Kota Kinabalu Travel Guide and Itinerary

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The Sabah capital is the perfect playground for nature lovers and adventure junkies. Read on for tips on where to stay, where to eat, what to see and do in Kota Kinabalu.

About Kota Kinabalu

With its lush rainforests, pristine beaches, dive spots, orangutan reserves and rare wildlife, Sabah is the ultimate nature lover’s haven and playground. The gateway to it all lies in its capital, Kota Kinabalu (sometimes referred to as KK), located on Borneo’s northern coast and overlooking the South China Sea. Here, you’ll find the mighty Mount Kinabalu which, at 4,095m above sea level, is Southeast Asia’s tallest peak and the main draw for adventure travelers coming to KK. 

Tour outfits abound in town, many offering day trips to see the rich Bronean flora and fauna —  species like the Bornean orangutan, pangolin, sun bear, pygmy elephant and the world’s largest population of proboscis monkeys all call this jungle paradise home. Is it any surprise then that the first ever season of Survivor was filmed here? 

The city itself is equally magnetic. In fact, some might argue that the old-world charm is where its appeal really lies. Meander through the markets, stop by quirky watering holes, stroll among locals along the waterfront boardwalk during sunset, learn about the fascinating indigenous Kadazan-Dusun culture or take a snapshot or two of the architecture around the city. With a population of nearly 600,000 it’s by no means small, but it somehow manages to retain a rustic charm. As the city’s tourism gradually develops, however, you’ll now find luxury options by high-end hospitality brands that cater to the well-heeled, too. 

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Photos on this page via Shutterstock.com

The city enjoys a warm and humid tropical temperature year-round, although rain is frequent, and sometimes without warning, so make sure you have an umbrella or poncho. If you’d like to explore the city sans the tourist crowds, avoid its peak periods from December to February and June to September. Note that the city experiences its monsoon season between October and March. 

 

Highlights for the Traveler 

Synonymous with its nature and wildlife, Mount Kinabalu remains the city’s landmark attraction and hiking it is the most popular tourist activity. Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO-listed site, is about an hour and a half hour’s drive from the city center. Summiting takes between two and three days, depending on pace and fitness level. If hiking isn’t your thing, another way to take in the beautiful Bornean landscapes is a cruise along the stunning Klias River, which treats you to an unbeatable view of Mount Kinabalu and its native wildlife, as you make your way through wetland reserves. There are also plenty of adventurous activities and sports to sink your teeth into, like diving or snorkeling in the aquamarine waters of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park 

While Kota Kinabalu’s natural beauty is incomparable, its man-made landscapes are also worth seeing. Perhaps its most celebrated architectural jewel is none other than the “floating” City Mosque, a beautiful example of contemporary Islamic architecture that is even more breathtaking in person 

All the active sightseeing will no doubt work up your appetite and luckily, Kota Kinabalu’s cuisine certainly doesn’t disappoint. You’ll find classically Malaysian dishes with a Sabahan twist, influenced by its coastal location and indigenous population. Interestingly, you’ll also find many restaurants here billing themselves as fusion eateries  unsurprising for a state which has at least 30 ethnic groups, including the Malays, Kadazan, Chinese and a handful of expats who all call Kota Kinabalu home. 

Every Sunday, the city’s weekend market Gaya Street Tamu (also known as the Kota Kinabalu Sunday Market), comes to life with various vendors peddling everything from ground coffee and local delicacies to handicrafts and t-shirts. The bazaar officially closes by 1pm, so be sure to score your wares and touristy trinkets by then.  

As the sixthlargest city in Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu also has plenty of malls for your picking. The most popular of the lot is possibly the 1Borneo Hypermall, which boasts its own indoor Chinatown and big-name hotels like Novotel and Mercure, in addition to the wide selection of retail stores and restaurants housed in its space. 

With its rich cultures and diverse traditional festivals, there’s plenty to see and experience in Kota Kinabalu year-round. One of the best times to visit is end-May, in time for Pesta Kaamatan, a harvest festival celebrated by the Kadazan-Dusun people.  

 


Recommendations list to be updated.

Recommendations list to be updated.

Recommendations list to be updated.

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