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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Bright Lights, Layover City

The capital of Malaysia is a popular layover many travelers experience on their way in/out of Southeast Asia. Similar to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur has a plethora of direct flights to international destinations. Often called KL for short, this modern city is known for its affordable high-end hotels with impressive pools and views of the glittering skyline.

Brad and I spent two days in Kuala Lumpur before soaking up the sunshine on the western beaches of Thailand. Below I've included a variety of things to do and restaurant/bar recommendations to keep you busy in the easy-to-navigate metropolis!


Kuala Lumpur is relatively small in comparison to other Southeast Asian capitals, which is perfect for tourists looking for a city that isn't overwhelming. Malays, Chinese, and Indians make up the majority of its population. The multiculturalism is evident in the ornate mosques, flavorful cuisine, colorful temples, and diverse architecture. You can choose to walk around or request a Grab (similar to Uber/Lyft) to get to the following attractions.

Constructed in 1909, the Jamek Mosque features three white domes, a prayer hall, and two towering minarets in the Moorish architectural style. The hypnotizing call to prayer is heard five times a day and led by the muezzin (a person who ensures an accurate prayer schedule for Muslims).

Cross the Gombak River to see the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which contains ministry offices. The copper domes, clock tower, and light pink façade are captivating! The nearby Masjid Jamek Lookout Point along the Klang River has a few massive murals depicting everyday life.

Looking for a special souvenir? The Central Market has an assortment of shops selling handicrafts, textiles, knickknacks, clothing, and housewares. Try to visit on a lively Saturday or Sunday when local vendors and artisans set up enticing tables with one-of-a kind goods. Head to Petaling Street (Chinatown) at night to practice your bargaining skills and find fake designer labels.

Kwai Chai Hong is a delightful little alleyway full of three-dimensional interactive street art. Take a seat in the barber chair for a quick haircut or play jumprope with the kiddos. Vibrant lanterns sway in the wind in between gritty brick walls covered in moss. Changkat Neighborhood also has pockets of street art scattered around its trendy bars and restaurants.

Soak up the dazzling beauty of Kuala Lumpur at night with a festive cocktail at any of the premier rooftop bars. Celebrate the engineering marvels of Merdeka 118, the second-tallest building in the world, and glowing twin Petronas Towers! The Kuala Lumpur Tower puts on a show with its rotating neon colors.


Malaysia is a country known for its hawker centers, street food, and international cuisine. After feasting on delectable dishes in George Town and Ipoh, Brad and I were excited to see what Kuala Lumpur had to offer!

We immediately felt satisfied once we indulged in a tried-and-true juicy cheeseburger and fries at Five Guys (an American fast food chain) upon arrival. A taste of home was exactly what we needed after a six-month stretch of international travel! Check out these other excellent spots for mouthwatering meals and drinks.

• Breakfast - Start your day with a piping hot cup of robust coffee and couple of fluffy donuts at Dough By Meg. The earl grey and matcha donuts were exploding with decadent melt-in-your-mouth cream! I was equally impressed with the flaky almond croissant.

• Lunch - The generous portion of vegetable mee hun served with a crispy fritter at Waarong Ku's was simple and comforting. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs when we ordered an array of Turkish staples at Halab Castle Restaurant. The lentil soup, hot çay (tea), marinated tavuk sis (chicken kebab) plate, and ful (beans with tahini, pomegranate seeds, olive oil, parsley, and tomatoes) reminded us of our travels in Turkey!

• Dinner - Elevate your palate with a seafood extravaganza at Wildflowers. The Malaysian ceviche with fresh tiger prawns, onions, chilies, and lime juice was the perfect appetizer before the tom yum seared salmon with cauliflower and fried enoki mushrooms. You can't leave Kuala Lumpur without eating at the famous food street, Jalan Alor! Vendors will compete for your patronage as you browse menus. We ate a filling spicy platter of teow chew style kuey teow at Restoran Meng Kee Grill Fish.

• Cocktails - Cozy up with a fruity fizz drink at The Attic Bar if you desire a low-key space. Grab a happy hour concoction at Sky Bar (Traders Hotel) to see an unobstructed view of the Petronas Towers. My favorite vibe was at Vertigo Bar (Banyan Tree). The friendly bartenders, classy atmosphere, roomy terrace, and jaw-dropping panorama of the skyline were hard to top! Try the Vertigo cocktail made with gin, lychee liqueur, mix berry purée, lemon juice, mint syrup, and soda to taste happiness in a glass.

Batu Caves

Is a visit to Kuala Lumpur complete without a trip to see one of Malaysia's national icons? Batu Caves, although unique, honestly didn't live up to the hype! As the primary reason for our layover in Kuala Lumpur, Brad and I were hoping for a magical Hindu temple experience. Unfortunately, the construction, garbage, huge crowds, grime, and rowdy monkeys were very distracting.

Despite its shortcomings, we were impressed with the significance of Batu Caves. The limestone cave complex is a renowned place of pilgrimage and one of the most important Hindu shrines outside of India. Worshippers ascend 272 concrete rainbow steps to reach the interior temples decorated with mythological scenes and colorful figures. Dripping stalactites and cascading plants enhance the spiritual ambience.

The gigantic golden statue of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, made an incredible first impression. He grasps a divine vel (spear) portraying his power, bravery, righteousness, and valor. The ground-level shrines next to the rainbow stairs have a kaleidoscope of bold hues and golden accents. Animated gods and goddesses, such as Hanuman and Vishnu, are represented in various forms and sizes.

Keep in mind Hindu temples require visitors to dress conservatively. Opt for items that cover your shoulders, knees, and chest. Loose and breathable fabrics are crucial to keep you comfortable in the humidity. Beware of aggressive and mischievous long-tailed macaques that want to steal your belongings, especially food! The steep stairs and cave interior can be slippery depending on the weather.

Thean Hao Temple

Take a journey to Thean Hao Temple to see a breathtaking array of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist elements. The traditional design features white stone pillars with whimsical dragons, upward sloping roofs with glazed ceramic tiles, spectacular carvings, and hundreds of hanging lanterns.

The interior prayer hall of the six-tiered temple is dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess, Mazu. Her altar is adorned with offerings of fruit, flowers, and candles. Notice the intricate architecture and ceiling art with golden phoenixes, floral motifs, and animated dragons. Red is a lucky color and represents success, vitality, and happiness in Chinese culture.

Final Thoughts

Consider extending your stay in Kuala Lumpur to add a few day trips. The natural oasis of the Cameron Highlands is full of emerald tea plantations, exotic plants, and lush hiking trails. Ipoh is a charming city with limestone cave temples, white coffee, and scrumptious egg tarts. Malacca is a port town known for its colonial architecture and history with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. These destinations take less than three hours to reach by bus.

Kuala Lumpur has the right combination of free things to do and fantastic food options ideal for all types of travelers. Your itinerary can prioritize relaxing at a hotel pool, exploring the walkable streets, or sampling the melting pot of cuisines. The capital has a laid-back undertone, which is pleasantly surprising for a fast-growing city!