The surprising history behind Kuala Lumpur

Like a buried gem, Kuala Lumpur has emerged from humble beginnings to become a shining global city. Here’s how to get the most out of your visit.

  • Narina Exelby

Kuala Lumpur was once a quiet place on the Malay Peninsula where two rivers met. There was nothing particularly memorable about it – people named it after the Malay term for “muddy estuary” – but beneath the mud was a valuable treasure: tin.

Word got out that this meeting of the Gambok and Klang rivers had much to offer those seeking wealth. Chinese and Indian workers moved in, Arabic traders set up shop, and British colonialists settled. Within a few years the muddy confluence became a boomtown.

These days, although still known by its humble name, Kuala Lumpur is more about bright lights and skyscrapers, luxury brands, fine dining and fast cars than tin or murky water. Malaysia’s capital is a wonderful fusion of its multicultural roots. Modern architecture with Islamic influences meets grand colonial buildings. Chinatown and Little India bring life and culture, creating a city as down to earth as it is chic and evocative.

Temple in the middle of a cavern at Batu Caves Temple complex in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Giant Buddha statue greeting visitors at Batu Cave, Malaysia

Day 1:

Visit:

Batu Cave

Every year 400-million-year-old Batu Cave draws Hindu devotees and intrigued travellers. A 43-metre-high golden Buddha statue greets visitors, and those who climb the 272 steps to Cathedral Cave are rewarded with views of brightly painted statues of deities under a vast ceiling. Entrance is free.

Elevated night view of the Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Asia
The Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Petronas Towers

It’s almost impossible to visit Malaysia’s capital without catching at least a glimpse of the spectacular 452-metre-high Petronas Towers. To enjoy a close-up view of the mega-structures inspired by Islamic design, buy lunch at the upmarket KLCC shopping centre (at the base of the towers) and picnic in the adjacent park. At 8pm every evening there’s an impressive fountain-and-light show between the park and the towers.

Get in: Visitors can access the 170-metre-high Sky Bridge (which connects the towers). More info at

Eat:

Troika Sky Dining

If you’re looking for dinner with a view, make a beeline to Fuego, Claret, Cantaloupe or Strato. The quartet of restaurants (which each offer different dining styles) is found on the 24th floor of the Troika building opens in new window, and the food on offer is as good as the impressive outlook.

Drink:

Heli Lounge and Bar

A few bars around KL are known for their views but it’s hard to beat the Heli. Enjoy your drink on a helipad more than 35 storeys above the city, and take in the 360-degree outlook. It really is spectacular.

Get there: 34th floor, Menara KH Building, Golden Triangle

Sleep:

Grand Hyatt

When you book a room at the chic Grand Hyatt opens in new window, be sure to request one with a view of the Petronas Towers. Keep your curtains open and fall asleep to the sparkling lights of KL’s icon.

Various Malaysian dishes at street stall, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Street food being served in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 2:

Eat:

SK Corner

The shops in KL usually open around 10am so get to Bukit Bintang (the city’s trendy shopping district) early and fuel up at SK Corner, a street-side restaurant serving delicious Indian food. Be sure to have teh tarik (pulled tea) and roti chenai (flatbread with curry), both Malaysian specialities.

1 Jalan Rembia, Bukit Bintang

KL Food Experience

Malaysia’s culture is best explored by eating. Urban Adventures opens in new window offer small group tours led by a local that will take you to small restaurants and vendors in parts of KL foreigners rarely visit.

Drink:

BarLai

Hard-to-find BarLai is worth the search – especially if you’re looking for a quiet place to chill out after a crazy day spent shopping. The groovy, understated bar’s signature cocktail is the Bacon Bourbon Bloody Mary. Try it.

3 Jalan Sin Chew Kee, Bukit Bintang

Shop:

Bukit Bintang

Kuala Lumpur is a celebrated shopping destination and if you want to spend money, Bukit Bintang is the area to visit. Pavilion and Starhill Gallery malls boast luxury and designer brands while neighbouring Fahrenheit 88 hosts shops such as Uniqlo, Ripcurl and New Balance. Low Yat Plaza, a 10-minute walk from these malls, is the country’s biggest IT lifestyle mall and a good place to buy computers, cameras and phones. Looking for something less commercial? Central Market is great for handicrafts and at Ainna Artwork (open 10am to 9.30pm daily) you can paint your own batik, a technique of wax-resist dying that is popular in Malaysia.

The bright streets of Little India and Chinatown’s Petaling Street market offer fun shopping experiences, particularly if you like to haggle.

Sleep:

Sahabat Guesthouse

Tucked away off Changkat Bukit Bintang (which has the best collection of bars and restaurants in the city) and Jalan Alor (excellent night food market) streets, Sahabat is a laid-back guesthouse opens in new window that’s great for travellers on a budget.

 Beautiful architecture of the Old Kuala Lumpur Railway Train Station in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in Far East Southeast Asia. Building Travel
The old railway station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 3:

Visit:

National Textile Museum

Caught almost in the middle of the old spice routes, Malaysia has an intricate trade history that is beautifully told through the evolution of fabric designs. Trawl the interesting exhibits in the National Textile Museum opens in new window and you’ll wear sarongs with new appreciation.

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Home to the world’s finest collection of Islamic decorative arts, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia opens in new window is packed with jewellery, fabrics, arms, armour and ancient glassware from around the Islamic world. Plan on getting lost among these treasures for at least two hours – you’ll be here longer than you’d think.

Pucuk Rebung Gallery

Owned and curated by one of the country’s most revered art collectors, Pucuk Rebung gallery is packed with fascinating antiques from Malaysia. The tribal art from Borneo is astounding.

18 Lorong Ara Kiri2, Lucky Garden, Bangsar

Eat:

Tamarind Springs

Excellent service, fine Indochinese cuisine and that beautiful sense of “holiday” that comes with al fresco dining – that’s probably what you’ll remember about an evening at Tamarind Springs restaurant opens in new window. Strictly speaking it’s not al fresco dining, but the restaurant is pretty open and is situated on the edge of Ampang’s natural forest reserve; it feels a world away from the city.

Drink:

Orchid Conservatory at The Majestic

Absorb the grand atmosphere of Malaysia’s colonial days by taking lavish afternoon tea at the Orchid Conservatory in The Majestic hotel opens in new window. You’ll be greeted by a doorman wearing a neatly pressed safari suit: a nod to the past. A short walk down the road is KL’s beautiful old train station – a fine example of colonial-style architecture.

Sleep:

Villa Samadhi

A true city retreat, Villa Samadhi opens in new window is a short taxi ride from most of KL’s attractions. The private rooms are so tranquil and spacious, you might be tempted to pack in all sightseeing and shopping plans and spend your time in the pool or on your daybed.