For many, a trip to Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia means wandering around Duty-Free while they wait for their connecting flights.
An Asian city too often overlooked, KL has a rich Nyonya (also known as Peranakan Chinese culture), colorful shophouses and some of the friendliest locals I’ve encountered on my travels. But you don’t need much time to hit all the highlights. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Kuala Lumpur as soon as you land.
From the airport
When looking for a taxi, the best and the cheapest option is to download Grab, Asia’s version of Uber. You’ll be able to find reliable, safe taxis at a cheaper rate to get you into downtown. There is a train that will also take you to the center of the city, but at just under $16 USD for an hour-long cab ride, it’s a great deal. My partner and I used Grab throughout our entire stay in Kuala Lumpur, as it was the fastest and easiest option to get around when pressed for time.
If you only have one day to spend, the first place you have to see is the famous Batu Caves. Tourists climb a steep 272 rainbow-colored staircase to the site of a Hindu Temple and shrine inside a towering cave. The newly painted Technicolor stairs are an Instagrammers dream and worth the trip alone. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, there is a small, yet colorful temple inside a massive cave teeming with monkeys and chickens. Arrive around 9am (or earlier) to ensure you’ll see more pigeons than people.
At 10 am the Dark Cave Conservation Site near the top of the stairs opens up for small groups tours. It cost us $9 USD per person, and we’re so glad we did it. A scientist led us into the pitch black cave with helmets and flashlights to see cave bats, spiders and insects, all while talking about the history of the cave and its conservation.
Afterward, head back to downtown to another Kuala Lumpur institution — Yut Kee Restaurant. Serving traditional Hainanese cuisine (derived from Hainan Province in China) since 1928, this iconic shop is always packed but much like its servers, it moves fast. I sat down for some spicy Belacan Fried Rice and an iced coffee (another claim to fame). Whatever you do, don’t leave without a slice of their marble cake (I almost bought a whole one to go). The entire meal cost less than $2 USD. I know, I was shocked too…
If you don’t need a mid-afternoon nap, make a beeline for Kuala Lumpur Tower. Not only is it a great way to get the lay of the land, but the views of the iconic Petronas Towers are a serious highlight. Book tickets for the Sky Deck for less than $24 USD. Plus, KL Tower is the only tower in the world located within a forest. Before or after, visit KL Forest Eco Park to stop and smell the Malaysian flowers and indigenous plants.
For dinner, walk to Jalan Alor Market. This street food market is one of the best places to try a huge variety of Malaysian food. Grab a fresh coconut and peruse the options, from massive steamed pork buns to grilled frog, mango sticky rice and dozens of meat and seafood shops; we pulled up a couple of tiny plastic stools and ordered grilled chicken wings, and it was so, so good.
When visiting Kuala Lumpur, you must try a traditional Malaysian breakfast. Consisting of soft-boiled eggs, Kaya toast and Hainanese coffee, one of the most authentic places to try it is Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea. This hole in the wall spot is non-stop, starting at 6.30am. Eat your soft-boiled eggs like the locals, adding a little soy sauce and white pepper on top. For a sweeter start, the Kaya toast is a must. The perfectly toasted white bread with cold butter and fresh coconut jam is a local staple.
Grab a Grab and drive to the Brickfields, also known as Little India. Here you can walk down alleys covered in flower garlands, sari shops, markets, and stalls cooking up fresh dosa. Walk towards the Central Market, built in 1928 as a wet market and converted into one of the city’s prime tourist destinations. Come here for any and all trinkets and souvenirs. Then, hit nearby Chinatown, my favorite section of Kuala Lumpur. Crisscross down the small colorful streets, peeking inside various temples and shophouses selling Chinese medicines and tea (and a few counterfeit purses too).
For lunch, try Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock for Nasi Lemak. Malaysia’s national dish has slightly spicy chicken served with fried anchovies, peanuts, egg, cucumber and, the pièce de résistance, the fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves.
In the late afternoon, just before sunset, take the elevator up to the Heli Lounge Bar and treat yourself to tourist-priced cocktails on top of a functioning helicopter pad. This bar has next-level views of the entire city, and they make a mean martini. We sipped our drinks and watched the lights of the skyscrapers switch on as the sun dipped behind the mountains.
On your last night in the city, go all out at Beta KL. Hidden down an alley, this trendy restaurant and bar serves classic Malaysian dishes – with a twist. Try the chicken dish, a perfectly salty play on Hainanese chicken rice, or the soft shell crab, an elevated version of chili crab. Once you factor in cocktails and dessert, this will be your most expensive meal in the capital city, but who knows the next time you’ll be able to leave the airport and explore.
Malaysia’s capital has so much to discover! Explore Kuala Lumpur now – before, during or after your small group adventure with Intrepid.
Feature photo by r.nagy, Shutterstock. All other images by Patrick Sgro, unless otherwise stated.