The Best Architecture in Alor Setar, Malaysia

Alor Setar's Masjid Zahir
Alor Setar's Masjid Zahir | © sarayuth3390 / Shutterstock
Photo of Sam Bedford
21 August 2018

A Moorish mosque, an almost colonial-looking clock tower and a giant paddy basket museum are just some examples of the architecture in Alor Setar. Culture Trip explains where to see the historical, traditional and a spaceship-like landmark in the heart of Kedah’s capital.

Kedah State in northeast Malaysia and its capital Alor Setar combine various artistic, traditional and futuristic styles and elements in their buildings. From the stunning State Mosque to a museum that looks like a paddy basket, here are our favourite examples of architecture in Alor Setar.

Zahir Mosque

The Zahir Mosque, Kedah, Malaysia
Moorish-style Zahir Mosque sits to the west of Dataran Alor Setar | © Mr Burger Hut / Shutterstock

Zahir Mosque exhibits a Moorish design with five black domes on the western flank of Dataran Alor Setar. Kedah’s whitewashed State Mosque boasts impressive decorations and artistic Arabic inscriptions on the walls. Just above the entrance, blue glass mosaics form intricate patterns. The mosque opened in 1912 to commemorate the place where Kedah’s warriors fought against the invading Siamese decades early.

The Big Clock Tower (Menara Jam Besar)

Alor Setar, Kedah, Malaysia.
The Big Clock Tower that once called local Muslims to prayer | © Ko Aun Lee / Shutterstock

From a distance, The Big Clock Tower looks a bit like a lighthouse. Stand closer and the yellow-gold and white exteriors showcase a twist of Islamic and Hindu styles. The upper part has a distinct Islamic flair with a crowning dome topped by the crescent. Look on the lower half around the door, and both elements combine to form the intricacies of the tower. When it first opened in 1912, the tower chimed to announce the call to prayer. Apart from showcasing some most exquisite architecture in Alor Setar, it’s also among the most beautiful clock towers in Malaysia.

Nobat Tower (Hall of Drums)

best architecture in alor setar
Balai Nobat housed the Sultan's royal instruments | © Sam Bedford

The Nobat Tower sits near Zahir Mosque on Dataran Alor Setar. Rising 18 metres (59 feet), the three-tiered structure pre-dates the mosque by a few years (officially opened in 1906). Pastel yellow forms the borders around the whitewashed façades with a yellow-gold dome on the top. This example of historical architecture in Alor Setar housed royal instruments used only during official ceremonies. Muezzins from Zahir Mosque once banged the drums to call local Muslims at prayer time before the clock tower next door opened.

State Art Gallery (Balai Seni Negeri)

Art Gallery, Museum

The stately building on the southern flank of Dataran Alor Setar was once the High Court. Combining a neoclassical design with baroque decorations, the structure is among our favourite examples of architecture in Alor Setar. After taking almost 20 years to complete, the High Court opened in 1912 becoming the earliest modern government building in the city. Pro tip: Many courthouses around the world use neoclassical influences. This building’s distinguishing feature is the Kedah shields above each arch. Over the decades, the High Court passed hands a few times until it became an art gallery in 1993.

Kedah Royal Museum


Directly opposite Zahir Mosque along the eastern section of the square sits Kedah Royal Museum. In 1733, this was a royal palace built entirely from wood. After a series of battles and raids from the Siamese (today’s Thailand), it passed through several rounds of destruction and renovation. The pastel-yellow hall with tall arches houses Malaysia’s oldest royal museum. Take note of the patterned decorations on the roof. Pro tip: Try to capture a photograph with the paved grounds in the foreground for the best effects.

Alor Setar Tower (Menara Alor Setar)

Kedah, Malaysia
Alor Setar Tower dominates the city centre | © Ko Aun Lee / Shutterstock
Alor Setar Tower might not classify as beautiful, but it does feature with the best examples of architecture in Alor Setar. The telecommunications tower at 165.5 metres (543 feet) sits in the centre of the city dominating the skyline. Almost resembling the spaceships out of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, the tower is a Kedah landmark. Check out the observation deck for a stipend fee of RM6 ($1.50 USD) for views of Alor Setar and its suburbs.

Chinatown's Shophouses

Restaurants and coffee shops located in Alor Setar city, Kedah, Malaysia.
Colourful and decorated shophouses in Chinatown | © sarayuth3390 / Shutterstock

Before modern skyscrapers and apartment blocks, much of Malaysia’s business took place inside shophouses. The two-storied terraced building divides into multiple residences with an open-air bottom and upstairs living quarters. Chinatown, a couple of minutes on foot south of Zahir Mosque, retains a decent collection of restored shophouses. Each section in the long line of joined buildings have their own styles and character. Different colours, patterns and decorations. But our favourite feature of these prime examples of architecture in Alor Setar is how they retain their original purpose. The ones here sell hardware, Chinese medicine and bicycle parts. Penang’s and Malacca’s sell fridge magnets and selfie sticks. Pro tip: Grab a drink a Caffe Diem to see inside one of these restored shophouse.

Kedah Paddy Museum


Rice, paddy and Kedah have long relationships with their past, present and future closely intertwined. Kedah Paddy Museum on the outskirts of Alor Setar covers three floors of exhibits detailing the history and role of rice in the state. Artistic architects designed a fitting building to house this fascinating collection. Stand from the car park, and you’ll see a giant paddy basket with grains of rice cascading down the sides.

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