As Malaysians, it’s surprising how much of our country we never actually see. Malaysia has so much to offer and so, I have decided to properly put some effort into exploring my country. With that in mind, this past weekend, I packed the family and a couple of bags and picked a destination. Johor!
Ok, Johor is huge and impossible to cover properly over a weekend. So when I say we visited Johor, I really mean we just went for a small taste; or shall we say, a brief encounter. We started in the old area of Johor Bahru using Jalan Tan Hiok Nee as a starting point, explored the street art along Jalan Kelapa Sawit in Kulai and ended the weekend with a market stroll in the ceramic making town of Ayer Hitam. It was a fun family road trip and a perfect introduction to this beautiful state.
Exploring Heritage Streets of Johor Bahru
First thing on our itinerary was the older part of Johor Bahru along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. Admittedly, the priority was getting our hands on a popular banana cake located in this area that everyone consistently raves about. Food is always a priority with this family.
Wandering around the old town, we had no expectations. So perhaps that was why we were so pleasantly surprised by all this tiny area had to offer. We spotted a hair salon hidden away as if it was an entrance to a secret garden, fancy restaurants side by side with old school sundry shops selling childhood cookies and hipster cafes right alongside traditional kopitiams that look like they have been there for decades.
As a bonus, street art was scattered throughout the area. It was a fun surprise to come across them.
Old School Banana Cake
Being such big foodies, the very first stop was for banana cake at the much hyped Hiap Joo Bakery. This is Johor’s oldest traditional bakery offering fresh baked goods made in a century old hole in the wall fire oven. Now that’s a unique sight in this day and age.
I kept my expectations low because nothing is more disappointing than trying something that everyone raves about and then coming to the conclusion that it’s really not that great. Well, no worries here. I ordered the banana cake and received it piping hot from the oven. Excuse me while I wipe away a bit of drool. If you’re looking for soft fluffy banana cake that actually tastes like bananas then this cake hits all the marks. We bought three boxes and not a slice made it back home to Kuala Lumpur.
Check out my daughter’s review of Hiap Joo’s banana cake. Can you feel the love?
Other than their banana cake, Hiap Joo Bakery’s coconut filled buns are aunty approved. My mother raves about them. Get there early though if you are after the coconut buns. They are sold out by 1pm.
Address: 13, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, 80000 Bandar Johor Bahru, Johor
Kin Hua for Classic Vibes
Just across the street from Hiap Joo bakery is Kin Hua. If you’re after traditional kopitiam type food, like eggs, toast and kopi, then pop on over. Here’s a tip, their kopi O is so good! Have it with a slice of banana cake from Hiap Joo and that’s all you’ll need to make the rest of your day better.
Address: 8 Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Bahru
Senso Your Life
Along the same road as Hiap Joo Bakery we were drawn to a cute little shop called Senso Art Gallery and Cafe. What a wonderful little surprise this place turned out to be. Not only do they offer food and drinks, but a space for arts and crafts.
As luck would have it, we wandered in just as they were starting a pressed flower workshop. So, we drank coffee and ate pizza while working on pressed flower art to take home as souvenirs. Good food and good coffee surrounded by art you can see and even participate in. It was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.
Address: 25 & 25A Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor
Happiness is Finding Ice Cream
This little heritage area of Johor Bahru is seriously packed with good eats and arts to discover. Every few meters there is another cafe, restaurant or shop grabbing your attention.
One of our favourite finds was a cool ice cream parlour called TIP, The Ice-cream Project. It’s exciting to see young and thriving homegrown shops like these. The décor from the outside calls you in and then blasts you with the awesome sweet smell of ice cream, caramel and waffle cones.
It is sweet tooth heaven. Their ice creams are made in house and the place is bustling.
Address: 31, Jalan Dhoby, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor
Cool Restaurants and Cafes
There was just so much to see and try in this area but we just didn’t have the stomach capacity to check all of them out in a single day. Here are some little cafes and restaurants we spotted and took note of for the next visit. We’ll be back for sure!
According to their Facebook page, The Replacement is a lodge and kitchen inspired by the Melbourne coffee and brunch culture and run by a team of people passionate about food, coffee and simple living. While it’s only three years old, it has grown from a little café to a destination for dining and lodging in Johor Bahru. It’s definitely on my list of where to stay next time I’m in town.
Address: 33, Jalan Dhoby, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor
Flowers in the Window
If only we had more space in our tummy for this little gem. If ever you were looking for an insta-worthy place to eat Asian fusion themed food in Johor Bahru, Flowers in the Window would definitely be on the list. Besides the decor, they have a unique menu. Dessert items listed on their menu like purple carrot cake and orange and rosemary cake have certainly peaked my interest.
Address: 9, Jalan Dhoby, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor
Check them out on Instagram.
Roost Repurposed and Recycled Salad Bar
If you’re looking for grungy cool hipster vibes then Roost Repurposed and Recycled Salad Bar has that is spades. Besides coffee and a pretty extensive menu, this cafe is packed full of cool and interesting things.
Address: 14, Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor
Check them out on Facebook.
Kulai is Cooler than you Think
With the old heritage area of Johor Bahru crossed of our list, we decided that our next and last day in Johor would be spent visiting towns out of the city centre and conveniently en route back to Kuala Lumpur.
The first stop was Jalan Kelapa Sawit 3 in Kulai, Johor. The alleys along this little street have been attracting tourists from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. They all come to see the street art and the same time try out all the little traditional restaurants in the area.
It’s a beautiful way to revive a neighbourhood. Kulai is quite a distance from Johor Bahru but they’ve managed to find a way through art to draw people to their little town. I love the friendly personality of the area. It feels Malaysian in the best of ways. Welcoming and down to earth.
Here strangers seem less strange and more like friends. Uncles and aunties in the shops smile as you walk by and even openly start up a conversation. A group of elderly uncles chatting at a table nearby even happily offered insight into the various works of art gracing their streets and pointed out their favourites.
One uncle who was selling freshly squeezed passion fruit juice even showed the kids how to pose with the artwork to get the best Insta-ready pictures. Cute. They were proud of the area and how the street art brought in tourists and income to their neighbourhood.
Address: Jalan Kelapa Sawit 3, Kampung Sri Paya, 81000 Kulai, Johor
King Kong Pineapples at Ayer Hitam
If you’re big on fruits then make a stop at Ayer Hitam to check out the giants fruits they sell here. While Ayer Hitam may be known as a ceramic town, they also attract people looking to buy fruits, vegetables and dried snacks. So, if you’re into street markets, it’s worth a visit.
While you’re walking through the market, keep an eye out for huge pineapples. I’ve been told that Johor is big on pineapples but never realised that they literally produce BIG pineapples! Did you know that Johor apparently produces the most pineapples in Malaysia? However, unlike the petite pineapples you find in Sarawak, Johor’s pineapples are mega sized.
At Ayer Hitam, you’ll get to see these mega pineapples sold alongside mangoes and whatever other fruits and vegetables are in season. It’s worth a visit to check out all the fresh produce and perhaps buy some for the journey home.
We will definitely be back! Our spontaneous weekend road trip was fun. It gave us a little taste of Johor and incentive to come back and explore some more. In the meantime, I’m compiling a list of other things that are must do, must eat and must see in Johor for the whole family. Let me know if you have any suggestions. See you again soon, Johor!