Kota Kinabalu – markets, museums and a marine park

Kota Kinabalu (KK) is the capital of Sabah, the northern Malaysian state in Borneo. The city is on the coast of the south China sea and surrounded by rainforest, making the air nice to breathe (what a difference after Kuala Lumpur!). The city has developed a lot in recent years – a few shopping malls have sprung up, but there are no high rise buildings to spoil the nature around the city. Locals are really friendly and loved Mum practising her Malay with them!

Two to three days is enough to see most sights in KK, including a trip to the nearby marine park, which I’d really recommend.

Getting there and around

KK is an easy place to get to by air from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I flew from Kuala Lumpur for around £40 for a one way flight including baggage with Air Asia. The flight took around 2 hours. KK airport is really close to the city and using Grab Taxi to get to the centre was cheap and quick.

There didn’t seem to be much public transport in KK, but Grab Taxis were cheap and the city centre is walkable.


Because there were four of us, I booked an Airbnb apartment above the Imago Shopping Mall which worked out at about £10 each a night. The apartment was modern, had cooking facilities and access to a gym, not one, but two swimming pools and an acre of gardens and play areas – all on top of the shopping centre! The views from the gardens looking over the sea were fantastic. Having access to the pools was great after a sweaty day exploring the sights.

Our apartment was on the top of this shopping centre.

Things to do

Sabah Museum

The Sabah Museum is huge! It contains a main museum, a Heritage Village, an Ethno-botanical Garden and an Islamic Museum. Entrance is £3/RM15. Although the museum looks a little run down and the maps/signs aren’t consistent, it’s a really great place to spend a couple of hours learning about Sabah’s heritage and history. I particularly liked the different styles of houses in the Heritage Village and the textiles and costumes in the main museum. We got a Grab Taxi to/from the museum.

Traditional house on a lily pond.
Dad, Mum & Ste in the gardens.
Traditional Sabah textiles.

Snorkelling/diving in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP) with Scuba Junkie

TARP has been a protected marine park for over fourty years and offers excellent snorkelling and diving around its five islands, which are very near the KK coast. We chose to do a day trip to the marine park with Scuba Junkie – a reputable dive centre that operates in KK and other parts of Sabah. Mum & I snorkelled for the day, whilst Ste & Dad did two dives and one snorkel with us. Our day trip was well priced and included transport, an excellent dive master and a snorkel guide, lunch and all equipment. Prices vary depending on the number of dives etc, but we thought it was very reasonable.

For the divers, the visibility wasn’t outstanding, but they saw a lot and were happy. Snorkelling wise, the coral at one of our snorkel sites was damaged, but in the other two sites it was healthy. We saw a huge variety of fish, starfish, corals and the highlight – a huge hornbill turtle that swam past us.

It’s possible to visit TARP by yourself, but if you want to dive/snorkel, going with a trip is cheaper. Even if only snorkelling, I’d always recommend to go with a reputable dive school because even though they can be slightly more expensive, they are conscious about protecting marine life. The PADI website is good for listing reputable schools.

On the boat after a day in the sea.

Mari Mari Culutral Museum

I didn’t actually visit this (because I had to see an ENT specialist about my ears – I recommend the Gleneagles Hospital for any medical problems), but my parents did and really enjoyed it. The Mari Mari Cultural Museum, located outside of KK, is an interactive museum/village that aims to preserve Sabah’s main ethnic cultures and traditions. A half day visit was around £35, and they experienced the tribes’ different ways of life, traditional ceremonies, dances, eat local food and try their hand at using blowpipes and jumping on bamboo trampolines! My mum said “it was obviously a ‘touristy’ experience, but it is what you make it. If you show genuine interest and talk to the friendly guides you gain much more. It’s a good way of keeping cultures alive and relevant.” The price includes transport, lunch/dinner and supports the enthusiastic locals preserving their ancient culture. If I go back, it’s something I definitely want to visit.

Dad trying out a blowpipe.


There are a view day and night markets along the coast, selling clothing, gifts and food. We bought some fruit and Mum got some flip flops for a very reasonable price. There’s loads of street food too, but we didn’t try any.


Because we had an apartment, we cooked our own breakfasts which saved money. We ate out at a few places in KK for dinner.

  • Vege Garden – located on Jalan Tun Faud Stephen, this tiny place served delicious vegan food. The owner has been vegan for 30 years and will cook customers a variety of vegetable dishes. Between four of us, we had five, tasty dishes, plus rice and a drink for a few quid each. The tables outside of the restaurant get a good view of the sunsets too.
Dinner at Vege Garden.
  • Beyond Veggie – this purely vegetarian restaurant is in the basement of the Imago Shopping Centre. The salads and juices are particularly tasty.
  • Army Navy Burger + Burrito – located on the edge of Imago Shopping Centre, this place isn’t purely veggie, but does have options. The night we arrived it was quite late and restaurants had closed, but we got a burrito to go. It wasn’t the cheapest food, but it was tasty.

Next stop: Kinabalu National Park.

One thought on “Kota Kinabalu – markets, museums and a marine park

  1. Pingback: Sandakan – a charming, quiet city on Sabah’s east coat – Adventures of Ailsa

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