This article compiles a list of art-related things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur. It is intended for travellers who are in Kuala Lumpur for a layover up to a week. Therefore, I have compiled a mix between the established art centres and must-dos, as well as more eclectic options like street art and murals. Admittedly, I’m not a deeply arts-centric person; however, I am a Malaysian and I live in Kuala Lumpur, and there’s a surprising amount of information you pick up just by osmosis.
I’ll probably keep adding to this article as I find new things. But this is a list of what I consider to be basic artsy things to check out in Kuala Lumpur, plus a few offbeat art attractions as well.
- Performance Art
- Visual arts
- Street art
- Craft arts
The performance arts have taken a huge blow due to measures taken to contain the pandemic. It’s unclear whether the three iconic arts centres I list below will survive. But they are the three most iconic, including the buildings that house them. Hopefully, at least these three will receive enough of a lifeline and can revive after all this is over.
1. Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC)
KLPAC is top of the list because it is located within beautiful grounds, graced with the ruins of colonial-era train station buildings, with a picturesque lake by the main theatre building. Even if they’re not putting on shows you’re interested in, it’s still well worth visiting if you want to drop by somewhere not very touristy.
Just entering to look around the grounds is free of charge. Ample parking is available. The nearest train station is the Sentul Komuter station. From the KL Sentral station, there are no changeovers. Sentul is just outside of the KL city centre.
2. Istana Budaya
Istana Budaya (roughly translates to ‘Palace of Culture’) is probably Malaysia’s oldest performing arts centre. Everything about it, from the architecture of its building to its interior design, is steeped in symbolism drawn from Malay heritage, reflecting the aspirations of a new nation back in the 60s. Theatre performances in Istana Budaya are usually in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. However, even if you’re not keen on checking out a Malay language performance, the building alone is an arts attraction.
There is a bus stop for Istana Budaya, which is the most convenient public transport stop. However, since the location is quite central, from wherever you are in the city it’s probably more convenient to take a Grab.
3. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra
The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) is located within the Petronas Twin Towers complex, just next to the Suria KLCC Mall. Sponsored by Malaysia’s national energy company, it reflects modern Malaysia’s more international outlook in the late 20th century. If you’re visiting Kuala Lumpur, you will be visiting the landmark Twin Towers anyway, so check out the orchestra while you’re at it.
The MPO is extremely accessible, since at least three train lines go to the KLCC area, and obviously all the buses.
For more up-to-date news on art events in Kuala Lumpur, visit the website of CENDANA. The Cultural Economy Development Agency is a hub promoting cultural and artistic activities in Malaysia.
I will keep this list to a single art gallery, because this is the one that will probably survive the pandemic. After all, Petronas had an art gallery in its Twin Towers complex, but it’s now closed. (Although that’s probably more to do with the impact of changes needed for the energy transition, and less because of Covid19. Yes, in some developing countries, oil wealth funds public amenities, including the arts.)
1. Balai Seni Visual Negara
The National Visual Arts Gallery is just next to Istana Budaya. Although the building is unremarkable compared to the centres I’ve listed so far, it is the oldest art gallery in Malaysia and is still active in promoting exhibitions of local art and from the region.
For example, this powerful piece from my last visit some years ago is both by a local artist and about (what is now) local history.
Malaysia came a long way, from the watershed event that inspired this artwork. Just a few years later, an epic election in 2018 took place in a new political era where peaceful demonstrations no longer result in tear gassing, water cannons, and media suppression.
Although Kuala Lumpur isn’t exactly a top street art capital, you can find a surprising amount of it.
1. Datuk Lat cartoon art
Lat is the nickname of Malaysia’s best known cartoonist, granted the peerage title ‘Datuk’ for being such a national treasure. His cartoons captured life in newly-independent Malaysia, so much so that I recommended Kampung Boy as pre-travel reading for Malaysia.
You can find pop-ups of his cartoon art in old Kuala Lumpur, around Merdeka Square. The LRT is the most convenient train line from KL Sentral; you’ll want to alight at the Masjid Jamek station which will take you within the old KL area already.
2. Jalan Alor street art
The famous street food zone of KL have several alleys that have been painted with murals. You can wander the area around Changkat Bukit Bintang and Jalan Alor to check them out.
3. Other street art
The area around old Kuala Lumpur generally has mural art. Wander the area around Masjid Jamek and Dataran Merdeka to look for them. Even banks might have commissioned art on the side of their office.
Certainly the most traditional of Malaysian arts is in the form of hand crafts. You’ll commonly find examples of these in souvenir shops and markets like the Central Market. However, there are two worthwhile places where you can go to learn more about it as an art form, or get more unique souvenirs.
1. Kompleks Kraf Kuala Lumpur
The Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex is the best place to learn about craft arts from across Malaysia. This covers not just the ethnic crafts from the main Malaysian races, but also the Indigenous peoples. There may also be interactive sessions and lessons you can sign up for. And of course, there is a shop if you’d like to buy crafts as souvenirs. You may get better pieces than in souvenir shops.
Kompleks Kraf is located along Jalan Conlay. If you’re already in the KLCC area, it’s more convenient to get a Grab. From KL Sentral, the most convenient train station is the Raja Chulan Monorail station, but it is a bit of a walk from there.
2. Batik painting art
Batik is a painting technique using wax patterns on textile. Although common across the region, Malaysian batik has a particular look, especially the hand painted version vs the block-stamped. Although you usually get it in the form of cloth, which are then made into clothing or household items, batik can also be purchased as paintings.
By far, the best I’ve seen are in this obscure little shop just inside the Perdana Botanical Garden’s main entrance gate. The batik paintings are by local artists, and are exceptionally detailed, depicting scenes of nature. Even more special for marine lovers, there are many underwater scenes as well, which is not a common subject in traditional batik art. Aside from batik paintings, Kia Klemenz Gifts & Souvenirs curates other unique souvenirs from Malaysia.
Next to this shop is the Malaysia Cartoon & Comic House, a museum featuring work by Malaysian cartoonists.
You can take the Komuter train from KL Sentral to the old Kuala Lumpur station. From there, it’s a bit of a walk, but it’s a pleasant one across a tourist area. Tour buses may go to the area as well, as there are multiple tourist attractions here.
Bonus tip: It was here that I discovered Fit Rebel, who make batik leggings! Although the artwork is printed on, they are based on real batik artwork by local batik artists. My SENI jellyfish leggings are easily my best pair. It’s the best community-positive wearable souvenir, for the active culture traveller.
3. National Textiles Museum
Muzium Tekstil is a little museum in a heritage building next to the Sultan Abdul Samad building, an iconic building located opposite Merdeka Square. It is a surprisingly good museum, taking you through the history and cultural significance of textile crafts in Malaysia.
You’ll already be in this area if you’re looking for the Lat street art I mentioned above.
Looking to add artsy things to do in your Kuala Lumpur itinerary? Pin this guide!