Kota Kinabalu

Besides Kinabalu National Park, Kota Kinabalu has a colourful indigenous culture. The city is home to over 30 official ethnic groups.

There is much more to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, than simply being a jumping-off point for the magnificent Kinabalu National Park. Development on the long reclaimed waterfront is injecting modernity and cosmopolitanism into this laid-back city. KK, as the locals call it, certainly takes advantage of its location, with splendid sunset views of nearby islands.

However, it is KK's many markets that reveal an older, earthier character. Here, produce and products from the hinterland, the region or China are hawked by people of indeterminate ethnicity – the city is home to over 30 official groups and a large migrant population of Filipinos and Indonesians.

The most colourful manifestation of indigenous culture is during the May harvest festival celebrations, a great time in which to be in the city. At other times, living museums offer pretty good culture-in-three-hours experiences, which  may also appeal to children.

In addition, there is plenty of beach and sea fun to be had on the coast and offshore, as well as outings to wildlife sanctuaries and gardens. The local food is good, particularly in Chinese restaurants, while indigenous fare can be sampled in the markets and during festivals.


When to go

Kota Kinabalu is hot and sunny all year round. September-November are traditionally the wettest months, and April-May the hottest. 

Visa requirements

Passports must be valid for at least six months at the time of entry. Generally, no visas are required for citizens of Commonwealth countries for stays of up to three months, and for citizens of ASEAN countries for stays of up to one month. Check the Immigration Department website (www.imi.gov.my) for details.


The Malaysian ringgit (RM) is divided into 100 sen. Bank notes come in units of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100. Coins are 5, 10, 20 and 50 sen. Money changers give the best rates. Credit cards are widely accepted. For ATM withdrawals, banking networks include MEPS, Maestro, Cirrus and Bankcard.


The Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) Terminal 1 is about 7km (4 miles) from the city centre. Taxis will take you to town (buy a coupon at the airport). The low-cost terminal, Terminal 2, is 13km (8 miles) from the city centre. Transport to town is by either coupon taxis or buses. To get around town, taxis are the most comfortable; buses and the ubiquitous minivans can be very crowded. Negotiate the price with the taxi driver before getting in. You can also book taxis by the hour.

Health and safety tips

Kota Kinabalu has good health standards, quality public and private hospitals and well-stocked pharmacies. However, be sure to buy medical insurance and get hepatitis and tetanus shots. Visitors suffering from respiratory illnesses should avoid visiting during the haze period in August-September. Make sure the water you drink is boiled or bottled and avoid dodgy-looking eateries. Use insect repellant in the evening to guard against dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases. Keep valuables in hotel safes and avoid carrying too much cash around.

Emergency details

The nearest embassy is in Kuala Lumpur at 209 Jalan Tun Razak (tel: (603) 2161 6277, www.mfa.gov.sg/kl).

Police/Ambulance/Fire brigade: 999 (112 from a mobile phone)

Basic greetings
English Malay
Hello Helo
How are you? Apa khabar?
Fine, thanks Khabar baik
Goodbye Selamat tinggal
Excuse-me! (to get attention) Maafkan Saya!
Thank you Terima kasih
Yes Ya
No Tidak
OK Baik
What's your name? Apakah nama anda?
My name is… Nama saya ialah…
Pleased to meet you Gembira berjumpa anda
Are you on Facebook/Twitter? Awak ada Facebook/Twitter?
Where’s an internet café? Di manakah kafe internet?
Where can I get a taxi? Di manakah saya boleh mendapatkan teksi?
Where is the bus/train station? Di manakah stesen bas/keretapi?
A one-way/return ticket to… Tiket sehala/ulang-alik ke…
Do you have a room for one/two? Ada bilik untuk seorang/dua orang?
When's check out? Bilakah untuk mendaftar keluar?
Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar? Bolehkah anda mencadangkan sebuah restoran/bar?
A table for two, please Sila berikan meja untuk dua orang
A menu, please Sila berikan menu
The bill, please Sila berikan bil
Where's the toilet? Di manakah bilik air?
Help! Tolong!

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Central Market

Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens

Go early to take in the bustle of Central Market. From freshly harvested vegetables to live poultry, tofu to betelnut, the vibrant colours and sounds of the daily trading are fascinating. The fish market is in a separate building behind this one, right by the jetty where fishing boats dock. It's fun to see the variety of fresh catch but walk carefully on the wet floor. Fruits and dried seafood are sold in separate buildings.

Kota Kinabalu city waterfront

Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens

Kota Kinabalu city waterfront is a great nightlife spot, with seafood restaurants, cafés and pubs lining a boardwalk. The boardwalk stretches for 2.1km (1.3 miles), from Anjung Senja (Waterfront Esplanade) to the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu, and is a great place to watch the sun set over a beer, followed by dinner and more drinks. Eventually, the development will include a high-end shopping mall, a luxury hotel and resort homes.

Mari-Mari Cultural Village

Jalan Kiansom

The indigenous culture of the Kadazandusun, Rungus, Lundayeh, Bajau and Murut can be experienced at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. Guides take visitors through traditional dwellings where they can see activities being demonstrated, and participate in some of them too, such as blowpipe-blowing. The tour includes a meal and a dance performance and is pricey but worth it for those on a tight schedule. There are three scheduled tours a day.

Sabah Museum

Jalan Muzium

Housed in a lovely stylised version of indigenous architecture, Sabah Museum has collections of ethnological exhibits, textiles and Chinese ceramics. Outside in the gardens is the Heritage Village with its 10 life-sized traditional houses of different ethnic groups. Take note of the ethno-botanical species in the garden and pop into the excellent gift shop, which has books and handicrafts for sale.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Jesselton Point ferry terminal (jump-off)

Beach bums, snorkellers and nature-lovers can spend all day at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, 15 minutes by boat from the jetty. Of the five islands, Pulau Gaya is the largest and most developed, while the remote Pulau Sulug has the best corals. All the islands are thickly forested and surprisingly rich in wildlife; besides Sulug, all have nature trails. There are chalets on some islands and camping is allowed on all of the islands with a permit.


Antique shops

2nd Floor, Wisma Merdeka, Jalan Tun Razak

The shopping centre Wisma Merdeka is the best place to hunt for antiques. Popular buys are Chinese ceramics such as Borneon jars, as well as old stamps, coins and banknotes. Bigger outlets sell antique furniture too, and treasure-hunters who rummage hard enough will be rewarded with good finds from the colonial era. However, the authenticity of the items cannot be guaranteed, so take someone who is well-informed with you if you are unsure yourself.

Budget $$$

Borneo Books

BG 26, Ground Floor, Phase 2 Wisma Merdeka, Jalan Tun Razak

The state's best bookshop, Borneo Books has a solid collection of publications on Sabah and Borneo. The natural history section is extensive and ranges from specialist guides to beautifully photographed coffee table books. Many of these are produced by sister company Natural History Publications, who are housed in the same building. Borneo Books' historical and cultural collections are also very good. In addition, it stocks travel guides, novels, cookbooks and academic tomes.

Budget $$

Borneo Trading Post

Lot 16, Anjung Perdana (The Waterfront), Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens

Textiles, figurines, woven products and artwork from all over Borneo are sold in the Borneo Trading Post. Traditional products include musical instruments, knives and ethnic outfits while contemporary designs made using forest materials include handbags and household items. These products are also available in some hotel chains – look for the cute Borneo Bob logo.

Budget $$

Handicraft Market

Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens

Still referred to by its old moniker, the Filipino market, the small Handicraft Market is next to the Central Market, and is packed with stalls selling handicrafts, bric-a-brac and souvenirs from the Philippines and Indonesia. The products range from cheap T-shirts, key chains and rattan floor mats to musical instruments and traditional medicine. Be sure to bargain hard.

Budget $

Suria Sabah

The Waterfront

Until the Oceanus Waterfront Mall opens, Suria Sabah is the classiest mall in the city. The anchor department store is the high-end Metrojaya and the rest of the stores carry international high street labels. There are also lots of fast food joints and cafes. The third floor has a well-stocked supermarket and a food court with a wonderful view of the seafront, the fourth houses a branch of the state library and the eighth, a cinema.

Budget $$$


Fatt Kee Coffeeshop

28 Jalan Bakau

Located within Ang’s Hotel, the no-frillsFatt Kee Coffeeshop is a Kota Kinabalu institution. Tourists rub shoulders with locals to partake in the great Chinese cooking. Try its famous oyster sauce chicken wings and sizzling Japanese tofu or ask for the chef’s recommendation. Because it is extremely popular, go early or be prepared to share a table.

Budget $

Kohinoor North Indian Restaurant

Lot 4, The Waterfront

The Kohinoor North Indian Restaurant offers air-conditioned dining as well as tables on the seaside boardwalk. It offers inexpensive yet generous set lunches and lavish set dinners. The extensive menu contains plenty of vegetarian options, but the signature dishes are butter chicken, tandoori chicken, Dhal Tadkewali and sizzling mutton. The vegetable biryani is also a must-try.

Budget $$


Lot S-0-12 Ground Floor, Block C, City Mall

Fresh ingredients and excellent cooking make for arguably the city's best fine-dining experience at Kudos. The small restaurant serves continental classics like beef tenderloin (imported chilled not frozen) with dauphinoise potatoes, and chicken kiev, as well as desserts such as chocolate fondant and pavlova. The presentation is excellent, right down to the well-dressed salads. An extensive wine list completes the experience.

Budget $$$


Lot 12 & 13, Grand Industrial Estate, Jalan Bundusan (off Jalan Penampang)

Supertanker is a local favourite, located about 15 minutes by taxi from the city centre, and well-known for its Chinese fare. It is very popular, so the portions can be small and the service inconsistent. However, the cooking is excellent, with notable dishes including pork ribs and seafood cooked in a variety of styles. Finish your meal with a refreshing coconut jelly. The restaurant has plenty of tables but do book ahead.

Budget $$

Wisma Merdeka Food Court

2nd floor, Wisma Merdeka, Jalan Haji Saman

Wisma Merdeka Food Court contains a collection of food stalls selling a wide variety of Malaysian food including the Sarawak laksa spicy noodles and the mixed fruit dessert known as rojak, as well as a Chinese vegetarian buffet. The large Malay stall near the exit offers some of the best Malay and Indonesian food in town. Some stalls open for breakfast but lunchtime is busiest and the centre closes around 9pm.

Budget $


Jesselton Hotel

69 Jalan Gaya

Jesselton Hotel is Kota Kinabalu’s oldest hotel. Delightfully restored, it retains its nostalgic colonial air and the same gracious service. Its large rooms and bathrooms are clean and comfortable as well as quiet, despite being on a busy street. Located in the heart of the city, the main attractions are virtually on its doorstep.

Budget $$

Masada Backpacker

No 9, 1st Floor, Jalan Masjid Lama

Friendliness and cleanliness are the hallmarks of Masada Backpacker. The beds are comfortable and there are dorms as well as options for single travellers and couples. The rooms are air-conditioned and come with breakfast and Wi-fi. Located in a quiet neighbourhood, it is close to the long-distance bus stop but the main attractions are 15 minutes' walk away.

Budget $

Oceania Hotel

Lot 60–64 Jalan Ikan Juara 5

The Oceania Hotel prides itself on service and works hard at it. Rooms are contemporary, well-appointed and brightly lit and the larger deluxe rooms have views of the river. Non-smokers will appreciate the separate smoking zone in the hotel. Its location is a little out of town but a free shuttle service runs to attractions regularly enough for that not to be an issue.

Budget $$

Shangri-la Tanjung Aru

20 Jalan Aru, Tanjung Aru

Shangri-la Tanjung Aru is a very popular and well-regarded resort on a small headland. While it is one of the most established hotels in town, it has kept itself fresh and well-maintained. Its large, well-appointed rooms overlook either the sea or the mountains. It has beautiful and spacious gardens and a great bar in which to enjoy a cocktail and the sunset. Children's activities are particularly well run.

Budget $$$

Sutera Harbour Resort

1 Sutera Harbour Boulevard

The Sutera Harbour Resort comprises two four-star hotels: the Pacific Sutera and Magellan Sutera. The resort sprawls over 156 hectares (384 acres) of reclaimed land overlooking a bay of islands. It is self-contained, with over a dozen restaurants, an excellent Mandara Spa, swimming pools, tennis courts and signing facilities at the adjacent golf and yacht clubs. It is located five minutes from downtown.

Budget $$$

Borneo International Orchid Show

26-28 September

Borneo is amongst the world's richest areas for orchid diversity, and some of its specimens are on display alongside the cultivated species. This event also includes planting workshops, flower arrangement competitions and a bazaar.

City Day Celebrations

2 February

Kicking off with the official ceremonies of flag-raising and a parade, festivities include a city-wide carnival comprising food stalls and live acts, exhibitions, sports tournaments and a popular treasure hunt around the city.

Dragon Boat Race

7 June

Organised in conjunction with the Duan Wu summer solstice festival, this Chinese tradition is one of the state's main sporting events. Local and international teams race to the beat of drums, showing off their synchronised paddling in decorated long oats.

Kota Kinabalu Jazz Fest

13 June

This popular music festival showcases and promotes jazz and local talent while fund-raising for charity. Besides acts in different venues, there are fringe events and workshops. The fest is starting to draw more international acts too.

Pesta Kaamatan (Harvest Festival)

30-31 May

Head to the Kadazandusun Cultural Association Cultural Village in Penampang for the culmination of this thanksgiving festival. Enjoy music, performances, food and traditional games. A highlight is the crowning of the Unduk Ngadau (Harvest Beauty Queen).

Sabah Fest

2-4 May

This cultural exhibition and show brings together the traditions of the various ethnic groups. Exhibitions and demonstrations related to traditional handicrafts and food run all day while the evening is capped with a choreographed performance. The event kicks off the statewide, month-long celebration of the Harvest Festival.


Begin on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens at the city's traditional waterfront markets. The many stalls of the large Central Market and the surrounding fish, dry goods and fruit markets provide an impressive array of fresh produce for local residents, while hawker stalls help to sate appetites. Meanwhile, the Handicraft Market, with products from the Philippines and Indonesia, is a magnet for tourists.


Visitors also throng the Gaya Street Fair, a few blocks away. Set up only on Sundays, vendors of souvenirs and bric-a-brac are taking up more of this busy bazaar, but the iconic Borneon fresh produce and live animal stalls can still be found. This is a good place to try local delicacies such as the Amplang fish crackers and Malay and Chinese cakes and desserts.


Drive south to the Sabah Museum, off Jalan Penampang, to sample local history and culture. The building that houses this small collection is one of the country's finest examples of traditional architecture adaptation, drawing from Rungus traditions. Inside, exhibits of note are those on archaeology and ethnic costumes. Don't miss the outdoor heritage village section with its replicas of traditional houses surrounded by medicinal, ritualistic and edible plants.


Drive further down Jalan Penampang to reach Sabah Art Gallery. This octagonal building with tapered walls has a light-filled interior and houses a modest but interesting collection of local artwork and temporary exhibitions. A public art workshop is held every Saturday by resident artists.



Places to visit:
Markets, Gaya Street Fair, Sabah Museum, Sabah Art Gallery.


Pack a picnic lunch and insect repellant to bring on a visit to the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. This is a small zoo but children will enjoy seeing local animals such as the Borneo pygmy elephant (the smallest elephant in the world), the big-nosed proboscis monkey and the adorable orang-utan. Located about 15km (9 miles) from the city centre, go early to catch the feeding of the creatures and don't miss the good animal show.


Come lunchtime, head to the botanical garden at the opposite end of the park to the entrance. There are collections of local plant species: of note are the insect-digesting pitcher plants and brilliantly coloured gingers. Pick a spot to enjoy a picnic amongst the lush greenery. The more energetic will want to explore the 30-minute loop trail up the hill and back.


Alternatively, spend the afternoon at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village, about 20km (13 miles) northeast of here. Only accessible on a tour, the attraction showcases the houses and culture of five ethnic tribes. Children will enjoy traipsing through forest paths to the traditional houses, cooking rice in bamboo and hitting a target with a blowpipe. Among exhibits are skulls from the days of head-hunting, weapons, cooking implements and costumes (which visitors may try).


There are other similar living museums, but featuring single ethnic groups, namely the Kadazandusun's Monsopiad Cultural Village and the Lotud Linangkit Cultural Village in Tuaran. The Kadazandusun Cultural Association Cultural Village in Penampang is the place to be during the Harvest Festival.



Places to visit:
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, Botanical garden, Mari-Mari Cultural Village.