Sampling the vibe in each of the neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur helps paint a better picture of why Malaysia's capital gets into the blood of travelers in Southeast Asia.
Each neighborhood is an interesting ingredient, that when combined, give Kuala Lumpur its marvelous ethnic diversity. Where else can you walk out of a Taoist temple in Chinatown and unexpectedly find a colorful Hindu temple one block away?
Pretty well all of these interesting neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur share one common trait: they’re easily accessible. Just because you choose one to stay doesn’t hinder you from exploring the others. The city's rail system is extensive; tracks snake like arteries from KL Sentral to all extremities and neighborhoods.
That’s part of the thrill of visiting Kuala Lumpur. No need to eat near the glamorous mall that already devoured your afternoon. Instead, you can flee the scene of the budget crime to a tasty cultural experience. You’re usually only a short train ride away from South Indian food in Little India, noodles in Chinatown, or a myriad of international options in Bukit Bintang and KLCC.
Undeniably the “main strip” and epicenter of action in Kuala Lumpur, the Bukit Bintang neighborhood is perpetually busy.
Hotels to meet all budgets, international restaurants, and giant malls occupy most of the boulevard. Adjacent streets are home to pubs, nightclubs, spas, and hawker stalls.
Fortunately, Bukit Bintang isn’t just all upscale glam. Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur’s famous outdoor food street, runs parallel. The busy strip hosts a myriad of local seafood and street-food options.
The shopping opportunities around Bukit Bintang are endless. The seven floors of retail at the Pavilion are just one mid-to-upscale option, and the 12-story Berjaya Times Square is one of the top-10 buildings in the world by floorspace. The building is home to Malaysia’s largest indoor theme park, if that’s any indication of the size.
The Bukit Bintang monorail station in the center of the strip connects the neighborhood with KL Sentral in Little India. If planning to start in Berjaya Times Square, take the monorail to the Imbi station instead of Bukit Bintang station.
Home to the shimmering Petronas Twin Towers, KLCC is the high-rise heart for upscale developments and big-budget travelers.
Rooftop bars, hotel towers, and business developments vie for views of the glowing twin towers. Fine dining establishments and pricey cocktail bars attract expats, businessmen, and staff from the embassies located nearby.
Suria KLCC occupies the bottom of the Petronas towers for midrange and upmarket shopping. Aquaria KLCC (an indoor aquarium attraction) and a few art galleries are also found in the neighborhood.
Just outside the towers, the pleasant KLCC park attempts to balance the metallic architecture of the twin towers with some serene green space. Turn up at the fountains in the evening to enjoy a colorful water show (free) set to music.
Although KLCC stands for Kuala Lumpur City Center, it’s pretty well the northern extreme as far as tourism goes. Few travelers venture farther north unless they’re on business trips or going to see the “wet” market in Chow Kit.
You can walk to KLCC by cutting through the Pavilion mall at the end of Bukit Bintang, or take the LRT to KLCC station. The Petronas Towers are just opposite the busy intersection.
Kampung Baru is a traditional Malay neighborhood right in the heart of the capital. It’s also an anomaly, a stubborn paradox that forces consideration.
Surrounded by modern development and glass-paneled skyscrapers — including the Petronas Twin Towers — Kampung Baru sits on some of the most valuable land in Malaysia. Property developers are salivating over the four square kilometers reportedly worth way over US $1 billion dollars. Meanwhile, ancestral homes on stilts, markets, food stalls, a mosque, and banana trees defiantly occupy the plot.
If you don’t have time to go farther afield in Malaysia, Kampung Baru is a microcosm of “regular” life right in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Walking tours through the neighborhood are an option and won’t cut too much into your day.
Visiting Kampung Baru is convenient; it’s literally across the street (Jalan Tun Razak) from KLCC. If coming from other parts of the city, you can take the LRT train directly to the Kampung Baru station.
Kampung Baru looks like a pebble holding back a landslide of modern development. That’s another good reason to visit — who knows how long it can hold?
Better known as Kuala Lumpur’s “Little India,” the Brickfields neighborhood in the south is home to KL Sentral — the largest railway station in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur’s sprawling transportation terminal opened in 2001 to replace the outgrown Kuala Lumpur station located closer to the city.
As with many transportation hubs in Malaysia and Singapore, KL Sentral is basically a giant mall where buses and trains arrive. Eating and shopping opportunities abound on the multiple floors. But the real reason to visit is for walking the wide sidewalks past the many fragrant Indian shops, stalls, and restaurants.
You’ll find delicious, inexpensive food in Mamak stalls all over Kuala Lumpur, but eating South Indian food is taken to a new level in the Brickyards. The abundant vegetarian options, “banana leaf” restaurants that refill curry, and a lively atmosphere keep travelers delighted.
Getting to the Brickfields couldn’t be easier: literally every train goes there, including the monorail from Bukit Bintang and the KLIA Ekspres trains to the airport.
Although Jalan Petaling is one long, pedestrianized market, you’ll have to negotiate ferociously for deals on the souvenirs and fake goods that compete for space.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good options for taking a break, grabbing a drink or snack, and people watching. The open-air shopping street is covered, making it ideal for escaping Kuala Lumpur’s pop-up afternoon squalls.
The Chinatown neighborhood could be described as a little more “grungy” than Bukit Bintang. The beaten-up, inexpensive guesthouses and numerous hostels attract more backpackers to the neighborhood. Several small temples in the area and tasty noodle stalls provide extra incentive to wander around.
The indoor Central Market is an easy walk away, although, like Petaling Street, prices and goods there also target tourists. On weekend evenings, you may luck into free-and-enjoyable entertainment (e.g., lion dance performances, Bollywood shows, etc) just outside of Central Market.
Chinatown is within striking range of many sites of interest. Merdeka Square, where Malaysia declared independence, is a short walk away. Nearby, you’ll also find the Perdana Botanical Gardens — a lovely green space that is home to KL Bird Park, a butterfly park, and the national planetarium.
Chinatown is slightly less convenient for rail transportation than other neighborhoods. Pasar Seni, a connecting station for the LRT and MRT, is the closest transportation hub for having a look.
The Chow Kit neighborhood, just west of Kampung Baru, is mostly off the tourist circuit.
While the budget accommodation in the area is a little worse for wear, this neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur does hold at least one interesting diversion: the Bazaar Baru Chow Kit wet market.
The sprawling, half-covered market is the largest of its kind in Kuala Lumpur. The meat and seafood on display offer plenty of photo material as they drip onto the concrete floor in Southeast Asia’s heat.
The Chow Kit market is primarily for foodstuffs, but stalls selling keepsakes and other items have popped up around. You’ll need to haggle a bit for purchases, and knowing how to say hello in Bahasa Malay will definitely help.
The “dry” side of the market will have a few less animal heads and plenty of delicious local fruit to sample. Choosing from the piles of exotic fruit to try is fun! If spiney durian and jackfruit seem intimidating, look for the mangosteens.
Taking a wander in Chow Kit is easy enough; just ride the monorail north and alight at the Chow Kit station.