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Kota Kinabalu isn’t most travellers’ final destination – but it totally should be. Here’s how to plan the perfect Kota Kinabalu travel itinerary, however long you have.

The capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu – or KK, as the locals call it – is one of the main entry points for visitors to Borneo. If you find yourself in Kota Kinabalu, there’s a good chance it’s a stopping point. Whether you’re heading out to the Borneo jungle or tagging your Kota Kinabalu trip on to a longer tour of Malaysia, don’t just treat it as a necessary connection. 

Yes, there are lots of exciting things to do in Sabah. With orangutans, jungles and famously tasty food, Kota Kinabalu might not be high on your agenda. But whatever your reason for visiting, it’s like you’ll leave feeling like you didn’t have enough time in KK.

Kota Kinabalu is one of those cities that grows on you more the longer you stay. The city is much bigger than it first seems, and it would take months to explore every corner. Where you have 24 hours, 3 days or longer in Kota Linabalu, here’s how to enjoy the city and plan your KK itinerary.

 

Using this Kota Kinabalu travel itinerary

I’ve broken the KK itinerary below down day by day. I’ve ordered it to make it as simple to follow as possible, no matter how much time you have in Kota Kinabalu. 

If you only have one day, the day one itinerary is what I recommend. If you have two days in KK, day one and day two are what I recommend. And if you have three days or more, feel free to take your pick from the other activities I’ve mentioned! 


Gaya Street in Kota Kinabalu


If you only have one day in KK… 

If you only have one day in Kota Kinabalu (eek!) it can be tempting to cram in as much as possible. The city’s chilled out vibe is one of its biggest charms, though. This is one city I’d recommend taking at a slower pace.

7:30AM – Start with breakfast at Toojou.

Whether you decide to stay there or not, pop into the social café space for a breakfast that will keep you full. The Tamaha Café is open to both guests and the public and serves up a tasty mix of local dishes and fusion options. They also make really good coffee and fresh juices, all for very reasonable prices. 

Nasi Lemak breakfast at Toojou in Kota Kinabalu
Nasi Lemak – a “power” breakfast!

9:00AM – Take a walking tour. 

The Sabah tourism boards runs a free Kota Kinabalu city tour every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The city tour covers all the famous spots, as well as plenty of local favourites. You’ll learn all about KK’s eventful past, as well as the ongoing projects you don’t normally see as a tourist. 

Tip: The website says the KK walking tour takes around two hours, but expect it to take at least three. You won’t get bored – but you will want to budget extra time if you’re planning any afternoon activities!

If your trip to Kota Kinabalu doesn’t coincide with one of the tour days, it’s well worth booking a paid tour such as this one or this half day tour, both of which combine culture, history and local knowledge. 

Book your tour

Kota Kinabalu memorial
The memorial park in Kota Kinabalu.

1PM – Lunch at Yee Fung.

Gaya Street is one of the hubs of activity in Kota Kinabalu. On this street, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, hotels, cafés, shops and everything else you could possibly want. Nestled among the many outlets is Yee Fung

This casual spot in the heart of KK is known for what it does best: laksa. It’s popular with both locals and visitors, which means you may have to wait for seat – but it will totally be worth it.

Location: 127 Gaya Street, Kota Kinabalu

 

The house laksa with shrimp and chicken at Fee Yung

2PM – Head to the beach!

Kota Kinabalu is a coastal city, which means it’s surrounded by beaches. As since those beaches are in Borneo, you can be sure they’re beautiful!

The most famous beach in Kota Kinabalu is Tanjung Aru, and no KK trip would be complete without a visit. It’s famous for its postcard-worthy sunset, so stick around until the early evening to see it. And if you have any space left after lunch, try some local street food from the stalls just off the main beach area.

7:30PM – Dinner at Welcome Seafood.

Welcome Seafood is one of the most famous restaurants in Kota Kinabalu – and for good reason!

This sprawling dining spot started as a one-room shop but now takes up an entire street. Even the street lamps that line the street have neon seafood signs on them now!

Welcome Restaurant has anything you could want and the prices are incredibly reasonable to. If you love lobster or crab, now is the time to treat yourself.

Location: Lot G18, Komplek Jalan Asia City Phase 2A.

 

Fresh crab at Welcome seafood restaurant in Kota Kinabalu


If you have 2 days in Kota Kinabalu…

Now you’ve seen some of the city, it’s time to get out of it! 

Just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu lie the kind of paradisaical islands you thought only existed on postcards. They’re pretty much on par with Philippines islands like Siargao and Palawan: dreamy, idyllic and a must-visit if you’re in the area. Even if you’re not usually a beach or water sports person, you won’t want to miss a day trip to one (or more) of KK’s islands. 

The easiest way to see the islands is on an organised day trip from Kota Kinabalu. In fact, most of them are only accessible with a tour operator – so sit back and enjoy it, even if it’s not your usual style of travel! 

 

Sepanggar Island is one of the best islands to visit if you want to spend as much time on the white sand beaches as possible. This full day tour includes hotel pick-up, a beach lunch and the chance to snorkel in Sabah’s beautiful waters.

If you don’t mind travelling a little further afield, it’s hard to beat Dinawan Island. Dinawan is a privately owned island, meaning you get the added bonus of being someone completely remote. The jetty is about an hour’s drive from downtown Kota Kinabalu and hotel pick-up is available.

If you want to see as much as possible (or just don’t like chilling on the beach!), book an island hopping tour that covers several islands. This one will take you to Manukan, Mamutik, Sapi and Gaya.



If you have 3 days in Kota Kinabalu (or more!)

If you have three or more days in Kota Kinabalu, you definitely won’t be bored! Here are some of the best things to do in KK if you have the time to spare:

Shop at the markets

Every Sunday, hoards of locals descend on Gaya Street for the weekly market. If you happen to find yourself in KK on a Sunday, it’s something you definitely won’t want to miss!

You can find pretty much everything at the Gaya Street Sunday market. And when I say everything, I mean everything. From handmade sarongs and locally grown coffee beans, to Sabahan instruments and everyday household items, you won’t believe how much there is. 

If you’re not in Kota Kinabalu on a Sunday, the local handicraft markets are a great place to shop for fruit, jewellery and souvenirs. Allow plenty of time to browse the stalls near the coast on Jalan Sinsuran.

 
Fruit for sale at a Kota Kinabalu market
The KK markets are a great place to pick up local fruits like durian and mangosteen!

Take a trip out to Mari Mari cultural village.

“Mari Mari” means “come here” or “let’s go” in Malay and it’s a phrase you’ll hear lots if you visit the village.

Mari Mari cultural village showcases and celebrates the cultures of Sabah five main ethnic groups. You’ll spend a couple of hours learning about the groups, exploring the types of houses they live in a getting to experience the quirks they’re known for. Expect to try plenty of food (and rice wine!) along the way, as well as taking part in traditional rituals. 

After the tour, you’ll be treated to traditional dances and a high tea buffet. Because your meal is included and served at a set time, you will need to book your trip to Mari Mari in advance.

Book your tickets

Kinabalu National Park

If you have more than 3 days in Kota Kinabalu, spend a day at Kota Kinabalu National Park. Climbing Mount Kinabalu takes 2-3 full days but you don’t need to make the full hike to enjoy it. If you do, it’s possible to book a 3D2N camping under the stars trip for a truly unique experience.

If you only have one day, there’s still plenty to see in Kinabalu National Park. The botanical are worth a wander and there are plenty of day hikes and shorter trails to enjoy too.

If you want to make the most your time and see the main attractions nearby, you can book a Kinabalu day trip for a very reasonable price.

 

Kinabalu National Park


Where to stay in Kota Kinabalu

Whatever your Kota Kinabalu has in store, Toojou is the perfect central resting point. A combination of hostel, coworking space and social café space, Toojou feels more like a boutique hotel you want to hang out in than a hostel. It’s newly opened, great for all ages and incredible value for money. 

Click here to book a private room or dorm

 

If you enjoy a little more independence, Robusta Suites is a newly opened serviced apartment just out of the centre. With in-room swings (yes, really!) and a coffee scrubs available, it’s the perfect retreat after a busy day exploring the city.

Click here to see room options


Before you go

Even though you hope you’ll never need to use it, travelling with insurance will make sure you’re covered if anything goes wrong. I use World Nomads because it’s the most comprehensive cover I’ve found – they even cover the more adventurous activities that other insurers won’t, making them perfect for a trip to Borneo.

Find out more about them in this post or get a quote right here:


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