Sabah’s capital is something of a gateway for many who travel to Borneo, but it does make an excellent base, with good incentives to linger. It’s flanked by National Parks, both on land and offshore, and has first-rate beaches within easy reach. The culinary scene is great, museums here detail the island’s heritage, and there’s even a steam railway; just not much historic architecture, thanks to Allied bombing runs during World War Two.
Until 1899, Kota Kinabalu was a fishing village called Api-Api, but British adventurers and merchants were keen to get their hands on Borneo’s rich bounty of tropical hardwood, rubber and gold - by 1900, construction was well underway for Colonial government buildings, shops, and an all-important pier. Forty five years later, these were flattened by Allied bombs, and their replacements look more ‘Milton Keynes’ than ‘Malacca’, but there are many reasons to stay here, despite the lack of antique ambience.
The city has a pleasant nightlife and a tempting array of eateries. Its handful of museums offer insight into Borneo’s heritage, along with a couple of wildlife attractions for anyone short on time and seeking easy sightings of Borneo’s key species. Kota Kinabalu is ethnically diverse, a fact reflected in its modern religious buildings, including Chinese temples and Islamic mosques. The city also has a number of department stores, in case you’ve forgotten anything, and markets for locally-made souvenirs.
What to do in Kota Kinabalu
- Sabah Museum’s collections range from tribal and historical artefacts to regional flora and fauna. Pogunon Community Museum features headhunter exhibits and an ancient burial site, while the Mari Mari living history settlement is home to five of the region’s indigenous tribes.
- Eat out! We always encourage clients to sample Borneo's diverse range of cuisine. Kota Kinabalu is a great opportunity to road-test a few new eateries, whether in a restaurant or on the side of the street.
- Climb Atkinson Clocktower, finished in 1905 and one of the only original buildings left in KK, for views over the city.
- Take a bus north from Wawasan Plaza to the beautiful City Mosque. Dress appropriately, and wear shoes that can be easily removed when you enter.
Near to Kota Kinabalu
- Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a quick ferry hop from the harbour. An area of 20 square miles about five miles off the coast, it’s a must for marine lovers, with clear turquoise waters, coral reefs and five tropical islands. You can hire snorkelling gear and buy basic lunches on the islands.
- An hour or so to the east lies Mount Kinabalu - the highest peak in Malaysia - surrounded by its UNESCO World Heritage park. Despite its height, Mount Kin’s high quality trails are well signposted and achievable for beginners, providing you’re reasonably fit and prepared for a spot of altitude sickness (dizzy, breathless) when you reach the top.
- North Borneo Steam Railway runs twice weekly (Weds & Sat) for 36 miles between KK's Tanjung Aru station and the historic agricultural town of Papar. Enjoy a light breakfast as you journey through the countryside, with stops made at a temple and local village, and a tiffin-style set lunch on the return leg.
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KK's Handicraft market
Alongside the central waterfront area, this is a great place to bargain for pearls, local handicrafts & local artwork. The Waterfront Esplanade is also home to a number of friendly bars with indoor and outdoor seating. People gather here throughout the week - wander along until you find the most suitable atmosphere!
5.30pm till 11pm
KK’s seafood night market opens at the perfect time for a fish supper!