Where to Go in Malaysia

SD › Where to Go in Malaysia
Updated: November 26, 2021
By Santorini Dave

The Best Areas to Stay in Malaysia

As tourists rush to well-known tropical getaways like Bali and Phuket or explore newer destinations such as Vietnam and Cambodia, many ignore one of the best-value and most exciting – yet under-visited – regions in Southeast Asia. Only 740km long and less than half as wide, the peninsula where most Malays live and tourists visit is pleasingly compact and boasts public transport to rival Europe. And often forgotten are the two isolated provinces with surprisingly developed towns, as well as untouched jungles carved by raging rivers and populated by indigenous tribes and unique wildlife.

Within a short trip by bus, train, and plane from anywhere along peninsular Malaysia are postcard-perfect tropical beaches, colonial-era highlands blanketed with tea plantations, thriving metropolises packed with malls and markets, and historical towns with a heritage dominated by Chinese and Indian minorities. Malaysia is wonderfully different to Singapore (which is overpriced and can seem sterile), Vietnam (difficult to get around by public transport), and Thailand (where language differences are problematic), and most of the friendly locals across Malaysia speak English.

As close to Thailand as the Malaysian mainland, the resort haven of Langkawi Island offers pristine beaches and, unusually, caters well for budget-minded travelers. Especially historic and dynamic, Penang is a compact island that maintains a beautifully restored colonial heritage and at present is dominated by the Chinese, especially in the charismatic capital, Georgetown. Nearby on the mainland, the lovable town of Taiping is set alongside a remarkable lake and gardens, but is surprisingly ignored by tourists.

Despite overdevelopment, the Cameron Highlands retain a delightful colonial-era vibe, complete with Tudor-style architecture, strawberry farms, and tea plantations. Rivaling Singapore as one of Asia’s great cities, the energetic Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), is well designed, easy to get around, and loaded with attractions. About halfway between KL and Singapore, the historic city of Melaka (Malacca) has an elegant riverside location and fascinating old town packed with mosques, churches, temples, and an excessive number of museums.

Just over the strait from Singapore, Johor Bahru is a gateway for the east and west coasts of peninsular Malaysia, and certainly worth a stopover. Further up the east coast are two clusters of magical islands, which include the petite and romantic Tioman Island and Perhentian Island, near the border with Thailand. Often forgotten and over 1,000km across the South China Sea are two historical anomalies: the states of Sarawak and Sabah, which share the world’s third-largest island, Borneo, with Indonesia and Brunei. The respective capitals of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are well developed and offer something quite different to the peninsula.

The Best Places to Stay in Malaysia

Best Areas in Malaysia for…

  • Best Region in Malaysia for Sightseeing: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
    The capital can offer even more sights than Penang and Melaka because it’s so much larger. Accessible on foot within the city center and via the excellent public transport system are temples used by Indian minorities, teeming markets across the sprawling Chinatown, and a bundle of lovingly-restored buildings from the colonial era. Other must-sees include the stalls and cafés at Central Market, the astonishing views from the Petronas Twin Towers, and cluster of first-class museums in and around the extensive lake gardens. It’s also very easy to daytrip by train to likable regional towns like Seremban, Shah Alam, and Klang, and by cable car (and bus) to Genting Highlands, a Vegas-style mini-city of casinos and theme parks among jungle-clad mountains.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Beaches: Langkawi Island
    Imagine sand with the quality and color of talcum powder, bunches of angled palms laden with coconuts, and shimmering, calm waters colored emerald and turquoise. Most beaches are commandeered by luxury resorts, but still open to the public, while some stretches of sand are so comparatively undeveloped that it’s easy to escape the crowds – and snorkeling within swimming distance from the shore adds greatly to the attraction. Other beaches along pretty coves on uninhabited islands nearby are only accessible by organized boat trips.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Boat Trips: Langkawi Island
    Only fully developed for tourism in the past couple of decades, Langkawi is within an archipelago of over 100 islands, many just limestone outcrops; others, islets with coves, caves, and pockets of forests. Once renowned as a haven for pirates but now part of a protected marine park, the seascapes are stunning and some areas are populated by indigenous groups of ‘sea gypsies’. Visitors can swim in freshwater and saltwater lakes; admire birdlife from boardwalks; snorkel among fish and reefs in clear waters; or just sunbathe at pristine beaches. Boat trips are easy to arrange – as part of a larger tour or chartered with a boatman – from hotels and travel agencies across the island and at the boat terminal in the main town, Kuah.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Outdoor Activities: Cameron Highlands
    Malaysia is blessed with beaches perfect for water-sports (see below), as well as forests and mountains ideal for more adventurous activities. However, the majority of Malaysians and tourists (most of whom come from Singapore) are not outdoorsy sort of people, but some more affluent and courageous locals do enjoy trekking through the mountains of peninsular Malaysia and climbing one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks just outside Kota Kinabalu. More suitable and accessible for most tourists is hiking (rather than trekking) around the cooler Cameron Highlands. This area also attracts foreign backpackers keen on exploring the mountains, forests, and tea plantations by using maps and well-signed trails, or hiring guides to remote peaks, waterfalls, and villages of indigenous orang asli (‘original people’).
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Water-Sports: Batu Ferringhi, Penang
    Although Penang is not a tropical holiday destination like Langkawi and Tioman islands, the main beach region of Batu Ferringhi does offer a modest range of activities on and above the sea. Midway along the north coast and easy to reach by public bus from the capital Georgetown, Batu Ferringhi is popular – mostly among Malaysians – for jet-skiing and parasailing, but some prefer just sitting on a ‘banana boat’ and being whisked along from the back of a speedboat.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Diving and Snorkeling: Tioman Island
    Although not as developed or enticing as Thailand for underwater exploration, scuba-diving trips can be organized at Kota Kinabalu, capital of the remote Sabah province, and the beautiful Perhentian Island. Tioman Island takes the prize, however, for its treasure trove of coral reefs and marine life, including frolicking dolphins. Divers appreciate that Tioman is compact and good-value, and trips are easy to arrange through agencies offering international-standard safety, equipment, and courses. What’s more, there are several WWII shipwrecks for more experienced divers and snorkeling is possible within swimming distance of the shore – and masks and fins are readily available for rent.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Nightlife: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
    As a vibrant Asian capital, the choice of things to do after dark across KL is extraordinary. Despite hefty taxes on alcohol and a Muslim majority, there are plenty of bars – but not the range available in Thailand or ones that attract the sort of hard-drinking tourists found on Bali. On the rooftops (including on a helipad) of several 5-star hotels are extravagant bars, while some heritage-style hotels offer more sedate lounges for cocktails and cigars. More affluent locals might flock to nightclubs and jazz clubs, although these are usually a little tame compared to cities outside of Malaysia. More sophisticated events held at various arts and cultural centers often showcase the diversity of Malaysia’s population: families can visit a cinema complex with English-language films, and watching a Bollywood blockbuster in a colonial-era movie theater is an experience like no other.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Food & Restaurants: Georgetown, Penang
    One genuine but underrated attraction of visiting Malaysia is its cuisine. While not as renowned as Thai or Vietnamese food, the variety is truly remarkable because of the mix of Malays, Indians, and Chinese, and the unique Peranakan cuisine originating from descendants of Malays and Chinese. Arguably the finest place for choice is Penang’s enchanting colonial capital, Georgetown, especially along the narrow lanes dominated by the significant Chinese minority. The variety is incredible across the city: from makeshift market stalls and street-side cafés catering for locals to European-style bistros in 5-star hotels overlooking the sea. Many tourists flock to the hawker centers where food stalls are set up each evening in the eastern suburbs, many facing the sea.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Vibe & Culture: Georgetown, Penang
    The capital of Penang is pleasingly compact, so it’s easy to explore on foot (or by free public bus) the myriad of attractions within this multicultural city. For example, the Indian minority have Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and curry houses; the Chinese run market stalls and incense-infused temples; and the Malays work in many of the tourist attractions across the city and island. Georgetown proudly showcases its colonial heritage with whitewashed churches and comprehensive museums, as well as a restored fort in the middle of downtown. Along jetties near the ferry terminal, Chinese ‘clans’ live in wooden houses above the water, while it’s also possible to visit authentic kampungs (villages) around the interior and southern coast.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Cultural Classes: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
    With fewer (non-Singaporean) tourists, cultural activities like cooking classes (common in Thailand) and art/crafts lessons (popular in Bali) are rarely offered in Malaysia. The exception is KL, where a few courses are offered – more for expats living in the capital, but still available to tourists. At MyBatik, students can learn about the batik method of designing clothes and bags, as well as tie-dying and teh tarik (milky tea), while at Lazat Cooking Classes, 3-course meals are cooked and then devoured. Similar cultural activities are offered in the historic cities of Melaka and Georgetown (Penang).
  • Best Regions in Malaysia for Walking and Cycling: Taiping and Langkawi Island
    The compact downtown area within the agreeable but rarely-visited town of Taiping has manageable traffic and is positioned alongside vast gardens surrounding a lake. The lawns are lush and raintrees massive, providing a canopy along the quiet road circling the lake – and bikes are available for rent at a couple of shops. Wandering around the zoo, especially at night, is also loads of fun, while the more adventurous may want to hike to the hill station on Bukit Larut. Most roads around Langkawi Island are flat and have comparatively little traffic, and some shops and hotels rent bicycles, but roads are too long and shade-less for walking.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Shopping: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
    Not surprisingly, the greatest selection of places to shop is within the largest city. Around Chinatown are busy produce markets and the main thoroughfare almost magically converts to a street market every afternoon. Other produce markets mainly cater for Malays (who almost seem outnumbered by Chinese and Indian minorities in some areas), while the Central Market is packed with stalls selling fabulous souvenirs. These days, most locals prefer malls and shopping precincts like Bukit Bintang that rival Europe for size, quality, and choice. And so many markets and malls are within the city center and easily accessible on foot or via the excellent public transport.
  • Best Regions in Malaysia for History: Melaka and Georgetown, Penang
    Both of these popular and historic cities proudly showcase their heritage – whether converted mansions and fort remains from the colonial era or other buildings not connected to European rule, especially among areas settled by the Chinese a century or more ago. So many of the attractions in Melaka, including the large number of museums, date from the days when the British, Dutch, and Portuguese fought for control of this ancient port. In contrast, Penang was colonized only by the British, so the capital, Georgetown, is dotted with whitewashed old churches and government buildings, and dominated by remnants of a huge fort.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Serenity: Taiping
    As tourists rush between Penang and the Cameron Highlands, they sadly ignore this delightful and easy-going town. The center of Taiping (which means ‘everlasting peace’ in Chinese) is beautifully positioned next to a serene lake surrounded by vast lawns and century-old raintrees – a perfect place for strolling, cycling, paddle-boating, or just relaxing. Adding to the genuine feel of tranquility is the background of mountains with a hill station accessible by a strenuous hike or wild jeep ride.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Families: Melaka
    This enchanting, historical city is ideal for those traveling with children for several reasons. Firstly, it’s very easy to reach by comfortable buses from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (but is not close to an airport or railway terminal). Secondly, Melaka has so much to see and do in a particularly compact area: from museums to malls and more interesting riverboat trips, street markets with live music, walking and cycling tours of Chinatown, and festivals galore. And with so many families visiting Melaka from KL and Singapore, a number of theme parks and other family-focused attractions (e.g. a zoo) are also nearby.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Value: Taiping
    While Malaysia remains particularly good value, it’s not surprising that the major cities and popular tourist regions (e.g. Melaka, Penang, and the Cameron Highlands) are comparatively more expensive – especially during peak times (i.e. weekends and local school holidays). In contrast, Taiping is ignored by the majority of foreign and Malaysian tourists, so most hotels are simple and cheap. The majority of amenities, such as shops, cafés, and bars, are designed and priced for locals rather than foreigners, and downtown is compact enough to avoid taxis (which are unmetered and overpriced throughout Malaysia).
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Transport: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
    As the capital and largest city, KL provides a world-class public transport system that includes trains, light rail, and monorail radiating from a well-designed hub in the city center. This very reliable, cheap, and effective transport is a wonderful way to explore the city, as well as visiting likable regional towns (e.g. Seremban) and amazing attractions in the countryside (e.g. Batu Caves). It also means that most visitors don’t need to use taxis, which are all unmetered and way overpriced. Although about 60km from the city center, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (also for domestic flights) is very well-connected by bus (at least one hour) and express train (less than 30 minutes). European-standard buses head in every direction from the city and the train linking Singapore with Penang and beyond passes through.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for First-Timers: Melaka
    This intriguing old city is an obvious destination for those unfamiliar with Malaysia and, especially, unused to traveling around Asia. It’s so easy to reach on European-standard buses from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur (but not close to any airport or railway terminal). The vast range of hotels includes 5-star high-rises on the edge of downtown to charming boutique hotels within Chinatown – and most are within walking distance of the abundant attractions around the city center and along the river. Melaka can become crowded and more expensive, however, with weekenders from Friday afternoons to Sunday afternoons, so plan accordingly.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Festivals: Melaka
    With its unique combination of Malays, Indians, and Chinese, plenty of religious festivals and cultural events are held across the country. These are more pleasant to enjoy (and even partake in) at Melaka, because the town center is so compact, has minimal traffic, and is within walking distance of most hotels. Festivals include Chinese New Year, with parades around the UNESCO-listed Chinatown and lanterns lining Melaka River and the Hindu festival of Diwali, which lasts up to 5 days. Other major events in Melaka are based on the Islamic calendar, established and encouraged by the government, e.g. Hari Merdeka (Independence Day), or linked to the city’s unique Portuguese and Christian heritage.
  • Best Region in Malaysia for Romantic Holidays: Tioman Island
    No doubt, Tioman ticks all the right boxes for the perfect romantic getaway: most accommodation is in cozy, quiet chalets and bungalows (rather than crowded and impersonal resorts); many rooms offer direct ocean views; the beaches of white sand are ideal for strolling and sunbathing; the calm waters are perfect for swimming and snorkeling; and exploring the numerous waterfalls and spring-fed lakes on foot is loads of fun. Compact, quiet, and friendly, the island remains comparatively unspoilt in many areas, and most locals live in genuine villages.
  • Safest Area in Malaysia: Cameron Highlands
    Malaysia is very likely to be significantly safer than the places tourists come from. Most possible dangers are self-inflicted, e.g. excessive drinking, riding motorbikes recklessly, or from accidents during adventurous activities. Malaysia does not attract the sort of hard-drinking tourists who may cause unfortunate incidents like physical and sexual assaults that are not uncommon in other tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. The overwhelming majority of tourists visiting the enjoyable Cameron Highlands are Malaysians, many with families, so the area is easy-going and trouble-free, despite the traffic on weekends.
  • Least Safe Area in Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
    As is often the case, the larger the city the more chance of getting into trouble – whether from physical assault (extremely rare anywhere) to vehicle accidents (more common.) While the traffic in KL is heavy, crossing the road is not as potentially deadly as, for example, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, because of the numerous pedestrian bridges and subways. The sort of opportunistic petty crimes not uncommon at major tourist regions throughout Asia can happen in crowded areas across KL, so take the usual precautions. And avoid downtrodden inner-city areas where prostitution and drugs are surprisingly rife.

The 11 Best Regions in Malaysia for Tourists

1. Langkawi Island

2. Penang

3. Taiping

    A short bus trip from Penang via the mainland hub of Butterworth, Taiping is an adorable town with a compact center dominated by Chinese businesses, but the main attractions are the lake, gardens, and world-class zoo – all in the town center. Nearby is Bukit Larut, Malaysia’s oldest hill station, accessible on an arduous hike or wild jeep ride, and it’s easy to daytrip by train or bus to Ipoh (Malaysia’s third-largest city) and Kuala Kangsar, a likable riverside town with a royal history. Surprisingly left off the usual tourist trail, Taiping is low-key (and, therefore, also comparatively quiet), so most accommodation is moderately priced and good value, but nothing is specifically designed for families. Don’t stay in Kamunting, a satellite town with a massive bus station unless necessary.

  • Best Luxury Hotel: Novotel
  • Best Boutique Hotel: Sojourn Beds & Café
  • Best Family Hotels: Sense HotelSentosa Villa ResortHermitage Boutique House
  • Best Moderate Hotels: FlemingtonHotel Grand Baron • Legend Inn
  • Best Budget Hotels: Reserve The CozytainerLouis HotelKimal HotelRaintown InnGuesthouse Dragon PlacePeking

4. Cameron Highlands

5. Kuala Lumpur (KL)

6. Melaka (Malacca)

7. Johor Bahru

8. Tioman Island

9. Perhentian Island

    Not far from the top of the eastern peninsula near Thailand, Perhentian offers an idyllic tropical island setting and vibe – including some of the most exquisite beaches anywhere in Southeast Asia and villages not too spoilt by tourism. There are, in fact, two islands – simply called Perhentian Kecil (‘small’) and Perhentian Besar (‘big’). Like Tioman Island, there are no international-brand luxury resorts – only midrange ones that are still very comfortable and good value, as well as basic but quaint chalets/bungalows. Perhentian Kecil attracts the younger set, while Besar offers more amenities – and pre-book accommodation online which should include transfers. No flights; only speedboats from the mainland village of Kuala Besut, not far south of the conservative city of Kota Bahru.

  • Best Mid-Range Resorts: Villamas Perhentian ResortBuBu VillaTuna Bay Island ResortAlunan Resort
  • Best Family Hotels: Perhentian Island ResortThe Barat PerhentianMimpi Perhentian
  • Best Moderate Hotels: Suhaila PalaceSenja Bay Resort
  • Best Budget Hotels: Perhentian Chomel ChaletFlora Bay 1Flora Bay 2

10. Kuching

11. Kota Kinabalu

    The capital of Sabah state is part of the ‘wild frontier’ about 1,600km from Kuala Lumpur. Flattened during WWII, KK (as it’s also known) won’t win awards for beauty and design, but it does offer attractions rarely found elsewhere in Malaysia: ethnic tribes (members of which work at the city markets); trekking and mountain climbing, especially at nearby Gunung Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia; and traditional villages built above the sea and just offshore from downtown. KK is also a popular base for arranging snorkeling and diving trips among some of the finest but least-visited waters in Asia and tours by riverboats and jeeps deep into the jungle to see unique wildlife and visit indigenous people. In the city center, there are some surprisingly opulent and well-priced multi-star hotels mainly designed for business people and many other places ideal for budget-minded travelers.

  • Best Luxury Hotels: HiltonPromenade HotelLe Meridienibis Styles InanamMarriott
  • Best Boutique Hotels: StantonThe Atelier
  • Best Family Hotels: Mercure City CentreDreamtelHotel Sixty3Grandis
  • Best Moderate Hotels: Putatan Platinum HotelSabha Gaya HotelThe Klagan HotelMandarin HotelHorizon Hotel
  • Best Budget Hotels: Pantai InnSummer HotelQlioUnicHotel Gaia 95

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Santorini Dave Author Bio. Santorini Dave was started in 2011 by a guy who loved Greece, travel, and great hotels. We're now a small team of writers and researchers on a mission to deliver the most helpful travel content on the internet. We specialize in Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, and Greece and recommend the best hotels, best neighborhoods, and best family hotels in top destinations around the world. We also make hotel maps and travel videos. I can be contacted at dave@santorinidave.com.