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Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia: 8 top things to do

By Chinny Daez 16 September 2020

Header images courtesy of Hugo D. and Andy Wang (via Unsplash)

You’ve probably already heard of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s buzzing city centre. With its iconic skyscrapers and numerous shopping centres, it’s just one representation of Malaysia as a country. One of the other cities that contribute to Malaysia’s cultural makeup is its sister city, Kota Kinabalu.

The laid-back, coastal city of Kota Kinabalu (KK for short) may not be the thriving metropolis KL is known as, but its old-time charm and geographical location make it a popular holiday destination for foreigners and locals alike. So if you’re planning your next trip out to Sabah, here are a few recommendations for the top things to do when in Kota Kinabalu.

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Photo credit: Hugo D. (via Unsplash)

For the city slickers

If long car trips and boat rides don’t sound appealing to you, join a city tour and visit some of Kota Kinabalu’s famous landmarks. Make sure to stop by the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque and the State Mosque—both gorgeous buildings that are testaments to the city’s faith. Other sites to visit include the Atkinson Clock Tower and the Signal Hill Observatory for some amazing views of the cityscape.

Photo credit: @tappandbeartravel (via Instagram)

For the shopaholics

There are two main markets you should go to for some retail therapy. The Gaya Street Sunday Market and the Handicraft Market (also known as the Filipino Market) both sell a variety of knickknacks, clothes, food, and more. Just be warned that these two markets are also very popular with tourists, which means that prices tend to be a bit inflated. So don’t be afraid to bargain for a better deal!

Photo credit: Ling Tang (via Unsplash)

For the adventure seekers

If you scour the internet for the top things to do in KK, there will always be one consistent answer: Mount Kinabalu. The tallest mountain in Malaysia and within a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot, anyone and everyone will say that a visit to the famous mountain is a must when in the area. If you’d rather not endure an overnight hike, you can always visit the base of the mountain and walk through the botanical garden.

Another activity you can do to get your blood pumping is to go white water rafting on the Kiulu River. An hour’s drive away from the city, the Kiulu River is the perfect place to experience a wild ride on the rapids. Tip: If you plan to hike Mount Kinabalu, make sure to go through a travel agency and secure your slot at least six months in advance. The mountain has strict regulations and only allows a limited number of people to hike up at a time.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Fahrul Azmi (via Unsplash)

For the beach fanatics

Just a 20-minute boat ride away, the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a crowd favourite with visitors. The marine park consists of five islands—Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug, and Mamutik—each with their own unique characteristics. You can opt to join an island-hopping tour that takes you to three to five islands or you can choose to charter your own boat and decide on your own itinerary. Don’t forget to pack your snorkelling gear too because the blue waters are usually filled with amazing marine life.

If you’d prefer a more relaxed day on the beach without having to board a boat, you can make your way to Tanjung Aru beach. Take a nap on the sand, walk along the shoreline, or watch the sunset over the horizon. The best part about Tanjung Aru? No entrance fees!

Photo credit: @ijayeongwonhi (via Instagram)

For the curious foodies

Satisfy your cravings with a trip to the heart of Chinatown, where you can find some of the best street food in KK. Make sure to try some laksa, mee tuaran, coconut pudding, and more. The choices for food here are endless, so make sure to come on an empty stomach. If you fancy dining with a view, head to the waterfront and hop from restaurant to bar, in search of some great eats.

Photo credit: @samtippetts (via Instagram)

For animal enthusiasts

Got a soft spot for animals and would love to pay some a visit while on vacation? You can visit the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. The park is actually a rehabilitation centre for endangered species, and houses animals like elephants, tigers, monkeys, deer, rhinos, and more. You could also go to the Sepilok Orangutan Center and see the Borneo orangutans up close. Watch them in their natural habitat, and even get a chance to feed them bananas and milk!

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

By Pavan Shamdasani 21 January 2020
By Scott Dunn 12 September 2020
Photo credit: @rinadviny (via Instagram)

For the history and culture buffs

If your idea of a good time means learning about the history and culture of the city and its people, a day spent at the Sabah State Museum is a must. The large museum complex holds countless memorabilia, a heritage village, and an art gallery. You can quite literally spend an entire day here without getting bored!

If you want a more in-depth and interactive experience, you can choose to visit a cultural village and learn about the ethnic communities of the area. Mari Mari Cultural Village is a popular one, where you’ll get to join in on the indigenous tribes’ activities. Another village you can visit is Monsopiad Cultural Village, where you’ll learn about the culture of the Kadazan people and their ancient head-hunting traditions.

Photo credit: Roberto Reposo (via Unsplash)

For the nature lovers

Fans of nature and the outdoors will have plenty of options in Kota Kinabalu. You can go on a cruise down the Klias River, taking in the scenic views while spotting some monkeys and fireflies along the way. Another great option would be to visit Kinabalu National Park. Trek along one of the many nature trails in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and take in the varying kinds of flora and fauna native to the area. You can even take a dip in the Poring Hot Springs at the end of your hike to refresh and rejuvenate yourself.

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Chinny Daez


Based in Manila, Chinny is a grammar fiend and travel-holic by nature. She can usually be found scouring the internet for cheap tickets and planning her next trip to wherever the wind takes her.