Kuala Lumpur (KL) is like the cool teenager of south east Asian cities. It’s growing almost too quickly for the space it lives in, hosts an overwhelming variety of great food, and still seems to be working out a personality between global business centre and tropical holiday stopover. One thing’s for sure – this thriving city is worth a visit. Discover the best bits with this guide.
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Almost 8 million people live in the Greater KL area, with a population that is skyrocketing faster than the towering glass buildings being built to house it. Traffic is thus a major issue in the city with more than 7,000 residents per square kilometre (Sydney, by comparison, has a population density of about 1,200 per square kilometre according to the City of Sydney). Avoid sitting in traffic by choosing central accommodation from which you can walk to most attractions. Bukit Bintang is the pick: jam-packed with upmarket hotels just a stroll from the giant shopping mall Pavilion and the Jalan Alor night food market.
If you want to head further afield, the locals’ tip is to download the app Grab – which is exactly like Uber but more popular in Malaysia. You may need to buy an international data pack on your phone to use it outside Wi-Fi but it’s far safer, cheaper and less stressful than bargaining with roadside taxi drivers. One driver quoted me 50 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR – about AU$16) for a 20-minute journey from Batu Caves to the city, but the same journey ended up costing just 17MYR (AU$5) on Grab.
The skyline of the Malaysian capital is dominated by the 451-metre tall Petronas Towers, and every local will tell you that viewing the city from the top of KL’s “twin towers” is a must-do. High-speed elevators zing visitors up to the dizzying 86th floor every day except Monday. The sunset tour at 6.15pm casts stunning colours over the city. You’ll need to book your place in advance, but you can save time and avoid the queue by purchasing tickets on TripAdvisor and getting them delivered to your hotel for free.
The Mike Bikes cycling tour is a fun way to get your bearings – and some exercise – in a few hours. Local guides take you on an “essentials” tour of the city pedalling signature orange bicycles. It’s astonishing to witness KL’s rapid pace of change and the high contrast of wealth when you visit a dilapidated village gasping for space right beneath the glittering twin towers.
Shoppers will love Pavilion for upmarket brands, and even non-shoppers should experience the vibrant colours and sounds of the Petaling Street market. Finally, let the kids cool off at Sunway Lagoon Waterpark. It’s a waterpark crossed with a zoo, hosting adrenaline-fuelled rides next to live tiger enclosures.
Rooftop bars are eternally in vogue in KL. There are plenty to choose from, but the highest is Vertigo Bar in Bukit Bintang. The cocktails are relatively expensive for KL (about AU$20) but the Instagram shots from this place are priceless. Make sure you grab a few with the city lights and iconic twin towers in the background.
Heli Bar attracts the A-list of KL’s elite. As the name suggests, it’s a functional helicopter pad by day, which morphs into a sprawling rooftop bar by night. DJ tables, outdoor lounges and swanky drinks turn the concrete oval into a buzzing nightspot from 6pm onwards. Get in the downstairs queue earlier if you want to guarantee a visit.
Omakase + Appreciate is off the beaten track and worth the trouble to find. The Japanese bar staff at this trendy speakeasy are known for mixing drinks according to individual taste (Omakase means “your choice” in Japanese). I couldn’t be happier with the lemon, gin and elderflower concoction they serve me.
Stepping outside your air-conditioned hotel in KL can be an assault on all five senses: humidity, pollution, colours and smells backed by an incessant drum of traffic and cicadas. But as the sun goes down, wafts of satay and dumplings start overpowering the rest. Follow your nose with a local foodie tour for about AU$30 with Withlocals, which is an online travel platform that allows you to connect with local hosts on the ground by joining private tours & activities. On my visit, savvy guide Manjeet takes me through Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang, and ensures I’m royally stuffed by the end of our two-hour tour.
One of the local gems Manjeet reveals is Lot 10 food court, where you can fill up on curry puffs, egg baskets, roti bread, noodles and stir fries for the equivalent of a few Australian dollars. Malaysia’s must-try dish is char kway teow (a stir fried noodle dish, also known as CKT) and in Lot 10 the locals make it with duck eggs rather than chicken. This turns an alt-pad Thai into a richer, more indulgent dish.
For indulgence with a heftier price tag, head to Horizon Grill at the top of Banyan Tree Hotel. This restaurant is famous for its steak (including a piece of melt-in-your-mouth Japanese wagyu on the menu for 435MYR or AU$150). However, the high-rise view from Horizon’s breezy outdoor seating area might drop your jaw faster.
The exclusive Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur opened in June 2018 and takes up prime position in KL’s “Golden Triangle” of luxury hotels. This is the newest five-star hotel to open in the convenient Bukit Bintang area and the first outpost of the renowned luxury hotel chain to open in Malaysia.
Fifty-five modern rooms and suites occupy the top seven floors of the towering Banyan Tree Signatures Pavilion Kuala Lumpur building. The top floor hosts KL’s highest rooftop bar, while the lowest floor of the hotel has an outdoor pool with what appears to be an eye-level view of the twin Petronas Towers. The best view to watch the sun set is from the incredible spa room, where an expert masseuse scrubs my feet before a “signature Banyan treatment” massage. I leave the 1.5-hour treatment feeling like Jesus reborn.
Floor-to-ceiling windows, electronic shades, humungous TVs and disco-lit rain showers make the rooms feel like Bond lairs. But personal touches like a pillow menu and choice of room scents add warmth to these mod cons. One delightful staff member must notice the dog-eared pages of my book but says nothing. I return to my room to find a Banyan Tree bookmark marking my place.
Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur is an idyllic haven from which to base your city explorations. Be sure to check out the rooftop pool and the highest bar in Kuala Lumpur, Vertigo.