My Kind of Place: Kuala Lumpur, Asia's soulful city

Tick off the sights then set out to discover the real Malaysian capital, one-time resident John Brunton says.

The Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, are a spectacular landmark especially at sunset. John Brunton for The National
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Why Kuala Lumpur?

Kuala Lumpur is one of the cities I keep coming back to. I lived here for five years, but still find myself drawn back every time I visit Asia. It can be frustrating, polluted and congested, but KL, as everyone calls the Malaysian capital, is a city with soul, where the skyline may change but the vibrant local population of Malays, Chinese and Indians remain friendly, tolerant and welcoming. Sightseeing? You can get it over in a couple of days, after you have visited the stunning Islamic Arts Museum, toured the temples in Batu Caves and spent an afternoon walking through the KL Bird Park, probably the world's largest aviary. Then you can discover the real Kuala Lumpur.

A comfortable bed

A spectacular Grand Hyatt is due to open in September, while St Regis is developing an exclusive property for next year. The Equatorial and Crowne Plaza, two of the city's earliest luxury hotels, are to be pulled down and replaced by towering new resorts. All this will provide competition for the opulent Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com/kualalumpur; double rooms from 787 Malaysian ringgit [Dh918], including taxes), which remains not just the top address for discerning travellers but the favourite meeting place for KL's movers and shakers. The Traders (www.shangri-la.com/kualalumpur/traders) is well-priced, with a double room costing from 394 ringgit (Dh460) including taxes, and may have the best buffet breakfast in town. The new Villa Samadhi (www.villasamadhi.com.my) offers a peaceful, Zen-like hideaway right in the middle of this bustling metropolis, with a plush suite beginning at 580 ringgit (Dh677), including breakfast and taxes.

Find your feet

With sweltering heat and humidity, KL is not a city to explore on foot during the day. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but cabbies annoyingly tend to haggle with tourists rather than respect the meter. Fortunately, there are now efficient subway and monorail systems which whisk you round all the main sights. Don't miss the brilliant new air-conditioned elevated walkway stretching for half a kilometre between Bukit Bintang's shopping malls and the Petronas Twin Towers. To immerse yourself in local life, set out in the cooler early evening at Merdeka Square, the old colonial heart of KL once know as the Padang, until you arrive in the streets of Chinatown, filled with food stalls.

Meet the locals

Suria KLCC is more than the shopping centre at the foot of the Twin Towers, it is where all of KL comes to meet. Its scores of boutiques, bars and restaurants are jam-packed from morning to night, while at the weekend, families picnic in the ornate tropical gardens. On the other side of town, the Central Market may not sell fruit and vegetables anymore, but the artisan stalls, exhibitions and cultural shows draw in as many locals as tourists. The latest evening hotspot is City Deck Bar@Frangipani.

Book a table

This is one of the foodie capitals of Asia. Start off by booking a table at Acme Bar & Coffee (Jalan Binjai; 00 603 2162 3388), a chic bistro on the ground floor of the Norman Foster-designed Troika building. Acme serves creative dishes such as lemongrass shrimp wontons (17 ringgit; Dh19) and grilled snails wrapped in smoked duck (19 ringgit; Dh22). Some will tell you that Malay cuisine is best eaten at someone's home, but the elegant Bijan (3 Jalan Ceylon; 00 603 2031 3575) is the exception, as their dishes are surprising and delicious, such asrendang kambing (30 ringgit, Dh34) - slow-cooked spicy beef; and udang sambal petai (48 ringgit; Dh55) - prawns served with potent jungle beans. Lai Poh Heen, in the Mandarin Oriental (Kuala Lumpur City Centre; 00 603 2380 8888) is in a different league from hotel restaurants, with more KLites than hotel guests filling the dining room.

Shopper's paradise

Shopping in KL means luxury megamalls, and for the visitor everything is perfectly concentrated along the glitzy Bintang Walk. Top of the pyramid is Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, boasting every famous name in haute couture, from Gucci and Diane Von Furstenberg to Gaultier and Prada. Strong competition is just across the road at Starhill, which begins with a monster Louis Vuitton showroom, while their "indulge" level features Dior, Dunhill, Versace and Valentino.

The new Fahrenheit 88 showcases hot local designers such as Radzuan Radziwilli and Bernard Chandran, whose outfits have been worn by Lady Gaga and Rihanna. For fun boutiques and great bargains, don't miss the frenetic Sungei Wang Plaza, KL's oldest and most popular mall, and Low Yat Plaza, a paradise for computers, software and electronic goods. Central Market (Jalan Hang Kasturi) is the place to go for souvenirs, batik fabrics, exquisite songket cloth woven in silver-and-gold thread, Peranakan antiques and striking "wayang kulit" shadow puppets.

What to avoid

Everyone visits the teeming Petaling Street nightmarket, but buying fake Vuitton handbags, Cartier watches and Lacoste T-shirts is slightly naff and may land you in trouble with customs.

Don't miss

The iconic Petronas Towers are still the world's tallest twin towers, but forget about queueing to get to the top and instead book a comfy cabana at the penthouse SkyBar (www.skybar.com.my) right opposite, for the perfect sunset view.

Go there

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Kuala Lumpur from Dh3,500 return, including taxes.

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