Ah, Kuala Lumpur. One of Asia’s most exciting cities. Where traditional meets modern. The perfect intro to Malaysia’s multiculturalism. One of Southeast Asia’s main gateways — and a far friendlier entry point to the region than Bangkok. As great as KL is, it can also be an expensive city to visit. But with a little careful planning, you can stick to your budget. In this post, I’ll cover the things to see on a Kuala Lumpur backpacking trip — and some other money-saving tips.
Whether you have 3 days in Kuala Lumpur, just a long layover, or are on an extended trip, this city has plenty to explore for free. It’s the perfect place to kick off a budget Malaysia holiday.
(Looking for more budget Malaysia travel tips? Check out my backpacking Malaysia travel guide here!)
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Best things to do in Kuala Lumpur on a budget
1. The Petronas Towers
The Petronas Towers are Malaysia’s most famous buildings. These 88-floor twin skyscrapers are a symbol of the city’s futuristic mindset. They serve as the headquarters for the national fossil fuel company (ugh). But despite their modern design, they retain elements of traditional Islamic architecture — just look for the five tiers representing the five pillars of Islam.
You may be wondering why the Petronas Towers are showing up in a Kuala Lumpur backpacking guide. After all, admission to the viewing platforms is a whopping 80 ringgits. But don’t worry — the best way to experience the towers is completely free.
Come at night, after the Central Business District has closed down, to have the towers to yourself. They’re most spectacular when they’re all lit up. A nighttime photo shoot outside won’t cost you a dime, but it’s an essential Kuala Lumpur travel experience.
2. Chow Kit Market
The northern part of the city is a world away from the hyper-modern business districts and elevated monorails. These working-class neighborhoods are fiercely traditional, and the best place in Malaysia’s capital to get acquainted with Malay culture. Don’t miss it on your Kuala Lumpur itinerary.
The beating heart of northern KL is the Chow Kit market. Unlike the sanitized-for-tourism Central Market, this is the real deal. Prepare to see cow heads and sting ray parts and chicken feet and every variety of dried fish. You can also expect that at least one vendor will try to force durian on you so they can laugh at your reaction. After all, tourists aren’t so common in this area.
The Chow Kit Market is one of the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur — and better yet, it’s completely free. You probably won’t want to buy anything.
3. The National Visual Arts Gallery
Near the Chow Kit Market is Malaysia’s National Visual Arts Gallery. If you like art, this is sure to be one of the highlights of your Kuala Lumpur itinerary. It features temporary exhibitions from artists across the country. The focus is on modern art with a political bent.
Entrance to the museum is free, and it takes about two hours to see everything. When I was there, it featured four Malaysian artists — one Indian, one Chinese, and two Malay. It was fascinating to see the different perspectives from people who share a national identity but have little in common culturally.
After you visit the museum, take some time to explore the surrounding (totally non-touristic) neighborhood. It’s a great place to grab lunch — you can get a heaping pile of veggies, prawns, rice, and sweet potatoes for less than $2. Just look for the open-air stalls serving pre-prepared food, and go for one that’s busy.
4. Chinatown and surrounds
Your Kuala Lumpur backpacking trip will probably start in the budget travel mecca of Chinatown. Part tourist trap, part authentically Malaysian, this neighborhood is fun to explore and is home to many of the top Kuala Lumpur attractions.
Chinatown’s top sights are its temples and its street life. Wander around and watch hawkers try to sell bleary-eyed backpackers durian, iced coffee, congee, and fish-ball soup (all four of which are delicious!). Stroll into Sri Mahamariamman, the biggest Hindu temple in the neighborhood, and gaze at the Ganesh iconography. Or visit Sin Sze Si Ya Temple, a Chinese Buddhist temple complete with fortune-telling incense sticks and elaborate wood carvings.
Chinatown is also the best place to shop for supplies you need for the rest of your Malaysia holiday. Forgot a plug adapter? Need an extra memory card for your camera? Sim card for your phone? You can get decent-quality goods for reasonable prices at the shops here. Just avoid the pricey, touristic Central Market.
5. Merdeka Square
You can’t miss this huge square during your Kuala Lumpur tourism exploration. It’s a nice place for a stroll or some people-watching any time of day, but it’s especially beautiful at night.
The enormous (and gorgeous) Sultan Abdul Samad Building dominates, with its bright-pink facade and traditional Islamic design. One of the city’s most important cathedrals is next door. The City Gallery is in another of the small buildings on the square, and has free displays about Kuala Lumpur’s history.
6. Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad
Possibly the most beautiful mosque in all of Malaysia, and at the top of any list of what to see in Kuala Lumpur, is this mosque. Cool blue and green tones in the architecture match the pretty gardens.
Non-Muslims can enter the mosque and lounge in the courtyards, but you have to dress modestly. Cover your elbows and knees. You can borrow a robe if you need to.
The mosque is free to enter, but it’s closed on Fridays and between 12:30 and 2:30 during the rest of the week.
Other Kuala Lumpur backpacking tips
Beyond the free places to see in Kuala Lumpur, if you want to stick to your budget, you’ll have to cut down on transportation, accommodation, and food expenses as much as possible.
Public Transportation in Kuala Lumpur
It’s easy to get around Kuala Lumpur on public transportation. You never have to use expensive taxis, and unlike the rest of South East Asia, Malaysia doesn’t have tuk tuks or motorcycle taxis.
KL has two airports — the main international airport, and the smaller SkyPark Subang Airport (where AirAsia flights arrive). You can get to and from both by commuter train or bus — it won’t cost you more than 20 ringgits in any case.
The main bus station, Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, is 14 km outside the city. You can reach destinations across Malaysia from here, including Melaka, Penang, Kota Bharu (for the Perhentians), and the Cameron Highlands. The bus terminal is huge and modern, with facilities ranging from ATMs to fast food. The cheapest way to get here is a 15-minute train ride from KL Sentral on the KTM Komuter — pay the 1 ringgit fare and get off at Bandar Tasik Selatan.
You can get to most of these places to visit in Kuala Lumpur using nothing more than your own two feet. The walk to the northern neighborhoods from Chinatown is long, but KL is a pleasant walking city, with good sidewalks and few hassles. The Chinatown and Central Business District areas, where most of these free Kuala Lumpur attractions are located, are extremely walkable.
If you must use public transportation to get around, be prepared for a confusing array of local trains. There is the Monorail, the Mass Rapid Transit, the Komuter, and the Light Rail Transit. Many of them cover overlapping routes, but at different frequencies and for different fares. Use MyRapid’s fare calculator (or a very good map) to figure out the best route.
Where to stay on a Kuala Lumpur backpacking trip
Chinatown is the main Kuala Lumpur backpacking neighborhood. It has plenty of backpacker hostels and guesthouses.
Because KL is so expensive compared to the rest of Malaysia, budget travelers are better off with a dorm here. You can find super-modern glitzy options with all the amenities, but they’ll cost you the same as a private room in most of the rest of the country.
Stick with one of the old-school backpackers in worn buildings to get the best value for money. Backpackers Travelers Inn is one of the best hostels in Kuala Lumpur, but often books out well in advance. Grocer’s Inn is a great family-run option. Budget $5-7 a night.
Best cheap food in KL
The variety of food you can sample on a Kuala Lumpur backpacking trip is insane. From Chinese to Indian to Malay to European and American cuisine, you never have to go hungry. Street food is a way of life in Malaysia and it’s on every corner.
You’ll find the best cheap food at hawker stalls and food courts. Chinatown has the biggest concentration. In the mornings it’s all about fish ball soup and congee, while in the evenings, noodle stalls appear everywhere. It’s not all Chinese — great satay abound. Expect to pay 3 ringgits for a meal.
The one part of town where finding cheap food can be tricky is the Central Business District. Food courts in malls are your best bet — you can still get a meal for under 5 ringgits.
One note of caution: Malaysia is a Muslim country, and while the locals have a liberal attitude about alcohol consumption, the government discourages it with high taxes. Expect to pay through the nose for a beer, even from a 7-11. (10 ringgits is about the minimum.) Ordering a beer at a hawker stall could cost you more than your whole day’s worth of food. If you’re trying to stick to a tight budget during your Kuala Lumpur itinerary, skip the booze.
Overall, KL is a great introduction to Malaysia. 3 days in Kuala Lumpur is plenty of time to see the main attractions without blowing your budget. I hope these tips for Kuala Lumpur backpacking will help you make it happen!
What’s your favorite city to visit on a budget? Leave a comment and tell me about it!
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