Top 29 Places to Visit in Malaysia For First Time Travellers [Updated 2020]

Top 29 Destinations in Malaysia to Visit [Updated 2020]

Thinking of where to go in Malaysia? Pick from this list of 29 destinations, from the usual cities to the national parks and highlands.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Malaysia, chances are you’ve definitely heard the phrase “Malaysia, truly Asia”.  It was the tagline of a campaign by the Malaysian Tourism Ministry aimed at promoting Malaysia as a world-class travel destination. It actually started in the early 90s and the phrase has just stuck around since then. Malaysia truly has a lot to offer the enthusiastic traveller! Here’s a quick rundown of the top 29 destinations in Malaysia to visit. While you may know some of them, there’s always more to discover! 

The usual suspects

1. Penang

We start off with the obvious. Penang has long been known globally as one of the most popular tourist destinations ever. From mouth-watering street food and hawker fare to iconic locations such as Kek Lok Si Temple and the trendy street murals in Georgetown, the city is more or less the poster boy of Malaysian tourism. There are also plenty of stunning natural attractions and ambient cafes to explore! Steeped in history and adorned with modern skyscrapers, Penang is truly a cultural cauldron of tradition and modernity. Definitely a world-class holiday destination and a must-visit for any self-respecting traveller in Malaysia!

Also read: 22 Fun Things to Do in Penang On Your First Trip [Updated 2020]

2. Melaka

From one UNESCO World Heritage Site to another! Melaka, which lies south of Penang, is a popular tourist destination in its own right. Apart from being home to famous historical landmarks such as A Famosa Fort and Christ Church, Melaka also boasts being the go-to place for delicious Malaysian delicacies such as satay celup, chicken rice balls and Nyonya cuisine. Having been an important trading port during Malaysia’s (or Malaya, if you want to be even more accurate) colonial era, you will also find remnants of the past here, such as the Portuguese Settlement and the Dutch Heritage Trail. And if you’re a fan of night markets, then the Jonker Street Night Market is surely an experience not to be missed!

3. Desaru

things to do in desaru

Image credit: Nicolas Lannuzel

The beach town of Desaru is paradise for city dwellers and tourists in need of a recharge. Desaru offers more than just the opulent resorts which line the serene coastline of course. What’s more, it’s just two hours away from Singapore!

You can stroll along Desaru’ white sandy beaches, enjoy fun in the sun at Desaru Waterpark, and savour the catch of the day at Tanjung Balau Fishing Village among other activities!

Tip: Not sure where to stay in Desaru? Head down to Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast!

Winner of ‘Best for Families‘ in the TripZilla Excellence Awards 2019, Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast is a family-friendly hotel with luxurious rooms and suites. One of the world’s biggest waterparks is also just a few steps away from the hotel!

4. Ipoh, Perak

Image credit: Colourportal

Ipoh often slips under the radar of most international travellers. Located in the state of Perak, Ipoh is a place of good food and wonderful natural scenery. Its water theme park, the Lost World of Tambun, is a classic favourite among Malaysians for a weekend getaway. In addition, the Kek Long Tong Cave Temple Gardens and the Gunung Lang Recreational Park are just some of the locations which exemplify Ipoh’s beautiful natural scenery. For a cultural fix, visit the Ho Yan Hor Museum and Ipoh World, which showcases the important historical roots of the Hakka community in the city.

5. Kuala Lumpur

The metropolitan capital of Malaysia is the most populous city in the entire country. As such, you can be sure that there is much to do here. The Central Market is a bustling location of activity as vendors peddle their wares ranging from traditional handicraft to hip apparel and, most importantly, local street food. Within the market is also a space called the Annexe where local artists occasionally hold galleries showcasing their work.

For a fun night out on the city, visit Bukit Bintang which is the main pubbing/clubbing district of the city. Here you’ll find plenty of establishments with rustic atmospheres and homey ambience to enjoy a few drinks with friends. And of course, no trip to K.L. is ever complete without a snapshot of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers or a stroll in the verdant Perdana Botanical Garden.

6. Sarawak

destinations in malaysia

East Malaysia (also sometimes known as Borneo) is often a forgotten destination as most tourists flock to the peninsula. However, there is a plethora of fun activities and cultural experiences to discover here. If it’s your very first trip to Sarawak, you’ll be in for a great treat. Beyond delicious food like laksa and kolo mee, Sarawak is also home to many heritage locations (most of which are located in Kuching) such as the Sarawak Museum and the Kuching Waterfront.

You’ll be able to visit an authentic Bidayuh tribe village , enjoy a relaxing cruise on the Santubong River and visit some pristine national parks like Bako National Park as well. What’s more, time your trip to perfection and you’ll be able to experience the annual Rainforest World Music Festival, which is one of Malaysia’s biggest celebrations of music all year round!

Also read: Sarawak: The Do-It-All Destination for 5 Types of Travellers

7. Sabah

Located just next to Sarawak, Sabah is another true gem of a travel destination. Blessed with surreal natural beauty, the Land Beneath the Wind is home to some of Malaysia’s most wondrous natural marvels. We’ll get to Mount Kinabalu in a minute, but other sights worth visiting include the aptly named Edge of Borneo in Kudat, Kundasang, affectionately known as the “New Zealand of Malaysia”, and the many pristine islets and diving spots across the state. Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, also offers tourists a chance to indulge in unique local cuisine and culture.

Theme parks

8. Genting Highlands, Pahang

Known as the City of Entertainment, Genting Highlands is another top destination in Malaysia. Most know it as the ideal place for a fun and (literally) cool getaway. Located high up the hills, the weather in Genting is far removed from the tropical heat synonymous with Malaysia. While it is most famously known as the Las Vegas of Asia due to its casinos, there are also plenty of family-friendly activities. Having undergone multiple stages of renovation in recent years, Genting now boasts a brand new look!

Sky Avenue has transformed this nostalgic location into a premium shopping and dining destination. It has also revamped its indoor theme park into the bustling Skytropolis, filled with exciting experiences. What’s more, the highly-anticipated outdoor theme park is finally set to open in 2021! 

9. Bukit Tinggi, Pahang

Image credit: stleong

Bukit Tinggi in Bentong, Pahang is often overshadowed by its more illustrious cousins, Genting and Cameron (we’ll get to that) Highlands. Unlike Genting Highlands, Bukit Tinggi isn’t exactly a high octane location of entertainment. Rather, it’s a place of relaxation and literal Zen. Modelled after a French town, Bukit Tinggi is known amongst locals as Little France, complete with cobblestone pavements, street performances, cafes and European-style architecture. Visitors can even learn the art of Japanese tea-making at a Zen-inspired Japanese village!

10. Legoland, Johor

Last time I checked, Legoland Johor is the only theme park of its kind in South East and East Asia. As the name suggests, the theme park is a celebration of those beloved (sometimes painful!) building blocks. It’s fun for the whole family as you get to visit attractions like Mini Land, which houses miniature Lego versions of iconic Asian monuments like the Angkor Wat and Taj Mahal.

Visitors of all ages will also enjoy the many interactive rides and activities and kids will especially love the Water Park and Lego City, the space where children engage in role play as adults and where they can learn to drive or fly a plane! So, what are you waiting for? Lego!

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to the Best Theme Parks in Malaysia [Updated March 2020]

Beaches and islands

11. Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: Adib Wahab

Featuring pristine beaches and a tranquil ambience, Port Dickson is arguably the top destinations for a beach getaway. While the Upside Down Art Gallery, Army Museum and Cape Rachado Lighthouse are must-visits along with its pristine beaches, I highly recommend the Turtle Hatchery Centre. It is basically an educational facility about the conservation and protection of endangered sea turtles. You’ll be able to witness turtle hatchlings in the aquarium and the incubation process of turtle eggs. If nothing else, it’s the perfect place for a relaxing staycation! 

12. Sipadan, Sabah

Image credit: Chen Wu

As enchanting as a visit to a grand aquarium may be, nothing beats swimming alongside schools of fish in person. Sipadan Island is located in the Celebes Sea, off the eastern coast of Sabah. The location is well-known among diving enthusiasts. In fact, many consider Sipadan to be one of the most heavenly places in the world to go scuba diving and snorkelling. Containing diverse marine life, it is one of the most enchanting places in Malaysia. Trust me, if you love diving, this is certainly one destination not to be missed. The fine sandy beaches are a bonus as well!

13. The Islands!

Right, I’m just gonna ahead and cheat a little bit here. Instead of introducing each on its own, I’ll group the other top island/beach destinations in Malaysia under one header. Otherwise, this article may well turn into a book! Some of the most popular island hot spots include Langkawi, Pangkor, Perhentian, Redang, Tioman and Rawa in West Malaysia while East Malaysia is represented by the aforementioned Sipadan and Mataking.

Even though each island here contains its own unique activities, such as eagle watching in Langkawi and turtle watching along the east coast, all these locations provide sandy beaches, a relaxing atmosphere and the ambience associated with a typical island getaway.

The Hills (and mountains) are alive

14. Mount Kinabalu, Sabah

destinations in malaysia

Mount Kinabalu and its surrounding terrain are one of the most important locations in Malaysia in terms of biodiversity. Over 600 species of flora and fauna call this breathtaking landscape their home and with a summit height of over 4,000 meters, Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain within the Malay Archipelago. Hiking to the summit is no simple task but it’s not considered a herculean feat either. Visitors need to be accompanied by a trained guide as the hike can prove to be challenging. The view from the top is absolutely surreal and is definitely worth the struggle to get to.

Also read: My Great Escape: 4-day Itinerary in Kota Kinabalu, a Coastal City Beautiful in Its Own Right

15. Niah National Park, Sarawak

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: Starlightchild

The greatest draw of Niah National Park is the complex cave system known as the Niah Caves. It is an important archaeological site which contains beautiful limestone formations that date back 16-20 million years! It’s estimated that the caves were once home to our Neolithic ancestors and human remains dating back close to 40,000 years ago have been found here. Surrounded by dense forests, the caves are a popular tourist destination. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site which will stun you with raw, natural beauty. A similar destination is the Gunung Mulu National Park, with caves and karst formations that are located just a little ways north of the Niah Caves.  

16. Broga Hill, Selangor

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: Justin Hee

Broga Hill lies on the outskirts of the quaint town of Broga (duh), in Selangor. It is a popular hiking location for many locals and especially students from the nearby University of Nottingham campus. To say that the sunrise view from the top is breathtaking would be to say that Emma Watson is pretty. It’s an understatement, really. It is also a good location for stargazing, if you find the gusto to camp out late at night. What’s more, the pan mee and grilled fish in Broga Town are also popular highlights of the area, as is the nearby rabbit farm in Semenyih.

17. Cameron Highlands, Pahang

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: udeyismail

Cameron Highlands, much like Genting Highlands, boasts spring-like weather all year round. Its cool climate has allowed strawberry farms and products to flourish and they are a staple tourist attraction there. In addition, one should also visit the BOH Tea Farm and Lavender Garden, where you can sample, as weird as it may sound, lavender flavoured ice-cream! The many homestays, lovely weather conditions and extremely fresh vegetables and fruits in Cameron Highlands also mean that it’s an ideal location for a BBQ retreat with family and friends.

The great outdoors

18. Firefly Valley Leisure Park, Johor

Image credit: Mike Lewinski

I believe that no matter how technologically advanced we are, we’ll always long to be in nature. And one of the truly most magical experiences ever is to walk among a colony of fireflies as they illuminate the night. Such is the fairy-tale-like experience one would find at Firefly Valley. There is also a programme where you cruise along the Johor River as you admire the wonders of nature before your very eyes. Similarly, you may also visit Kampung Kuantan Firefly Park in Selangor, which contains one of the largest colonies of fireflies in the country!  

19. Taman Negara, Pahang

Image credit: chee.hong

Malaysia’s National Park (like national, national park) is one of the most ancient tropical rainforests in the world. An ideal destination for camping, Taman Negara features lush greenery, beautiful waterfalls, and fantastic beasts (this is where to find them), though be warned that sightings are extremely rare. One of the world’s longest canopy walkways (not for the faint of heart) can also be found here. While it’s possible to explore the park by yourself, I do suggest going along with an experienced guide, especially if you plan to go camping or jungle trekking. It’s a jungle out there, after all!

20. Bako National Park, Sarawak

Compared to Taman Negara, Bako National Park is smaller but is by no means any less impressive. With a variety of jungle trekking trails that range from scenic walks to huff-and-puff hikes, Bako National Park is a suitable and fun experience for all ages. With swamp and mangrove forests along with lovely coves and beaches, the park contains arguably every type of vegetation found in Borneo.

But the main attraction at Bako National Park is the chance to meet the Prime Minister of Mala…I mean the rare proboscis monkeys that are only found in Borneo *nervous laugh. With less than 300 proboscis monkeys remaining in the wild, spotting one will be a highlight you’ll never forget.

21. Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Sarawak

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: Robert Young

From one primate to another. The Semenggoh Nature Reserve can best be described as an orangutan haven. Rescued orangutans are reintroduced into the wild and given a chance to thrive and breed. It’s an ideal place to observe these intelligent creatures in their natural habitat. In addition, many species of exotic birds can also be found here, making it a good destination even for passionate birdwatchers.

Another worthwhile mention is the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sabah. As the name suggests, the centre nurses orphaned orangutans and prepares them for life in the wild. You can even adopt one if you want to!

22. Kinabatangan, Sabah

Image credit: Shankar. S.

The Kinabatangan River in Sabah is the second longest river in Malaysia and with the surrounding area containing habitats like limestone caves, swamp, mangrove and lowland forests, it is home to an important ecology of wildlife. You’ll be able to spot Asian elephants at Kinabatangan in addition to other wildlife.

Most importantly, you’ll be able to spot the rare Bornean hornbill, the representative bird of neighbouring Sarawak. You may also cruise along the river or hire a guide to take you through the dense forests as you spot and encounter various flora and fauna.

23. UK Argo Farm, Johor

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: Green Holidays

I’ve mentioned the UK Argo Farm from Kluang, Johor, once in an article about places in Malaysia with natural scenery akin to New Zealand. Apart from the gorgeous scenery, the farm specialises in sheep and goat dairy products. Visitors to the large-scale farm will be able to witness the process of feeding and milking the animals and even cuddle baby sheep!

Close by, the Zenxin Organic Farm is the largest of its kind in Peninsular Malaysia and a must-see for a fun, educational visit. For food, the nearby Kluang Food Street, located inside Kluang Mall, is a hidden gem of hawker stalls and delicious food.

24. The Habitat @ Penang Hill

Nestled at the top of Penang Hill, The Habitat is a relatively new attraction not to be missed. Here, visitors can enjoy an immersive jungle-trekking experience in one of Malaysia’s most ancient virgin rain forests. At the end of the trail, you’ll find the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk. As you ascend the structure, you’ll notice the trees in the forest shrink beneath your feet. Soon, you’ll emerge through the canopy that had earlier shielded the top of your head. Congratulations, you are now literally standing at the tallest accessible viewing platform in all of Penang!

On clear days, you’ll be able to spot the Penang Bridge and even Langkawi Island from your vantage point! Don’t like walking? The Habitat also offers a flying fox activity that enables visitors to glide through the forest!

Cultural heritage

25. Batu Caves, Selangor

One of the most significant religious sites in Malaysia is the Batu Caves in Selangor. Every year, during the Hindu celebration of Thaipusam, thousands of devout followers visit the location and climb up to the temple cave and shrine dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan, whose statue stands tall at the temple’s main complex. The interior of Batu Caves is a network of limestone caves that were once inhabited by the aboriginal tribes in the area. When it’s not being crowded during religious festivals (it is open all year round), Batu Caves is a site for rock climbing and cave exploration, with multiple species of plants and cave animals being found here.  

26. Islamic Heritage Park, Terengganu

Image credit: Didiz Rushdi

The Islamic Heritage Park, sometimes known as Islamic Civilization Park, is a relatively young addition to Terengganu’s list of tourist destinations, having only been open for less than 10 years. It features detailed replicas of 22 important Islamic infrastructures from around the world, mostly mosques, tombs, and minarets. Aimed at providing a fun experience and for educating people on the development of Islamic civilisation, the park also contains a water wheel and a paddle lake. But most magnificent is the nearby Crystal Mosque, famous for its unique design and sophisticated beauty.

27. Sarawak Cultural Village

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: Peter Gronemann

Marketed as a “living museum”, the Sarawak Cultural Village is a must-visit destination for anyone who wishes to immerse himself or herself in the local cultural heritage of Sarawak. Featuring seven different longhouses of the different aboriginal tribes, visitors will be able to experience first-hand the local customs and traditions of Sarawak’s rich native history. Interact with the locals; learn their dances, their music, their lifestyles, all of which are on display for the curious traveller. Hike through the Penan Trail towards the Santubong River and enjoy a good meal made up of traditional recipes to end the day!

Bonus: underrated foodie hotspots

28. Klang

bak kut teh

Image credit: deliadee

Widely believed to be the best place for Bak Kut Teh (pork rib soup), Klang certainly has a reputation to uphold! The version found in this town in Selangor is very robust, with strong herbal flavours. Ask any Klangite where the best Bak Kut Teh is and you’ll always get different answers! If you’re unsure though, you can’t go wrong with the OG – Teck Teh Bak Kut Teh.

29. Johor Bahru

destinations in malaysia

Image credit: niknazreenputra

Malaysia is a big country and it’s quite impossible to highlight the best that each state has to offer! While Johor Bahru isn’t as exotic as other destinations, it is home to a hodgepodge of delicious Malaysian food. From Ikan Bakar (grilled fish) to kacang pool, the city is a foodie’s paradise! For those not in the know, kacang pool is a type of broad bean stew eaten with crusty bread. Restoran Kacang Pool Haji is reputed to serve one of the best down South in Malaysia!

There is so much to do in Malaysia

I’ll be honest, I’m feeling mightily impressed with how many wonderful destinations there are in Malaysia. I myself can’t claim to have visited every location on this list and I’m a local! In fact, there are probably also plenty of locations that I must have missed out on! There’s just so much to do in Malaysia, so what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip now!

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.

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