Alor Setar in northwest Malaysia is the state capital of Kedah. Often overshadowed by its sister Langkawi Island, the city gets few visitors.
The handful of intrepid travelers who visit Alor Setar find a cosmopolitan city surrounded by endless paddy fields. Add Zahir Mosque, among Malaysia’s best examples of Islamic architecture, and traditional shophouses unchanged in generations.
The iconic Alor Setar Tower, which looks like a spaceship, dominates the city center. North Malaysia’s oldest fort and a museum dedicated to rice lie a short drive from the capital.
Discover the top 25 things to do in Alor Setar to escape the tourist trail or for a convenient stopover between Penang and Langkawi.
1. Zahir Mosque: Malaysia’s most stunning mosque
Zahir Mosque on Dataran Alor Setar (the city’s central square) is among Malaysia’s most beautiful mosques.
The five-domed Moorish structure exhibits intricate carvings covering its white façade. Blue mosaics sit above the entrance. Arabic calligraphy decorates the walls. Manicured gardens complement the external details creating one of Alor Setar’s most photogenic spots.
Zahir Mosque holds a historical role too. Its exact location marks the sight where Kedah warriors fought to defend their homeland against the Siamese in the 19th-century.
Today, it’s a city landmark.
2. Royal coronations and weddings
The Royal Hall opposite Zahir Mosque once held royal events hosted by the Sultan of Kedah. This includes royal weddings, official functions and coronations.
Kedah’s Sultan commissioned a wooden hall in 1735. When invaders destroyed it, the Sultan rebuilt on a grander scale.
Today’s Royal Hall, or Balai Besar in Bahasa, has a lofty traditional flair. A triangular shaped roof sits above a spacious lower balcony. Two winding staircases connect the open-air ground floor with the upper levels.
Photographers can snap the best pictures from the gates on Dataran Alor Setar.
3. Alor Setar’s stately clock tower
Big Clock Tower (Menara Jam Besar) on Dataran Alor Setar is among Malaysia’s most beautiful clock towers.
When it opened in the 1900s, the tower held two purposes. It displayed the time, and the muezzin in the adjacent Zahir Mosque rang the bells during prayer times.
Flash to the present, and the muezzin uses the mosque’s speakers. The pastoral clock tower still shows the time almost one hundred years later.
Stand in the Dataran Alor Setar and snap photographs of the almost British-colonial looking clock tower. During the day, capture its elegance next to the surrounding lavish architecture. After nightfall, the Big Clock Tower lights up.
4. Discover what it’s like to be a Sultan
The Sultan Museum sits inside the stately building on the northern flank of Dataran Alor Setar.
From the outside, it’s like a European government office. Inside endless displays cover everything about the former Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah’s (1958-2017) life. This includes the late Sultan’s possessions, photographs and official documents. His collection of luxury cars and watches fill others.
Aside from its slight pretentious nature, the free museum does offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of a Malaysian Sultan. And the air-conditioning gives the perfect excuse to cool down.
5. Nobat Tower: The Hall of Drums
On first glance, it’s easy to understand why Nobat Tower is sometimes confused with the Big Clock Tower. But this 18 meter (59 feet) tower holds a nobler purpose.
The Sultan used the three-tiered tower to store his royal instruments. When the royal family came to Kota Setar Palace, the city held a welcoming ceremony. After he left, the instruments returned to their storage giving the nickname Hall of Drums.
Nobat Tower contributes to the majestic architecture of Dataran Alor Setar.
Take note of the yellow dome topping Nobat Tower giving a distinct Islamic twist to an otherwise stately-looking structure.
6. A replica of a Sultan’s royal gate
Authorities destroyed the original Royal Gate to make way for the Wisma Negeri building in 1973.
A replica stands behind Nobat Tower as a tribute to their royal heritage. The white-washed gate covers three levels featuring arched windows and doors. Each has intricate decorations, a testament to the lavish styles of a royal house.
Take advantage of the Royal Gate’s angles and shapes to capture the surrounding architecture.
7. Kedah’s most extensive collection of local art
The former High Court on the southern part of Dataran Alor Setar houses Kedah State Art Gallery.
Local Kedah-born artisans contribute to most exhibits which include handicraft, paintings and installations. Others use black and white photographs to tell the story of rural Kedah.
The structure itself is the oldest government building in Alor Setar.
Take time to appreciate the Neo-classical exterior before strolling through its multiple galleries.
Visitors spend between 30 minutes to one hour inside the Kedah State Art Gallery. Most appreciate the respite from the stifling heat inside their air-conditioned rooms.
8. The Sultan’s former palace
The Yellow Palace, or Istana Kuning in Bahasa, once acted as the official house of the Sultan of Kedah almost one century ago.
Sultan Muhiyuddin Mansur Syah commissioned his palace at the same time as both Zahir Mosque and the Royal Hall.
Manicured gardens surround the grand residence. Yellow and white colors create a vibrant façade of this two-storied former royal house.
Tourists can’t go inside. Snap photographs from the gate near Alor Setar Tower.
9. Alien-like Alor Setar Tower
Almost every image of Kedah’s capital includes either Zahir Mosque or Alor Setar Tower. Looking almost like a giant spaceship from a 1950s sci-fi movie, it dominates the skyline.
The telecommunication tower stands at 165.5 meters (543 feet) and acts as the city’s centerpiece. A viewing platform provides panoramic views of Alor Setar and its surrounding paddy fields.
Or head to the rooftop’s revolving restaurant for a romantic evening in one of the city’s most exclusive spots.
Because of its size, getting a photo of Alor Setar Tower is a challenge. Crazy Tourist recommends standing on Darul Aman Highway near Zahir Mosque to capture its monumental scale.
10. Discover Kedah’s two millennia history
Kedah has a rich history spanning almost two thousand years making it among Malaysia’s oldest states.
Early Buddhist-Hindu civilizations thrived in nearby Bujang Valley for nine centuries. Kedah adopted Islam and appointed a Sultan whose bloodline has ruled for the last five hundred years.
Add a brief spell under the British colonialists, and Kedah has a fascinating story for those willing to listen.
Kedah State Museum presents this story in ten galleries. Find out what it’s like to be a Sultan and gaze at early Malay literature. Hundreds of ancient relics and artefacts fill the displays too.
11. Stand in the place where the Sultan founded Alor Setar
The Sultan of Kedah established Alor Setar near a stream in the early 18th-century. A small plaque marks the exact location near Dataran Alor Setar.
Dozens of Setar trees lined the small stream, which is called Alor in Bahasa. The beauty captured the then Sultan’s attention. After falling in love with the region, he soon moved in.
Head south from Dataran Alor Setar along Darul Aman Highway. The plaque marking the birthplace is on the bridge spanning the small stream.
12. Dr Mahathir Bin Mohammad’s family home
Malaysia hit the headlines in 2018 when they elected Dr Mahathir as Prime Minister.
At the age of 93, he became the world’s oldest leader. Dr Mahathir also ruled Malaysia between 1981 and 2003 for a total of 22 years.
But the successful politician and modern-day national hero traces his humble roots to Alor Setar. The leader’s family home on the southern side of Kedah River is a shrine for devoted fans.
Snap photographs of his birthplace. A museum dedicated to his life and childhood is inside.
13. Malaysia’s first Prime Minister’s family home
Tunku Abdul Rahman was the first prime minister of an independent Malaysia in 1957. Before this, Malaysia has been under Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule since 1511.
Most cities have a street named in his honor as well as Sabah’s world-famous Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Like Dr Mahathir, the first prime minister also hailed from Alor Setar.
The childhood home is a short walk west from Dataran Alor Setar. Rumah Merdeka, aptly translated to Independence House, is both a city landmark and free museum.
The two-storied bungalow is a typical residence of British Malaya. The museum covers Kedah’s history and displays possessions of the late Abdul Rahman.
14. A Chinatown unchanged in decades
Alor Setar’s Chinatown is among the most preserved in Malaysia.
Restored shophouses line both sides of the narrow streets in the compact neighborhood. The two-storied terraced building has upstairs living quarters and a ground floor workshops. Each individual house has their own styles, decorations and colors.
Unlike the more well-known shophouses in Penang, the occupants still perform the trades of their parents and grandparents.
Chinatowns in other parts of Malaysia sells t-shirts and teddy bears. Alor Setar has printing shops, bicycle repairs and hardware.
Embrace its authenticity as you transport back to 1950s Malaysia.
15. Grab a coffee in a restored shophouse
A handful of Chinatown’s shophouses have transformed into coffee shops.
The decorated interiors often resemble their original appearance. Order iced coffee and admire at the intricacies of the wooden beams and rickety wooden staircases.
Crazy Tourist recommends Caffe Diem. Admire the photos on the walls of a bygone Alor Setar. Embrace its vintage British-colonial style décor. Drinks are affordable, and it makes a convenient place for lunch.
Or head to Hai Kee Kedai Kopi for more local experience and taste their citywide famous Hainanese cuisine.
16. Sit along the shady Alor Setar Waterfront
Alor Setar waterfront stretches for a few hundred meters along the southern flank of Chinatown.
The attractive park overlooks the Kedah River creating a peaceful environment to soak up the views. Lighthouse Cape Chali dominates the far side overlooking the river’s confluence.
This is a favorite spot in Alor Setar with local families and amateur photographers in the cooler evening air.
Kedah River also hosts the occasional kayakers speeding along the swirling waters.
17. Taste Kedah street food at Chinatown Food Court
Mention food in Malaysia and most think of Penang, Kuala Lumpur or Malacca. Few mention Alor Setar, which has its fair share of mouthwatering dishes.
Chinatown Food Court, a five-minute walk from Dataran Alor Setar, serves Kedah-style street food. Hawker stalls surround the central seating area.
Follow your nose to the countless stalls serving nasi goreng (fried rice), satay (Malaysian kebabs) and yong tau foo (a selection of tofu and fish balls).
Meals cost a few ringgits.
18. Sunset cocktails at the Sky Garden
Sky Garden is among the most romantic places in Alor Setar.
The rooftop restaurant has an outdoor terrace with views spanning across the city. Take a 10-minute cab from central Alor Setar in time for the sunset.
Apart from a wide selection of both Asian and Western dishes, Sky Garden also has a well-stocked bar.
If the weather is dry, sit outside with a cocktail as the sun dips over Alor Setar. Or escape the rain and humidity inside their elegant air-conditioned interior.
Despite the relatively high price of meals, this is recommended for first-time visitors and couples.
19. See the Paddy Fields
Kedah’s countryside bursts with paddy fields.
Local farmers have grown rice near Alor Setar for centuries. Take the chance to see this rural serenity and capture the essence of Malaysia’s Kampung lifestyle.
Finding the paddy fields can be a challenge. Either ask your hotel for recommendations or look at Google Maps.
The most accessible are towards the eastern stretches of Jalan Langgar. Either take a taxi or Grab Car.
Visitors will see flooded paddy fields glistening under the sun. Two-storied wooden houses surrounded by palm trees and banana plants form their borders.
Catching the sunset over the paddy takes you away from the noise of the city and back to a simpler lifestyle many of us crave.
20. Alor Setar’s vibrant Buddhist temples
Alor Setar has a handful of Buddhist temples a short drive from the city center.
Unlike Zahir Mosque in Dataran Alor Setar, getting to the temples takes more time.
Wat Samosornrajanukpradit near Kedah State Museum exhibits a colorful exterior. Inside the smell of incense thickens the already humid air.
Chek Temple is on a grander scale. Large windows topped with intricate decorations sit underneath the red triangular roof. Bronze statues line the interior as monks chant prayers in the background.
21. An almost hidden Hindu temple
Out of Alor Setar’s Hindu Temples, Sri Thandayuthapani is the most attractive.
Located a stone’s throw from Zahir Mosque, the temple is a convenient stop after exploring the square’s architecture.
Visitors will find a decorated shrine in the middle of the complex. At certain times of the day, burning incense blends with the background chanting to create a hypnotic atmosphere.
Don’t expect lavishness. Instead, find a working temple free of tourists.
22. Embrace the spirit of rice at the Paddy Museum
Kedah is the ‘Rice Bowl of Malaysia’.
Paddy fields stretch towards the horizon in all directions. Rice holds a special place in the heart of the state.
A trip to the Kedah Paddy Museum is among the best things to do in Alor Setar for anyone with more than 24 hours in the city. The building itself looks like an overflowing rice basket.
The three-storied museum covers everything about rice and its cultivation in Kedah. The lower floor displays machinery and presents the cultural role of rice. The middle level provides context for its sale and distribution.
But, Kedah Paddy Museum’s highlight is the vast mural spanning the third floor’s circular wall. The image depicts a scene from rural Kedah: Farmer performing their day-to-day duties and tending to their crop.
23. A mountain that looks like an elephant
Elephant Mountain, or Gunung Keriang in Bahasa, is a somewhat underrated attraction near Alor Setar. The limestone cliff from a distance (with a bit of imagination) looks like a crouching elephant.
Bat-filled caves, dozens of habitats and rare birds are highlights of Elephant Mountain. Follow the trails to the summit of the 218-meter (715-foot) hill for views of paddy fields.
Plan a morning or afternoon to visit both Kedah Paddy Museum and Elephant Mountain.
24. Fort Kuala Kedah: Northern Malaysia’s oldest fort
Fort Kuala Kedah is the oldest fort in northern Malaysia dating back to 1771. It’s also one of a handful of remaining defensive units commissioned by a Sultan rather than colonial powers.
Back then, the state was under constant attack from invading forces from Siam (today’s Thailand). Fort Kuala Kedah protected the Sultan and his subjects.
The fort’s complex lies next to the confluence of the Kedah River and Straits of Malacca. Travelers will find the remains of defensive walls, cannons and a lighthouse.
You’ll need to take a taxi from Alor Setar to the fort, which is approximately 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the city centre.
Crazy Tourist recommends a quick visit before catching the ferry (or arriving from) the nearby port to Langkawi.
25. Discover 19th and 20th-century Kedah inside Fort Kuala Kedah
The white-washed wooden bungalow inside Fort Kuala Kedah looks almost like a colonial home.
Apart from its photogenic architecture, it houses the Museum Gallery dedicated to Kedah’s history over the last 200 years.
In the early 19th-century, Kedah was always fighting with their north Siamese neighbors. Few museums cover this pivotal part of local history as well as Museum Gallery.
Other displays document Kedah’s brief interaction with the British colonists and how it transformed into the state we see today.