Whether you’re a veteran city explorer, love cultural immersion, or adore foodie travel, Kuala Lumpur is the place for you.
The Malaysian capital is a city of fascinating contrasts, rich culture and wonderful street food. Discover Kuala Lumpur’s many facets while sightseeing, from the historic colonial architecture to the stunning Petronas Towers.
If you’ve only got a short time, make sure you experience the tropical nightmarkets and take a look the vibrant street art scene. Perhaps take in a museum and getaway from the hubbub into KL’s surprising pockets of greenery and wildlife.
Here is my guide to 48 hours in Kuala Lumpur:
Heart of multi-cultural Malaysia
Malaysia is a country with a deeply held traditional respect for the past. It also has high tech industrialisation, natural resources and a growing economy. Over one-and-a-half million people are crowded into the densely populated metropolis of Kuala Lumpur.
Start off your first day in KL with a walking exploration of its rich history and architecture. The smooth, empty grass of Independence Square – Dataran Merdeka – is surrounded by historic buildings. From the Moghul-style Sultan Abdul Samad Building built in 1897 to St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral and the Selangor Club, which once used the square as its cricket ground. The flagstaff here marks the beginning of the independent Malaysian state in 1957.
Try to hit Chinatown when you are ready for lunch – there are great buffet-style eating places under the overpasses on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Try the sweet Malay coffee. If you are looking for souvenirs there are vendors selling everything from flowers to sunglasses. This area is also dotted with historic shop houses and various temples. Stop by the Guandi Temple (Jalan Tun H S Lee) and sit quietly as the local people coming and go, lighting incense, and making puja.
Celebrating KL’s urban culture is a thriving street art scene. Along the Sungai Klang river bank for hundreds of metres the results of the Kul Sign Festival can be seen: vibrantly creative graffiti art.
From here you can walk to the pristine, beautifully designed precinct surrounding the Petronas Towers, with parks, pools and fountains framing the 88-storey-high twin towers that have become symbolic of Malaysia’s fast-forward development. Along with the KL Tower, these skyscrapers really set the KL skyline alight. You can go to observation decks about halfway up the Petronas, or the Menara Tower has a great view of the city.
A night out in Kuala Lumpur
Perhaps end your afternoon with a bit of downtime back at the hotel before hitting one of Malaysia’s essential experiences – the colourful night markets, which offer treasures both for bargain hunters and lovers of street food.
In Chinatown the noise and bustle of Petaling Street and the surrounding lanes is offset by rainbow fairy lights looped from palm trees around the Central Market. Strings of red and gold paper lanterns rub shoulders with bright neon signs. Street vendors fan smoking barbecues and a dried fish stalls smell particularly savoury.
Jalan Cecil Kuala Lumpur Photo by Alpha via Flickr
Typically Malaysian night markets start in the late afternoon and are booming by 6pm with locals and tourists shovelling down tasty dishes like spicy noodles and Chinese dumplings. Don’t miss the char kuah yeow (fried noodles).
The night market in Chinatown has an overwhelming array of street food. From roti and satay to clay pot dishes and grilled bananas, there is something for everyone. Chicken cooked in clay pots, banana and chocolate roti, satay chicken, grilled fish, buffet style free for alls (usually at lunch time and a great one under one of the overpasses on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock) and more.
Jalan Petaling is a very historic area with many interesting Chinese shophouses and temples. You can eat from streetside stalls or sit down and watch life go by with a Tiger Beer or two. I love it. I also love to wander around and look at some of the odd things being brewed, cooked and eaten – durian unmentionables (not for me), cubes of rice, soya bean matter, prawn on sticks, coconuts and numerous unidentifiable objects.
To finish off the evening, head to Bangsar for Kuala Lumpur’s more sophisticated bars and pubs. Tourists often go to the bars around Chinatown. The Tourist Information Centre can tell you about traditional dance and music performances if you want to do something a little different.
Alternative things to do in Kuala Lumpur
Once you’ve seen the main sights, it’s time to take it easy on your second day and explore a little deeper. Despite the concrete and glass jungles, the colonial legacy and modern town planning has left KL a surprisingly green capital.
The lush 92 hectares of Lake Gardens near the parliament buildings has south-east Asia’s largest bird park and there are three forest reserves within the city limits and a surprising amount of wildlife. This is a lovely place to relax, you can go boating on the lake, stroll or ride on a shuttle bus around the gardens.
Lake Gardens Kuala Lumpur Photo by Ben Garrett via Flickr creative commons
Not far from Lake Gardens it is well worth going into Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Art Centre for an hour. Over 30,000 square metres it displays decorative work from centuries of Islamic culture from the Arab heartlands to China, India and south-east Asia. I think it carries a special multi-cultural message in this day and age. Through illuminated books, jewellery, textiles, weapons and delicate underglazed fretwork on earthernware tiles it examines how cultures absorb the arts of others and form new amalgams of creativity, unifying through diversity.
Continue the multicultural experience by heading to Little India, a surprisingly relaxed enclave where you can listen to tabla rhythms and tuck into a banana leaf full of steaming rice and dhal. The exotic Sri Maha Mariamman Temple with its elaborate gopuram reflects Kuala Lumpur nearly 10 per cent Hindu population.
KL boasts a large Indian community and if you’ve never had the exposure to their culture or would simply like another taste, then you must visit the district of Little India around Jalan Jasjid India. There are plenty of shops selling saris, Indian silver tableware, perfumed oils, sandalwood oil, music and Bollywood films, and of course plenty of food. The major Indian festivals are celebrated here with gusto.
Enjoy a late lunch before catching the bus to the airport!
By Natasha von Geldern
Travel Tips for Kuala Lumpur:
There are regular bus services/trains from both KLIA and LCCT airports to KL Sentral that run nearly 24 hours a day and are very cheap.
If you’d like more information about visiting Kuala Lumpur see here.
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