Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo: Why It’s a Must-See

Kota Kinabalu, on the coast of the South China Sea, is the main gateway into Malaysian Borneo. The capital of the state of Sabah, it attracts many adventure travelers due to its proximity to diving sites, lush rainforests and Mount Kinabalu. (All main roads in the state radiate out from this city.)

But this city of 500,000 people is much more than just a stopping point on your wildlife watching or scuba diving adventure. It’s worth spending a bit of time in Kota Kinabalu (aka. KK) to enjoy the shopping, cuisine, sunsets and more. Plus, this location is an ideal spot to learn about the unique culture and history of Malaysian Borneo, as it has several great museums, cultural villages and heritage buildings.

It’s one of those cities where, if you aren’t on a set travel schedule, a few days can easily stretch into several as you relax into the slow rhythm of long seafood feasts while watching the sunset every evening.

Why Kota Kinabalu Should Be On Your Travel Bucketlist

Photo by Jason Thien
  1. This city has an exciting and diverse mix of cuisine, with food from Korea, Japan, India, Hungary, Mexico and more – and options that range from street food to high end dining.
  2. If you are in the mood for an adrenaline rush, you’ll find zip lines, parasailing and much more within a short distance from the city.
  3. The sunsets here really are spectacular. On most nights, the sky lights up with a fiery glow and it makes for some pretty spectacular photos.
  4. There’s an interesting balance between the shiny, modern new malls and the historic, colonial architecture.
  5. The arts and music scene is alive and well, with plenty of concerts, festivals and events to enjoy.
  6. The city is the perfect base for booking an adventure in to the wilderness of Borneo, whether you want to go trekking, wildlife watching or diving.
  7. If you love seafood, you’ll be in heaven. The restaurants serve up high quality, fresh and delicious seafood cooked to perfection.
  8. KK is an incredibly diverse city, with people from Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Brunei and many other destinations living here together.
  9. Like in many cities in Malaysia, most locals in KK are able to understand and speak basic English. (Which makes it very easy for a traveler to get around.)
  10. If you love to fish, KK will excite you. It is one of the best (and cheapest) places in Malaysia for deep sea fishing expeditions.

Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu

By Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Here are some of the attractions and activities you can look forward to when you stay in KK.

Stroll Along the Waterfront

The most scenic place to walk in Kota Kinabalu is the waterfront esplanade, which is lined with seafood restaurants and pubs with outdoor patios. Take a seat at one of the restaurants and watch the sunset with a cold beer and a plate of fresh fish.

Explore Sabah State Museum

This museum has three stories of exhibits and it is a great place to learn about the complex history of Sabah and Kota Kinabalu. It also features a Heritage Village, an Art Gallery and a Science and Technology Museum.

Visit The City Mosque

Located close to the sea, this stunning building is an impressive example of Islamic contemporary architecture. It is one of the most iconic buildings in the city and it has an enormous prayer hall that can accommodate up to 12,000 people. The mosque is open for public visits every day except Fridays.

Shop at Gaya Street Sunday Market

You can find everything at this lively market, from clothing to antiques to handmade jewelry and artisan crafts. It opens at 6am on Sunday morning – so go as early as possible to beat the heat and the crowds. (Don’t be afraid to haggle with the sellers on the price!)

Go Diving and Snorkeling

The waters around Kota Kinabalu are warm and crystal clear – ideal for diving and snorkeling. Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a great place to start, as it offers a variety of dive and snorkeling spots. If you are a licensed diver and you want more of a challenge, you can take a diving tour expedition further afield.

The Green Connection Aquarium

Head to the Green Connection is you want to see the aquatic wildlife of Borneo without going scuba diving – including sharks, snakes and more. It’s located 10 minutes outside of the city by taxi.

Chill Out in the Mall

Kota Kinabalu has several shopping malls – the perfect place to spend the afternoon in air-conditioned comfort while hunting for souvenirs or updating your wardrobe.

Trek in Kinabalu National Park

The most challenging trek in this lush and unspoiled national park is the summit of the 4,095-meter peak of Mount Kinabalu. However, if you aren’t up for climbing the mountain there are many other trekking trails in the park.

Admire the View from Signal Hill Observatory

Walk 10 minutes uphill from the Atkinson Clock Tower and you’ll reach this viewpoint, which offers a great view of the city centre.

Explore Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve

Take a day trip 1.5 hours of town to this nature preserve, located along the Klias River. You can take a cruise which will give you a chance to see the diverse and fascinating wildlife of Borneo – from proboscis monkeys to snakes to fireflies.

Is Kota Kinabalu on Your Travel Radar?

Would you travel to Kota Kinabalu? If you’ve been, let me know your recommendations (which was your favorite seafood place?) I always love to hear your travel stories in the comments.

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