Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you.
There are so many things to do in Kota Kinabalu that you’d easily be able to spend a few days there. The city is relatively modern and has the benefit of being close to the beautiful islands of the Tunku Abdul Marine Park. There also a ton of ecotourism attractions in Kota Kinabalu to explore, so you’re not just visiting a concrete jungle.
While a lot of big cities in Asia are not worth hanging around for, there are a ton of Kota Kinabalu attractions worthy of your attention. I personally really loved the city and found it easy to get around via Grab, Asia’s alternative to Uber.
Read on to discover what to do in Kota Kinabalu, and check out this article for ideas on what to do in the rest of Sabah.
Climb Mount Kinabalu
One of the world’s tallest peaks, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. Ascending to 4,095 meters, the mountain offers climbing possibilities with stunning views, especially at sunrise. The mountain boasts a diverse ecosystem and is ideal for seeing the beautiful scenic views of Sabah.
A must for any adventurer, the climb up Kinabalu is relatively approachable for most trekkers with a well-trodden path. Once you arrive at the summit, you will be rewarded with a glorious sunrise and magnificent views over Sabah. It’s not a climb only reserved for experienced climbers, but you will want to make sure you have a certain level of fitness.
How to do it: To climb Mount Kinabalu you’ll need to join a tour such as this one – see prices and more information. They’re a little pricey but its unavoidable if you want to do the climb.
Wander the Mount Kinabalu Park Botanical Garden
Nature lovers will find their niche at the Botanical Garden of Mount Kinabalu Park. With more than five thousand species of plants, the hidden garden boasts one of the world’s richest collection of flora. Visitors can enjoy taking a stroll through the garden taking in colourful panoramas of plants displays.
Cruise on the Klias River
Go on a cruise on the Klias River for a lovely and relaxing way to enjoy Kota Kinabalu’s forest scenery. This involves a day trip to the Klias Wetlands reserve close to Kota Kinabalu. Soak up beautiful views of where the river flows into the sea, as well as panoramas of Mount Kinabalu.
Sail softly through a mangrove forest as you try to spot the amazing local wildlife of proboscis monkeys and birds. You can also book an evening cruise to watch the incredible firefly display.
Tour the Mari Mari Cultural Village
The Mari Mari Cultural Village provides a much needed escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Here you can get the inside scoop on the culture and traditions of the tribes of Sabah. Visitors can enjoy a host of experiences including exploring traditional homes, learning tribal customs and sampling local delicacies.
The tour also includes an interactive performance, and visitors are invited to join in the fun.
Visit the City Mosque
Located close to the sea, the City Mosque is truly a sight for sore eyes especially when illuminated after dark. The majestic white structure is a marvellous example of contemporary Islamic architecture. The building stands on stilts above a sparkling lagoon, which makes it appear to be floating on the water.
The floating mosque features a prayer hall that houses 3 madrasahs and can accommodate up to 12,000 people. Visitors can explore the beautiful interiors including the ornate blue and gold dome and the classic minarets.
Wander the Gaya Street Sunday Market
If you’re going on a weekend trip to Kota Kinabalu, be sure to visit the Gaya Street Sunday Market. This street market is open from 6am and its best to go early to avoid the heat and the crowds. The market is a great place to shop for souvenirs such as antiques, clothing and crafts. At the stalls, you can bargain with locals on the prices of the items.
After a long day of shopping, retreat to the array of Chinese coffee shops and restaurants to refuel.
Unwind at the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
If you’re looking for somewhere to relax after a long day of sightseeing, head over to the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront. The entire Waterfront esplanade is within walking distance from the street with hotels.
The Waterfront is lined with rows of restaurants and a shopping mall and the area comes to life at night. It’s best enjoyed while seated on the boardwalk dining on fresh seafood and watching the sun descend over the horizon.
Explore Muzium Sabah
Lovers of culture will appreciate a visit to Muzium Sabah. Here you will find lots of information on the diversity of Sabahan culture. Visitors can browse colourful displays of pottery and ceramics, ethnography, natural history, as well as animal exhibits. The museum also hosts a Heritage Village where visitors can see different types of traditional houses from Sabah’s indigenous groups.
Island Hop at Tunku Adbul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is the ultimate playground for adventure seekers. The marine park hosts a cluster of five islands: Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik, Manukan and Sulug. Accessible via a short speedboat ride from Kota Kinabalu, each of the islands offers an abundance of fun activities. Gaya and Manukan are the best for taking a leisurely stroll on the beach or having a swim.
Also enjoy some snorkelling and diving in the crystal-clear waters surrounding the islands.
See the Atkinson Clock Tower
One of Kota Kinabalu’s main landmarks, the Atkinson Clock Tower was built around 1902. The tower was constructed in honour of the district officer at the time, Francis George Atkinson. To get to the tower, you will need to hike up the hill situated off Jalan Tunku Adbul Rahman.
From this high point on the hill, you can enjoy pleasant views of the city. If you go further up the hill from the tower, you will arrive at the popular Signal Hill Observatory.
Swing out over the City
A pricy Instagram attraction which has been set up on Kokol hill with epic views of the surrounding city. There are various swings set up over the sight and it was relatively quiet due to the price while we were there. On a perfect day you would get some amazing photos as even on the overcast day we visited on we got some pretty views.
As a warning you’re going to want to organise transport back down prior to arriving at Kokol Elf. Our GRAB driver warned us about this on the way up and reluctantly gave us his number incase we couldn’t get back. We were fortunate someone at the attraction could drop us on the main road at the bottom of the hill, but not everyone will be so lucky.
Organise return transport with your hotel or GRAB driver prior to save yourself some stress if you don’t have a rental car. There didn’t seem to be any public transport available.
Visit the Green Connection Aquarium
Visit the Green Connection Aquarium to see its collection of the colourful marine life that Sabah is famous for. This family-friendly destination offers various interactive exhibits including touch tanks. These tanks enable visitors to get up close to animals such as sharks and snakes.
Swim or Watch the Sunset on Tanjung Aru Beach
Shahrinmdayob / depositphotos.com
A popular weekend getaway, Tanjung Aru Beach features a long stretch of sand that’s ideal for relaxing. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely stroll along the sandy beach at sunset. You can also sample local snacks at the many street food stalls located on the beach.
Shop at Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market
Situated along the Kota Kinabalu waterfront, the Handicraft Market is an ideal shopping spot for souvenirs. Visitors can browse through the selection of pearls, clothing, carvings and local arts and crafts. Be sure to bargain on the price of the item to avoid paying more than you should.
Day Trip to Kundasang
Kundasang is located roughly 2 hours away from Kota Kinabalu and is a great day trip option if you have your own car. Its famous for the picturesque Desa Dairy Farm which has green fields with an epic mountain backdrop. Cows too! Its often been compared to Switzerland or New Zealand farms.
Go White Water Rafting
There are several spots around Kota Kinabalu to get out on the water for some white water rafting. Get your adrenaline fix at the picturesque Kiulu River in Tamparuli or the mighty Padas River outside of Tenom. Padas River has Grade 3 and 4 rapids that offer a wilder ride if you don’t mind the longer journey.
Enjoy the view at Signal Hill Observatory
One of the city’s most scenic spots, the Signal Hill Observatory is located on a hill near Padang Merdeka. Boasting the highest location in Kota Kinabalu, the observatory platform offers splendid vistas across Sabah. On a clear day, look across to Tanjung Aru Beach and see the islands within Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
Soak in the Poring Hot Springs
The Poring Hot Springs are a selection of pools made from the naturally hot water found in the region. The waters have a high sulphur content that is believed to offer medicinal benefits to those who soak in them. This is the perfect place to relax your aching muscles after a long day of sightseeing in Kota Kinabalu.
Go Scuba Diving
The closest spot to dive in Kota Kinabalu is the Tunku Abdul Marine Park. There are a number of dive shops in Kota Kinabalu that will take you on 2-3 dives around the islands.
Nudibranches are popular here, as are a range of different tropical fish. The diving is not as great as it is on the other side of Borneo at Sipadan, but is a good alternative for those who can’t afford to dive there or don’t want to travel that far.
Journey on the Borneo Railway
One of the main attractions of Kota Kinabalu, the Borneo Railway offers unforgettable train rides. Visitors can go on a journey from Tanjung Aru to Tenom through leafy jungles and along Sabah’s marvellous coastline. Another worthy ride is to the neighbouring Beaufort, a lovely market town that is also worth exploring.