The Top 10 Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Photo of Mark Zumi
10 August 2018

Kota Kinabalu is a treasure trove of adventure and wonder. Travellers of this city can choose to explore from lush rainforests, crystal clear waters, stunning mountain peaks, to the contemporary landscape of the city’s architecture and heritage.

Mount Kinabalu

The tallest mountain in Southeast Asia and one of the highest trekkable peaks in the world, Mount Kinabalu is a stunning climb and a must for any adventurer.

Slightly over 4,000 meters, the climb is relatively approachable for most, and the path is well-trodden. Experienced hikers can manage to finish the climb in a day or two, but it’s generally advised to take up to three days to fully acclimatise yourself.

Costs for the climb range around RM $300, not including food and equipment. It is best to plan for the climb before arriving, as last-minute hikers may not be allowed to hike due to the number of climbers being limited to around 135 daily.

Mount Kinabalu Park Botanical Garden

If you’re in the area of Mount Kinabalu, nature-lovers should be sure to make their way to the Botanical Garden. This garden is one of Kinabalu Park’s best kept secrets and boasts one of the richest assemblage of flora in the world, with an estimate of over 5,000 plant species.

The Kinabalu Park Botanical Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entrance fees are around RM $5 with a 50% discount for visitors below 18 years old. Guided tours are also available at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily and are highly recommended for nature enthusiasts.

Klias River Cruise

A relaxing and lovely way to enjoy the forest scenery of Kota Kinabalu is through taking a river cruise on the Klias River. This takes a day trip into the Klias Wetlands reserve near Kota Kinabalu. Sit back and be treated to gorgeous views of where the river meets the sea and a spectacular view of Mount Kinabalu. There, you can get the chance to cruise through a mangrove area all while trying to spot the incredible wildlife of monkeys, birds and, if you book a late-evening cruise, you could be lucky to catch some incredible displays of fireflies!

The proboscis monkey is one of the many sights to catch on the river cruise | © Peter Gronemann/Wikimedia Commons

Mari Mari Cultural Village

Although not technically in Kota Kinabalu, this cultural village is a common trip taken by most visitors. Situated away from the hustling and bustling city, Mari Mari invites guests to immerse themselves first-hand into the traditional lifestyles of the Sabahan tribes.

Tours are three hours long and allow visitors to cycle through a list of experiences; from exploring traditional homes all the way through culture, customs and food. The tour also includes an interactive performance by the village folk, so you can join in the fun!

The village is a 30-minute journey from the city, and you can arrange for transport from your lodgings when booking.

Villagers performing the bamboo pole dance | © shankar s./Flickr

City Mosque

While in Kota Kinabalu, don’t miss out the chance to check out the City Mosque. Situated near the sea, this majestic white mosque is a marvel of Islamic contemporary architecture and truly a sight to behold.

This floating mosque has a prayer hall which houses three madrasahs and accommodates up to 12, 000 people. As beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, travellers can venture inside for free; the mosque is open for public visits daily except Fridays.

The gorgeous Sabah Mosque | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Kota Kinabalu Waterfront

If you’re looking for a place to unwind after a long day of walking around, the Waterfront is the place to be. The entire esplanade of the Kota Kinabalu waterfront is within walking distance across the street of hotels.

Along the waterfront are rows of pubs and restaurants as well as a shopping mall; the place comes alive at night and is best enjoyed sitting on the boardwalk with drinks or fresh seafood, whilst watching the sunset on the horizon.

Serene Waterfront | © Flanegan/Wikimedia Commons

Gaya Street Sunday Market

If you’re in Kota Kinabalu on a weekend, it’s definitely worth visiting this street market on an early Sunday morning. The market opens at 6 a.m., and it is best to go earlier to beat both the heat and the crowds.

Gaya Street is a good place to go souvenir shopping; local stall holders sell all sorts of interesting knick-knacks such as crafts, clothes and antiques. Be aware that prices can be hiked up, so it’s time to flex those bargaining muscles to land a good deal.

One of the many traders of the market | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Muzium Sabah

For the culture lover, this museum shouldn’t be missed. Packed with information on the diverse aspects of Sabahan culture, visitors can browse through sections such as the ceramics and pottery, natural history, ethnography, all peppered with colourful displays and even animal exhibits.

Also on the museum grounds is a Heritage Village where visitors can enter and experience different types of traditional houses of the various indigenous groups of Sabah. Admission fees for the museum are priced at RM $15, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sabah Museum | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Accessible through a 20-minute speedboat ride from Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a playground for the adventurous. The Marine Park consists a cluster of islands: Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sulug.

Each of these islands offer a plethora of activities; Gaya and Manukan are the most tourist-equipped and the best islands for leisurely beach strolls and a quick swim. You can even opt to stay in one of the resorts here as an island getaway from the city.

The jetty at Manukan Island | © amrufm/Flickr

Diving and Snorkeling

One of the most popular things to do while in Kota Kinabalu, is to go diving in the crystal-clear oceans of the islands. As a simple and quick option, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park offers a variety of dive spots at various islands and even snorkeling spots for those aren’t licensed to dive.

Licensed divers who want more of a challenge can seek out independent dive tours and head over to the popular dive spots that suit your style of diving.

For those who want to start diving, begin your journey here and sign up for PADI-certified diving courses through one of the many operators. These courses last about three days, and successfully completing a course will grant you a diver’s certification that can be used worldwide!

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