Before setting off
Most tourists stay at one of the hotels or hostels in the city centre a few minutes on foot from restaurants, coffee shops, and shopping malls. Culture Trip recommends Borneo Backpackers with its arty interior, rooftop terrace, and friendly staff. Every tourist needs to change money. A top tip is to use the foreign exchange offices in Wisma Merdeka Shopping Mall, as they offer slightly better rates. It’s also a good idea to download the Grab App and use Grab to explore the city. Most journeys inside an air-conditioned car cost less than RM10 ($2.60), as opposed to RM20+ ($5.10) for a taxi.
Kota Kinabalu is relatively small and it’s easy to explore the main attractions using a combination of walking and using Grab. Day one of 48 hours in Kota Kinabalu includes visiting the historical Atkinson Clock Tower, a hill-side viewing deck overlooking the city, the iconic Floating Mosque, the long Likas Bay, and a magical sunset at Tanjung Aru.
Wake up early and stroll along Gaya Street, which is the city’s main road and location of the famous Sunday Market. Countless coffee shop-style restaurants serve budget-friendly fried rice and noodle dishes for breakfast, as well as iced coffee for the perfect start to the day. Look at a map and plan a walking route around the city. Start at Atkinson Clock Tower, Kota Kinabalu’s oldest building from the British colonial era on Signal Hill. Snap a photo from Dewan Road and climb the steps to the Clock Tower. Head down to Padang Merdeka, or Independence Square, before strolling through the city to snap a few more photographs.
When it’s lunch time check out Fook Yuen, a mid-range self-service restaurant and coffee shop on Gaya Street. Take a plate and choose from the sides, which mostly consist of Halal-friendly Chinese food. For a lighter lunch get a snack at the bakery on the ground floor of Wisma Merdeka. After lunch, take Grab to Signal Hill Observatory Tower, a viewing platform on Signal Hill behind Kota Kinabalu’s city centre. Relax and have a coffee or soft drink at the café while enjoying the view before booking Grab to Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, the famous Floating Mosque.
Either stroll approximately five kilometres (3.1 miles) along the scenic Likas Bay to Kota Kinabalu and get a Grab to Tanjung Aru, or go directly from the Floating Mosque. The copper-coloured beach a few kilometres from the city centre hugs the coastline fringed by a park. A favourite spot for picnicking locals, this is one of the best beaches in Kota Kinabalu. But the highlight is the sunset. On a clear day, expect the sky to fill with various tones of reds and oranges over the islands on the horizon. Sunset time varies very little throughout the year. The earliest is at around 5:50pm, while the latest takes place at 6:40pm.
It’s advisable to have a quiet first night. Tomorrow includes an active day of island hopping. Pro-tip: check out the prices and schedules at Jesselton Point the night before and plan to arrive as early as possible to maximise time. For dinner, choose any one of the restaurants in Kota Kinabalu.
Part two of 48 hours in Kota Kinabalu involves island hopping in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Consisting of Gaya, Sapi, Manutik, Sulug and Manukan, tourists can choose between visiting just one island or all five. Expect to pay a terminal fee and admission fee on top of the ferry. Boats depart for each island with packages including two, three, and four island hops.
Morning and afternoon
The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park’s islands have a forested interior, rocky coastline, white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters. Head to Manukan to relax on the beach, snap photographs and go snorkelling (equipment available on the islands). Gaya features a floating village and offers more jungle-centric activities such as trekking and wildlife spotting. The other three are less developed and get fewer tourists, but still have beaches, snorkelling spots, and some facilities. Pulau Tiga, Borneo’s original Survivor Island, can be visited too. But it will take a full day and probably shouldn’t be included with just 48 hours in Kota Kinabalu.
Evening and night
Return to the city and go to the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront. Stroll along and try splurging on fresh seafood at one of the promenade-side restaurants, which shouldn’t come to much more than RM120 ($30.60) for two people. Or you could head a few blocks inland to Gaya Street where tourists will find local-style restaurants serving Malay, Indian, and Chinese food. For a few drinks later, Upperstar opposite the Hyatt Regency and near the Swordfish Statue has affordable beer sets and cocktails. Check out the other bars in Kota Kinabalu for a more active night out and live music.