Kota Kinabalu is more often than not merely the starting point for visitors who, coming through the international airport, head straight off to Borneo’s other attractions. Even for those visitors who do stay in Kota Kinabalu for any length of time, the city’s surroundings often draw them away from the city itself.
People tend to spend their time doing day trips and it is easy to see why: there are many attractions around Kota Kinabalu, including beaches, Mount Kinabalu, Lok Kawi wildlife park, the Wetland Centre, and the Mari Mari and Moonsopiad cultural villages.
However, this all means that Kota Kinabalu itself is often very much overlooked. In this article we will focus on what this little city has to offer, aside from being a stopping place from which to head out to other attractions. I’ll admit, you may not want to spend weeks and weeks here, but if you’re flying into Sabah, then you should spend a couple of days in Kota Kinabalu, you really won’t regret it.
Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah with a population of 450,000, yet it has the feeling of a much smaller town: the local population are very friendly and welcoming, and it is very easy to get around, either on foot or by vehicle. This is the ideal city to wander in, there are plenty of sights to be seen, tonnes of local eateries, and shopping opportunities abound; down every side street is a hidden gem to be discovered. This is a city that oozes charm, and one that we recommend you explore if you get the chance. To whet your appetite, below are some of the top attractions that Kota Kinabalu has to offer.
One of the major attractions in Kota Kinabalu is walking – the city is ideal for pedestrians. Its wide walkways and rich and varied architecture, shops, eateries and landscape make it the perfect place to have a wander and get lost exploring. Unlike many larger cities in southeast Asia, which can feel quite overwhelming with their chaos of traffic and people, and which are often lacking legitimate sidewalks, Kota Kinabalu really feels designed for walkers. Drivers (tend to) stick to the road rules, and the pavements are generally well maintained.
There are several paths you can choose to follow through the city, whether you’re looking for a pre-planned route or a bit more of a free-form exploration. Walking through the town, you must not miss out on visiting the waterfront esplanade, where you can look out to sea, marvel at the array of rickety boats resembling something from The Pirates of the Caribbean, and grab a coffee or a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants and cafes along the waterfront.
A good route to take is the Kota Kinabalu Heritage Walk, which follows the city’s historical progression, taking in many of its cultural attractions: this walk can be done as a guided tour for a nominal charge or solo following the route from readily available maps. However, we would recommend the guided tour as you will get a much more comprehensive insight into the city’s history. This walk begins at the Independence Field, then stops at Australia Place (one of the city’s oldest established regions), then it marks out a line that encompasses the Museum Kopitiam, the Atkinson Clock, the Sabah Tourism Building, the Malaysia Monument and the War Memorial.
Another top pastime in Kota Kinabalu is shopping; for the size of the town there is an awful lot of shopping to be done here and you can buy anything from designer branded hand bags, to homemade jewellery, and the variety of retailers is quite staggering. If you’re looking to spend a bit more money then there are plenty of large shopping malls with various retail outlets and all manner of cafes and restaurants; you can easily make a day out of a visit to the city’s malls.
But, perhaps more interestingly, almost all of the streets in the city centre are lined with little independent shops selling knick knacks, postcards, clothing, jewellery, fabrics, and all kinds of odd bits and pieces: there is even a shop selling antique Singer sewing machines. Take a stroll down these narrow side streets, and lose yourself for hours at a time. However, the top shopping attraction has got to be the markets. The city is home to multiple markets and if you’re here at the right time, then we’d highly recommend you head along.
Every Sunday from 6.30am until 1pm the entire length of Gaya Street is closed for the Gaya Street Sunday Market. This is perhaps the most authentic market, and is one of the best places to experience a rich cross-section of tourists and locals shopping together. Here you can expect to find all manner of goodies, including everything from touristy knick knacks to quite spectacular artisan and craft goods, such as batik sarongs, baked goods and snacks, clothing, plants, and even pets!
The Handicraft Market (open daily from 9am until 4.30pm) is the spot in Kota Kinabalu to buy your souvenirs and gifts – real local handicraft goods. There is a really quite staggering variation to be found: textiles (including sarongs and pareos in every colour under the sun), pearl jewellery, seashell ornaments, bamboo crafted pieces, traditional instruments, and so much more. You could quite easily spend a whole day wandering here, and soaking in the atmosphere.
Right around the corner from the Handicraft Market, you will find the Central Market (open daily from 6am until 6pm), which is host to all manner of exotic groceries, immerse yourself in the smells and sights of these intriguing fruits, vegetables, and other food stuffs. Something every visitor has got to try at least once is the famed durian fruit – although it is not to everyone’s taste, you cannot leave Kota Kinabalu without at least trying one!
Finally, eating! There are a lot of tasty dishes to be tried and eateries to be frequented in Kota Kinabalu. You can find every kind of restaurant in this city: from the western super chains (Nandos, Burger King, McDonalds, Hard Rock Cafe) to independent western restaurants (such as locally owned pizzerias and a genuine Irish pub on the waterfront) to authentic local eateries. You simply must try nasi lemak at one of the little diner-style Malaysian restaurants, which are easily identified by the plastic chairs and open street-side frontage. Nasi lemak is a rice dish, cooked with coconut and pandan leaf and is generally viewed as the national dish of Malaysia, and is very tasty when made properly!
No culinary tour of the city would be complete without a trip to the Night Market. Taking place virtually every evening, from the late afternoon until 11pm, this is one of the best places to eat in the city and it offers a sensory experience (an array of sights, smells, sounds) as well as good food. Come here and head to the hawker centre for dinner, making your way past more seafood than you could shake a stick at: tiger prawns, sea-bream, snapper, crabs – really any creature from the deep can be found here.
Some further suggestions
Hopefully the above article has shown you that Kota Kinabalu has a lot to offer visitors, and that it needn’t be viewed merely as a point from which to embark to other locations, but has its own attraction. Now, of course, part of the charm of the city is wandering and discovering new places and people yourself. Below we have a few further suggestions of spots that you really will not want to miss out on.
- The City Mosque is architecturally interesting and definitely worth a visit. You’re not missing much if you don’t venture inside (although the mosque is open to non-tourists outside of prayer time), but the contemporary grand design, topped with a stunning blue and gold dome, sitting just at the water’s edge really is a sight to behold. And it’s easily (and cheaply) accessible from the city centre by bus.
- If you’re looking for culture and a bit of history, head to the Sabah Museum (with adjoining Science and Education Centre). This is the top spot to learn a bit about the history of Sabah, from its environments to its ethnicities and culture. Everything is very clearly explained and illustrated with a variety of artefacts, including a replica lime stone cave. If you can do have a look in, it makes a great introduction to the area, particularly if you are planning on exploring further afield in Sabah.
- The Signal Hill Observatory Platform offers the best views of the city. Shaped almost like a landing UFO spacecraft and situated at the eastern edge of the city amongst a series of art-deco mansions, there is something otherworldly about a visit here. Try and head up at sunset for really breathtaking vistas, but at any time of day the view is superb.