Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia can be an expensive city to visit if you're not careful (the wares in Bukit Bintang's malls are some of the priciest you'll find in the region) but there's also plenty of free stuff for travelers in the know.
Free Transportation in Kuala Lumpur's City Center
Let's start with getting around: yes, you need to pay up to use Kuala Lumpur's LRT and Monorail. But there are four free bus routes that encircle the Bukit Bintang/KLCC/Chinatown areas of central Kuala Lumpur that don't charge a cent for their use.
The GO KL buses were intended to decongest central Kuala Lumpur by decreasing the use of cars in the business district. Whether that worked is debatable, but the savings are pretty tangible - you can hitch a free ride from the Pavilion Mall in Bukit Bintang to get to Pasar Seni, or vice versa.
Each bus stops at the regular bus stop every five to 15 minutes, depending on the traffic situation. Each bus line terminates at an important city transport nexus: Pasar Seni (near Chinatown LRT), Titiwangsa Bus Terminal, KLCC, KL Sentral and Bukit Bintang.
Buses for both routes are air-conditioned, with enough space for 60-80 passengers. The service runs between 6am and 11pm daily. Visit their official website for the four lines' stops and different routes.
Free Tour of Dataran Merdeka
Formerly the site of the British Empire's administrative nerve center in Selangor, the buildings around Dataran Merdeka (Freedom Square) served as the political, spiritual and social convergence point for the British in Malaya until independence was declared here on August 31, 1957.
Today, the Kuala Lumpur government runs a free Dataran Merdeka Heritage Walk that explores this historically significant district. The tour kicks off at the KL City Gallery (location on Google Maps), a former printing press that now serves as the historic quarter's main tourist office (pictured above) and proceeds to each of the historic buildings surrounding the grassy plaza called the Padang:
the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the administrative center of colonial-era Kuala Lumpur;
the Cathedral of Saint Mary, an early-Gothic Anglican church that now serves as the seat of the local Anglican bishop;
the National Textile Museum, an imposing Mughal-style building; and
the Royal Selangor Club, a men's only club for colonials' drinking and socializing.
Free Walkabouts through Kuala Lumpur's Parks
Kuala Lumpur's green spaces can be found surprisingly close to the city center. You can reach any of the following parks within a few minutes' ride on the train, and exercise, walk and hike (for free!) to your heart's content:
Perdana Botanical Gardens. This 220-acre park feels like a departure from KL's urban hurly-burly. Come in the morning to join joggers and tai chi practitioners; visit in the afternoon for a picnic with a view. With endless winding park pathways, access to the Orchid Garden (also free to the public), and various museums in the vicinity, the Perdana Botanical Gardens is certainly worth half a day's visit on the cheap.
The Gardens are open from 9am to 6pm every day, with free access on weekdays only (visits during weekends and public holidays entrance costs RM 1, or about 30 cents). For more information, visit their official site. Location on Google Maps.
KL Forest Eco-Park. The preserved jungle around Bukit Nanas (Nanas Hill) in central Kuala Lumpur may be better known for the 1,380-foot KL Tower that stands on the crest of a hill, but the climbing the tower isn't free – unlike the 9.37 hectare forest reserve around it.
KL Forest Eco-Park is the last fragment of the original rainforest that once covered Kuala Lumpur. The trees within the park – giant tropical species that have since been decimated throughout the rest of the region – shelter primates like the long-tailed macaque and the silvered langur; sinuous snakes; and birds.
Take a hike through the KL Forest Eco-Park to imagine what KL was like in the days before people!
KLCC Park. This 50-acre park at the foot of Suria KLCC mall makes for a green contrast to KLCC's towering, shiny, steely structures (marked by its most iconic building, the Petronas Twin Towers).
The 1.3-km-long rubberized jogging track caters to cardio freaks, while the family-friendly stops around the rest of the park – the 10,000-square-meter Lake Symphony, the sculptures, fountains and children's playground – offer diversions to visitors of all ages. More information on their official site; location on Google Maps.
Titiwangsa Lake Garden. Another oasis of green in the middle of Malaysia's capital, this park surrounding a series of lakes also lets you plug in straight into Malaysia's culture, thanks to access to the National Art Gallery, Sutra Dance Theatre, and National Theatre.
Sports activities available at Titiwangsa include jogging, canoeing, and horse riding. Location on Google Maps.
Free Kuala Lumpur Art Gallery & Museum Tours
Some of Kuala Lumpur's top art galleries are also free to visit.
Start out at the venerable National Visual Arts Gallery – established in 1958, this showcase of Malaysian and Southeast Asian art is housed in a building that recalls traditional Malay architecture. The inside is just as impressive: almost 3,000 artworks run the gamut from traditional arts to avant-garde creations from both Peninsular and Eastern Malaysia. Location on Google Maps, official website.
Then there's Galeri Petronas, accessible through the Suria KLCC mall at the podium of the Petronas Twin Towers. The Petronas petroleum conglomerate shows off its charitable/cultural side by sponsoring a venue for Malaysian artists and their fans – visitors can see new artists exhibit their work or attend different seminars on local developments in art and culture.
Finally, for a more hands-on experience, visit the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre, where you can take a free guided tour of the pewter museum. Tin was once Malaysia's most valuable export, and Royal Selangor capitalized on its rich tin reserves to create a massive industry in pewterware.
While the tin mines have long since closed, Royal Selangor still churns out beautiful pewter crafts – you can review the enterprise's history and present works in their museum, and even sit down to try your hand at making pewterware by yourself! Location on Google Maps, official website.
Free Cultural Performances at Pasar Seni
The souvenir market known as Pasar Seni, or Central Market, hosts a cultural show at its outdoor stage every Saturday beginning at 8pm. A revolving selection of dancers from different indigenous cultural traditions show their talents – and will even pick audience members to try their dances onstage!
The Pasar Seni cultural shows also hold special events to coincide with particular holidays from Malaysia's extensive festival calendar.