Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: the top attractions and most exciting experiences
Kota Kinabalu and the surrounding area offer a variety of cultural and natural experiences. In this article, you will find everything you need to know about attractions and things to do, as well as travel and accommodation – so you will be well-prepared for your stay in „KK“, as the locals call their city.
Located in the northeast of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is the state capital of Sabah and the second-largest city on the island. KK is named after nearby Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Borneo. During World War II, the town, then called Jesselton, was completely destroyed to the extent that only three buildings remained undamaged. It was later rebuilt.
Kota Kinabalu is home to Malaysia’s second-largest airport after Kuala Lumpur. There are several connections to other Asian countries and many flights to the Malaysian part of Borneo. KK is, therefore, the perfect hub for a Borneo round trip and most tourists visit the city while travelling from one side of the island to the other.
The top sights in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu may only have a modest number of highlights, but it’s still worth staying in the city for a couple of days. Read on to discover the most famous sights and attractions.
Sabah Museum is located fairly close to the city centre. It provides fascinating information about Borneo’s history and the culture and traditions of the local people. Various exhibits are shown in different areas, including pottery collections, natural history exhibits and a botanical garden. There is also a Heritage Village where traditional houses of Malaysian people are displayed.
Admission to Sabah Museum costs MYR 15 and it is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. You can take bus No. 13 from Kota Kinabalu City Centre, which costs MYR 1 one way. Alternatively, the approximately 2.5 miles (4-kilometre) cab ride costs around 10 MYR each way.
Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
The most impressive sight in Kota Kinabalu is arguably the City Mosque. It is located just outside the city, by the sea. It is the largest mosque in Sabah and, during prayers, can accommodate up to 12,000 worshippers.
The magnificent white mosque with its beautiful blue roof is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. It is impressive for its incredible size alone, but the inside of the mosque is also stunning and well worth a visit.
Guests can visit the mosque every day except Fridays.
Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
The Kota Kinabalu waterfront starts just south of Jesselton Point Jetty. It is a beautiful place to spend some downtime. There are several excellent restaurants and bars here, as well as street food and a shopping centre.
The famous „I love KK“ landmark, a popular spot for selfies, is also located on the waterfront. The promenade is also a great place to watch the incredibly beautiful sunsets. There is also a range of accommodation in different price categories along the Kota Kinabalu waterfront.
North Borneo Railway
A ride on the North Borneo Railway really is a nostalgic experience. You will travel for about four hours in an over 100-year-old steam locomotive along the beach, through rice fields and rainforests, and past traditional villages. Upon boarding, you will receive a „passport“ that contains information about the trip and is stamped at each town you pass.
On the way to the final destination, Papar, there will be a short stop in Kinarut, where you can visit a Chinese temple and a market. In Papar itself, you can also find a market and traditional stores. The return journey does not include any stops.
The lovingly-restored carriages can accommodate about 180 passengers. The train departs from Tanjung Aru Station every Wednesday and Saturday at 9:30 am. The trip costs MYR 358.50. Breakfast and lunch are included and served by conductors in traditional dress.
Kokol Hill is located about 15 minutes outside Kota Kinabalu. It overlooks not only Kota Kinabalu but also the sea and the offshore islands, and it is a great place to relax, enjoy the view or watch romantic sunrises and sunsets. In the morning, the sun slides past Mount Kinabalu, while in the evening, you can watch the sun disappear beyond the horizon.
Paragliding at Kokol Hill is an unforgettable experience. Aside from the thrill, you will get an even better view of the city, Mount Kinabalu, the sea and the islands.
Tanjung Aru Beach
Tanjung Aru can lay claim to being the most beautiful beach in the mainland part of Kota Kinabalu. It is located fairly close to the centre of the city, not far from the airport. Tanjung Aru Beach is usually more crowded than the beaches on the offshore islands, but it is a great place to admire the incredible sunsets. In addition, there are enticing restaurants and delightful cafes on the beach.
Exciting attractions in the surrounding area
There are several interesting spots in the area around Kota Kinabalu. As they are somewhat further away, getting there may take several hours or require full-day excursions – but it’s worth the effort!
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
The five islands of Pulau Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, Sapi and Sulug make up Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. This protected area is almost 20 square miles (50 square kilometres) and can be reached by speedboat from KK in about 15 – 20 minutes.
The park is known for its great beaches and excellent diving and snorkelling areas. Most of the islands are developed for tourism: there are a few hotels on Gaya Island, for example. If you choose not to stay in the park, you can make multiple trips to the islands from Kota Kinabalu.
If you just want to relax and lie on the beach, you can choose between tours encompassing up to three islands. Otherwise, of course, various diving and snorkelling tours are also offered at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
River cruise in Weston Wetland Park
About 2 hours‘ drive south of Kota Kinabalu, Weston Wetland Park is a highly scenic mangrove swamp area which you can explore by boat. You can also book excursions that include transportation from and back to KK.
The tours always start in the afternoon and continue into the evening – and there are good reasons for this. As the sun slowly starts to set in the late afternoon and temperatures begin to drop slightly, proboscis monkeys emerge from the deeper forest areas to come and feed by the river. As they are quite far away, we do recommend taking binoculars: while binoculars are available on the boat, there may not be enough for every passenger. In addition to the proboscis monkeys, you will also see various colourful birds and crabs.
At around 6 pm, a traditional Malaysian dinner is served at the lodge; afterwards, you will set off on a second boat trip. After dusk, thousands of fireflies appear and illuminate the mangroves. A truly amazing sight!
The sky will also catch your eye in this dark environment, where you can marvel at the myriads of stars. The return trip will have you back in Kota Kinabalu by around 9-10 pm.
Klias Wetlands River Safari
A trip along the Klias River in the Klias Wetlands Reserve is just as great an adventure. From the boat, you can enjoy the beautiful nature, the sensational view of Mount Kinabalu and look out for animals in the mangrove forests along the shore.
Various birds and monkeys can be spotted, most notably proboscis monkeys, silvered langurs and long-tailed macaques. The sunset is also a real highlight: the tour would be worth it simply for the view as the sky turns red.
Again, dinner is served in a restaurant right by the shore; afterwards, the tour continues on the boat. In the Klias Wetlands, countless fireflies also appear after dark, making the trees glow. The trip to the Klias River takes about 2 ½ hours each way. It usually set off from Kota Kinabalu around 2 pm, and you will be back by around 10 pm.
Kinabalu National Park
Kinabalu National Park is is about two hours‘ drive from Kota Kinabalu. This national park is especially famous because it features the highest mountain in Borneo, Mount Kinabalu, which you can climb on a two-day tour.
Kinabalu National Park is also an exciting place to visit for plant lovers. Several well-developed, marked treks cover various sections of the park and offer interesting hikes where you will spot a variety of exciting vegetation. In addition, Kinabalu National Park has a botanical garden that is well worth a visit. However, you will not encounter any of Borneo’s larger animals here.
Due to the distance from Kota Kinabalu, it is advisable to set out early and spend a full day in the park. If you want to stay longer, there is a choice of accommodation.
Mari Mari Cultural Village
Who wouldn’t want to get a glimpse into the traditional life of local tribes during their round trip through Borneo? This is what you can discover at the Mari Mari Cultural Village. About 30 minutes outside the hustle and bustle of Kota Kinabalu, there are huts from different tribes to explore. Visitors can also learn about the locals‘ culture, customs and food.
Guided tours are offered at the Mari Mari Cultural Village; these are highly recommended and informative. During the tour, you will also have the opportunity to taste traditional food and drink.
The Gaya Street Sunday Market is perhaps the most beautiful street market in KK and is definitely worth seeing. You can find everything here: clothes, souvenirs, fresh fruit, handicrafts, shoes, sweets and even cosmetics.
If you are in Kota Kinabalu over the weekend, we recommend strolling through the market for a few hours. It opens at 6 am and closes at 1 pm. It’s worth getting up early, because the later it gets, the more people will be around.
The range of goods on offer also diminishes towards the end, as some products may already be sold out and the first traders will already be packing up.
The night market is another great shopping opportunity for those who like fresh fish and seafood. The selection is enormous: lobster, shrimp, crab, squid and much more. The market is open until 11 pm every evening.
Right next to the night market, there is also a handicraft market. This is one of the best places to buy souvenirs, clothes and jewellery.
Kota Kinabalu is home to many different cultures, and this ethnic diversity is reflected in its culinary offerings. Indeed, Kota Kinabalu offers a huge range of delicacies at comparatively low prices. Seafood is, of course, at the very top of the list, but other palates will also get their money’s worth.
There are several good restaurants and cafes on the waterfront to try out. Fans of fish and seafood should definitely eat at the night market; you will rarely find seafood fresher than what you’ll find here.
Getting to Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is the second-largest international airport in Malaysia. The choice of flights within Malaysia and Borneo is excellent. There are flights to Kuala Lumpur every hour; in addition, there are direct flights to Penang and Johor Baru in West Malaysia. Flights to Kuching and other destinations in Borneo, including Tawau, Sandakan and Lahad Datu, are also frequent.
Furthermore, there are also some international connections available from Kota Kinabalu in case you’re thinking of combining your time in Borneo with a city trip. Singapore, Hong Kong, other mainland Chinese cities, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok are served directly by different airlines.
Kota Kinabalu is also very well-connected by bus. There are long-distance buses heading west towards Miri and Kuching as well as southeast to Sandakan, Lahad Datu, and Tawau. Roads in the area are reasonably well-developed, so you can also go by rental car.
Accommodation in KK
There is accommodation in abundance in Kota Kinabalu. You will find a place for every taste and budget, from cheap homestays to expensive 5-star hotels. As is usual in Borneo, accommodation in Kota Kinabalu is perfectly affordable. A room in a 4-star hotel costs about 50 USD (40 GBP / 70 AUD) per night.
We recommend choosing accommodation near the waterfront. This is where you will find most of the nightlife in the evenings, and it is easier to be right in the middle of it rather than having to travel long distances by cab or bus. The city has an exceptionally diverse food scene to explore, so there will be no need to book anything other than breakfast at your accommodation – and you may even decide to forgo this too.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu: Our recommendation
Kota Kinabalu offers a modest range of things to do and the must-see attractions in the area are located elsewhere. However, it’s still worth coming here for a few days if time permits. The airport serves as Borneo’s hub, so most travellers will end up stopping in Kota Kinabalu anyway.
For those who want to spend a few days on the beach reflecting on their impressions of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu and its offshore islands are ideal.
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Other areas of Borneo also have many highlights to offer. Maybe something here will pique your interest?