Kota Kinabalu Travel Guide
In a nutshell
Kota Kinabalu is the gateway city for Malaysian Borneo, where most tours to Sandakan begin and from where you can access Kinabalu National Park. It’s a relatively small but rapidly growing city which also has an interesting colonial history and several things to do in the centre itself.
Why go to Kota Kinabalu
As part of the city’s heritage trail and monuments, things to see and do include the Atkinson Clock Tower, Signal Hill Observatory, Green Connection Aquarium and Double Six Monument. Many of these have interesting history and stories behind them so it’s worth doing a bit of research before visiting or perhaps choosing to join a tour.
Kota Kinabalu also has several pleasant beaches to enjoy, including Tanjung Art, Likas Bay and some scenic landscapes on the northern coast. For marine lovers there is the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, which is just 15 minutes by speedboat and incorporates 5 individual islands just off the coast.
Further outside of the city but still accessible are sights like the Kokol Hills, which offers great views of the city and the Los Kawi wildlife park, in addition to its visitor and research centre. There are also several pleasant parks, with the City Park including a war memorial in memory of losses suffered in the second world war, whilst Perdana Park is a newer park with a nightly fountain show.
The city also hosts several good museums, including the Islamic Civilisation Museum.
Top reasons to visit though are usually for the tourist attractions like scuba diving and snorkelling, deep sea fishing, kayaking and as a base to visit the famous Kinabalu mountain in Kinabalu National Park.
When to go to Kota Kinabalu
One of the best things about Kota Kinabalu and the surrounding areas in Malaysian Borneo is that the weather is hospitable year round. Whilst August and September are usually the most popular times for people to visit, the weather is generally hot and sunny in all months of the year and can be visited at any time.
Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu
There are options from low budget backpacker accommodation to higher end and more luxurious choices, and most of the time you’ll find that breakfast is included and free wifi is reliable and freely available. Most budget options are located centrally around the Chinatown area of the city, whilst the higher end choices tend to be either part of shopping centres or situated in places where they can give a good view of the city and surrounding coast.
One of the best things about the accommodation here is that most places are extremely well set up for tourism in the area. This makes them a great place to find out more about what there is to do and how best to include everything you want to see within your itinerary - hostels especially can often provide good value tours of local attractions.
Where to eat in Kota Kinabalu
As with accommodation, there is no shortage of restaurants in Kota Kinabalu, so you definitely have no need to worry about going hungry during your stay. With its coastal location and strong fishing community, local seafood is a particularly good choice, with many great seafood restaurants available. Often you’ll find the price of this fresh fish and seafood is surprisingly cheap. There are also lots of international restaurants, even a Canadian spot, and a very popular Italian.
As you might expect, it’s simple to find Malaysian food, whether you’re looking for bargain street food at the nightly markets and food stands, or something more upmarket. Kota Kinabalu has a high population of Chinese, as many made this their base when moving to Borneo, and therefore there are also a lot of good quality Chinese restaurants to choose from - many locals also speak Chinese.
How to get around Kota Kinabalu
Getting around the city is fairly straightforward as it’s quite compact on the whole. Most of the roads have pavements that aren’t in bad condition and as long as you keep your eye on the traffic it’s simple to get around the centre of Kota Kinabalu on foot.
If you don’t feel like walking then the next best option is to use an app like Uber or Grab to organise taxis. These are extremely easy to schedule, reliable and usually the drivers know their way around well and speak good English - often providing lots of useful information about their local area. It’s also very cheap, with journeys in the city usually costing no more than a couple of dollars.
There are a few bus routes in the city but for local transport, taxis are by far the easiest choice.
How to get to and from Kota Kinabalu
Most people get to Kota Kinabalu via air as the city has a very well connected airport that hosts many international and domestic flights. Often these routes are operated by budget airliners, making it cheap and quick to use air transport to get here and to leave at the end of your stay.
The airport is surprisingly small, but international flights arrive from countries like China, Thailand, Brunei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. In our experience it’s always worth checking flight prices in Malaysia even for domestic flights as you can get some amazing bargains and Kota Kinabalu is no different.
When it comes to getting to the city from the airport there are two main options - registered taxis at MYR30 per car or the airport bus which leaves every hour and costs MYR5 per person.
It’s also easy to reach Kota Kinabalu by road from other destinations in Sandakan and some choose to hire a car for their visit. Car hire is generally affordable and the roads are usually in reasonable condition, although driving standards can vary greatly and may not always be what you’re used to. Arriving by car, either self driven or with a private transfer, is a more expensive but still popular option for many people visiting from places like Sandakan, Tawau, Labuan, Miri and even Brunei which is only a few hours drive away.
There are also a few bus stations that offer long distance bus routes. It takes around 5-6 hours to reach Kota Kinabalu from Sandakan; 9-10 hours from Semporna and around 2 hours from Kinabalu National Park and nearby Ranau village.
Finally, it’s also possible to reach Kota Kinabalu by boat if you’re travelling from Labuan, where a twice daily service is offered.