We’re not shy, so we’ll say it straight out: Kota Kinabalu is an ugly town. At least, on the surface it is. However, it doesn’t take more than a tiny scratch to find its charms. Kota Kinabalu is the gateway for most travellers’ Malaysian Borneo adventures, but the warmth and friendliness of its laidback citizens will instil the feeling that you are already well in the heart of Borneo.
KK, as it’s more succinctly known, is built on mostly reclaimed land facing westwards along the South China Sea. The capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu is a relatively wealthy city. It's booming, and the seaside condos and shiny new shopping malls may remind you of a mini-Singapore. Most travellers visit Kota Kinabalu for the attractions outside the city, not in it — mighty Gunung Kinabalu, the city’s namesake (well, it actually went the other way around) is the tallest peak in Malaysia, and only 88 kilometres away. The orangutang hotspot of Sepilok is just a short flight or (not so short) bus trip east. But within easy reach, there’s plenty to do around Kota Kinabalu itself to fill up a few days before you hit the jungle.
Kota Kinabalu is relatively young. It was settled as an outpost for The British North Borneo Company in 1897, after their former settlement in Pulau Gaya was razed by a local revolutionary. The new location was named Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, the chairman of the company. Jesselton was occupied by Japanese forces in 1942, and times were tough. In an attempt to remove the enemy, Allied forces bombed the town, leaving it in ruins. Almost all that remains is the Atkinson Clock Tower, and the former post office, now the Sabah Tourism Board. After the war, North Borneo was made a British Crown Colony. In 1961, the prime minister of Malaya proposed the formation of Malaysia. Votes were cast and deals were done, and on 13 August 1963, North Borneo celebrated its independence from Britain at Padang Merdeka. In December 1967, Jesselton became Kota Kinabalu, named for the mighty mountain that shadows the city.
Modern day KK is easily walkable, and you’ll find everything you need in the city centre. The main tourist focus of the town used to be around historical Jalan Gaya, and while this is still a great place to get some excellent food and offers a good range of accommodation, growing KK has hotels in all categories spread around town. Budget digs remain focused around Jalan Gaya as well as nearby Australia Place, with a newer selection in the Bandaran Berjaya area. If you’re after four- or five-star joints and don’t want to head out to the resorts or islands, head for the waterfront. Some decent midrange options can be found here too.
Make sure you try some of the fresh seafood KK is known for. Every night Kota Kinabalu’s waterfront night market cooks up a storm you won’t want to miss and be sure to look westwards to enjoy the spectacular sunset. For a quick escape from the concrete jungle, try the real one, with a half-day trip to see proboscis monkeys and fireflies. If you don’t plan on climbing Gunung Kinabalu, an excellent day trip is to visit the park at its base, and inhale the wonderfully cool mountain air, or forget time completely — and make a night of it in the jungle stay at Lupa Masa near Poring.
If the beach is more your scene, a 20-minute boat trip will have some of the squeakiest white sand and crystal waters under your toes. There’s diving and snorkelling too. Other water action is available on the Padas and Kiulu Rivers with whitewater rafting graded from a leisurely 1 to scary action 4. A stones’s throw from the city centre, there are interesting wetlands to explore too.
For a fun, yet cheesy cultural lesson, Mari Mari Cultural Village will have you bouncing around (literally) with the (former) headhunters. And if history is your thing, The North Borneo Railway recreates a historical train trip on a steam engine — it’s jolly good fun. The passionate guides at KK Heritage Walks will have seeing things that you didn’t know were there. And check out the collection at the Sabah State Museum if the rain has you trapped indoors. Take a trip out to the serene and welcoming city mosque, where you may well see a few cultural stereotypes smashed and for a larger cross-section of charming Sabahan life, a vibrant Sunday Market on Gaya Street has half of KK out and about.
Kota Kinabalu is also a last chance to enjoy some creature comforts before heading into the serious wild. Buy a new pair of hiking shoes, stock up on mosquito spray and enjoy a wood-fired pizza at one of the city’s excellent Italian restaurants, and then let the adventures begin.
The Sabah Tourism Board is located in the heart of KK in the historic old general post office building on Gaya Street. It is an excellent source of information. The pretty white orchid growing in the office is the official city flower. It's open weekdays 08:00-17:00 and weekends and holidays 09:00-16:00.
51 Gaya Street, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 212 121; F: (088) 212 075; www.sabahtourism.com.
The post office is on Jalan Chong Thein Vun (off Jalan Abdul Razak) and is open weekdays 08:00-16:00 and Saturday 08:00-12:30.
ATMs are dotted throughout the city, with a large concentration near the traffic roundabout at the northern end of Jalan Gaya, or inside one of the many shopping malls.
All accommodation listed and many cafes offer free WiFi.
The city police station is near the Atkinson Clock Tower, at Australia Place on Lorong Dewan. T: (088) 241 161; (088) 221 191 (Hotline).
For medical treatment, try:
Damai Specialist Centre: DSC Building, Lorong Tepus (off Jalan Damai), Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 222 922
Gleneagles: Kota Kinabalu Riverson@Sembulan, Block A 1, Lorong Riverson@Sembulan, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 518 888; appointments (088) 518 810; 24-hour emergency & ambulance (088) 518 911; gleneagleskk.com.my
Queen Elizabeth Hospital (main public hospital): Jalan Penampang, Penampang, Kota Kinabalu.
Sabah Medical Centre: Kingfisher Park, Kuala Inanam, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 424 333; www.sabahmedicalcentre.com.
KK is home to malls, malls and more empty malls — the newest one is always the best. KK’s large Central Market is a tourist attraction in itself, and if you’re after mass-produced souvenirs or local pearls, the Filipino Market is the place to go. For better quality souvenirs and books about Borneo, Kadaiku and Borneo Trading Post at the Waterfront will sort you out. The museum shop at Sabah State Museum also has a good selection of books. Gaya Street Sunday Market is a popular place for some unusual trinkets. For quality outdoor gear, Montanic have two branches in KK at Plaza Wawasan and Suria Sabah. Craving wine and cheese? Tong Hing Supermarket on Jalan Gaya has been the expat favourite since 1959.
Borneo Trading Post: Lot 16, The Waterfront, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 231 655; www.borneotradingpost.com.
Kadaiku: Lot 5, Ground Floor, Block L, Sinsuran Complex, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 232 121; www.kadaiku.com.
Montanic Plaza Wawasan: 3rd Floor 4-3, Level 4, Coastal Highway, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 250 398; Suria Sabah, Lower Ground; T: (088) 488 873; www.montanic.com.
Tong Hing Supermarket: 55 Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 230 300; email@example.com.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Kota Kinabalu or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Kota Kinabalu. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Kota Kinabalu. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Kota Kinabalu.
By Sally Arnold.
Last updated on 13th November, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.