Things to do in Kota Kinabalu for 10 Days, without climbing Mt Kinabalu

What can you do in Kota Kinabalu other than conquering one of Southeast Asia’s tallest peaks in Kota Kinabalu? We spent 10 days in Kota Kinabalu and had loads of fun every day.

From cafe hopping and seafood dining to immersing in nature such as chasing waterfall and island-hopping, there were enough activities to make everyday an interesting and eventful one.

Surprisingly, our longer-than-usual trip didn’t even include the monumental climb of Mt Kinabalu! Curious to know how we spent those 10 days in Kota Kinabalu, read on for ideas on the things you can do in the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state. 

 
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Ordering fresh seafood from Night Market in Kota Kinabalu

 


Our Travelling Profile: 10 days in Kota Kinabalu

Though we travelled to Kota Kinabalu (KK) as a couple in Sep 2023, this 10-day itinerary would be suitable even for families with kids.

In fact, many attractions in KK were designed for kids – I’ll cover some of the highly-rated ones as we run through the days.

Geographical Coverage in KK

With the help of a rental car, we explored both Kota Kinabalu (a coastal town) as well as Kundasang, a hill station where Mount Kinabalu is located. 

Kota Kinabalu 10 day trip by car
10-day KK trip started from bottom left towards inland on right (Kota Kinabalu to Kundasang)

In a nutshell, we spent 3 nights in KK city, 2 nights in mountainous Kundasang and another 4 nights back in KK.

Without any further ado, follow my exploration of East Malaysia and check out Part 1 of my 10-day KK itinerary.

INFO: Kota Kinabalu is located in East Malaysia. So you cannot reach there by land transport from Singapore, ok? :)

 


DAY 1: HELLO, KOTA KINABALU!

Good evening, Kota Kinabalu. We landed at Kota Kinabalu International Airport at around 7pm on a Sunday evening via Scoot airline.

Kota Kinabalu Airport to city
Waiting for Grab ride outside Kota Kinabalu airport

A cheap Grab ride took us to our first hotel of the trip, at Hilton Kota Kinabalu. This relatively new hotel in KK welcomed us with its huge and grandeur lobby. 

TIP: Grab ride in KK is plentiful and cheap. We spent just rm8 to get from airport to Kota Kinabalu town center. On other days, the ride ranged from rm5 to rm15. 

Hilton Kota Kinabalu
Grand lobby of Hilton Kota Kinabalu

Check out our room at Hilton Kota Kinabalu

This was our room for the first 3 nights at Hilton Kota Kinabalu (see location).

Hilton Kota Kinabalu Hotel
Modern room at Hilton Kota Kinabalu

The room impressed with its modern fixtures and spacious bathroom that came with quality toiletries (from Crabtree & Evelyn).

I love how they would send us Whatsapp messages every morning to ask if we needed anything – it’s a unique and convenient approach to ensuring guests’ comfort.

Yup, it’s easier for guests to reply a message than to pick up a line phone and dial for service. Hilton has indeed done their customer research well.

Kota Kinabalu Hotel
Spacious toilet of Hilton Kota Kinabalu

The only few drawbacks of our room were the lack of privacy (as the window lets in view from a perpendicular block) and its location not being by the waterfront. But it’s walkable and takes about 15 minutes.

Besides these cons, I highly recommend Hilton Kota Kinabalu for its’ newness, exceptional service, well-equipped gym and a pool that receives sufficient sunlight (perfect for those who crave a good tan).

Explore Night Food Markets in KK

By the time we were settled and ready to leave the hotel, it was close to 9pm. Let’s look for food! 

Walking through the drizzle, we reached a Night Food Market located beside the Handicraft Market. 

Kota Kinabalu Night Seafood Market
Night Food Market was bustling with locals

It looked like a big open-air wet market in the setting of a Pasar Malam and sold anything from fruits, vegetables to poultry. There were also carved out sitting areas for diners to order and consume seafood dishes at the market.

Kota Kinabalu Night Seafood Market
You can point-and-order the seafood and have them cook it for you

Most people here were Malay locals – we didn’t see many tourists during time of our visit (late at night). Not wanting to be the odd one out, we walked to another nearby night market, known as Todak Waterfront Hawker. 

This night market seemed more popular based on Google Map reviews. 

Todak Waterfront Hawker Center
Todak Waterfront Hawker

But Todak’s ambiance looked almost the same (that is, pasar malam & wet-market setting). As it was getting late, we decided to have our dinner at Todak Waterfront Hawker even though it didn’t boost an inviting setting.

At a random stall, we pointed and ordered a grouper (rm55 for 600g), lobster (rm120 for 600g), vegetable, a plate of seafood fried rice and some drinks.

Todak Waterfront Hawker Center
Our lobster and a grouper about to be weigh

The grouper was very fresh, but appeared like it had been swapped to a smaller one (we saw the one we pointed back on display at the end of our dinner).

Lobster was cooked in two different flavors and was equally fresh. It was a good first meal in KK that cost over rm200. 

Todak Waterfront Hawker Center
Cooked lobster and grouper
Todak Waterfront Hawker Center
Also ordered Kailan and Seafood fried rice (wrapped in fried egg)

Map Location For Day 1 (Kota Kinabalu Itinerary)

Kota Kinabalu Airport >>  Hilton Kota Kinabalu >> Night Food Market >>Todak Waterfront Hawker Center

 


DAY 2: Eat, Shop & Relax in Kota Kinabalu

We started the day with a hearty dim sum breakfast at Foo Phing Dim Sum that served delicious food in generous quantity. We left feeling stuffed and satisfied. 

TIP: Did you know Kota Kinabalu is a good place to have dim sum? You’ll get generous seafood fillings within the dim sum. Why? Because KK is blessed with abundant seafood.

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Such generous portion!
What to eat in Kota Kinabalu
Foo Phing Dim Sum in Kota Kinabalu

With no itinerary fixed for the day, we decided to grab to a nearby mall – City Mall Shopping Centre. Though it’s an old mall (like KSL in Johor), there were enough things to shop for an hour or so. 

I bought a pair of nice shimmery shoes as well as some wet weather travel essentials (raincoat, waterproof phone pouch) which would be useful to combat the wet season in KK. 

TIP: It rained every single day when we visited Kota Kinabalu in Sep 2023. Therefore, make sure you are rain-proof. 

Central Shopping Center Kota Kinabalu
Bought waterproof phone pouch and raincoat from DIY store

Cafe Hopping @ Breadboss Bakery

Lately, exploring different cafes has become a regular part of our travel plans. The first cafe we “hopped” to in KK was a good one as it boasted great coffee.

You’ll also get to sit in a charming setting inspired by nature and cottage-style aesthetics. 

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Clockwise: Iced latte, Double chocolate and Milk Tea.

Food-wise, we ordered a Teriyaki croissant and Beef Stew, and the man kept saying that the croissant was good. Total damage was less than rm60.

Breadboss Bakery Cafe

Gym Session at Hilton Kota Kinabalu

With a loose itinerary, we effortlessly fit in a gym session at Hilton KK. The spacious and airy gym was well-equipped, such that we spent two solid hours working out our muscles. 

Hilton Kota Kinabalu Gym
Airy and well-equipped gym at Hilton Kota Kinabalu
Hilton Kota Kinabalu Gym
Exercise with a view at Hilton KK

Thereafter, our rental car arrived at our hotel for pickup. This rental car would served us well over the next few days, bringing us beyond KK town center and all the way to where Mt Kinabalu is located (at Kundasang – see location). 

Massage in Kota Kinabalu

What can you do at night in Kota Kinabalu? There were many massage parlors located near KK Waterfront (see location). We randomly went to one (at Eden), which we do not recommend. 

Instead, you may want to check out Zen Borneo which has good reviews on Klook. 

Seafood Dinner Again at Night Market

After the massage, it was time for dinner. This time round, we chose to dine at the first place we popped by on day 1 (but skipped), at the “Night Market” adjacent to Handicraft market. 

Night Seafood Market Kota Kinabalu
Durians for sale at Night Market in KK

The man saw durian and couldn’t resist – he wasted rm60 on “Sabah King” that turned out mediocre (tasteless, mushy with huge seeds).

I wrote in my diary – “Like water with a big seed.”

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Choosing our seafood for dinner

Seafood dinner at a random stall proved disappointing too. We were recommended a 1kg crab that turned out with less than a mouthful of probably decomposed meat.

Yup, it’s just a large and heavy crab shell that we bought! The dishonest seller succeeded in getting rid of his dead and decomposed crab.

Other stuff we ordered included a large grouper (cooked in two ways – steam and BBQ), fried squid and Kang Kong. Those were not too bad. Total damage was about rm190.

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
What we ordered for dinner

Seafood Dining Tip: The two waterfront night markets we visited seemed to cater to the local communities as at time of writing. Food were cheaper than if you have it at a Chinese restaurant, and the fish were fresh.

However, you have to be okay with dining at an environment that may be wet, less clean and smells. Remember, you are dining at a wet market. There’s also the risk of getting conned. 

Stay tuned to Part 2 of this series, as you’ll see us visiting a few Chinese restaurants that served good seafood at reasonable price (without getting conned).

Night Seafood Market Kota Kinabalu
Wet floor and puddles are common
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Seller’s promotional claim: “Not nice, no need to pay” was not honored.

Romantic Dinner Option: If you prefer a more classy and memorable dinner, check out Sunset Dinner Cruise where you can enjoy sunset, international buffet spread and entertainment on board a cruise. 

Map Location For Day 2 (Kota Kinabalu Itinerary)

Hilton Kota Kinabalu >> Foo Phing Dim Sum >> City Mall Shopping Centre >> Breadboss Bakery Cafe >> Gym Session@Hilton KK >> Collect Rental Car >> Massage in Kota Kinabalu >> Night Food Market 

 


DAY 3: Waterfall and more (Things to do in Kota Kinabalu)

Breakfast for Day 3 was a simple affair comprising a tasty plate of Seafood Fried Bee Hoon and Wonton Soup, at Jiang Yu Zai eatery located within walking distance from our hotel

What to eat in Kota Kinabalu
Simple breakfast near Hilton KK

With our stomach filled, it was time to venture out. Today, we finally had an itinerary. LOL!

What to eat in Kota Kinabalu?
Fried bee hoon was tasty

Using our rental car, we drove northward, passing by scenic spots like Likas bay (see location) where we enjoyed lovely views of islets and rolling mountains. I read that this western coast is also a great place to catch sunsets. 

Kota Kinabalu Car Rental
Our rental car that helped us explore Kota Kinabalu and beyond
Getting around Kota Kinabalu
Driving past the western coast of Kota Kinabalu and enjoying scenic views

Kokol Elf Hill – A place with a view!

If you love taking nice Instagram-worthy photos, Kokol Elf Hill may interest you.

Kokol Elf Hill Kota Kinabalu
Kokol Elf Hill (Photo Credit: Klook.com)

Unfortunately, after a 45 minutes drive, Google brought us to a road and told us to drive into a river. Ha Ha! We couldn’t believe it and reversed a few times to double-check.

Rent Car in Kota Kinabalu
Google directed us to turn left and drive into a river

Yes, Google wanted us to drive into that river. OMG!

Well, we could have detoured and find other ways to get to Kokol Elf Hill. But we didn’t because we found out (by reading more recent Google reviews) that the admission fee for tourists was exorbitantly-priced – at rm95 vs rm10 for locals.

You can check out Kokol Elf Hill’s price on Klook, which is cheaper for foreigners as at time of writing.

Ulu Kiosom Waterfall 

Next, we continued our journey via rental car and reached Ulu Kiosom Waterfall. The admission fee for foreigners was rm10, which is reasonable, although in many other countries, entry to waterfalls is often free.

Kota Kinabalu Tourism: The impression I get as a tourist is that KK tourism operators want to milk the tourism money as much as possible. Hence, do be prepared to pay admission (or much higher admission as a foreigner) even at places you don’t expect to pay.

Luckily, Singapore dollars is strong and didn’t affect much of our plans. But we did decide to skip the climb to Mt Kundasang for the same reason.

Ulu Kiosom Waterfall doesn’t require hiking as it was just a short walk from the carpark. With the third and tallest tier closed to access (at time of our visit), we settled for the second tier. 

While Ulu Kiosom Waterfall wasn’t as spectacular as other waterfalls we’ve visited such as those in Okinawa, it was good enough as we didn’t come with a high expectation. 

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Immersing in nature

Due to the drizzle, the rocks both above and in the water were quite slippery. And my partner mentioned a sudden steep drop in certain parts of the water.

Hence, even to an experienced swimmer like my partner, he was cautious about venturing too far into the water for safety reasons.

Ulu Kiosom Waterfall 
Enjoying wasabi nuts amidst the breeze from the waterfall

Being a weak swimmer, I settled for a rock, where I sat and enjoyed the breeze created by the waterfall’s powerful rush. It was memorable!  

Nearby Attractions: If you are into cultural activities, there’s a Mari Mari Cultural Village near the waterfall that is described as a “must-visit” by many. See location and admission fee

Cafe Hopping @ October Coffee Roaster

After the “water adventure”, it was time to “cafe-hop” again. We drove to October Coffee Roaster which boasted a great ambiance.

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu

We ordered Caramel Macchiato and “Youth” tea, and paired the drinks with a signature October sandwich and some desserts – Green Tea Matcha cake and colourful macarons.

Good cafes in Kota Kinabalu
Caramel Macchiato and a big pot of youth tea

The matcha cake was really good – not too sweet! And the pot of tea was truly generous – sufficient for two pax actually.
Kota Kinabalu October Coffee Roasters Cafe

The Mosque that “floats” on water

After our tea break, we drove to the floating mosque, known as Masjid Bandaraya Mosque. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t ideal for capturing great photos – it was cloudy. 

But, it seemed to rain everyday in Kota Kinabalu and we settled for capturing the moment despite the gloomy skies.

Things to do in Kota Kinabalu
Floating mosque in KK

Masjid Bandaraya Mosque

Best Shopping Mall in KK 

The final itinerary for the day was at Imago Shopping Mall. We enjoyed an al fresco dinner at SOULedout restaurant that served pretty good food.

Recommended food in Kota Kinabalu
This Manthi Indian dish, served with curry was delicious!

I had seared tuna salad while the man ordered an Indian dish, Manthi, which turned out to be incredibly flavorful. We complemented these mains with a refreshing cup of Dragonfruit juice and a glass of Sangria that didn’t look like one. 

What to eat in Kota Kinabalu

Post-dinner, we shopped around at the new and modern mall. I managed to snag a pair of locally-made Malaysian slippers and some groceries, which included a bottle of red wine that I planned to sip and enjoy when we arrived at the mountainous area on Day 4. 

Imago Shopping Mall
A cultural dance performance at Imago Shopping Mall

Map Location For Day 3 (Kota Kinabalu Itinerary)

Hilton KK >> Kokol Elf Hill >> Ulu Kiosom Waterfall >> October Coffee Roaster >> Floating Mosque >> Imago Shopping Mall 

 


That’s all to Part 1 of our trip to Kota Kinabalu. Stay tuned to the next post as you’ll see us driving our rental car away from KK town centre towards Kundasang and visting lots of interesting places. 

>> RELATED: Driving from KK to Kundasang: Travelling to a sanctuary with magnificent view

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