From street food to fine dining, you could spend several days eating your way through Kuala Lumpur’s dazzling food scene. And if you have a bit more time, it’s well worth it to savor this city.
Yi Jun Loh offers an extended version of his one-day itinerary for those looking to spend a little more time in Malaysia’s capital sightseeing, shopping and eating all the street food possible
Hi, I’m Jun. I’ve been living and breathing food in Kuala Lumpur – the capital of my Malaysian motherland – for all of my 30 years. I write about Asian food for publications like Food52 and Saveur, run the Take a Bao podcast about food and routinely explore the nooks and crannies of my city – usually for the express purpose of eating good food. So I’m here to take you on a sensory explosion of a journey through my city.
Why you should visit Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is renowned for its lush rainforests, sandy beaches and divine dive spots – yet its bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur, a confluence of culture, metropolitan modernity and glorious, glorious food, might allure most. From modern mosques to decades-old hawker centers (Malaysian-Chinese food halls where many independent food carts gather), quaint museums to skyscraping architecture, nasi lemak to banana-leaf rice, the city is wildly, proudly multicultural, drawing from the best facets and flavors of disparate cultures, then blending them together into a stunning, lip-smacking city unlike any other.
Start with Kuala Lumpur’s key sights – and irresistible street eats
Start your day in one of the many hearts of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling St. Go bright and early for a classic Malaysian kopitiam breakfast of kaya toast (two thin pieces of toast with a thick smear of coconut jam and chunks of cold butter), half-boiled eggs and coffee at Ho Kow Hainan Kopitiam. Once you’re fully fueled, explore the surrounding Chinatown and Masjid Jamek area, a historical melting-pot area of the city where the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities coalesce, and where mosques, churches and Hindu and Chinese temples stand within close proximity to one other. Be sure to peek into Kwai Chai Hong (Little Ghost Ln), taking photos with the Chinatown-themed murals and decor there, followed by a lick of pandan (Asian vanilla) soft serve from Pandan Republic. Next, walk toward Central Market and through its stalls selling snacks, traditional Malaysian batik and artsy paraphernalia. Pass through the market to reach the River of Life site, where the Klang and Gombak Rivers converge (this meeting inspired the name of Kuala Lumpur, which translates to “muddy confluence”).
Further on you’ll spot Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), a symbolic plaza at which Malaysia’s Independence was declared in 1957. As with most places in the city – as you’ll quickly find out – there are plenty of food options in the area. We recommend Sin Kiew Yee Shin Kee Beef Noodles, Betel Leaf for Indian food and Old China Cafe for traditional Nyonya (Straits-Chinese) cuisine.
As the midday heat picks up, ride the tourist high by visiting KL’s most iconic skyscraper, the Petronas Towers. Head up to the Skybridge, which joins the tallest twin structures in the world, and take in the city’s skyline – especially those other pointy pinnacles of the cityscape, the Menara KL, TRX and Merdeka 118 towers. After you’ve soaked in the view, do some shopping (or just window shopping) at the international fashion boutiques of Suria KLCC mall in the lower floors of the towers, or simply take a leisurely green stroll around the dancing fountains and man-made lake of lovely KLCC Park.
After your pass through KLCC, head over to Jalan Alor (Alor St) in the late evening for a street-food extravaganza. Despite the ever-hiking tourist prices over the years, this experience is still well worth every ringgit – and you’ll find a one-stop shop for classic Malaysian eats like satays, cendol (a fragrant, coconut-y shaved-ice dessert) and stir fries. Do also give durians a go if you spot them: while these spiky fruits have a reputation for smelling like dirty socks, eating their custardy flesh fresh from the source might just make you a convert.
Get to know the city’s traditional-meets-contemporary mix
Start your second day early with a stroll around the well-manicured tropical heliconias, orchids and other plantings at the Perdana Botanical Garden. After enjoying morning greenery, it’s time for a breakfast of nasi lemak, the nation’s favorite dish, at nearby Nasi Lemak Tanglin. (Go easy on the accompanying sambal if you can’t handle heat, but be sure to pile your plate full of meaty rendang.) After lining your stomach, head to the National Mosque to take in its domed interior. Check out the neighboring Islamic Arts Museum, too: a repository of Islamic books, historical artifacts and artworks. The museum’s intricate ceramic tapestries and architecture are as beautiful as the collection.
Kuala Lumpur is a city of old and new, of tradition and modernity. So for lunch, take a taxi to one of the many repurposed old buildings and structures that dot the city. There’s the train yard–turned–food hall Tiffin At The Yard, and the half-century-old Rex cinema, today occupied by a sprawling bookstore, food vendors and an event venue. If you’re into the arts, check out the Zhongshan Building, home to a bunch of cool cafes, record stores and artist spaces, or the former warehouse turned art space Godown KL. As late afternoon arrives, experience a contrast to the more modern spaces you’ve just visited by taking a train or taxi to Brickfields, a traditionally Indian neighborhood that has kept much of its old charm. You’ll find a plethora of traditional Indian goods here – think colorful textiles, heady spices and glittering jewelry. Along your walk, pick up a bag of pisang goreng (fried banana) at the curbside food cart (aptly called “Brickfields Pisang Goreng” on maps). And if you still have space in your stomach, the thosais (flat Indian pancakes) at MTR are divine.
Sunset means another meal approaches. For dinner, get acquainted with the humble hangout spot for Malaysians from all social strata: the mamak. These casual Indian-Muslim eateries exist in almost every neighborhood. Valentine Roti has some of the city’s best roti canais, which you can customize with a myriad of fillings, from egg and cheese to bananas and Milo (a malt drink that’s a favorite among Malaysians). Or try the “roti boom” for a calorific sugar-and-margarine bomb of a flatbread. For a sultry nightcap, head to Bar Trigona – one of Asia’s “50 Best” bars – for a signature honey-tinted Old Fashioned, or enjoy a cocktail with a nighttime city view at one of the rooftop bars that cap the city’s many skyscrapers. Head to Troika Sky Dining for chill vibes to accompany a cool view, or party it up at WET Deck at W Hotel.
Shop…and eat…and shop
With over 70 shopping centers in Kuala Lumpur, shopping and hanging out at malls is Malayasians’ unofficial second-favorite pastime (after eating, of course). The center of the shopping storm is Bukit Bintang, the Times Square of KL. Begin your shopping spree at the prestigious Pavilion mall, having a gander at the ritzy, holiday-centric exhibits at the concourse (the Christmas, Hari Raya and Lunar New Year decorations are particularly eye-catching), then make your way to Lot 10 and Fahrenheit88 for more shopping. Though food options around here are plentiful, for the ultimate convenience head to Hutong Food Court at the basement level of Lot 10, where you can eat your way through Malaysia’s range of hawker dishes in one single place.
You’re free to continue your retail run in the afternoon. There is a truly endless string of options in the area, with a mall for every taste. There’s the deluxe Starhill Gallery; the electronics-centric Low Yat Plaza, where you can score zippy deals; Sungei Wang Plaza for fashionable bargain hunters; or the brand-new LaLaport mall. If shopping isn’t your jam, you can get in touch with nature at the Bird Park or the Aquaria, which boast a diverse range of tropical avian and marine life, respectively.
On your penultimate night, it’s time to indulge in the city’s best fine dining. Make a reservation at the much-lauded Dewakan, a pioneer of modern Malaysian cuisine. Here, the menu teems with heritage ingredients like candlenuts, banana hearts and local cocoa. Other Malaysian-centric highlights around the city include Beta restaurant and Akâr Dining – though many other fine-dining spots and fish-forward Japanese omakases like DC Restaurant and Sushi Ori offer a more worldly meal. Reservations are highly recommended for all these places.
Explore a different side of this city – or another one altogether
For your final day, explore a different side of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. You can go on a hike, get a car (or a train) out to one of the many bustling urban neighborhoods beyond central KL or even take a food-focused day trip to a different city altogether.
Go on a hike
If you want to get some exercise after all your feasting, climb one of the many hills and pockets of green around Kuala Lumpur. You can speed-walk through the short city-park trails at Taman Tugu, work up a sweat on one of the longer walks at the more forest-like Bukit Kiara, or scurry over the suspension bridges at Bukit Gasing Forest Reserve to enjoy wide, verdant views of the city.
Explore the outskirts of the city
Venture to the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for the day, or just an afternoon. Petaling Jaya’s density of tasty eats is unparalleled, with highlights including Village Park Nasi Lemak, Damansara Uptown Hokkien Mee and many competing mamaks and hawker stalls. Klang is known for its bak kut teh (herbal pork bone soup), while – curiously – the best apple strudels around can be enjoyed at Fruity Bakery & Café. You can also take a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves, a network of limestone caves that is home to a Hindu shrine as well as an adjacent adventure cave with fun guided tours.
Take a day trip to another foodie hub
If you’re a fan of Malaysian food, you’ll probably have heard of one of the three big food havens in Peninsular Malaysia: Penang, Melaka and Ipoh. A day trip to any of these cities isn’t out of the question, with Malacca and Ipoh two hours away by car, Penang four. The food in all three cities is well worth the journey, however. You’ll find the country’s best char kuay teows (wok-fried noodles), laksas (a spicy, soupy, seafood-forward rice-noodle dish) and cendols in Penang. Ipoh is the center of Malaysian-Chinese hawker centers and cuisine, as well as numerous Chinese-heritage spots. Melaka, meanwhile, is home to Nyonya food, a cuisine that is a distillation of all of Malaysia’s flavor history, with Malay, Chinese and Indian influences, flavors and techniques all happening at once. Wherever you choose to make your day-trip pilgrimage, you’re sure to be satisfied – from the belly on out.
Have just a day in Kuala Lumpur? Check out Yi Jun Loh’s one-day guide of what to eat and see.