Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu: Kota Kinabalu Tours, Day Trips & More

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Building a Kota Kinabalu itinerary? Malaysian Borneo’s most exciting city has plenty in store for just about any traveler. Amazing markets. Incredible trekking. First-class scuba and snorkeling and loads of other adventures. There are so many great things to do in Kota Kinabalu that you’ll have no trouble fulling a day a week or a month of fun activities. Whether you’re visiting Kota Kinabalu with kids, with friends or with that special someone, you’ll find plenty of food, fun amazing Kota Kinabalu tours for all. Here’s what to do in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. 

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Our Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu Itinerary

Kota Kinabalu — also known as KK — is one of Borneo’s largest and most dynamic cities. It’s located in the northern province of Malaysian Borneo known as Sabah. This port town is a common spot for transfer flights in Southeast Asia, and many plan stopover here when traveling between the East and West.

That’s how it first came on my radar when I was living in Taiwan: lots of friends from the UK intentionally booked a long layover in KK on their way elsewhere so they could stay in a Kota Kinabalu resort for a day or two, do some hiking or diving, and eat a few amazing seafood meals before returning to London or Edinborough or wherever to visit family and friends. These same few friends returned over and over, telling me about all the things to do in Kota Kinabalu and how I should build a Kota Kinabalu itinerary of my own. 

I get it now. Malaysian Borneo is a truly special place for travel, and our time in Kota Kinabalu with kids taught us just how much fun Borneo can be. We lived in Penang for over a year and explored the Peninsula extensively, but we didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo until years later. Read on for tips on how to build your own Kota Kinabalu itinerary, along with our recommendations for what to do in Kota Kinabalu Malaysian Borneo.

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What to Do in Kota Kinabalu Town

Gaya Street market - What to do in kota kinabalu city

Most of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu are in the jungles and ocean just outside the city limits. However, any Kota Kinabalu itinerary should include some time around town in order to get the most out of your visit. Here’s what to do in Kota Kinabalu town. 

The Gaya Sunday Street Market

juice at Gaya Street market - What to do in kota kinabalu city

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 dozens floating in ice. Then they cut it open, use a special blender to liquefy the inside and hand you a straw to slurp it up. Who wouldn’t like that?

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 attract kids for possible pet owners. You’ve been warned.

Eating at the Seafood Markets 

Kota Kinabalu seafood Markets - where to eat in Kota Kinabalu

One of our favorite things to do in Kota Kinabalu is stuff ourselves with as much seafood as we can. The fish markets in Sabah are heaving with fresh fish, squid, lobsters, clams, prawns and other shellfish, and Kota Kinabalu seafood is fresh and cooked to order. Just walk from stall to stall and negotiate a price. There are plenty of fresh juices and plenty of stir-fried veggies to choose from, as well.

Cooking Class in Kota Kinabalu

As we’ve said many times, we think market tours and cooking classes are great because food is one of the best windows into a culture. This Kota Kinabalu cooking class introduces you to the flavors and mainstays of the northern Borneo diet. You’ll learn how to choose the freshest produce and then how to prepare it. Definitely part of any Kota Kinabalu itinerary for the culinary-minded. 

A Taste of Borneo Cooking Class in Kota Kinabalu with Market Visit

Kota Kinabalu Museums & Cultural Centers

Malaysian Borneo has a unique and fascinating history, and learning about it can be an important part of any Kota Kinabalu itinerary. Here are a few museums and cultural centers that can help you discover the story of the people of Sabah.

Mari Mari Cultural Village

Mari Maru Culture center - kota kinabalu with kids

There are five main indigenous tribes in Sabah. Visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village and you’ll learn about their way of life. That includes their dances, their hunting practices (blowgun, anyone?), their food and more. 

Half-Day Mari Mari Cultural Village from Kota Kinabalu Tours

Mari Mari Cultural Village Kota Kinabalu Tours (Half-Day)

Mari Mari Cultural Village Half Day Tours from Kota Kinabalu

Monsopiad Cultural Village

Monsopiad Cultural Village - kota kinabalu with kids

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. This place is smaller compared to Mari Mari Village, but if your Kota Kinabalu itinerary includes learning about headhunters, you may want to consider it.

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 is 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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Kota Kinabalu Day Trips

Now let’s look at Kota Kinabalu tours that take you further from the city center and into the natural world beyond the concrete. Whether you’re in Kota Kinabalu with kids or on your own, your Kota Kinabalu itinerary would benefit from these Northern Borneo attractions. 

North Borneo Railway

If you’re in Borneo with kids who love trains, then this must be in your Kota Kinabalu itinerary. 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 most Kota Kinabalu tour operators include one or two meals. The North Borneo Railway runs only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so you may want to plan well ahead. 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.

Half-Day North Borneo Railway Train Ride

North Borneo Steam Train (w/Lunch) Day Trip from Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu Island Hopping

Kota kinabalu island hopping - things to do in Kota Kinabalu

For ocean lovers, this is what to do in Kota Kinabalu. Just off the coast is a nature reserve known as TARP: the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. 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. This is where most Kota Kinabalu snorkeling tours take you and the sea life is amazing. 

Kota Kinabalu Island Hopping Tour (2 Islands)

Snorkeling in Kota Kinabalu

Try Kota Kinabalu snorkeling and you may bump into sea turtles, colorful squid, and a wide variety of dazzling schools of fish. There are snorkeling tours for travelers of all ages. 

Tunku Abdul Rahman Island Kota Kinabalu Snorkeling Experience

Kota Kinabalu Snorkeling in TAEP w/Coral Flyer Zipline

Full-Day Kota Kinabalu Snorkeling Tour

Scuba Diving in Kota Kinabalu

Kota kinabalu snorkeling & scuba

A short boat ride from the city docks is some of the best Kota Kinabalu diving spots, which rival the best diving in Asia. Our boy earned his PADI junior scuba diving license in the Gili Islands, and when we told him about diving in Kota Kinabalu, he begged us to try it. With a guide from Downbelow Adventures Borneo, he got his wish. Diving in Kota Kinabalu with Downbelow means using Gaya Island (in the TARP nature reserve) as your base, but there are many companies who teach diving in Kota Kinabalu. 

Full-Day Kota Kinabalu Scuba Diving Lessons for Beginners

3-Day PADI Open Water Diver Course – Scuba Diving in Kota Kinabalu

PADI Scuba Diving in Kota Kinabalu Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

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Read Our Experience Getting PADI Junior Scuba Licenses on Gili Air

White Water Rafting in Kota Kinabalu

kota kinabalu rafting - kota kinabalu day trips

There are two main rivers for Kota Kinabalu rafting. 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. In addition, it’s several hours drive and a 5 am pick-up. If you’re an experienced rafter or in Kota Kinabalu with kids old enough to handle it, I’d skip the Padas river.

Instead, 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 too much. 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. A great adventure for any Kota Kinabalu itinerary. 

Read About Our Whitewater Rafting Trip with Borneo Wavehunters

More Kota Kinabalu Rafting

Kota Kinabalu Hiking & Trekking

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. There are many great Kota Kinabalu tours designed to get you out in the trail and enjoying the wilder side of Borneo. Some of these Kota Kinabalu day trips include a dip in natural hot springs, as well. 

Mount Kinabalu and Poring Hot Springs

kota kinabalu hiking - kota Kinabalu itinerary

kota kinabalu hiking canopy walk

For the real adventure junkies out there, hiking to the top of Mount Kinabalu is what to do in Kota Kinabalu. Be warned: this is not for beginners and needs real preparation. But for experienced hikers, this is one of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu. For families in Kota Kinabalu with kids 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. Poring Hot Springs are also a relaxing Kota Kinabalu attraction. 

Mount Kinabalu & Poring Rainforest Day Trips

Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Spring Tour
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Kota Kinabalu Wildlife Tours

Borneo is home to lots of amazing flora and fauna. Primates are the big draw on most Kota Kinabalu tours for wildlife, but you’ll likely see some amazing reptiles, tropical birds and insects, as well. If you have time in your Kota Kinabalu itinerary, make time for a wildlife tour or some time in the jungles and rivers of Sabah. 

Firefly Tours

fireflies kota kinabalu itinerary kota kinabalu tours

One of the most magical Kota Kinabalu tours available, the fireflies tours usually include a sunset as well. The two tours we recommend here, however, are a bit different. One involves a riding ATVs on the beach, while the other involves a boat trip to search for proboscis monkeys. 

Klias River Fireflies Safari Cruise in Kota Kinabalu

Nanamun Sunset Beach ATV and Fireflies Day Tour from Kota Kinabalu

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary with Kids

orangutans Kota kinabalu tours

Whether you’re in Kota Kinabalu with kids or own your own, you should consider a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This is a great way to see these 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 as we did in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia. That, however, isn’t always a reasonable option for everyone.

Sandakan Sepilok Orangutan Center Full-Day Kota Kinabalu Day Trip

Sandakan: Orangutan Encounter & Kinabatangan River Cruise

Proboscis Monkeys

proboscis monkeys Kota kinabalu tours

There are a number of day trips from Kota Kinabalu that take you on cruises into the jungle where proboscis monkeys live. Most of these Kota Kinabalu tours keep you there just past dusk to view and amazing sunset and display of fireflies after dark. A perfect addition to any Kota Kinabalu itinerary.

Klias Wildlife and Proboscis Monkey River Cruise – Kota Kinabalu Tours

Things to Do in Kota Kinabalu at Night

Sunsets in Kota Kinabalu

Things to do in kota kinabalu at night - sunset cruises

One of the easiest things to do 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.

Sunset and City Dinner Cruise

SeaTango Sunset Cruise in Kota Kinabalu

Night Tour

Much of Kota Kinabalu city comes alive at night, with vibrant seafood markets serving up hungry travelers and locals alike. If you’d like to have a guide show you the best of the city, then consider this tour, which includes dinner. 

Kota Kinabalu: Night City Tour with Dinner

Where to Eat in Kota Kinabalu with Kids

kota kinabalu seafood - Where to Eat in Kota Kinabalu

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

Welcome Seafood Restaurant

Welcome Seafood Restaurant Kota Kinabalu

Welcome Seafood Restaurant is the most famous and well-regarded of the Kota Kinabalu seafood restaurants. The place and the fish tanks themselves were impressive, and it was packed with locals and tourists alike. Our meal didn’t earn as high of marks as we had expected but it was still good. We also didn’t have great service, but it’s possible that’s because we arrived during a dinner rush (we had to wait 20 minutes for a table) on a rainy evening. 

The Filipino Market

Filipino Market - Kota kinabalu food

The 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 Kota Kinabalu Seafood Market

Local Kota Kinabalu Seafood Market

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 the 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 (or Without)

There are lots of great places to stay in Kota Kinabalu. I cover many great Kota Kinabalu hotels & resorts, but here are our top recommendations for where to stay in Kota Kinabalu. All of these are great for any type of traveler, but since we’re family travelers I always recommend places that can accommodate kids.

Top Resort in Kota Kinabalu

Best Luxury Hotel in Kota Kinabalu

Top Mid-Range Hotel in Kota Kinabalu

Best Budget Hotel in Kota Kinabalu

Best Hostel in Kota Kinabalu

Read the Full Report: Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu

What’s on YOUR Kota Kinabalu Itinerary?

things to do in kota kinabalu itinerary

We loved exploring Kota Kinabalu with kids, and plan to come back for more Kota Kinabalu tours, diving, and trekking. 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?

What’s on your Kota Kinabalu itinerary? What Kota Kinabalu tours and activities are missing from our list. We’ll update this post regularly (or after our next visit) so we’d love to hear about more fun things to do in Kota Kinabalu. Write your tips in the comments below!

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Disclosure: This post on what to do in Kota Kinabalu 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 any Kota Kinabalu tours. 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 on your own.

Photo Credits via Creative Commons CC BY or other Royalty-free image sites. Some images may have been altered slightly via cropping or color enhancement: #2, #6, #7, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15, #16, #21

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