Between the cosmopolitan buzz of Kuala Lumpur and the luxury lifestyle of Singapore, it’s easy to forget that Johor Bahru, Malaysia, has more than a few exciting attractions to offer. Here’s a reminder for you.
Johor Bahru sits at the strategic — and sometimes uneasy — position between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Traditionally, it has been the fertile site for agriculture, electronics manufacturing and food processing, but in recent years Johor’s economy has increasingly come to rely on urban tourism and retail. As a result, the city is now one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Malaysia, which means you won’t be short of things to do here.
It’s impossible to miss the Istana Bukit Serene from the Skudai Highway. The official palace of the Sultan of Johor, this stately home boasts a strategic bird’s-eye view of Singapore, which proved particularly useful for the Japanese Army during World War II. The palace is not open to the public, but the gardens surrounding it are. The most iconic feature is the crown archway, but the gardens also feature tall fountains, manicured landscapes and dazzling light features (at night).
Also known as the Firefly Valley Leisure Park, this is where you get to see nature’s twinkles on land. For a small fee, you’ll be able to take a small boat with other passengers to coast along the sides of a mangrove swamp, where the fireflies shimmer and glimmer in the night. It’s best to visit on a new moon when the fireflies won’t be outshone by the moonlight.
Do you like nature, water and walking? If so, you’ll get your fill at the Pulai Waterfall. If you begin from the foot of the hill, it will take you about two hours to reach the base of the waterfall. It’s no Niagara Falls, but the water is clean, and the area is shaded by thick tropical trees. Want to go for a swim? Bring your swimwear.
At RM3 (£0.50) per entry, how could you not visit? Tigers, monkeys and flamingos sleep, swing and swim in equal measure, and children will be delighted by the expansive grass field with happily grazing deer. While the Johor Zoo is not a large zoo by any means, the animals here are nevertheless well fed and live in healthily spacious enclosures.
This is the place to go with your beau or belle. The long promenade at Puteri Harbour is the highlight of the seafront here, as you can enjoy the sea breeze, rocking yachts and view of the horizon. Restaurants and retail shops line the walkway, including a Sanrio Hello Kitty World, and quirky art features decorate the retail-free area. It has a similar vibe to the Straits Quay in Penang.
When it comes to food and drink, Johor locals are crazy about two things – spicy curry laksa noodle soup and coffee. There’s a cafe on every corner, selling everything from gourmet Indonesian Kopi Luwak espressos (made from beans that have passed through Asian palm civets) to cappuccinos with petting cats. The Atlas Maison is popular with office workers and Singapore commuters, who come for the signature blends from the celebrated barista JH Yee and the hearty big breakfasts.
See what glitters at the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple
Thousands of glass pieces make up this glittering Hindu temple. The glass architecture was inspired by Guru Bhagawan Sittar’s visit to Bangkok, during which a brilliant light from 3km (2mi) away caught his attention. The light turned out to be a temple made of glass artwork. Some 300,000 pieces of coloured glass ornament the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple now, making it a dazzling — almost blinding — sight.
One of the largest architectural triumphs in Johor Bahru, the Sultan Abu Baker Mosque features Victorian-Moorish architecture from the late 19th century and can house up to 2,000 worshippers at any given time. For those who prefer not to enter the mosque, the view from the outside will more than make up for what you’re missing inside. The mosque overlooks the Straits of Johor, and the silhouette of Singapore can be seen from a vague blue-green distance.
Johor’s top theme park has all manner of Lego-based adventures, games and Lego-built worlds for kids (and grown-up children). The main park has eight themed areas and – count ‘em – 40 rides, including rollercoasters. Expect eGo-style go-karts and twisters. The waterpark has a wave pool, 20 slides and loads of water games, and the Sea Life Aquarium is one of the best in Malaysia. There is a hotel on site with pirate and princess-themed rooms.