If you haven’t done a lot of Southeast Asia research, you probably haven’t even heard of Kota Kinabalu. I won’t lie, Somehow, I know I didn’t before last year. Now, it’s a place I definitely want to come back to again and again, so I’ve come up with a list of some of our top Kota Kinabalu travel tips to help you plan your visit.
Kota Kinabalu is a really easy place to visit. It’s pretty laid back and easy-going too. The people here are chill – it’s like a tourist town that doesn’t quite act like a tourist town.
Everyone here goes about their daily lives while tourists just intermingle with the locals and do what they do.
Our top Kota Kinabalu travel tips
When coming up with this list of Kota Kinabalu travel tips, the goal was to think about why people come here in the first place. Most tourists come here for a few reasons:
- to explore the natural surroundings
- dive and snorkel
- visit islands
- eat great food
- and just relax away from the craziness of Southeast Asian cities
If that’s you, then Kota Kinabalu is going to be a lot of fun. Here are our top Kota Kinabalu travel tips:
1. Kota Kinabalu is perfect for digital nomads
Whenever we travel anywhere, we have to know that the Internet is good and that there are places outside the home, Airbnb, or hotel where we can hunker down and work. We’ve found that Kota Kinabalu has both.
We stayed at an Airbnb where the WiFi was simply one of those hotspots with a SIM card. It gave us 6-10 Mbps up and down. That’s not perfect, but it did the trick for us.
If you want to head out to a coffee shop, you’ll find that they also have good connections. And there are several Starbucks coffee shops in Kota Kinabalu that have typically good Internet connections.
While the Internet speeds in Kota Kinabalu are fine, especially if you’re just doing things like blogging or social media, if you’re doing something more bandwidth0intensive like uploading YouTube videos, you’ll probably have to do that overnight in a lot of cases.
Kota Kinabalu might be a tourist town, but for digital nomads who don’t just want to work, it’s also a place with a lot of normal things to do. You can definitely live a regular life here if you plan to stay for a while.
2. Schedule your outdoor time
Kota Kinabalu is hot. One of our most important Kota Kinabalu travel tips – for all of Southeast Asia really – is to schedule your outside time properly. Temperatures hover around the 30°C / 85°F mark or even higher, so you won’t get much respite from the heat here.
To enjoy your stay even more, we recommend that you follow a schedule. We certainly tried to do this.
- Leave your place early and have breakfast somewhere
- Explore something during the morning and then have lunch
- After lunch, go back to your hotel or Airbnb, shower, and relax for a couple of hours
- Then, go out again in the evening.
This allows you to avoid the hottest parts of the day that just wear you out!
It should go without saying that you must wear sunscreen. Find a good one and use it liberally. Personally, we use Burnout Ocean-tested sunscreen and recommend it to everyone.
The best part is that it’s reef safe – which means it won’t harm corals when you’re diving or snorkeling in Kota Kinabalu.
3. It’s not Sipadan, but the diving is great
Speaking of corals, Kota Kinabalu is the gateway to Sipadan, one of the best diving areas in the world. To actually get to Sipadan is a bit of a voyage from Kota Kinabalu, but you can still dive here and see plenty of sea life.
Around the islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, you can expect to see schooling fish, nudibranchs (lots of them), blacktip reef sharks, jellies, and much more.
We recommend a company called Go Aquatic. We spent the day with them doing three dives and really enjoyed ourselves. Go Aquatic has a very modern, fast, comfortable and safe diving boat along with an excellent staff.
If you’re not a scuba diver, no problem. You’ll always find boats heading to the islands and full of people who want to go snorkeling, too. And the snorkeling is great here.
4. Most stuff is within walking distance
From historic sites to beautiful mosques, incredibly diverse food selections to eclectic and kitschy tourist sites, there’s lots to see in Kota Kinabalu. The great thing is that most of the stuff is within walking distance.
We lived in the city center during our time here and only had to use Grab a few times – mostly because we were lazy and it was hot!
Check out our list of the top things to do in Kota Kinabalu. I’ve even included a handy Google Map to help you find everything!
5. Use Grab to get around
If you have never heard of Grab, it’s basically the Uber of Southeast Asia. And you won’t have any issues getting one in Kota Kinabalu. Our most expensive ride was to the airport from our Airbnb in the center of town. That ride was RM 10 ($2.50) plus tip.
Download the Grab app before you go. You can find it in the AppStore or on Google Play. The best part is that you can pay with your credit card or use cash. You just have to specify it in the app.
You can also use it to get food and to pay for things.
6. Starbucks is everywhere
es, I mentioned this before. And I know I sound like such a tourist saying this. But there are several Starbucks coffee shops in Kota Kinabalu. Personally, I don’t think Starbucks has the best coffee in the world. But they do have a nice big coffee that I can carry around with me. And a big coffee is really the only thing I miss when I am away.
But aside from the coffee, Starbucks always seems to have great WiFi. So if you’re stuck and need a connection (for example, to get a Grab or to check your Airbnb reservation) then you can easily find a Starbucks.
The only thing we didn’t like about the Starbucks stores here is that you need to buy something to get a WiFi code – at least in the three locations we regularly used.
7. The food is diverse and so good!
From delicious meals on Chinatown’s Goya Street to the food courts in malls that resemble Singapore’s Hawker Markets, you literally can’t walk 20 meters without finding an excellent place to get food.
We’re going to update this post in a bit with a link to a self-guided food tour that you can do in Kota Kinabalu, but I thought I would suggest a couple of places in the meantime.
- Yee Fung: This restaurant on Goya Street in Chinatown has amazing Laksa. When we went there, I ordered something different, but the chef insisted I also take a small bowl of laksa for free, just to try it. He was right. It was amazing!
- Seng Hing Kedai Kopi: Go to Lorong Sinsuran 2 and try the Tuaran Mee at Seng Hing. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s made with pork and noodles. Yum.
You will absolutely not have any issues finding things to eat in Kota Kinabalu. And that includes vegans and vegetarians. It’s all here.
8. Eat at the mall in Kota Kinabalu
It might sound very touristy to go to a mall to eat. Kota Kinabalu malls might look like all malls on the outside. And sure, you’ll find KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and more, along with all of the shopping brands you’d normally see in the west.
But you’ll also find family-run restaurants with local dishes. You’ll get a plate of rice from the server and then you’re expected to just go down the line of food trays and take what you want. When you sit, the waiter will come to your table and calculate what you owe.
Even a large plate of food probably won’t cost you more than a few dollars. If that.
You pay for what you eat. Our most expensive meal for two, including juice and ice coffee, was less than $7 US.
9. Don’t miss Kota Kinabalu sunsets
Finally, Kota Kinabalu has sunsets to die for. One of our top Kota Kinabalu travel tips would have to be to get yourself down to the Night Food Market at around 6 pm and just sit there and watch.
From amazing pinks and dark blues, to orange skies that look like they’re on fire, Kota Kinabalu sunsets are picture-perfect. And with the silhouettes of boats in the foreground, they’re second to none.
The Kota Kinabalu sunset photo above has no filter and the only processing I did with it was to level the horizon. Nothing more.
Your Kota Kinabalu travel tips?
Have you been to Kota Kinabalu? Do you have any Kota Kinabalu travel tips you’d like to share with readers? Please let us know in the comments!
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.
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