Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids: Our Family Guide to Borneo, Sabah

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Considering a Borneo family holiday? There are so many great things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids. Whether you’re visiting Borneo with toddlers or teens, you’re in for an adventure. Any Kota Kinabalu family holiday will be action-packed if you follow this guide.

Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu mango Hike Gaya Street market scuba diving father & son beach island hopping

Kota Kinabalu — also known as KK — is one of Borneo’s largest cities. It’s located in the northern half of Malaysian Borneo known as Sabah. Kota Kinabalu is also a common place for transfer flights in Southeast Asia. That’s how many of my friends living in Taiwan first visited: by intentionally booking a night’s layover in KK on their way elsewhere.

As we discovered, KK is worth a visit in its own right. There are so many awesome and kid-friendly things to do in Kota Kinabalu.

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Borneo family travel PIN 4

Whether you’re heading to Kota Kinabalu with a baby or much older kids, there are many fun things to do in Sabah. That includes both outdoor and indoor activities in Kota Kinabalu. Read on to see our recommendations for your Borneo family holiday.

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Island Hopping

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu gaya island hopping

Just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu is the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park — also known as TARP.

TARP consists of five main islands. On these islands, you’ll find old growth forest and lots of wildlife. Around these islands, you’ll find some of the most amazing undersea life in the world.

Scuba Diving & Snorkeling in Kota Kinabalu

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids scuba diving Gaya Island Downbelow adventures

A short boat ride from the docks in Kota Kinabalu is some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities in Asia.

Our boy had just earned his PADI junior scuba diving license a few weeks before in the Gili Islands. When we told him that we were heading to Kota Kinabalu, he begged to dive here. With a guide from Downbelow Advenutres Borneo, he got his wish.

Downbelow and many other outfitters take groups out for diving and scuba outings almost daily.

White Water Rafting in Kota Kinabalu

Borneo Wavehunters Review Family Adventure & Rafting in Sabah family portrait 2 rapids

There are two main rivers for white water rafting near Kota Kinabalu. The Padas river is the hardcore one and the one you’ll likely see the most pictures of. It’s also a pretty extreme river with class 3 and 4 rapids. Oh, and it’s several hours drive and a 5 am pickup. Unless you have experienced teens who want this, I’d skip the Padas river.

The Kiulu river is much calmer, with class 1 and 2 rapids. It’s enough to feel like you’re having an adventure but tame enough that you won’t worry about young ones falling out. We had our guide take us through the most extreme angles of the rapids. However, we saw other river guides with less experienced rafters take a calmer route.

The Gaya Sunday Street Market in Kota Kinabalu

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu mango Hike Gaya Street market

Every Sunday morning this downtown street is bursting with stalls selling everything from puppies to fresh flowers. We especially enjoyed the fresh juice options — especially the watermelon juice. First, you chose your rugby-ball-sized melon from a dozens floating in a tub of ice water. Then they cut it open, use a special blender to liquify the inside and hand you a straw to slurp it up. Who wouldn’t like that?

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu Kota Kinabalu watermelon juice at Gaya street market

This market is very crowded with locals and tourists alike, so be ready for some tight spaces to walk through. Also, there are a number of caged animals for sale. Some of them are displayed intentionally to to attract kids for possible pet owner. So if junior is begging for a puppy later, you’ve been warned.

Beaches & Sunsets in Kota Kinabalu

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu sunset

One of the easiest things to do in in Kota Kinabalu with kids is to hit the beach. There are many beautiful beaches in Kota Kinabalu, and many of them are on the nearby islands.

There are also a number of companies who run sunset cruises. These can be done even on Kota Kinabalu holiday packages.

Hiking, Jungle Trekking, Wildlife in Kota Kinabalu

One of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids is to experience its lush flora and fauna. The jungles and mountains of Sabah are full of great opportunities to hike, climb and get close to wildlife.

Mount Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park with kids

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu mango Hike mount Kinabalu

For the real adventure junkies out there, hiking to the top of Mount Kinabalu should easily be on the bucket list. Be warned it is not for beginners, and needs real preparation.

For families in Kota Kinabalu with younger children or those who are not prepared for serious mountain trekking, perhaps a visit to Kinabalu Park would suffice. There are canopy walks, a botanical garden and more.

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary with Kids

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu orangutan

When you are traveling to Kota Kinabalu with kids, you should consider a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This is a great way to see the forest’s gentle giants up close in a more natural habitat.

I should mention that this place can get crowded. For some, standing in a crowd watching orangutans eat can taint the experience. Personally, we much prefer trekking to see them in the wild like we did in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia. That, however, isn’t always a reasonable option.

Proboscis Monkeys and Firefly Tours

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu

There are a number of day tours that take you on cruises into the jungle where proboscis monkeys live. These tours also often keep you there just past dusk to view and amazing display of fireflies after dark.

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Cultural Centers & Museums in Kota Kinabalu

Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Our Family Guide to Borneo, Sabah Mari Mari Cultural Village

Coming to Kota Kinabalu with kid can be a learning experience, as well. The Sabah state of Borneo has a rich history that Here are a few of the best cultural centers and museums in Kota Kinabalu.

Mari Mari Cultural Village

There are five main indigenous tribes in Sabah. Visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village and you’ll get first-hand experience with their customs and way of life. That includes their dances, their hunting practices (blowgun, anyone?), their food and more.

The Mari Mari Cultural Village is about 30 minutes out of town. You can book tours which often include transport and meals. You can also drive yourself or hire a taxi or Uber.

Monsopiad Cultural Village

Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Our Family Guide to Borneo, Sabah Monsopiad Cultural Village

Similar to Mari Mari, the Monsopiad Cultural Village also explains the history and heritage of the indigenous people of Sabah, based on the legend of Kadazandusun people. Here the focus is on headhunters. This place is smaller compare to Mari Mari Village, but if you’re in Kota Kinabalu with kids who want to learn about headhunters, you may want to consider it.

North Borneo Railway

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids North Borneo railway

If you’re in Borneo with children who love trains, then you may not want to miss this North Borneo Railway round trip. It’s not cheap, but might be a lifetime memory. The train is an authentic steam engine from the days of the British Empire, and the tour includes both Continental breakfast and a tiffin lunch.

The North Borneo Railway runs only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so you may want to plan well ahead. It also takes up more than four hours of your day without any delays. We couldn’t go on this railway since it was fully booked for the day we wanted. Next time we will be sure to check the schedule way ahead of time.

Sabah State Museum

Like the cultural villages mentioned above, the Sabah State Museum has lots of interesting exhibits related to the Sabah’s local tribes. There are also a lot of taxidermy of local animals, and an impressive whale skeleton at the entrance. Traditional building structures are in the back, and you can climb and enter them, which is fun. Easy to reach and entry is very affordable.

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Eating at the Amazing Seafood Markets in Kota Kinabalu

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu philipino fish market sabah 2

One of our favorite things to do on Kota Kinabalu family holiday is eating as much seafood as we can. The fish markets in Sabah are heaving with fresh fish, squid, lobsters, clams, prawns and other shellfish. Just walk stall to negotiate a price. There are plenty of side veggies as to choose from, as well.

There is plenty of fresh juices and stir-fried plenty of side veggies as to choose from, as well.

Where to Eat in Kota Kinabalu with Kids

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu fish market 2 dinner

There is no shortage of great seafood restaurants in Kota Kinabalu. Our most memorable meals were tasting the local seafood. We tried three different fish markets, and each had its own personality.

Welcome Seafood Restaurant

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu Kota Kinabalu welcome house fish market

Welcome Seafood Restaurant is the most famous and well-regarded of the fish restaurants in Kota Kinabalu. The place and the fish tanks themselves were impressive, and it was packed with locals and tourists alike. Our meal, however, didn’t earn as high of marks as we had expected. We also didn’t have great service.

It’s quite possible that our server or the kitchen had an off day. It’s also possible that something was lacking because we arrived during a dinner rush (we had to wait 20 minutes for a table) on a rainy evening. Either way, we didn’t return.

The Filipino Market

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu Kota Kinabalu philippino fish market

Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu is also popular, and some consider it more “authentic” since it’s next to the harbor. This isn’t a single restaurant like Welcome Seafood Restaurant. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of hundreds of stalls with their own tables and plastic chairs. We not only had a great meal, but also tasty juices here.

Gerai Sendai Haji Manja – The Local Fish Market

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu seafood market 1

This fish market is on the water between the Filipino Market and the large marlin statue next to the dock. It is located close to the “I love KK” monument and the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu. We actually stumbled onto this market with no prior research. We liked the food and the place was more spacious than Filipino Market. The prices are the cheapest here, too, and often for the exact same fish, shrimp or lobster.

Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu with Kids

Wherever you stay, you can access anywhere in town easily by taxi. If you plan to explore further than the city limits on a tour, the tour company will usually make your travel arrangements. Want to explore on your own? It may be better to rent a car.

Hyatt Regency Kinabalu

Walking distance to Gaya Sunday Market, Suria Sabah Shopping Mall, and Gerai Santai Haji Manja night market. One child under 12 can stay free when using existing bedding. The smallest room is 45 sqm, which is quite large.

Mandarin Hotel Kota Kinabalu

Steps away from the Gaya Sunday Market and many other restaurants. Some rooms have no windows, which could work for the best to avoid any traffic noise. One child under 6 can stay free when using existing bedding. Complimentary shuttle to the airport is provided (limited time and availability).

Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu

Located in front of the Kota Kinabalu wet market, and close to the Filipino Market. Recently renovated. One child under 12 years stays free of charge when using existing beds. A family of four like us can stay in one room with an extra bed (charges apply) since the room is quite spacious (40 sqm or larger)

Hotel Shangri-la

Less than 15 min walk from the waterfront. All children under 12 years stay free of charge when using existing beds. If using extra bed (charges apply), it might be slightly snug, but doable. Breakfast is included.

Conclusion: Kota Kinabalu With Kids

Our Family Guide to Sabah: Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu with Kids Kota Kinabalu marlin statue

We loved exploring Kota Kinabalu with our children, and they loved it, too. KK is full of fun and excitement, so come ready for an adventure. This goes double if you’re a seafood lover!

Have you been to Kota Kinabalu with kids? Where did you go? What did you see? Where did you eat?

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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This costs you nothing. However, when you use our links, we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book a room. My opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help you find the most fun things to do in Kota Kinabalu with kids or any other Borneo family travel.

Image credits: #1, #8, #9, #10, #11, #13, #14#21

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