Tradition and modernity coexist in an intoxicating jumble of architecture and culture in Malaysia’s capital. By Zoe McIntyre
A place of thrilling contrasts, Malaysia’s buzzing capital is fast becoming one of Southeast Asia’s most alluring metropolises thanks to its heady mix of colonial landmarks, steel-clad scrapers and pumping nightlife. The city’s progress splays across its glittering skyline, where pencil-thin minarets and Mughal-style domes jostle for space between mega malls, luxury hotel columns and futuristic towers — all upstaged by the show-stealing Petronas Towers. The heart of modern Kuala Lumpur is the sprawling Golden Triangle, best for cosmopolitan dining and rooftop bars. For all its modernity, KL’s ethnic enclaves, like Chinatown and Little India, remain steeped in tradition and dotted with incense-wreathed temples and heritage architecture. KL’s melting-pot population, comprising Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities, makes for a vibrant culinary scene that attracts foodie travelers in their droves. New escorted food trails are popping up across the city to introduce visitors to mouth-watering street stalls, food markets and historic cafes. All this promises a bright future for KL’s tourist scene. While nine million visited in 2013, ambitious new initiatives hope to boost visitor numbers to 16 million by 2025. A super-efficient transport network means it’s easy to whizz around the sights in a weekend, increasing KL’s appeal as both a stopover and city break destination in its own right.
Reaching an eye-watering 1,483ft, the Petronas Towers ruled as the world’s tallest twins between 1998 and 2004. Visitors can admire the geometric facades, which echo Islamic art motifs, before whizzing up to the 42nd-floor skybridge that links the towers together. The grand finale lies ahead on the 88th level, where an observation deck reveals a heart-fluttering panorama of the glittering cityscape. petronastwintowers.com.my
Fringed by heritage landmarks, Dataran Merdeka is Kuala Lumpur’s central square and former hub of colonial rule. Its western edge is home to the half-timbered Royal Selangor Club, an former hangout for well-to-do colonials, while opposite stands the Mughal-inspired Sultan Abdul Samad Building, all fanciful turrets and copper domes.
Just eight miles north of the city lies a vast labyrinth of limestone caverns dating back 400 million years. Today, they’re home to some of the most important Hindu shrines outside of India, devoted to Lord Murugan, god of war and victory. His giant, gold-painted effigy guards the entrance to the Temple Cave, but only the staunchest of devotees attempt the 272 steps to the top. A good time to visit is during the annual Thaipusam festival, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend on the caves over several days.
At around 5pm, the famed food street area of Jalan Alor transforms into a sprawling mass of noodle vendors, wok cooks and tandoori barbecuers. Adventurous eaters can pick between a dizzying variety of dishes, from tender satay sticks to sizzling, spice-heavy noodles and steamed seafood. Plastic chairs fan along the strip but the best experience comes by following the crowds, tasting various offerings along the way.
Down a winding candlelit pathway, a short taxi ride from the city center, the wooden pavilion of Tamarind Springs juts out of tangled foliage in a rainforest reserve. Dinner here is an exotic affair, with exquisite Indochinese sharing plates served in a semi-open restaurant draped in tribal artifacts. Diners overlook a terraced garden that provides a soundtrack of hooting birds, screeching cicadas and branch-rustling monkeys. tamarindrestaurants.com
Old China Cafe
Nestled within KL’s atmospheric Chinatown, Old China Cafe occupies an old shophouse that spent its pre-war years as the guildhall of a Laundry Association. Nostalgia hangs heavy on its walls, crammed with black-and-white photos and two enormous feng shui mirrors hung for good luck. The menu offers Strait Chinese and Malay delicacies — there’s crispy lobak pork rolls, melt-in-the-mouth beef rendang and a traditional sago dessert drenched in coconut and cane sugar. oldchina.com.my
Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
The Grand Hyatt is a calm oasis amid the busy KLCC business district. Its 412 rooms and suites are rich in marble, with floor-to-ceiling windows revealing views of KLCC Park and the Petronas Towers. There’s a palm-fringed pool and multiple dining options, including sundowner favorite, sky-high Thirty8 bar. Breakfast offers everything from flaky pastries to made-to-order sushi, overseen by an army of staff eager to ensure all stays run smoothly. kualalumpur.grand.hyatt.com
This boutique retreat, tucked away in an upscale embassy district, is every honeymooner’s dream. Its 21 dimly lit rooms and suites are draped in exotic objets d’art and boast plunge pools and lounge areas. Those upstairs are indulgently spacious, while the ground floor boasts romantic balconies with direct access to the lagoon-shaped pool. Guests mill between four-poster sunbeds and the lantern-lit Mandi-Mandi restaurant, which serves all-day dishes, sunset cocktails and a delicious breakfast spread. villasamadhi.com.my
The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur
In its colonial heyday, the Majestic hosted glamorous balls and welcomed the likes of author Graham Greene and Hollywood actor David Niven. After a post-war decline, it reopened in 2012 to reveal a full restoration and a new 15-storey wing. Elsewhere, the Majestic Wing’s 47 suites emulate a bygone era, with mahogany furnishings and claw-foot tubs, while the sleek Tower Wing tempts with butterscotch tones and glass-walled bathrooms. A cigar room, tea parlor and old-fashioned cinema add further allure. majestickl.com