Kota Kinabalu has become synonymous to its namesake mountain, one of the tallest in Southeast Asia. While Mt. Kinabalu often overshadows the city, this cosmopolitan hub stands as an increasingly popular gateway to the exotic island of Borneo, the world’s 4th largest. It’s quite apparent that this destination offers plenty for those with a knack for outdoor pursuits but few realize that KK works just as well even for those not planning to climb a single step up the well-trodden peak. Every time I tell my friends that I’m going to the state capital of Sabah, they ask me if I’m climbing – leaving them with a perplexed expression when I tell them I’m not. Believe me, there are a lot of things to see and do in Kota Kinabalu whether or not you choose to spend a few days to scale Mt. Kinabalu. I have been to the city twice and still feel that there’s much more to do. Here is my suggested itinerary for a short trip to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia.
Day 1 – Explore the City
Kota Kinabalu, previously known as Jesselton, is one of Malaysia’s most pleasant cities. Sitting on a narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains, the city has in recent years expanded around the coast leaving plenty of majestic sea views to go around. This relatively small-sized city is walkable although the sweltering heat may deter some. In any case, most rides within the city won’t cost more than MYR 5 or less than US$2 so there’s really no excuse to stay in one place. Obtain your bearings at the city center and visit the local handicraft market which is known as the Filipino Market (daily 9AM to 10PM) due to the foreign origin of most sellers there. In this covered bazaar, you’ll find sarongs, woodwork, jewelry as well as plenty of souvenirs to bring back. The most interesting items in my opinion are the tools and instruments being used by the local headhunting tribes such as the Murut or blowpipe. If you are feeling adventurous, take your pick among the seafood stalls next door and have your fresh crabs, prawns and fish cooked just as you like.
Late morning is just the right time to climb up to Signal Hill for a bird’s eye view of the city. Admission here is free and you can spend some time with a cup of coffee – there is a cafe up there – while admiring the view. Make your way back to the city via the stairs adjacent to the observatory tower and you’ll find yourself at Lorong Dewan – Kota Kinabalu’s burgeoning hipster area. Here, you’ll find plenty of cafes, interesting eats and backpackers’ hostels housed in heritage buildings. Visit Nook Cafe (daily 8AM to 7PM; til 9PM on weekends) for their specialty coffee or Biru Biru (daily 12pm to midnight) for their poke bowls. At the end of the street, you’ll see the Atkinson Clock Tower. Built in 1905, it’s the oldest standing structure in the city. It will be around noon by this time so stop by one of the eateries here for lunch.
Tip: If you are in Kota Kinabalu on a Sunday, don’t miss out visiting the Gaya Street Sunday Market. This market is a bit more interesting than the typical Malaysian bazaars. This particular market starts early at 5AM and lasts until around 2pm. Here, you’ll find plenty of antiques, local handicrafts, coffee beans and even pets. Remember to bargain.
Stop by the Sabah State Museum (daily 9AM to 5PM) to understand the city and the region better. The 3-storey museum contains exhibits related to science, art and even has a heritage village within. From here, the Sabah State Mosque is just next door. Its bulbous dome which is decked in real gold may immediately catch one’s fancy. Do note that the mosque is generally open from 8AM to 12nn and then from 2PM to 5pm daily except for Fridays when it is only open during the afternoon from 2PM to 5PM.
After a tiring first day exploring the city, you can spend the late afternoon catching the sunset either at the Tanjung Aru Beach or if you’re feeling luxurious you can also charter a yacht which is a popular activity in Kota Kinabalu. North Borneo Yacht Charter offers different types of itineraries including a sunset cruise in the late afternoon with visits to Manukan and Gaya islands. Alternatively, you can also visit the relatively secluded Dinawan Island which offers clear waters for snorkeling, kayaking and even diving.
Try some local Sabah food for dinner at My Native Sabah (Plaza 333 in Lorong 333, daily except Sunday, 11:30AM to 8:30PM). When I say local, I don’t just mean the usual Malaysian food. They serve some pretty exotic meals that come from the indigenous Kadazan Dusun tribe. These are served in a set so you can try different dishes without necessarily having to overload yourself. Alternatively, you can join a tour that takes you to an actual Dusun tribal village and you can participate in a cooking class there.
Day 2 – Cultural Village & Island Hopping
Start the day early with a visit to the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. The place of worship which sits next to a pond is best visited in the early morning or late afternoon when the purplish sky is reflected through the still waters. Highly recommended for architecture buffs.
From here, proceed to Mari Mari Cultural Village (MYR 175 per adult) for a quick run through of Sabah’s indigenous people. The place can feel a bit touristy but it’s undeniably fun. There are also few other places in Malaysia that give visitors the same ease to witness local life. Choose one of the two available daily sessions for your visit – 10AM or 2PM. The tours are highly interactive and allow visitors the opportunity to taste local snacks and sample certain elements of local culture.
Mari Mari Cultural Village can be done as a half-day trip which leaves your afternoon free assuming you do it in the morning. The afternoon can be spent on an excursion to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Comprising 5 islands, the park is popular for snorkeling, diving, para-sailing or simply lounging by the beach.
As mentioned previously, the park comprises of 5 islands. Namely, these are Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug. Gaya is the largest one and is situated closest to Kota Kinabalu. Depending on where you dock, you can reach Gaya Island in as little as 10 minutes from Kota Kinabalu.
The most popular among the 5 islands is arguably Manukan Island. The eastern part of the island offers some pristine beaches while the coral reefs offshore are ideal for snorkeling.
Another well-visited island within the marine park is Sapi. It is considered to have some of the nicest beaches among the 5 islands and it also possesses better facilities for daytrippers.
You can visit Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park by hiring your boat and crew for the day or if you are traveling as a small group/solo, you can sign-up for a join-in tour here.
If you are not climbing Mt. Kinabalu but have a desire to at least see it or breathe the fresh mountain air, head over to the mountain town of Kundasang and spend the night there in one of the chalets. Alternatively, you can choose to rest in your Kota Kinabalu hotel and do Kundasang as a day trip in Day 3.
Day 3 – Kundasang
Kundasang by Law Hui Sheng
Wake up early when the chances of clear weather are at its highest. You’ll see Mt. Kinabalu directly in front of you as you enjoy the cool weather at 2,000 meters above sea level.
There are many ways to get to Kundasang but a car hire is definitely the most convenient. A popular day tour involves a morning departure from Kota Kinabalu where you will be taken to Desa Cattle Farm for a glimpse of the alpine life. After lunch and some other activities such as a canopy walk and a soak in the hot springs, you return to Kota Kinabalu just before dinner time. You can book such tours here.
Afterwards, head back to Kota Kinabalu and spend your last few hours wandering around town before catching your flight back.
Other Tips for Kota Kinabalu
- Travel insurance: It may be advisable to get travel insurance, especially in this age of uncertainty. If you come from Singapore, I can recommend checking out Starr TraveLead for its cheap single- trip travel insurance with S$10 cash rebate to help offset the insurance cost here. The coverage amounts for these plans meet the minimum required by the Malaysian authorities. If you are based elsewhere, check out Worldnomads as they have quite an extensive coverage, even including personal accidents into their list of benefits.
- Weather: The wettest time of the year is usually in the later months like November and December. That being said, you won’t find it raining all day but plans for outdoor activities may be dampened by strong winds, flash floods and other inconveniences.
- Practicalities: Kota Kinabalu is not a particularly dense city with few tall buildings. As such, if you walk outdoors during the day; you’ll most likely be baked under the sun. It’s wise to put sunblock even if you’re just staying within the city.
- Farther afield: Kota Kinabalu serves as a hub for Northern Borneo so if there’s an interest in exploring more, you can fly or take the ferry to Brunei and Labuan. Sandakan and Tawau are also reachable by air.
Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu
Tourism has boomed in recent years in Kota Kinabalu with a plethora of new hotels to cater to every budget. One of the most established hotels in the city is the Hilton Kota Kinabalu which is just next to the Star City Mall. Rooms come well-appointed and are among the most tech-forward in the city. If you prefer a hotel with panoramic sea views, you can’t go wrong with the Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu. Among cheaper options, the Hotel Sixty3 in Gaya Street is situated close to the Sunday market and comes with a family room category.