Surrounded by rainforest and the gateway to Kinabalu National Park (home to Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain), Kota Kinabalu (or KK as it’s usually referred to), is a great spot to base yourself for some serious outdoor adventure, from hiking that aforementioned mountain to snorkelling colourful coral reefs. But if outdoorsy pursuits aren’t your thing, there’s also plenty of other activities to keep you busy. No matter what you’re visiting for, we have you covered with all the essentials you’ll need for your trip, from how to get from the airport to what books to read before you come.
Taxi service is the best way to get to and from the airport. Fixed rate from the airport to the town centre is MYR 30 per taxi (up to four people). Buy a coupon from the airport taxi counter in the middle of Arrivals (Level 1). Then head over to the taxi rank outside and hand your coupon to the taxi driver.
Central KK is very walkable, so getting around foot is the best option and allows you to see the majority of sights that might pique your interest without having to worry about transportation.
If you do want to hop a ride somewhere, there are a fleet of minibuses that circulate the town looking for passengers. These buses cost between MYR 4 and 8 depending on where you’re heading.
A stroll along KK’s waterfront is a great way to get a feel for the city, especially in the evening when you can catch the sun going down. Here you’ll find numerous shops, restaurants, and bars on the water so you have your pick of places to stop for a drink or a meal with a view.
Malaysians love watching football (soccer) and many are fans of a certain club. During football season, instead of watching football matches in a bar, locals like to go to a mamak (24-hour Indian Muslim café) and get a drink or snack while watching a game. So, if you want to feel like a local, head to a mamak when a game’s on. A typical drink at a mamak is Milo ping (a chocolate malt drink with ice) or lemon teh ping (iced lemon tea). A typical snack is roti canai (a piece of delicious flaky paratha bread served with lentil curry and/or fish curry sauce). (#localsknow tip: you can usually ask for a free refill of curry sauces at no extra charge.) Drinks are typically about RM 1.50 to 2 and roti canai is about RM 1. The best time to go is when a major match is playing. Due to time differences with international teams, games will usually be late at night but it’s not a problem as mamaks are open 24/7.
If you’re in the mood to stretch out on some sand or do some snorkelling, KK has good options. Local beach Tanjung Aru is a popular spot within the city and makes for a good place to be near the water. If you want to go a bit further afield, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is just minutes away from the city by boat. Speedboats leave for the marine park from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in the north of the city to the park’s five islands: Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik, and Pulau Sulug. The ride takes 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the island you choose, and boats run between 7:30am and 5pm. Each island offers something different, but you can expect good diving, snorkelling, and swimming on all five. The largest island, Palau Gaya, is known as the island with the best beaches and corals, but do some island-hopping to see which one you like best.
Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre is worth a visit for its 1.5 kilometres of wooden walkways passing through a 60-acre mangrove swamp. The route takes about 45 minutes and offers the chance to see local plants and wildlife, including the more than 80 types of birds that call the area home.
Travel Geek: Documentary North Borneo (2014) starts in Sarawak, but ends in Sabah, which might give you a feel for the region before you visit.
Get a feel for KK and the whole of Sabah by listening to some traditional music of the region.
Pre-war Images of North Borneo by Lim Pitt Kent and Nicholas K.M. Tan showcases the history of KK.