The Ultimate Guide To Things To Do In Kota Kinabalu

/////The Ultimate Guide To Things To Do In Kota Kinabalu

Life is great when you have the hot moist tropical weather and a beautiful sea. Kota Kinabalu seems to have the best of two worlds. It is a city that lies just on the coast of the Borneo island. So you can head to work in the day and relax on the shores in the evening. Well not always but it does come pretty close. That being said there isn’t a lot of stuff to do in the city. After almost three weeks here I think I can cover most of the stuff. That’s why I decided to put together a list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu.

WATER ACTIVITIES

There are a lot of water activities that you can indulge in. Scuba diving and snorkeling are probably the highest ranking activities. The only downside is that you have to head out to one of the islands. The waters of the islands are really clear and there is plenty of coral that you can catch of a glimpse at. Storms however have destroyed a lot of the coral but if you do go diving the Coral garden next to Sapi island is absolutely gorgeous.

Scuba

From PADI to Discover Scuba, you can take your pick!

We got to see so many different species of fish down when we were diving. I saw a huge sword fish. It was almost as long as me! We also caught a glimpse of a sting ray too! These however were just the ones that I could recognize.

Shawn did his PADI certification during the first 3 days that he was in Kota Kinabalu. For him it was a dream that came true. For me the Discover Scuba was an amazing experience.

RELATED ARTICLES: FIGHTING MY FEARS: Discover Scuba In Kota Kinabalu

Snorkeling

We love snorkeling and that’s a biggie because I’m hydrophobic!

The islands near Kota Kinabalu are a paradise for any person who loves water, fish and coral. We visited Manukan and Sapi for a day at the beach. Remember that you need a clear and bright day to see the corals. I would suggest heading out early morning because the clouds tend to come in towards late afternoon. This way you can squeeze in as much snorkeling as you want.

VISIT THE PLACES OF PRAYER

There are a number of different religious sites across Kota Kinabalu. While majority of Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, a large number of people in Kota Kinabalu are Christian. That being said you will find a number of churches and mosques dot the landscape.

Sacred Heart Cathedral

The Sacred Heart Cathedral

I hadn’t realized that a large part of the Kota Kinabalu population are Christian. When I heard about it I decided that I wanted to visit one of their churches. I was told that the Sacred Heart Cathedral was the largest so I added visiting it to my list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral was a longer walk away than I expected. Luckily there was more than enough shade along the way though I wished I had carried water. The church in itself was quaint and pretty. A quiet piece of solitude away from the city.

Sabah State Mosque

The mosque looked impressive from the outside!

It was the first time that I had ever visited a mosque and that was one of the reasons why I added the Sabah State Mosque to my list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu. I really had no idea what to expect and I even asked two or three people if I was allowed to go in. Turns out that I was! I had ensured to cover every inch of skin and I tossed my sarong around my head. Imagine my surprise when I was offered a burkha to get in. It felt so nice because it meant that no matter who came and how they were dressed they didn’t have to turn back. I learned a little bit about the Muslim culture that day.

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is actually quite famous. It is surrounded by water on all sides and that is how it earned its name ‘The Floating Mosque’. At first I thought that the mosque was situated in the middle of the sea but I realized that I was wrong when we drove past it on our way to Kinabalu National Park. We kept meaning to visit it but somehow we only managed to free our schedules on Fridays. Fridays are important for Muslim prayer (I’m not sure why) and it is usually crowded. People say that it is polite not to visit the mosque on these days if you are going there as a tourist. So we never got around to seeing the inside of the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque.

TAKE IN THE VIEW

One of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu is to take in the view. There are plenty of places that you can enjoy the view at. You can choose to look at it from a height or from the side of the ocean. I chose to move around a bit and I found that I enjoyed the sunset and the sea from so many places.

The Pool View

The pool view from the Le Meridian

The Le Meridian (and some other hotels) has a pool bar on the second floor. In fact it was one of our favorite places to watch the sunset. We swam about in the pool as we watched the sky turn different shades of yellow and red. Calm, peaceful and really romantic!

The Night Market

Catch a bite to eat at the side of the sea. If you wander around a bit you will find seats right at the water edge. Watch the sun set in front of you while the boats bob near you. To top it off you can have your dinner served while you chill and relax.

The Waterfront

Most of the locals and tourists love to catch the view from here.

There are a number of different restaurants and pubs along the Waterfront. You can take your pick and relax. This is different from the Night Market because it is a little more posh. Definitely more cleaner and it is more expensive. That however doesn’t mean it isn’t a great place to be. Oh and if it is too expensive then head to Starbucks. It is far cheaper.

Signal Hill Observatory Platform

Really loved this spot!

The Signal Hill Observatory Platform is probably my favorite place to relax and chill. It doesn’t offer you an unobstructed view of the sea but you can watch the sea unobstructed. It is a great place to look down on the city and pause for a while. There is a great café there too. So don’t forget to add it to your list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu.

Walk Along The Coast

The board walk is always so peaceful in the day! But way too hot!

Walk along the board walk while the sun sets. I don’t recommend doing this mid day because it gets way too hot and you could just get a sun stroke but in the evenings when the blazing sun has stopped it is much much cooler.

THE MARKETS

There are so many markets here in Kota Kinabalu. It is really hard to know which ones to add to your list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu if you are short of time. Luckily for me I was in Kota Kinabalu for almost three weeks.

The Night Market

The night market is all about food!

The Night Market is a really popular on the list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu. The night market definitely has a lot of food. As you start wandering around the market you are surrounded by the smell of delicious food. What you will realize is that the market has two parts. One part mostly deals with chicken and the other half deals with seafood. So choose what you want to eat by choosing a side.

The Filipino Handicraft Market

Everyone was hard at work!

I’m not really sure where the Night Market ends and where the Filipino Handicraft market starts. It sometimes makes me wonder whether it is all part of one large market. The Filipino market however has a lot of Handicrafts for sale. You can also find salted fish, fruits and even vegetables in the maze. Wander around in the evening. It is a fun place to be in.

The Sunday Market

The busiest place on a Sunday morning is the Sunday market!

I love Sunday markets across Asia. I think I got hooked onto them in Thailand. When I added the Sunday market to my list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The market however surprised me. It wasn’t just food or handicrafts… It had a bit of everything. There were pets, racks of clothes, food, handicrafts and so many curious things. Bear in mind that the market is open from 6 in the morning and closes somewhere in the afternoon. So plan your day accordingly.

Gaya Street

Catching a glimpse of Gaya street in the evenings.

I mentioned Gaya Street when I was talking about the Sunday market but it is important to know that the Gaya Street is a great place to visit on other days too. I’ve been in Kota Kinabalu during the Ramadan period so every evening a large number of stalls get set up and food literally flows over. Despite the stalls you will find that numerous restaurants that are definitely worth your time.

Malls

One of my favorite things to do was to explore the different malls. They were all so different!

I have never been to a city that has as many malls as Kota Kinabalu. Almost every second building is a mall. There are big malls and small malls, cheap malls and expensive malls, new malls and old malls… The list is endless and I’m not even going to enumerate on their names because I can’t remember them all! I say this while sitting in Kota Kinabalu itself so it isn’t my memory that is hazy!

GET ACQUAINTED WITH THE WILDLIFE

Borneo is known for its wildlife. While Kota Kinabalu is a city, you can do plenty of stuff that involves wildlife if you have time. Bear in mind that many of these items involve long drives but they aren’t as bad as you would imagine.

Lok Kawi Wildlife Park

Meet the Scary Ostrich!

Lok Kawi lies about 20 kilometers outside Kota Kinabalu. It’s about a 30 to 40 minute drive but the roads are amazing and it makes the drive so much better. Lok Kawi is a wildlife park and it has a varied collection of different species in it. For me it was a chance to see orangutans in person because I couldn’t make it to Sepilok. Lok Kawi also has a botanical park attached to it but you need a non rainy day for you to be able to trek through it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Life Lessons In Lok Kawi Wildlife Park

Kinabalu National Park

There certainly is a lot of nature to appreciate at Kinabalu National park!

The Kinabalu National Park is a great way to get up close with Mount Kinabalu if you are someone like me who doesn’t intend to challenge the mountain. At 4,095 meters the mountain looms overhead. On a clear day you can look up at the heavens and catch a glimpse of the peak as you drive towards the Kinabalu National Park.

Kinabalu National Park isn’t just about a glimpse of the mountains peak. There is a lot of nature all around of you. Trek through the trails, learn about the ecosystem or just sit back and relax.

RELATED ARTICLE: Kinabalu National Park And How I Got Attacked

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Center/Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary

The Kota Kinabalu Wetland center is a great place to take in the wildlife near the city or so I hear. It is another one of those items that slipped through our fingers because we kept putting it off due to the weather or lack of time. My research told me that the best time to visit is in the morning. I would rather have done late evening because you usually see birds and the temperature outside is much cooler.

DESA Farm

Cows, goats and the gorgeous scenery… That is what the DESA farm has to offer.

When I went to the DESA farm I did not know the amount of history that the farm represented for the Borneo island till a friend told me about it. Apparently the DESA farm was the only farm that supplied the whole Borneo island with fresh milk at one point of time. The DESA farm is a short drive away from the Kinabalu National Park and is good for quick pit stop. Grab a gelato ice cream and watch the how the cows line up to be milked. That’s the max that you can do. The views however are really awesome.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Pit Stop At The Desa Farm

The Botanical Garden

Our first glimpse at a pitcher plant!

The botanical garden is located near Kota Kinabalu national park. I particularly liked this garden because it gave us a chance to learn about the different species of plants that live within the island. Unlike the Botanical garden in Lok Kawi, the plants were labeled and there were a number of helpful signs. We later learned that there was a canopy walk in the Botanical garden. We sadly missed that because we weren’t aware of it.

The Firefly River Cruise

The Firefly River cruise is another popular attraction in Kota Kinabalu. It is a 2 – 2 ½ hour drive out of the city before you cruise down the river to spot some of the wildlife in Borneo. The long drive deterred from heading out on the cruise but I’ve heard that some people really enjoy it.

Visit The Islands

A glimpse at the islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park

Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Gaya are the four popular islands that are just a 20 minute boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu. Boats depart from the Jesselton harbor at frequent intervals starting from 8 in the morning. Each island has its own coral reef and marine life which is well worth seeing. The islands are perfect for a day trip and you can take your pick of how many islands you want to visit and where you want to go.

RELATED ARTICLES:

  1. Island Hoping In Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
  2. Finding Out The Secrets Of Gaya Island
  3. FIGHTING MY FEARS: Discover Scuba In Kota Kinabalu

Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC)

Learn about how important it is to conserve the Marine ecosystem at MERC.

Located on Gaya island, the Marine Ecology Research center works towards preserving the biodiversity of the reef on Gaya island. They plant coral, set up artificial reefs and breed giant clams all in an effort to conserve the reef. When you visit MERC one of the volunteers or Marine Biologists will take you around and teach you about the different species of coral and fish that you can see around the island.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC)

TAKE IN THE CULTURE

Borneo in general has an interesting past. I believe that truly understand a culture you need to know how the people lived before, what they ate, what they believe in etc. It is not always easy to do this. Kota Kinabalu does offer a few ways through which you can catch a glimpse of the past and the present.

The Sabah Museum

Large bones aren’t always dinosaur bones!

The Sabah Museum is a great place to start if you want to catch a glimpse of what Borneo is like. The exhibits tell you about the influence that other cultures have on islands culture. It also gives you an understanding of biodiversity that exists on land and in the sea. Interestingly enough you can walk through the huts in order to see what the traditional accommodation was like.

RELATED ARTICLE: SABAH MUSEUM: A Glance Back In Time!

The Mari Mari Village

The Mari Mari village is supposed to be a great way to experience the culture of the island. We never got around to doing this though. A number of tours take you to the culture village. There are three timings. One in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The night one is slightly more expensive because of there are a couple of more activities that are included.

THE FOOD

Kota Kinabalu is a foodie’s paradise!

Kota Kinabalu has one of the most amazing collections of different cuisines that I have ever seen. Our two weeks in the city meant that we had to treat our palate to the different flavors. Much to our surprise all the favors did not originate from Malaysia. You could find food from different parts of the world. Japan. Korea, America, Mexico, Hungary, India…. The list goes on! That inspired me to write an in depth guide and I call it the Ultimate List Of Places To Eat In Kota Kinabalu.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Ultimate Guide To Places To Eat In Kota Kinabalu

OTHER ACTIVITIES

Kota Kinabalu has a lot of stuff for people who love the adrenaline rush. If you aren’t one of them then don’t worry, there are a number of peaceful pastimes too! Here are some of the other activities that may interest you

Play Golf

We even tried our hand at golf!

There are two driving ranges in Kota Kinabalu and you can visit either one of them. We went to the Sutera Harbor Golf and Country club. It is a lovely place to visit and they beautiful golf course. It was my first time ever playing golf so we stuck to the driving range. Luckily we had a few experts in the group to teach us.

Catch A Movie

Kota Kinabalu has a number of movie theaters for such a small city. The shows are numerous so if you are feeling bored just wander in and you will find a movie you can catch. We watched the Mummy while we were in the city and the theaters were quite nice.

Challenge The Mountain

Never underestimate the mountain!

If you love the thrill of challenging a mountain and climbing to new heights then you should consider trekking up Mount Kinabalu. At over 4000 meters the mountain is formidable and the cost to trek up can get expensive. We didn’t do it and I would suggest doing your research on the prices before heading out.

Zip lines

Another fascinating thing to do is head out to the zip lines. The zip lines connect the two islands so you are basically flying across the sea from one island to another. A couple of our friends tried it out. So if it is your cup of tea then head out to the island of your choice. Just be sure to check which island has the starting point.

Parasailing

Parasailing is available too. We were at Sapi island when four of our friends went ahead and tried it. Shawn and I loved the Sapi reef way too much so we spent all of our time snorkeling. I’m not sure but I think that you need a minimum number of people to do parasailing. Oh and a tip is to bargain a bit. Be nice and they will be nice too!

Kota Kinabalu is a marvelous place. It has something for everyone. It has the fast pace and yet it has the tranquility. To me Kota Kinabalu is a place that you should go to if you want to get away from the world and yet still feel connected. I find it hard to describe. There are a number of things to do in Kota Kinabalu. You don’t have to run about completing them all. Take a break and let the place seep into your being. Trust me you will go back with a better frame of mind. That’s what I did and I don’t regret it.

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2017-10-08T03:44:05+00:00 August 4th, 2017|Asia, Destinations, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia|34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Tasha Amy August 4, 2017 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    Super informative read! Perfect for a visit to Kota Kinablau. Lots of exciting things to do and seems like you’ve made an ostrich friend 🙂

    • Penny August 4, 2017 at 10:03 pm - Reply

      I would call the ostrich a frenemy! More politically correct!;) There is so much to do in Kota Kinabalu. It surprised me because it is a relatively small city and I left quite a bit unexplored!

  2. Lola Mendez August 4, 2017 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Wow, there is so much to do in KK! I’ll be there in September and am saving this post to use for trip planning.

    • Penny August 4, 2017 at 10:17 pm - Reply

      I’m so glad that the post was helpful. Wasn’t sure how many people visit Kota Kinabalu. I just fell in love with the place and really wanted to encourage others to visit!

  3. Janice August 4, 2017 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    Aahh!! This makes me miss Kota so much especially the food!! I’ve not tried diving there yet and it might be a good reason to go back 😉

    • Penny August 4, 2017 at 10:29 pm - Reply

      Kota Kinabalu has so many things to do. Even though I stayed there for a little over two weeks I did not manage to cover everything. Certainly gave me a reason to head back. Hopefully sometime soon!

  4. Jade August 4, 2017 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    I’ve just got back from a trip there. I loved the snorkelling, Mari Mari Culture Village and evenings on the Waterfront.

    • Penny August 4, 2017 at 10:45 pm - Reply

      I feel so bad that I missed the Mari Mari village. A lot of people told me that it was a lot of fun. Oh well… I guess that means I have to go back and that isn’t too bad now is it? 😉

  5. Christina August 4, 2017 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    Wow, such an extensive post – and never heard from this lil corner of the world. Love when good tourism infrastructure doesn’t overrun the local culture too much, as it seems from what you write. Thanks for sharing!

    • Penny August 4, 2017 at 11:11 pm - Reply

      I honestly had not heard of Kota Kinabalu till about a week before I left. Shawn came come and said that we are headed to Malaysia. I said Okay. At first I thought he meant Kuala Lumpur. Well it turned out to be Kota Kinabalu while we did make a pit stop at KL. Loved every moment that I spent in KK.

  6. Alice Ford August 4, 2017 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    How is the litter situation there now? I hiked Kinabalu a few years back with my boyfriend and was disheartened by the abundance of litter in Kota, as well as in the reefs. Is it any better?

    • Penny August 4, 2017 at 11:36 pm - Reply

      Manukan was bad. There was just so much litter in the reef. Gaya was much better. Kota Kinabalu wasn’t the cleanest. As in I wouldn’t want to fall in the water just outside the city. I was walking around and I found the slums that serve as a major source of the dirt. It is sad. 🙁

  7. Caroline August 4, 2017 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    This is such a detailed, informative guide! Looks like there is something for everyone here. Would love to go sometime and will keep it in mind!

  8. Carrie August 5, 2017 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    Great tips! I really want to climb Mount Kinabulu, so it’s helpful to have ideas of what to do in the city before and afterwards. And those islands off the coast look amazing.

    • Penny August 5, 2017 at 10:44 pm - Reply

      We did not climb Kinabalu though we did go to pay our respects to the mountain from afar. I’m not very good with heights and a long time spent on a mountain infested with leeches would have driven me absolutely crazy though Shawn would have loved it. Each to their own I guess. 🙂

  9. Jill at Reading the Book August 5, 2017 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    What a fabulous, detailed post! I’ve been to Sabah but not to KK, but I’m sure I’ll be back there one day. Some great suggestions!

    • Penny August 5, 2017 at 10:46 pm - Reply

      We did not wander much out of Kota Kinabalu though in retrospect we should have. Shawn had work so we were quite busy balancing both ends of the spectrum. I’m sure you will head back. It is one of those places that beckons you from a far!

  10. Anna August 5, 2017 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Oh wow, who knew there was so much to do there! Thanks for this guide, it’ll definitely help when planning a trip to Malaysia!

    • Penny August 5, 2017 at 10:50 pm - Reply

      Thank you Anna. I’m so glad that it helped.

  11. mytraveltricks August 5, 2017 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    Wow what an incredible place!!! I already fell in love with the scuba diving and snorkelling but this national park and the wildlife (not even to mention the food)… Woud love to go so definitely gonna note your tips!

    • Penny August 5, 2017 at 10:51 pm - Reply

      Kota Kinabalu is and incredible place. With so many things to do in the area it is highly unlikely that you will ever get bored. The best part about it is that there is something for everyone!

  12. Jessica August 5, 2017 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    Wow! All I knew about KK was the mountain! This looks awesome!

  13. Mille Mirah Seiersen August 5, 2017 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    This looks like a lovely destination! I would especially love to visit the botanical garden and go snorkeling!

  14. Marissa Deen August 5, 2017 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous! Thanks for the informative post 🙂

  15. Iva August 5, 2017 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    Wow! I’m Filipino and it’s great to know that we have representation there 🙂 Nature and being by the waters are things I love a lot and hopefully someday, we would get the chance to go to kota kinabalu too! Thanks for this post 💕

    • Penny August 5, 2017 at 10:53 pm - Reply

      There are a lot of Filipino people in Kota Kinabalu. A friend of ours who was visiting KK at the same time was Filipino too and he could get around by talking his native language in most parts.

  16. Toni August 6, 2017 at 2:39 am - Reply

    Great post! There is so much to do here, its incredible! I have never snorkeled or scuba dived but it looks like a lot of fun! Hopefully i make it there one day!

    • Penny August 6, 2017 at 2:55 am - Reply

      Thanks Toni. Coming from you that is high praise! I’m sure you will make it to Kota Kinabalu eventually. I’ve not had time to explore much of Borneo but the little that I saw made me fall in love with it.

  17. Lisa August 6, 2017 at 3:56 am - Reply

    I so want to get to Borneo. Great post and making me want to go even more now.

  18. Cory Varga August 6, 2017 at 4:33 am - Reply

    We would def go there for the mountain. Over 4000 m is a dream. We are outdoors people and we absolutely love hiking. Even though it can be a bit of a challenge. We also love pitcher plants. We saw our first one in Kew Gardens actually. hehe

    • Penny August 7, 2017 at 7:51 am - Reply

      I really thought the pitcher plants were cool. That was one of the biggest highlights of our trip. These tiny parts of traveling make life so interesting.

  19. Luda August 7, 2017 at 1:55 am - Reply

    Wow, this is an amazing post – there’s so much to do and you highlighted it all! The Sabah State Mosque looks really pretty and reminds me of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Also I would love to try some of that yummy night market food! 🙂

  20. Yishyene C August 7, 2017 at 3:51 am - Reply

    I’ve never seen a pitcher plant in real life before! I’m still a little disappointed in myself that I have yet to make it to Borneo even though it’s part of my own home country! >.<

  21. This Epic World August 7, 2017 at 10:25 am - Reply

    This is such a great list of things to do there. The board walk looks gorgeous. I’ve never been to Borneo. But this post has inspired me to visit the area soon.

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