Kuala Lumpur (KL) is the Southeast Asia country to visit if you love a variety of Asia food. The major city was described to us as a “grittier Singapore”, which we found quite accurate. There’s that similar vibrant mix of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian cultures but the streets are not as clean and there’s quite a bit more traffic. We suppose it comes with the financial territory though, but coming from Bali we were super excited to grub out on all the food we’ve been missing.
Flying into Kuala Lumpur you’ll notice huge palm tree forests that lend an almost tropical feel, but once you hit the highways you’ll find nothing but tolls and traffic. Grungy streets with vibrant murals branch off in every direction. The weather is almost always warm and humid but people commonly walk just as much as they take public transportation. The nights are livelier as the temperature drops, not just for clubs and bars (though there are plenty) but also just for street food.
What to Do in Kuala Lumpur
To be honest we mostly came to Kuala Lumpur for the food, so other than eating we didn’t do all that much – no shame! However, if you’ve been following along (fellow garden lovers unite!), you can be sure that we made time to visit the Perdana Botanical Gardens. We didn’t have a solid plan for our visit and simply took the monorail over to the National Museum to start from the south end and make our way up. We don’t recommend that as we ended up struggling to find a way from Sentral Station past the Museum to get into the Gardens. Turns out Perdana Botanical Gardens is more for driving and not as walkable as we anticipated. We stuck close to the eastern edge and followed the main road from the Planetarium to the Bird Park, decided against going in and continued north to the Orchid Garden. Unfortunately not much was in bloom at the time and we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed after our visit to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. We wandered into the Hibiscus Garden where there is a dreamy Secret Garden-esque fountain that is perfect for a photoshoot. Our route completely missed the lakes but we still really enjoyed the walk and especially the Butterfly Park. While it had more of an overgrown and grittier feeling garden, it was still a beautiful space and worth the visit. They also have an extensive collection of preserved butterflies and other crawling critters.
To beat the crowds and heat, we set aside a morning to get to the Batu Caves Murugan Temple just before 8am and found that an hour was plenty of time to trek up the 272 vibrant steps and visit the main cave. The numerous steps sound much worse than they were in reality – but then again, I can’t say that’s true for the guys carrying up boxes of stuff for the store at the top! Wear comfortable and sensible shoes as the interiors of the cave can get quite slippery.
Another favorite past time in Kuala Lumpur is shopping – much like in other hot and humid Asian countries. The promise of breezy air conditioning is always alluring and throw in great restaurants (lots of popular restaurants are within malls or hotels) and you have very few reasons not to go head to the malls. Because of our long term travel and limited luggage space, we’ve done our best to avoid shopping, but we were extremely tempted throughout Malaysia and Thailand where many of the major sports brands like Nike, Adidas, and Puma offer a much larger selection and variety of street clothes and color ways than we get in the States. Prices don’t differ too much but you might be able to catch a sale! Just be aware that Asian sizes differ a bit from American or European sizes.
What to Eat in Kuala Lumpur
“What to eat?” is the million dollar question when it comes to Kuala Lumpur – or more like less than $5 question since you can easily get a meal for that. With its multitude of cultures, you can easily find any sort of cuisine in KL so it just depends on what you’re in the mood for. Since we had just come from Indonesia and headed to Finland after, we made a point to get our fill of dim sum, a Chinese delicacy that’s not readily available in either of those countries. Our favorite was Xin for its offering of all the traditional dishes at excellent quality and reasonable prices. While we don’t really care for the prices and hype of Din Tai Fung back at home, we did enjoy Din by Din Tai Fung, their halal restaurant in KL – it was actually our only reason to go visit the Petronas Twin Towers. Try their ginseng noodle soup and any of their dumplings, especially the xiao long bao – which they’re famous for. We also recommend their lemongrass and lime juice and their pu er milk tea, both very flavorful.
For more Asian culinary delights, head over to Lot 10 for their specially curated collection of hawker stalls in the lower ground level food court. Lot 10 is perfect for families and groups with people who all want different things, but especially if they like noodles. For dessert or a snack, swing by Kee Mei Siew Bao for their egg tarts and meat buns. If you prefer a livelier ambiance under the warm night skies, head to Jalan Alor Night Food Court for any of their massive seafood restaurants or hand pick your dinner from the many food stands. You might be skeptical of a massive seafood restaurant filled with tourists being any good – we certainly were – but Restoran Meng Kee Grill Fish proved us wrong with some of the best calamari and fried turnip cake. Jalan Alor is also a great place for to try durian, but if you want something less exotic, look for sugar cane (with lemon) juice or the lady selling peanut mochi: they’re super soft and stuffed with crushed and salted peanuts, really fun to eat though a tad drying in the mouth!
One of my favorite things to do for breakfast (or really anytime) is to find a local bakery and luckily Kuala Lumpur has plenty of options when it comes to bakeries. Try mochi bread or a black sesame filled bagel from Hogan Bakery Lion tower for some really great textures and Asian flavors. We were also big fans of Lavender, Pavilion, grab some mini pudding buns for a snack, you can never have too many. Their bamboo charcoal mochi bread has a unique flavor but a much chewier texture than expected. Chocolate lovers will love making a mess with their dirty chocolate bun, don’t forget to to take a photo afterwards!
We visited on two separate occasions, each for 3-5 days and found that Kuala Lumpur makes for a great layover on the way to anywhere in southeast Asia. There’s no better time to go to KL than now while English is still a main language, but we were told that as the multiple cultures are beginning to start their own school curriculums and English will become secondary. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more things to know before going to Kuala Lumpur like logistical information or jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.
Pick your location wisely as getting around can take you time. Walking is common but depending on the weather can be quite hot. Note that there are tons of skyscraper apartment buildings in KL and chances are you wont get a lot of sunshine in your room. The following are 2 different AirBnB’s that we stayed in, the first seemed nice from the photos and reviews but in reality wasn’t so great. We highly recommend the second one for its idea location. Both buildings were well managed in the lobby.
THE CONS: The apartment looks great in the photos, but in reality is not as well maintained. When we checked in, the key was missing from the mailbox, luckily their lobby staff are super nice and coordinated communications for us and there’s wifi in the lobby. No apologies were made and the rest of the team did not respond to our AirBnB message until the next morning. The wifi wasn’t working in the apartment when we got in, so we had to bum wifi from next door (which is an operating hostel) to ask the team about fixing the wifi. We had a number of issues with the apartment but communications and interactions with this host team were extremely spotty and unprofessional.
THE PROS: The location is not far from some of the main attractions, walking distance to the towers and even to Jalan Alor. It’s close to the free KLgo bus stop and the monorail station. It’s got a decent kitchen and all the dishware. We bought oil, soy sauce, and honey to use during out stay and left it in the fridge for whoever stays next, as those are not provided. The building is pretty secure and there is a cafe, mini grocer and convenient store downstairs. The apartment is pretty spacious, with plenty of floor space. They provide shampoo and soap.
“Chen’ Prestigious Suite @KL, KLCC Bukit Bintang#R4”.
Great location, walking distance to Jalan Alor and Lot 10 – also plenty of street food options within the block. The apartment itself was clean though not as new as the photos would make it seem. Plenty of space and very comfortable. There is shampoo, soap, dish soap and a modestly supplied kitchen with a few pots and pans, though not much dishware provided. Check in was easy and we were allowed to check in early.
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Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations, Hep A and Typhoid, check with your doctor!
Mosquito problems: Bring your trusty bug spray, I was bitten throughout the Botanical Garden and just walking through a parking lot field by our hotel.
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions. Malaysia is a primarily Muslim country, so please be respectful. Kuala Lumpur is a major city so there’s always tons of people and plenty of pedestrians well into the evenings. In general we have found Malaysians to be very kind, but always stay alert.
Getting Around in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur has tons of public transportation but not all the lines are integrated. There’s a free bus system that’s pretty great – if you’re headed in it’s direction, otherwise you’re better off walking or using Grab. Take the free bus, doesn’t stop at every stop, so be ready to run up to it or press the button to request your stop. We took a mix of everything during our stay so it will really depend on where you’re based and where you’re trying to go.
Getting From KUL to City Center
Keep in mind the airport is about an hour away from the city. There is a train option that takes you to Sentral but if you need to transfer beyond that or are more than one person, it’s more cost effective to grab. Depending on traffic though, you may prefer train to a main area and then taking Grab from there.
If you’re planning to use Grab a lot, best to pick up a SIM card, which is easy enough in the airport or shops like Maxis, for one week or one month cards. The monthly cards Can be extended by 50 days at a time and either requires a passport for purchase.
Another thing to note about getting to and from KUL, make sure to know which terminal you’re at, KLIA or KLIA2, as they’re quite far from each other and require a bus or a express train to transfer between them. The train between terminals costs 2 MYR to change terminals.
Currency: 1 MYR = 0.24 USD
Tipping is not necessary, but appreciated.
$30-50/person: This was for 3-5 evenings in Kuala Lumpur in a private apartment listed on AirBnB. We cooked some meals in the first time around and our second trip mostly eat out. We used the tram a couple times, Grab, took the free city bus and also walked.
Some typical costs
- 2 orders of noodles at Lot 10 – Ho Weng Kee: 28 MYR
- 4 plates at Jalan Alor – Meng Kee: 71 MYR
- 6 plates + tea at Dolly Dim Sum: 80 MYR
- Grab ride from Airport to city center: 65 MYR
- AirBnB private room: $21-26/night
Lavender, Pavilion, lavender.com.my, Pavillion Kuala Lumpur, P1.07.00 & P1.08.00, 168, Jalan Bukit Bintang, $ – Bakery chain with some tasty breads, great for breakfasts or snacks!
Hogan Bakery Lion tower, facebook.com/hoganbakerymalaysia, 11-21, Jalan Mesui, Bukit Bintang, $ – Another bakery chain with less variety but very delicious breads.
Dolly Dim Sum Pavilion Elite, dollydimsum.com, Lot 1.102.00, Level 1 168, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, $-$$ – Special selection of teas available. Try their special versions of Cheong Fun (rice noodles wraps).
DIN By Din Tai Fung, dintaifung.com.my, Suria KLCC, 405, Persiaran Petronas, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, $$-$$$ – Din Tai Fung’s Halal restaurant, try their dumplings of course. We also really enjoyed their ginseng chicken noodles.
Xin Cuisine Chinese Restaurant, kualalumpur.concordehotelsresorts.com/dining, 2, Jalan Sultan Ismail, $-$$ – One of our favorite dim sum spots in KL, they have all the traditional dishes at a great quality for a modest price.
Dynasty, Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel, Jalan Sultan Ismail, $$ – A more upscale Chinese restaurant that offers fancier styles of dim sum dishes, we found them interesting but not what we were craving and also not at the higher price point.
Restoran Mee Tarik Warisan Asli, meetarik.com, 51, Jalan Tasik Utama 3, Sungai Besi, $-$$ – Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle restaurant, decent noodles but only so-so flavor in the broth.
Hyderabad Recipes, hyderabadrecipes.com.my, 78-1, Jalan Putra, pwtc, $$ – We used Grab to order some curries and naan from here, though it took a really long time to get it delivered, it was quite satisfying.
Tealive, tealive.com.my, multiple locations, $ – Decent boba tea chain, they also have a brown sugar milk tea (a favorite of ours at Deerioca) so we wanted to compare. Tealive’s is much sweeter and doesn’t have the same chew in the boba.
Petronas Twin Towers – KLCC, petronastwintowers.com.my, Concourse Level, Lower Ground, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, Free, tickets required to visit Observation deck – We used Grab to order some curries and naan from here, though it took a really long time to get it delivered, it was quite satisfying.
Lot 10, lot10.com.my, 50, Bukit Bintang Street, Bukit Bintang, $-$$ – A large mall that’s famous for its collection of best hawker stalls.
Jalan Alor Night Food Court, 21, Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang, $-$$ – Famous night food market street with everything from restaurants to
Perdana Botanical Gardens, klbotanicalgarden.gov.my, Jalan Kebun Bunga, Tasik Perdana, Free, some gardens and attractions have an entrance fee – Check out the Butterfly garden for some close ups with giant beauties or wander the Hibiscus Garden for some extraordinary photo ops. The Orchid garden was not much to look at during our visit and a does not compare to Singapore’s.
Batu Caves Murugan Temple, batucaves.org, Jalan Batu Caves, Taman Sunway Batu Caves, Free, other caves have an entrance fee – Iconic Hindu temple that’s definitely a ‘Gram spot. Get there early to avoid the heat and the crowds. If you’re only visiting the main (Free) temple, the visit shouldn’t take longer than an hour.