In this guide, we try to make your stay at Kota Kinabalu as ‘effective’ as possible, and cover interesting places you should visit during your stay. However this list is only for reference purposes and there are dozen more ways to explore this amazing city. 3 days 2 nights are simply not enough to discover this city.
3 days 2 nights in Kota Kinabalu, explained with a simple analogy. Ever heard the story about six blind men describing an elephant?
The first blind man who felt the elephant’s leg said that elephant is like a straight pillar. The second blind man said that elephant is like a rope, since he only got hold of the tail. Then, elephant is hard and sturdy, like branches on a tree, said the third blind man who touched the elephant’s tusks. So, the stories went on and on. Not entirely a lie, but also not even close to describing the truth.
Metaphorically, you cannot give a fair judgment, unless you’ve got all the information, ‘seen’ and experience every aspects of the whole picture.
Same goes with experiencing Sabah, which got lots and lots to offer. I’ve encountered some people who claimed that their vacation in Sabah was a total letdown. Some even said that Sabah delivered not even half of the fun and excitement promised.
All that I can say: perhaps you got stuck at the elephant’s rear end the whole time that you’re here, don’t you think?
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Kota Kinabalu Luxury Hotels Comparison Chart
Best Time to Visit Kota Kinabalu – How to Plan Your Holiday Well
Sabah could be your elephant painted in perfection. Time constraint is no excuse! For the very least you’ve got to experience:
- the highlands (the closest you can get to the mountain)
- the beaches
- the islands
- the humble city, Kota Kinabalu
Here, if you don’t mind considering, is a tried and tested itinerary, for the kind of travellers who got so little time, but indeed, so much to do!
DAY 1 – DESTINATION: KUNDASANG
Day of arrival, opt for morning flight, the earliest if possible. Mission for the day, is to go directly to the highlands – where the air is cold and the sceneries are green and the highest mountain’s peak in South East Asia stands proud.
It is highly advisable for you to pre-book hotel/hostel/ chalet, especially during peak periods like school holidays, public holidays or even weekends. Online reservation is no hassle at all.
A trip to Malaysia wouldn’t be complete without visiting the stunning mountain town of Kundasang. This quaint town with fascinating history and access to some of the best outdoor wonders that Borneo has to offer should definitely be on your itinerary. Here’s what every traveler needs to know about it:
What’s So Great about Kundasang?
It is a refreshingly cool destination in a notoriously sweltering part of the world. It is a small town situated at 2,000 meters above sea level. If you’ve been traveling through other parts of Borneo, this will be a welcome change.
The town itself used to be a village, but tourism has helped it grow into something more. Resorts now pepper the landscape, however the area still retains a very quiet, rural feel.
You’ll be delighted to find the surrounding areas covered in picturesque plantations and farms. The market in town offers famously fresh vegetables and fruits grown there.
However, the main reason that this town is so great is how close it is to Mount Kinabalu National Park. There is no closer town with easy access to the park, and the convenience offers a chance to visit the mountain in the early morning to enjoy fantastic views.
Here’s our favourite resort at Kundasang:
Pick accommodation closest to your places of interest, make a simple research so that the place where you stay is within the walking distance of interesting spots such as the National Park, Mesilau or the War Memorial.
My personal favorite is the Kinabalu Pine Resort, it’s affordable, comfortable (enough) and the view from your room, especially in the morning, is simply breathtaking!
Getting to Kundasang
From the airport, ask for taxi driver to send you directly to Ranau-bound bus station. If you got extra money to spend, charter a cab or a mini van. Even better, charter a car or a mini van and drive yourself there. The roads are fine, maybe a bit hilly but nothing that requires a compulsory 4 wheel-drive maneuvering.
If you’re driving, then you can stop by at some tourists attractions along the way, for instance you can go to the Upside Down House, in Tamparuli.
Another interesting stops would be the roadside stalls that can easily be spotted along the way, selling various stuffs from handicrafts to fresh vegetables and fruits.
Special Treat: Sinalau Bakas (only for non-muslims)
And, for the non-muslim travellers, there is this one particular type of stalls that could only be found on the hilly roadsides approaching Kundasang – they are the “Sinalau Bakas” stalls. Operated by the locals, the words ‘Sinalau Bakas’ are of Kadazan’s dialect, where ‘Sinalau’ means dry and ‘bakas’ means wild boar. In a nutshell, ‘Sinalau Bakas’ stalls are selling smoked wild boar. So, if exotic delicacy is your game, feel free to stop by.
The ride to Kundasang from Kota Kinabalu will only take more or less 2 hours, you’ll reach there by lunch time.
Once you settled down at Kundasang
Next, once you’re settled down at your accommodation of choice, you’re going to have two options.
Option 1: go round Kundasang (National Park, Mensilau, War Memorial, etc. ), or,
Option 2: Head to Poring hot spring in Ranau! It’s quite nearby, less than 30 minutes drive from the small town of Kundasang.
Again, it is easy if you’re driving your own rented vehicles, or you can simply ask the locals for transportation or consult with your accommodation provider.
Night 1 – Chill at Kundasang
There’re only a little to choose from if you want to have dinner in Kundasang. You can:
- opt for hotel/chalet/ inn that comes with food
- opt for hotel/chalet/inn that comes with barbecue facilities
- opt for hotel/ chalet/inn with a restaurant or bar that opens until late (some even comes with karaoke!)
- “tapau” (take away) some food earlier and enjoy them while lounging on your veranda or simply relax on your bed and watch whatever it is that’s on tv.
“Tapau” is a local word which literally means ‘wrapped’, or in this matter it means takeaway food.
One of the famous food to be ‘tapau’ here is the barbecue chicken wing, or for the more adventourous you can try the barbecue bishop nose and other selections of chicken’s internal organs – barbecue gizzard, heart or liver.
My personal favorite would be the barbecue chicken wings at Restoran Intan, in Kundasang town. Located slightly uphill, overseeing the new Kundasang’s road. It’s on the right side if you’re from Kota Kinabalu. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it, you can see the smokes clearly from miles away.
Kundasang don’t have much of a nightlife, use the chance to relax and unwind, tomorrow’s gonna be a long day!
DAY 2 – EXPLORE MOUNT KINABALU!
GET YOUR SUNNIES OUT!
Wake up early, compare to West Malaysia, our break of dawn is more or less, an hour ahead. By 6.00 am the day would probably be clear. Foggy, maybe, but clear none the less.
The majestic Mount Kinabalu look the best in the morning. For photography enthusiasts, a sight of Kundasang in a cold, fine morning is simply a great moment to be put in frames.
Since most check out time for accommodation places are between 11.00 am to 1.00pm, you still have enough amount of time go round Kundasang, to places you missed yesterday.
Return to Kota Kinabalu and check in hotel
Soon after, checked out and head straight to Jesselton Point in Kota Kinabalu. Formerly known as the Kota Kinabalu Ferry Terminal, Jesselton Point, located north of downtown Kota Kinabalu, offers a one stop facilities of water transportation hub, casual dining, leisure and retail activities.
To be safe, make sure you pre-book your hotel in Kota Kinabalu and get them informed that you’re going to check-in late. There are a lot of hotels, inns and hostels that you can choose from, depends on your budget and the number of company you’re traveling with. The closest to Jesselton Point, are the followings (all within walking distance).
For your info, my recommendations are merely distant-wise, solely based on my observation, as a local, as someone who drove by those streets almost every morning.
There are plenty of other options, the humble city of Kota Kinabalu is not that big – almost every hotels, hostels or inns are within a walking distance; if you have the feet for it.
From Jesselton Point, you can get your ticket to your islands of choice: Manukan island, Sapi island, Gaya island, or you can also opt for a round ticket to go islands hopping. And, another choice for you to consider, spending the night at one of the island itself.
Most of the time, people chose to stay on mainland because the island accommodations are relatively expensive. But, if the price is not your issue, check these islands paradise out:
If you stick to the original plan, and decided to stay in mainland Kota Kinabalu, head back before sunset. You can sit back, relax, order some coffee or fresh juices and enjoy the beautiful view of sunset at Jesselton Point.
Night 2 – ‘On Nom Nom’ at Seafood Restaurants in Kota Kinabalu
After a long day at the beach, check-in at your accommodation of choice and prep yourself for dinner.
Now, it is the perfect time to experience one of the thing that Sabah is most famous for: SEAFOOD! There’re plenty of places to eat seafood all around Kota Kinabalu for you to choose from.
You can choose the seafood place according to your budget, there’re high-ends seafood restaurants, mid-ranger and even open-air hawker stalls.
If you’re looking for seafood places in the city vicinity, try checking these out :
– Seri Selera Kampung Air
– Garden Seafood Restaurant
– Golden Seafood Restaurant
– Port View Seafood Village
– Kampung Nelayan Seafood Restaurant
For Lower Budgets
You can go for seafood dinner at the hawkers centre, next to the handicraft market, or most well-known as the Filipinos Market.
Here, most seafood are served in barbecue style. Do not expect fancy, restaurant menus here. But the seafood are fresh, none the less.
Another place you can try, if barbecue seafood is your thing, is Kedai Kopi Pak Man, which is located in Sinsuran. It’s just a small coffee shop and the seafood barbecue only available after 6.00pm.
Next to Kedai Kopi Pak Man is another restaurant that is also specializing in barbecue seafood, hence the name – ‘Stesen Ikan Bakar‘ , which literally translate “Grilled Fish Station”. For me, both restaurants offer simple seafood dishes, nothing fancy, not much challenge for your taste bud.
More “Hidden” Seafood Restaurants to Explore
So, if you’re planning to get there by the means of public transportation, forget it, seriously. Not even any articles for ‘best time to visit kota kinabalu’ will help you much.
What To Do After Seafood Meal?
After seafood, you can also check out the night markets all around the city centre. A few well-known one are the Sinsuran Night Market and Kampung Air Night Market.
The same precaution applies, as in most street fair all over the world, be extra careful with your own belongings. Beware of snatchers and pick pockets and please, keep close eyes (or even hand) on your children.
The night markets offer a lot of items at bargained price, such as souvenirs, jewelleries, clothing, shoes, handicrafts and so much more.
Hungry Again? Let’s Go Supper
For supper, go check out Tanjung Aru Beach to enjoy more food – fresh fruits and various local delicacies. Or if you’re still full from the heavy seafood dinner, a stroll by the beach will be perfect before you say good night, call it a day and have a nice rest.
Want to explore more food choices? Try Eatbah.com
DAY 3 – LAST MINUTE SHOPPING
Wake up early, have your breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and yes, there are plenty of nice places you can go for breakfast all over Kota Kinabalu.
From roti canai to fried noodle to nasi lemak to fish soup, you name it, Kota Kinabalu is never short of eateries to go.
The Hunt for Roti Kahwin
One of my personal favorite is called “Roti Kahwin”. Literally, ‘roti ‘kahwin’ means ‘married bread’, which is the indication of the choice of spreads put on the bread: the marriage of butter and ‘kaya’. ‘Kaya’ is a sweet and kind of creamy traditional bread spread that is made out of coconut and eggs.
I think that Sabahans are quite unanimous when it comes to their number one choice ‘roti kawin’; of course it’s Fook Yuen’s ‘roti kawin’! From its humble beginning as a small coffee shop located in Damai, Kota Kinabalu, Kedai Kopi Fook Yuen has now developed into a very well-known kopitiam chain, available in another three different locations, namely Asia City, Gaya Street and Karamunsing Capital.
There’s also another place in Kota Kinabalu with a to-die-for ‘roti kawin’. But, seriously, I can’t remember the name of that coffee shop! All I can say is that the coffee shop is located in Jalan Pantai, next to Gaya Street and opposite of Horizon Hotel. The same row as Pantai Inn, next to another coffee shop named ‘Kedai Kopi Koon Hin‘. If you up for some morning adventure, go and find it!
Time To Go Shopping!
Now that we’re done with breakfast, it’s time to shop!
First of all, if you’re planning for a last minute shopping on your day of departure, please opt for a much later flight home.
For souveniers like pearls and crystals jewellery, handicrafts, fridge magnet, key chains, the Filipinos Craft Market should be your first stop. It opens as early as 7.00am (or even earlier?) and it offers you varieties of souveniers that fits well with your budget, IF you know how to bargain it right.
Normally, the sellers will put a much, much higher price on the displayed price tag. Sometimes it’s up to three times the price that you can actually get it by. So, be smart and practice your charms.
Sabah’s Famous Dried Seafood
For Sabah’s famous dried seafood, such as dried shrimp, anchovies, clams and many more, the market famously known as ‘Pasar Ikan Masin’ is strategically located next to the craft market. And it also opens since early morning, and bargaining skills are also essentials.
If it happens to be Sunday, you can go to Gaya Street Baazar, starts as early as 6.00 am. Don’t get too carried away with the shopping, remember you have a flight to catch later in the day!
Landmarks Around Kota Kinabalu City
Done early with your shopping and your flight home is much later in the evening, grab the chance to go to the tourist attractions that are located in Kota Kinabalu vicinity.
For instance you can go check out the Atkinson Clock Tower, the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront, Signal Hill Observatory Platform, Sabah State Museum or if your flight is much later in the evening you can go to places such as Mari-Mari Cultural Village, Kiansom that is less than 30 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu city centre or Monsopiad Cultural Village, Penampang at about the same distance.
Excellent Time Management = Great Trip
It’s a proven fact, that with good time management, 3 days and 2 nights are enough to experience plenty of wonderful things that Sabah got to offer.
Yes, most of us want our vacation to be fun and spontaneous, but planning ahead won’t hurt either. Especially if you’re travelling with family or small kids, ‘control’ is the keyword to keep a family vacation an enjoyable one.
So, don’t get to stress out planning, just go with the flow, enjoy your holiday and keep a Plan B at hand!
How Long Should I Stay in Sabah?
Whenever I start planning for my holidays, I would always need to consider how long I can take leave from work (bills, bills, bills!) as one of the most important factors.
Start With a Basic Itinerary
Depending on the destination and how much you want to do, it is important to know how many days you are spending there so that you can draw up a basic itinerary to start with. Assuming we are all working people and are not on a Round The World trip, we’re probably stuck with an average of 3-4 days leave.
If you’re staying within South East Asia, it is possible to come for a very quick weekend trip to Sabah, you can call it an Express trip if you like. how long should I stay in Sabah? I have done this many times to domestic destinations within Malaysia and still enjoyed the vacation immensely, especially if it is to a place that you have not been to before.
Decide What You Want To Do and Which Places You’d Want To Go and See
A word of advice: I suggest that you dispose the notion that you have to go see everything in one short trip – that is simply not possible given the restriction on time and money as well.
Unless your main aim is to tick off places on your to-do list, of course. For me, apart from places to go it is also very, if not equally important, to try out the local food 🙂
An Express Weekend Trip Could Look Like This
Fly in on Friday afternoon and check-in at your accommodation in Kota Kinabalu city. Start your adventure by checking out the sunset at the Waterfront and the night market in front of Le Meridien hotel.
Check out the hawker food sold there, or you can walk further to the Waterfront or Anjung Senja for dinner options.
For your Saturday activity, if you wish to make a day trip outside of KK, here are some options which you can inquire in advance from local travel agents or get help from your hotel reception to arrange:
If you’re back early enough for dinner in the city, have a seafood dinner at the various restaurants in town or you may opt for local options like Bak Kut Teh, Tuaran Mee, or even any of our popular local eateries like Little Italy and the along Anjung Senja.
Reserve Sunday morning to visit Gaya Street Sunday Market or “Tamu”
This is where you will see local traders selling all sorts of products from vegetables and local kuehs, to pet dogs and fishes and antique items. To maximise your time in KK, you can start your day every early as the market starts as early as 6 am. Spend two hours here and by 9 am.
Then make your way to the Jesselton Point and get a boat ticket (or any suitable day package) for the islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. Spend your day snorkelling or just lazing away on the beach.
As a reference, this is a very simple itinerary which you can use as a guide:
– 5:00 pm – arrive Kota Kinabalu, check-in hotel.
– 7:30 pm – explore KK City, night market, Waterfront, Anjung Senja. Dinner.
– 9:30 pm – weather and transport permitting, get to Signal Hill Observatory Deck to get an aerial view of KK City at night.
– 7:30 am – early start, have breakfast at local kopitiam.
– 8:30 am – depart to day trip of choice (White water rafting, Kinabalu Park, Klias Wetlands etc)
– 6:00 pm – back in KK City. Rest.
– 7:00 pm – enjoy a Sabah seafood dinner at the many city restaurants.
– 9:30 pm – join the weekend clubbing crowd at the city’s watering holes, or
– 6:00 am – early start to explore Gaya Street Sunday Fair. Also check out Atkinson Clock Tower, Zero Kilometer Marker in front of Sabah Tourism office.
– 8:30 am – proceed to Jesselton Point for boat ride to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park islands.
– 9:00 am to 1:00 pm – island fun!
– 2:00 pm – back in KK City, rest.
– 3:00 pm – explore the local market for souvenirs and goodies to bring back.
– 5:00 pm – bid farewell to KK.
See how much you can experience already?
Hopefully (surely, I think!) enough to entice you for a return (and longer) trip to Sabah soon.
It really does depend on how much you want to do. I have had holidays solely for food discovery, not a gourmet trail, but to try out and enjoy as much local food as you can.
What if you have more than a week to spend in Sabah? Or, 2 weeks? (lucky you!)
If you wish to see Sabah’s main natural attractions 2 weeks would probably be a good length of stay, without having to rush your days or plans.
Upon arrival, spend 2 -3 days in KK, including a day trip to the islands, exploring the city on foot and sampling the local food in the city coffee-shops. Check out the recommended must-eats at 50 Food You Must Not Miss at Kota Kinabalu.
Climb Mount Kinabalu
If you’re feeling fit and have made preparations for climbing Mount Kinabalu, allocate 2-3 days, and squeeze in a quick trip to Poring Hot Springs to soak those aching limbs after the descent.
I have heard of some crazy travellers who decided to climb the mountain on a whim! Spontaneous can be fun, but do make sure that you’re physically fit and free from any medical conditions if you are thinking of doing something like this.
For the nature lovers
For nature lovers, Sandakan is a must-visit. You would probably need 5 days if you wish to see the orang-utans; Sepilok for the rehabilitation centre, and Sukau for orang-utans and proboscis monkeys in the wild. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see herds of the Bornean Pygmy elephants along the Kinabatangan River.
Just enjoy the laid-back pace in Sukau and spend your afternoons gazing and lazing away, while a tropical thunderstorm makes its way through (it ain’t no rainforest, if there ain’t no rain!)
Other places in Sandakan include Turtle Island, Gomantong Caves to see the bat exodus, War Memorial Park, and Berhala Island for rock-climbing. Oh and do enjoy the abundant seafood there!
There really is a lot that you can do in Sabah, what is shared here is by no means comprehensive. Choose places and activities that suit your preferences to maximise your enjoyment. Or if you want to wind down and not rush, do so by all means. The pace is up to you!
About the writer: Bitten by the travel-bug after leaving the corporate rat race, Audrey Adella harbours a dream to go on a long sabbatical and see the world. She loves Jason Mraz and admires Tony Bourdain, and would like to step foot in Istanbul and Marrakech one day soon. Updating her bucket list is her 8th favourite past time.