City Blueprint: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

published by Bren

Last updated: May 12, 2020

Kota Kinabalu is a peaceful city located on the Malaysian island of Borneo. Although not a particularly small city, it’s night and day compared to some of the bustling metropolises of Asia, like Bangkok or Singapore.

The streets are rarely crowded, even during meal times, and even the shopping malls can be ghost towns during the week. Spend more than a week here and you’ll probably have run out of things to do.

However, Kota Kinabalu is a fantastic place for one thing….eating!


Bed: Hostel dorms start at around $8 USD. A 3-4 star hotel can be found for around $40 USD.

Food: Eat comfortably for around $3 a meal.

Drink: A bottle of water will cost around 50 cents. A beer in a bar will be costing you around $3.

Transport: Taxi rides will be around 15-20 ringit ($5) for rides around town.

I stayed at…

Horizon Hotel – Luckily I went during low season and managed to get a great rate here. It’s usually around $100 a night. There’s a pool, an excellent gym, and it’s located around 5 minutes walk from the waterfront. Not to mention the room was like a penthouse! Jacuzzi, rain shower, enormous bed, remote control curtains…didn’t know what to do with myself. Excellent value.

I also spent a couple of nights at Oceania Hotel – the hotel is brand new and is great value; the only problem is it’s a little far from the action, and getting around KK isn’t the easiest thing. Luckily the hotel has a shuttle that goes into the centre each morning, which can make your life a whole lot easier. Rooms start around $45 a night.

In any case, try and stay somewhere near the waterfront. That’ll put you near the Centrepoint shopping complex as well as some nice bars and restaurants. Right beside the boardwalk is the seafood market – probably my favourite place in the city.

Try to avoid staying in any of the hotels in the Borneo 1 shopping centre. It’s a nice complex, but there ain’t nothing to do around there! If you think you’ll want to head there to shop, there’s a free bus from the waterfront several times a day.

One thing you should eat is…

Seafood from the market – Alongside the waterfront opposite Le Meridien hotel is the seafood market. You’ll be able to find all sorts of seafood, and once you make your choice they’ll kill in front of you – can’t get any fresher than that! It’s cheap, too.

Here’s dinner from the first night:

Lobster fresh from the ocean
Lobster fresh from the grill
Sambal prawns
Sambal prawns

I would’ve had no trouble eating here for every meal. Very cheap and so much good stuff to try! Maybe not quite as delicious as foodie capital Penang, but it’s close!

One thing you should drink is…

I picked up this snazzy drink somewhere in the city. I have no idea where, I’m pretty sure it was in Centrepoint mall somewhere (helpful, I know). I guess you’ll have to go on a treasure hunt if you wana try it. It’s a 3 citrus soda. Super refreshing in the KK heat.

3 citrus soda

One place you should go to is…

Tanjung Aru Beach – This place puzzled me a little bit. It’s a long stretch of beach backed by a whole lot of food stalls and few bars. I went around 2pm on a weekday. The beach isn’t mindblowing but it’s definitely nice. The weird thing was, there was not a single person on it. I couldn’t figure out why. I was too scared to walk onto the sand for the first 20 minutes or so because I thought it might be sacred or something; turns out it was just that nobody was there. I had the whole place to myself!

Not a single person on it...
Not a single person on it…
My own private beach!
My own private beach!

Also consider heading out to the islands for the day (last ferry leaves at 2!) or making the trip out to see Mt Kinabalu – two things I didn’t get around to doing.

One place you should party at is…

Well, in honesty, I can’t tell you where because I never made it out. I did head to the Couchsurfing meet on Friday night where I met some cool people. However the consensus amongst the guys there was that nightlife in KK is rather lacklustre.

Anyway, that doesn’t matter, because the best place to enjoy a beer would be along the boardwalk at the KK waterfront. Get there early, order a few cold ones and sit back and enjoy what might be the most amazing sunset you have ever seen.

kk sunset

The truth is the photo doesn’t even do it justice. What’s more, the sunset looks like this every single day of the week. A little slice of heaven to end your day.

Bren’s Scorecard…

Ease of entry 7/10
You can fly direct to here from quite a few places in Asia for extremely cheap. Malaysia airports are awesome too, you don’t need to fill out those stupid entry forms.

Food 8/10
So much to try and so cheap!

Weather 4/10
Some days are excruciatingly hot, but there’s some pleasant days too.

Safety 9/10
Can’t imagine too much riff raff going on around here. If I stayed here longer I’m sure I’d be confident to give it a 10.

Transport 5/10
Taxis aren’t too expensive, around 15 ringit for a drive within the town. The problem is they don’t have meters (or at least don’t use them). Hard to know if you’re paying a fair price.

Friendliness 8/10
All smiles around here. Taxi driver was so taken aback when I offered him a tip, I like that.

Cleanliness 8/10
Probably a little cleaner than your typical city in the region.

Daylife 4/10
There’s a few things to do, but I think after you’ve spent a week there you’ll have nothing to do except eat.

Nightlife 3/10
There are some places, but the expat crowd couldn’t really recommend anywhere in particular. Waterfront is good for a relaxing beer.

Affordability 7/10
It’s cheap, but not super cheap (at least not by Asian standards).

Kota Kinabalu scores: 63/100

I do my best to give an objective score based on my own experience of the city. If you disagree, I don’t care! Just kidding, I do 🙂 Did your experience differ to mine? Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. Hi Bren, most of your thoughts on KK I agree with, safety, affordability Etc, but you ran out of things to do? I was here 4 years before COVID and now back only for 3months visa, to see what I missed! Did you explore? Go in jungle? Up the mountain? See the Rafflesia? Diving? Ok, all extra expense if couch surfing but still cheap, rent a moto to get around.
    I rented my UK house to do this, ok I've plenty of time being retired but I think you could have had a ball here if you'd spent more time here and just ask locals where to go. Ok rant over.

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