of affection are not only frowned upon, but they’re also prohibited by law on public transportation. “Harap Bersopan” means “no kissing” in Malaysian, but the sign’s graphics will probably suffice as a warning. Shaking hands is also not a common practice in Malaysia, so simply smile and nod when greeting someone new.

When entering a shrine or any other holy place, you traditionally remove your shoes first. When visiting temples, the Batu Caves, or other sacred grounds, you should never wear short skirts, shorts, or sleeveless tops. Be ready to remove your shoes when visiting someone’s home as well.

Stay on your toes while in Kuala Lumpur. While not considered a particularly dangerous place for travelers, keep in mind that with any large city with many visitors, some people will prey on the vulnerable. Watch out for one relatively common ploy — two people on a motorcycle will drive up to someone from behind, and the person on the back will grab purses, luggage, smartphones, or anything else within reach before speeding off. Keep your valuables in a fanny pack worn inside your clothing to avoid these thieves.

One final insider tip — always carry a packet of tissues, napkins, or wet wipes. Public restrooms throughout Kuala Lumpur often don’t offer toilet paper or don’t restock it often, even in upscale areas.

Regardless of the differences in culture, remember that Malaysia is a delightful country that entertains millions of visitors a year. Your visitor dollars and good attitude are both welcome. If you stay mindful of local traditions and keep your wits about you, you will have a wonderful time.

Early Morning: Rise and Shine With a Garage-Quality Breakfast

No, garage doesn’t mean the oily repair shop variety, but one of the trendiest upscale eateries in town. Garage 51 is in the hip Bandar Sunway region and delivers a classy industrial decor complete with a gray-and-black color scheme, steel drums on display (the factory type, not the Jamaican kind), and lights that hang from girders on the ceiling. For some privacy, grab a spot in the shipping container seating area that hovers over the kitchen.

You can find some of the best java in town here. It’s no wonder since Garage 51 is a successor to the blisteringly popular CoffeeSociete. The owner recommends the “Awesome Garage Breakfast.” You’ll enjoy the traditional eggs, hollandaise sauce, hash browns, and a bagel, but you’ll also receive baked pasta and smoked chicken. This protein-packed power breakfast is fit for a Malaysian king — a very hungry king.

If you’re staying at one of Kuala Lumpur’s full-service hotels, you’ll have to pass on the complimentary breakfast buffet you likely have at your disposal. Scoring breakfast at Garage 51 is a much tastier option and will also get you out on the town earlier. If you feel like you missed out on a free meal, tell the concierge at the hotel that you must attend an important meeting and ask whether you can possibly get some dinner passes or drinks on the house for some other time. You’d be surprised what your hotel will offer if you simply smile and ask.

skyline 2
A Skyline of Kuala Lumpur.

Midmorning: Take a Zoo Stroll

A short stroll from Garage 51 is the incredible Sunway Lagoon Wildlife Park. This attraction opens at 10 a.m., so it’s the ideal spot to take a stroll among the gorgeous exotic creatures and work off your breakfast. You’ll find this place to be an amazing photo spot, so get the camera ready. Try arriving about 30 minutes before the gates open so you can score your tickets and be first in the park.

The Sunway Lagoon Wildlife Park is home to more than 150 species of animals, and they specialize in big cats. In fact, this attraction is one of the few places in the world where you can see the mysterious and majestic white tiger. The park prides itself on its interactive exhibits such as its walk-through aviary, Pet Village where you can touch giant tortoises and other creatures, and animal shows that let you get up close to lemurs, monkeys, and gigantic snakes.

Noon: Grab a Sunway Snack and Explore the Rest of the Park

You’re probably still full from your best-in-class breakfast, but not to worry. Your ticket to the wildlife park also includes access to the five other Sunway theme parks. Don’t worry about breaking the bank here, as the highest-priced adult ticket is only about $35.

If you have kids traveling with you, the Nickelodeon Lost Lagoon gives them an opportunity to hang out with Spongebob, Dora, and other familiar friends. For those who love adrenaline, several pulse-pounding rides and attractions are waiting for you, including a Scream Park for horror enthusiasts and zombie hunters. If you’re into water parks, Sunway has one of the top parks in Asia, since Kuala Lumpur delivers a balmy year-round temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once you’re worn out from all the walking, grab a beach chair on the sandy faux beaches of Surf Park. Take in a drink and a snack and watch the swimmers and kids at play.

Batu Caves 2
The Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur.

Afternoon: Explore Batu Caves

Once you’ve had your fill of fun at Sunway Lagoon Park, you’re probably ready for some quiet contemplation and the lush beauty of the Batu Caves. While solitude is probably not on the menu — thanks to the widespread popularity of the Caves — the attraction is still a sacred and solemn place for an inner spiritual journey toward peace and well-being. You’ll ascend nearly 300 stairs when you’re entering the Temple Cave. Those with health issues may need to take it slow, a pace that is actually the best way to enjoy Batu Caves.

Limestone estimated to be about 400 million years old formed the Batu Caves. Over the years, the caves have served as shelters for indigenous people, guano harvest locations for local farmers, and — as of the last 130 years or so — a religious shrine. You’ll see far more than rock formations, including statuary, intricate paintings, and religious artifacts on display.

Batu Caves is also home to some interesting animals, most notably the macaque. These amusing Old World monkeys are everywhere and are known for raiding unattended bags and backpacks for food. While you may be tempted to feed them, these little monkeys — while adorable — can be quite territorial and have been known to bite visitors during their endless quests for food. They have acute senses of smell, so avoid having any unsealed food in your possession when you visit.

Batu Caves is home to the infamous Dark Cave. Some of the cave’s animal species and rock formations are found nowhere else on earth. Since Dark Cave is ecologically fragile, public access is limited. If you’re lucky, you can arrange an adventure trip or educational visit to the Cave via the Malaysian Nature Society.

Getting to Batu Caves from the city center is easy. A commuter train travels directly there from KL Sentral. Head to the Batu Caves Komuter station: As with most public transportation in Malaysia, the train is affordable, costing less than $1 each way.

Hindu Temple
A Hindu Temple at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur.

Dinnertime: Immerse Yourself in Culture — the Best Way

You began your adventures at a hip and stylish eatery, then moved on to a fancy amusement park that featured nods toward Malaysian culture and lifestyle. Your next step was to board a local commuter train and head to an ancient place, a destination for countless religious pilgrims. Do you see the trend here? You’re slowly adapting to culture shock and acclimating yourself to the true Malaysia. Dinnertime is the last step. Consuming an authentic local meal is the most basic way to experience a foreign land.

If you’re wary of trying new foods, never fear. Malaysian food, much like the country’s culture, draws upon familiar influences such as Chinese, Indian, and Thai. You may catch a hint of Japanese and Arabian cuisines as well. Malaysian dishes rely heavily upon such Asian staples as coconut milk, kaffir lime, ginger, and lemon grass. Satay, tidbits wrapped in banana leaves, and oodles of noodles are all here for the intrepid eater.

Kuala Lumpur street food is where your wanderings should land you, but the question is, where do you find it? Some may suggest Lot 10 Hutong, but others will say the place is a watered-down version of Malaysian hawker food. For cautious diners, this option may be your best choice. After all, the place is air-conditioned, centrally located, and friendly for English speakers. Dining at Lot 10 Hutong is much like purchasing a “best of” album when checking out a band you’ve discovered. You’ll enjoy it, but it’s not quite a pure experience.

Instead, you can dive straight into the nighttime street scene on Jalan Alor. The place isn’t too active during the day, but when the sun goes down, you’ll find some of the best authentic Malaysian food in the entire city all along one street. Expect many menus without English translations. You’ll probably recognize some of the dishes by now, and no one can deny the efficacy of “point to it and nod” when ordering, but the vendors are always happy to recommend something. If you learn anything from that pocket-sized translation book, you’ll want to remember “Which is your favorite?” This phrase will get you far on Jalan Alor.

Jalan Alor is easy to find if you’re staying close to the city center. If not, a metro line is nearby. Get off at Bukit Bintang Station, and Jalan Alor will be only a five-minute stroll away.

Jamek Mosque
The Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur.

Late Night: Hit a Rooftop Bar

Jalan Alor is a lively place to stay for the evening, with plenty of fun places to grab a drink and mingle with both locals and visitors. However, your Kuala Lumpur experience won’t be complete without visiting one of the world-class rooftop bars the city has to offer. Check out the appropriately named SkyBar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel. The weekends usually feature DJs spinning techno and dance music. During weeknights, you’ll hear mellower background music, such as jazz or soft rock, allowing for relaxing conversation. SkyBar has some of the best drinks in town, but don’t go overboard — remember, you’ve got to get back to your hotel eventually.

Airport Guide for Kuala Lumpur

Two main airports in Kuala Lumpur support commuter flights. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) is about 47 miles south of the city center. The airport is two central buildings, the five-story main terminal and the smaller satellite building. Most flights in and out of KLIA are via Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia.

Once you land at KLIA, you’ll have two main options for entering the city center. Highly recommended, a high-speed rail takes you directly to the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Alternately, you can rent a car, but even under the best of circumstances, the commute can take an hour or more. Kuala Lumpur tends to have challenging traffic conditions, which can further extend your driving time. Locating any of these options is easy, as all airport signage includes English translations.

The airport itself is an adventure, so you may want to set aside some time to explore. The architecture and design are a fascinating blend of cutting-edge modern elements and traditional Malaysian culture. KLIA features top-quality luxe lounges, play areas for kids, and many restaurant options. Duty-free stores are a great way to get some keepsakes at awesome prices, although you can buy many of these items for much less once you’re in town. You may not be accustomed to snapping pictures of an airport, but you may find yourself capturing some digital memories of this fascinating international travel hub.

Another place you may land is KLIA2, which replaces the former Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). It’s the world’s largest budget airline airport, and AirAsia flights are common here. KLIA2 is only about a mile away from the main terminal at KLIA and has its own control tower and runway. If you’re coming to or from Indonesia or the Philippines, you may end up at KLIA2. As with its parent airport, KLIA has a main terminal building and a satellite building connected by a huge skybridge.

On Level 1, you’ll find taxi and express buses, as well as a connection to the high-speed rail service. KLIA Ekspres will take you into the city in about 30 minutes, while the KLIA Transit train makes a few stops before arriving at KL Sentral Station. Access to either KLIA or KLIA2 is available through these trains.

If you have an extensive stopover or delay and wish to nap or freshen up, check out Capsule by Container Hotel at KLIA2, recognized as Asia’s first capsule transit hotel. You can rent a capsule bedroom for three, six, or 12 hours to enjoy the lounge area, showers, and free Wi-Fi. You can also find fast food, beverages, and shopping at KLIA2, although the amenities aren’t nearly as extensive as those found at KLIA.

Downtown
Downtown Kuala Lumpur

Where to Stay

As with its food and activities, Kuala Lumpur has something for everyone. Budget travelers, especially those going solo, should consider one of the fun and frugal hostels scattered throughout the city. Kuala Lumpur hostels are among the most inexpensive of any major city in the world. Reggae Mansion KL offers clean and comfy beds for slightly more than $11 per night. This funky hostel provides soap and towels, offers two lively on-site bars, and includes free dinner for all its guests.

If you want a slice of familiar when you return to home base, you’ll find several global brands in KL from which to choose. Hilton, Hyatt, Renaissance, and many others have KL locations. These hotels also quite reasonable; for example, you can get a room at Holiday Inn Express for less than $50.

Thanks to this area’s affordability, you may want to treat yourself to a top-flight room at one of Kuala Lumpur’s luxury hotels. The Shangri-La Hotel, with plush suites and astounding views of the city, certainly lives up to its name. Another great pick is the modern and marvelous Trader Hotel, home of the SkyBar mentioned above. InterContinental is a rich and elegant choice. All three are still delightfully low-priced options, with room rates that start around $125.

 

Ready to take the trip of a lifetime in Kuala Lumpur? Plan and book the best Kuala Lumpur trip, from transportation and accommodations to tours and attractions, on GoDoTrip.