For far too long, Kuala Lumpur (or KL for short) has languished in a lonely darkened corner, eclipsed by its attention-hogging neighbours to the north and south. Positioned between Bangkok and Singapore – two firm stopover favourites – it has struggled to compete, but all that is set to change.
With a wave of new hotels, wonders both natural and man-made, and chefs causing a stir on the international culinary scene, the time has come for KL to step out of the shadows. Best of all, it becomes easier to reach this month, when British Airways restarts direct flights from Heathrow, a route previously operated only by its alliance partner, Malaysia Airlines.
So, what awaits? A hot and humid metropolis of markets and monorails, where century-old temples stand in the shadows of skyscrapers lifted straight from Blade Runner; this is a city that's home to 1.6 million souls, and one that has long welcomed travellers.
Widespread immigration from China and India in the 19th century has left a lasting impact, shaping the city fundamentally. Chinatown and Little India are two of the most dynamic districts; fragrant streets brimming with crowded roadside eateries, colourful Hindu temples, quiet Taoist shrines and traditional Chinese shopfronts, the oldest of which are along Jalan Tun H S Lee. These two neighbourhoods first took shape after a destructive fire destroyed a large part of the city back in 1881.
There are western touches, too, with pockets of Art Deco buildings, others with Dutch-style gables and mock Tudor – a nod to the years of British rule.
Embracing its newfound independence in the decades that followed the 1957 declaration, Kuala Lumpur swiftly transformed itself once again with a new space-age skyline featuring ground-breaking new additions, most notably the emblematic Petronas Twin Towers (see "Don't Miss", left), the world's tallest structure when completed in 1996. That particular claim to fame may be long gone but make no mistake; KL remains a city on the up.
New hotels are springing up almost overnight across the city with Fairmont, St Regis, W and Four Seasons all opening properties soon. Construction is also under way on the world's first Harrods hotel.
With such strong competition, long-established properties are raising their game. The Mandarin Oriental at the Kuala Lumpur City Centre complex (00 60 3 2380 8888; mandarinoriental.com) has just completed an impressive six-month overhaul of its leisure facilities. Located opposite the Petronas Towers, the 643-room hotel now has a swanky spa and outdoor infinity pool. Doubles from MYR 579 (£104), room only.
For more than 70 years, Kien Fatt, traditional Chinese medicine store at 77 Jalan Petaling (00 60 3 2078 3229), has been healing the poorly with natural products and age-old remedies. The wizened onsite "doctors" offer a speedy diagnosis before consulting the shelves, which heave with countless bottles and jars filled with weird and wonderful items – from wolfberries to 100-year-old ginseng – that serve to create the perfect prescription.
The restaurant currently creating the biggest buzz is Dewakan (0060 3 5565 0767; dewakan.my). Headed up by chef Darren Teoh, who is also a lecturer in molecular gastronomy and trained at Noma in Copenhagen, Dewakan's innovative menu favours local ingredients and pushes boundaries when it comes to contemporary Malay cuisine. Imagine, for example, black rice congee and ox tongue in a mushroom broth, and red prawns with a bunga telang dressing. Three courses from RM80 (£14).
Watch a million lights twinkle from the large open-air terrace of Fuego, a new South American themed bar and restaurant on the 24th floor of the Troika Tower B (0060 3 2162 0886; troikaskydining.com). David Beckham drank here when he was in town, no doubt won over by the industrial decor, rustic touches (menus are on wooden chopping boards) and, most of all, the city views.
When it comes to picking a tipple, choose from between 10 types of tequila and six creative cocktails. The horchata – a boozy blend of rice milk, amaro, cinnamon dust and a Brazilian spirit made from sugarcane – gets my vote. Cocktails from RM28 (£5).
Housed on a site originally occupied by a wet market in the 1880s, Central Market (0060 3 2031 0399; centralmarket.com.my) was earmarked for demolition in the 1970s. Thankfully, this beautiful baby-blue colonial building was saved and has since become one of Kuala Lumpur's most pleasant shopping spots. Spread across two floors are dozens of independent fashion and artisan stores, specialising in goods such as Oriental antiques and silverware from northern Malaysia.
Despite no longer being the world's tallest building (overtaken in 2004 by the Taipei 101 in Taiwan and later by Dubai's Burj Khalifa) the Petronas Twin Towers (0060 3 2331 8080; petronastwintowers.com.my) remain an impressive sight, and the symbol of the city. A striking example of postmodern design, the towers stand 451 metres high. Walk between the two at the double-decker skybridge, located between the 41st and 42nd floors, or aim even higher at the 86th-floor observation deck for 360-degree views of the city.
Malaysia Airlines (0871 423 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) operates two direct flights a day from Heathrow, with return fares starting from £839. British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) also flies daily.
Malaysian tourist board (tourism.gov.my)Reuse content