Things to do in Kuching and top attractions in the surrounding area
Although most visitors come to Borneo for the myriad of natural attractions and wildlife, almost all of them spend a few days in Kuching too. And with good reason: the multitude of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries around the city make it a perfect base for various day or half-day trips. Read on to discover all the sights and highlights of Kuching and the surrounding area.
With a population of nearly 650,000, Kuching is the largest city in Borneo. Due to its location in the northwest of the island, it is an ideal place to start your adventure. Its location, as well as the wide variety of natural attractions in the immediate vicinity, is why the city is called the „Gateway to Borneo“.
There is a nice legend about how the city got its name. When the adventurer James Brooke first visited the city, he is said to have asked a local what the city was called. At that moment, though, a cat ran across the street and the local thought that James Brooke was asking him for the name of the animal – so he answered „kucing“, the Malay word for cat, and that’s why cats still have special significance in Kuching today. The whole city is teeming with them, in the form of (at times completely oversized) statues, paintings, and a Cat Museum.
Attractions and things to do in Kuching
You will not find a multitude of sights or things to do in Kuching. However, we still recommend you make the most of your stay to explore the city. Here are the highlights:
Take a stroll and linger at Kuching waterfront
The Kuching waterfront is something that no tourist in the city is likely to give a miss. Around 1.25 miles (2 kilometres) long, the promenade stretches along the southern side of the river. You will find several restaurants with great views of the river, as well as food stalls, a stage, and benches where you can linger. The waterfront is a very pleasant place to spend some time and take a walk both during the day and in the evening.
Additionally, the promenade offers great views of the opposite, northern side of the river. There are a few buildings worth seeing here, such as the Astana palace (the residence of the governor of Sarawak), an impressive new government building, and Fort Margherita, a historic building that dates back to James Brooke’s time which now houses the Brooke Gallery. You can also find various hotels right by the waterfront.
Take a leisurely boat trip on the Sarawak River
A boat trip on the Sarawak River is something you really shouldn’t forgo. Sarawak River Cruises offer two different cruises. The one-hour sightseeing tour, which takes place from Monday to Friday starting at 3 pm, will provide you with great views of Kuching and the historic buildings along the waterfront.
The most highly recommended tour, however, is the Sunset Cruise. This tour will not only give you the chance to admire Kuching’s skyline and historic buildings but also to enjoy the sunset from the ship. It departs at 5:30 pm every day and lasts 1 ½ hours. Prices range from 50 MYR for the sightseeing cruise to 65 MYR for the sunset cruise.
As an alternative, you can take a small wooden boat called a tambang or sampan. These boats come in different sizes, and you can also rent them for private tours. They will give you a more traditional, private experience of the Sarawak River.
Sightseeing: Kuching’s culture and history
Kuching has a diverse history owing to the different religions practised in the area, as well as plenty of historic architecture. The „City of Cats“ also houses a number of museums.
The Sarawak State Museum is probably the city’s most famous attraction and the oldest museum in Borneo. You can learn about the history and culture of Sarawak as well as the locals‘ way of life.
In the Brooke Gallery in Fort Margherita, the history of the White Rajahs of Sarawak is showcased. You will also learn about the impact the Brooke rule had, and still has, on the lives of the locals.
Of course, in the City of Cats, there has to be a cat museum! The Kuching Cat Museum displays many cat paintings, statues and handmade figurines. You also have a great view of the city from the hill where the museum is located.
In addition, the Textile Museum, the Islamic Heritage Museum, and the Chinese History Museum are all worth seeing.
Due to the various different religions practised throughout the region, there are of course a number of religious sites. We recommend visiting the Tua Pek Kong Temple, the Kuching City Mosque and the Floating Mosque, which only opened in March 2019.
A respectful approach to these different religions should be a matter of course. This means that you should wear appropriate clothing and remove your shoes upon entering places of worship. You may not visit mosques during prayer times, so as to avoid disturbing Muslims as they pray.
The surrounding area: even more exciting than the city
It is with good reason that Kuching is called „the Gateway to Borneo“. The city is an optimal starting point for discovering Borneo’s beauty and diversity. In the immediate vicinity, there are several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, as well as unmissable caves, beautiful beaches, little waterfalls, and much more. In fact, almost everything that you would associate with Borneo. These are the most prominent attractions in the area:
Bako National Park
The national park is undoubtedly one of Borneo’s main highlights. Located close to Kuching, it offers great natural diversity with a wide variety of vegetation and exciting animal sightings. Proboscis monkeys are especially popular with tourists. There are many beautiful hiking trails that will allow you to discover it all. If you want to stay longer than just one day, you can also stay in the park overnight. Curiosity piqued? Find out more about Bako National Park here.
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
About 45 minutes‘ journey by car, the famous orangutan sanctuary is located south of Kuching. The apes are rehabilitated here and prepared for life in the wild before being released into the adjacent forests, where they still live today. More and more animals rehabilitated in other facilities have joined them over the years.
As the forest does not offer sufficient food at all times of year, the orangutans are supported with two daily feedings. Visitors can observe them during these feedings. You can find more information and lots of pictures on our Semenggoh Wildlife Centre page.
Kubah National Park
This park can be reached from Kuching by car in about 35 minutes. It is famous for its crystal-clear streams and small waterfalls with swimming pools. Furthermore, the impressive rainforest landscape includes various palm trees and orchids. Although many species of birds live here, there are better destinations if you’re looking to see wildlife. Find out more about Kubah National Park.
Fairy & Wind Cave
These two caves are also attractions you can get to from Kuching in less than an hour. They are both very different, and neither is particularly challenging, so the caves are great for beginners. However, if you are looking for a once-in-a-lifetime caving adventure, you might be disappointed. You can find more information here: Fairy Cave and Wind Cave.
Visit a traditional Iban longhouse
Longhouses are the traditional homes of the local people. They are long wooden houses with rows of adjacent rooms. Different families occupy each room. Between the two halves of the house there is an area, usually uncovered, which the residents use for handicraft or communal interactions.
In the Kuching area, there are a few tribes that allow tourists a glimpse into their lives. The most interesting experience is probably a visit to an Iban longhouse. The Iban people were traditionally known as excellent headhunters. Skulls of murdered opponents or hostile tribes would be collected as trophies and displayed in the longhouses. Even today, some decades-old heads are still on display.
Kuching Wetlands National Park
The Wetlands, which are only 9 miles (15 kilometres) north of Kuching give you the chance to experience Borneo’s beautiful nature and varied wildlife by river safari. The area is bordered by the Sibu and Salak rivers, which both flow into the sea here.
The national park is home to various species of monkeys (including proboscis monkeys), monitor lizards, crocodiles and even dolphins. Additionally, a variety of different bird species live in the park. If you set out by boat at sunset, you are also likely to see great numbers of fireflies.
Sarawak Cultural Village
Located in Santubong National Park, the Cultural Village invites visitors to learn about local traditions and Sarawak’s cultural heritage. You will gain insight into the people of Kuching’s historical way of life. There are seven traditional longhouses from different ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Iban, Malay, and Chinese.
In addition, there is an exciting stage performance at the Sarawak Cultural Village where the locals‘ lifestyle and their cultural dances are presented.
Local cuisine: one for the gourmets
Kuching’s diverse cultural influences make for a varied food scene. Whether it’s street food or restaurants you’re looking for, there will be something different around every corner.
The area also has local delicacies to offer. One dish we particularly recommend is Sarawak laksa, a delicious noodle dish which, unlike the classic laksa, is made with sambal belacan chilli paste, coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, sour tamarind and garlic. In addition, there are many other regional delicacies with names that can be tricky to pronounce for those unfamiliar with the language.
There are several markets in Kuching. The Waterfront Bazaar on the promenade is the place to go for souvenirs, many of which are art and local handicrafts.
Another good option is the Satok Weekend Market, where fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, local handicrafts, and much more is sold on Saturdays and Sundays.
Plaza Merdeka is a high-end shopping centre near most of the major hotels and not far from the waterfront. It is probably the largest shopping centre in Kuching. Many international brands are represented in the centre, with the result that the prices are comparable to those in other global cities. Other centrally-located malls are The Hills and Riverside Shopping Complex.
How to get to Kuching
Kuching has an international airport. Several airports in West Malaysia and many other airports in the Malaysian part of Borneo are served from here. International flights, on the other hand, are few and far between. The daily flights to and from Singapore are of interest to Europeans with flight connections in the city state.
Airfares within Malaysia are usually very low. Air Asia offers particularly cheap and regular flights. Due to the time you can save, we recommend travelling longer distances, e.g. to Miri, Kota Kinabalu, or Mulu National Park, by plane.
Alternatively, you can reach Kuching by bus from Miri or other cities in Sarawak; the road along the coast is well-developed. You can also rent a car to travel to Miri or Brunei with stops in Sibu and Bintulu.
The best time for a trip
The area around Kuching has a tropical, warm and humid rainforest climate. It rains frequently and heavily. Therefore, rain showers are to be expected all year round. The rainy season is from October to March, with particularly heavy rainfall from December to February. It rains much less in the dry season from April to September. June and July are the driest months.
Temperatures are quite stable throughout the year. January is the coldest, with an average maximum temperature of 29° C (84° F). The warmest month is May, at around 32° C (90° F). The number of hours of sunshine is also very consistent throughout the year.
In our article on the best time to visit Borneo, you can also find a climate table for Kuching. This is helpful when deciding on when best to travel.
Accommodation in the city
In Borneo, you rarely find as wide a choice of accommodation as you do in Kuching. The city offers all categories of hotel as well as hostels and homestays. Airbnb also offers plenty of accommodation. Room prices are very reasonable in Borneo. Fares for a night in a 4-star hotel start from about 40 – 50 USD (30 – 40 GBP / 55 – 70 AUD) per room.
We recommend booking accommodation near the waterfront. It’s a great place to spend some time, and you will undoubtedly leave the hotel more often with the promenade just outside your door. You will also save on cab costs and you will not have far to go from the restaurants back to your hotel in the evening. In any case, most of the larger hotels are indeed located near the waterfront. Below you will find our recommendations for different categories of accommodation:
4- and 5-star hotels
Waterfront Hotel Kuching
The Waterfront Hotel Kuching is located right by the waterfront above the Plaza Merdeka shopping centre. There probably isn’t a more central place to stay in the City of Cats. The rooms are furnished in a modern style, and the amenities include an infinity pool, a gym and two restaurants.
The Hilton is also located right by the waterfront. The gastronomic options on offer are exceptionally diverse, with six restaurants. The fitness room and the spacious outdoor pool area are additional reasons to choose this hotel. Compared to our other recommendations, the rooms are not quite as modern, but are still of a high standard.
The Pullman is „only“ our third choice because of its location. This tall hotel, visible from afar, is located a little further away from the waterfront in The Hills Shopping Mall. Aside from this minor drawback, it’s a top-class hotel with modern rooms and various amenities.
Harbour View Hotel
This mid-range hotel is located fairly close to the waterfront. The rooms are well-equipped. Since it does not have a pool, it may not be the best option for you if you want to relax by the pool during your stay.
Imperial Riverbank Hotel Kuching
While the Imperial Riverbank is right by the water, the hotel is located a little further east of the city centre, so, it is a short walk away from the most beautiful part of the waterfront. The room facilities are good compared to others in the area; however, there is no pool here, either.
Hornbill’s Nest Kuching
This hostel is very centrally-located, only about 150 metres from the waterfront. It offers both double rooms and male and female dorms. Guests share communal bathrooms.
Borneo Seahare Guesthouse
A few minutes‘ walk from the waterfront but still centrally-located, the Borneo Seahare Guesthouse offers private double rooms (without private bathrooms) as well as single beds in dormitories (some of which do not have windows).
The Radioman Heritage Hostel
This hostel is close to the waterfront and very centrally-located. All guests share a common bathroom, whether you are sleeping in one of the double rooms or the 12-bed mixed dormitory.
A special tip: The Ranee Boutique Suites
If you’re looking for something a little more intimate and homely, this small boutique hotel with 24 rooms will be just right for you. The rooms are individually decorated and very modern. The location is also perfect, as it is located right by the waterfront. The Ranee Boutique Suites is technically a 3.5-star hotel but has a much higher standard. However, this is also reflected in the price: it is usually more expensive than the 5-star hotels we have recommended.
Things to do in Kuching: Our recommendation
Kuching is absolutely worth a visit, and we recommend starting your Borneo vacation here.
The city itself may only have a few attractions to offer, but you can find a number of highlights in the surrounding area. Kuching is a perfect base to visit these from because of its central location, meaning you don’t need to change hotel every day. Depending on how long you’re staying in Borneo, you should spend about 3 – 5 days in the City of Cats.
A visit to Bako National Park is a must. You should schedule one to two days for this, depending on whether you want to spend a night there. Also, we highly recommend trips to Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary, Sarawak Cultural Village and an Iban longhouse. Kubah National Park, the Kuching Wetlands and Fairy Cave are worth visiting if you have the time. Ideally you should also take some time to see the city itself, depending on your interests.
Check this out
There is a lot to experience in the Kuching area as well as in other parts of Borneo: