Kota Kinabalu is nestled on the northwest coast of Borneo and quite frankly, is cool as hell.

Capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state in Borneo, this vibrant city is an eclectic mix of skyscrapers and historic quaint houses, providing an insight into the city’s rich cultural tapestry. Beyond the hustle and bustle of the city, Kota Kinabalu is home to Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, which is freakin’ awesome. It also boasts some beautiful beaches and vivid coral reefs that provide for an incredible diving trip.

In short – Kota Kinabalu has it all.

However, without the right base, your Kota Kinabalu adventure may be lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. That’s where I come in – I wrote this guide to give you the lowdown on where to stay in this vibrant city and my top recommendation for the most vibrant neighbourhoods so you can pick the perfect place to stay.

Whether you want a boujey hotel with views of the South China Sea, a cheap hostel full of other backpackers, or a family-friendly place with everything you need, this guide should be your go-to for where to stay in Kota Kinabalu.

Get ready to grab your bag and head out on an amazing Bornean adventure – I’m sure your Kota Kinabalu trip is just around the corner!

Sunset looking over the skyline of Kota Kinabalu at a distance
Now that’s what I call a sunset

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Where is the Best Place to Stay in Kota Kinabalu?

Looking for a specific stay? These are my biggest recommendations for places to stay when visiting Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel | Best Luxury Hotel in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel is ideal for your KK vacation, situated on a beach with views of Gaya Island and the South China Sea. The spacious rooms feature fantastic views of the sea and the outdoor swimming pool, complete with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, minifridges, safes, and super cosy pillows and bed. There is a fantastic roof deck bar, especially around sunset, and a beautiful infinity pool.

Signel Hostel | Best Hostel in Kota Kinabalu

Signel Hostel, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

This humble hostel offers both private and dorm beds, equipped with individual reading lights and curtains for privacy, air conditioning, with shared bathroom facilities. Guests can relax in the cosy lounge with TV and board games for some social time, ideal for meeting new travel mates. Nintendo Wii games are also available upon request to put your new friendships to the test!

Hidden Gem Gallery Inspired Rustic Studio Apartment, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

The house is stunningly gorgeous, with many small features throughout. The bright area has a reading corner, an open-plan design with moveable walls to vary the configuration of the apartment, vibrant green plants throughout, and a balcony oasis. The welcoming coconuts in the fridge upon arrival brightened my evening after a long flight, which was quite heartwarming!

Kota Kinabalu Neighborhood Guide – Best Places to Stay in Kota Kinabalu

FIRST TIME IN KOTA KINABALU
The city mosque overlooking the water in Kota Kinabalu
FIRST TIME IN KOTA KINABALU

Sutera Harbour

Explore Sutera Harbour, a hidden treasure in Kota Kinabalu. Here, elegance and tranquillity coexist without the typical tourist throngs.

ON A BUDGET
a street food stall on Gaya Street downtown Kota Kinabalu
ON A BUDGET

Downtown Kota Kinabalu

Immerse yourself in the colourful atmosphere of downtown Kota Kinabalu! Begin your day by admiring the architectural wonder of the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, a stunning example of contemporary Islamic design.

NIGHTLIFE
Waterfront Kota Kinabalu
NIGHTLIFE

Waterfront

The Waterfront is definitely the place to be at night in Kota Kinabalu! There’s bars and nightclubs right on the seafront, overlooking the beautiful ocean and islands on the horizon.

FOR FAMILIES
Tanjong Aru Kota Kinabalu
FOR FAMILIES

Tanjong Aru

Taking the kids on a break? Look no further than Tanjong Aru! Famous for its sunsets, fantastic beaches and golf resorts, it’s the perfect place to unwind and relax.

Kota Kinabalu’s Four Best Neighborhoods to Stay In

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. It’s a super busy city and is a fantastic place to add to your Malaysia itinerary. Whether you’re backpacking your way around South East Asia, looking for some cultural enlightenment or simply want a relaxing getaway, this is the place for you!

Situated on the coast with access to some amazing islands, there’s a whole host of areas to explore and sights to see! It’s also home to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, one of the best national parks in the country. Kota Kinabalu city centre is bustling for those of you who enjoy action-packed urban getaways as it’s surrounded by some stunning mountains you can hike. But it’s also filled with tranquil hidden treasures if you’d prefer a more relaxed stay.

Over the centuries, Kota Kinabalu has been occupied by the Japanese, the British and the Chinese, and has inhabitants from fascinating tribes too. This means there’s a whole host of culture and history to take in, and there’s plenty of ways to do it!

Street art on a wall in downtown Kota Kinabalu
Some of the city’s most vibrant street art

If you’re more of a studier, there are a whole host of museums and art galleries to visit which you’ll be able to find in Downtown. This is where the best hostels and budget accommodations are, perfect for backpackers.

Sutera Harbour is characterised by its luxurious hotels, shopping malls and access to different islands that are situated in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. If you want to keep busy during your stay, Sutera Harbour is certainly the place to do it.

Going out towards the sea, the Waterfront is where you’ll have the best access to boat trips out onto the ocean. It’s also home to the best hotels in Kota Kinabalu and has some of the best nightlife in the city.

And finally, Tanjong Aru is located west of Sutera Harbour. This neighbourhood is best if you want to kick back, relax and take in the views of the South China Sea from the beach, or perhaps do some diving or snorkelling.

With so much history, culture and scenery to enjoy, Kota Kinabalu is one the best places to visit in Malaysia!

1. Sutera Harbour – Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu for Your First Time – maybe

Explore Sutera Harbour, a hidden treasure in Kota Kinabalu. Here, elegance and tranquillity coexist without the typical tourist throngs.

The city mosque overlooking the water in Kota Kinabalu

There are a multitude of things to do once you step beyond the lavish accommodations you can stay in. Take on a challenge on the renowned Sutera Harbour Golf Course—a golfer’s dream come true. The 104-berth marina offers boaters a perfect starting point for touring the nearby islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

If you prefer staying landlocked, the hotels in the neighbourhood provide a range of leisure activities, from rejuvenating spa treatments to lounging by the pool. Outside of resorts, there are some world-class shopping malls so you can shop ’till you drop!

KEEN Suites@Sutera Avenue | Best Budget Hotel in Sutera Harbour

KEEN Suites@Sutera Avenue, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

This Kota Kinabalu hotel boasts apartments with bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen that are all beautifully and conveniently arranged. It’s ideal for small families to stay together. This establishment offers free private parking for visitors who drive, as well as a rooftop pool with WiFi. The rooftop is ideal for enjoying the beautiful Borneo sunsets.

The Pacific Sutera Hotel | Best Luxury Hotel in Sutera Harbour

The Pacific Sutera Hotel, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

This hotel in Kota Kinabalu is a calm haven from the bustle, located just a short walk from the harbour. Savour delectable food selections, a fully equipped gym, and a refreshing outdoor swimming pool. Stay connected with Wi-Fi at the Pacific Sutera Hotel, unwind in ocean-view rooms and, if you’re feeling wild, dance the night away at the on-site nightclub.

Riverson Soho Suite – Sunset Seaview | Best Airbnb in Sutera Harbour

Riverson Soho Suite, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

This Airbnb is stylish and swish – with a modern twist overlooking an ancient landscape from huge windows! It has spacious rooms and there’s a balcony where you can enjoy a morning coffee or a sunset cocktail. Because of the huge windows, the kitchen and living room will flood with natural light every day making it the perfect place to return to after a day of adventures!

Things to See and Do in Sutera Harbour

Sutera Harbour Kota Kinabalu Malaysia
Not a bad view
  1. If you love beautiful, ornate buildings, look no further than Sabah State Mosque. Its huge, brightly coloured domes are amazing and it has some adorable tiny trees outside it!
  2. Get your diving fix at Tunku Abdul Rahman Park!
  3. To learn all you could want to know about this district of Borneo, head to the Sabah Museum. It contains an ethnobotanical garden, a zoo and a heritage village!
  4. Visit the Imago Shopping Mall and shop ’till you drop!
  5. Head out to Sutera Harbour Marina and Golf Club to play a round on one of Borneo’s most pristine golf courses!
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Want more deetz on why these packs are so damn perfect? Then read our comprehensive review for the inside scoop!

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2. Downtown Kota Kinabalu – Best Place to Stay in Kota Kinabalu on a Budget

Immerse yourself in the colourful atmosphere of downtown Kota Kinabalu!

Begin your day by admiring the architectural wonder of the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, a stunning example of contemporary Islamic design. Then, take a tour through history at the Atkinson Clock Tower, a timeless icon from the early twentieth century.

a street food stall on Gaya Street downtown Kota Kinabalu
I’m a sucker for some street food

For a sense of local life, visit the Gaya Street Sunday Market, a thriving hub where you can find unique handicrafts, delectable local snacks, and dynamic cultural activity. Gaya Street is my top pick for those backpacking Malaysia in particular, I love the mix of local cheap eats and unique souvenirs that you’ll be able to find there.

With its array of modern attractions, delicious food, and cultural treasures, there is definitely something for everyone in downtown Kota Kinabalu., it really is the heart of the city.

Gaya Centre Hotel | Best Budget Hotel in Downtown Kota Kinabalu

Gaya Centre Hotel, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

Gaya Centre Hotel is a beautiful, modern hotel in downtown Kota Kinabalu that overlooks the sea and is in a good location near all of the city’s major tourist attractions. The exquisite rooms and suites are equipped with flat-screen televisions, minifridges, and tea & coffee makers. If you’re lucky, your hotel room may enjoy views of the sea or Kota Kinabalu city centre.

Horizon Hotel | Best Mid-Range Hotel in Downtown Kota Kinabalu

Hotel Horizon, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

The Horizon Hotel, which has four dining options and an outdoor pool, is situated in downtown Kota Kinabalu. With views of the sea and the city below, this hotel offers restorative rain showers, comfortable mattresses, complimentary high-speed internet, and all the extras you need to create an unforgettable visit. The modern, well-designed, spacious, and luxurious spaces ensure a peaceful stay.

Hilton Kota Kinabalu | Best Luxury Hotel in Downtown Kota Kinabalu

Hilton Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Hilton Kota Kinabalu is centrally located in downtown Kota Kinabalu and in a good location close to Kota Kinabalu International Airport, tourist attractions, shopping malls, and entertainment venues. A stylish rooftop pool and a 24-hour gym are among the amenities, which also include a modern bar and grill, a bright cafe and an elegant international restaurant. At sunset, the outdoor pool area makes for a truly lovely scene.

Signel Hostel | Best Hostel in Downtown Kota Kinabalu

Signel Hostel, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

This humble hostel in Downtown Kota Kinabalu offers both private and dorm beds, equipped with individual reading lights and curtains for privacy, air conditioning, with shared bathroom facilities. It’s got great wifi making it perfect for digital nomads. Guests can relax in the cosy lounge with TV and board games for some social time, ideal for meeting new travel mates. Nintendo Wii games are also available upon request to put your new friendships to the test!

Things to See and Do in Downtown Kota Kinabalu

A temple is lit up at night by red lanterns in Penang, Malaysia
Downtown ain’t dull
Image: Nic Hilditch-Short
  1. Are you an architecture lover? Then head out to take a look at the Tun Mustapha Tower – a huge glass structure held up by steel stilts!
  2. Head out of Kota Kinabalu city centre and visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village to discover the old lifestyles of five different Borneo ethnic groups.
  3. Indulge in some retail therapy at Gaya Street Sunday Market.
  4. If you want to get in touch with nature, take a trip out of Kota Kinabalu city centre to the Kiansom Waterfall – a beautiful, tranquil space!
  5. Take a trip out to Kinabalu Park – an amazing UNESCO World Heritage site and home to Mount Kinabalu.
  6. Visit The Green Connection, an aquarium and scientific discovery museum.

3. Waterfront – Best Area to Stay in Kota Kinabalu For Nightlife

The Waterfront is definitely the place to be at night in Kota Kinabalu! There are amazing bars and nightclubs right on Kota Kinabalu’s seafront overlooking the beautiful ocean and islands on the horizon. The nightlife here is top-notch and is definitely not to be missed.

Waterfront Kota Kinabalu

It’s not just great at night though, there’s plenty to explore in the day too! If you stroll out of Kota Kinabalu City you’ll stumble upon Kota Kinabalu City mosque, a beautiful floating mosque partially surrounded by a lagoon.

Honestly, my favourite thing to do in this neighbourhood is to stroll along the boardwalk and take in the views of the South China Sea, it really doesn’t get much better than that.

Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel | Best Luxury Hotel on the Waterfront

Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel, Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel is ideal for your KK vacation, situated on a beach with views of Gaya Island and the South China Sea. The spacious rooms feature fantastic views of the sea and the outdoor swimming pool, complete with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, minifridges, safes, and super cosy pillows and bed. There is a fantastic roof deck bar, especially around sunset, and a beautiful infinity pool.

Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu | Another Great Luxury Hotel on the Waterfront

Vista Sea View King Room at Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu

This Kota Kinabalu hotel is the ideal spot to stay on the Waterfront, with spectacular views of the coastline, contemporary conveniences, and a sophisticated finish to the décor! There is a rooftop bar, which is ideal for starting your night out! Its good location makes an excellent base after a day of exploration, with tranquil and spacious rooms.

Homy Seafront Hostel | Best Hostel on the Waterfront

Homy Seafront Hostel, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

This hostel is exactly what the name implies: homey! It’s modern in the middle of Kota Kinabalu city centre, with all the amenities you could ask for to make your stay comfortable and stress-free! Each shared dormitory-style room has air conditioning, and the bathrooms are fully supplied with free towels and shampoo. There’s even breakfast included; I’m a sucker for free breakfast.

Things to See and Do on the Waterfront

Sunset with orange and blue skies on one of the beaches in Kota Kinabalu
Come 6pm, you’ll find me here
  1. If you want to find the perfect souvenir from your travels, head over to the Oceanus Waterfront Mall! It’s so big you might get lost in it!
  2. Take a trip to the Bongawan Wetland to see the Proboscis Monkey, exclusive to Borneo, on an intimate river cruise
  3. Take a boat trip out to the stunning Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. It’s a group of 5 islands which are exquisite paradises, most of which have eco-parks for you to explore. They also have the world-famous stilt villages on them from migrants who have settled there!
  4. Visit Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, a grand mosque partially surrounded by a lagoon.
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4. Tanjong Aru – Best Neighborhood in Kota Kinabalu for Families to Stay In

Taking the kids on a break? Look no further than Tanjong Aru! A very safe and family-friendly area of Malaysia, Tanjong Aru is famous for sunsets, fantastic beaches and golf resorts, it’s the perfect place to unwind and relax.

The neighbourhood is especially ideal for families searching for a beautiful hotel with an outdoor pool and kid-friendly amenities, allowing the entire family to enjoy an unforgettable getaway.

Tanjong Aru Kota Kinabalu
I mean c’mon???

Here, a normal day can involve dipping your toes into Tanjung Aru Beach’s silky sand – a two-kilometre stretch ideal for swimming, tanning, or taking a leisurely stroll. Are you a snorkelling newbie? Tanjong Beach is the perfect place to brave the underwater world and see what amazing sea life you can see in its clear waters.

Remember to taste the delectable street food from the hawker stalls while you’re here, or reserve a table at a beachside restaurant to enjoy fresh seafood while taking in the scenery.

What I like best about the region is the seamless combination of the seaside and the metropolitan skyline. High-rise structures line the coast, creating a fascinating mix of old and new.

The Aru Hotel at Aru Suites | Best Mid-Range Hotel in Tanjung Aru

The Aru Hotel at Aru Suites, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

At only $70 a night, this place comes with some crazy value for money. Apartments with many rooms are available, so gather your loved ones for the ideal getaway to the city. Every hotel room has a balcony with killer views of Kota Kinabalu city centre, a private bathroom, bed linens, towels, air conditioning, a coffee maker and a flat-screen TV.

Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa | Best Luxury Hotel in Tanjung Aru

Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

If you want to give your family a truly unforgettable vacation, book your stay at the Shangri-La today! At the peak of luxury and leisure, you can savour Borneo delicacies while admiring the view of the ocean. There are outdoor swimming pools, a spa, a hot tub, and a gym; you won’t want to leave once you’re here!

Hidden Gem Gallery Inspired Rustic Studio Apartment, Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

The house is stunningly gorgeous, with many small features throughout. The bright area has a reading corner, an open-plan design with moveable walls to vary the configuration of the apartment, vibrant green plants throughout, and a balcony oasis. The welcoming coconuts in the fridge upon arrival brightened my evening after a long flight, which was quite heartwarming!

Things to See and Do in Tanjong Aru

Scuba Diving in Komodo
I’m going under
  1. Enjoy the spectacular musical fountain at Perdana Park.
  2. If you enjoy war history, head to the Petagas War Memorial, dedicated to the Second World War victims in Sabah.
  3. For some unreal sunsets and beautiful sandy strolls, head straight to Tanjung Aru beach. It’s the best beach in Kota Kinabalu to relax and unwind!
  4. Prince Phillip Park is one of the oldest parks in Sabah and has plenty to offer all the family! There’s a skate park at one end and some delicious food stalls all the way down the beach!
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FAQ about Finding a Place to Stay in Kota Kinabalu

Here’s what people usually ask us about the areas of Kota Kinabalu and where to stay.

What To Pack For Kota Kinabalu

Pants, socks, underwear, soap?! Take it from me, packing for a hostel stay is not always quite as straightforward as it seems. Working out what to bring and what to leave at home is an art I have perfected over many years.

Product
Description
Don’t Let Snorers Keep You Awake!
Don’t Let Snorers Keep You Awake!

Ear Plugs

Snoring dorm-mates can ruin your nights rest and seriously damage the hostel experience. This is why I always travel with a pack of decent ear plugs.

Keep your laundry organized and stink free
Keep your laundry organized and stink free

Hanging Laundry Bag

Trust us, this is an absolute game changer. Super compact, a hanging mesh laundry bag stops your dirty clothes from stinking, you don’t know how much you need one of these… so just get it, thank us later.

Stay Dry With a Micro Towel
Stay Dry With a Micro Towel

Sea To Summit Micro Towel

Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.

Make Some New Buddies…
Make Some New Buddies…

Monopoly Deal

Forget about Poker! Monopoly Deal is the single best travel card game that we have ever played. Works with 2-5 players and guarantees happy days.

Reduce Plastic – Bring a Water Bottle!
Reduce Plastic – Bring a Water Bottle!

Grayl Geopress Water Bottle

Always travel with a water bottle! They save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. The Grayl Geopress acts as a purifier AND temperature regulator. Boom!

Check out my definitive Hotel Packing list for even more top packing tips!

Where is the best place to stay in Kota Kinabalu for families?

The Waterfront has the best hotels in Kota Kinabalu for families. There’s lots of choice here for accommodations with an outdoor pool and kids clubs that will guarantee the whole family love every second of their stay!

Where is the best place to stay in Kota Kinabalu for backpackers?

You’ll find the best hotels and hostels in Kota Kinabalu city centre in Downtown for backpackers. Gaya Street and surrounding streets in Downtown are great for bars and street markets and are generally great for culture lovers.

Is Kota Kinabalu safe at night?

Like the majority of Asian cities, Kota Kinabalu is very safe. There are populated locations that are busy till late, like food markets, shopping malls, and streets like Gaya Street which is perfect for you night owls.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance for Kota Kinabalu

Unfortunately, things can go wrong when you least expect it. This is why good travel insurance is essential before you head on your trip to Kota Kinabalu.

ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.

They offer month-to-month payments, no lock-in contracts, and require absolutely no itineraries: that’s the exact kind of insurance long-term travellers and digital nomads need.

SafetyWing is cheap, easy, and admin-free: just sign up lickety-split so you can get back to it!

Click the button below to learn more about SafetyWing’s setup or read our insider review for the full tasty scoop.

Final Thoughts on Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu

Amazing culture, fantastic scenery and idyllic beaches – Kota Kinabalu has so much to offer to travellers of all types!  It comes as no surprise that Kota Kinabalu is the perfect place to visit for all ages!

Ultimately, your preferences and travel style will determine what the best Kota Kinabalu hotel is for you. If you want to be in the hustle and bustle of Kota Kinabalu city centre, I highly recommend Hilton Kota Kinabalu.

If you are travelling on a budget, then you can’t go wrong with Signel Hostel. I’m a sucker for a communal Nintendo Wii – who doesn’t want to play Mario Kart with people you met ten minutes ago?

Whether you like the luxury and tranquillity of Sutera Harbour or the lively ambience of the Waterfront, there is something for everyone here! Tanjung Aru offers a great combination of beach leisure and exploration of local cuisine, all while remaining near the vibrant atmosphere of Downtown Kota Kinabalu.

Whatever your preference, Kota Kinabalu guarantees an amazing stay and is one of the best islands in Malaysia. Get to this beautiful corner of Borneo as soon as you can!

Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments below!

Kota Kinabalu Malaysia
A little piece of paradise.
Looking for more info on travelling to Kota Kinabalu and Malaysia?

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