Kota Kinabalu – Big City & Island Charm

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu has just under 250,000 inhabitants, making it the tenth largest city in the country. The special thing about Kota Kinabalu is the offshore Tunku Abdul Rahman Park – a small island paradise consisting of 4 islands. In Kota Kinabalu we also ticked off another bucket list destination. We finally managed to get our diving licence!!! Although Kota Kinabalu is not the most beautiful place for diving, the licence was relatively cheap and we really wanted to go to the diver’s paradise Sipadan not only as snorkelers. Compared to the other big city of Kuching in Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu seems much less Chinese.

Tauchen in Kota Kinabalu

The sights of Kota Kinabalu

Personally, the city of Kota Kinabalu didn’t knock our socks off. There are a few things to see. However, there are great things to experience around the city. We have summarised our top sights in Kota Kinabalu for you here!

Climb Mount Kinabalu and visit Kinabalu National Park

If you want, you can climb Mount Kinabalu or hike in Kinabalu National Park. Unfortunately, we had to skip the Kinabalu National Park because the weather didn’t cooperate. Climbing Mount Kinabalu was simply too expensive for us. The costs for the ascent with an overnight stay incl. guide amount to almost 250 € – 300 € per person. For comparison: For the ascent of Rinjani on Lombok in Indonesia, we paid just under €80 per person for 3 days.

Tunkul Abdul Rahman Park

The national park consists of 5 islands, 4 of which are super easy to reach from Kota Kinabalu. Boats depart from Jesselton Point to the national park with high frequency. The trip takes about 20 minutes. The islands are all very beautiful and it seems almost absurd to find such a small paradise at the gates of a big city. Depending on the season, it can get very crowded here, especially on weekends and holidays. If you want, you can also go diving here, but the underwater world did not convince us – there are other places in Sabah like Mabul and Sipadan.

Abfahrt vom Hafen in Kota Kinabalu

The price depends on the number of islands you want to visit. The islands served by the boats are Sapi, Gaya, Mamutik and Manukan. Only Sulug is not served by the standard boats. A day trip to the islands is not cheap compared to other prices in Malaysia. A one-time fee of 20 MYR (~ $ 4) is charged for the national park and 35 MYR (~ $ 7.50) to 65 MYR (~ $ 14) for the boat. Tip:
If you are looking for a special and lonely adventure, you can also camp on the islands for a very small extra charge. This means that after the last boats have left, you have the island virtually to yourself.

Preise Tunku Abdul Rahman Nationalpark

The island of Manukan was one of our favourites, with a large beach where you can lie down and enjoy the sun. There are also restaurants and accommodation with a few chalets. Nevertheless, the island does not seem overbuilt – Manukan is very popular with the locals.

Manukan Island Kota Kinabalu

The smallest island of the national park convinced us the least, as there is only a small beach section and we were quite bitten by sand fleas. We were also warned about jellyfish in the sea and there was quite a lot of plastic on the beach.

The island is one of the most popular islands and often gets quite crowded, especially around lunchtime. Some people also come here to snorkel, which again we would not recommend, as there are much nicer diving spots in Sabah, such as Pulau Mabul and Sipadan.

The largest island in the national park and the closest to Kota Kinabalu is definitely worth a visit. There are several hiking trails on Gaya and it rises almost 300 m out of the water at its highest point. The island is very densely overgrown.

2 The Mosques of Kota Kinabalu

The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is located in the northern part of the city. Surrounded by water, the mosque makes a great photo motif. Although construction of the mosque began in 1989, it was not opened until 2000 due to various delays.

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

3 Filipino Market

A popular place for locals and tourists is the Filipino Market, which is located directly on the shore. Here you can find everything edible. From fish and meat to fruit and vegetables, you will find everything. There are also countless stalls where you can buy prepared food. It is a busy place. The main time to visit is in the evening.
Tip!! The traders are always trying to force grilled fish on you, so be sure to bargain down, as the prices still seem relatively cheap to us (compared to German prices) but are nevertheless much more expensive to foreign visitors.

4 End the evening comfortably in one of the bars

There are a few very nice bars in Kota Kinabalu, such as Biru Biru or Toojou. Biru Biru is a relaxed bar with a nice outdoor area, Toojou is on the rooftop of the hostel of the same name and rather louder with DJ music. If you want to drink beer cheaply, there are a few places on Gaya Street in the Chinese restaurants. Here you can find beer for just under €1. If you want something fancier, you should try your luck with the rich and beautiful on Seaside. Besides the Filipino Market, there are several restaurants and hotels here, as well as a pub. There is also a nightclub here, which I would not recommend visiting.

5 Couchsurfing in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu has a very intact couchsurfing community, which also has its own Whatsapp group. Here you can easily get in touch with some locals and other travellers. Especially when planning your trip, the local people can also give you good tips, as Borneo can otherwise quickly become very expensive.

Overnight stay in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu has a number of hostels, hotels and accommodation in all price categories. Most Traveller accommodation, bars, cafés and restaurants are located in Lorong Dewan. If you want to treat yourself to a western breakfast for a change, Nook Café in Lorong Dewan is the place to go.

Journey to Kota Kinabalu

Most visitors start their journey to Malaysian Borneo from either Kuching or Kota Kinabalu and leave through the other city. Bus connections between Sabah and Sarawak are sometimes difficult as they pass through the country of Brunei. You should find out beforehand whether it is possible to travel by bus. Unfortunately, it was not possible for us to travel by bus because of Covid. There are several buses daily from Kota Kinabalu to all places in Sabah.

Food & Drink in Kota Kinabalu

The choice of food and drinks is very wide – as are their prices. Compared to Sarawak, you will find more Indian influence in the food in Kota Kinabalu, but there are fewer Chinese restaurants than in Kuching. For breakfast, we recommend the Nook Café, for local food there is plenty of choice on the roadside. If you are looking for something a bit fancier, there are a few higher-priced restaurants on Seaside (we can’t say anything about the quality, as we didn’t eat there), and if you want something a bit more relaxed, check out Lorong Dewan. There is western food here, as well as some small warungs in the immediate vicinity. There are also some relaxed bars here.

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We are Julian & Naomi and we love to travel the world and immerse ourselves in other cultures. We have an adventurous, spartan, sustainable and reflective travel style. In our opinion, the greatest adventures are experienced when you do things on your own and try to live like a local. The taste of a country is best captured on the road
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