Though Kota Kinabalu itself may seem like any other ordinary city, peppered with Chinese shop houses, shopping malls, restaurants and traditional night markets that never stopped expanding, it has a distinctive character that makes it worthy of attention. The capital of Sabah is hugged by neck-swiveling bays and rich marine life. But more than that, Kota Kinabalu takes pride in keeping an unmistakable culture, mountains of adventures and wildlife conservation.
WHAT TO DO IN KOTA KINABALU BLOG
KOTA KINABALU CITY TOUR
Because of World War II that destructed Kota Kinabalu City, only a few structures remained to date. However, it doesn’t mean you have to skip sightseeing in the city. There are still a handful of attractions that are worthy of your time.
Atkinson’s Clock Tower along Jalan Bukit Bandera around Australia Place is dedicated to Francis George Atkinson, the first district official of Kota Kinabalu (formerly Jesselton). While you are at it, hike up Signal Hill Observatory to get a bird’s eye view of Kota Kinabalu city.
Australia Place where you can find Atkinson’s Clock Tower and Signal Hill Observatory is an attraction in itself. Home to some well-preserved age-old Chinese shop houses. This olden street is where the Australian Liberation Soldiers camped when they arrived in Kota Kinabalu back in 1945. Drop by at the coffee shop slash museum called Borneo, 1945 located inside Borneo Backpackers and check out the wartime photographs of Australian and British Soldiers.
At dusk, don’t miss the sunset at The Waterfront along Jalan Tud Fuan Stephens in Kota Kinabalu city center. Adjacent to it is the Filipino Market and Handicrafts Market oozing with handicrafts such as handbags, exotic wooden masks, wall panels, trinkets and souvenirs. The market transforms into a warren of food stalls serving local food such as satay.
VISIT THE KOTA KINABALU MOSQUES
There are 2 prominent mosques in Kota Kinabalu, namely: Sabah State Mosque and Kota Kinabalu City Mosque.
The Sabah State Mosque has a beautiful dome with gold inlay motifs. This can be easily reached from the city center. Tourists can enter the mosque outside prayer hours. Wear non-revealing clothes, but don’t worry, if you fail to comply, you can borrow hijab or appropriate clothes at the entrance. To get to Sabah State Mosque, take the City Bus or take a taxi for about MYR 10/PHP 121 (USD 2.36/EURO 4/SGD 3.22).
On the other hand, Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is known dubbed as the floating mosque is located in Likas Bay, about 10-15 minutes away from the city center. It is the largest mosque in Kota Kinabalu that can accommodate from 9,000 to 12,000 people at a time. The man-made lagoon surrounding the mosque beautifully reflects the mosque at dusk and at night. To get to the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, take Bus No.5A (direction to UMS) for about MYR 1.50/PHP 18 (USD0.35/EURO 0.30/SGD 0.48). Taxi should cost you around MYR 15 /PHP 181 (USD 4/EURO 3/SGD 5).
ISLAND HOPPING:TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN NATIONAL PARK
Imagine tropical beach cliché and Kota Kinabalu’s small islands can probably beat it. The island-studded Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is one of the top tourist attractions in Kota Kinabalu. The park is composed of 5 tiny islands, namely: Pulau Manukan, Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sulug, Pulau Sapi and Pulau Mamutik. The park is accessible via a short speedboat ride from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal.
Pulau Gaya, the largest island is home to 2 luxury resorts: Bunga Raya Island Resort and Gayana Eco Resort. Despite being the closest island to mainland Kota Kinabalu, it has rich marine life making it an excellent diving spot.
Pulau Manukan, the 2nd largest island is also a perfect spot for snorkeling and diving. It is the most visited island in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park because of its fine golden sand beach. Manukan Island has been developed for tourists, here you’ll find chalets, restaurants, a swimming pool, a diving center and a handful of restaurants.
But I picked Pulau Sapi when I visited Kota Kinabalu. It has a powdery white sand beach and it’s teeming with colorful fishes! Perfect for snorkeling. There’s a rocky path to the hidden beach in Sapi Island. The island is also home to monkeys and monitor lizard, avoid harming the latter so they won’t be annoyed and bite you.
If you want to avoid the crowd, head to the farthest island – Pulau Sulug, which is arguably the most pristine island in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
Pulau Mamutik may be the smallest island here but it has a relatively good beach like the rest of the islands. Just be careful of sea urchins when swimming. Mamutik Island is also pretty developed, with picnic shelters, barbecue pits and comfort rooms.
Sapi and Manukan Islands Tour
- Explore 2 of Malaysia’s most beautiful islands Manukan and Sapi
- Take a dip in the transparent waters of Manukan Island with its sandy beaches and great recreational facilities
- Use your free time well: go kayaking, parasailing, jet skiing, try Sea Walking and more
- Enjoy a delicious barbecue lunch by the beach
Address: Kampung Kuai Kandazon, Peti Surat 740 Malaysia, Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Open Hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM
CULTURAL SHOWTIME: 10:00 AM /12:00 NOON/2:00 PM/4:00 PM
OPERATIONAL HOURS: Daily 9:00 am – 5:00 PM
Entrance Fee: (Foreigners – Adult) MYR 30/PHP 362 (USD 7/EURO 6/SGD 10)
(Malaysians – Adult) MYR 20/PHP 241(USD 5/EURO 4/SGD 7)
(Foreigners – Children) MYR 15/PHP 181(USD 4/EURO 3/SGD 5)
(Malaysians – Children) MYR 10/PHP 121(USD 2.36/EURO 2/SGD 3)
ENTRANCE FEE INCLUSIVE OF CULTURAL SHOW AND GUIDED TOUR (Optional)
(Foreigners – Adult) MYR 55/PHP 663 (USD 13/EURO 11/SGD 18)
(Malaysians – Adult) MYR 45/PHP 542 (USD 11/EURO 9/SGD 15)
(Foreigners – Children) MYR 25/PHP 301 (USD 6/EURO 5/SGD 8)
(Malaysians – Children) MYR 25/PHP 301 (USD 6/EURO 5/SGD 8)
One of the pretty interesting cultural villages in Kota Kinabalu is the Monsopiad Heritage Village situated beside the Penampang River in Kampung Kuia Kandazon of Penampang District, about 30 minutes away from Kota Kinabalu. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Sabah, to learn about their ancient head-hunting culture. This living museum is where the descendants of the fearsome Kadazan warrior and head-hunter Monsopiad lived about 300 years ago. As its name suggest, the Monsopiad Heritage Village is dedicated to Monsopiad, to commemorate his life. A visit here will introduce you to the ancient culture of the Kadazan people as well as the head-hunting culture in Sabah. Based on anecdotes, the farming village was usually invaded by pirates, so Monsopiad killed and decapitated the heads of the pirates to serve as warning to other pirates. It is believed that he has decapitated about 42 pirates in his lifetime. The skulls of the pirates are on display in Monsopiad Heritage Village. You can find it hanging at the ceiling of the hut facing the entrance to the living museum. Aside from the head-hunting tradition, you can also learn traditional activities of the Kadazan tribe, which are being showcased in the living museum. I suggest you time your visit during the guided tour hours and traditional cultural performance.
LEARN MALAY CULTURE AT MARI MARI CULTURAL VILLAGE
Address: Inanam, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Open Hours: 10:00 AM – 10:00 PM
Mari Mari Cultural Village is situated at the heart of a forest in Kionson, Inanam, about 30 minute ride north of Kota Kinabalu. Interestingly, the village features traditional homes of Sabahan indigenous people like the Rungus, Murut, Lundayeh, Dusun and the Bajau.
Mari Mari Cultural Village starting at 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Visitors will be showed around the village with a chance to see and try traditional games and activities by the aforementioned ethnic communities. Activities include fire-starting, tattooing, blow-pipe making, traditional performances and sample local dishes prepared by the 5 Malay tribes.
MARI MARI CULTURAL VILLAGE TOUR
Address: Kampung Kuai Kandazon, Peti Surat 740 Malaysia, Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Open Hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM
Enjoy a truly authentic experience by observing the lives of 5 indigenous Malaysian tribes by booking a hassle-free tour.
When in Kota Kinabalu, make time to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kinabalu National Park crowned by Mt. Kinabalu, dubbed as the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. You don’t have to climb Mt.Kinabalu’s peak to appreciate its beauty because you can get a glimpse of it even at its base. Aside from the mountain, what makes this park worthy of its recognition is, it is home to about 4,500 species of flora including roughly 1,500 orchid species
After a visit to Kinabalu National Park, you can drop by at Poring Hot Spring to enjoy a relaxing Sulphur bath in Japanese-inspired open air tubs.
Kinabalu Park & Poring Hot Spring Tour
- Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kinabalu Park and see the exotic flora and fauna
- Take a dip into a hot Sulphur bath in Poring Hot Spring and gaze up at giant bamboo trees
- You can also visit the Desa Cattle Dairy Farm, Kundasang Vegetable Market and more.
Tour is Inclusive of: Entrance fees (excluding Butterfly Farm), English speaking guide, canopy walkway
Pick-up and drop-off at hotel, conservation fees.
SEE PROBOSCIS MONKEYS WHILE ON A RIVER CRUISE
One of the reasons why I wanted to go back to Borneo is to see the unique Proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) with reddish brown head and body, gray limbs and long noses, which they use to attract female proboscis monkeys and intimidate rival males. These beautiful creatures are endemic to Borneo and can usually be spotted in groups near coastal mangroves, swamps and rivers. One of the popular spot to see the proboscis monkeys is Klias River, a mangrove forest reserve 2 hours away from Kota Kinabalu.
Klias River Fireflies Safari Cruise
- Explore stunning mangrove forests while on cruise and catch a glimpse of the Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus)
- Sample local cuisine on board the river cruise while watching the sun sink into the river
- Watch fireflies dance in the night sky during the fireflies cruise
Tour is inclusive of: English speaking guide, entrance fees, Buffet dinner and return boat and hotel transfers.
WHITE WATER RAFTING IN KIULI RIVER
Experience an exhilarating white water rafting trip down Kiulu River, dubbed as the longest white water rafting trip in Borneo. The 15 km long river is located in Tamparuli District in Sabah. The river is category 1-2, so it’s good for beginners as well as children. The white water rafting activity usually takes about 2 hours.
KOTA KINABALU DAY TOUR
Mantanani Snorkeling & Kawa River Cruise
- Visit the magical Mantanani Island for some of the best snorkeling in the world
- You may get a chance to spot the island’s cutest attraction – dugongs or “sea cows”
- Choose between two packages: Snorkeling only and Snorkeling + Kawa Kawa River Cruise
- Discover coral reefs, enjoy a buffet onboard the cruise, watch fireflies and so much more!
KOTA KINABALU SIDE TRIPS
SEPILOK ORANGUTAN CENTER
Address: Sabah Wildlife Department, W.D.T. 200, Sandakan, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok, Sandakan, Sabah
Open Hours: Daily 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
One of the top things to do in Kota Kinabalu is a side trip to Sandakan to see the orangutans of Borneo at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The center is home to orphaned and displaced orangutans. Visitors can watch orangutans up close in their natural habitat. There’s a boardwalk leading to a viewing area and nursery where the apes are fed milk and bananas twice a day at 10:00 AM and 3:00 AM by park rangers.
Sepilok Orangutan Centre Half Day Tour
- Travel to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on a 3 hour tour
- See orangutans (only found in Malaysia) in their natural habitat
- See baby orangutans nurtured back to health, watch them play in dipterocarp forest and even participate in feedings
Tour is inclusive of: English speaking guide and driver, round trip transfer from city center hotels in Sandakan and entrance fees.
Sandakan Half Day City Tour
- Explore Sandakan, Sabah’s second largest city and its prime sights on a fun 3-hour tour with an English speaking guide
- Visit Australian War Memorial Park, Commemorative Pavilion, Sandakan Memorial and more
- Take a trip to the busy Central Market, a great place for cheap authentic street food and getting to know the locals
- Complete the trip with a stop at Sandakan’s heritage trail and Agnes Keith’s house, located at the top of a beautiful hill
HOW TO GET TO KOTA KINABALU CITY FROM MANILA
There are direct flights to Kota Kinabalu from Manila, Philippines. Check the fares at Cebu Pacific and Air Asia. I tried mock-booking and found fares for as low as MYR 124/PHP 1490 (USD 29/EURO 25/SGD 40) – MYR 141/PHP 1699 (USD 33/EURO 28/SGD 45).
HOW TO GET FROM KOTA KINABALU INTERNTIONAL AIRPORT TO KOTA KINABALU CITY
By Airport Bus
If you’re on a budget, a cheap way to get from Kota Kinabalu International Airport to Kota Kinabalu City Center is by taking the Airport Bus that leaves hourly starting 8:00 AM to 8:30 PM. Airport bus fare is about MYR 5/PHP 36 (USD 1/EURO 1/SGD 2) for adults and MYR 3/PHP 60 (USD 0.71/EURO 0.60/SGD 1) for children.
Drop-off points: Center Point (in front of the building), Horizon Hotel (main entrance), Padang Merdeka (Merdeka Square).
From Kota Kinabalu International Airport to Kota Kinabalu City Center, fare is roughly MYR 10/PHP 121 (USD 2.36/EURO 2/SGD 3.22).
At the Arrivals (Level 1), proceed to the Airport Taxi counter and buy a coupon. Fixed taxi rate is MYR 30/PHP 60 (USD 30/EURO 6/SGD 30), good for 4 passengers. Then head outside to the Airport Taxi Lane and hand out your coupon to the taxi driver.
HOW TO GET TO KOTA KINABALU INTERNATIONAL FROM KOTA KINABALU CITY
From Kota Kinabalu city center, ride the Airport Bus to Kota Kinabalu International Airport starting at 7:00 AM then 9:00 AM. From 9:00 AM, the bus leaves hourly until 8:00 PM. Airport bus fare is about MYR 5/PHP 36 (USD 1/EURO 1/SGD 2) for adults and MYR 3/PHP 60 (USD 0.71/EURO 0.60/SGD 1) for children.
Pick-up points: Padang Merdeka (Merdeka Square), Horizon Hotel (back of the hotel along Jalan Tun Razak), Center Point (southwestern end of Center Point along Jalan Coastal in front of “Klinik Pergigina”).
The bus stop has a huge signboard saying “Airport Bus”, if you can’t find the bus stop, ask the locals.
From Kota Kinabalu City Center to Kota Kinabalu International Airport, fare is roughly MYR 10/PHP 121 (USD 2.36/EURO 2/SGD 3.22).
BUDGET HOTELS IN KOTA KINABALU
Here’s a list of some of the top rated budget hotels in Kota Kinabalu around the Central Business District.
Lintas View Hotel
5th & 6th Floor, Lintas Station Complex, Jalan Lintas, Central Business District, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Szhnn Vacation ApartmentApartment
Lot No. 8, Block D, 2nd Floor, Apartment Angkasa, Kampung Darau, Menggatal, Central Business District
Asia Adventure Lodge
112, 1st Floor, Gaya Road., Central Business District, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia