Last Update: June 2020
Not so long ago travelers visited Kota Kinabalu for just two reasons: First of all it’s the gateway to Sabah and the second reason is the presence of Mount Kinabalu. Nowadays, the improved infrastructure and attractions in and around Kota Kinabalu, certainly justify an extended stay. The center of Kota Kinabalu, or often fondly referred to as KK by the locals, caters to every tourist need and the food scene is nothing less than fantastic.
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Reasons (not) to visit Kota Kinabalu
Reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu
Excellent jump off point for exploring the surrounding nature and wildlife;
Plenty of accommodations available for every budget;
Kota Kinabalu is a foodies paradise;
Small city vibe, but with all the modern, major city amenities like shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas, cafes;
Beaches an tropical Islands on your doorstep.
Reasons not to visit Kota Kinabalu
Hot and humid all year round;
Lot’s of rain;
Travel times on Sabah from one location to another are very long if you’re not flying;
If the average beetle freaks you out then KK is not for you. Large and exotic insects everywhere;
Crowded with domestic tourists on local holidays.
Best time to visit
Any time of year is good for a visit. Weather wise the months with the least rainfall are February, March and April. From May the chances of rain starts to increase and the rest of the year is very wet with June/July and October/November usually being the wettest months. But actually rain occurs pretty much all year round. It’s a part of KK so don’t let it deter you from visiting.
Beware that Kota Kinabalu is also very popular with domestic tourists from Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. On local holidays the beaches and the Islands off the coast usually see an influx of holidaying families.
How to get there
Kota Kinabalu has an international airport with regular and direct flights coming in from all over Malaysia and several (South East) Asian cities. It’s best to use the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of all incoming and outgoing flights.
Regular buses to Kota Kinabalu leave from practically all major cities in Sabah. From Sandakan it’s a 6h drive with Salam Bumimas and Tawau (near Semporna) is at least 9h away. From Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei it will take approximately 8h30m to get to Kota Kinabalu with Sipitang Express. If you’re coming in from Sarawak then flying is your best option.
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Malaysia I always use the transport planning tool from Easybook.com to book online. In my experience they have most routes in Malaysia covered, but unfortunately not all routes. If you get stuck, try the planning tool from Rome2Rio.com, you might be in luck.
From the KK airport to the city center and vice versa can be traveled by airport bus. The bus leaves the airport every hour from 8am to 8.30pm and has three stops in the town center (ask your driver). Tickets are RM5 for adults (RM3 for children) and can be bought at the ticket booths just behind the arrival area.
First bus from city center to the airport leaves at 7am, the next one at 9am and then every hour until 8pm. Buy your ticket at the Merdeka square terminal. Alternatively you can also go by taxi, but the standard price to downtown is a staggering RM30 and even RM45 after midnight.
For taxi rides within the city the use of the taxi meter is mandatory. Unfortunately, we still have to find the first driver abiding by this rule, so for now haggling is still key. Or better yet, use a taxi app for a better price, better service and no hassle. Grab is the leading taxi app in Malaysia.
Even though the city center is quite walkable you can also opt for one of the green and yellow city buses. Fare is RM0.5 for trips within the town center. I actually enjoyed moving around by scooter in KK. You know, ultimate freedom and all of that stuff. Check out Borneoride, they rent out well maintained motorbikes and provide good service.
No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring! If you are planning to trek at Mount Kinabalu, to go rafting or other, then always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that includes adventurous activities and covers medical care abroad, as well as evacuations and repatriation. You are a million miles away from professional healthcare, just saying!
Read more about travel insurance here, or get a non-committal instant quote here!
Things to see/do in Kota Kinabalu
Let’s start with the main attraction. Gunung Kinabalu is probably the reason you came here in the first place. It’s not exactly near to town, you will still have to travel about 90 km (2hr) to get there. However, with all its comforts, KK is an excellent base for exploring the Kinabalu National Park.
The area is truly beautiful with countless gorgeous sights, but you came to climb the mountain or at least to hike around its base. Best part is that you don’t really need previous climbing experience to conquer Malaysia’s highest mountain (4095,2m).
Going up this sacred mountain does however require some planning ahead. The local authorities only allow 150pax per day on the mountain and in high season these permits sell out quickly. The easiest way to plan ahead is to use a local agent to handle all logistics. ABCtours and Amazing Borneo are well connected and specialized in Mount Kinabalu tours.
If you weren’t able to secure a mountain permit then trekking Kinabalu national park at the mountain’s base is a good alternative. You’ll still be able to trek at an altitude of 1500m which actually has the perfect temperature. Pick up a trail map at the info center and choose one of eight well marked trails. Mind you, you’ll be trekking in a Unesco world heritage site! If you need to recover afterwards then head for the Poring hot springs to soak in a hot sulfuric mineral bath that claims therapeutic powers.
Hey! why not add not some extra adventure and excitement by also conquering the highest via ferrata in the world?
Mari-Mari cultural village
For a better understanding of the indigenous ethnic groups in Sabah you can visit the Mari-Mari cultural village. I know, the village has all the signs of a tourist trap, but it’s still interesting to learn about the Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Lundayeh, Rungus and the once headhunting Murut. They put on a show, dressed up in their traditional costumes and showcase their traditional houses and crafts.
Although Mari-Mari means “come on” in Malay you cannot just show up,. You have to book ahead with one of the local tour agents. Yes, it’s all a bit cheesy, but don’t let it bother you. Just go with it and you will have an interesting and fun time, also knowing that you’re supporting local employment.
Off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, just a 20min boat trip away is the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine Park (TARP). It comprises 5 Islands with white sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush green vegetation.
Ferries for day-trippers leave every 20 minutes from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in the North of town between 8:30am-4:30pm. Make sure you’re on the last boat back to Kota Kinabalu at 5pm. Fare is RM23 to each individual Island, RM18 for kids under 12y. Island hopping is RM33, RM43 or RM53 for 2 Islands, 3 Islands or 4 Islands.
Overnight stay is possible at one of the swanky and expensive resorts on the Islands. Some of the Islands also rent out tents for much friendlier prices starting at RM35. Once the day-trippers have left you can finally allow that Robinson feeling to kick in.
TARP is no Sipadan or Mabul, but there are some neat diving spots and good diving schools. The diving spots are usually not overcrowded as day-trippers prefer snorkeling. The sad part is that a lot of the coral at the snorkeling spots is irreversibly damaged.
Hikers will find that Gaya Island has some very good hiking trails with interesting fauna such as wild boar, monkeys, horn bills, snakes and monitor lizards.
I am crazy about white water rafting and lucky for me there are some great locations in Sabah to get wet. There are two locations that will take some time to travel from KK, but it’s worth it.
First location is at Padas which qualifies as a grade III-IV and could go up to V in rainy season. The total tour from KK will take 12 hours and includes an incredible train journey right through Murut (former headhunters) land. For RM220 all transport and a BBQ lunch is included. Prices will drop significantly if you have a group. Minimum age for this run is 12y.
The second location is the at the Kiulu river to the North of Kota Kinabalu, which qualifies as a grade I-II making it also suitable for children. The whole experience will take 6 hours including getting there. Price is RM215 p/pax if you’re alone, but will go down if you’re with a group. Children under 12y pay RM100. Lunch and all transport are included.
Now don’t think that all the good stuff only happens outside of KK, because within the town itself there is also plenty to see and do. Go and see the Atkinson clock tower, one of the three buildings remaining after WWII bombardments. From there it’s a 10 minute uphill walk to the Signal hill observatory for the best views over the KK and its surroundings.
There are mosks, pagodas and there’s even a worthwhile aquarium to visit. The Sabah state museum is a good place to understand the history of Kota Kinabalu and Sabah. However, the more popular city attractions, especially with the locals and Asian tourists are the new shopping malls. Besides many shops the malls also feature restaurants, cinemas, bowling alleys and arcades. 1Borneo Hypermall is the biggest of all in Kota Kinabalu. Once you’ve seen this one you don’t have to bother visiting any of the other.
Every Sunday morning between 8am and 1pm there’s a market at Jalan Gaya in the city center. For souvenirs and trinkets there’s the Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market, formerly known as the Filipino market (Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens).
Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu
Jalan Gaya and its surroundings is still where most budget accommodations are concentrated, but the number of affordable and good quality lodgings is ever increasing. Nowadays they are spread out to both sides of Jalan Coastal as well.
Kota Kinabalu also has its share of four and five star resorts on the waterfront and on the Islands. Tanjung Aru and Rasa Ria are supposed to be two of the better resorts you will find here. Unfortunately they are also above my travel budget (~USD150-200 p/night) so I never got to try them out. I did hear a lot of good things about them so if you can, why not?
Anyway, below are my recommended places to stay.
Dirt Cheap = up to RM50
Budget = from RM50 to RM125
Dorm beds and private rooms with shared bathroom. Cozy hostel/guesthouse near the city center. Great atmosphere for meeting other travelers.
Red Palm Hostel
Budget = from RM50 to RM125
Minimalistic rooms, but immaculately clean with aircon. Wifi is superfast and breakfast is included. Located on Jalan Gaya in the middle of some of the best KK eateries.
Mid Range = RM125 to RM300
Brand new hotel in the city center. The hotel lacks some character, but is surprisingly comfortable. Friendly and professional staff. Good value.
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Where to eat in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu boasts a fantastic food scene with many excellent restaurants and several markets offering tasty food. Of course there are plenty of street food stalls that are actually called “hawker stalls” in Malaysia.
Since KK is a coastal town, the star of the show here is seafood, of which there is ample supply. Strangely enough the traditional Sabahan food isn’t really promoted through restaurants, but the local markets make up for it by offering and abundance of indigenous fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Follow my “where to eat” recommendations below and you’ll be sure to eat well in KK:
Da De DRY Bah Kut Teh: Jalan Pantai, Kota Kinabalu. Forget about the much touted Yu Kee Bah Kut Teh restaurant. It’s so much better here, especially the dry version of this dish. Bah Kut Teh is a pork rib dish simmered in spices and typical Malay Nyonya cuisine.
El Centro Restaurant/Bar: #32, Jalan Haji Saman. No matter how good the local food, every once in a while I crave Western food. Looking at the crowd I am not the only one. Many tourists frequent this Mexican style restaurant. Good and tasty food, though a bit on the expensive side, but with a nice holiday vibe.
Jalan Gaya street food: Jalan Gaya. Just stroll down Jalan Gaya in the evening. So many choices of yummy local food for an unbeatable price at the hawker stalls. Also many fresh juices to wash it all down. This is a must eat venue in Kota Kinabalu. On Sunday’s the market is extended with even more stalls.
Palm Cafe: #1, Jalan Centre Point, 4th floor. Don’t go for the ambiance, but go for the incredible Laksa Melaka. Great place for a light lunch.
Sri Latha Curry House: #28, Jalan Berjaya, Bandat Berjaya. I really like banana leaf restaurants and this one is outstanding, which is probably why this restaurant can get very busy during breakfast and lunch. All dishes are made to order rather than pre-cooked so during busy times the wait might take a bit longer. Excellent mamak food!
Waterfront seafood market: Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen. Next to the Grand Market (Pasar Besar) on the waterfont. Seafood galore every evening. Choose your fish, haggle over the price, tell them how you want it prepared, sit down and enjoy.
Welcome Seafood Restaurant: 1, Pusat Bandar (Asia City). Iconic seafood restaurant in KK. The seafood is held in big tanks until it’s prepared. This restaurant is huge and always very busy with tourists and locals alike.