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Although the settlement has been around since at least the late 19th century, the name Kota Kinabalu was given less than fifty years ago.
Before that, the town was known as Jesselton, due to its close connection with the British North Borneo Company (BNBC), which was then run by Charles Jessel. The port became a major hub of commercial activity for the BNBC, with the British successfully seeing off several revolts from local inhabitants.
Jesselton was eventually surrendered, however, to the Japanese Empire during World War II. The retreating allied forces destroyed the city to stall the enemy’s advance, and then, as the war drew to a close, bombed it heavily again to expel the occupying troops.
In 1945, the British government took control of the city—in ruins with only a few buildings still intact—and began the post-war reconstruction. In the early 1960s, negotiations to form the unified state of Malaysia were well underway, and in 1963, the city became part of the Sabah state. Five years later, the city was reborn as Kota Kinabalu (‘The City of Kinabalu’), after the mountain that dominates the horizon.
Since then, Kota Kinabalu has regained its status as an important port, and more recently has made its mark on the global tourism industry due to the abundance of nature reserves and sandy islands in close proximity. As the number of foreign arrivals accelerated, so the population expanded, almost doubling to around 600,000 in the last decade.
This national marine park comprises five islands just off the coast of Sabah, each a mini tropical paradise where mellow turquoise waters lap up against white palm-strewn beaches. There is a range of scuba-diving options off the islands, including around some small coral reefs that teem with colourful fish.
The larger isles, like Gaya Island, also have interesting hiking options through lush rainforest. Or, you can just as well take a book and settle under a palm tree for a day of peaceful bliss.
This sprawling complex actually contains several museums, as well as a traditional village and small zoo. The main building mimics traditional Sabah architecture, and its principal galleries cover art, Islamic culture, and local history.
Keep an eye out for the human skulls kept from the times when headhunting was common in Sabah. The heritage village is a collection of simple, wooden houses with styles that represent the various ethnic groups indigenous to the region.
At the other extreme is this futuristic tower, the second tallest in Borneo. Built in the 1970s, this cylindrical tower soars over 120 metres and is one of only a handful of buildings in the world designed so that each floor is supported by steel rods fanning out from a central core.
The best feature is the revolving restaurant on the 18th floor: it takes about an hour to go all the way around, meaning you can look out over every corner of Kota Kinabalu before dessert.
Though the Sabah State Mosque is the most important in religious terms, the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is arguably the more impressive structure, capable of welcoming up to 12,000 worshippers. The white walls gleam in the sunlight, while the man-made lagoon surrounding the building makes it especially attractive when reflected at sunset.
Tip * Booking your Tours, Transfers & Airport Parking before you go will save your money & time and ensure a stress free start to your holiday
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It’s impossible not to see this towering massif from town—the summit reaches above 4,000 metres, making it one of the tallest peaks in Southeast Asia. Getting to the top is easier than you’d expect, with no specialist mountaineering gear required for someone in good physical condition.
Aside from the tremendous views across Sabah, the whole mountain area is renowned for its remarkably diverse vegetation and birdlife, with many species unique to these slopes.
This 280-acre reserve, just a half hour drive from KK centre, is one of the largest in the country. There are two main sections—animal and botanical—with the Orang-utan enclosure the highlight for most guests.
These intelligent animals are our closest cousins, and Borneo is one of the only places where they still live in the wild. Lok Kawi is involved in a conservation programme for Orang-utans and other endangered species.
Kota Kinabalu’s seething night market, which runs from 5 p.m. every day, is a mesmerising mesh of sights and smells that is sure to get your stomach juices flowing. You can find some of the finest seafood in the city roasting on the open-flame barbecues here, as well as an endless supply of exotic fruits and vegetables.
Go one step further and try and catch your own seafood dinner. The impossibly clear waters off the coast of Kota Kinabalu are great for a spot of fishing, and licensed boats will take you out from the capital in search of barracudas, marlin, and tuna, among others.
If you’re short of luck, the local experts will be happy to sell you one of their catches right off the boat when you get back to shore. There is also an annual fishing tournament held here, with the ironic-sounding theme “Save our Seas” actually part of a major drive to cut down on illegal fishing in the coastal waters.
Your hotel in Kota Kinabalu can range from a luxurious international resort to a simple, good-value lodging.
It’s not going to be cheap, but if you want the full works, stay in the Sutera Harbour Resort Hotel, a 380-room mega-complex sitting right on the shores of the South China Sea. On the vast grounds there are two luxury hotels—the Pacific and Magellan—a golf course, spas, pools, and a marina. As you’d expect, rooms are large and exquisitely decked out, and there are several excellent restaurants and bars to choose from. Thankfully, there are vehicles to ship you from one area of the resort to another, and—should you ever decide to leave this wonderland—a free hourly shuttle running to the town centre throughout the day.
Towering above the famous night market, Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu Hotel is in the perfect position to watch the crowds as they wander around the tightly packed stalls below. For an altogether more soothing vista, save a spot around the outdoor swimming pool, order a cocktail from the bar, and gaze out into the eternity of the turquoise sea.
Tucked inside the largest shopping centre in Sabah, the Novotel Kota Kinabalu 1Borneo Hotel is a comfortable place to stay away from the noise and heat of the city centre. Rooms are spotless and come with everything you’d expect from this reputable international brand. Heading into the city will require transport, but if it’s shopping you’re after, you won’t find a more convenient spot.
East Malaysia has a tropical climate, with hot and humid days most of the year round. It’s not advisable to visit Malaysia during rainy season, which lasts from November to February.
Cuisine in Sabah is influenced by many cultures, but the undoubted specialty is the fabulous seafood pulled from the local waters. And there aren’t many better places to sample the latest catch than at the Kampung Nelayan Floating Seafood Market Restaurant (Taman Tun Fuad, Bukit Padang). It’s a short ride out of the city centre, but you’ll forget about that minor inconvenience when you pick your dinner right from the tank. Nightly cultural shows involving fire displays are an entertaining after-dinner distraction.
Chinese food is a big part of the Malaysian diet, and Yu Kee Bak Kut Teh (Gaya Street) is a no-nonsense canteen on one of the city’s liveliest strips. Within minutes of sitting under the harsh fluorescent lighting, you’ll be served a large bowl of soup with a choice of pork meat, ribs, or offal, depending on what you’re in the mood for. Whatever you order, you are likely to be satisfied with both the food and the bill—this place is permanently busy for a reason.
For a casual late afternoon drink and bite to eat, you can’t beat First Beach Café (Aru Drive), which backs right up to the sandy shore. The kitchen serves up basic Asian noodle and rice dishes, but the real draw here is the view of the beautiful Borneo sunsets.
For something a little bit more familiar and carb-heavy, stop in at Little Italy (Jln Haji Saman). All the standard Italian dishes appear on the menu, with the pizzas and pasta better than you might expect to encounter in Malaysia.
The city of Kota Kinabalu and the surrounding coastal region is an area with a low risk of malaria, though care should always be taken to avoid attention from mosquitoes. However, if you intend to travel inland, preventative treatment via oral medication is strongly recommended. If you have a temperature or other flu-like symptoms, even after coming back from your holiday in Malaysia, you ought to seek medical assistance immediately.
No other vaccinations are compulsory, unless you are arriving from a country with a yellow fever epidemic. Make sure you are current with all of your standard booster injections at least four weeks before you travel.
In Malaysia, you should filter your tap water, or, better still, drink bottled water, which is easy to find.
The health infrastructure is pretty good, though it deteriorates rapidly as you head into rural areas. The number to call for an ambulance is the same as in the UK: 999.
Malaysia is relatively safe, but the usual recommendations about not walking unaccompanied at night and remaining vigilant on public transport apply. Bag snatching is relatively common in the bigger cities.
There have been isolated cases of kidnappings of foreigners in East Malaysia, especially on the Eastern coast of Sabah. There is also a moderate risk of terrorism, with Western foreigners the target.
The British influence in the country’s history means that English is spoken in most cities and tourist spots. Malaysia is a mostly Islamic nation, however, and you should show respect for local religious and legal customs.
Anti-drugs laws are extremely severe in Malaysia, and possession of a tiny amount could lead to imprisonment if caught. If you are found carrying a quantity deemed sufficient for you to be trafficking, you may be given the death penalty.