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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out our room at Hilton Kota Kinabalu
This was our room for the first 3 nights at Hilton Kota Kinabalu (see location).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Map Location For Day 1 (Kota Kinabalu Itinerary)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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)
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.
With our stomach filled, it was time to venture out. Today, we finally had an itinerary. LOL!
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.
Kokol Elf Hill – A place with a view!
If you love taking nice Instagram-worthy photos, Kokol Elf Hill may interest you.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The matcha cake was really good – not too sweet! And the pot of tea was truly generous – sufficient for two pax actually.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Map Location For Day 3 (Kota Kinabalu Itinerary)
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.