Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state, will be many people’s first introduction to Borneo. Affectionately nicknamed ‘KK’, this coastal city is encircled by rainforest, meaning visitors get the best of all worlds, with easy access to exotic animals, city convenience and underwater life. 

While Kota Kinabalu is commonly thought of as the jumping-off point for many adventures in Borneo, it is a wonderful place to explore in its own right. After an initial plan to stay just three nights in the city, I became enchanted by KK and its people and ended up spending over 10 days there!

If you’re heading to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo and are looking to kickstart your research, look no further. This guide will answer all your questions about where to stay, what to do and how to get around. 


Kota Kinabalu, Sabah – Malaysian Borneo

Kota Kinabalu Map & Resources

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Best Time to Visit Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

As with the rest of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu experiences two distinct seasons; wet and dry. The wet season spans from October to March, however, climate change means the season can drag on beyond this estimate. Even if you are visiting Sabah during the dry season which falls from April to September, the rainforest setting means you will likely get rain at some point during your trip.

Kota Kinabalu 2
Kota Kinabalu will be many travellers’ introduction to Borneo!

The best time to visit Kota Kinabalu is from January to March as although these months fall during the rainy season, they provide respite from the humidity and heat – the maximum temperature hovers around 29-32°C in KK, no matter what month you visit! 

“I was worried about visiting Kota Kinabalu in the rainy season as I planned to trek in Kinabalu National Park. I needn’t have worried. While I did get some rain, most of the time this was light and lasted for only an hour or so. Of the three weeks I spent in Sabah during monsoon season, I only experienced two days of continuous heavy downpours.”

Sheree Hooker, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker

Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

When it comes to where to stay in the city, you will have the choice of staying central or further afield. The waterfront is one of the most popular areas in the middle of the city and Kampung Air is an up-and-coming hipster district within walking distance from the centre. 

Toojou Kota Kinabalu
It is advisable to stay within walking distance of the city centre.

The Likas district is popular with those seeking respite on the outskirts. This area is home to the city mosque and offers a scenic backdrop for your time in KK. Be aware that there is quite a bit of development happening here and high-rise rentals are popping up all over the place. 

Karamunsing has long been touted as the best place to stay in Kota Kinabalu, however, it is around a 25-minute walk from the city centre. In my humble opinion (and I’ve stayed all over the city), I think Kampung Air and the waterfront are better options. 

Good to Know!

There is a tourism tax on all private rooms in Malaysian Borneo. The cost is 10MYR per room, per night. This tax is not usually included in the price displayed on booking websites and will be payable in cash upon check-in. Make sure you know whether your room rate includes it. 

Top Accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.

Homy Seafront Hostel

This cheap and cheerful hostel is often touted as one of the best places to stay in Kota Kinabalu. Clean and comfortable with a chic common area and huge lockers to store luggage, Homy Seafront Hostel ticks all the boxes for shoestring travellers. The location is central, just a few minutes from the night market and jetty. 

Toojou

By far and away the best accommodation in Kota Kinabalu for travellers seeking comfort, Toojou is everything a modern hostel should aspire to be. With a range of dorms and private rooms (some with Bluetooth speakers!), coworking space, shared kitchen, rooftop bar and even a slide(!), this place really can’t be beaten. A walking tour leaves from here twice-weekly. 

Slide at Toojou Kota Kinabalu
The slide at Toojou is just one of the highlights!

Escape Backpackers KK

Close to the Filipino market, Escape Backpackers KK offers good value-for-money digs in the centre of the action. The beds are separated with curtains for that extra feeling of privacy and the staff can assist with trip planning, helping you to discover hidden gems!

Signel Poshtel

This swanky offering is great for those looking for plush accommodations in the centre of KK. Located within earshot of the Filipino market, it is easy to walk to all the main attractions. While the private rooms are the highlight of a stay here, the dorms are also incredibly comfortable, boasting privacy curtains and a pod-style set-up. 

Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa

If you’re looking for comfortable child-friendly accommodation in a beautiful setting just 10 minutes from the airport, make sure you check out Shangri-La in the Tanjung Aru part of town. For the adults, there is a spa offering much-needed R&R, and for the little ones, there are plenty of activities to keep them occupied! 


Best Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

1. Photograph Masjid Bandaraya City Mosque

The most famous thing to do in Kota Kinabalu is to see the beautiful city mosque. Located a short drive from the centre of the city, the easiest way to reach this spot is by Grab car. The mosque is incredibly beautiful, overlooking a small lake. Head here at sunrise or sunset for the best photos. 

Mosque Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu’s city mosque is well worth a visit!

Be aware that non-muslims are only permitted to enter the mosque outside of prayer time. Even if you don’t plan on going inside, you should still avoid swinging by at prayer time. Parking for the mosque takes over the roads, reducing the available lanes and causing long delays.

Entry to the mosque costs around 10MYR and visitors will be expected to cover up using the clothes provided (men and women both have to wear long gowns and women also have to don hijabs). The entrance ticket will allow you to access the building’s interior, as well as a roped-off walkway along the perimeter. 

2. Hike to the Signal Hill Observatory Tower

While this viewpoint is officially closed for refurbishment, the seating section next door is still open and affords the same beautiful views of the city. This sweeping vista showcases the greenness of the ‘Nature Resort City’ and is a wonderful place to stop for a drink and soak up the view. Be aware that the path up to the tower is also a work in progress, meaning you may need to walk on the road. Watch out for traffic. 

Signal Hill Observatory
Signal Hill Observatory viewpoint is officially closed right now.

3. Take in the Views at Kokol Hill

Located a little way out of the city, this spot is an ideal location for sunset. While it can be reached using Grab, the best way to get there is via your own transport. There are places in KK you can rent a car or a scooter. 

If you want to enter Kokol Elf at the top of the hill, this will cost 90MYR per person (drink included) which some may think is a little steep. However, once you’re there, you can snap all the photos that your heart desires, making the most of their Instagram-centric props. 

4. Visit Mari Mari Cultural Village

The most famous of the cultural villages accessible from KK, the Mari Mari Cultural Village offers visitors an incredible opportunity to learn about the history of Sabah’s tribes and their way of life. 

Mari Mari cultural village 2
Mari Mari Cultural Village is a popular place for travellers.

The highlight of a visit here is undoubtedly the traditional dance. You’ll also get the opportunity to sample the traditional food and play a few games. Entry is cheaper if you book online at approx. 100MYR per person (approx. $21USD). If you show up, it’ll cost around 175MYR (approx. $37USD).

5. Or Monsopiad Cultural Village 

A cheaper alternative to Mari Mari, Monsopiad Cultural Village focuses on the terrifying Kadazan and headhunter warrior, Monsopiad. Run by his descendants, a visit to this village will reveal all about the indigenous community and how they lived. 

Blow dart balloons Kota Kinabalu
It’s harder than it looks!

Visitors get the opportunity to try their skills at blow darts and bamboo fire starting. And for the bravest adventurers, there is even the opportunity to try the traditional Bornean delicacy, live sago grub! Entrance costs around 65MYR per person (approx. $13USD). 

6. Relax in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park 

The marine park just off KK consists of five islands – Mamutik, Manakan, Gaya, Sapi and Sulug. Speedboats depart from the Jesselton port every hour from 8:30-16:00. The last returning boat leaves around 17:00. 

Buy a ticket for a specific island or island hop a few! The journey takes around 25 minutes and can be fairly bumpy so make sure you’re prepared with motion sickness pills if necessary. All islands levy a 20RM tax on arrival.

Flying into Kota Kinabalu
Flying over some of the dreamy islands off KK.

All the beaches (although a welcome break from the city) are fairly small and get crowded with tourists, especially at the weekends – so don’t expect a secluded paradise! Mamutik has the best beach while Manukan is the place for warm, clear snorkelling conditions.  Snorkel masks can be hired for the day at around 10MYR from the jetty. 

7. Discover an Underwater World 

The waters around Kota Kinabalu offer some excellent underwater adventures. There are plenty of dive centres located in the city, with Scuba Junkies being one of the most popular among travellers.

 A 3-day PADI Open Water course starts at around 1,325MYR with them and they also offer daily dive and snorkel trips to the marine park. It is possible to spot turtles, reef sharks and even whale sharks if you get super lucky!

8. See Proboscis Monkeys at the Klias River

Undoubtedly one of the best day trips from Kota Kinabalu, this trip is ideal for those short on time in Borneo. Travel only a few hours from the city and you’ll arrive at the Klias River, home to the endemic large-nosed proboscis monkey. 

Proboscis Monkey Kota Kinabalu
This guy has a huge nose making him very sexy in a lady monkey’s eyes!

The trip comprises two river cruises, the first, around an hour and a half, will take you in search of monkeys. You’ll then break for a buffet dinner before returning to the boat for a short night cruise to see the fireflies. Trips are offered by agencies all over KK and cost approximately 200MYR per person (approx. $42USD). 

Responsible Travel 🐵​​

If you’re doing a tour which involves wildlife watching, always make sure you do your research about the company you book with. Ethical tours will allow visitors to observe wildlife but not interfere with the animals. Any tour operator that feeds the wildlife should absolutely be avoided as this increases the animal’s reliance on humans, making it more difficult for them to survive in the wild. 

9. Go Whitewater Rafting

For all you adventurous types, why not take an adrenaline-fuelled rafting trip on the Kiulu River? Only an hour away from KK city, this Grade I and Grade II stretch of water is perfect for beginners. 

There is enough fast water to be fun while still not presenting anything too hair-raising. It is a great activity for a group of friends or family travelling together. Prices start at around $40USD per person and can usually be booked online or arranged at a hostel in Kota Kinabalu. 

10. Take a Day Trip to Kinabalu National Park

Around a 90-minute drive from KK, Kinabalu National Park is an absolute must for impressive scenery. Set against a backdrop of stunning mountains and greenery, there are plenty of beautiful hikes, whether or not you decide to summit Mount Kinabalu. 

Mount Kinabalu
Kinabalu National Park is THE place to go if you want to hike!

All climbers are required to get a Sabah Parks permit, book their accommodation in advance and hire a guide. The permit costs approx. 400MYR (approx $85USD) for foreigners. The cost for a guide is set at 350MYR and there are a maximum of five climbers in a group. On top of these fees, you will also need to pay the national park entrance fee (must be paid by everyone who enters the park) which makes this adventure a pretty costly one! 

Even if you don’t plan to climb Kinabalu, a trip to the national park is still well worth it. There are loads of trails where you can see wildlife plus an incredible botanical garden. If you visit on the same day, a ticket will also get you into the Poring Hot Springs, located a further 40km down the road. Here you can soak in the thermal spas, take on the canopy walk or visit the butterfly farm. 


Food and Drink in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Good to Know!

The Sabah state of Borneo is majority Muslim and as such, alcohol isn’t always easy to come by here. Most restaurants won’t sell it all, with tea and coffee being the primary drinks of choice, no matter the time of day. If you are craving a beer, head somewhere Western but bear in mind it’ll be expensive! 

Peddasss

If you’re craving a taste of Indonesia, don’t miss this place. Offering a range of dishes including nasi udang and watanho, Peddasss is also a good choice for vegetarians who can substitute meat with tempeh. 

Food at Peddasss resturant Kota Kinabalu
If you can’t stop dreaming of Indonesian food, this is where you need to go!

Fish Market

“If you like fish, there is a huge fresh fish market in Kota Kinabalu! You just pick any fish, of which there seem to be hundreds of different kinds, and they cook it for you there and then!” 

Gemma Ann, South East Asia Backpacker Community

Chubs

Considerably more expensive than the other options in this guide, Chubs is the place to go if you’re looking to treat yourself. They also sell beer and wine, perfect if you’re looking for a glass of joy in what is a pretty dry city. 

Chubs food Kota Kinabalu
If you want to treat yourself, Chubs is the place!

Damn Good Burger

Craving Western food but worried a treat is going to bust your budget? Worry no more! Damn Good Burger is a hidden foodie gem in KK, frequently visited by locals. It serves a range of burgers, including lamb, and costs pretty much what you’d pay at any local food establishment in the middle of the city. The food here is banging – make sure you shoehorn it into your itinerary if you’re craving comfort food. 

5 Star Hainanese Chicken Rice & BBQ

If you’re searching for authentic Chinese cuisine, look no further than this delight, located on Gaya Street. A huge hit with the locals, it fills up quickly around lunchtime so be prepared to get here early or wait. The roast duck comes highly recommended but we would encourage you to avoid the shark fin soup for ethical reasons

5 Star Hainanese Chicken resturant Kota Kinabalu
You’ll need to get here early if you want a seat!

Api Api Food Night Market

Open every Friday and Saturday evening along Gaya Street, this night market is a great place to pick up a value-for-money dinner. Offering everything from noodles to burgers, the amount of choice is likely to overwhelm! The action kicks off at around 18:00. 

Kota Kinabalu street food market
The char kway teow at the night market was my favourite dish!

“The night market is a great place to sample a range of the local food. I recommend visiting with a friend and choosing a couple of things each so you can split them and try more. Don’t miss the dessert stands too – the chocolate-dipped skewers are the perfect indulgent finish to any meal!”

Sheree Hooker, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker 

Rasta Room

If live music is your thing, don’t miss the Rasta Room. Located in Kampung Air, they regularly host local bands and karaoke sessions. The bar itself is colourful and fun, with a range of alcoholic drinks on offer. The best thing? The booze isn’t too expensive – if you want to decompress with a beer after a busy day, this is your spot.  

Rasta Room Kota Kinabalu
Bars, beers and backpackers?! Count us in!

Getting Around Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

The grid-like layout makes the compact city centre easy to navigate on foot. It is also pedestrian-friendly with paths and designated crossings – make sure you use the button as traffic can come from all angles! 

Much like in Western Malaysia, Grab is the ride-hailing app of choice here. Drivers regularly run rides around the centre but you may have to wait longer if you are returning from attractions further out, such as the cultural villages.

If you want to DIY some of the day trips from the city, you should rent a car. Car rental is available from Kota Kinabalu International Airport and also at some places in the city centre. Bear in mind that in Malaysian Borneo, they drive on the left. To rent a car in Borneo, make sure you have the correct international driving permit.

Roundabout KK
A lot of people explore Sabah by car.

If you prefer to travel on two wheels, there is also the option to rent a scooter.  Scooter Rabbit, located in the centre of the city close to Wisma Merdeka Mall comes highly recommended. Remember that when renting a scooter or a car from a local business, there is always the possibility of a reduced rate if you are willing to haggle! 

“I rented a car from Scooter Rabbit for seven days. It was a great way to get out and explore Sabah without having to rely on sketchy public transport. Driving here is much less intimidating than in other parts of Southeast Asia!”

Tim, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker  

How to Get to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines fly into Kota Kinabalu International Airport from Kuala Lumpur. It is also possible to travel there from other destinations in Borneo like Kuching and SandakanCheck out this post about getting from KKIA to the city.

Maswings, an offshoot of Malaysian Airlines, now offer internal flights throughout Borneo. When booked in advance, domestic flights offer good value for money. 

Bus station Kota Kinabalu
If you can put up with long journeys, bus is the cheapest way to travel!

Bus is also a popular way to get to KK from other destinations in Malaysian Borneo. These can be booked on Easybook or 12go.asia. Popular destinations include Sandakan, Ranau, Kundasang and Kudat. Make sure to double-check which bus terminal your service departs from and allow plenty of time to get there – some of them are located a fair distance out of the city.


Where to Go Next: 

  • Kundasang: Home to the almighty Mount Kinabalu and associated national park, this is THE place to come for a few days if you want to hike surrounded by beautiful scenery. 
  • Tip of Borneo: Head north for beach vibes and take in the coastal views where the South China Sea meets the Sulu Sea. 
  • Semporna: This is one for all you divers out there! Semaporna may be a little far from KK (budget flights are available) but it is the place to go for world-renowned diving spots. 

Contributors: 

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Staff at Rasta Room
🙏 Gemma Ann | South East Asia Facebook Community
🙏 Mohammed Faredzuan Bin Sudi
🙏 Tim Ashdown | Writer at South East Asia Backpacker  
🙏 Many KK Grab Drivers

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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