Kota Kinabalu (or KK as it’s known by locals) is the capital of Sabah in Borneo. The city is an excellent jumping off point for those interested in wildlife viewing, diving, rainforest trekking, and hiking, but skipping over KK to go right into the wild would be a mistake. Even if you just have 24 hours to explore, there’s a good chance the city will charm you with its fantastic food, friendly people, colourful markets, and bustling waterfront. Here’s where to focus your time and energy if you’re only in town for a short visit.
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so start your stay in KK with a visit to Gaya Street for a huge selection of places to eat. This is the oldest street in Kota Kinabalu and filled with various eateries and food stalls. You can get a traditional and very classic local breakfast of coffee or teh tarik (silky smooth milk tea) with roti kahwin (toast with butter and sweet coconut jam and/or soft boiled eggs). Or go for something a bit spicy to kick off your day with a local laksa noodle soup. Nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut with fried anchovies, peanuts, and chili paste often served wrapped in banana leaves) is another usual choice for a spicy breakfast. For non-spicy options, there are many different noodle dishes, or kuih (a type of local sweet treat in many different flavours, colours, and shapes).
Hop in a taxi after breakfast and head to the Sabah Museum for a dose of history and culture. The main building itself is a unique architectural beauty inspired by a local tribal longhouse. This is a good way to get a good understanding Borneo’s heritage. The museum showcases a variety of exhibits dedicated to everything from archaeology and natural history, to ceramics and ethnography.
Spend the afternoon at Tanjung Aru Beach (First Beach) for lunch by KK’s most popular coastal spot. This beach is only three kilometres from Sabah Museum, but if it’s too hot to walk, take a short taxi ride. The beautiful, two-kilometre stretch of sand is a local favourite, where families often gather for picnics and games of soccer, and it’s a great beach for walking or jogging if you want to get a little exercise during your visit.
For food choices, there are many beachside cafés that serve a variety of different cuisines, many with a focus on seafood. Take a wander and see what most piques your appetite, then grab a seat for lunch by the water.
After lunch, take another quick taxi ride to Suria Sabah Shopping Mall to avoid being outdoors while the heat is at its peak. There are many activities that you can do in the mall apart from shopping. You can catch a movie (tickets are very cheap), spend a couple of hours at a karaoke centre (one of the most popular activities with locals and again, prices are very reasonable). Or simply just chill at the food court that offers an amazing view of the sea.
Right next door to the Suria Sabah Shopping Mall is Grandis Hotel, where you’ll find Sky Blu Bar, the first rooftop bar in KK. This is the perfect spot to catch the sunset with a cold drink.
After sunset, make your way to Central Market where many stalls are open for the night market. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to how you want to fill your belly. Here, you can get all sorts of grilled seafood, fragrant curries, satay, and other local foods. Be prepared to haggle if you’re opting for a seafood supper and when asking for prices of seafood, be sure to clarify if the price they offered was for the entire thing (like a prawn for example) or for 100 grams of its weight.
For travellers on a short visit, we’d recommend having a layover that will allow you to spend two hours in the city centre, and another hour for travelling to and from the airport. This means giving yourself at least around four hours total so you can see the sites and still have time to get back to check in for your flight home.
The best way to get from the airport to the sites is by taking a taxi, which is a cheap and efficient option. It should take you 15 to 30 minutes if there is no traffic, but up to an hour during rush hour.
If you want to see Kota Kinabalu in two hours in the morning or afternoon, head to Central Market for food and shopping and to see local arts and crafts. There are many tourists and locals alike who shop here. Some might find it interesting to just look at the fruits, vegetables, spices, and seafood on offer to see what locals eat.
If you’re in Kota Kinabalu for an evening or nighttime layover, hit the beach. Tanjung Aru Beach (First Beach) is only 5 kilometres from the airport. If you can make it before dusk (around 6pm) you will get to witness the famous sunset Tanjung Aru beach is known for. At night, you can enjoy happy hour offers at the bars and cafés and sit by beach to enjoy the cool sea breeze before heading back to the airport.