Have you planned a trip to Sabah and wondering what are the top things to do in Kota Kinabalu? Or are you deciding how to best spend your time on your Borneo adventure and working out the main attractions in Kota Kinabalu?
If you are planning a visit to this amazing Malaysian island, it is highly likely that you’ll need to pass through Kota Kinabalu. It is the gateway to Borneo and its many amazing attractions.
Kota Kinabalu is in the north-west of the island of Borneo and is the capital of Sabah. It is a coastal town at the foot of Mount Kinabalu and surrounded by rainforest. Kota Kinabalu has an international airport, so is an ideal place to start your Borneo travels.
Whether you are looking for nature, wildlife or adventure, you will find plenty of things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Honestly, it is not the most beautiful city, but it’s in a fantastic location near the beach, jungle and mountain, so there are many things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Here are our top things to do in Kota Kinabalu:-
Snorkel at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
One of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu 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 a day trip with Diverse Borneo. This package included a professional snorkelling guide, boat transfers, equipment and lunch.
We were able to visit 3 different diving sites. Each snorkelling session lasted 45 minutes in the water. After 2 sessions, we stopped for lunch at Padang Point on Pulau Gaya.
The boys had the most awesome time snorkelling. They loved swimming around with fish and even spotted a green turtle passing by. The sea was fairly choppy on the day we went and constant bobbing meant it wasn’t my best day out, but I was clearly in the minority.
Go white water rafting on the Kiulu River
If you love the water, another great day out is white water rafting on the River Kiulu.
We booked a stage 1-2 rafting excursion with Riverbug. The starting point 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 families or beginners. It never gets too rough and there are stops for children (and us) to mess about in the water.
There are higher level stages available for more experienced rafters and thrill-seekers!
Sign up to a children’s activity programme
We were staying at the luxury Nexus Beach Resort, which is about 30 km North of the city centre. Our children were very keen to join in activities at the recreation club. After a very thorough study of the programme, the boys signed up for tae kwondo, arts and crafts and Batik painting.
Hit 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 want to enjoy 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.
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!
Visit Kinabalu National Park
If you want to get away from the water and enjoy some of Sabah’s spectacular nature, head for 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 Park is about 1 ½ hours from KK city centre. However, there are many organised trips to get there, either for a day or overnight.
At the park you can find thousands of species of rare, exotic flora and fauna. There are also trails to follow, waterfalls and a canopy walk. Alternatively, you could admire the orchids at the botanical gardens or visit the butterfly farm.
Towering above Kinabalu National park is Mount Kinabalu. You need an overnight stay for this trip. However, it is a tough walk and not really suitable for little children.
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
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. Unfotunately, 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. A number of organised trips will take you there 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
Kota Kinabalu has many different family-friendly eateries which kids will enjoy. There were lots of rice or noodle dishes and some very special desserts.
Our children loved drinking milk from a coconut and eating banana fritters at Jesselton Point waterfront.
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.
Getting around Kota Kinabalu
We used a Grab (Asian equivalent of uber) for nearly all our journeys. They were readily available and reasonably priced.
The main advantage of using Grab is that you know in advance how much to pay for your journey. You should 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.
Accommodation in Kota Kinabalu
There is a wide range of accommodation available in Kota Kinabalu and something to suit every budget.
On arrival we stayed at the HotelSixty3. This hotel is about 20 minutes from the airport and was ideal for an overnight stop.
HotelSixty3 is a clean, safe hotel, with a large family room. It is walking distance from a couple of local restaurants. We ate noodles at Fook Yuen, which is opposite the hotel.
On our return to Kota Kinabalu we stayed at the Nexus Beach Resort. This is a large, luxury beach resort in Karambunai, 40 minutes North of the city centre.
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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