Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. It’s a clean, modern city with a rich tribal history nestled between lush Malaysian rain forest and gorgeous Borneo coastline. There’s so much to do in Borneo, and most tourists to this incredible paradise find themselves settling in Kota Kinabalu.
From KK you can catch quick and cheap flights to other Borneo adventure areas like Sandakan and Semporna (also in the Malysian state of Sabah), Sarawak, and Brunei (a separate country), which makes it the perfect resting spot to explore caves, beaches, rain forest, animal reserves, and more
Getting to Kota Kinabalu Malaysia
Flying into KK is by far the best, easiest way to get to town.
Kota Kinabalu is the main transportation hub for the island of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI) features direct flights to and from most major cities around Asia and Oceania: Brunei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Australia, Bali, New Zealand, China…. You get the picture.
Flights into KK can cost as little as $15 or as much as $300, depending on the location and time frame.
In Malaysia it’s much easier to fly from city to city, and almost as cheap! If your vacation is going to take you to Semporna for world-class scuba diving or to Sandakan to see the orangutan reserve, then flying in and out of KK is the fastest and cheapest way to get around.
Use Grab to get around town
Once you’re in KK Grab, the Asian version of Uber, is the easiest way to get around. It’s easy to download the app, create an account, and add a credit card. After assigning a card to your Grab account you can easily arrange cash-less rides and even use the app to pay for restaurants and stores which accept Grab Pay.
Grab is not only easy to use, it’s also really cheap in Kota Kinabalu. Not only is it cheap, English is widely used in Malaysia so almost all Grab drivers (and others in the tourism sector) speak decent English! Most are friendly and will want to know where you’re from, how long you’re in town, and give you special tips. It’s great!
And now for the reason we’re all here…
Free things to do in Kota Kinabalu
1. Tanjung Aru Beach
The soft, white sand and turquoise water on the coast of Kota Kinabalu can’t be beat. Add the facts that it’s not overcrowded by tourists and that beach snacks are cheap and easy to find and you’ve got a serious winner. It may be hard to pull yourself away from the warm water to enjoy the other beautiful, adventurous things to do in Kota Kinabalu!
Tanjung Aru, along the western side of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, has been the king beach for a long time. It’s recently garnered some competition from a renovated beach: Tanjung Lipat.
Tanjung Lipat features Malaysian Borneo’s trademark white beach and turquoise water with the added features of a modern playground and food stalls. Grab a fresh fruit drink for 3 RM and some grilled seafood and then head back out to the sand for some sun and relaxation!
Both beaches are great if you’re interested in playing in the water. Tanjung Lipat may be better for children, but Tanjung Aru displays better sunsets. Both are relatively quiet during the day, but buses of Chinese and Korean tourists will descend on Tanjung Aru for the sunset and nightly food stalls in late afternoon.
How to get to Tanjung Aru beach:
- Located on the east side of the city, Tanjung Aru is a district as well as a beach. There are mutiple drop-off points for Tanjung Aru Beach. Choose the location with the sightseeing camera on Grab to arrive at the main entrance, where you’ll find a playground and food stalls
- Beach is open 24 hours
- Drink vendors begin setting up around 11:00 am. Food and toys begin setting up in late afternoon
- Plan to be at the beach around sunset and stay for dinner with the food vendors
- Almost deserted during the day, but a hot spot for Chinese and Korean tour buses at sunset
2. Sunrise at Masjid Bandaraya City Mosque
Sabah is a predominantly Islamic area, with multiple mosques to serve the Muslim population. Each mosque is unique in it’s decor, architectural style, and location. One of the most interesting free things to do in Kota Kinabalu is visit these beautiful structures, the most famous being Kota Kinabalu’s City Mosque.
City Mosque is second in size to Sabah State Mosque, but more well-known due to it’s unique location: on the banks of a small lake.
You’ll be treated to gorgeous views of City Mosque reflecting in the lake at any time of day, but sunrise is definitely the best time to visit. The sun rises from behind the mosque, illuminating the sky behind the structure in bright colors and cloud formations. The sunrise and mosque are reflected in the calm early morning water, which make it twice as delicious.
How to get to City Mosque:
- Located near the coast north of town, search Grab for Masjid Bandaraya for a precise location
- Visitors are allowed to enter, but will need to register at the front desk of the mosque and wear appropriate clothing
- Grounds are open 24 hours, but sunrise is the best time to come visit
3. Signal Hill Observation Tower
If you’re looking for free things to do in Kota Kinabalu you will love Signal Hill!
This observation station is accessible by car or stairs which lead to a series of small hilltop observation platforms overlooking downtown Kota Kinabalu and the South China Sea. You’ll be surprised and delighted at the sight of colorful buildings, malls, and gorgeous water. You’ll also be able to see Kota Kinabalu’s Atkinson Clock Tower, the oldest structure in KK, along the Signal Hill bluff.
The walk up or down Signal Hill begins beside the Borneo Night theater at the intersection of Lorong Dewan and Jalan K.K. Bypass. A mere 302 steps are used to carry you the 150 meters from the street to the observation tower.
Visiting Signal Hill should definitely be one of the first stops you do from your list of things to in Kota Kinabalu!
How to get to Signal Hill Observation Tower:
- Catch a Grab to the top of the viewing platform here: Jalan Bukit Bendera, 88400 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
- Climb 302 stairs up (or down) to the platform from the steps beside Borneo Night, Jalan Dewan, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
4. Pillars of Sabah
Pillars of Sabah is a collection of 30 pillars each painted by one of 30 local artists. The pillars are neatly placed in rows on a concrete platform across the street from Suria Sabah, one of Kota Kinabalu’s largest shopping malls. Signal Hill is visible from Pillars of Sabah, which makes it a great place to stop if walking from one landmark to another.
The pillars are each unique and beautiful, with a flyer about the responsible artist. It’s such a cool little square, and totally Instagram-worthy!
How to get to Pillars of Sabah:
- Located across the street from Suria Sabah mall at Lorong Bank 3, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
- Exhibit is entirely outdoors
- Don’t forget your camera!
5. Watch the Sunset
Borneo is famous for bright sunsets, and Kota Kinabalu is a great place to view them. Tanjung Aru is the most popular place to watch sunsets due to it’s unencumbered westward view. Another great place to watch the sunset is Sutera Harbour, where you can not only see the sunset across KK’s outlying islands, but also wander around beautiful Kota Kinabalu resorts and marina.
Search online for the time of sunset each night, and be in your designated location 30-10 minutes beforehand. It’s beautiful to watch the sun set, but keep in mind that the most vibrant colors appear after sunset. As long as the sky isn’t too cloudy you’ll be treated to dancing strands of blue, pink, and orange!
Tips to see the sunset in Kota Kinabalu:
- Tanjung Aru Beach and the Sutera Harbour marina are our top picks to watch the sunset
- Be sure to choose a place on the eastern side of the city
- Be prepared 30 minutes before and after the exact time of sunset to see the best colors as the sun goes down
- Don’t forget your camera, and keep it on auto Sunset settings to capture the amazing colors
6. Tanjung Lipat Beach
Tanjung Aru is our preferred beach, but Tanjung Lipat, another public beach in Kota Kinabalu, is different enough that it’s definitely worth exploring.
At Tanjung Aru you will find dedicated food stalls selling treats at all times day, a paved walking track, a new playground, and pedi-bikes to rent. If you need something new you really should check out Tanjung Lipat. It’s more than just beachfront!
How to get to Tanjung Lipat:
- Jalan pantai likas (Off Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens)
- Bring some cash in case you want to rent a pedi-bike or grab a smoothie
- Bring swim clothes
Cheap things to do in Kota Kinabalu
1. Night Food Market and Filipino Market
It’s free to walk around the market, but cheap if you decide to buy a few things to eat.
Filipino Market is one of the oldest food markets in Kota Kinabalu. Here you’ll find rows of stalls selling fruit and other goods at rock-bottom prices. The Night Food Market has recently been added along the waterfront beside the Filipino Market, so it’s easy to now walk through both in one visit.
The Night Food Market also offers rows of food stalls offering raw fruits, veggies, meat, and seafood, as well as a cluster of ready-made snack stalls. For a few Ringgit you can buy a cup of fresh fruit juice, grilled corn on the cob, or fried seafood.
The added benefit of the Night Food Market and Filipino Market is that they are constructed along the Kota Kinabalu waterfront. Perhaps the most beautiful food markets in Asia, here you can see views of the water, shipping boats, and neighboring islands as you wander the stalls.
How to get to Night Food Market and Filipino Market:
- The Night Food Market is located at Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
- Open in afternoon, closes at 11:00 p.m.
- Can purchase fresh fish, vegetables, fruits, and quick, prepared foods from BBQ and drink stalls
- Be careful when consuming food prepared in unsanitary ways. You are subject to traveler’s diarrhea if you eat undercooked meat or foods prepared with unfiltered water. If you watch meat getting cooked fresh in front of you you should be ok!
2. Sabah Museum
The Sabah Museum should be one of the first things you do in Kota Kinabalu. It’s a small museum made up of two parts: multiple exhibits on the history and culture of Sabah located inside an air conditioned building, and an interactive village outside of the standard museum.
It only takes a couple of hours to go through, but the exhibits are interesting and informative. Sabah has a rich history native Sabahans are proud of, and it will help you enjoy your time in Kota Kinabalu if you understand more about them!
How to get to the Sabah Museum:
- Located at Jalan Muzium, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
- Open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
- Entrance fee is 15RM for foreigners of all ages, 3RM for Malysians
- Entrance includes indoor museum as well as outdoor village recreation
3. University of Malaysia Sabah
I know it sounds strange to suggest spending your day at a university campus, but UMS is that amazing. It’s full of public art and museums which the whole family will love. It also happens to be on the coast, with beautiful views of the water.
Our favorite things to do at UMS are to check out the culturally painted stairs, the nature walk, and the marine and wildlife museums. There’s so much more than that, though! The campus is huge, and you could spend all day wandering around the fun things to do.
It seems like a university should be free to enter, but this is an eco-campus which charges 5RM for adults to enter in order to maintain their public spaces. This is one place that truly gives back to the community!
How to get to University Malaysia Sabah:
- Address: Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Jalan UMS, 88400, Kota Kinabalu
- Bring 5RM cash per adult
- May want to hire a car to get around, it’s huge!
Fun things to do in Kota Kinabalu
1. Borneo Night
The creators of Borneo Night saw two issues with Kota Kinabalu they wanted to fix: 1) there isn’t much nightlife in the city and 2) tourists don’t learn as much about Sabahan culture and history as they could. Enter Borneo Night: a performance of Sabahan history told through dance, music, and food, held twice each night.
How to get to Borneo Night:
- Held in the Kota Kinabalu Community Hall (Now the Borneo Night Theater) at Jalan Dewan, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
- Shows are at 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. every night
- Includes dance and music performance, buffet dinner, souvenir bag, and photo opportunity
2. Mari Mari Cultural Village
Sabah is home to a deep, rich culture. Mari Mari Cultural Village is one of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu for visitors to experience and understand some of the largest ancient tribes of North Borneo! Visitors to Mari Mari Cultural Village will walk through this interactive village which features re-created settlements from 3 of Sabah’s most influential tribes. A local tour guide will help your group learn about each tribe through seeing their homes, kitchens, food, weapons, dance, music, and activities up close and personal!
Our favorite part of our Mari Mari Cultural Village tour was the dance and music performance, but the walking tour also includes expertly made local food samples in each settlement, the opportunity to try cultural activities for yourself, and a lunch buffet of (modern) local foods!
How to visit Mari Mari Cultural Village:
- Book your Mari Mari visit here
- Tours are approximately 3 hours long and are held twice a day; in the morning and afternoon
- Wear shoes and clothes suitable for climbing ladders
- Bring a camera
3. Visit Dinawan Island
We visited a few of the many islands that lay just beyond Kota Kinabalu in the warm South China Sea. They all feature white, sandy beaches with warm, turquoise water and tropical fish, but Dinawan Island was by far our favorite.
Dinawan Island is a private island which limits daily visitors. Book a day trip in advance to enjoy an inflatable water park, kayaking, snorkeling, lounging, a beach side seafood BBQ, and calm, quiet beaches.
If you can’t dedicate the time to a Dinawan Island day trip you can choose which of the 5 main islands off of Kota Kinabalu to visit and catch speedboats to any one from Jesselton Point Ferry Station or Sutera Harbour. You can rent snorkel gear at each island and even choose to do a zip line or parasailing trip, but be warned: these islands are mega crowded and not nearly as relaxing as they sound.
How to book a Dinawan Island Day Trip:
- Email Marudu directly at email@example.com or call +6 0168058913
- Bring a towel, swim clothes, camera, bug spray, sunscreen, and money for extra snacks
- Day trips last approximately 8 hours, from noon until 8:00 p.m.
Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia
We’ve visited quite a few hotels in Kota Kinabalu to give you the very best recommendations!
Luxury resorts in Kota Kinabalu:
Magellan Sutera Harbor: This resort is BONKERS! It’s built along a gorgeous stretch of coastline with prominent views of the outlying islands off of Kota Kinabalu. It features an extensive pool system, a spa, restaurants, and gorgeous rooms. You can even book a special unit away from the standard rooms with a glass wall looking directly onto the ocean! You only access a small portion of sand, though, as the majority of coast line at this hotel is rock hidden by a retaining wall.
Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu: Le Meridien is a resort chain known around the world for quality. This hotel is located near the heart of Kota Kinabalu, so guests can easily access shopping, the famous food markets, and other KK tourist destinations by foot.
Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa: This resort is famous around Kota Kinabalu because of it’s proximity to one of KK’s most famous and popular beaches, Tanjung Aru. From this resort you have access to a private strip of beach and are a short walk away from the nightlife at the public section of Tanjung Aru. You’ll also love the pool, spa, and gym! This is the perfect option if you’re looking for beach access, but it’s the farthest away from the city center so you’ll need to catch a Grab (more on that later) to get off the property.
Hostels in Kota Kinabalu:
Cozy Hostel: This hostel is one of the top-rated hotels in Kota Kinabalu! It is close to the airport, a great hub for getting Grabs, and within walking distance to a major shopping mall and a few restaurants. Friendly hosts keep the hostel clean, it includes WiFi and a complementary breakfast, and there is even a separate place for females only!
Faloe Hostel: This hostel is actually the second-best rated hotel in Kota Kinabalu, and near enough to Cozy Hostel to access the same city landmarks. Faloe Hostel features an open common section, free laundry, and a free breakfast available ALL DAY!
Planning a trip to Kota Kinabalu? Pin this list of free, cheap, and fun things to do for later!
The O’Briens sold everything in 2017 to travel the world full-time. They work online as digital nomads to fund their travels, and homeschool their son along the way. Follow them on Instagram and YouTube for a glimpse into what it’s like to travel full-time as a family!
*Our stay in Kota Kinabalu was sponsored by Sabah Tourism Board. As always, all opinions and suggestions are our own*