With its fantastic location near the beach, jungle and mountain, there’s no shortage of amazing things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids. Whether you’re looking for culture, wildlife or adventure, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy, so it’s worth allowing a few days into your itinerary for a stopover.
If you are planning a visit to Borneo, you’ll probably need to pass through Kota Kinabalu. After all, it is the gateway to Borneo and its many unique attractions. Plus, Kota Kinabalu has an international airport, so is an ideal place to start your Borneo travels.
Kota Kinabalu is in the north west of Borneo and is the capital of Sabah. It is a coastal town at the foot of Mount Kinabalu and surrounded by rainforest.
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Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu’s prime location provides a wealth of choice when it comes to adventure activities. White-water rafting, zip-lining and hiking are just a taste of the things to do in Kota Kinabalu. All this makes it the perfect destination for a family holiday. There’s so much for kids to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Here’s a round up of our top things to do with kids in Kota Kinabalu and some practical tips for your trip.
Snorkel at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
One of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids is snorkelling. Head to the Jesselton Point, which is the main ferry terminal for the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. From here you can take a boat to your chosen island.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is made up of a group of 5 islands; Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, Sapi and Sulug. Some of the larger islands have luxury resorts, where you can stay overnight.
We booked our day trip with Diverse Borneo, which I would recommend. This package included a professional snorkelling guide, boat transfers, equipment hire and lunch.
The excursion included a stop at 3 different diving sites, where we saw a variety of fish and a turtle. Each snorkelling session lasted 45 minutes in the water. AT lunchtime we stopped at Padang Point on Pulau Gaya.
Try the world's longest island to island zipline
If your family likes a thrill experience, take them for a ride on the world’s longest island to island zipline.
The Coral Flyer zipline will take you through the air at speeds of up to 60 km per hour from the tropical island of Gaya to Sapi. You’ll be able to look down on the clear water and sandy beaches.
If you want to organise it independently, the ticket desk for the trip is on the jetty at Pulau Sapi. However, there are also several organised tours, which will include lunch, safety equipment and transfers. You can also include it as an additional extra on the snorkelling excursion.
Go white water rafting on the Kiulu River
The next on our list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids is white-water rafting . If you love the water, this is an excellent excursion.
We booked a stage 1-2 rafting excursion on the River Kiulu with Riverbug. The starting point is at the Traverse Adventure Centre in Kiulu, about 1 hour from Kota Kinabalu. Our package included transfers, rafting, equipment and lunch.
Overall, we spent about 1 ½ hours rafting and splashing in the river. The Level 1-2 is ideal for families or beginners. It never gets too rough and there are stops for children (and adults) to mess about in the water.
There are higher level stages available for more experienced rafters and thrill-seekers!
Meet the locals at the Mari Mari Cultural Village
One of the best ways for kids to learn more about the lives of the local Sabah people is on an excursion to the Mari Mari Cultural Village. This is in interactive experience which includes a visit to the traditional homes, demonstrations and a live performance by local natives.
During your visit to the Mari Mari Village, you’ll learn how to make a blow-pipe, start a fire, and taste some traditional delicacies. You can even join in with some local dancing! It is a popular trip, so worth booking an organised tour in advance.
Hit the beach
You can’t visit Kota Kinabalu without a trip to the beach.
If you want a beach near to Kota Kinabalu’s city centre, head to Tanjung Aru. This is a long sandy beach, popular with locals, but has a backdrop of skyscrapers. It’s a great spot if you want a fantastic sunset.
If you prefer a more tropical island feel, take a ferry from Jesselton Point. From here you can reach the beautiful islands of the Tunku Abdul Marine Park. You’ll find long sandy beaches, clear aqua waters and a backdrop of rainforest.
We were at the Nexus Beach Resort, so enjoyed the beach here. The resort has 6km of white, sandy beach so is a perfect play area for children. It also has some spectacular sunsets in the evening.
Sign up to a children’s activity programme
If you are staying at a beach resort, they are likely to offer an recreation programme for children. The Nexus Beach Resort had a timetable of events each day and the children were very keen to join in. They took part in water polo, tae kwondo, arts and crafts sessions, and Batik painting.
Ride the waves
Surprisingly, the sea at Nexus Beach Resort was quite rough. I didn’t allow the children to swim unsupervised, but it was a perfect opportunity for jumping some giant waves. The was a fun thing to do with the family, but you really need to hold onto your swim wear!
Explore Kinabalu National Park
If you want to discover some of Sabah’s diverse flora and fauna, take a trip to Kinabalu National Park. This park is set in 75,000 hectares of rainforest and has been designated as Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site.
Kinabalu National Park is about 1 ½ hours from KK city centre. The easiest option is to book an organised tour to get there, either for a day or overnight. Alternatively, you could travel independently by bus.
Once there, you can do a guided walk, explore the mountain garden, or follow the canopy walkway. Kinabalu Park is home to thousands of species of rare, exotic flora and fauna, so there’s plenty to see. Alternatively, you could visit the Botanical Gardens or Butterfly Farm.
For anyone who wants a challenge, you could climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. You will need to book an overnight stay for this trip.
Relax at the Poring Hot Springs
About 40 km from the Kinabalu Park is the Poring Hot Springs. The main attraction here is the natural hot springs. Tourists can soak their muscles and relax in tubs flowing with hot sulphurous water.
A visit to Poring Hot Springs is often included in excursions to Kinabalu National Park.
See the world's largest flower
One of the more unusual reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu is to see the colossal rafflesia flower.
The rafflesia flower is the national flower of Malaysia and the world’s largest bloom. It can grow up to one metre in diameter, but only grows in a few places on earth, including the Borneo rainforest. Unfortunately, the rafflesia only blooms for 3 to 5 days a year, so we weren’t lucky enough to see it.
However, if you are there at the right time (April-May or September-October), head to Rafflesia Information Centre. This is in Tambunan, about an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. From here you can trek through the rainforest in search of the elusive, giant flower. Several organised trips go directly from Kota Kinabalu.
A word of warning – the rafflesia is apparently very smelly. Consequently, it has the nickname “corpse flower”, as it smells like decaying flesh!
Sample Malaysian food
One of the best things about travelling overseas is trying new food. The hawker markets in Kota Kinabalu are very family-friendly and have lots of tempting new dishes for kids to try. Our children loved drinking milk from a coconut and working their way through a pile of banana fritters at Jesselton Point.
Be fascinated by orangutans
Of course, the main attraction of a visit to Borneo is its unique and stunning wildlife. You really need to make sure you see an orangutan or probiscus monkey before you leave.
The world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is about 6 hours by car from Kota Kinabalu. To save time, you can take a direct flight to Sandakan in only 40 minutes.
For even more wildlife in its natural habitat, book a jungle adventure on the River Kinabatangan.
How to get to Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu has its own international airport (KKIA), which is located about 20 minutes outside of the city. You can fly direct from Kuala Lumpa, the capital of Malaysia in about 2.5 hours. Alternatively, you could come direct from Singapore or Hong Kong.
We came via Singapore and stayed there for four days first. Singapore is an amazing place to visit and we really could have stayed longer. It is worth a visit just to see Singapore’s amazing airport, The Jewel Changi.
Accommodation in Kota Kinabalu
If you are looking for overnight accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, you should choose whether you prefer to stay in the city centre on in a one of the beach resorts up the coast.
The city centre has the advantage of being more accessible to Kota Kinabalu, but the beach resorts offer fantastic beaches and luxury. If money is no object, stay at the Shangri-La Rasa Rasa Ria, which is about 22 miles from the city. The accommodation is beautiful, but is top budget. You can book the Shangri-La here.
If you want to stay in the Kota Kinabalu City Centre, there are plenty of budget and mid-range options, including homestays, apartments and hotels. On our first stopover in Kota Kinabalu we stayed at the HotelSixty3. This is only 20 minutes from the airport, so ideal if you arrive late or have an early flight.
HotelSixty3 is a clean, safe hotel, with a large family room. It is walking distance from a couple of local restaurants and the Gaya Street Sunday Market.
Transport in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu has a good network of local and national buses:-
- The air-conditioned City Bus follows 3 routes around the city.
- The Local Bus (known as Mini-Bus), which will transport you to suburban areas and outside of Kota Kinabalu.
- The Airport Bus provides a shuttle service between the airport and Kota Kinabalu.
- The Express Bus is good for long distance journeys. It can take you to other towns in Sabah or to popular attractions and destinations, such as Kinabalu Park and Sepilok.
Alternatively, it is easy to use a taxi or Grab(Asian equivalent of uber).
As we were staying at a beach resort, we used a Grab for most journeys. They were readily available and reasonably priced. The main advantage of using Grab is that you know in advance how much to your journey costs. Remember to download the app before you travel.
Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan
If you’re visiting Borneo, it’s likely you’ll want to visit Sandakan, to see the jungle and amazing wildlife on the East side of the island.
The easiest way to get from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is to fly direct, as it only takes about 40 minutes. There are 3 airlines that offer cheap flights, Air Malaysia, Firefly and Air Asia. They offer about 66 flights a week, so you have plenty of choice when to fly.
Alternatively, a cheaper option is to take the bus, which takes about 6 hours.
Language in Kota Kinabalu
The main language spoken in Kota Kinabalu by the Chinese community is Hakka, but Mandarin and Cantonese are also widely understood and spoken. English was also widely understood at the tourist places.
Currency in Borneo
The official currency of Borneo is the Malaysia Ringitt (RM). You can order your currency from the bank before you travel or take US dollars to exchange.
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