Kota Kinabalu travel guide: a perfect base for exploring Sabah in Malaysia!

Our first stop on Borneo: Kota Kinabalu. A large city on the coast with beautiful islands nearby. Very different from what we expected, this city is quite modern and everything can be found here! From big shopping malls with big brands to local markets. Kota Kinabalu is a good place to spend a couple of days before exploring the rest of Sabah in Malaysia. In this travel guide, we will tell you more about the best restaurants, nicest hotels and fun activities in Kota Kinabalu!

Kota Kinabalu city Sabah Malaysia


Travel Guide: Kota Kinabalu on Malaysian Borneo

Kota Kinabalu is a large city in the west of Malaysian Borneo. It is located in the state of Sabah and has more than 244,000 inhabitants. Kota Kinabalu (also known as KK) is used by many tourists as a base to see more of Malaysian Borneo. From here you fly in no time to Sandakan (for orangutans), to Tawau (for diving) or to the Bako National Park (for the nose apes).

Our trip in Malaysian Borneo and the Sabah region from Kota Kinabalu

We try to fly as little as possible in Borneo since the roads are good and busses go from Kota Kinabalu to almost any place in Sabah. After three days in Kota Kinabalu, we travel by rented car to Tip of Borneo, where we will discover unspoilt beaches and nature. Back in Kota Kinabalu, we take the bus to Lahad Datu from where we will explore the Danum Valley. After three days of the jungle in the Danum Valley, we travel back to Kota Kinabalu from where we continue to our next destination: Bali.

But first, we have three nice days in Kota Kinabalu where we see a lot of the city! Including, all the garbage in the waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. It makes us sad to see so many plastics in the sea. This stimulates us even more to limit the use of plastic.

Plastic in the ocean before Kota Kinabalu Borneo


Also planning of going to the Tip of Borneo? Read more about the best beaches in Borneo here!


How many days do you need for Kota Kinabalu?

Although Kota Kinabalu is a big city, the activities and sights are easily done in two full days. Two nights and three days is, therefore, more than enough for KK. There is one exception. If you are going to climb Mount Kinabalu, you will need more time. Count on an overnight stay on the mountain and an extra day to recover from this tough climb.


The best activities to do in and around Kota Kinabalu

Hereby, a list of eight cool activities to do in and around the neighbourhood of Kota Kinabalu.

1. Go island hopping to one of the five islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park

At number one of the things you can do in Kota Kinabalu is visiting the islands off the coast. Five islands form a national reserve called Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. A beautiful area that is popular among tourists and locals. All five islands are different, some are known for the jungle hikes that you can make here, others for the beaches or the beautiful underwater life.

Note: do not expect empty beaches. This is a very popular place and therefore the islands can be crowded.

Which islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahmen park should you visit?

We visited three of the five islands by boat, on each island we stayed for a few hours and had a look at what each island has to offer.

Pulau Sapi: This small island is located near Pulau Gaya, it is even connected by a zip line. We thought it was way too busy here, this is one of the most popular islands and almost every travel guide recommends going there. But if you ask us, just go to one of the other islands, there are way too many people here on a tiny beach. However, the water is crystal clear.

Pulau Manutik: We found this island the most beautiful and it is also the smallest island. You have a long beach here, clear water and lots of coral. The latter is unfortunately in poor condition because tourists stand on it (In case you do not know yet, never stand on coral, it is a living organism!). Pulau Manutik does not attract many tourists, so we found it much nicer here. There is no hotel but you can camp on the beach.

Pulau Mamutik Sabah Malaysia

Pulau Manukan: This relatively large island has a beautiful beach and a rich underwater world. This place is the most popular with snorkelers and divers. It seems that with a bit of luck you can even see small sharks here. There is one hotel here, the Manukan Island Resort.

The other two islands that you can visit are:

Pulau Gaya: This is the largest island of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. You find a lot of jungle here that you can explore. There are three resorts on the island if you want to spend a night here: (Bunga Raya Island Resort, Gaya Island Resort and Gayana Marine Resort). Curious about the houses built on the shore of Pulau Gaya that you see? These are settlements of mostly illegal Filipino migrants.

Pulau Sulug: This island is the calmest and the furthest away from KK. Unfortunately, the snorkelling here is not so good because of unclear water and waste that is washed up here. Not all boats sail up to Pulau Sulug.

Gaya Island Sabah Malaysia

How do you get to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park from Kota Kinabalu?

In order to go to the islands in front of Kota Kinabalu. You just take a Grab and go to the passenger port, called Jesselton Point). There are dozens of boat companies that offer transportation here. Hereby you only book the boat trip. You can choose the number of islands you want to visit and whether you want to rent a snorkel set. Prices are the same everywhere, the only thing that differs is departure times. If you negotiate a bit between the tour operators, you can get a free life vest and discount on renting snorkelling gear. The longest boat ride takes about 20 minutes.

Sapi Island Sabah Malaysia

What does it cost to visit the islands for Kota Kinabalu?

  • Boat price: depends on the number of islands you visit. For two islands you pay MYR 33 per person, for three islands MYR 43 per person. We recommend that you visit a maximum of two islands per day so that you have enough time to relax.
  • Terminal fee: MYR 7 per person
  • Conservation fee: MYR 20 per person. If you are from Malaysia, you pay MYR 5 per person.

Is a visit to the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park worth?

Yes, provided you don’t have too high expectations. The islands are beautiful, but certainly not the most beautiful islands we have seen. Besides these islands are very commercialized and attract a huge number of tourists. So try to avoid the weekends and public holidays. The islands are very nice to escape from the heat. Make sure to bring snorkelling gear and sunscreen.

We were shocked by the amount of waste and plastic on the islands. The conservation fee that has to be paid seems enough to solve this waste problem. You would think for a nature conservation park this should be a top priority even as protecting the fragile coral from clumsy tourists who stand on the coral!

Romance on Mamutik Island Sabah Malaysia

2. Visit the floating City Mosque: Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu

The Masjid Bandaraya mosque is surrounded by water. As a result, the building, which is very beautiful in itself, sometimes seems to float. A beautiful view! Do you want to visit the mosque inside, that’s possible too? However, do not come during prayer times and bear in mind that the mosque is closed for visitors at 5 p.m. Unfortunately, closing time coincides with the best photo opportunity: just before sunset.

Please note: we recommend this mosque because of the beautiful pictures you can make here. Unfortunately, nowadays you have to pay as foreigner an entrance fee to be allowed to even take a picture of the outside of the mosque. It is not a lot of money (MYR5, € 1.10) but it feels like a very capitalist move for a religious place.

City Mosque Kota Kinabalu Borneo

3. Participate in a free tour of Kota Kinabalu.

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9 a.m., a free tour of Kota Kinabalu is given by the Sabah Tourism Board. No, no “Free walking tour” that is ultimately not free because a tip is expected, it is really completely free. The tour lasts approximately two hours and goes through the entire centre along with at least ten interesting sights. You stop for example at the Atkinson Tower, the craft market and the central market.

There is room for up to 15 people and registration in advance is mandatory. This can simply be done online via this site. The starting point for the free tour is the Sabah Tourism Board Building on Gaya Street.

Filipino Market Kota Kinabalu Sabah Malaysia

Looking for more cultural activities?

Want to learn more about the culture of Kota Kinabalu? Then consider visiting the Cultural Village Mari Mari. This cultural village is half an hour outside the city. Less than 200 meters away is also the Ulu Kionsom waterfall, nice to combine those two together. This waterfall consists of different levels, make sure you don’t skip the one on the highest level!


↠ Free travel guide: Spotting wild orangutans in the Danum Valley!


4. Visit the Atkinson Clock Tower and the Signal Hill Observatory Platform

At the edge of the centre, you will find Signal Hill. There are beautiful houses on this hill. This is also a good location to view the city, harbour and surrounding islands from a distance. An observation platform has been built where you can enjoy the view of Kota Kinabalu.

At the foot of the hill, you will find the Atkinson Clock Tower. The tower, which dates from 1905, is one of the few historical sites that survived the great bombing of 1945. The white tower is nice to see but less impressive than one might expect.

Kota Kinabalu city view Sabah Malaysia

5. Eat fish at the Todak Waterfront Hawker Center and visit the Filipino Night Market

Large loads of fresh fish are delivered to the Todak Waterfront Hawker Center every day. This is the perfect place to go shopping for fresh fish, but it is even nicer to have a eat those freshly caught fish here in the evening. Choose your seafood yourself and they will prepare it on the grill on the spot.

Walk a bit further south and you will see the Filipino Night Market. A big variety of products is sold here, from fresh fruit and vegetables to cheap meals and clothing. This is the ideal place for wandering around while enjoying the crowds around you.

6. Enjoy the local food!

Kota Kinabalu is known for the local cuisine which has a strong Chinese and Philippine influence. Here, you can find local dishes that you cannot find anywhere else in Malaysia. Below are some restaurants that we visited.

Sri Latha Curry House
This lunch cafe is definitely my favourite restaurant in Kota Kinabalu. It serves banana leaves with tasty curry, spicy vegetables and perfectly steamed rice. Prices are low and the service is cordial and speaks good English. Click here for the location on Google Maps.

Indian cuisine Kota Kinabalu Sabah Malaysia

Bakuteh Sin Kee
You will often find long lines for this popular restaurant. It is known for its pork dishes. Soup with pork, spare ribs and noodles with pork. As a vegetarian not really my thing, but interesting to see. Click here for the location on Google Maps.

Yee Fung Laksa
Laksa is a spicy noodle soup, with chicken, fish or shrimp, a typical Malaysian dish. You can eat the best Laksa in entire Kota Kinabalu at Yee Fung Laksa. Don’t expect a nice thing, you are sitting here on stools at round tables with fluorescent light above you. However, the soup is more than worth it! Click here for the location on Google Maps.

Besides these traditional restaurants, there is also hip coffee bars and restaurants. Perfect for a western meal or to work a few hours with good wifi.

Biru Biru
This hip restaurant serves great poke bowls, Western dishes and is nicely decorated. On the menu, there are good wines and every Saturday a salsa evening is organized. Click here for the location on Google Maps.

Biru Biru Kota Kinabalu Sabah Malaysia

Chili Vanilla
The Chile Vanilla menu contains both Mexican dishes and couscous from the Middle East. We chose the vegetable wrap with sweet potato fries, a good choice. Click here for the location on Google Maps.

Nook Cafe
The perfect place to work for a few hours. Outside the weekend, it is quiet here, good coffees and lemonades are served and the wifi is fast. Click here for the location on Google Maps.

Woo Kota Kinabalu Sabah Malaysia

Woo!
This super hip restaurant seems to come from Bali or Melbourne. We drank tea here and enjoyed the delicious meringue cake. Mac Books from digital nomads are seen on tables everywhere. Click here for the location on Google Maps.

7. Watch the sunset on Tanjung Aru beach

Tanjung Aru is the beach near Kota Kinabalu. The beach itself is not very special, just great for an afternoon of relaxation. The sunset from here is spectacular. With your feet in the soft sand, you can see the sun disappear behind the green islands.

You are not the only one here. At the end of the day, a pleasant night market opens.  Local people, ex-pats and tourists gather here at the end of the day with snacks from the market to watch the sun go down.

Kota Kinabalu beach Sabah Malaysia

8. Climb Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is 60 km away from Kota Kinabalu. This more than a 4000-meter high mountain, the highest mountain in Borneo, can be seen towering over the city in clear weather. If you are ready for a physical challenge, you can conquer Mount Kinabalu in two to three days.

Mt Kinabalu Sabah Borneo Malaysia

Mount Kinabalu: certainly not cheap.

Unfortunately, not a cheap activity, just for a guide and sleeping place you easily pay $300 per person as a tourist. The reason for the high price is the compulsory overnight stay, you are not allowed to climb the mountain in one go anymore and as a result, the hotels ask a high price for what you get. A hike to the top with a tour operator is slightly more expensive (no more than €50) compared to a “do it yourself” trip.

Once at the top you will enjoy a great view. If you are lucky with the weather you can see the Philipines from here! It can get quite cold here (sometimes only 2 degrees above zero), but you rarely come across snow here. The temperature during the rest of the route is a pleasant 16-20 degrees.

For more information about a hike to the top, click here.


Where do you sleep in Kota Kinabalu?

Although Kota Kinabalu does not have the vibe you would expect on a tropical island like Borneo, there are plenty of good hotels and hostels to be found. Below our favourite places at a glance.

Dimple Life Hostel €Dimple Life

This hostel has access to a swimming pool and gym. The rooms are small and there is a nice common area. The hostel is opposite the large Imago shopping centre. You sleep here from € 15 (two people).

Book now!

B&[email protected]€€kota kinabalu B&B@21

This cosy hostel, right in the centre of KK, has both dorms and private rooms. There is a kitchen so you can cook yourself and a garden is at your disposal. You stay here from € 21 including breakfast (two people).

Book now!

Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru €€€Shangri La

Looking for a luxury place to relax? Then the Shangri-La resort is your thing! This is located on Tanjung Aru beach and includes a swimming pool and fitness room. You stay here from € 170 (two people).

Book now!


Click here for our free hotel guide for Malaysia!


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Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia: travel guide: all you need to know about Kota Kinabalu. Where to eat, sleep and what activities to do!


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1 Comment

  1. by David on 24 April 2020  04:43 Reply

    You should engaged a local licensed tour guide for tour travel. This in turns make the trip sustainable, accurate and fun. When you reported the "nose ape" of Bako, Sarawak, here in Sabah at Kinabatangan, Sandakan, we have them too and a lot more wildlife and authentic food too. I know time is of essence when traveling, but with proper planning/scheduling, one can see and visit more places and try out new things.

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