10 Top Reasons to Visit Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo

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Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Sabah state of Borneo, Malaysia, and the gateway to this enchanting jungle paradise.

It’s known for its beaches, its rainforests, its close proximity to Mount Kinabalu, and protected coral reefs.

woman holding cocktail at the private beach bar Shangrila Tanjung Kota Kinabalu Malaysia
A mojito cheers to Sabah!

Most people often land in Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it’s often referred to, and then immediately leave to explore the jungles or Kinabalu Park.

But we urge you to stay in the city for a few days before rushing off to be enchanted by Sabah. Why? Here are 10 reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu as a destination in itself, and not as a gateway…

10 Reasons to Visit Kota Kinabalu

If you’re thinking about jetting off to the mysterious land of Borneo but are on the fence about visiting Kota Kinabalu for a few days first, here are all the reasons to add it to your itinerary.

1. To see the Mari Mari Cultural Village

people preparing food on table

The Mari Mari Village is possibly the best reason to visit Kota Kinabalu because it offers visitors the chance to see how the land’s ancestors used to live.

The Mari Mari Village showcases how five tribes used to live, showing tourists traditional hunting techniques using the Murut blowpipe, as well as showing their traditional dress, fire-making skills, and ways of cooking.

You get a really immersive experience and an authentic insight into the jungle tribes of Borneo. The village is all about preserving its culture and heritage – as it was, is as it is.

Learn about the tribe’s myths and legends, hear stories, and take part in the experience. This is one trip into the jungle you’ll never forget.

2. It’s the Gateway to Kinabalu Park and Mount Kinabalu

Nature landscape at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia
Nature landscape at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia

Kinabalu Park is most famous for being the home to the highest mountain in Borneo and even Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu. 

Standing tall at 4095 meters high, many visitors come to Kota Kinabulu to hike this monumental landmark. 

Hiking to the top of the mountain is not considered difficult but it does require you to have a good level of fitness because of the altitude. 

From the summit, the views are incredible. You can see as far as Kota Kinabalu on a clear day (despite it being 86 km away) and the rocky peaks are a marvel to witness in themselves.

If you want to hike Mount Kinabalu, we recommend you book a tour as there are some areas where rocks are prone to fall, so a guide can tell you where those treacherous places are.

Even if you don’t hike the mountain, visiting the park is a must. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a protected area and is home to some rare varieties of plants and wildlife.

You can take a treetop walk through the canopies, bathe in hot springs, or visit the Mount Kinabalu Botanical Garden to learn about the species of plants and fauna in the region.

3. There are some great snorkelling spots

Fushia colored fish eating coral.

You don’t have to travel far from Kota Kinabalu to find some thriving marine life. Take a boat tour over to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a protected reef off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, where you’ll find tons of colourful fish and corals.

The Marine Park is home to five islands, Sapi, Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan and Sulug, which are each accessible by boat. 

Some islands, such as Gaya Island and the smaller Mamutik Island, also have nice beaches where you can sunbathe on the white sand, and a small section of the beach is allocated for snorkelling, but the best snorkelling is from off the boats.

You can find boat tours leaving from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal daily to the top snorkelling spots, or you can book a tour in advance from here.

4. For the beautiful Sunset at Tanjung Aru Beach

silhouettes of people by the shore enjoying a beach sunset

If you’re coming to Malaysia for the stunning beaches, then you will be pleased to know that there are some beautiful pure white sand beaches in Kota Kinabalu, but you need to get a boat to them! 

However, you don’t have to travel far to reach a nice beach with the most amazing sunset you will ever see in Southeast Asia.

Tanjung Aru Beach is a small beach near to Kota Kinabalu Airport, which faces directly west, so it offers the most surreal sunset.

Because the beach is kind of protected in a bay, the waves here are gentle, giving the water a kind of mirror-like effect. Paired with a bright orange sunset, and you’ve got a surreal sight.

Photographers will particularly enjoy visiting here at sunset.

5. For the hiking trails

rocky trail through the jungle in mount kinabalu

You might be thinking the only hiking in Kota Kinabalu is Mount Kinabalu, but there are in fact a plethora of great hiking trails closer to the city.

Just a short drive out of the city centre and you will find the Bukit Padang Hiking Trail, which takes you up to a lake on top of the mountain. This loop trail is about 4 km long and has an elevation of 244 meters. It’s quite easy and offers incredible views of the city below.

Another popular hike in Kota Kinabalu is the moderately challenging Bukit Botak Trail, which offers incredible ocean vistas. It’s only 2.9km out and back, but there are some steep sections so be careful. This is a popular sunrise or sunset hike.

6. To see Orangutans at The Orangutan Sanctuary Borneo (Rasa Ria Reserve by Shangri-La)

keeper cudding an Orangutans in Borneo
Cuddle time

For those visiting Borneo in search of orangutans, you may be thinking that the Orangutan Sanctuary in Sandakan is the only place to find them. 

While there are not many left in the wild, it’s still possible to see them in wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas. The closest place to Kota Kinabalu to see these elusive jungle primates is the Orangutan Sanctuary Borneo, which is actually part of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort.

This sanctuary is where orphaned orangutans are rehabilitated before they are released back into the wild in Sepilok, Southern Borneo. Here visitors can learn about conservation efforts and see orangutans being looked after before they are ready to be released.

There are other places where you can see orangutans, but these are usually zoos and unethical places so we don’t recommend them. 

7. To see the iconic floating mosque, Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu

mosque floating on water at sunset

You may have seen this iconic landmark in Kota Kinabalu on all the postcards, and now it’s time to see it for yourself.

I say this is a floating mosque because of how it sits on the water’s edge of a man-made lagoon, appearing to float, but it isn’t actually floating.

The mosque is the second biggest mosque in Kota Kinabalu and was built in 1989. The mosque is stunning, with an architectural design inspired by the Nabawi Mosque, the second holiest site in Islam in Saudi Arabia.

The blue and gold dome shimmers in the sunlight, and the whole building reflects in the waters around it.

It’s a work of architectural triumph and an important religious site. If you’re into photography, photographing this landmark should be one of your top reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu.

8. For its price tag

View of silhouette landscape with Kota Kinabalu city against islands at golden sunset.  Sabah state, Malaysia.
Kota Kinabalu city against islands at golden sunset.

Kota Kinabalu is still a very affordable destination to visit, even today. Malaysia is one of the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia for its food, accommodation options, and the price of attractions.

You will find accommodation ranging from $10 USD to $30 USD per night, depending on the time of year you visit. 

And that’s for the nice hotels. Usually, you’d expect to have the most rundown hostel with a bed tucked behind the toilets for that price.

As well as accommodation prices being low, you can find meals on average cost around $2 USD per meal, and taxis cost $0.46 per 1km. 

You can live like a King and Queen in Kota Kinabalu at those prices.

9. For its convenient location

map of sabah in malaysia

Kota Kinabalu is often visited as the gateway to the rest of Borneo, and there’s no arguing that its location is perfect for exploring the Sabah region.

Its location puts it within a few hours’ drive to the jungles, the national parks, and hot springs. 

Those wanting to see the remote jungles of Borneo can reach the wildlife corridor at Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary within 6.5 hours of driving, with plenty of amazing spots along the way to see.

But more than that, Kota Kinabalu Airport easily connects you to other parts of Malaysia and Borneo too. 

You can take a short direct flight to Langkawi, Penang, Tawau, Labuan, Kuala Lumpur or Sandakan in Malaysia.

Or once you’re done exploring Kota Kinabalu, you can even find direct flights to South Korea, Japan, Thailand, The Philippines, Taipei, Brunei, and Hong Kong.

It’s the perfect base point to jump from place to place.

10. For its luxury hotels

table on beach with wine and food
Shangri-La private beach

You might not be thinking Kota Kinabalu, or Borneo in general, would be the destination for a luxury holiday, but you would be wrong to exclude it.

Kota Kinabalu has some world-renowned luxury hotel chains such as the Shangri La – which as we mentioned earlier has its own wildlife sanctuary – The Marriott, Le Meridien, and The Hilton.

If you love luxury and enjoy staying in 5* hotels, then you will enjoy the number of options available to you in Kota Kinabalu!

Before You Go to Kota Kinabalu

So there you have it, those are the top reasons to visit Kota Kinabalu, and I think you’ll agree there are a lot of great reasons to visit this enchanting Sabah city.

Before you go, we have just a few words of advice. While you might be thinking of packing your hot pants and strappy tops to prepare for the hot and humid Borneo climate, please reserve those items for the beach and pack modest clothing. 

Malaysia has a high Muslim population and even the non-muslims are conservative – this isn’t Bali. 

Wear insect repellent at all times and bring waterproof clothing.

You should also make sure you have at least three full days to explore Kota Kinabalu. 

You could easily spend a week there and not run out of things to do, but the optimal amount of time to spend there is three days, in my opinion.

We hope this guide helped you learn more about Kota Kinabalu and why it’s a great destination to visit. 

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Comment: Have you been to Kota Kinabalu? Can you share any tips on where to go and why you love it?

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