Kota Kinabalu is the magnificent capital city of Sabah which is part of East Malaysia. Separated from Peninsular Malaysia, East Malaysia has a different feel to it. Many people come here to take in more countryside, with lush jungles and towering peaks aplenty.
The jewel in Sabah’s crown is Mount Kinabalu. This mountain stands just outside the capital city, and this is one of the main reasons for a trip to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Many of its main attractions lie out in the countryside and visit as part of a day trip.
If you adventure out of the city, you can expect spectacular train journeys, bubbling hot springs, and twisting river cruises through mangrove swamps. You can even check out some of the best diving spots in the area just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
If you are just in town as part of a flying visit, you definitely won’t be disappointed in Kota Kinabalu, as there is a vast amount to do in the city itself. Some of the highlights here include the craft markets and delicious seafood eateries, as well as pretty lookout spots and museums.
Whether you want to stay in the city center or explore further out, there are lots to keep you interested in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Check out the Atkinson Clock Tower
The Atkinson Clock Tower is one of the notable landmarks of Kota Kinabalu and dates from 1902. The tower was built in honor of Francis George Atkinson, the then-District Officer in Jesselton, the name given to Kota Kinabalu throughout the colonial period.
Atkinson died in 1902 following a fight against malaria and a heart attack when he was 28 years old. However, the tower still stands in memory of his benefaction to the establishing of Kota Kinabalu.
To get to the tower, you need to walk up a scenic hill located off Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, which affords you views over the rest of the city.
If you walk up the hill a little further from the tower, you will also get to the Signal Hill Observatory.
Take the Kilas River Cruise
The Klias River lies around an hour and a half outside Kota Kinabalu and bisects the larger Klias Wetland Mangrove Forest Reserve.
If you come to the reserve, then one of the best things to do is take a trip on a cruise down the Klias River.
From the vantage point of the water, you will be able to take in a range of animals that come to the river to bathe and drink, and some of these include elegant proboscis monkeys and darting fireflies that hover in the afternoon light.
If you cannot make it to the Klias River in Kuala Penyu, there are also river safari cruises in neighboring Weston or Garama.
Climb Mount Kinabalu
The most famous attraction in Sabah is Mount Kinabalu, a sacred mountain located on the Kota Kinabalu‘s outskirts. This mountain is part of the famous Crocker Mountain Range and stands at some 13,000 feet above sea level.
The mountain has a diverse eco-system, and this is the place to come if you want to see some of the gorgeous flora and fauna in Malaysia firsthand.
The mountain lies in the middle of the wider Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the big draw here is the trek to the summit, which will give you some amazing views over the rest of Sabah.
You can take several routes and treks, but you will need to sleep overnight on the mountain, which means that you can catch the sunrise at dawn at the summit.
Admire the fish at the Green Connection Aquarium
The Green Connection Aquarium is a must-visit for any nature lovers who want to see a collection of some of Sabah‘s most colorful aquatic life.
It is also a great place to come for anyone traveling with a family, and there are a variety of interactive exhibits such as touch tanks where you can get up close with all manner of creatures like snakes or sharks.
If you won’t have time to get out on the water proper in Sabah or do any diving or snorkeling, this is an excellent chance to see at least some of the marine life for which this region is famous.
Shop at Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market
Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market sat along the waterfront in Kota Kinabalu and called Pasar Filipino or the Filipino Market.
As such, you may still hear it referred to by this name, but whatever the moniker, this is a great place to come for anyone who wants to pick up some local souvenirs.
Some of the items you are likely to find here include pearls, local arts and crafts, wood carvings, and textiles.
There are also typical souvenir items like t-shirts and accessories, and bargaining is standard practice if you want to avoid over-paying.
Take a ride on the Borneo Railway
The Borneo Railway only opened in 2011, closed for five years as it underwent an extensive upgrade.
Nowadays, however, it is one of the top attractions in Kota Kinabalu, and whatever you do, make sure not to miss a trip on this famous railway.
The original lines here would have been laid in 1896 when the railway was used to move tobacco all over Sabah, and one of the best things about the train is that you can take it from Tanjung Aru to Tenom, which transports you through leafy jungles and along the beautiful coastline of Sabah.
Another good pick is to take the train to neighbor Beaufort which is a pretty market town that is well worth exploring in its own right.
Explore Lok Kawi Wildlife Park
Just outside Kota Kinabalu is Lok Kawi‘s town, which is also the home of the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park.
The park is a great place to come if you are only in town for a short time and can’t travel to the more extensive reserves further afield, and you will find animals such as tigers, deer, monkeys, gibbons, and orangutans here.
There is also a reptile section, and as this is one of the smaller wildlife parks, you are likely to see many of the animals up close, even on a brief visit.
Island hop at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is undoubtedly the jewel in Sabah‘s crown, and a visit to the islands is why many people choose to travel here.
The park is a selection of five islands that are just off the coast from Kota Kinabalu and include Sulug, Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, and Mamutik.
As such, you will find something for everyone here, and if you are looking for an island with a nightlife scene, then head to Gaya.
If you want an almost untouched paradise, then Sulug is a good spot, or you can take a boat and island-hop around, stopping at whichever island takes your fancy.
As you would expect, popular activities here include swimming, diving, sunbathing, and hiking along the pretty island trails.
Have a cup of tea at the Sabah Tea Garden
Located some two hours outside of Kota Kinabalu is the Sabah Tea Garden, where you will find the delicious tea for which this region is famous.
The tea garden encompasses a tea forest where you can learn how the amazing tea is made, and you can also try some of the local blends and relax at the end of a tour with a soothing cup of the local brew.
There is even a Sabah Tea Longhouse here, and you can also take in the views of the mighty Mount Kinabalu in the distance.
Savour delicious seafood
As Kota Kinabalu is next to the sea, it stands to reason that seafood is one of the main attractions on menus all over the city.
One of the best places to come to try some seafood is the waterfront covered in seafood restaurants, and you can choose from large tanks filled with the latest catch and then decide how you would like it to be cooked.
The seafood is usually sold by weight, and you can enjoy your meal while also looking out over the water.
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