Johor Bahru commonly called “JB” by the locals, is the state capital of Johor. The city is situated in the southern Peninsula Malaysia and separated by a causeway to the neighboring Singapore.
Many heritage buildings had been preserving their legacy and some had taken a breath of new life through rejuvenation. These century-old lanes were a blend of the ancient and the contemporary- from heritage townhouses and antique local shops to retro cafes and bakeries.
Johor is also a perfect destination for foodie lovers. There are many incredible food and outside the Johor city center. Many authentic food still can be found and retain its original recipes and attracts locals and visitors, even after some coffee shops had taken over by their second or third generation of their family members.
A Brief History of Johor Bharu
Johor Bharu is a relatively new city with a history dating back to 1855. It was founded by the state’s ruler Temenggong Daing Ibrahim, who set up his administrative headquarters here. Back then, this sleepy village was named Tanjung Puteri, but was renamed Iskandar Puteri in 1858.
During the reign of Sultan Abu Bakar, the village has rapidly grown into a town and was renamed “Johor Bahru”. Several notable landmarks were built under his rule, including Istana Besar (Johor state palace) and the Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque. His ruling period also witnessed the first arrival of Chinese migrants. Their presence has helped to bring development on agricultural economy in Johor with the plantation of black pepper and gambier.
Johor Bahru was officially recognized as a city in 1994 and has become the second biggest urban area in Malaysia.
Best Time to Visit
Johor Bharu is one of the favorite destinations for locals and Singaporeans. Many visitors come to the city to enjoy delicious local food and visit the heritage sites. Singaporeans love to come here due to lower Malaysian currency rate and find food and other goods so much cheaper. Families with kids also come to have fun at Legoland during long weekends and school holidays.
The peak season is between November and February during the long year-end school holidays and Chinese New Year as well as the Muslim festivals which usually fall in May or June. You will expect to see many Singaporean visitors traveling here in November and December too, which is the same school holiday season as Malaysia. The low season is from March to April, and July to October. Some hotels occasionally offer discounted room rates for guests.
Johor’s Senai International Airport (JHB) is located about 32 kilometers from Johor city center. There are many domestic flights from cities within Malaysia and a few international flights in the ASEAN countries. AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines do operate on this route. If you are traveling from other countries, you will need to fly to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) and make a transit to Senai Airport. The journey takes only extra one hour.
Once arrive at the airport, you can use e-hailing services from Grab or AirAsia Super App to the town (Remember to download the Grab or AirAsia Super app to your phone beforehand and the fare is usually RM25 during off-peak hours). A slightly cheaper option to get to the city is by AAI Airport Shuttle Bus which departs every 2 hours from 11 am to 7 pm. The bus departs from the airport to Larkin Sentral, the city’s bus terminal and the bus fare is only RM 8 with no additional cost for baggage (Check here for more details). Then, you will take an e-hailing car to your hotel or Airbnb. If you are traveling solo just like me or in a pair, the combination of the bus and e-hailing ride is your best option and can save you some money.
Buses are widely available from Kuala Lumpur and depart from KL Sentral or Bersepadu Srlantan Selatan Terminal (TBS), the main city bus terminal. There are more choices in TBS Terminal in terms of which bus company and the departure time. You can get to TBS by KLIA Transit from KL Sentral or from KL International Airport. Alternatively, you can choose to take a Grab car to the bus station. The journey to Johor takes about 5 hours and arrives at Larkin Bus Terminal.
You can also take a bus from Penang and Ipoh, but is not highly suggested due to the long traveling time. The journey from Penang Komtar to Johor will take 10 hours and 8 hours from Ipoh Amanjaya Bus Terminal. These traveling times are during off-peak hours and non-festival seasons. You will expect longer hours during school holidays and festive seasons. So, it is advisable to buy an air ticket to Johor as early as possible to enjoy great ticket deals and save tons of time.
Johor Bharu’s heritage buildings, Chinatown, local restaurants, and trendy cafes are concentrated in the city center and are reachable on foot. If you are a foodie lover, you might want to venture out to the neighboring town of Skudai for food hunting to taste some authentic local food.
The best activities for 3 days in Johor Bahru
Johor Bharu is surrounded by heritage buildings and reputable restaurants which has been established in the mid-1900s. There are also many lovely cafes in the city worth checking out and would likely spend half a day going cafe-hopping. Spending three full days will be ideal to experience the city life of Johor.
1. Have the juicy herbal roast duck
Ya Wang Restaurant has gained its reputation for their delicious herbal roast duck. The shop is one of the oldest establishments in Johor since the 1980s and its name is basically translated from Chinese which means “Duck King”. The juicy duck meat and crispy skin were soft and tender with a distinct herbal flavor. It literally soaks in the sauce and can taste the flavor from every bite of the meat. They also sell roast meat and a variety of soups, including dumpling soup, seaweed soup, and bitter gourd soup.
Opening hours: Daily, 8 am to 6 pm
2. Wander along the street of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
The heritage street of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is home to old-time coffee shops, yogurt bars, bakery shops, art galleries, and lovely cafes. This street is named after a Chinese merchant Tan Hiok Nee, who had started out as a fabric trader and later expanded his businesses in the cultivation of pepper and gambier. He was the most influential businessman in Johor and became the head of the Ngee Heng Kongsi Clan from 1836 to 1873.
The most recognizable 19th-century Red House was given such a name for obvious reasons. This heritage building is hard to miss and is the most Instragrammable place in the city. Originally the home of a wealthy Indian family, this vintage Nyonya architectural-style building has been used as a venue for cultural and art events and presently open as a local fast-food chain Marrybown.
3. Travel back in time at the Chinese Heritage Museum
The Chinese Heritage Museum tells the history of the Chinese immigrants who had made their settlement in Johor. The museum preserves the cultural heritage of the Chinese community who lived in Johor between 1844 and 2018 with each floor dedicated to a specific historical era.
The museum displays various collections of Chinese porcelain ware, old coins, musical instruments, photos, documents, and artifacts. You can also learn about their carpentry skills, Chinese medicines, and the so-called “secret societies”, most notably the Ngee Heng Kongsi.
If you are in luck, the temporary exhibit on the fourth floor is open on special occasions. During my visit, the exhibits showcase the introduction of gambier and pepper and how these plantations had brought prosperity to the state during the mid-19th century.
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm
Entrance fee: RM5 for adults/ RM3 for children
4. Enjoy Hua Mui’s Hainanese chicken chop
Opened in 1946, Hua Mui Coffee Shop is famously known for its signature Hainanese fried chicken chop. It is located at the junction of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby. They had spent years perfecting the recipes gathered from older generations to bring the Hainanese specialties to the table.
The Hainanese fried chicken chop is deep-fried with flour, topped with its signature Hainanese sauce and green peas, and served with crispy potato wedges, roasted tomato, and coleslaw.
Opening hours: Daily from 8.30 am to 6 pm
5. Munch on the yummy banana cake
Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory is popular for its banana cake and coconut bun. The store was founded by an Englishman in 1919 and the business has passed on to the great grandfather of the current owner in the 1930s before returning home to England.
Not much has changed since then for the past three generations of the Lim family. Their cakes and buns are still baked using old-school methods by using a traditional wood-fired brick oven which is able to distribute heat evenly. The fluffy Coconut Bun is also one of the top favorite items here, freshly baked with fresh coconut shreds and sweet ‘gula Melaka’ fillings.
Travel tips: Get the freshly baked banana cakes from 12 pm onwards and those sold beforehand may actually be leftover from the previous day.
Opening Hours: Daily. Freshly baked banana cakes are sold on Monday to Saturday from 12 pm to 5 pm, and Sunday from 8.30 am until sold out (usually 10 am).
6. Visit the Ancient Chinese Temple
This Ancient Chinese Temple is one of the oldest temples in Johor, which dates back as early as 1870. The temple was founded by Tan Hiok Nee as he brought peace between the 5 Chinese clans- Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, and Hainan. Hence, the temple is symbolic of peace and unity.
The temple features five deities that are worshipped by the respective clans. Outside the temple displays two old artifacts: the plaque, the grand Tien Gong incense pot and a century-old bronze bell
Opening hours: Daily from 7 am to 5 pm
Entrance fee: free
7. Admire the Church of the Immaculate Conception
Built in 1927, this Roman Catholic church is the oldest church in town and was dedicated to “Our Lady of Lourdes”. The church priests still practiced their tradition of preaching, sacramental life, and pastoral care.
8. Marvel the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple
Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple is truly magnificent in its own way, where its interior was made of 300,000 pieces of colored glass ornament, painted murals, and sculptures of Gods and Goddesses.
The architecture of this Hindu temple was inspired by Guru Bhagawan Sittar during his visit to Bangkok when a bright light from 2 kilometers away caught his attention. It turned out to be a temple made of glass artwork.
Opening hours: Visiting hours for tourists is from 1 pm to 5 pm
Entrance Fee: Adults: RM10/ Children: RM5
9. Be fascinated with the majestic Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque
Constructed between 1892 and 1900, Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque is Johor’s state mosque and is listed as a protected heritage monument. The mosque features colonial-style English Victorian design elements as well as Moorish and Malay architecture. It is massive enough to accommodate up to 2,000 people during prayer time. It is built on the hilltop and you can enjoy fascinating views of the Straits of Johor and neighboring Singapore.
Travel tips: The mosque is open for Non-Muslim to visit. Visitors are reminded to wear pants or skirts with the length below the knee level.
Opening hours: Daily
Entrance fee: free
10. Grab some pastries at Salahuddin Bakery
Salahuddin Bakery has been opened since 1937 and still retains its original interior. Their best-selling pastry is the tasty curry puffs, which are either filled with vegetarian or meat curry. You can also buy Bengali bread, buns, or kaya puffs that are made from coconut.
Opening Hours: Saturday to Thursday from 9 am to 6 pm
11. Lunch at IT Roo Cafe
Located along Jalan Dhoby, IT Roo Cafe is another cafe that serves authentic Hainanese chicken chop. The chicken is heavily battered with biscuit crumbs and fry to a golden brown crisp outside. It was dressed with mushroom sauce and came with fried potato wedges and coleslaw. The boneless chicken was tender and moist.
This air-conditioned cafe is decorated with a 1960s atmosphere feel and the space is pretty compact. I personally preferred the Hainanese chicken chop here with the taste much suited me more. The serving time is fast too and took me less than 15 minutes for the food to arrive, given that I was dine-in there during the lunch hour.
Opening hours: Daily from 12 pm to 9.30 pm
12. Go cafe-hopping along Tan Hiok Nee heritage street
This well-known heritage street lies with old coffee shops and bakery stores that are mostly operated by the Hainanese Chinese since the early-1940s after their settlement here. However, some stores had been replaced with lovely themed cafes that are open by younger generations as they slowly blend into the neighborhood.
There are several cafes that served great coffee and delightful cakes and here’s my top 2 picks in this heritage area.
Don’t be surprised as you step right into the cafe to see a range of stylish clothing and accessories lining up at the store. This is where fashion and food meet. Head upstairs and you will sense the aroma smell of the coffee. They sell a great selection of coffee, espressos, cakes, and pies. This cozy, laid-back cafe is the perfect place to enjoy their signature Black Sesame Lemon cake after a long day walking around the city sites.
Opening hours: Thursday to Tuesday 10 am to 7 pm
Flowers in the windows
Designed in a 1970s vintage setting, Flowers in the Window give the feeling of living in a secret Eden behind closed doors. The cafe brings a charming atmosphere, surrounded by dark green accents, leafy plants, and uniquely furnished with old-school furniture.
Choose one of the many seating options and be relished by their tasty brunch options such as their Flowers Breakfast, classic Eggs on Toast, artisan bread, or simply just the Cake of the Day. You won’t be disappointed.
Opening hours: Daily from 9 am to 5 pm
Here are some of the cafes situated in Jalan Tan Hiok Nee you may want to try out, which included The Replacement- Lodge & Kitchen and MERAH Project.
13. Have the irresistible Curry Fish Head
Located near City Square Mall, Kam Long Curry Fish Head has been established for more than 30 years and is famed for its delicious curry fish head. The fresh big red snapper fish head is cooked with aromatic curry broth in a clay pot and comes together with deep-fried bean curd, cabbage, lady’s finger, and long beans. The price is very affordable and has attracted many customers including Singaporeans.
Opening hours: Daily, 8 am to 4 pm
14. Have a coffee brew at Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters
Tucked away from the busy city, Sweet Blossom Coffee Roaster is an indie establishment that has great coffee. This hidden gem is located in a residential area, designed on a minimalist concept with visually amiable space and wooden tone furniture.
They have a wide selection of coffee, cakes, and other beverage including chocolate, mocha, matcha latte, espresso, espresso tonic, and espresso matcha.
Opening hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 9 am to 5 pm
Address: 28, Jalan Maju, Taman Pelangi,80400 Johor Bharu
15. Explore Skudai’s yummy-licious food
Skudai is one of the small suburbs about 20-minute drive from Johor Bharu city. The town is a hidden food paradise and is only likely to be known by the Johorians for its delicious local food.
G Cheong fun restaurant
Chee Cheong Fun is a rice roll made by steam cooking thin sheets of rice film. You can choose various kinds of sauces: aromatic oil with light soy sauce, sweet-savory sauce, spicy sauce, and curry sauce. You can have Hakka yong tau foo as the side dishes, making this a delicious meal.
Opening hours: Wednesday to Monday from 6.30 am to 1 pm
Address: 176, Jalan Pahlawan 2, Taman Ungku Tun Aminah, 81300 Skudai
restoran wah cai 3 in 1 Chinese cake
Sink the teeth into the crispy crust and be filled with the tasty grade D24 durian flesh that tastes sweet and bitter. The thick layer of batter is put onto the warm durian flesh to retain its creamy texture and its natural flavors from the boiling hot oil. The hot steam brings out the strong aroma of the durian into the mouth and nose. The store also sells fried rice cake with sweet potato and yam, banana puffs, and deep-fried jack fruit.
Opening hours: Daily from 7 am to 4.30 pm
Address: 86, Jalan Pahlawan 2, Taman Ungku Tun Aminah, 81300 Skudai
kedai masakan itik taika huat
The restaurant serves one of the best braised ducks in Johor. The old-school Teochew braised duck is sliced precisely even and served together with a bowl of herbal soup. The duck meat is very tender and soft.
The coffee shop is located in a factory area and is believed that most of the customers are the factory workers, office staff, and residents who work or live around here and are familiar with this place. The shop owner was surprised that a person like me from outstation can find the restaurant. Having said, the taste of braised duck with mee is awesome and worth coming here to try.
Opening hours: Daily from 8.30 am to 4 pm, except the first and the fifteen-day of the Chinese calendar month
Address: Jalan Batu 8 1/2 (near Lee Pineapple Factory)
Going Elsewhere in Malaysia?
If you are planning to stay longer for more adventures in Malaysia, you can check out some of my other posts:
- Kuala Lumpur
- Cameron Highlands
- Tioman Island
- Kota Bharu
- Kuala Terengganu