Traveling to Asia and looking for a place to see wild orangutans, experience some splendid beaches and get scrumptious seafood? Then Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia will your next top destination. In this post you’re going to find a list of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu, so you can can a better idea what to expect from the city.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Get some of the best seafood in KK
Kota Kinabalu is heaven for those who love seafood. If you are here, don’t miss the night market with fresh fish, prawns, squid, crabs, lobsters and more seafood that you can imagine. The seafood night market is located beside the handicraft (or Filipino) market, between Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens Street and Lrg. Gomantong Street.
A woman taking orders at a seafood stall.
The market is open from 5:30 pm to 11 pm. For a fish for two people, rice, a salad and two soft drinks you’ll pay about 40 – 80 MYR/$12.50-$25 (depends on the fish you choose).
Chill out on the beaches near Kota Kinabalu
Looking for the beaches near Kota Kinabalu is one of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu. Although you cannot jump to the sea straight from the shore of the city, the best beaches in Kota Kinabalu are on the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park around the city are only 10-15 minutes away by speedboat. The best thing is that you can do it all independently, without booking an overpriced tour.
However, you will need to buy your ticket and pay for your snorkeling mask and vest at a counter at the ferry terminal called Jesselton Point (at the end of Jalan Haji Saman). There are eleven counters and all you need to do here is to check if an operator goes to the island(s) you want to go, and then just bargain, bargain, bargain!
Get ready to pay about 87,4 MYR/ $27.40 for a 2-island trip, one vest and one snorkeling mask at the counter, and 10 MYR/$3 per person for an entrance fee to the park on the island (not included in the price you pay at the counter). Once you pay on the first island, there is no need to do it on the other one(s).
Join some of the local tours in Kota Kinabalu:
- Borneo 3-Dive Scuba Diving Day Trip in Kota Kinabalu
- Full-Day Snorkeling Adventure from Kota Kinabalu
- Borneo Full Day Try Dive (2 Dives) for Beginners
Pro tips when exploring the beaches near Kota Kinabalu
• In case you tend to get seasick, make sure you take a motion sickness pill before the trip.
• Check your vest and mask for snorkeling at the harbour, NOT on the island. Go to the islands during the workday if you don’t want to become a part of dozens picnics had by locals there.
• Once you are on Manukan Island and you are tired of the beach, the sun or the crowds, a great activity is to go for a hike to the jungle. There is a rough path or a concrete one to choose from.
Those of you who cannot stay on a beach for a long time, climb up through the jungle. The walk is about 40 minutes to reach a viewpoint where trees are growing wildly, so expect the view of the landscape to still be quite limited. Regardless, it’s worth the visit.
Sunset at the Tanjung Aru beach
If you’re looking for a stunning sunset spot in Kota Kinabalu, then you should pay a visit to Tanjung Aru beach. Bear in mind that you will not be the only one who wants to get the best photograph. You can enter Tanjung Aru beach for free. A few open air restaurants and cafes are available, too. Very recommended if you look for some romantic places to visit near Kota Kinabalu.
Tanjung Aru Beach before the sunset.
To get there, take the #16 bus from the bus station in front of City Hall or Wawasan Plaza. The ticket costs 4 MYR / $1.25 per person. The journey takes about 15 minutes and the last bus from Tanjung Aru leaves at 6:30 pm, so if you don’t want to stay for dinner on a beach, you better catch the last bus. Otherwise you’ll need to take a taxi, which is about 60 MYR/$19.
Street art in Kota Kinabalu
If art is your thing, then don’t miss the graffiti wall opposite the Suria Sabah shopping mall at the end of Jalan Haji Saman. This piece of art is actually made on the ruins of the Old Welfare building, which survived bombing during WWII and was destroyed by fire in 1992.
The graffiti is made mostly by Cracko Art Group of North Borneo, but practically anyone sprays over the current paintings.
Walk up to the Signal Hill Observatory Platform
Are you one of those travelers who loves hiking to the highest point in each place you visit? Then head to the Observatory Platform in Kota Kinabalu.
Sunset from the Signal Hill Observatory Platform.
To get there you’ll climb up the wooden stairs for about 10 minutes. Although they recommend taking a taxi, it’s really not necessary unless you have serious health problems. You can reach the Signal Hill by walking up from behind Travellers’ Light Backpackers Lodge at No. 19 Lowong Dewan Street.
Marlin statue in KK
Marlin Statue at the sunset.
Another thing to do in Kota Kinabalu that we can suggest is a visit to the Marlin Statue.
In the middle of the roundabout on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens Street, you can take a great picture of this giant fish with the background of Gaya Island. The statue was inaugurated in February 2000, when Kota Kinabalu obtained city status. Recommended time of visit: sunset!
Go shopping at the Sunday market on Gaya Street
Souvenir time! Sarongs, hats, hand-made soaps, fruits, cakes, footwear, dresses and some animals too. If this is your first time in Asia, it will be a nice walk for you through all the stalls.
It opens at 6:30 am and closes already at 1 pm.
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City Mosque near Kota Kinabalu
This majestic mosque is also the largest in Kota Kinabalu, located about 4 km from the city. You can get there either by taxi (which everybody will suggest), or by walking along the beach, about 40 minutes from the end of Jalan Gaya. We recommend starting your walk either very early in the morning or going there for sunset.
According to the information of the Sabah tourism board, there is bus #5 (direction to UMS) departing from Wawasan Plaza, but a receptionist in our hotel couldn’t confirm it.
Klias River cruise
The only way how to see wildlife on the Klias River is taking a tour . The easiest way to do it is to book it at your hotel or guest house in Kota Kinabalu. It will cost you about 160 MYR/$50 up to 180 MYR/$56 per person.
Coconut trees on the Klias river.
The whole tour takes about seven hours. You will be picked up at your hotel with a minivan in the early afternoon (around 2-2:30 pm), drive for about 2.5 hours to a restaurant on the Klias river bank, and have a snack when you arrive (sweets, tea, coffee).
At around 5 pm you hop on a boat (max. 16 people) and the adventure begins! We encountered many silver leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaque, proboscis monkey and a lot of birds.
Needless to say, the sunset on the river was spectacular! After about two hours on the river we had dinner at the same restaurant and off we went for another twenty-minute ride on the boat in the dark. This time we were looking for fireflies and what we saw was indeed beautiful.
Imagine a huge Christmas tree twinkling in the dark and you will get a better picture of what you can expect to see over the Klias River.
Where to Eat in Kota Kinabalu
Need to have a bite or dine nicely in Kota Kinabalu? Here are our tips on where to eat in Kota Kinabalu
Check out the food court on the first floor of the Central market too, where the prices are unbeatable: for about 3 MYR/$0.90 you’ll get a plate full of local goodies.
Best durian in Kota Kinabalu
A street vendor cutting a durian.
In case you’ve never tried this fruit with its heavenly, soft texture and old-socks-banana-vanilla-blue cheese smell, we invite you to try it in Kota Kinabalu!
There are many carts with freshly cut durian and a few small tables to indulge in this special fruit near the hypermarket Plaza opposite Central Market near the sea. You’ll spend around 10 MYR/$3 for a single portion for two people.
Chinese Noodle Soup
This is not just a simple soup; this is an explosion of scrumptious, homemade noodles that a chef makes in front of your eyes. You can even choose the type and size of noodles you want to add to your soup. They serve simple, rich tasting meals and for a lunch you’ll only pay between 6-12 MYR/ $1.90-3.70 here.
The name of the shop is written in Chinese, but on TripAdvisor is called Kungfu Ramen. You’ll find it on Jalan Laiman Diki near the Lavender Lodge. You cannot miss it. You’ll recognize it from the street thanks to a cook working at the an outdoor countertop desk, surrounded by steam from the pots and random, loud noise of dough being smashed over onto the table.
Best Pizza in KK
When you stay in an Asian city for a longer period of time, you might want to taste something more familiar. We stumbled upon Little Italy and we were definitely not disappointed!
The owners are Italians and they make all kinds of pasta themselves along with their own sauces and pesto, the ingredients for which they grow themselves on their own farm! Make sure you try their pizza and homemade tiramisu, too.
The best time to eat there is around lunchtime so you can take advantage of the lunch specials. Come before noon or after 2 pm so you avoid the crowd of businessmen who come here to have lunch.
To have dinner here it’s better to arrive around 7 pm, otherwise it’s full and you might wait a while for a table. You’ll spend around 20-30 MYR/$6-$10 per pizza and pasta and about 17 MYR/$5.30 for a very nice, fresh vegetable salad.
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Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
If you plan a visit to Kota Kinabalu, you will have plenty of choices for where to sleep. From budget to luxury, there is something for every pocket.
A 5-star accommodation with view of the sea. Rooms have mini-bar, refrigerator and kitchenette. Book your room on Booking.com.
The hotel provides a sauna, jacuzzi and a swimming pool. Rooms with refrigerator and satellite channels. Book your room on Booking.com
Practical information when traveling to Kota Kinabalu
You’ll get your free visa on arrival, valid for 90 days.
To buy a SIM card you will need to provide an ORIGINAL copy of your passport. The photocopies are not accepted.
You can walk from one end of the city to the other, and that’s why there are only a few motorbikes on the road and no tuk-tuks as you might be used to from other countries in Southeast Asia.
This city has no stray dogs, but you can find cats everywhere.
Get ready to pay additional taxes when eating out.
You cannot easily negotiate the price for long-term stays in a hotel.
We figure that 5-7 days is enough time to spend in this city. For all the other attractions like climbing Mt. Kinabalu, visiting the orangutan sanctuary or doing a 2-day trip to a jungle, you will need to move to other towns anyway.
The best way you can enjoy your experience in Kota Kinabalu is to splurge on seafood, sample durian all around and do activities like swimming, snorkeling or challenge yourself while climbing.
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