Rosemarie North gives an insider's tips to make a KL visit extra special.

I've lived in Kuala Lumpur for only a year so I'm still making new discoveries every week.

But I've uncovered some cracks in the bland or bling that allow a peek into what lies beneath. Let me make a plug for a bit of culture, a classic selfie spot, an opportunity for rooftop awe, good food and — at a stretch — some noodles.

Culture must-visit
IAMM a surprise

Think Islamic art and you might think geometric designs or golden calligraphy. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, housed in a glorious airy mosque-like structure with exquisitely decorated domes, blows away all preconceptions. It sweeps from Senegal to China and all points in between to hunt out the sacred, skillful and surprising architecture, costume and ornamentation, weapons, ceramics, parchments and much more. Every visit is a revelation but I usually start by saying hello to one of several wacky jewelled brooches depicting a sun rising from behind a lion. These ancient Iranian symbols are at once precious, adorable and slightly wonky.

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The museum has a large gift shop, restaurant, lecture area and workshop for hands-on activities for young and old, which is a great way to meet locals.
Entry is 14 Malaysian ringgit ($5).

Best modern art
Ilham Gallery

In a glass tower designed by (Norman) Foster + Partners and a short walk from the Petronas Twin Towers is a world-class public art gallery with a great programme of temporary exhibitions that — during my short time here — seem to explore identity in all its forms. Recent exhibitions of sculpture, painting and more looked into the experience of living with violence in Patani, a region in southern Thailand with strong Malay and Islamic roots and a recent history of conflict.

Completely different, "we will have been young", showcases the works of 12 emerging South-east Asian photographers looking at transience of youth. Developed with German photographers, it addresses belonging, family, sexual identity, mental illness, history and oppression.

The exhibitions sound worthy but they're totally worthwhile, beautiful works sensitively displayed. And such exhibitions aren't academic exercises in Malaysia, where Islamic laws prohibit homosexuality and a secular law bans sodomy. As recently as September, two women were publicly, although symbolically, flogged for trying to have sex. KL can feel like a liberal bubble — but it's not the only Malaysia.

Tip: take a cardy to the gallery as it's frosty.
Free entry.

Best rooftop bar
Heli Lounge

Take a lift to the 34th floor of a nondescript office tower and buy a beer, wine or cocktail in an aviation-themed bar before taking your drink up several flights of stairs. There's not even a nod in the direction of accessibility — and Health and Safety NZ would have conniptions at the idea of carrying glass up concrete stairs or of partying on a rooftop with just a retractable tape between you and certain death. It goes with the territory as by day, the Heli Lounge is a working helicopter pad.

Emerge on a metal staircase to find the streets far below and a spectacular skyline all around you, and it's hard not to gasp. Go before sunset to beat the crowds and nab a table to watch the sky catch fire, only to be doused ink as the light fades. You can order more drinks and food at the top. If it's not too busy, chat to the friendly waiters. Like many people in the hospitality industry in Kuala Lumpur, they're foreign workers playing a long game, saving enough to support family back home in Bangladesh and hoping to return one day to settle down. If you plan to go after 9pm, you need to ditch the shorts and Jandals, and you have to buy a bottle of alcohol in the bar downstairs.

34 Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Bukit Bintang, 50450, Wilayah Persekutuan. Ph: +60 3-2110 5034. No website.

Best pull
Mee Tarik noodles

On the fourth floor of glitzy Suria KLCC mall under the Petronas Towers is an old-school food court where Malaysian families hang. One of their favourite joints is Chinese Muslim noodle shop Mee Tarik, where behind a window, you can watch a chef take a glistening ball of dough and, using only his fingers, conjure it into noodles. Part performance-martial art, part juggle, all edible. Mee Tarik means "pulled noodles" in the same way that teh tarik (frothy, brewed milk tea) means pulled tea — because the brew is poured in a way that looks like pulling.

Although the noodles are fun to watch being stretched into existence, I usually order the dumplings here, which you can have steamed or in soup, stuffed with veges, chicken or beef, for about $7.

Open 10am to 10pm. (There's no phone number or website)

Best selfie spot
Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers offer two popular options, both elegant at night. Locals favour a snap on an arched bridge in the landscaped park behind the towers. This angle gives you the majestic towers plus coloured "dancing" fountains in the background. Alternatively, meander around to the other side of the buildings, where you'll get the towers and a series of long, shallow pools reflecting the sparkling lights.

Best vegetarian lunch
Kun Yam Thong temple

Every weekday, Kun Yam Thong temple on Jalan Ampang offers vegetarian lunches lovingly prepared by Chinese aunties and grannies, who can be seen snipping coriander and preparing vegetables, as diners — mostly office workers — serve themselves from a huge buffet. Tips: Go early for the divine spring rolls but skip the fake chicken drumsticks. Visitors are welcome at this cheap, volunteer-run mass catering enterprise. On the other hand, the temple at the front has signs asking foreigners not to disturb worshippers, and to keep out of certain chambers.
161 Jalan Ampang (no website).

Best flat white
Merchant's Lane

A stone's throw from the shopping frenzy of Petaling Street and Central Market, and above a stationer's, this oasis offers great coffee and fusion food in a chilled, shabby-chic environment that apparently used to be a brothel. Wins the title of most-Instagrammable.

FACT BOX

GETTING THERE

Malaysia Airlines

flies direct from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, with return Economy Class fares from $1187 (on sale until November 23).

DETAILS
tourism.gov.my