Malaysia usually evokes images of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves, or even the Langkawi Ski Bridge. But did you know that this delightful country is also home to a gem known as Kota Kinabalu?

Nestled on sun-soaked Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is a lively capital city with spectacular sunsets, an amazing culinary scene, and islands galore. In addition to its many hiking opportunities, Kota Kinabalu even features a sprawling marine park that offers an endless array of nautical activities for all fitness levels.

The best thing about Kota Kinabalu is that it easily caters to all budgets and tastes. Budget travelers will find more than their fair share of affordable hostels. Families will be also spoilt for choice when it comes to kid-friendly activities. Foodies will relish in the sheer abundance of fresh seafood available all over the city while couples will no doubt enjoy the many romantic spots and elegant hotels speckled throughout.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by what to do in Kota Kinabalu? Don’t worry, I’ve got your back! Here are 17 of the best activities you wish to add to your itinerary.

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    The Top Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu

    Whether you’re planning a quick stay in the city or backpacking Malaysia, you’re going to want to know what to do in Kota Kinabalu to make your trip one to remember. Below are the places that you really can’t afford to miss!

    Most Popular Activities in Kota Kinabalu
    Snorkeling Day Trip Kota Kinabalu
    Most Popular Activities in Kota Kinabalu

    Go Snorkeling

    Kota Kinabalu is surrounded by some of the clearest and most bountiful waters in the world. Head over to the Abdul Rahman Marine Park where you’ll find plenty of excellent snorkeling spots in a safe and controlled environment.

    Romantic Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu
    Cruise Across the Klias Wetlands Kota Kinabalu
    Romantic Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu

    Enjoy a Cruise Down the Klias Wetlands

    Perfect for couples or families, this Klias River cruising expedition includes a day cruise across the Klias Wetlands as well as an evening cruise illuminated by the glow of fireflies.

    Unmissable Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu
    Explore the Mari Mari Cultural Village Kota Kinabalu
    Unmissable Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu

    Visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village

    Learn about Borneo’s ethnic cultures as you wander the Mari Mari Cultural Village. As you tour this open-air museum, you’ll even be able to interact with traditional groups before enjoying a classic Sabahan lunch.

    Unique Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu
    Visit the Sabah Tea Plantation Kota Kinabalu
    Unique Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu

    See How Tea is Harvested

    Tea is practically an institution in Kota Kinabalu. With a tour of the Sabah Tea Garden, you’ll be able to learn more about the tea-making process and shop for different types of brews to bring back home.

    Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids
    Signal Hill Kota Kinabalu
    Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids

    Hike Up Signal Hill

    Hit the 10-minute hiking trail that’ll take you to the top of Signal Hill. Over there, you’ll find an Observatory which offers glorious views of Kota Kinabalu from various angles.

    1. Snorkel in the Crystalline Waters

    Snorkeling Day Trip Kota Kinabalu

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    Snorkeling is often said to be among the unmissable things to do in Kota Kinabalu- and wait until you find out why!

    This activity takes you to the famous Abdul Rahman Marine Park where you’ll find no less than three snorkeling spots in a controlled environment. If you’ve never snorkeled before, rest assured that you’ll be under the guidance of an experienced PADI professional guide. Group sizes are limited to six for individual attention.

    Masks, fins, and snorkels are provided, so you won’t need to lug your luggage all the way to the marine park either.

    After feasting your eyes on colorful fish and corals, you’ll even be treated to a complimentary lunch on one of the islands!

    • Entrance fee: $59
    • Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    • Address: Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, Jln Haji Saman, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

    2. Browse through Gaya Street Sunday Market

    Gaya Street Sunday Market

    If you ask me, there’s no better place to mingle with the locals than at the Sunday Market on Gaya Street!

    One of the liveliest places in Kota Kinabalu, the Gaya Street Sunday Market is only open one day a week- so brace yourself for the crowds. I would recommend that you head there as early as possible to avoid having to navigate your way through large gaggles of people.

    In addition to classic market offerings, you’ll also find more unusual stands with crystals, moonstones, and even semi-precious stones. Seashell jewelry, textiles, and other souvenirs are also available.

    After shopping, I would highly suggest that you wander over to the food section where you can sample various Malaysian specialties right from the roadside stalls.

    • Entrance fee: Free
    • Hours: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Sundays only)
    • Address: 1st – 4th Floor, 120, Jalan Gaya, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

    3. Wake Up to Gorgeous Water Views

    Mango House3

    If you’d like to be close to the top things to do in Kota Kinabalu, I can totally vouch for this absolute gem of a place!

    Boasting gorgeous water views, this Airbnb lies close to popular points of interest like the Mari Mari Cultural Village, the Wetland Ramsar Site, and Merdeka Square.

    With two bedrooms to accommodate up to six guests, the Airbnb is found in a complex that features laundromats, convenience stores, and gym facilities. There’s even a modern, well-equipped kitchen where you can rustle up a quick meal on those nights when you don’t feel like going out.

    Best of all, this place accommodates pets – perfect if you’re traveling with your pooch!

    • Entrance fee: $60/night
    • Hours: Check-in after 3 p.m., Check-out before 12 p.m.
    • Address: Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

    4. Marvel at the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

    Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

    A striking building like no other, the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque absolutely deserves a visit in my opinion!

    The mosque is perched on slits right above the artificial lagoon, making it appear as though it’s floating right on the water. This mosque is also known for its striking blue and gold dome replicated after the Al Masjid and Nabawi.

    I would recommend that you visit at night to see the whole place decked out in lights. During the day, it’s even possible to take a paddle boat ride on the lagoon.

    While the mosque is open to tourists, they do have to register themselves with the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque Tourism Management ahead of time. Tourists are required to dress respectfully.

    • Entrance fee: Free
    • Hours: 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
    • Address: Jalan Pasir, Jalan Teluk Likas, Kampung Likas, 88400 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

    5. Cruise Across the Klias Wetlands

    Cruise Across the Klias Wetlands Kota Kinabalu

    Parents looking for fun things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids will no doubt be thrilled by this river and fireflies tour!

    Not only will you get to explore the famous Klias Wetlands, but you might just be lucky enough to spot some local wildlife while cruising down the Klias River. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare Silver Langur, Long-Tailed Macaques, and Proboscis monkeys.

    The activity also includes an evening cruise through a mangrove swamp so you can experience the wonder of being surrounded by the flickering lights of the many fireflies.

    Oh, and did I mention that you’ll be treated to a complimentary Malaysian buffet dinner?

    • Entrance fee: $50
    • Hours: 12.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.
    • Address: Various pickup points from Kota Kinabalu

    6. Relax at Poring Hot Springs

    Poring Hot Springs

    I don’t think there’s a better place than Poring Hot Springs to unwind and rejuvenate after all that sightseeing!

    Combining relaxation and nature, the hot springs are found in Kinabalu National Park, one of a few Malaysian National Parks. Both the baths and the natural springs are infused with Sulphur, known for its restorative and curative properties.

    While you’re there, you can also wander through the National Park which offers unique features, including a Treetop Canopy Walk that takes you 30 meters above the ancient rainforest.

    This place is especially popular among climbers who want to soothe their muscles after an arduous climb. If you’re an experienced climber, you may wish to try summitting Mount Kinabalu which dominates the park’s landscape. Be sure to set aside two to three days for the climb.

    • Entrance fee: $3.35 (adult), $0.67 (child)
    • Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    • Address: 89300 Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia
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    7. Explore the Mari Mari Cultural Village

    Explore the Mari Mari Cultural Village Kota Kinabalu

    Whether you’re looking for things to do in Kota Kinabalu alone or with friends, you really can’t miss a visit to the Mari Mari Cultural Village!

    Learn about Borneo’s ethnic cultures as you wander the open-air museum, filled with treasures from the past. You’ll also be able to visit the village’s traditional longhouses and interact with traditional groups like the Murut, Bajau, Lundayeh, Rungus, and Dusun people.

    As lunchtime rolls in, you’ll be treated to scrumptious Sabahan specialties. This activity also features cultural demonstrations like fire starting, blowpipe making, and Sabahan tattooing patterns. Your guide will be glad to answer any questions and explain the symbolism behind various local practices.

    • Entrance fee: $75
    • Hours: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • Address: Various pickup points from Kota Kinabalu

    8. Hop Over to Sapi Island

    Sapi Island Kota Kinabalu

    One of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park’s most popular islands, Sapi Island is a definite crowd-pleaser with its clean, silky shores and cerulean lagoon!

    First things first though: as glorious as it is, this island gets exceptionally crowded in the summer, so you may wish to visit off-season instead. I would also advise you to hang around until low tide to take advantage of the natural sandbar that connects Sapi Island to Gaya Island.

    Plenty of picnic tables and huts are speckled over the island, so don’t hesitate to bring a few snacks along. To increase your chances of spotting marine wildlife head over to Sapi’s Southeastern tip where you’ll find moray eels and different types of fish in the coral garden.

    • Entrance fee: $6.71
    • Hours: 8.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    • Address: Kota Kinabalu 88000, Malaysia

    9. Feast on Seafood

    Seafood Market Kota Kinabalu

    Wondering what to do in Kota Kinabalu on a lazy afternoon? How about checking a trip to the Waterfront Seafood Night Market?

    Because it’s surrounded by some of the most bountiful waters on earth, Kota Kinabalu offers plenty of delectable seafood. At the Waterfront Seafood Night Market, you’ll be able to shop for just about every type of seafood, including giant prawns and lobster.

    It’s not just raw ingredients either: the market has many eateries where you can take a seat and watch as they fry or grill any seafood of your choice right in front of you.

    Here’s a little tip for you: try the grilled fish topped with grated mango, served alongside white rice and mixed veggies. You’ll thank me later!

    • Entrance fee: Free
    • Hours: 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Fridays only)
    • Address: 70 Macquarie Street, Hobart, Tasmania, 7000

    10. Go White Water River Rafting

    White Water River Rafting Kota Kinabalu

    For something adrenaline-inducing, you may wish to consider rafting down the rapidly-flowing Kiulu River.

    Kick off your day with some complimentary refreshments before making your way over to Sukang or Pukak. Once at the river, your guide will provide you with various rafting equipment, including rafts, paddles, PFT, and helmets. A safety briefing is also provided.

    If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can even try to walk on the Tamparuli Suspension Bridge which is said to be the most famous bridge in Sabah.

    Once you’ve been briefed, you can hit those tumultuous waters and raft the 8 km down to Kiulu Town where you can fuel up with a riverside lunch.

    11. Soak Up the Views from Signal Hill

    Signal Hill Kota Kinabalu

    Looking for the best free things to do in Kota Kinabalu? Then, you may wish to head to the top of Signal Hill, the highest point in the city!

    You do need to trek a bit to reach the summit though, so be sure to grab your best hiking boots. The Signal Hill trailhead has two entry points: Gaya Street and Padang Merdeka.

    It’s a fairly easy trek to the top – perfect for inexperienced hikers and families! Perched on the summit is the Signal Hill Observatory which provides several viewing platforms. While the Observatory is under renovation until September 2023, but you’ll still be able to climb to the top of the hill and enjoy panoramic views of Kota Kinabalu from different angles!

    • Entrance fee: Free
    • Hours: 24/7
    • Address: 78, Jalan Asrama, Signal Hill, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

    12. Visit the Sabah Tea Plantation

    Visit the Sabah Tea Plantation Kota Kinabalu

    Do you want to go Yamcha? That’s the local slang for ‘Do you want to go get some tea?’- and a phrase that you may hear more than once in Kota Kinabalu!

    Tea is practically an institution in the city and if you’d like to tour a tea plantation, I can recommend this tour of the Sabah Tea Garden. Not only will you see the workers pruning or harvesting the tea leaves, but you can also shop for various types of teas to bring back home.

    In addition, the tour includes a stop by the Kundasang War Memorial which features a Contemplation Garden and Pool, a Borneo Garden, an English Garden, and an Australian Garden. Perfect for nature lovers, don’t you think?

    • Entrance fee: $250
    • Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    • Address: Various pickup points in Kota Kinabalu

    13. Mosey Around Manukan Island

    Manukan Island Kota Kinabalu

    Another island, I know. But hey, since Kota Kinabalu is positively surrounded by them, it would be a shame not to go island-hopping, don’t you think?

    Travelers in search of the best day trips from Kota Kinabalu will no doubt rejoice in a visit to the crescent-shaped Manukan Island. In addition to usual island activities like swimming and snorkeling, Manukan is especially known for its network of hiking trails.

    The second-biggest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman protected area, this island also boasts a clubhouse, a museum, and various sports facilities such as Sepak Takraw (Kick Football).

    If you ask me, a day isn’t quite enough to take everything in, so you can always set up camp for the night!

    • Entrance fee: $4.50 (adult), $3.35 (child)
    • Hours: Boat transfers from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
    • Address: Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Sabah, Malaysia

    14. Climb Mount Trusmadi

    Mount Trusmadi Kota Kinabalu

    Mt. Kinabalu may be the most popular mountain in Sabah but it can get pretty packed in summer.

    If you’d like to avoid the crowds, you may wish to consider climbing Mount Trusmadi instead. Ideal for more experienced climbers, this all-inclusive activity takes 3 days, so make sure that you’ve got enough time to spare!

    I do need to point out that this is a highly strenuous activity that’s only suitable for experienced climbers. You also need to be in great physical condition.

    Now, if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be glad to learn that the mountain is home to rare local fauna, so keep your eyes open for those while hiking through the gorgeous Alpine wilderness.

    • Entrance fee: $621.16
    • Hours: 3 Days
    • Address: Various pickup points from Kota Kinabalu
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    15. Take in Some Culture at the Sabah State Museum

    Sabah State Museum Kota Kinabalu

    If you’re in the mood for some culture, be sure to check out the Sabah State Museum which offers three levels of local memorabilia.

    An excellent venue for kids and adults alike, the museum is actually a complex where you will find the Sabah Art Gallery as well as the Science and Technology Museum.

    My personal favorite feature is no doubt the Museum’s Heritage Village where you can stroll through the replica of a Sabah village, complete with traditional houses. There’s even a Chinese farmhouse, a Murut Longhouse, and a Bajau House. Depending on when you’re visiting, you can even catch a live cultural performance.

    In addition, the museum also offers an Ethnobotanical Garden with ornamental, medicinal, and commercial plants.

    • Entrance fee: $3.35
    • Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    • Address: Jalan Muzium, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

    16. Spend a Day at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve

    Kota Kinabalu Borneo

    Traveling with the little ones and looking for things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids? Well, I can recommend the Tabin Wildlife Reserve which just so happens to be the largest reserve in Malaysia!

    Covering an expanse of 300,00 acres, this wildlife reserve was originally created to protect Malaysia’s endangered wild animals, including the Banteng, the Sumatran Rhinoceros, and the Borneo Pygmy Wild Elephant.

    Bird watchers will be glad to know that the park also has over 300 different bird species, including various types of hornbill.

    Visitors can either hit one of the trekking trails or book a 4WD Safari to venture deeper into the park. For something unique, be sure to check out the park’s Mud Volcanoes as well.

    • Entrance fee: $127.45
    • Hours: N/A
    • Address: Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia

    17. Check Out the Atkinson Clock Tower

    Atkinson Clock Tower Kota Kinabalu

    For awesome photo opportunities, head over to the Atkinson Clock Tower, one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.

    Now, if you’re wondering why a clock (of all the things!) made this list, wait until you see it for yourself! Towering at 50 feet, the Atkinson Clock Tower is believed to be Kota Kinabalu’s oldest structure. Locals will tell you that it even survived the Second World War.

    But that’s not all: what makes this clock even more special is that it was entirely crafted from wood, without the use of a single nail. Talk about an architectural marvel, right?

    Be sure to check it out at night too when the white-hued timepiece is all lit up by colorful lights.

    • Entrance fee: Free
    • Hours: Open 24 hours
    • Address: Kota Kinabalu, 88400 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

    Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu

    Nothing beats that delicious feeling of retreating to air-conditioned comfort after an exciting day of sightseeing! Well, lucky for you, there’s plenty to offer in terms of accommodation in Kota Kinabalu.

    From hostels to fancier hostels, the city easily caters to various budgets, so let’s check out the best ones!

    Best Hostel in Kota Kinabalu – Faloe Hostel

    Faloe Hostel

    Travelers who want to be close to all the exciting things to do in Kota Kinabalu city center may wish to drop anchor at the Faloe Hostel.

    With a stay in this hostel, you’ll be close to popular attractions like the Signal Hill Observatory Tower, the Waterfront Night Market, and Jesselton Point.

    Boasting a spacious shared lounge and dining areas, Faloe Hostel offers a choice of mixed or female-only dorm rooms.

    Best Airbnb in Kota Kinabalu – Two Bedroom Space for Five

    Two Bedroom Space for Five

    Commanding an excellent location near some of the top attractions in the city, this Airbnb features two comfortable bedrooms for five.

    Owing to its central location, this apartment places you just a quick wall from lively Gaya Street, the Jetty, and Atkinson Tower.

    Some of Kota Kinabalu’s best eateries are practically on your doorstep, but if you don’t feel like going out, you can always whip up a meal in the well-equipped kitchen.

    Best Hotel in Kota Kinabalu – The Aru Hotel at Aru Suites

    The Aru Hotel at Aru Suites

    Hands down, this is my absolute favorite place to stay in Kota Kinabalu!

    The Aru Hotel offers Deluxe Rooms, Studios, Two-Bedroom Suites, or Family Suites for two to six guests. All rooms feature a fridge and a microwave- perfect for those late-night snacks!

    Boasting free breakfast, the hotel also lies close to attractions like the Signal Hill Observatory and the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre.

    Some Additional Tips for Visiting Kota Kinabalu

    Eager to hit all those great attractions in Kota Kinabalu yet? I bet so! Before you do, be sure to check out my handy travel tips below.

    • Brace Yourself for the Heat. Kota Kinabalu is a super humid destination with high temperatures throughout the year, so wear light clothing and pack plenty of sunscreen! Short bursts of rain aren’t uncommon so you may wish to carry an umbrella too.
    • Visit Between January and April. In my opinion, this is the best time to visit this lovely Malay City if you want to avoid both the crowds and the rain.
    • Know the Duty-Free Rules. Malaysia takes duty-free concessions very seriously so it’s important to know the rules. For example, you cannot bring more than 200 cigarettes into the country. Malt liquor, wine, and spirits are limited to 1 liter per person.
    • Cover-Up in the Mosques. Men and women are required to cover their shoulders, arms, and knees when visiting mosques. Some mosques offer the possibility of renting a coverall before entering.

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    Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu

    One of Malaysia’s best-kept secrets, Kota Kinabalu is positively bursting with an assortment of activities to suit various types of travelers.

    With endless snorkeling and swimming opportunities, the city offers so much more than the usual touristy activities. There are tea plantations, replicas of traditional villages, museums, ancient monuments, and so much more to explore!

    Regardless of the activities you add to your itinerary, of one thing you can be sure of: this is one city that’s bound to deliver a heck of a good time, regardless of your budget and preferences!

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