Kuala Lumpur: Best Things to Do for First-Time Visitors
Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, is the classic stop on every traveler itinerary around Southeast Asia. Read our budget travel guide on the best things to do in KL, top attractions, tips on what to see, where to stay, how to get around, when to visit, what to pack, and where you should go next.
Kuala Lumpur is a melting pot of many nations, and the combination of different cultures and the fact that the city has been founded quite recently, in the mid-19th century probably caused, that after our visit we did not exactly know what to think about the multi-million city, the capital of Malaysia, one of the most beautiful countries in Southeast Asia.
Not that we did not enjoy our time in KL, we certainly did as there are so many things to see and do, that the city could have easily occupied us for weeks.
Also, Malaysia was our first destination on the continent after more than a year spent in New Zealand and Australia, so we cannot say we were spoilt by Southeast Asia, and that we confused one area for another. But we somehow could not place it.
Often, when we leave a destination, we choose one significant character, which later reminds us the place in general, usually, it is the atmosphere, food, or a hotel where we stayed, but it is different with Kuala Lumpur, more than feelings, we remember individual sights such as Petronas Towers, mosques, or city quarters, but there is not one character we could wrap the city into.
But maybe it is good sign, Kuala Lumpur is original, it offers a pleasant mix of new and old, top attractions are easily accessible, and street stalls overflow with Malay, Chinese and Indian food.
Cheap flight tickets to Kuala Lumpur from Thailand mean one thing - many travelers visit the city only on a short trip because they need to extend visas, and then quickly return back.
It was not our case, but we also spent a one-day on an embassy, because we applied in KL for our visas to Vietnam.
Except for arranging visas we had plenty of time to explore the city, and what was the best, we met here our friend from New Zealand who lives here, and she showed us all the best things, top attractions, and places no first-time visitor can miss, plus some spots off the beaten path.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN KUALA LUMPUR
We were pretty surprised how many people have been to KL's airport, and how many of them never decided to leave the airport hall and continued straight to their final destination.
That must be changed!
Kuala Lumpur is not only an interesting, worthwhile destination with plenty of must-see places, but it is also a gateway to many beautiful destinations in Peninsular Malaysia.
What we also appreciated is the fact, that the city is budget-friendly, and cost of living here is pretty low, even though you can for sure find here upscale services if this is what you require when traveling.
Our first-time visitor's travel guide aims to show you all the highlights, and it does not matter whether you have a day or three days spare on your itinerary, or whether you have only a several hours long stopover here. Simply, give Kuala Lumpur a chance! Here's a list of the best things you should not miss when visiting the city for the first time.
Perdana Botanical Gardens
The oldest garden in Kuala Lumpur might be the place you need to visit after all day walking around the city.
Except for many boardwalks, bridges, trees, and lakes, the great thing about Perdana Botanical Gardens (also known as Lake Gardens) is that the entrance is free, so it makes for a perfect budget-friendly activity. It is a popular recreational area for locals, who come here to leisurely stroll or jog.
Make sure you will take plenty of water with you as it gets very hot here when the sun is out.
If you do not have enough of nature within the city, head to KL Forest EcoPark which will give you an idea of how the city could look like if the forest would have taken over.
Petronas Twin Towers
There is probably not a more iconic attraction in KL than Petronas Twin Towers, a symbol of progress and economic power, it is also the best introduction to all KL's skyscrapers.
Even though Petronas Towers are absolutely wonderful from the ground, especially if you appreciate modern architecture, the highlight here is to take an elevator to a viewing deck from where you can admire the sprawling city.
Petronas Towers, 452 meters high, was once the highest building in the world, but even though it is not anymore, it is a true architectural wonder.
As this is the main attraction in the city, it is worth to reserve your tickets in advance to make sure you have your time reserved, and later you can continue in your itinerary.
A park nearby Petronas Twin Towers does not only boast with wonderful views of the structure, but it also provides visitors with shade, and an option to take a break from bustle and hustle of the city.
Boardwalks are surrounded by greenery, and you can sit on the grass, and have a picnic, or simply watch the local life.
Menara KL Tower
Another skyscraper competing with Petronas Towers for the best views of the city is KL Tower.
Although KL Tower is lower than the Towers, the vistas from the observation deck are spectacular, and the highlight is that you can see the Towers, and KL's skyline, which is perfect especially during sunset or after it gets dark when the city lights up.
The highlight here is that the view deck is open, so your views won't be limited by the glass.
It is possible to reserve your tickets in advance here.
Pavillion Kuala Lumpur Shopping Mall
Kuala Lumpur is a shopping destination, and you can find several great malls around the city, but as we arrived by metro to see the towers and the park, Pavillion Shopping Mall was the closest one, so we decided to have a look.
Many brands, clothes and much more can be found inside the mall, and although we are normally not fans of large malls, this one is actually quite pretty and photogenic inside.
China Town & Little India
Malaysia has a large population of Chinese and Indian descendants, and it, of course, must be seen somewhere.
If you want to get a better introduction to those two cultures, there are no better places to go than to districts where many Chinese or Indian live, where they cook their food, sell their products and basically live their life the same way as they would back in China or India.
We know many large cities such as New York or Calgary have similar districts, but we still do not have them in the Czech Republic as not that many people from different cultures live in the country, so we always like visiting these places.
One of the most-visited places in Kuala Lumpur, famous Batu Caves, lie 11 kilometers from the city, but it's never been easier to get there.
Malaysia features many limestone caves with temples inside (in case this is what interests you, do not skip Ipoh where we visited 3 cave temples), but thanks to the proximity to the capital, Batu Caves are overly popular. Inside the cave, you will find more than 100 years old cave with statues and shrines.
The largest Cathedral Cave is guarded by golden Murugan statue, and visitors have to climb 272 steps to get to the entrance.
It is easy to get to Batu Caves independently, take a train from KL Sentral Station (Seremban Line), the ride takes a half an hour, or you can take a half-day tour.
Watch your belongings when walking to the caves, not because of pickpockets, but because of monkeys, who like to stealing food or valuables from travelers' backpacks.
Do not forget that by entering the caves you are entering a shrine, so wear proper clothing.
Our Tip: Do yourself a favor and pack a sarong with you for your South-East Asia travels.
Merdeka Square is a significant place for Malay history as the nation's independence from the British was declared here in 1957.
Except for the square where, by the way, you can see one of the highest flag poles in the world, are several notable buildings such as KL City Gallery or Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
On the north side of the square, you can find St. Mary's Church, one of the oldest Anglican churches in Malaysia, which looks like it does not belong here at all.
Although we've already mentioned China Town, we must put Petaling Street aside, as it is an exceptional street in KL, and if you've never been in Asia before, we believe the visit will be the real experience for you.
The street is lined with tens of stalls selling clothes from all brands you can think of (cheap and low quality, do not expect to buy original stuff here). Haggling is expected, never buy anything for the offered rate, as you can be sure it is several times overpriced. Watch your belongings for pickpockets here.
Even if you do not plan on buying anything (although fake Ray-Ban sunglasses are a must), it is worth to experience the atmosphere, try street food and have dinner here.
If you don’t like dirty and crowded counterfeit markets, stay away.
Islamic Art Museum
One of the best museums in the country is Islamic Art Museum which contains thousands of artifacts, Islamic texts, and art.
This museum will give you an introduction to culture and religion.
Also pay attention to the building, as the white color and gentle lines make from this building a true architectural gem.
As we were walked and driven around the city by our local friend, we ate on night food markets on the outskirts of KL, but we think it does not matter where you go, the food everywhere in the city will be simply awesome.
One of the best places to go to taste the authentic food is Jalan Alor Street.
In case you do not want to only aimlessly walk around the city and look for the best food, or simply if eating out is your hobby and you want to learn more about Malay cuisine, a popular way is to take a guided street food tour.
The national mosque Masjid Negara is truly unique.
Even when you've already visited many mosques during your wanderings, you should not skip this one, as the design is spectacular - or have you already seen a dome which looks like a blue umbrella?
Next to the dome stands 74 meters high minaret.
The mosque is huge as it can fit more than 15 000 people. In case you want to go inside, borrow a robe in front of the entrance to cover your shoulders and knees.
Even though Masjid Negara is really pretty, we liked the architecture of Masjid Jamek, another notable mosque in KL better.
The mosque is the oldest one in Kuala Lumpur and is very photogenic from the outside (red-brick and marble facade), but it is also worth it to have a look inside, just be quiet as many people are praying there throughout the day.
Selangor River is famous for a natural phenomenon - during a short boat ride on a river, you can watch thousands of fireflies illuminating mangroves growing along the shore. It is a magical experience, and definitely one of the worthwhile trips outside the city.
It is possible to do the trip independently, but as you must wait until it gets dark, there is a problem to find a connection back to KL, so you can either arrange a private driver, stay in a village near the river overnight, or reserve a guided tour which includes transport.
WHERE TO STAY IN KUALA LUMPUR
Kuala Lumpur is an enormous city with thousands of accommodation options, so we believe every traveler will be able to find here a hotel which provides the best value for money.
Of course, it is better to stay closer to the city center, but KL has a great public transport system, so although we stayed a bit away from the heart of the city, we did not have the slightest problem to travel around quickly, efficiently and safely.
We've handpicked three best hotels for every budget category.
Budget | Comfort Cabin - Right in the city center and near to the access to metro is this super cheap hostel which offers spacious rooms and clean facilities.
Mid-range | Hotel Stripes Kuala Lumpur - For the price, this is by far the best hotel in KL. Well-designed rooms, outdoor swimming pool, excellent service, and perfect location makes from this hotel a top pick.
Luxury | Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur - This brand promises great services, and it is not different in KL. Beautifully appointed rooms, great views, and an outdoor rooftop swimming pool are the main reasons why this hotel is the absolute top.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
HOW TO GET AROUND KUALA LUMPUR
If you want to explore Kuala Lumpur thoroughly, it is a good idea to put all the must-visit places on a map, and go district by district, so you do not end up jumping aimlessly from one place to another.
The best way how to get around KL is by metro. It covers basically all districts (or at least districts worth visiting), and you will easily get to all top attractions when using the metro system.
Tickets are cheap, and you can buy them at the station.
As almost everywhere around the world, it is better to avoid traveling by a taxi, if you can, or at least make sure you agree on the price before you jump into the car.
You can download an app Grab Car which is an equivalent to Uber, and you should be able to choose your driver and know the rate in advance.
HOW TO GET TO KUALA LUMPUR
Kuala Lumpur is often for many travelers the first destination in Southeast Asia because connections to Malaysia's metropolis are simply great.
The best way how to get to Kuala Lumpur from abroad is by air because KL's airport connects Malaysia with Australia (we flew from Darwin in Australia), but also Europe, and of course, other Asian destinations. Flights are usually cheap and plentiful, one of the most popular connections are from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai or Bangkok in Thailand.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
To get from the airport to your hotel or city center, the easiest option is to take a taxi (you can arrange your transport in advance) which takes approximately 50 minutes depending on traffic, or you can travel independently with either KLIA Express or Transit Metro Trains.
Another popular destination from where people travel to Kuala Lumpur is Singapore.
You can either buy flight tickets, but a much cheaper option is to travel by bus, which takes between five to seven hours.
You can search for bus tickets in Southeast Asia via this link.
We should also not forget to mention trains, which is the surprisingly convenient and comfortable way how to travel from one place to another, not only within the country, but the railway also connects Kuala Lumpur with foreign countries.
SAFETY IN KUALA LUMPUR
We must premise that we never felt unsafe in Malaysia, and the same goes with Kuala Lumpur.
As everywhere in the world, you should always watch your belongings - if there is one danger for travelers in KL, it is pickpocketing. When it comes to robberies, it is pretty common bag snatching when a motorcyclist drivers close around a person, and his sidekick sitting behind snatch the bag and drives away.
It is always better to walk on the side of the pavement closer to houses, and not to carry your bag lightmindedly on one shoulder.
Armed robberies are not common in KL, and although it is always better to walk around the city at the broad daylight, we never felt unsafe after dark - that's being said, we always walked on well-lit streets and did not go to bars.
Once when we were coming back to a hotel from a food market after dark, we rather took a cab.
It is always better to leave your valuables in a hotel room.
WHEN TO VISIT KUALA LUMPUR
Kuala Lumpur is a tropical destination which can be visited all year round.
Temperatures and humidity do not differ much, what changes throughout the year is precipitation.
Kuala Lumpur experience relatively milder temperatures than the rest of the country, 29°C-35°C during the day, but some visitors might find it uncomfortable in combination with pollutions and humidity - it is always more pleasant to walk around the city after rain when temperatures drop for a while, and the air cleans. KL is affected by monsoon seasons.
Between October and January, you can experience some showers, but the true rainy season lasts from March to April when the wet wave hits the city, but even during these months it usually rains in the afternoon or later in the eveningm you can experience occasional floods.
For the rest of the year, you can expect mostly fine weather with blue skies.
Because of the sweaty conditions, it is a good idea to wear light breathable clothes, but if you plan on visiting mosques, it is also necessary to remember that you must dress according to religious rules and cover your knees and shoulders.
Here's a recommendation on what to pack for visiting Kuala Lumpur.
WHERE TO GO NEXT & TOURS FROM KUALA LUMPUR
Kuala Lumpur is a perfect first-time visitors destination because from the city it could not be easier to get to other popular must-see places the country is famous for.
Even if your itinerary does not allow you to travel somehow extensively around Malaysia, you can easily base yourself in KL and take only one-day trips to some of the most wonderful destinations in Southeast Asia.
In case you are looking for an inspiration where to go after visiting Kuala Lumpur, we have several tips for you.
One of our favorite destinations in Malaysia is Melaka, a city known for amazing food and historical architecture. The city is not far from KL therefore, it is a popular place to visit by locals and foreigners.
You can get to Melaka easily by bus, or take a one-day tour from the capital city.
Only four hours drive from KL is Cameron Highlands, and it could not be a more different place from the city, as Cameron Highlands is known for fresh air, cooler temperatures, photogenic tea plantations, and many farms. Although it is always better to stay overnight in a destination, when pressed for time, the best things Cameron Highlands has to offer can be explored on a one-day tour from KL.
Welcoming escape from the city to nature provides Taman Negara, one of the oldest rainforests in the world. The great thing about this jungle destination is that you can easily visit it in only one-day, check out this tour for more information.
Last but not least must-visit destination from KL is Penang, an island famous for food, architecture and street art.
It is a bit further therefore, it would have been too exhausting to visit it in only one day, but you should make sure you put this place on your perfect Malaysia itinerary.
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