Gazing up at the gleaming spires of the Petronas Twin Towers, it’s hard not to be awed. This is my third visit to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, and I still get giddy as I catch sight of the late afternoon sun glinting off the identical pillars. Standing 452 metres, the towers embody only one side of this eclectic, high-energy metropolis. Scratch beyond the surface and you’ll find much more than the city’s many multi-storey mega malls and sky-high rooftop bars Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it’s more commonly known, is a place where one minute you can be zipping in and out of high-end boutiques and next leisurely wandering streets lined with busy food stalls, shoulder-to-shoulder with locals picking up lunch. It’s not difficult to see why this is a city that people come back to again and again, each time discovering something new, whether it’s a tiny café tucked away on a tree-lined side street, or a luxe hotel offering an indulgent high tea.
Located on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, between Thailand and Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is a diverse city that moves at a frenetic pace. But despite the speed at which the city operates, KL never feels overwhelming. The skyline, dotted with soaring skyscrapers, is punctuated by the city’s most recognizable landmark: the Petronas Twin Towers. Tourists scramble to find the best angle at which to snap a photo from the park across the street, but there is no bad shot to be found. The world’s tallest twin structures look good in any light, from any angle. While the point for many people is to see the city from atop the 88-storey structures, it’s the towers themselves that really steal the show, with their gleaming, futuristic-looking steel and glass façade. At the base of the towers, high-end luxury mall Suria KLCC beckons shoppers with big name labels and decadent designer goods, while an oasis of calm can be found in surrounding KLCC Park.
But Kuala Lumpur is about so much more than a pair of towers, something I discover with every stop along my aimless exploration of the city. Despite its size and high-energy pace, KL is surprisingly walkable and easy to navigate. This might be my third time treading these streets, but the experience still feels fresh, a testament to the city’s ability to draw you in and make a lasting impression.
My first stop is one that takes me far from the buzzing hum of daily life, into the leafy green expanse of KL Forest Eco Park. This is one of the oldest permanent forest reserves in the country and the only remaining stretch of tropical rainforest within the city limits. Explore it via one of several hiking trails or, better yet, see the whole park and the city beyond from above, with a trek along the 200-metre canopy walk 21 metres in the air. It’s easy to forget you’re in the heart of the city as you gaze at the forest canopy below.
To see yet another of Kuala Lumpur’s many faces, make your way to Petaling Street, in the centre of Kuala Lumpur’s original Chinatown. Colourful, chaotic and nothing like the slick malls you may have encountered in other areas of the city, this is a good place to practice your bargaining skills. The focal point here is the long, covered street market lined with stalls selling everything from knock-off handbags and T-shirts, to jewellery and local snacks. The area really comes alive at night when even more stalls set up shop and locals line up to find a bargain or feast on the abundant array of street food.
Just a short walk from Petaling Street you’ll find KL’s Central Market. The beautiful art deco-style building has been classified as a Heritage Site by the National Heritage Department. Once inside, you’ll find a maze of more than 300 boutiques and handicraft stalls where you can browse in air conditioned comfort. Also called Pasar Seni, Central Market started out as a simple wet market, but was given a complete makeover in the 1980s and is now one of the best spots in the city to stock up on souvenirs.
KL may be a haven for shoppers and sightseers, but even more central to the city’s identity is food. This is a city that takes eating very seriously and there’s no shortage of ways to appease your appetite. Dive headlong into street food culture with a visit to the city’s famous food street. Once home to Kuala Lumpur’s red light district, Jalan Alor seamlessly transforms from a quiet thoroughfare during daylight hours into a massive tangle of food stalls, plastic tables, and crowds of hungry locals and tourists as soon as the sun starts to go down. Get anything from Thai and Chinese, to dim sum and deep fried durian as you walk the food-focused hot spot. I stopped by many times for satay, a local favourite and staple dish in Malaysia. Carts piled high with every meat, fish, and vegetable imaginable are neatly presented on skewers and it’s up to you to grab a metal plate and fill it with what you want, then wait for your choices to be grilled right in front of you.
Cap off an evening of eating with a visit to nearby Changkat Bukit Bintang, a bar-lined laneway with happy hour deals aplenty no matter when you visit.
If you go, the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur is an ideal place to bed down based on location alone—it’s a five-minute walk to the Petronas Twin Towers and even closer to Bukit Nanas monorail station. But the real draw, once you’re comfortably ensconced in the friendly, five-star hotel, is the lush pool area that makes for a much-needed respite from the heat and hustle and bustle of the city. Don’t miss an indulgent treatment at the hotel’s serene spa. The revitalizing aromatherapy organic facial was relaxing and skin soothing all at once, and much-appreciated by my travel-weary complexion. It’s also worth splurging on a Horizon Club Room for the personalized check-in and check-out service, as well as the complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails complete with canapes and cheese plates in the cozy Horizon Club Lounge.