Kota Kinabalu (aka KK) is located in the northern part of the tropical island of Borneo. The city is right on the coast and a great place to stay if you want to go island hopping. At night, you can have some drinks along the waterfront or watch the sunset from one of the many rooftop bars. Part city vibe and part small town vibe, KK is a great mix where everyone can find something they enjoy. Oh, and the seafood is ahhhhmazing.
LANGUAGE: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil, Chinese
CURRENCY: Malaysian Ringgit
CLIMATE: Tropical (hot & humid), Rainy season is from Oct – Feb
DRESS CODE: Casual
GETTING AROUND: Local taxi, Bus
COST OF VISITING: $ – Hostels start at $3 per night and street food is a little as $2 to $3 (USD) per meal
TIPPING: Tipping is not expected
SAFETY: Generally a safe city, watch out for pickpockets as you would in any other city
PACKING ESSENTIALS: Sunscreen, Mosquito repellent
VISA: No visa needed for tourist visits under 90 days for US citizens, Must have passport valid for at least 6 months
FROM KOTA KINABALU INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Taxi service is now the only form of public transportation from the new Terminal 1. Fixed rate from the airport to the city center is RM30 (~$7.50 USD) per taxi (holds up to 4 people).
WHERE TO STAY
A hostel where you can go and feel at home. This hostel is quiet and comfortable, offering FREE laundry, Netflix, a kitchen with stove, breakfast, and more.
A small hidden hostel right in the middle of the city. Walking distance from both the ferry and the waterfront. This hostel only has a few rooms and offers pod style beds, so expect a chilled out vibe.
This hostel is located in a lively area, right along the waterfront. You can go out and enjoy the nightlife with friends and still have the sanctuary of a pod style hostel to come back to at night.
We came here often to watch the sunset as they have an amazing rooftop with a pool, restaurant, and bar. Most of the people we met staying there come to KK for work on a regular basis and this is their hotel of choice. Another plus is that it is located right next to the ferry, making it easy to reach your room after a long day of island hopping.
WHAT TO EAT
WHERE TO EAT
$$-$$$, Mexican, American, Bar
Jalan Haji Saman, Ground Floor, Lot 32, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia (Map)
$$-$$$, Italian, Pizza, European
Jalan Haji Saman, Kota Kinabalu Lama, Kota Kinabalu 88800, Malaysia (Map)
$$-$$$, Chinese, Seafood, Asian
G15-18, G/F, Komplek Asia City | Phase 2A, Jalan Asia City, Kota Kinabalu 88300, Malaysia (Map)
Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen | Oceanus Waterfront Mall, Kota Kinabalu 88000, Malaysia (Map)
KOTA KINABALU FISH MARKET
Next to the ocean, directly behind the Pasar Besar building in Kota Kinabalu (Grand or Central Market) (Map)
Come here during the day and pick from a variety of freshly caught fish. Once you find what you want, bring your purchase upstairs in the Pasar Besar building to one of the vendors and they will cook it up for you however you like it for a small fee.
WHAT TO DRINK
WHERE TO DRINK
There is a pretty good nightlife scene in KK and lots of places to choose from depending on your mood. If you are unsure, the waterfront is a safe bet as all of the restaurants have back patios that join each other. It is super easy to go from one to the next depending where the crowds are.
Located along the waterfront, this bar is a good spot to watch the sunset or meet new friends. We ended up going here most nights because it had good vibes, music, and was usually one of the more crowded places. Your typical Irish pub bar with an outdoor patio.
A cute little bar with hipster decor.
A cool little spot with delicious cocktails and laid back vibes. They have specialty nights including jazz night, salsa lessons, theme parties, and art exhibits.
Found on the other end of KK, this is one of the most recommended places to go and watch the sunset.
Another bar you will find along the waterfront with an outdoor patio in the back. A good place to have some sunset beers or drink a few as you get your night started.
Found at the end of the waterfront strip, this is a large bar with a stage and a dance floor. They have a DJ and dancers on stage to get you in the mood to dance. We had a blast when we went here. Probably better to go later at night so that there is more of a crowd.
This bar is open really late and where we went with a bunch of locals we met at B.E.D.. It is a small hole in the wall bar that is the type of place you should go if the bars are closing, you want to keep drinking, and you feel like dancing. There are even two poles you can dance around if you are feeling frisky.
WHAT TO DO
GO ISLAND HOPPING
From the Jesselton Point Ferry, you can take a boat to two or four of the beautiful islands that are only 15 minutes away from Kota Kinabalu. In the morning, let them know which islands you want to go to and then they will tell you how much time you will have one each island and what time to meet the boat back at the dock. I have no idea how they keep track of everyone but they are good at letting you know where to go when it is time to leave and you are wandering around lost and need to head to the next island. Prices are listed below.
Two Islands: RM33 ($9 USD) per adult & RM28 ($8 USD) per child
Three Islands: RM43 ($12 USD) per adult & RM38 ($11 USD) per child
Four Islands: RM53 ($15 USD) per adult and RM48 ($13 USD) per child
NOTE: There is also a fee of RM10 ($3 USD) per person for entry to each island
Manukan is the most popular island and for good reason. Here you will find 1,500 meters of long sandy white beach and crystal clear blue water. Perfect for snorkeling or diving. They offer diving lessons here as well that you can sign up for when you arrive. This island has restaurants, shops, and accommodation as well. Being the most popular, it can get crowded at times. Best to go there first and try to go on a weekday.
Mamutik is similar to Manukan minus the crowds. When I went, I had the entire beach to myself! You can also find snorkeling here, along with scuba diving and hiking. This island has restaurants as well for those of you who are spending your entire day island hopping.
Sapi Island is one of the smallest islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. It is favored by those who like to stay away from the crowds and are simply looking to relax on the beach.
Gaya Island is the largest of the five islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and only a 10 minute boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu. Many love this island because of its untouched coral reef and abundant marine life. Here you will find luxury resorts making it a perfect place to spend a few days on a romantic getaway.
UPDATE: I do not believe you can go to this island when you choose your package at the ferry location. You may need to purchase a separate tour or be staying at one of the resorts.
Sulug Island is the least visited island out of the five, making it perfect for those who love off the beaten path experiences. This is the perfect place to bring a book and get some well needed R&R. There is no accommodation here but I heard that you can bring a tent and camp out for the night. Who knows, you may even have the entire island to yourself!
STROLL ALONG THE WATERFRONT
The waterfront area is the most happening place in the evenings but usually quieter during the day. There are a bunch of restaurants where you can sit and have lunch, or you can just walk and enjoy the views.