Why Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia should immediately top your travel wish list

Kuala Lumpur should be at the top of your travel destination list right now. Photo / Getty Images

Malaysia’s capital is rapidly Asian The coolest city in the world. Tamara Hinson explains why it’s worth a visit and why every visitor should explore beyond the Petronas Towers.

In the shadow of the twin-spired Petronas Towers, an elderly woman helps sizzle skewers of satay at her workplace, one of several food stalls along Jalan Raja Muda Musa, a stretch of wooden stilt houses built in the late 1800s. This is Kampung Baru, a small village in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, a perfect example of how reminders of the past are always close at hand in Malaysia’s capital city.

read more: Things to see and do for every visitor to Kuala Lumpur

In 1899, Malaysia’s British colonial government built Kampung Baru (“New Village”) as a settlement for Malaysian farmers, allowing them to continue farming while living free from the risks of development. In reality, the idea was to continue to supply the rapidly expanding city with produce. But it’s a credit to both the residents and their ancestors that a few of these wooden houses remain. It’s one of the favorite food stalls for tourists and locals, including some of Malaysia’s top chefs. “My heart is in Kampung Baru,” says Noraziji Taslim, Executive Chef at The St. Regis Kuala Lumpur. “Steeped in tradition, you’ll find amazing food stalls here, from succulent satay skewers to ayam bakar (charcoal-grilled chicken). Every dish here tells a story of generations past.”

Photo by Tamara Hinson

For now, Kampung Baru’s colorful stilt homes are safe, but 25 years after its construction, the Petronas Twin Towers are no longer the only supertall structure transforming Kuala Lumpur’s skyline. When the needle-shaped Merdeka 118 Tower opens in late 2024, it will become the second tallest building in the world. Its observation decks on the 115th and 116th floors overlook Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, another district rich in history. Exploring the area with Kiran, our guide from A Chef’s Tour, we make our way through Chinatown’s deserted alleyways and come across Kwai Chai Hong, a narrow laneway decorated with beautiful murals depicting life in the 1960s. One artwork painted on the side of a shophouse shows a Chinese calligrapher at work, while another shows a woman in a boa smiling seductively from a window, a reminder that the area once housed several brothels.

Chinatown's Kwai Tsai Hong Street features murals depicting life in the 1960s. Photo by Tamara Hinson
Chinatown’s Kwai Tsai Hong Street features murals depicting life in the 1960s. Photo by Tamara Hinson

History and modernity collide again at nearby Petaling Street Market. This tourist hub is lined with stalls piled high with everything from fake Chanel bags to “I love Kuala Lumpur” T-shirts. But be sure to explore the covered market’s side streets, too, where you’ll find tiny shops selling everything from jade to Chinese medicines, and a tailor working with old ladies bent over Singer sewing machines to sew beautifully embroidered traditional outfits. On a nearby street, we get an instant caffeine fix at Pucks Coffee, a recently opened coffee shop and co-working space with artsy exposed concrete floors, marshmallow-like sofas, and walls adorned with work by local photographers. Co-founder Ozier says the aim was to create an inclusive space with good coffee, music, and art at its heart. “This area of ​​Chinatown is a real melting pot,” he says. “It’s got both local and international flavour and is rich in history.” Further evidence of that contrast is found just a few metres away, at the stunning Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the city’s oldest Hindu temple. Its exterior comprises a five-tiered gopuram (monumental tower), while inside is the main prayer hall surrounded by ornate frescoes and a shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesha.

Chinatown is also a magnet for foodies, and we refueled with the namesake dish at Nam Heon Chicken Rice. The restaurant opened in 1938 and has been a Michelin Bib Gourmand winner ever since, an award that recognizes restaurants that serve great food at reasonable prices. Nearby Lai Hoon Lala Noodles can’t boast the same pedigree (it opened in 2008), but its most famous dish, lala (clam) noodle soup, certainly does. Owner Cindy Chai is a descendant of the Hakka, a seafaring people from northern China who are considered excellent chefs.

More photos of Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Photo by Tamara Hinson
More photos of Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Photo by Tamara Hinson

Elsewhere, he’s noticed an increase in chefs serving up modern takes on traditional Malaysian dishes. Michelin-listed Eat & Cook, which bills itself as the world’s first Malaysian omakase, is typical of Kuala Lumpur’s culinary diversity. “A lot of restaurants are focusing on fresh, locally sourced ingredients and traditional flavours that celebrate Malaysia’s agricultural wealth,” says chef Lee Jae See, the restaurant’s founder. His favourite dish is the pak (fern) salad with coconut sauce, fish garum and fermented coconut cheese. “It’s a modern take on history and local flavours,” he says.

And paying homage to Malaysian traditions is more accessible than ever. Try Afternoon Tea at Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, which pays homage to the region with classics like the Coronation Chicken Sandwich and sweet treats like blueberry and coconut scones. Other highlights include Sabah Black Tea Cake with bergamot jelly and ginger compote with fig leaf mousse.

Afternoon tea at the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur. Photo / Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur
Afternoon tea at the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur. Photo / Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur

The Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur is in Bukit Bintang, part of the larger downtown area known as the Golden Triangle, but other locations are popping up as the city expands. Chef Lee Zhe XI’s restaurant Eat & Cook is in Bukit Jalil, south of the city center in what’s being dubbed the newest CBD, while KL’s newest leisure district is touted as Exchange TRX, a sprawling downtown complex with a 400-store shopping centre and a range of hotels, restaurants and bars.

Malaysia’s first Kimpton hotel will open here in late 2025. Incidentally, this is one of several brands clamoring to open properties in the Malaysian capital. The first Waldorf Astoria is set to open in Bukit Bintang, in the city center, by the end of 2025. I spent an hour there trying to escape Malaysia’s largest shopping center. Berjaya Times Square has over 1,000 stores and is so big it has an indoor rollercoaster. My top tip? If you’re looking for some retail therapy, head to nearby Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. It has 700 stores and isn’t too intimidating. It’s also across the street from my base, the Westin Kuala Lumpur. If you stay here, you’ll have easy access to Pavilion, but you’ll also be a short walk from Petronas Twin Towers, Petaling Street Market, and Chinatown.

Pavilion Kuala Lumpur is a shopping centre in Bukit Bintang that is home to over 700 retail stores and restaurants.
Pavilion Kuala Lumpur is a shopping centre in Bukit Bintang that is home to over 700 retail stores and restaurants.

Curiously, despite the city’s expansion, it’s very easy to explore Kuala Lumpur. Transport options include the LRT, MRT and monorail network. There’s also the super-fast KLIA Express, which will take you from the airport to KL Sentral, a transport hub that will undergo major redevelopment in 2025, in just 28 minutes. The city now has hop-on hop-off buses, which run two routes: the Red Route, which takes in city centre highlights like the Petronas Twin Towers and the National Library, and the Green Route, which I chose. The Green Route takes in sights further afield, like Jammeh Mosque, Perdana Botanical Gardens and the National Palace. On a sunny day, I’d recommend not going to the open-air top deck, lest you feel like a satay stick on the grill; the views from the enclosed section are just as nice.

Explore the city with a KL hop-on hop-off tour.
Explore the city with a KL hop-on hop-off tour.

On our final night, we head to Jalan Alor Night Market in Bukit Bintang, where hungry locals gather around plastic tables and tourists sip ice-cold Tiger beers. I personally recommend the nasi lemak or rendang, but a quick look at the menu reveals that there’s no shortage of traditional dishes. There are around a dozen frog dishes, for example, and pig intestines seem to be equally popular. I was a little put off at first by the number of Marmite-marinated frog dishes on offer, but then I remembered that chef Lee Jie See had told me about the growing popularity of dishes that celebrate the city’s history while giving it a modern twist. And frankly, the Marmite-marinated frog is a perfect example of that.

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