In this issue, we take you to discover Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah in Malaysia. Famous for the Mount Kinabalu climb, this coastal city has more gems than you can imagine – from pristine islands to bustling markets to incredible wildlife.
Kota Kinabalu – Home to the tallest peak in SouthEast Asia, this city sees many travellers coming to scale Mount Kinabalu. In fact, the mountain is so famous that the city of Kota Kinabalu is named after it! But this coastal city is also home to far more gems that many of us overlook, which makes it ideal for a week-long vacation, even two! Its beautiful waterfront, mesmerizing sunsets, bustling markets, pristine beaches, and diverse nature is bound to overwhelm you. We visited this quaint city earlier this year and found its old-world charm so mesmerizing. Despite it’s slower pace of life, the city is brimming with culture, heritage, and friendly locals who will no doubt win you over with their genuinity. I can’t wait to show you our favourite picks here, let’s go!
Top 22 Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu
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1. Admire the Floating City Mosque
Commonly termed as the ‘floating’ city mosque due to its reflection in the man-made lake surrounding it, the City Mosque in Kota Kinabalu is one of the most beautiful structures in Malaysia. You will find many stunning photographs of this majestic white mosque on the internet, and the best spot to capture the entire mosque and its reflection is outside the entrance. Though second to the main Sabah State Mosque, the architecture of the City Mosque is exemplary. It has a prayer hall which houses three madrasahs and can accommodate 9,000 to 12,000 people at a time (as compared to 5,000 in the State Mosque)! When visiting the mosque, observe a proper dress code and wear conservative clothing that covers your knees. If you plan on going into the prayer hall, you are required to rent clothing and a headscarf for RM5 (~S$1.60).
Floating City Mosque
How to get there: It is located about 3 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu City (10 – 15 minutes drive away).
Opening hours: open for public visits daily except Fridays (their day of worship) from 8 am to 5 pm. Free for visitors.
2. Reside in modern comforts at Hilton Kota Kinabalu
In the heart of this balmy tropical city, is Hilton Kota Kinabalu. Hilton KK is one of our top picks on where to stay in Kota Kinabalu, for this upscale hotel is located in the centre of it all, making it a good base to explore the city’s sights during your honeymoon. They have a selection of luxurious rooms and suites, each boasting contemporary design, spacious interiors, and deluxe comforts. The natural light coming through its large windows and natural wood accents on the furnishings made us feel energized yet relaxed during our stay. Hilton Kota Kinabalu is in close proximity to main attractions such as the KK Waterfront, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, and Gaya Street Sunday Market, making it super accessible for you to be out and about. Even if you wish to stay indoors and spend a day just relaxing, you can do so at the rooftop pool.
For dining options, Urban Kitchen serves up local specialties and western favourites in a buffet set up. Zest Cafe is a great place to grab a quick bite, and The Breakout Lounge is a perfect setting for afternoon relaxation. Our favourite spot is the Rooftop Poolside Bar & Grill, the dishes are delicious (try the Cod Fish!) and you can admire the sunset in the distance as you dine. The Mediterranean-inspired interiors are relaxing, and you can whiff the delicious smells from the open-concept kitchen as you watch the chefs fire up your meal. Seafood lovers will be excited to know that Welcome Seafood Restaurant, one of the popular seafood restaurants in Kota Kinabalu is just opposite the hotel (See #3 below).
Hilton Kota Kinabalu
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Asia City, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, 88000, Malaysia
3. Tuck into a delicious seafood feast at Welcome Seafood Restaurant
Seafood lovers rejoice! If you are staying at Hilton Kota Kinabalu, simply cross over to Welcome Seafood Restaurant where you can tuck into fresh and delicious seafood at reasonable prices. Choose from a wide variety of seafood such as prawns, lobsters, clams, squid, abalone. The seafood is displayed in aquariums, so you can be assured of freshness and quality. Some of the lobsters are bigger than my forearm! During our visit, we were shocked at how many people were dining here, their space stretches over the entire mall’s first floor and there are over a hundred tables. We suggest calling for a reservation prior to your visit. They also have a branch at Penampang.
Welcome Seafood Restaurant (Asia City Branch)
Lot G 18, Ground Floor, Kompleks Asia City, Phase 2A, Jalan Asia City, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Tel: 088 447 866 / +6 011 3162 3812
Opening hours: 12 pm to 12 am
4. Scale the tallest peak in Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu
If you can only visit one place in Borneo that exemplifies the island’s very best, it has to be Mount Kinabalu. This world heritage site stands majestically at 4,905 metres above sea level. It is the highest peak in Malaysia and makes for a challenging but extremely rewarding climb. During your climb, soak in the majestic views, stargaze at the night sky and admire the morning sunrise. The climb is relatively safe. The cost to climb will be about RM250 (~S$80) and you get a climbing permit, a guide, transfer to Timpohon Gate, accommodation at Laban Rata, insurance and entry to the Kinabalu National Park.
The climb takes 2 days – you will trek 6 km to Laban Rata on the first day which will take about 4 – 5 hours, before climbing to the summit early on the following morning, where you will see the incredible sunrise and feel all your efforts pay off. The round trip from Laban Rata to the summit takes about 6 – 9 hours, following a descend to the park headquarters which will be about 3 – 4 hours. Click here for details on the climb. After your climb, we suggest you head to The Chi Spa or Jari-Jari for a soothing massage to ease the tension from the climb.
5. Stay at a luxury beachfront resort, Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa
Housed within 25 acres of lush gardens, Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa is one of the best places to stay in Kota Kinabalu. Its beachfront location gives you an incredible view of the Borneo sunset, yet it is only 10 minutes away from the city. The resort’s contemporary rooms and suites are charmingly inspired by Borneo’s rich cultural heritage. It is the ideal place to fully experience the tranquil and tropical island life of Kota Kinabalu.
The resort owns a private jetty operated by STAR Marina which allows you to easily head over to the neighbouring coral islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (see #6 below) where you can participate in heart-thumping water sports, or take a relaxing snorkeling excursion in the clear blue waters surrounding the islands. Indulge in traditional Borneo treatments at CHI, The Spa, of remarkable design and relaxing ambience.
Delicious dining options await, such as Café TATU, a contemporary establishment featuring an international buffet spread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Coco-Joe’s Bar & Grill is where you can lounge in style on beachside cabanas and enjoy barbecue seafood delights as you watch the waves, and Shang Palace is where you can taste authentic and comforting Chinese cuisine. Last but not least, the iconic Sunset Bar, perched right at the edge of the South China Sea is where you can slurp up refreshing cocktails over a mesmerizing sunset view.
Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa
No. 20 Jalan Aru, Tanjung Aru, 88100 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
(60 88) 327 888
6. Go Island hopping at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a cluster of 5 islands located off Kota Kinabalu. namely Gaya Island, Manukan Island, Mamutik Island, Sapi Island, and Sulug Island. A short 15-minute speedboat from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal will take you there. Boat transfers to the islands are available daily from 7.30 am to 5 pm. Click here for the admission and boat charter fees.
The islands are hilly and forested, with a mixture of rocky coastlines and white sand beaches. Gaya is the largest island with Manukan coming in second, following the remaining three which are very small. That being said, Manukan is the most developed followed by Sapi. On the islands, you can go on jungle treks, mangrove walks, snorkel the reefs, go scuba diving, or engage in water sports! We did banana boating and parasailing at Sapi Island during our trip. This tour brings you to Manukan and Sapi Island.
7. Zipline from one island to another
One of our most memorable activities was ziplining from one island to another! From Sapi Island, we hopped on a boat to Gaya Island. It took less than 5 minutes, and a short walk through the jungle to reach the zip line. Coral Flyer is Borneo’s longest zip line at 250 metres long. You will experience zipping over the crystal clear waters, with the wind blowing in your hair as you see the stunning view between the two islands. Before you know it, you’re back on Sapi Island, wishing to go again. The zip line costs RM68 (~S$23) per person and includes the boat transfer from Gaya to Sapi Island.
8. Soak in the mesmerizing Kota Kinabalu sunset
Kota Kinabalu’s sunset is mesmerizing and romantic to watch. As dawn turns to dusk, the sky dramatically lights up into a warm glow. Somehow the sunset here seems to linger a little longer. One of the top places to admire the sunset is at Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa’s Sunset bar. It sits right on the edge of the island and presents you an uninterrupted panoramic view of the sunset. Come early to reserve a spot on one of the lounge beds and order a cocktail to fully enjoy the spectacular sunset experience. If you prefer watching the sunset from a vantage point, another popular sunset spot is at Signal Hill observatory tower that overlooks the city. Alternatively, you can also take a sunset cruise around the islands here.
9. Unwind over good music and drinks at the waterfront
Bar Street, the waterfront of Kota Kinabalu is a great spot for you to hang out and chill over drinks and live music as you admire the waterfront scenery. The 1.4km boardwalk is ideal for a leisurely stroll and a relaxing evening. Later at night, the bars along the waterfront comes alive with DJs and live bands, making it a vibrant and exciting place to be. Head to The Beer Factory for good spins and a lively ambience – this is their 11th chain, which speaks for itself! Cocktail lovers, you may find that Beernest Mixo goes right up your alley for you can request any special cocktails mixed by their mixologist. If you are looking to take it up a notch, go to BED (Best Entertainment Destination) at the Waterfront. It’s regarded as one of the best nightclubs in Kota Kinabalu. The drinks are a little pricey, but there is no cover charge.
10. Go on a cultural expedition to Mari Mari Cultural Village
Kota Kinabalu is ethnically very diverse. It is home to 32 different indigenous groups that consist of over 30 ethnic races and over 80 local dialects spoken. It is Malaysia’s most diverse state. On your trip, discover Kota Kinabalu’s culture and heritage by visiting Mari Mari Cultural Village. You will get to see 5 ethnic communities present in Sabah – the Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus, and Dusun and see the daily routines of traditional Sabahan life. Grab the chance to see a blowpipe-making demonstration, a fire-starting demonstration using bamboo, and even a tattoo-making demonstration. You can also sample traditional delicacies made by each ethnic group – it does not get more authentic than this! Click here for the Mari Mari Cultural Village tour.
11. Feed cows at Desa Cattle Dairy Farm
At the foothill of Mount Kinabalu is Desa Cattle Dairy Farm. Surrounded by 199 hectares of grassland, here you will find one of the most amazing sceneries in Kota Kinabalu, which is why many couples come here to take their wedding photos! The farm produces over 900,000 liters of milk per year! Here you can bottle feed baby calves, and feed grass to goats! You can also see how milking is done, how it is processed, and even try it for yourselves! Be sure to have the yogurt and ice cream! It takes about 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours by car from Kota Kinabalu. The admission fee is RM5 per adult.
Desa Cattle Dairy Farm
P.O.Box 71, 89308 Kundasang, Ranau, Sabah
+60 88-889 562
Opening Hours: Daily, 8 am – 5 pm
12. Do tandem gliding with a view of Mount Kinabalu at Kokol hill
About an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu city will bring you to Kokol hill, where you will have a panoramic view of the entire city. Standing 800+ metres above sea level, you will also get an amazing view of the sunset and Mount Kinabalu in the distance. Try tandem paragliding for an even more breathtaking experience. You will gently glide past the forests and spotted colours of the Menggatal town below. Cost wise, for Malaysians it is RM300 (~S$100), for non-Malaysians it is RM400 (~S$130+) and you can opt for sunset paragliding at RM500 (~$160+). For those who wish to stay longer, there are several homestays ranging from RM100 per night.
13. Embark on the Canopy walk at Kinabalu Park
Kinabalu Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dubbed to be the Centre of Plant Diversity for South East Asia. It has over 5,000 species of flora and fauna for you to discover. Head to the park and cross the 175 metres long Canopy walkway. Standing at 60 metres above ground, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. To get to the canopy walk, you will take a trail about 550 metres. Do wear comfortable shoes and bring some water along. The park is about 3-hour drive away from the city.
14. Take a warm soak at the Poring Hot Springs
After the Canopy walk, head over to Poring Hot Springs to take a relaxing soak. The hot sulphuric minerals of the spring’s water are said to have healing properties that could help soothe your aching muscles as well as improve blood and lymphatic circulation. Entrance to the springs is RM15. Aside from the hot springs, you can also visit the butterfly farm, Poring Orchid Conservation Centre, Rafflesia flower site, the tropical garden, and waterfalls, which are all located within the same Kinabalu Park. When visiting the springs, it is advised to bring your swimwear, a change of clothes, rubber slippers, and a towel. Click here for the Canopy Walk and Poring Hot Springs tour.
Poring Hot Springs
Opening Hours: Daily from 7 am to 6 pm
15. Go whitewater rafting at Kiulu River or Padas River
Whitewater rafting is one of the more adventurous things to do in Kota Kinabalu and is a popular activity in Sabah. You can either do so at Kiulu River or Padas River. Kiulu River has a rafting distance of 15 km and is great for even beginners. You can even spot some rare Proboscis monkeys while on your rafting journey! Click here for the Kiulu rafting tour and click here for the Padas rafting tour.
16. Go on a sunset cruise & see monkeys & fireflies
Weston Wetlands is one of the largest wetlands in Sabah and a naturally stunning place. Go on a river safari cruise around the wetlands and marvel at the beautiful landscapes. Be sure to keep your eyes open for proboscis monkeys. Paired with a delicious buffet, you also get an amazing sunset view. You even get to see fireflies! A guide will be with you on the tour to share everything he knows about the wetlands. Click here for the tour. An alternative place to see fireflies would be the Kilas wetlands. Click here for the tour.
17. Discover Borneo’s amazingly diverse wildlife and florals
Borneo has abundant flora and wildlife. The Borneo Rainforest is actually much older than the Amazon Rainforest. 75 milion years older, to be exact. The Amazon is at 55 milion years old, whereas the Borneo rainforest is over 130 million years old. Over 15,000 of plant species and 210 mammal species live in Borneo, which leaves you so much to discover. You can visit the Mount Kinabalu Botanical Garden to see many unique species of trees and flowers, such as the Medinilla speciosa (Showy Asian Grapes), the Nepenthes rajah (pitcher plant), and Paphiopedilum rothschildianum (Rotchcild’s Slipper Orchid) which is the state flower of Sabah.
Sadly, due to forest logging and burnings for palm plantations back in the 80s and 90s, much of the rainforest has been destroyed and species such as the Bornean Orangutan is endangered. Luckily, Kota Kinabalu is home to many sanctuaries that take care of the wildlife, such as the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Tuaran Crocodile Farm, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and Kipandi Butterfly Park, which are worth a visit.
18. Shop at the Tamu markets in Kota Kinabalu
When traveling, I always love to visit the markets of each place, for it is at the markets where you can see where the hawkers run their daily businesses, and how the locals shop. Back in the early days when there were no malls, vendors like farmers, hawkers, and fishermen will gather each week to barter trade their goods at the tamu (market). The most famous tamu in Kota Kinabalu is in Kota Belud. It is 75km away from the city. You will see many goods on display such as local cakes, tapai (rice wine), and local handicrafts. The markets usually operate from as early as 6 am in the morning to about 2 pm. You can check out the night markets (also known as Pasar Malam) here. For souvenirs, you can go to Handicraft Market at Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens.
19. Go on a heritage walk and see the Atkinson Clocktower
To discover Kota Kinabalu heritage, go on a walking tour here. It will also bring you to see the Atkinson tower, which is the oldest landmark in Kota Kinabalu and dates back to pre-war. This all-wood-no-nails structure even survived the bombing in WWII. Built in the memory of Francis George Atkinson, this tower stands prominently along the Signal Hill Road and is often used as a landmark.
20. Spend a night on Survivor Island
Did you know that the first season of Survivor was filmed on one of the islands in Borneo? That’s how Pulau Tiga got its name as ‘Survivor Island’. The island has active mud volcanoes and is infested with snakes but there are now resorts on the island that you can stay on. The island is great for snorkeling, kayaking, and even diving! Diving lessons are available for beginners.
21. Visit an organic tea farm
Tea drinking is a huge part of Sabah’s culture. The Sabah Tea Garden is the largest plantation in Borneo, with over 2,408 hectares of lush tea plantation. It is the only organic tea farm in Borneo and one of the few in the world. Surrounded by misty rainforest, away from the city in the cool mountain air, this plantation is a good place for a refreshing day trip! Apart from learning about how tea is planted and made, you can enjoy recreational activities such as obstacle-crossing in the Sapaon Recreational Area, trekking along the trails to the peak of Kamunsu Hill or embarking on a night walk to check out the unique insect life. Try the freshly-made tea pancakes and Sabah Tea Pandan teh tarik, both of which are popular menu items available only at the Tea House. If you wish to stay for long, there are a few accommodation options for you such as a traditional longhouse, a cosy bungalow or even for those who wish to sleep under the stars, a campsite.
22. Ride on a steam engine train
The North Borneo Railway Train transports you back into time. This British Vulcan steam locomotive dates back to the 1900s and can seat up to 180 passengers. It has been refurbished to bring you the nostalgic experience of the bygone era of the colonial days. Hop onto the train as it carries you through Kinarut before stopping at the town of Papar. On your journey, you will pass by lush paddy fields, traditional village houses on stilts and livestock, allowing you to admire the countryside of Sabah. The ride includes a Tiffin-style breakfast and lunch, truly bringing the nostalgia of a 1900s movie. The ride takes about 4-5 hours in total, runs 35 miles, and you have to make bookings at least a day in advance. The North Borneo Railway runs two weekly return departures (Wednesday, Saturday) from Kota Kinabalu to Papar, year round. Click here for the tour.
When is the best time to visit Kota Kinabalu?
January to March is the best time to visit Kota Kinabalu as it is relatively cool and dry, allowing you to enjoy relaxing outdoor activities. May to October are the wetter months, and the weather tends to be more humid. Festivals are often held at the year-end from November to January, so be wary of more crowds during this period.
We hope that you enjoyed our travel guide to Kota Kinabalu! Please share it on Facebook if it has inspired or helped you in any way. If you are planning your wedding, do read our guide here. Our honeymoon planning guide is also available for free here.
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