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Located on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu—often referred to as KK—is the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state. Flanked by the South China Sea to the west and the rainforest to the east, KK is famous for its beautiful beaches, verdant jungles, bustling markets, and the iconic City Mosque surrounded by a sparkling lagoon. While Kota Kinabalu maintains an old-world charm, the city is most certainly on the move. In recent years, it’s welcomed a surge of elegant new malls, posh apartment buildings, and a burgeoning arts scene. Thanks to a population that consists largely of ex-pats, the city also boasts a rich culinary culture with food ranging from Indian to Cantonese, available at fine dining establishments and street vendors alike. Whether you want to go hiking through the rainforest, go scuba diving in the ocean, or learn how to prepare an authentic Malaysian meal, there’s much to see and do in this colorful destination.
Central Business District – The heart of Kota Kinabalu lies on the water, bound by the Sutera Harbour Golf & Country Club to the south and the Kota Kinabalu Ferry Terminal to the north. Packed in between are brand new shopping malls that abut traditional night market, luxury hotels, expansive movie theaters, and trendy clubs. In the evening, the action centers around the Night Food Market, where waterfront dining is made possible by a maze of street food vendors offering Southeast Asian specialties perfect for foodies looking to discover new flavors.
Bukit Padang – Located to the southeast of the city center, Bukit Padang is a recreational area made up of the Tun Fuad Park, the Sabah Golf and Country Club, and the Water World Theme Park. Just next door to Water World is the Kampung Nelayan Floating Village Seafood Market, where you can indulge in a range of Asian creations such as fried rice, spicy prawns, and stir-fried beef. The restaurant also puts on a nightly cultural dance performance showcasing the traditions of the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Sabah.
Damai – Just to the west of Bukit Padang, Damai is a district known mainly for its local eateries. Come here on the weekends when the restaurants are especially lively and serving up dumplings, steamed buns, noodle soups, and bread served with kaya, a jam made of coconut milk and fresh fruit.
Likas – Drive north of the city center and you reach Likas, a district known for sporting activities like football games at Likas Stadium, golfing at the 2-story driving range, and hiking through mangrove forests at the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands Centre. Along Tanjung Lipat—Likas Bay—lies the iconic City Mosque, an ornate piece of architecture that towers over a reflective lagoon. The boardwalk along the northern side of the bay is the perfect place to stop and take in views of KK’s breathtaking sunsets.
Tanjung Aru – Another popular place to find hotels, Tanjung Aru is located on the water to the south of the city center. Visitors come here for Tanjung Aru Beach, one of the most spectacular stretches of sand and best places to watch the sunset in the city. Throughout the district, you can find everything from cute eateries and beachside food shacks to the 5-star restaurants and alluring bars of the world-renowned Shangri-La’s Tanjung Are Resort.
Soak in views of the lush Borneo countryside with a climb up UNESCO-listed Mount Kinabalu. Located about 2 hours outside the city, the majestic mountain towers to the height of 13,435 feet (4,095 m), making it the tallest mountain in all of Malaysia. You can reach the summit of Low’s Peak on a 2-day hike via the Ranau or Kota Belud trails. Upon reaching the top, gaze out upon views of pillowy clouds hovering over the rolling hills of Mount Kinabalu National Park.
If an overnight hike is too much to tackle, you can still marvel at the beauty of the park’s magnificent scenery. On an easy walk through flower-filled trails, admire the incredible biodiversity of the region, which boasts more than 100 species of mammals, more than 300 species of birds, and more than 5,000 species of plants, including the fantastical Rafflesia flowers. Continue on to the eastern edge of the park, where you tour culminates with a walk above flourishing ferns on a bridge that hangs 140 feet (43 m) above the forest floor.
Delve into centuries of Kota Kinabalu culture on a tour that treats you to the best sites of the city in just a few hours. Travel back in time as you pay a visit to the Sabah Museum, a complex that contains a heritage village where you can see houses from the various indigenous groups of Sabah. Continue on with a stop for stunning views from the top of Signal Hill, the highest point in the city, and scope out the architecture of futuristic buildings like Tun Mustapha Tower. You can even enjoy time to shop for patterned rugs, woven handbags, and vibrant textiles as you try your luck at bargaining at the handicraft market.
If adventure is what you’re after, embark on an offshore excursion to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. With a dive master leading the way, get strapped into scuba gear to come face to face with sea turtles, vibrant coral reefs, and schools of exotic fish. For heart-pounding thrills above water, head to the Padas River for a whitewater rafting adventure, which begins with a leisurely train ride and ends with a wet-and-wild trip down Class III and IV rapids.
Of course, a visit to Kota Kinabalu isn’t complete without experiencing the food, whose flavors swirl with the culinary traditions of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and other corners of Southeast Asia and beyond. Alongside a local chef, head to a market where you gain insight into the traditional flavors of the regional and shop for aromatic produce and herbs to work with later. Next, during a hands-on cooking class, learn tips and techniques for creating authentic recipes such as garlic ribs, stir-fried noodles, and spicy chicken served with bean sprouts. For an elevated experience—literally—treat yourself to a meal at the top of Kokol Hill. After a climb through the verdant forest, soak in awe-inspiring views of Mount Kinabalu and the emerald Crocker Range as you dig into a rustic hot pot dinner.