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Kota Kinabalu was a destination on my list when I visited Borneo, and I wasn’t disappointed. This town is small but charming and made for a good visit.
We ended up coming back to Kota Kinabalu twice as we decided to fly to Sandakan and back again. This gave us a good chance to see most of what the city offers and to figure out exactly what to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Read about the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu below.
Our top 10 things to do in Kota Kinabalu…
The tallest point in the centre of Kota Kinabalu is Signal Hill, and it is the first of the Kota Kinabalu attractions that you should visit. Taking in the view can help you get your bearings in a new city and it’s something that I love to do. Reaching Signal Hill is easily done as it’s centrally located.
You do have to walk up a fair few steps to reach the top, but once there you will be at a viewing platform with views over the city and partial views of the sea. Unfortunately many of the tall buildings block the view so the view is not the best, but it is pretty enough.
There is also a small cafe at the top.
Entry is free.
For many people a big part of visiting Kota Kinabalu are the fantastic islands nearby, and we weren’t going to miss out on seeing them. Manukan Island is one of the most popular islands and tourist spots in Kota Kinabalu. It is stunning.
Purchasing tickets is simple with plenty of vendors, and the journey to Manukan Island takes about 15-20 minutes from the main ferry terminal. Once there you will find a long and busy beach. The water is fairly shallow and netted off to protect swimmers from jelly fish and other sea life.
You can also rent equipment such as jet skis and diving suits, and snorkelling is a popular activity on the island. It’s easy to spend half a day here, but bring your own food. Food on the island is expensive and options are limited.
Prices can vary. For us, the return fee from the ferry terminal to Manukan Island was RM23 per person.
Kota Kinabalu is a fantastic place to explore to cultural history of this side of Malaysia, and the best place to do so is the Mari Mari Cultural Centre.
Located in a beautiful natural setting away from the city, here you can grab a glimpse of traditional life that is maintained to this day.
The great part about this centre is that it is members of the village that speak about their culture and not simply a guide. This made it an authentic experience and one where you could really grasp their way of life.
In total there are 5 different ethnic tribes in the village, and the museum plays a part in supporting the preservation of their culture. There are also some cultural things you should note before entering the village that the guide will let you know about before entering.
The only issue is getting there. It is located outside of the main town and a taxi can be expensive. I would recommend booking a tour which will include transport, lunch/dinner (depending on the time of the tour) and entry. This appears to be the more cost effective way to visit the center.
The price is RM170 per adult and RM150 per child. Entry without a tour is RM80 but you will need to pay for a taxi which can be expensive. You can view their tours by visiting their website here.
The Sabah State Museum is only small but offers a peek into the town’s history. The museum is not overly interactive but it is quite informational. There is quite a range of information to suit different interests and most of it is written in English, however some are not.
You can also see the cultural village outside which is a must see, especially if you are not visiting the Cultural Center. The pathways were a little uneven so you need to be careful.
Unfortunately, it is located outside of town centre but it is easy to access with a taxi.
Entry price is RM10 per person.
An hour outside of Kota Kinabalu is Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, the place in Kota Kinabalu to see elephants, monkeys and other wild animals. The drive may be long but much of the scenery on the way is breathtaking.
The park has a focus on children, and it is a great place to visit in Kota Kinabalu with kids. There is also a botanical area which is great for trekking, but the park is not huge and would not be worth spending too long at.
Also note that some of the tours offered to the park are ridiculously expensive. Entry price is much cheaper if you visit the park alone.
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is located an hour from the centre of Kota Kinabalu. Entry price is RM20 per adult and infants are free.
One of the things we really wanted to do in Kota Kinabalu was jungle trekking, and Gaya Island is the ideal island for this. We rarely get the chance to do something like this so we were pretty excited.
Purchasing a ticket is easy but overwhelming as there are plenty of companies that head there and each one wants you to pick them.
The boat ride is more like an extreme sport! This is quite enjoyable but be prepared to get wet. The journey does not take long and there are some beautiful views of the town on the way.
On arrival at the island, you will have to pay a national park fee. We proceeded to trek through the jungle to the other side of the island where we were to be picked up. It was hard and sweaty but enjoyable nonetheless.
Unfortunately it started to rain heavily and we still had two hours to go until our pick up and there was nowhere to buy food and drink and we ended up paying someone else to take us back.
I would still recommend visiting the island. The trek was awesome, but don’t overestimate how long you need to do the trek.
The boat ride to Gaya Island was RM56 return. We also hired a boat from Gaya Island – Kota Kinabalu which was RM50.
The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is not old like other mosques around the world, but it is a major site of worship in Kota Kinabalu and a fairly impressive building and offers some great photo opportunities.
The mosque has a tourist friendly approach and you can feel comfortable visiting it even if you are not a Muslim but obviously you need to be sure you are dressed respectfully.
There are also some stalls nearby selling sweets and other goods.
Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is located 3km outside of the city centre and can be accessed by both bus and taxi.
To experience the nightlife in Kota Kinabalu the place to go is the City Waterfront. Here you will find many eateries on the waterfront, many of which are open late and offer live entertainment. This is the place to go to experience the vibrancy of Asian cities.
In Asian cities, visiting the main market is essential to seeing the way of life. At Central Market you can find both the locals going about their business and tourists looking for souvenirs. This market in particular caters to locals as it primarily sells local produce.
This area is more like a collection of markets. The market area is big and we found that as the night went on it got even bigger. Outside, in addition to food you can find goods catered towards tourists and locals.
Much of the wet market is undercover and there are plenty of spots to eat and sample local food and it’s an interesting place to people watch. However, as it is undercover it can get a bit smelly, especially as there is plenty of durian around!
Central Market is open daily from 6am to 6pm.
If you happen to be visiting Kota Kinabalu on a Sunday, Gaya Street is a must see. The street comes alive with locals and stalls as they hold the Sunday market.
The market has a huge selection of goods and it is very much focused towards the locals’ interests. You can even buy chickens for your farm! However, there is a good mix of local goods and souvenirs.
There’s also some fantastic food to sample in the area and most of it is very cheap.
The market is held on Sundays from 6:30am to 1pm.
I actually visited Kota Kinabalu with my 15 year old brother. It was his first time overseas and we had a lot of fun. We did all our exploration together.
I was also pregnant with my first child, S. It was super early days (I found out right before we flew out), and I was very paranoid but I had no reason to worry.
I would happily visit Kota Kinabalu again with my young kids. Like everywhere in Malaysia, the people were very welcoming and these activities could work with kids of all ages. I especially recommend Lok Kawi Wildlife Park if you are looking for things to do in Kota Kinabalu for kids.
Kota Kinabalu has some beautiful hotels and if you need helping deciding where to stay in Kota Kinabalu, take a look at the options below.
Many of them are affordable with good amenities. You can find a hotel in Kota Kinabalu that we recommend from the options below.
We chose to stay at the D’Borneo Hotel. We had read some mixed reviews but picked it as it was affordable, and it turned out to be lovely.
The hotel’s receptionist was lovely and the room seemed amazingly good for the price. We found that the hotel was very well located. It turned out that we were located directly opposite the shopping centre! At night, the market would also be set up nearby.
The room itself was comfortable and everything was within walking distance. Finding somewhere to eat near the hotel was always easy and there was a simple continental breakfast included with our room. The 24 hour reception was handy as we had an early flight and they helped to arrange a taxi for us to ensure we were on time.
Click here to see the latest prices.
The Pacific Sutra – This resort in Kota Kinablu is the place to stay for a relaxing getaway. The best hotel in Kota Kinabalu for amenities, the hotel has an outdoor pool, fitness centre and spa, and the rooms are elegantly furnished. Click here to see the latest prices.
Gaya Centre Hotel – The Gaya Centre Hotel is a top rated hotel where you can choose from double rooms to suites. Rooms are comfortable and basic but very affordable. Click here to see the latest prices.
Cititel Express Kota Kinabalu – This is a large hotel with WiFi throughout, offering good access to nearby eateries and markets. Rooms are well sized and available in both single and double. Click here to see the latest prices.
Horizon Hotel Kota Kinabalu – With great views and a day spa, this is an affordable hotel with a few extras to make your trip complete. City and sea view rooms are available and the hotel is a very close walk to the central market and Sunday market. Click here to see the latest prices.
Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa – This big resort is my pick for the best place to stay in Kota Kinabalu particularly if you are with kids. It’s the perfect place for a family vacation with fabulous facilities and a great kids club. Click here to see the latest prices.
Use the map of Kota Kinabalu city and the surrounding area below to see where the main attractions are located.
The centre of Kota Kinabalu is fairly small and visiting the attractions in the centre is easily done by foot.
Having said that, many of the attractions are outside of Kota Kinabalu and eventually you will need another form of transport. Your best option is to get a taxi. Taxi’s are plentiful and cheap, if they turn on the meter. It sometimes helps to hassle them to do this, but even when they don’t the prices are not unreasonable.
Visiting the islands is obviously done by boat. The ferry terminal is located by the town centre and there is no need to prebook.
The airport is only 10 minutes from the centre which makes it quick and easy and there is a fixed rate from the airport the the town centre of RM30.
Kota Kinabalu was great. It is definitely small, but it is friendly and easy going. It can feel pretty low key and even feel more like you are on an island. But just like other Asian cities, it does have its pockets of vibrancy – but overall there is less vibrancy and more peace.
It is a very pretty little place, and we found it to be pretty relaxing and an enjoyable destination to visit.
You can read more about our time in Borneo in our guide to Sandakan and guide to Kuching.
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