Kota Kinabalu (or KK) is the capital of the state of Sabah in Malaysia. The city has a spectacular coastal setting and Mount Kinabalu as its backdrop. Kota Kinabalu is also one of the main gateways to Borneo.
Most travelers who visit Sabah will pass through Kota Kinabalu or spend a few days in town. There is a lot to see and experience in KK and the city serves as a jumping off point for a range of attractions.
Here are our recommendations for the top things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
1. Go Island Hopping In Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park Marine Park covers an area of 50 square kilometres and includes five islands – Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug. The park is located a short distance from KK. Gaya Island is the largest of the five and Sulug is the furthest from shore. The park has some fantastic beaches, good marine life and makes for a fun day trip from Kota Kinabalu.
Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal serves as the jumping off point for the park. It takes 15-20 minutes to reach the islands by speedboat. Boats leave the terminal from 8 am to 4 pm daily. The last boats back from the islands leave around 5pm.
There is a range of activities on the islands including snorkeling, diving and trekking on the larger islands (Gaya and Munukan). There is also a zip line called the Coral Flyer that connects Gaya and Sapi islands.
There are several luxury hotels on Gaya Island for those who want to stay overnight. Camping is also allowed at designated sites on some of the islands.
The best time to visit the islands is during the dry season from March to October when the seas are calmer and water visibility is at its best.
2. Enjoy The Fresh Mountain Air & Scenery At Kinabalu Park
Kinabalu Park is a must see attraction around 2 hours drive from Kota Kinabalu. The park covers 754 square kilometres and is dominated by the 4,095 m Mount Kinabalu.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes a range of habitats from dipterocarp forest at lower elevations to montane, cloud forest and sub-alpine vegetation on the upper slopes.
Kinabalu Park is home to wide variety of plants and animals. Its cool climate is another attraction for visitors. There a number of trekking trails at the park. There is also a Botanical Garden where you can see some of the park’s rare plants and flowers.
You can also combine a trip to the park with a visit to nearby Poring Hot Springs.
3. Go Wildlife Watching At The Klias Wetlands
The Klias Wetlands is located 125 km (90 mins) southwest of Kota Kinabalu. This area of mangroves, riverine and swamp forest is home to a significant population of proboscis monkeys. Other wildlife found here includes crocodiles, macaques, monitor lizards, silver-leaf monkeys, otters and a range of birds.
Klias is a good place for wildlife watching. It is normally visited as a day trip from Kota Kinabalu that includes road transfer and a wildlife watching river cruise through the wetlands. The highlight of these tours is seeing noisy groups of proboscis monkeys gather on trees along the river.
Borneo Adventure’s Klias River Safari departs Kota Kinabalu daily at 1.30 pm.
4. Watch A Stunning Sunset From The Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
Kota Kinabalu has some of the best sunsets in Malaysia. One of the best places to catch the sunset is the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront – an esplanade lined with cafes, restaurants and bars. After a day of sighting seeing this is the place to go for a drink and watch the sun set over the South China Sea and offshore islands.
Another good spot is the Sunset Bar at Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort. Bare in mind that the price of a drink here will match the intensity of the sunset. If your budget does not stretch that far just head to the public beach at Tanjung Aru. Same sunset for free.
5. Go Shopping And Visit Local Markets
Kota Kinabalu has some interesting markets. The Filipino Market or Handicraft Market on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens is a network of alleyways crammed full of stalls selling handicrafts, baskets, textiles and all sorts of things. Nearby are the fish and wet markets selling an amazing variety of fish, prawns, squid, tropical fruit and vegetables.
The night market, also on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, is a huge rabbit warren of food stalls. Open from around 5 pm to late, it offers a vast range of Malaysian, Indonesian and Filipino dishes. The smell of grilled seafood or satay, wok fried food, spices and more fills the air of this busy market.
The Sunday Market on Gaya Street starts around 6.30 am. This street market offers a wide range of stalls selling handicrafts, clothes, souvenirs, potted plants, and more. There are also some good eating places on Gaya Street where you can have breakfast or a late morning bowl of noodles.
If markets are not your thing, KK has a several shopping malls including Imago, Centrepoint, Oceanus Waterfront Mall and Suria. If you are looking for hiking gear or kit (leech socks, head torch, etc.) for a trip into the rainforest head to the Montanic Adventure Store in Suria Mall.
Located on the ground floor of the Merdeka Mall is the best book shop for all things Borneo. The Borneo Shop is a gem of a bookstore. If you want to learn more about Borneo’s culture, history and natural heritage head here. This shop stocks some excellent books on the wildlife Borneo. If you are going to Danum Valley, Tabin, Deramakot or the Kinabatangan River make sure you buy a copy of the excellent Phillipps’ Field Guide to The Mammals of Borneo.
6. Enjoy The Food
There is a wide choice of food in Kota Kinabalu. You’ll find the full spectrum of Malaysian cuisine (Chinese, Indian, Malay, etc.), Indonesian and Filipino influences; international favourites like Thai & Italian; and Sabah specialties such as Hinava (marinated raw fish with lime, shallots and chilli).
As mentioned above, the night market is a good place to sample local hawker food. For Indian food try Sri Latha Curry House on Jalan Berjaya. There are some good coffee shops on Jalan Gaya that serve Chinese food. These include Kedai Kopi Yee Fung for Laksa; Yu Kee for Bak Kut Teh (herbal pork soup); or Kedai Kopi KTC for roast pork and chicken rice.
Fatt Kee (below the Ang’s Hotel) is a popular street cafe serving Chinese food. Its only open at night. This unpretentious coffee shop serves great food and is always busy. Expect to wait for a table.
If you feel the urge for Western food, Little Italy on Jalan Haji Saman is a popular, long established restaurant.
Kota Kinabalu is famous for its fresh and delicious seafood. There are good seafood restaurants on the ground floor of the SEDCO complex, including the long established Suang Tain. Another very popular seafood place is Welcome Seafood Restaurant in the Asia City Complex.
D Place Kinabalu in Plaza Shell serves a range of traditional Kadazan-Dusun dishes including Hinava (marinated fish), Ulam-Ulaman (salads), Linopot (wrapped rice) and more. You can even try butod (Sago worms).
If you want to learn more about Sabah cuisine and try your hand at cooking some local dishes join a Borneo Cooking Class.
7. Learn About The People Of Sabah At Mari Mari Cultural Village
Mari Mari Cultural Village is worth a visit to get an overview of the peoples and cultures of Sabah. Mari Mari showcases five of Sabah’s main ethnic groups – the Dusun, Rungus, Lundayeh, Bajau and Murut.
Located a 40-minute drive from the city, Mari Mari is set up as a village with replica traditional houses. There is a range of activities on show (fire making, blow pipe demonstrations, etc.) and cultural performances. You can also try local food and delicacies. The village offers morning and afternoon tours with pick-up from your hotel in KK.
If you have a bit more time on your hands you could head out of town to the Kudat area on a Rungus Longhouse day tour.
8. Do Some City Sightseeing
There are a several sites in the city that are worth a visit if you have a half day or so free. The Atkinson Clock Tower near Signal Hill is one of the few historic sites that survived the Second World War bombings. It is named after the first district officer of Jesselton, as Kota Kinabalu used to be called.
Kota Kinabalu city mosque is located near the coast at Likas Bay and can accommodate 12,000 people. The white mosque with blue dome is built around a man-made lagoon and appears to float above the water. Not surprisingly it is often called the floating mosque. The mosque is open to visitors (except on Fridays). Visitors should dress appropriately and respect local culture and traditions. In 2018 the city mosque temporarily banned visitors after some tourists behaved inappropriately in a case of selfie culture gone mad.
Signal Hill Observatory Platform offers some great views of the city skyline and offshore islands. You can reach the platform by walking up the stairs at Jalan Dewan (near the Hotel Garden) or take a taxi or Grab.
The Sabah Museum provides a good introduction to the peoples and cultures of Sabah. It is located on Jalan Muzium in Bukit Istana Lama, about 15-minutes drive from town. The entry fee is RM 15 and its open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
9. Go White Water Rafting
There are several places to go white water rafting near Kota Kinabalu. Most rafting outfitters go to the Kiulu or Padas Rivers.
The Kiulu River is a 90-minute drive from the city and offers Class 1 and 2 rapids. Its ideal for those who want a fun but not too wild day on the river. The river is calm and easy to navigate so its suitable for novices and families. The age limit for rafting on the Kiulu is 4 years and above.
The Padas River offers a wilder ride with with Class 3 and 4 rapids. This trip is suitable for adrenaline junkies and adventurous travelers. It is a full day trip with pick-up around 5.15 am and return to Kota Kinabalu around 6 pm. The age limit is 12 years and above.
Rafting trips are also offered on the Kadamaian River which offers Class 1 & 2 rapids and a scenic day out similar to rafting on the Kiulu.
10. Learn About Mangrove Forests At Kota Kinabalu Wetlands
The 24-hectare Kota Kinabalu Wetlands is a good place to learn about mangrove forests and view birdlife, particularly shore birds and migratory birds. Over 80 species of birds have been recorded at the wetlands. Most of the birds are water birds such as egrets and herons. Other commonly sighted birds are kingfishers, pigeons and doves. There are more birds at the wetlands from October to April owing to an influx of migratory birds from Siberia and Northern China.
There is an information centre, observation tower, bird hides and a 1.3 kilometre plankwalk that winds it way around the mangroves. There are rest huts and information boards along the trail. It takes about an hour or so to explore the wetlands and its facilities.
Initially protected as the Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary in 1996, it was renamed as the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands in 2006. Now a Ramsar Site this urban wetland is the last remaining patch of mangroves along the Kota Kinabalu coastline. Whilst the facilities could do with a spruce up, it is still a good place to visit if you are interested in nature.
The Kota Kinabalu Wetlands is only 5-minute drive from the city centre. The best times for bird watching are morning (8-10 am) or late afternoon (4-6 pm). Bird watching opportunities are also influenced by the tide. At low tide you’ll see birds wading on the mudflats.
This attraction is managed by the Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society. It is open from 8 am until 6 pm on Tuesdays to Sundays (closed on Mondays).