This is the best of Kuala Lumpur – the ultimate list that defines KL as one of the great clients of the world. Neatly organised into four categories (Food & Drink, Attractions & Activities, Nightlife & Music and Arts & Culture), this extensive guide has all the critics recommended activities, sights and experiences that make this city so unique.
Food & Drink
Behind our old Istana Negara sits a stretch of ikan bakar stalls, but it’s Kedai Kat Jat (commonly known as Gerai No. 3) that stands out. The man at the grill may be the silent type but his perfectly cooked, banana leaf-wrapped seafood does all the talking. The freshness of the fish hits you first; the spicy marinade complements but doesn’t take away from the true taste of the fish. Have it with sambal belacan and wash the spiciness down with air kelapa.
Essentially coconut gelato coupled with chilli sprinkles, peanuts and a dusting of anchovies, this gelato bears an uncanny resemblance to the real thing, but in a creamy and savoury artisanal dessert package. This much fabled nasi lemak flavour, along with other local-centric alterations like kopi and toast, is only available periodically, so keep tabs on their Facebook page for updates.
Offering the tastiest barbecued chicken wings in town, Wong Ah Wah headlines the plethora of Chinese restaurants along Jalan Alor. Formerly a measly little stall, the always crowded eatery is now an integral part of KL’s busiest food haven. Most of the stalls on this street operate until the wee hours of the morning, making Jalan Alor a popular destination for Changkat party-goers.
Hakka noodles are hard to find in KL, and Toast & Roast does them best – springy egg noodles tossed in glistening lard and topped with minced pork, crunchy deep-fried fish skin and sliced spring onions. It may look unimpressive but the crunch of the fish skin against the savoury slick of the noodles is a combination that has to be tried to be believed. If you’re still hungry, add on a plate of char siew or pork dumplings.
The chap fan counter overflows with at least 50 vegetarian standards such as stuffed tau fu pok, vegetable curry and ‘chicken’ drumsticks fashioned from fried beancurd skin. There are also stalls hawking wantan mee, curry mee and red bean pancakes. The temple is very serious about their food: No white sugar, preservatives or MSG. Don’t miss the excellent lei cha every Friday.
Honey-glazed char siew is one of KL’s most alluring street food tempts. Some of the most intensely charred pork can be found at Meng Kee. The pork here is alarmingly sweet and yields a crunchy exterior, pairing nicely with the sticky rice. Take note that the stall sign is misspelled Ming Kee, so don’t disregard it too quickly.
Ngau Kee has been a KL lunch and supper food fixture for over four decades, making it one of the oldest beef ball noodle shops in town. All you need to know about the many noodle alternations (beef ball only, mixed beef, beef innards, soup or dry) is listed on the huge yellow signboard, with pictures and prices to boot. Ngau Kee’s signature thin, springy noodles and tender beef cubes will remain a culinary favourite for years to come.
Bak kut teh gained its full name from Lee Boon ‘Teh’ (owner of Seng Huat) who unwittingly conferred his name on the dish. The third-generation owner, John, now serves two versions of bak kut teh – the original meat-bones only in the morning and the claypot style with intestines, maw, mushroom and tofu puffs at night. We love the original one better – the herby pork rib is hacked into large chunks of flavourful, tender meat.
If feasting on quality durian over the blaring of police sirens by the roadside is your idea of fun, then Donald’s Durian, located behind the SS2 police station, is a must-visit. The durian buffet deal goes for RM15 per person, where selected D30s are continuously sent to your plastic table. Other durian variants, like the much vaunted D24, are subject to availability. The durian season typically starts in the middle of the year.
Eat a sloppy Ramly burger by the roadside
This highly customisable and affordable roadside burger is a Malaysian icon. Some of the finest Ramly burgers can be found in the popular TTDI stand. Watch the two abangs grill and then wrap up your double ayam special while loitering outside Jalan Burhanuddin Helmi’s 7-Eleven store. Daily, 8pm–late
Music & Nightlife
The Roof opened to much fanfare last year, when it quickly became one of the city’s most exciting openings. This nightlife hub in PJ houses five outlets all under one roof – the only one of its kind in town. The best part is definitely Stratosphere. It’s the first and only bar on top of an infinity, grassed helipad in Asia. Needless to say, the views are spectacular.
Hush, don't tell anyone about these super cool speakeasy bars. We're not telling you how to locate the door, because it's all part of the fun. Once you get into Tate, the stylish, masculine design will put you right at home – for our money, Tate makes the best martini in town. At Omakase + Appreciate, indulge in the cocktails served by award-winning mixologists, Shawn Cheong and Karl Too. Since they practise a ‘omakase’ format, which means ‘I'll leave it to you’ in Japanese, the mixologists are more than happy to tailor-make a cocktail for you.
You'll be able to find both KTVs (establishments with private rooms) and 'karaoke jambans' (claustrophobia-inducing cubicles with single karaoke machines) scattered all over KL, but avoid the latter unless you're dead broke. Choose wisely; they all vary in price, song selection and language.
So many nights have started and ended at SkyBar. And we're not complaining. It has the perfect combination: lip-smacking cocktails, spectacular views of the KL skyline and a posh environment that is far from snotty. Sometimes you can even dance a little when the DJ churns out groovy beats.
The Bee Publika has had a top-notch roster of local and international acts passing through it over the past year, with many more promised. If there's a gig, fight your way to the front of the crowd for some true musical magic. If it's an event-free night, just chill out with the hipsters and soak in the cool atmosphere. Their regular BBQ Sundays are usually live-soundtracked by Twilight Action Girl, and there's a rotating calendar of swap-meets, classes, courses and pet-friendly events.
Amidst the mayhem of Changkat Bukit Bintang is the little jazz club that could. No Black Tie's cosy wood-accented stage area is whimsically hidden behind an imposing wooden door at the rear of the bar. It's always a classy affair at No Black Tie, where elegantly dressed regulars and music lovers gather for intimate live sets from international and local talents. Although jazz is the genre of choice, patrons can expect a mixed bag of blues, rock and retro-pop as well.
Here's the kicker: you can drink at their helipad from 6pm to 9pm daily when it's closed to helicopter landings. At the moment, there aren't any safety barriers surrounding the helipad, so stay away from the sides when you're drinking. The faint-hearted might want to stay inside the covered bar. But let's just say we prefer partying under the stars and looking at the city below our feet; it's an experience you don't get often.
From Tchaikovsky to ‘Final Fantasy', Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) is the concert hall to be for top-notch classical and popular culture-centric orchestral performances. With a traditional nineteenth century shoe-box design and world class acoustics, the 920-capacity DFP is reminiscent of grand European concert halls of yore, resulting in an oftentimes enchanting and elegant night out.
Neighbourhood pubs are fast becoming a facet of the past but Rennie's House of Oxtail shows no sign of retreat - it's been drawing in PJ regulars for close to four decades now. The signature oxtail stew is a must-try, and so is the devilishly spicy mutton curry that pairs a treat with a chilled pint of Guinness. If we're whipping out the cliché gun, this could be the kind of place where everybody knows your name.
KL's only superclub, the hugely popular Zouk is divided into six sections with dedicated genres and acts in one boulder-shaped spaceship. Noted international DJs have graced Zouk's decks alongside residents Shazz, Terrence C, Blink, Goldfish, Luqe and others. Get there earlier if you wish to avoid the sometimes crazy long queues. Plus, it's the only joint in town that opens until 5am.
Changkat (as it's called) is the default go-to nightlife district in KL, with every type of bar at every loud corner - Irish, English, Thai, Japanese or German. Things can get pretty raunchy on weekends, but if you like to have a good time without (always) throwing up on pavements, here are our top three picks: Pisco Bar on Jalan Mesui (for band nights and a stylish vibe) and The Rabbit Hole (for an all-encompassing nightlife experience).
Attractions & Activities
Ignore the fact that KL’s twenty-first century icon was designed by an Argentinean architect and built by Japanese and South Korean construction consortiums. The surrounding park is exemplary, featuring the famed Lake Symphony, a children’s playground, and signboards indicating vantage points for the best photo angles of the twin towers. And if you must know, the park was designed by a Brazilian architect.
Swim with triathletes in the Olympic-sized pool or wushu with veterans who are keeping the sport alive. A secret nook, close to the edge of the carpark on the hill, offers a breathtaking sunset view of KL with KL Tower and green forest as the scenery. If the vista on the KLCC Skybridge projects the city as a thriving metropolis, the panorama here is a slice of nostalgic KL surrounded by heritage buildings, churches and a peaceful town.
Hang, literally, with Genting Skyway
Genting Skyway is the world’s fastest mono cable car system, making trips to Genting Highlands more interesting. After ‘takeoff’, lush greenery, cool highland mist and the audio guide make the ride strangely serene. On the way, you’ll notice decorative statues amidst the foliage that look as artificial as the hill resort above.
Genting Skyway Jalan Batang Kali, Batang Kali, Selangor (03 2718 1118). Daily, 7.30am–midnight; normal oneway ticket, RM6.
It's a culinary retreat where owner and chef Rohani Jelani has set up her cooking school amidst a Malay village in Kampung Sungai Penchala next to the rainforest. Classes are held in groups, and we recommend you book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Take a free walking tour of Brickfields
What’s there to see in a neighbourhood that used to produce bricks to line our railway tracks? Prewar shophouses, churches, temples, shrines, art gallery and secret dining places that’ll take you a week to sample. KL City Hall’s two and a half hour Brickfields Guided Walking Tour will expound you on the historical landmarks built between the ’20s and ’80s.
KL City Hall (03 2617 6273), every first and third Saturday of the month, 9.30am.
Even in landlocked KL it’s possible to get down and dirty with the sharks (of the sand tiger variety, to be precise). Book yourself in at Aquaria – if you’re squeamish, you can face the sharks while safely inside an underwater cage, or you can swim directly alongside them.
Sick of skyscrapers? We’ve got jungles too – a 15-minute drive into Ampang will lead you into quiet, leafy wild boar territory. Here you’ll find Tamarind Springs, an Indochinese fine dining restaurant built like a resort reaching into the trees.
This former wet market is filled with shops that sell almost anything from ornaments and jewellery to traditional clothing and souvenir T-shirts. There is hope to revitalise what was once an even bigger cultural hub, but for now, their secret weapon is The Annexe, a reputable art gallery located in the heritage building that features the popular Art for Grabs bazaar.
Our former royal palace has been made into a museum; supposedly educational, it’s really the voyeuristic novelty of peeking into the lives of royalty that makes the tour interesting. You can choose to follow a guided tour by walkie-talkie wielding guides, but that’s not really important for a complete experience. Ever wondered why the royalty had such excellent teeth? Keep a lookout for the fully equipped dental clinic here, with dental chair and all.
Take a period family portrait at the 60-year-old Pak Tai studio
An old studio now at the mercy of the MRT development, Pak Tai is merely surviving on business from police officers who need their passport photos taken. In the ’60s, it used to be the go-to place for wedding, graduation and family portraits. The backdrops – complete with doves and tacky embellishment – may not be your idea of cool, but throw owner Low Kok Kee an assignment like a period family portrait and he’ll recreate an artistic photo that looks like it was taken in the ’70s without Photoshop.
Foto Pak Tai 104 Jalan Petaling, KL (03 2078 5491).
Jalan Sin Chew Kee isn't necessarily strategic for a bar, but Barlai sneaks into the corner lot of Ng Seksan's Sekeping Sin Chew Kee with much charm. This watering hole preserves the heritage allure of Seksan's eco-friendly retreat with added flourishes like a 'secret' room with beanbags, air vents and archways, naked bulbs around tree branches and DIY-style furniture at the bar area. If Barlai aims to make patrons feel comfortable and intimate in what feels like a hidden gem, it has succeeded.
See KL in 360 at the Grand Hyatt
The newest addition to KL’s skyline is also, ironically, the best place from which to view KL’s skyline (sorry, Skybridge). Head up to the circular lobby on the 39th floor to get a 360-degree view of KL, including an incredible shot of the Twin Towers as you step out of the lift. This experience comes complete with cushy sofas and very polite porters.
Grand Hyatt KL, Jalan Pinang, KL (03 2182 1234)
Arts & Culture
Set in a secluded bungalow, the museum is smack deep in Jalan Pahang. Find it and you’ll be rewarded with a staggering treasure trove of artefacts, memorabilia, posters and equipment that preserve the history of Malaysian cinema since the days of ‘Leila Majnun’ in the ’30s. To relive the olden days of cinema, ask the staff to play you some iconic P Ramlee films in their small but cosy in-house theatre.
South of Port Klang is Pulau Carey, a combination of oil palm plantations and orang asli outpost. The island is home to the indigenous Mah-Meri people, who are known for their intricate wood carvings of spirit animals, which are sometimes used for spiritual healing. Made from nyireh batu, a rare mangrove hardwood found on the island, the sculptures have been known to fetch pretty prices in the art world. For a different day out, drive over and seek out the wood carvers
Art galleries in KL don’t tend to come in the shape and size of Aku Gallery & Café, getting to which entails a stroll past (in no particular order) a 4D store, a vegetarian restaurant and a tiny hole of an Indian barbershop, complete with a spinning barber’s pole outside. The offspring of Old China Café and Precious Old China, Aku doubles up as a café and its art identity is linked to its owner’s art-loving ways and long involvement in the local art scene. The interior is soaked in minimalist charm, with Scandinavian vibes and antique furniture all jumbled up to create a twee atmosphere.
As one of visual art’s most captivating subjects, Islamic art covers dynastic periods of the Umayyads to the Ottomans and encompasses mediums ranging from calligraphy to textiles. Hence, the museum will please the avid architecture buff, historian and just about anyone looking to spend the day in a culturally rich environment where history and art collide.
Decipher social commentary from the graffiti in KL
Graffiti in KL is a renegade art form, and you’ll find places like Klang river bank, bridge arches and derelict walls tattooed with (sometimes irreverent) images that resonate with current issues. Call it a form of self expression or a movement to reclaim public space – this visual mischief unfortunately has never sat well with authorities. But walk around Pasar Seni, Masjid Jamek or even the cracked walls of Jalan Sultan and you’ll find honest street art that gives KL character and voice.
Surrounded by the lush greenery of Sentul Park, the Seksan-designed KLPac is the premier destination for exciting local contemporary theatre ranging from complex plays to lavish musicals since 2005. Built on the site of an old railway workshop, the neighbouring lake is an ideal place to have a pre-show picnic.
You’d easily look past the imposing Sasana Kijang – gleaming with glass and steel that resemble songket motifs – and not realise there’s a hidden art gallery inside. Here lies the famous works by familiar names like Abdullah Ariff, Khalil Ibrahim, Redza Piyadasa and Chang Fee Ming. The bank’s art collection, standing at 1,700, is a good summary of local art from the last few decades.
Come for the rich history and Moorish architecture, but stay for regular theatre shows at the 109-year-old Panggung Bandaraya near the Merdeka Square. One of the country’s oldest theatres still holds predominantly Chinese opera and traditional Malay drama productions every other week in its grand nineteenth century European opera house-esque interior, which underwent refurbishment after a major fire in 1992. Aside from performance days, Panggung Bandaraya is open for ten-minute visits every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 11am.
The best time to visit Batu Caves’ many temples and shrines is during Thaipusam (usually in the month of January or February), a colourful one-day festival where over a million Hindus gather in dedication of Lord Murugan. Witness staunch devotees in trance as they carry elaborate kavadis (wood or steel structures carried on shoulders) up the cave’s 272 steps. Not for the weak, it’s a religious celebration of song and dance like no other.
Retrace our colonial history through the city's architecture
Some of KL’s most beautiful buildings were designed by Arthur Benison Hubback, who was the British architecture assistant to the director of public works in the 1880s. Get your camera and a smartphone with Wikipedia access and set yourself a walking trail through the old railway station, Masjid Jamek and the Royal Selangor Club. While you’re at it, swing by and explore the Sultan Abdul Samad building for some Moorish eye candy.
Channel your inner artsy fartsy at Urbanscapes
From its early days at Bukit Bintang’s now-defunct Grappa Soho in 2002 to its trio of memorable KLPac outings from 2008 to 2010, Urbanscapes has become the city’s quintessential creative arts festival where visual arts, fashion, music and culture collide. Last year’s landmark tenth anniversary edition was held over two days, with a headlining performance by Icelandic post-rock luminaries Sigur Rós.
Get into the 'spirit' of the Hungry Ghost Festival
The Chinese opera at the festival is to entertain the wandering spirits during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. A large stage made out of bamboo scaffolds occupies the main street of a neighbourhood, and people watch the street theatre after tending offerings for their ancestors by the road. The front row of the audience should always be left empty – that’s for the ghosts. The incense and effigy-burning is a spectacle to behold since it’s done in a massive scale, like a campfire.
Catch the shows at Lucky Garden in Bangsar, Taman Cheras and Kepong Baru.