We admit it! We *heart* Kota Kinabalu! It took us a few days to get into the groove of the place and really start discovering all KK has to offer! When it comes to planning on things to do in Kota Kinabalu, it may not always be obvious what they are because there’s no obvious “main Kota Kinabalu attraction.”
So we decided we’d try to make it easier for you – especially if you don’t have the time to figure it all out! We came for two weeks and got those first few awkward days out of the way first (so you don’t have to!)
One thing we discovered is that you really just have to get out and walk around in order to figure out why you’ll love this town so much.
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Day trips from Kota Kinabalu
If you look at other guides about things to do in Kota Kinabalu, you might notice that a lot of the stuff they write about aren’t really in the city. You have to travel in order to get to them. That was frustrating for us because we wanted stuff to do in the city.
Of course, day trips from Kota Kinabalu aren’t that difficult. All you need to do is book a tour to places like the Klias Wetlands, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, or Kinabalu National Park and someone will pick you up right from your hotel. And you should do all these things.
But what about in the city itself? That’s what this guide is about. If you’re going to Kota Kinabalu to see what’s in the city, then you’re in the right place. If you’re staying in the city center, then almost everything contained in this post is either within walking distance or just a $2-3 quick Grab ride away.
What’s Grab? In most of Southeast Asia, they use Grab for ridesharing. It’s a lot like Uber, with many rides costing just $1-3, even if it’s several kilometers away! Download Grab from the App Store or Google Play.
Book your stay in Kota Kinabalu: We use Booking.com when we travel. You can book your Kota Kinabalu accommodations here.
Top things to do in Kota Kinabalu
So let’s get started with our list. From general sightseeing around town to getting on a boat to go get wet in the ocean, here’s a list of our top things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Since this is a lengthy post, feel free to click on the Table of Contents and scan the list to see if there’s something that interests you specifically (instead of scrolling all the way through).
Or, you can simply look at the Things to do in Kota Kinabalu Google Map that I’ve embedded at the end of the post and get directions
Table of Contents
1. Atkinson Clock Tower
First on our list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu is the Atkinson Clock Tower – the oldest structure in the city. Because it stands over 15 meters high and could be seen from the water, the clock tower was used by sailors for navigation.
Atkinson Clock Tower is dedicated to the memory of Francis George Atkinson – Jesselton’s first district officer (Jesselton was the original name of Kota Kinabalu.) He died of Borneo Fever in December of 1902 at just 28 years old.
As of March 2020, the clock stands in its original location. However, we’ve heard it may move in the future because a mall has been approved very close to it. Residents aren’t impressed. I don’t blame them. The city has too many malls already.
Going to Kota Kinabalu? We’ve compiled a list of Kota Kinabalu travel tips to help you plan your stay.
2. Visit the Sabah State Mosque
The Sabah Mosque (Masjid Negeri Sabah) is the state mosque of Sabah and located in Kota Kinabalu. It is one of the two major mosques in the city (see the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque below).
The mosque was built in 1975 and can hold up to 5,000 people. You may visit the mosque at the following times:
- Saturday – Thursday: 8:00 am to noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm
- Friday: 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Note: While they are open on Friday, it’s preferred that you visit on another day, as Friday is the busiest day for worshippers. If you are part of a large group, call first: +60 13 869 3148
3. Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market
Whether you want homemade handbags, keychains, dresses, or just about anything that can be handmade, you will probably find it at the Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market – the Pasar Kraftangan.
This place is just packed with stuff.
You’ll really have to weave your way in and out of people and merchandise just to make it through the place.
And, as you might notice from the picture above, there’s a lot of stuff hanging from the ceilings as well, so pay attention as you’re walking through, as there’s sometimes rope that extends along the route to hang things.
Don’t get “clotheslined” while you’re shopping!
4. Kota Kinabalu is known for seafood
Because it’s right on the ocean, Kota Kinabalu is, of course, famous for its seafood. There are seafood restaurants everywhere. If you’re not sure what you want, start at a place called Welcome Seafood – the most popular seafood restaurant in Kota Kinabalu.
You can see a menu right at the entrance, point to what you want, and you’ll have it in a few minutes. They even have a few vegetarian dishes if there’s a veggie eater in your group.
If you’re more adventurous, we recommend going to the waterfront at night to eat at one of the many stalls in the Night Food Market. You pick what you want from the hundreds of different types of fresh fish and they’ll cook it for you.
Be sure to ask the price before they cook it. It’s not that they will try to rip you off. They won’t. But some of the items can be a little pricey. For example, I was going to order a jumbo tiger prawn thinking it was going to just be a few bucks. It was RM 100 – or about $25.
Dealing with the vendors: One thing you will encounter is vendors who are constantly in your face trying to sell you their particular fish (which is exactly the same as the others). Here’s how I deal with street vendors who are too pushy.
5. Eat durian
If you’ve been around Southeast Asia much, you know the smell. Durian is one of those fruits that you can smell long before you see it.
Halef loves it. I, er, don’t. And there’s no in-between – at least not with anyone I’ve met. In my experience, there’s no one who is on the fence about durian!
Around Kota Kinabalu, you’ll find durian everywhere. You can buy it fresh, candied, dipped in chocolate, dried, as a coffee flavor, and dozens of other ways.
If you’ve never tried it and are turned off by the smell, I recommend you try durian anyway. You might like it. And if it turns out you do, you become an honorary Southeast Asian!
6. Sabah State Museum
Located not too far from the Sabah State Mosque is the Sabah State Museum. And we couldn’t get there fast enough because it was a scorching hot day when we went.
I really liked the section on World War II and its impact on Malaysia. The history of the British, Chinese, and Japanese and their influence on Borneo was very well done.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the museum lies in the entrance – an 18 meter Bryde’s Whale skeleton that seems completely out of place in the museum. It’s really cool though! You’ll also find plenty of stuff about wildlife on Borneo, along with natural history, pottery, and more.
The Sabah Museum is open every day from 9 am – 5 pm and costs RM 15 per adult visitor. We liked it a lot and thought it was one of the cooler things to do in Kota Kinabalu – even if it was “just a museum.”
7. Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque – officially known as Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu is quite a beautiful mosque and it’s the second most important mosque in the city after the Sabah State Mosque. It’s by far the largest mosque in the city and can accommodate up to 12,000 people.
If you look at images of the site on Google, you will notice that it sometimes appears to be floating on the moat that surrounds it. It’s quite difficult to get a photo like that because tourists generally are not allowed inside the area where that photo is possible.
The photo above is the interior of the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. We didn’t know before we arrived that the mosque was closed to tourists because of a health issue. Only worshippers were supposed to go inside. However, we arrived in a Grab car, so no one noticed when we were dropped directly at the entrance and went inside.
Lucky for us, I guess. Normally, you can visit at the following times:
Monday – Sunday:
8.00 am to noon
2.00 pm to 3.30 pm
4.00 pm to 5.30 pm
Friday: The mosque is closed to visitors
It costs RM 5.00 to visit.
8. Kota Kinabalu has a lot of malls
Yes, that’s right, go to the mall! If you’re a mall shopper, you’re going to really like Kota Kinabalu because there are a lot of them. Me? I don’t like shopping. But I do love food.
The best thing about the malls in Kota Kinabalu is that almost all of them have food courts in the basement.
It sort of reminds you of the Hawker Centers in Singapore. You’ll find everything from American-style fast food like McDonald’s and KFC to local fast-food restaurants as well.
But the best places are the restaurants where they give you a plate of rice and you sort of serve yourself and pay for what you take. You can easily get a meal at a place like this for two for less than RM 20 – or about $5.00 US.
9. Gaya Street Sunday Market
Even with the downswing in tourists in March 2020, this market is busy on Sundays. The Gaya Street Sunday Market happens each week in Chinatown and is a great place to buy anything from fruits and vegetables to plants, clothing, and many other things.
Oddly, you can often hear American country music blaring from speakers, too. Yes, apparently country music is “a thing” for some people here – big enough for some vendors to sell CDs.
Stop by on Sunday and, if you do, be sure to eat at one of the many wonderful (and inexpensive) restaurants in the area.
10. Pillars of Sabah
The Pillars of Sabah were once the pillars that held up the landmark Land and Survey building in Kota Kinabalu. After a fire destroyed the building in 1992, the goal was to build an art gallery where the Land and Survey building once stood.
Instead, the remaining pillars were turned into an art project by local artists.
When they were first painted, the Pillars of Sabah I celebrated local personalities who contributed to the community’s success. The latest iteration of the pillars (Pillars of Sabah II) is all about the wildlife that Borneo is known for.
Who knows what the next generation of the pillars will be?!
Whatever you decide to do here, be sure to add Chinatown to your list of things to do in Kota Kinabalu. While it might not stand up to some of the world’s great Chinatowns like San Francisco, the food here is incredible.
We recommend trying laksa in Kota Kinabalu at a restaurant called Kedai Kopi Yee Fung (above). This place is always busy for a reason. The laksa is so tasty.
Laksa is a noodle dish with chicken, prawn or fish. It’s usually served in a spicy soup of curry coconut milk. Here’s the thing: Halef ordered it. I ordered something else. Clearly, the chef wanted me to have laksa because, in addition to what I ordered, he sent over a small bowl of laksa just so I would have some.
He was right. I should have ordered it, too!
12. Signal Hill Observatory
Signal Hill is the highest point in the city of Kota Kinabalu and just before you get to the top of the hill, you’ll find the Signal Hill Observatory platform.
The upside: it’s a great place to view the city from way up above. You can see all of the buildings and out to the sea. It’s also a great place to come to watch the sunset over the ocean below and enjoy an inexpensive dinner.
The downside: if you want to walk up, you’ll have to walk up hundreds of stairs in the heat. Or you can drive, but there’s not a lot of parking at the Observatory.
If you do decide to walk up, pay attention to the stairs as you do. Some of them are broken. It’s not that it’s dangerous to walk up. It’s not. But if you’re paying more attention to your phone than to the steps, you could be in for a not-so-pleasant surprise.
13. Go diving!
Kota Kinabalu is the gateway to Sipadan – one of the world’s best areas for diving. So it’s no surprise that we’ll recommend diving in Kota Kinabalu.
One of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu in our opinion is to strap on a tank, mask, and fins and go scuba diving. You’ll see plenty of schooling fish in the shallower areas like Yellow-striped Goatfish (who’ll let you swim with them). If you’re lucky, you’ll see blacktip reef sharks (we didn’t) and large sea turtles (we saw two!) We’re nudibranch lovers and saw plenty of different kinds.
We went diving in Kota Kinabalu with a company called Go Aquatic and really enjoyed our day with them. Halfway through our day, we stopped at Mamutik island for lunch. Go Aquatic has a very modern, fast, comfortable and safe diving boat along with an excellent staff.
14. Kota Kinabalu Sunsets
Every great day should end with a perfect sunset, and if you happen to be in Kota Kinabalu, you’ll probably experience a sunset as you’ve never seen before – especially if the clouds are just right.
The best place to watch a sunset in Kota Kinabalu is on the waterfront overlooking the boats in the harbor. Come down around 6 pm, order dinner from one of the many vendors here, and then sit and be amazed. The pinks and blues were incredible.
And as the sun sank below the horizon, it looked like the sky had been set ablaze. It was really something to see.
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu Map
As promised, here’s the map of everything mentioned in this article.
Have you been here? What are your top things to do in Kota Kinabalu and the surrounding areas? Let us know your suggestions 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.