Travel Guide to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

What to expect when entering the gateway to Malaysia

Train crossing in front of Petronas Towers, KL, Malaysia
Image courtesy of Tourism Malaysia

The Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur ("KL") embodies this Southeast Asian nation's raging ambitions. Not long after its genesis as a muddy mining encampment on the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, Kuala Lumpur rapidly evolved into a modern city - as Malaysia shifted its economy from tin mining to petroleum, finance and palm oil, KL's kampongs and shophouses gave way to skyscrapers and shopping malls.

Modernization has been patchy, though - KLCC, Bukit Bintang and KL Sentral may have altered the skyline with brand spanking new developments, but neighborhoods like Chinatown and Brickfields have mostly kept their old-world charm.

Kuala Lumpur's Past and Present

Both new and old inhabit KL side by side in a rather uneasy relationship. A diorama at the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery near Dataran Merdeka shows the scale of development going on throughout the Klang Valley, with Petronas Towers and KL Tower leading the charge and a cluster of future high-rises following in their wake.

And yet the old KL lives on, at least in preserved showpieces like the aforementioned Dataran Merdeka and in more organic, jumbled places like Chinatown and Brickfields.

The KL of yesteryear combined British Mughal-style government buildings with more modest Straits shophouses; traditional places of worship for KL's Muslim, Taoist, Christian and Hindu residents; and the occasional, crowded kampong (rural-style town).

The shophouses and places of worship still exist, and still get plenty of foot traffic; the shophouses are in danger of being encroached upon by real estate companies looking for another site for their next planned high-rise.

  • Back to the future: for additional context on Malaysia's history and how it impinges on the present, read Asian History's take on Malaysia - Facts and History. 

Kuala Lumpur's Must-Visit Neighborhoods

You'll need to go to more than one neighborhood to fully suss out KL's character. While KL's political history can best be gleaned from a visit to Dataran Merdeka (Freedom Square) and the colonial buildings surrounding it, the feel of old KL comes out best in neighboring Chinatown, where cheap food (Petaling Street) and shopping (Pasar Seni) abound.

The "Little India" district of Brickfields, next to KL Sentral, serves the Tamil Indian community, with shops and restaurants catering to their wants and needs.

Finally, the Golden Triangle contains KL's central business district and its more iconic modern buildings (the Petronas Towers now serves as a visual shorthand for KL, as did the KL Tower before it). The shopping scene in Bukit Bintang brings you some of the world's most luxurious brands in some of the region's fanciest malls.

  • KL bucket list: More information here: Things to Do in Kuala Lumpur.

Transportation into and around Kuala Lumpur

KL is Peninsular Malaysia's main air gateway; travelers fly into Kuala Lumpur International Airport, or KLIA, about 40 miles from the city center. Alternatively, travelers can take the bus from Singapore or the train from Bangkok into KL. (Read about Kuala Lumpur Trains.)

Once inside, travelers can get around using Kuala Lumpur's wide-ranging but slightly inefficient public transportation system. Most of the capital's major tourist destinations are accessible by bus and train; those that aren't can be reached easily by taxi.

  • I get around: Read on to find out how you can get about KL on the cheap. KL Transportation

Where to Stay in Kuala Lumpur

The hotels in Kuala Lumpur cater to all budgets and needs. There's no shortage of 5-star accommodations in KL, most of the luxury hotels can be found in Bukit Bintang and in KLCC

For backpackers, most of the cheap hotels can be found in Chinatown; Bukit Bintang and Chow Kit also has a fair complement of local hostels. 

  • Five stars are born: read our reviews of the following KL hotel properties: the Seri Pacific Hotel in PWTC, the Prince Hotel in Bukit Bintang, and the Fernloft Hostel in Chinatown.
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