Kuala Lumpur is a major hub in Southeast Asia — whether you’re just passing through en route to or from another Southeast Asian destination or you’re traveling by bus throughout Malaysia. We found ourselves on short visits to KL on two separate occasions, and upon arriving were at a bit of a loss for what to do. Certainly, the Petronas Towers get plenty of attention, but it’s hard to figure out what else there is to do and, more importantly, what’s worth doing. After a few misses, here are our top sights to see (and the best order to see them) when visiting Kuala Lumpur for 2 days.
Get an early start at the Muzium Negara (National Museum) to get an excellent introduction to the history of Malaysia. Alex and I actually did this on our second day, and I regretted not making it our first stop in Kuala Lumpur — there was so much valuable information I would love to have learned before wandering the city. Entrance is just RM5 ($1.25) per person, and there are free English tours daily at 10am that last an hour and provide a history of Malaysia from prehistoric to Colonial times (you’re free to peruse the post-independence gallery on your own after the tour).
There’s also a convenient cafeteria at the museum, which, unlike those at Western museums, is actually very reasonably priced (just make sure you don’t inadvertently end up in the uber-expensive Western-style coffee shop in front of the cafeteria), making it a convenient spot for breakfast before the tour. Give yourself 1-2 hours at the Muzium, then hop on the free GoKL bus in front of the museum or walk to the Masjid Negara.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Masjid Negara (National Mosque), but figured we’d hop off the bus, snap a few photos and move on. Boy was I wrong. I loved this mosque. Tourists are invited to don borrowed robes and hijabs (head coverings) and head into this serene, beautiful space. The architecture is absolutely stunning, and despite being entirely open-air, it’s shaded, cool, and calming — a delightful respite from the rest of Kuala Lumpur. You can walk all the way up to the entrance of the prayer room, and there are helpful volunteers who will tell you about the mosque, Islam, and anything else you’d like to ask. The grounds are similarly lovely, though scorching hot in the midday sun. Give yourself 30-60 mins to enjoy the space, and be sure to arrive by at least 11:45am in order to make it in before midday prayers.
We really whiffed on visiting the Lake Gardens. We tried to walk there during the late afternoon on the day we arrived, and basically made it as far as the entrance by the time the sun started setting, so we had to turn straight around and start walking the 30 minutes back to our hostel. (It was weirdly abandoned at that hour — I didn’t feel comfortable roaming KL on foot after dusk.)
If I could do it over, I would make it a point to get to the Lake Gardens by early afternoon after a stop for lunch on the way from the Masjid Negara. The gardens are free to visit, and from photos do appear to be really lovely.
Optional: KL Butterfly Park OR KL Bird Park
Both of these attractions are adjacent to the Lake Gardens. We didn’t visit either, again, because our timing sucks, but also because they were a bit out of the budget for us. If your budget allows and you’re interested, definitely visit either or both of these parks while you’re already at the Lake Gardens, or it’ll be quite a hike from most other parts of Kuala Lumpur.
Give yourself a few hours of downtime at your guesthouse before dinner (trust me, you’ll be really sweaty and you’ll need a shower and some A/C). Around sunset, Jalan Petaling (the main street of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown) really comes alive. Wander it at a leisurely pace and soak in the weird contradiction of traditional durian fruit and noodle soups sold alongside T-shirts that read “F*** loud and make noise.” Be prepared to ignore lots of hawkers. Have dinner at one of the many small food courts and then call it a night.
The Batu Caves are one of the top sites in the Kuala Lumpur area, however, they (understandably) get mixed reviews. The statue of Lord Murugan is absolutely awesome, and from a distance it really is a beautiful spot. But up close, it’s…filthy. While I still recommend visiting the Caves, I do so with reservation. I ended up feeling a bit sad and disheartened after our visit. (Note: We did hear that it can take up to a week to clean up from Thaipusam, an enormous annual festival that took place the day before we visited. It’s possible much of the mess came from that, though I have heard others complain that there are always piles of litter.)
If you do decide to go, definitely get to the Caves early. They open at 7am and we arrived around 8am. I was glad, too, as it was already getting a bit stinky. We bypassed the optional paid caves, though I have read good things about the Dark Caves (they open later in the day, so we couldn’t go when we were there). Take in the view from the bottom, climb the stairs, respectfully amble about the shrine at the top, and head down. Stay clear of the monkeys and keep your expectations reasonable, and this shrine — one of the most sacred Hindu sites outside of India — is absolutely worth a visit.
To get there, take the KTM Komuter Train from Kuala Lumpur station or KL Sentral to the Batu Caves stop. You’ll pay about RM5 per person for the round-trip ticket, and the main cave and stairs are free to visit. Plan to spend about 30 minutes to an hour at the caves if you aren’t doing any of the optional attractions.
National Textile Museum
The National Textile Museum is free and just a short walk from Kuala Lumpur Station (take the train there from the Batu Caves). While the museum isn’t overwhelming, it is really well-maintained — particularly for a free site. You can learn all about the history and processing of famous Malaysian textiles, including batik and tekat embroidery. Spend about an hour at the museum as an excellent introduction to KL’s Central Market.
Formerly a wet market, the Kuala Lumpur Central Market now houses a decent food court and shops selling local handicrafts. Grab lunch, then peruse the many products made from local wood and textiles. Depending on your stamina for shopping, plan to spend an hour for lunch and a quick browse around, or longer if you’re doing some serious shopping.
Afternoon activity of your choice
We opted to skip the Petronas Towers and KL Tower, as we’re not really “stand on top of big buildings” people (no offense to those who are), particularly given the exorbitant price tag — it would have cost us more than a day’s budget to go up the towers. In my opinion, once you get above the height of the average Ferris Wheel, the distance sort of becomes incomprehensible, and observation decks don’t really offer much value. However, if tall buildings tickle your fancy, Petronas Towers are definitely enormous, and they offer online ticketing, making it a breeze to time your visit to get in and out easily.
Chow Kit is another ethnic neighborhood in KL, but unlike Chinatown, is not very clearly designated, so it’s hard to really figure it whether you’re “there” or not. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, it can be really interesting to wander the back alleys and find yourself a plate of noodles or bowl of soup. This was certainly the most authentic (least English on menus or spoken) neighborhood we found in KL, but getting there and back was a bit of a headache, so make sure you’ve got cab fare in your budget.
There are shopping malls all over Kuala Lumpur, and they take on an absolutely massive scale here. If you’re interested in some free A/C and people-watching or want to do some shopping, this can definitely be a good way to pass a few hours.
After dinner in the neighborhood of your choice, you’ve officially wrapped your 2 days in Kuala Lumpur.
Optional: Late-night partying
While we didn’t participate ourselves (OK, technically we did split a bucket of beers one afternoon at the Reggae Mansion), the ruckus at our hostel definitely suggests to us that there’s some partying to be done in KL. If you’re into that, you could certainly tack it on to either of the nights you’re in Kuala Lumpur. Just note that we definitely have not accounted for any late nights in this itinerary — you would hate yourself if you attempted to visit the Batu Caves hungover. It turns my stomach just thinking about it.