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The Kota Kinabalu Rundown

Kota Kinabalu, or KK, is the small capital and nerve center of the state of Sabah, Malaysia and a de facto first stop for visitors to northwest Borneo. With a metro area about to hone in on 1 million people over the next decade or so, the city is the stout heart of a state famously profuse with rare fauna and flora. From thick swaths of jungle to incandescent coral reefs, indigenous longhouse villages to UNESCO World Heritage Kinabalu National Park, Sabah is sublime.

Regardless if the mandate is to explore the manifold natural treasures and native culture of Sabah, visitors will inevitably spend a few days in Kota Kinabalu. Street markets, al fresco waterfront restaurants, heritage museums and landmarks all compete for space in the compact cityscape and offer the most dynamic urban action outside of the Sarawak capital of Kuching. As a result, visitors may want to make time for points of interest like the Sabah Art Gallery, Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sabah Museum and Chinese Street Market. Outside KK proper, Lok Kawi Wildlife Park and Mount Kinabalu, the most prominent summit on the island of Borneo, rightfully summon scores of daily travelers.

Kota Kinabalu’s Top 10

10. Sabah State Mosque dates back to 1974 and is a notable work of modern Islamic design.

5. Marri Marri Cultural Village, some 25 minutes outside of KK proper, provides a superb eco-indigenous jungle tour.

9. Signal Hill offers nonpareil views of the coast and KK parklands.

4. Sabah Art Gallery unveils copious works by local artists.

8. Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is a foremost reserve for orangutans and a host of other wildlife.

3. Museum of Islamic Civilisation is a paramount archive and trove of important Muslim relics and documents.

7. Chinese Street Market takes over Jalan Gaya every Sunday.

2. Sabah Museum has a broad mandate that covers archaeological, ethnographic, mineralogical and zoological collections.

6. Kota Kinabalu City Mosque has a gorgeous seaside backdrop and opulent décor. The mosque holds up to 12,000 faithful at a time.

1. Kinabalu National Park is one of only two natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malaysia.

Kota Kinabalu History

  • Atkinson Clock Tower - This timepiece was completed in 1905 and survived the Jesselton bombing in 1945.
  • Museum of Islamic Civilisation - A museum in Kota Kinabalu that is dedicated to showcasing Muslim history and culture.
  • North Borneo Steam Railway - Built in 1896, you can see what steam rail looked like and learn about railway history in Malaysia.
  • Petagas War Memorial - A memorial that commemorates the people who died fighting against the Japanese forces.
  • Double Six Monument - This place commemorates the death of Chief Minister Tun Fuad Stephens and several other leaders who died in an airplane crash in 1976.

Kota Kinabalu Art & Culture

  • Science and Technology Centre - A small museum in Kota Kinabalu that hosts a few exhibits about the petroleum industry.
  • Mari Mari Cultural Village - A unique three-hour tour takes you to see the various indigenous cultures in the city.
  • Kadazan-Dunsun Cultural Village - Located in Penampang, this village is named after a headhunter and warrior. See the House of Skills and dance performances.
  • Sabah Art Gallery - This gallery specializes in showing exhibitions by local artists.
  • City Mosque - A religious centre that can hold approximately 12,000 worshippers.

Kota Kinabalu Shopping

  • Chinese Street Market - A street market in Kota Kinabalu that spans the length of Jin Gaya every Sunday and sells a variety of goods and foods.
  • Orchid DeVilla Farm - A plant farm that specializes in a rare species of hybrid orchids and Bornean orchids.
  • Handicraft Market - A great place to find good souvenirs at a cheap price, such as jewellery, bamboo and textiles.
  • Central Market - An outdoor market that stretches along the waterfront.
  • Night Market - Sitting underneath Le Meridien, a variety of vendors sell produce, clothing, electronics and handcrafted items.
Gay & Lesbian Kota Kinabalu

  • Magma Sports Club - A mixed club featuring pool and karaoke.
  • Q Bar - Has a signature Q-shaped bar and drag shows every Friday night.
  • Shenanigans - Close to the Kota Kinabalu Hyatt Hotel, this mixed bar is popular with the locals.
  • Mosaic - A gay-friendly restaurant that serves Italian food, ice cream, cake and coffee.
  • oneB Healthcare & Charming Gallery - A gay-friendly spa for men only.

Kota Kinabalu Outdoor

  • Likas Bird Sanctuary - This site is protected by the WWF and contains a variety of migratory birds that visit from places like Siberia.
  • Signal Hill Observation Pavillion - Located on the eastern side of the city, this observatory looks like a UFO. You can get a really good view of the islands.
  • Lok Kawi Wildlife Park - Lots of different animals here, including rhinos and tarsiers.
  • Kiansom Waterfall - A beautiful cascade that also contains a place where you can swim.
  • Mount Kinabalu Climb - A three-day expedition will take you to the top of the Mount Kinabalu in Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu Sport

  • Go scuba diving in Pulau Mantanani.
  • Play golf at the Kota Kinabalu Sutera Harbour golf course.
  • Try your hand at rock climbing at the Sabah Indoor Climbing Centre.
  • Watch the Sabah Rhinos play at the Likas Stadium.
  • Play racquetball or swim at the complex near Likas Stadium.

Kota Kinabalu Local

Kota Kinabalu is not a big metropolis by Southeast Asia’s standards (135.5 square miles) but as the primary hub of Sabah, is a vital city. The metro populace of 900,000 lives over a wide parcel of land, while the small core of the city itself is home to 620,000 people. For most visitors, the downtown and waterfront areas garner the most interest.

Kota Kinabalu proper extends from Tanjung Aru and Kepayan in the south, to Sepanggar and Telipok in the north. The towns of Donggongon and Putatan are, for all intents and purposes, part of the city’s reach as well.

Again, however, the majority of tourists seldom bother with areas just outside the central business district and the waterfront strip that faces Pulau Gaya. National parks and eco-tourism villages further out in Sabah do deserve a look of course.

Kota Kinabalu Eat & Drink

Kota Kinabalu serves up the best of Peninsular Malaysian cuisine and indigenous cuisine native to Borneo. In recent years, Western, Southeast and East Asian fare has become more widely available as the Sabah capital has grown as a multicultural hub.

Viet Café (Jln Haji Saman Kota Kinabalu Lama) brings the vivid, fresh flavours of Vietnam to life.

Kohinoor (Lot 4, Waterfront Esplanade) is a terrific tandoori restaurant popular with locals.

Snack (Jalan Gaya Kota Kinabalu Lama) is a choice spot for afternoon pick-me-ups.

Grace Point (Tanjung Aru) is a relatively posh food court with ample selection.

Kedai Kopi Fook Yuen (G33 Ground fl, No 4 Kompleks Asia City) is a requisite sweet tooth pilgrimage stop.

Nishiki (59 Jalan Gaya Kota Kinabalu Lama) is a bona fide sushi bar with supremely fresh sashimi.

Jesselton Point Hawker Centre (Jesselton Point Jetty NE of Kota Kinabalu Lama) is street food bliss.

Tanjung Aru Seafood Restaurant (Tanjung Aru) is a busy expat eatery with some of the best sunset views in the city.

Kah Hiong Ngui Chap (Jalan Lintas Block A, Ground fl, Kolam Centre Phase 2) is a KK institution that serves a thoroughly addictive chili beef soup.

Shikai (Kompleks Asia City, Jalan Asia City G15-16) serves generous, tasty weekend dim sum.

Kota Kinabalu Events

Kota Kinabalu has a modest calendar of events, above and beyond the usual national, civic and Muslim holidays.

Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival takes place over two days in mid-June at the tennis courts of Sutera Harbour Marina, Golf & Country Club.

Kaamatan is a traditional and ancient harvest festival for the Kadazan and Dusun tribes of Sabah.

Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival features a week’s worth of Southeast and East Asian cinema in June.

Kota Kinabalu Food Festival is a new arrival on the Sabah scene that draws on a vast culinary legacy to offer two weeks of delicious events in July.

When To Go

Kota Kinabalu has a tropical rainforest climate with a long monsoon season from May to November. Temperatures hover between 71°F (22°C) to 87°F (30.5°C) for the year, with little change from one month to the next in accordance with Borneo’s position on the equator.

Rain is naturally heavy in Sabah and the capital city but falls, for the most part, in predictable spurts. Still, the city experiences well over 100 in (2,700 mm) of precipitation a year. The dry months of February and March both get over 2 in alone.

What To Miss

Though some of the waterfront restaurants in Kota Kinabalu do have stellar food, know in advance that you will pay a considerable premium for the view. If the seascapes do not sufficiently impress, choose a lunch or dinner option in town, away from the water. The food will probably be just as good and, moreover, will cost much less.

The significant uptick in tourism over the last decade has led to a noticeable increase in street peddlers, opportunistic hucksters and the like. Listen to the odd sales pitch if you must but be firm and walk away if you prefer a hassle-free day out on the town.

When it comes to tours of Kinabalu andNational Park other reserves in Sabah, there is a discernible lack of quality control. As the national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it requires a certain level of finess and professionalism from potential guides. Make sure to do your diligence when you seek one out for a tour.

Getting Around

Kota Kinabalu International Airport is the de facto gateway to the rest of Sabah and a mere 8 km from the city proper. The hub serves a long list of destinations, such as Hong Kong, Jakarta-Soekarno–Hatta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Perth, Seoul-Incheon, Shenzhen, Singapore, Taipei-Taoyuan and Tokyo-Haneda. In 2010 the airport hit the 5 million passenger mark for the first time. A shuttle bus provides access from the airport to the Wawasan Centre, south of downtown Kota Kinabalu.

Visitors can easily access Kota Kinabalu by ferry or bus from a wide variety of points in Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and the rest of Borneo as well.

Within the city, even the most indolent pedestrians can walk from one end to the other in one hour. Taxis, however, do offer the most convenient transport option for short trips. Most cabs have meters and congregate at popular intersections and points of interest throughout KK. For long day trips independent of a group tour, rent a car.

Kota Kinabalu - General information

General Information

KK, the local label for Kota Kinabalu, is the vibrant capital of the state of Sabah on the northwest coast of Borneo, Malaysia. With a metro population of more than 700,000 people, the city is the de facto urban heart of a state that teems with exotic wildlife, dense jungle reserves, colorful coral reefs and the dramatic summit of UNESCO World Heritage Mount Kinabalu.

Even if your mission in Sabah is to tackle the inherent natural wonders of the state, copious as they are, a few days in the lively capital city is well worth the effort. Kota Kinabalu has a number of superb museums, historic landmarks and most notably, a rich nightlife and restaurant scene. As a result, visitors may want to explore the Sabah Art Gallery, Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sabah Museum and Chinese Street Market. The botanical garden and zoo at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, a mere 20 km outside Kota Kinabalu proper, is worth a visit as well.

Attractions & Activities

Attractions

  • City Mosque
  • Sabah Art Gallery
  • Sabah Museum
  • Museum of Islamic Civilization
  • State Mosque

Activities

  • Central Market
  • Chinese Street Market
  • Lok Kawi Wildlife Park
  • Monsopiad Cultural Village
  • Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival

Restaurants & Nightlife

Restaurants

  • First Beach Café
  • Kedai Kopi Fatt Kee
  • Jesselton Point Hawker Centre

Night Market

  • Nishiki
  • Nightlife
  • Cocoon
  • Pirates Bar
  • Bed
  • Beach Road
  • Strawberry KTV

Climate

The capital of Sabah, Malaysia has a tropical, equatorial climate, with two monsoon seasons from November to March and May to September. Temperatures hover between 24°C to 33°C for the year.

Hotels in Kota Kinabalu

Recommended hotels

From US$123

1 The Pacific Sutera Hotel

5 stars
4.5 / 5 11 reviews

1 Sutera Harbour Boulevard, Map

Book 60 Days in Advance & Save 15%

The Pacific Sutera Resort is a luxurious accommodation on a private beach ideal for holidaymakers looking for tranquil haven in Kota Kinabalu. This lavish hotel places guests close to Sabah State... More

cleaning bed sheet
hotel beautful and view very good,trived easy staff very nice,and surport take out breatest
14 Aug 2015
From US$55

2 Ming Garden Hotel and Residences

4 stars
3.9 / 5 14 reviews

Lorong Ming Garden, Map

Chinese Privilege Package

Boasting an enviable location right in the centre of the bustling capital, Ming Garden Hotel & Residences Kota Kinabalu offers corporate travellers and holidaymakers with genuine Malaysian... More

good srevices
very nice location &shuttle service resonable price & nice facilities but view is disappointed
13 Jul 2015
From US$169

3 Gaya Island Resort

5 stars
4.7 / 5 6 reviews

Malohom Bay, Pulau Gaya Map

Stay 2 Nights & Save 20%

Gaya Island Resort in the island of Pulau Gaya welcomes leisure travellers to luxurious waterfront accommodations surrounded by lush rainforest and steps away from Malohom Bay. This secluded Kota... More

Family trip
the restaurant CP low,room service always need to call twice times.many things need to pay for.
9 Feb 2015
From US$239

4 Gayana Eco Resort

5 stars
Not yet reviewed

Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, Lrg Haji Saman Map

Gayana Eco Resort rests serenely at the edges of a lush jungle forest on a coral reef island off the coast of Borneo. 52 over water, tropical villas are architecturally designed to enhance the... More

From US$31

5 Cititel Express Kota Kinabalu

3 stars
4.0 / 5 15 reviews

No 1 Jalan Singgah Mata 1 Map

Exclusive! Book Now & Save 40%

Strategically set in the heart of Kota Kinabalu near commercial and business districts, Cititel Express Kota Kinabalu Hotel makes for an ideal base for corporate and leisure travellers exploring... More

Aged Hotel
Aged hotel. Will not stay in again unless refurbishment in future. Kinda good location
31 Jul 2015
From US$192

6 Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa

5 stars
4.8 / 5 6 reviews

No 20 Jalan Aru, Tanjung Aru Map

Book Now & Save 30%

Nestled on 25 acres of gardens overlooking the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park islands, Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa creates an ideal retreat for vacationers looking for a tropical... More

Lovely relaxing holiday
We are an older couple who were a little worried that as the hotel catered so well for children that the noise levels might bother us. However, everything was so well set out and the areas so large...
5 May 2015
From US$142

7 The Magellan Sutera Resort

5 stars
4.0 / 5

1 Sutera Harbour Boulevard, Map

Book 60 Days in Advance & Save 20%

The Magellan Sutera Resort offers luxurious treatment and elegant accommodations fronting the charming South-China Sea and the abundant Kinabalu Park. While on a Kota Kinabalu holiday, tourists can... More

From US$34

8 Kinabalu Daya Hotel

3 stars
3.5 / 5 6 reviews

Lot 3 & 4 Lot 9 Jalan Pantai Map

Book Now & Save 25%

BEST WESTERN Kinabalu Daya offers a rich and colourful cultural heritage and sabahan hospitality. This hotel is in a convenient location of this vibrant city and business hub of Kota Kinabalu.... More

Average hotel, small rooms
Hotel was fine, a bit frayed around the edges and the room was small, but staff were helpful and responsive when items or help were asked for
21 Jul 2015
From US$40

9 Hotel Shangri-la

3 stars
3.7 / 5 3 reviews

75, Bandaran Berjaya Map

Book 30 Days in Advance & Save 34%

Travel away from the bustle of city living by booking a stay in the cosy and inviting spaces of Hotel Shangri-la, set amidst the natural attractions and picturesque landscapes of Kota Kinabalu.... More

Well located but tired
Close to the town centre and an easy walk to major attractions. Arrival by taxi is rather off-putting as the one way system goes through some very old areas, but in fact, it is easy to walk to a...
9 Apr 2015
From US$113

10 Nexus Resort Karambunai Kota Kinabalu

5 stars
3.5 / 5 15 reviews

Off Jalan Sepangar Bay Map

Book 14 Days in Advance & Save 18%

Assuring courteous service and quality amenities, Nexus Resort Karambunai Kota Kinabalu prides itself as an ideal location for business and leisure travellers. GeneralThe hotel also offers... More

Not bad but not good
Facilities are too old. Staff efficiency is too slow. When I check-in, I found that the air-conditioning is not working. I immediately call the operator, the operator told me to wait for 15 mins....
27 Sep 2014
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