How to Enjoy Kota Kinabalu Without Visiting Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia

Whenever you heard the word Kinabalu, I suppose you'd be more familiar to the highest peak of Borneo: Mount Kinabalu. It is one of the world heritage sites which some consider a must-visit place when in Borneo. In fact, it was also one of the places that I wanted to go to long before I planned my trip to Borneo. So, what if you decide to enjoy Kota Kinabalu without visiting Mount Kinabalu?

There are some considerations why I decided not to include Mount Kinabalu on my visit to Kota Kinabalu this time. Sabah is quite famous for Malaysian people as an alternative to Bali in Indonesia for a honeymoon or holiday destination. There are many activities you can do in Kota Kinabalu, from island hopping to shopping.

However, I decided to skip Mount Kinabalu for an absolutely legit reason: the day trip to the mountain from Kota Kinabalu is quite expensive. 

Visiting Kota Kinabalu Without Stopping by Mount Kinabalu

Some of you might probably think about skipping Mount Kinabalu for some reason. But maybe, maybe you'd also wonder whether Sabah would be still enjoyable if you ended up not going to some recommended places you've read on the internet.

To be fair, apart from Mount Kinabalu, there are some other places in Sabah that seem to be worth visiting. I met Sentiya, an Indonesian citizen who has been living in Kota Kinabalu, and she told me that Malaysian people see Sabah like Indonesian see Bali. A place to have a wonderful vacation, and for good reasons.

The city of Kota Kinabalu itself is surrounded by several small islands. One of them is Manukan Island, the island that is a part of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park.

A view from Sabah State Administrative Center.

And not just that… There are several must-visit places in the other parts of Sabah. To name a view, there's Sepilok in Sandakan where you can see orangutans in their natural habitat. Or Sipadan National Park. If you're more interested to get to know the cultural aspect of the society in your travel, you can also head over to Mari Mari Cultural Village.

But what if your time or your money don't allow you to visit all these places?! Is Kota Kinabalu still worth visiting when skipping the entire Mount Kinabalu at once?

Some snapshot of Kota Kinabalu that I've taken.

Why I Skipped All the Main Tourist Destinations in Sabah

When I tried to plan out the itinerary for my Borneo trip, I noticed one thing. That would be the fact that it seems everything, every tour packages in Sabah is more expensive than those in Sarawak. I couldn't tell you personally the reasons behind the system of pricing thing.

But then again, when you travel on a budget as I did, you'd choose the cheaper alternative of similar things. And not just that, because when I told Suzie that Sandakan and other places in Sabah sound interesting to visit, she had gone wild. πŸ˜›

For example, she started sending me links of the news about how some militant groups from the Philippines came to all those islands kidnapping tourists in order to get some ransom out of it. She also mentioned that some countries even issued a travel warning for their citizens to prevent them from visiting. Frankly speaking, I was also a bit worried.

The good thing is that I could get to see an orangutan still, only instead of in Sepilok, I've seen one teenage orangutan called Gaya at Semenggoh in Sarawak. And since I'm not so big at mountain climbing, I could definitely skip Mount Kinabalu without thinking twice.

And not just that, because it seems Kota Kinabalu has a few alternatives for one day trip from the city itself.

One you can't miss while in Borneo: the sky.

A Day in Kota Kinabalu

It was quite tough to find an article about traveling around Kota Kinabalu that didn't include Mount Kinabalu in their suggestion. And to be frank, I'd totally understand why.

Kota Kinabalu is a nice, big city that will be suitable for all those city dwellers. If you're one of them, one or two days in Kota Kinabalu would be enough to get around the city. As for me, I spent my first day going to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, so I basically only had one day to explore some other things that the city could offer.

I might have missed some other recommended places in the city, but there come a few places that I've visited in Kota Kinabalu.

1. Signal Hills Observatory Platform

Kota Kinabalu picture, taken from Signal Hill.
The random dog that accidentally became my hiking buddy at Signal Hill.

You know that meme about one person who would tell you how we could walk from one place to another even though it's 4,000++ km?! Well, that person is me! πŸ˜›

Same thing when I mentioned Signal Hills. So, I walked from my hotel to Signal Hills since it's cheaper and of course since I rarely do any exercise, I could really get some walk.

The Signal Hills Observatory Platform is claimed as one of the most scenic spots in the city, located around 20 minutes walking from Padang Merdeka. It is also believed that the observatory is the highest location in Kota Kinabalu.

While the view wasn't that bad, if you asked my real opinion about the spot then here's my two cents… I think it's overrated. In fact, it's so overrated that it was almost disappointing, to the point that it made me question whether it's worth the 40-minute walk from the hotel.

The only good part about going to this Signal Hill is the fact that some cutie dog randomly approached me and legit accompanied me for the hike.

Also, there was a cafe around the hill where you could stop by and take some decent pics of Kota Kinabalu from above. Since I walked from the hotel, and I felt tired once I got there, I had some snacks there before continuing my journey to the next destination.

2. Atkinson Clock Tower

Atkinson Clock Tower with the flags of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah State, and Malaysia.

There are several cities in the world with clock towers as one of their landmarks. To name a few, there's Big Ben in London, or Konak Saat Kulesi in Izmir. And for exactly the same reason, I tried to visit its signature clock tower whenever I get a chance to visit a city that has one.

I've been to the one in Izmir, as well as the one in Mecca… And of course, I wouldn't miss this Atkinson Clock Tower! πŸ™‚

The clock tower is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu, and it is located not so far from Signal Hill. Only around 5-minute walk and you'd get to see the clock tower.

Originally known as the Atkinson Memorial Clock Tower, it was initially built in the memory of the then-Jesselton's first district officer who died of malaria in 1902, Francis George Atkinson. After his departure, his mother presented a two-faced clock to the city as a tribute to the memory of her son. This clock later became the symbol of the city as it was built in his honor.

Speaking of Atkinson, nowadays there's also another Atkinson that is currently based in Borneo. Could you guess who?! πŸ˜‰

3. Sabah Museum

Sabah State Museum, Kota Kinabalu.
A statue that explains the unification of Sabah to Malaysia.

From Atkinson Clock Tower, I took Grab to Sabah Museum. I took around 20-minute driving, depends on the traffic.

It is located inside Sabah Museum Complex, with the entry ticket costs only 2 MYR (around $0.5 USD) for local Malaysians and 15 MYR (around $3.6 USD) for foreigners.

Some anecdote that happened when I went there for a visit is that once I reached the ticket box, the ticketing staff directly told me to pay 2 MYR as she judged me by my face. That, until I said ‘sebentar' as I had to get my money from my purse.

Basically, the ‘sebentar' gave it away that the staff then asked me what nationality I was. Obviously, at that point, it was almost impossible to lie for the sake of cheaper price since they might ask for my identity card, so I told her that I'm Indonesian.

To give you a context in case you don't understand, Indonesian and Malaysian language are quite similar. We understand each other most of the time, except for some words that could have a totally different meaning.

With a legit poker face, the staff asked me 15 MYR so I was like… Oh, kay. 😐

The Main Building of Sabah Museum

The exhibition in the animal section.

As I got the entry ticket, it turns out that the ticket is also eligible to use for Sandakan Heritage Museum within 3 days. Well, with the price, it is indeed valuable to the point that I felt sorry for myself that I didn't get a chance to make another use of it since I wasn't going to Sandakan.

There are several buildings in the museum complex, and whether all the sections are worth seeing will definitely depend on your perspective as well as your personal interest.

The main building exhibits Sabah's natural history, ceramics, archaeology and even their ethnic and pre-independent history. Not just that, as they also exhibit the recent pop culture arose in the state of Sabah as well.

Some Other Exhibitions at Sabah Museum

The classic cars with Sabah plate. Some of them were once used by some notable personas in the state.

Lack of research done about Kota Kinabalu led me to skip Sabah State Mosque, even though I also skipped the Sabah Islamic Civilization Museum as I had the appointment to meet Sentiya, my Indonesian friend, later that day.

However, if there's anything I really wish I did in Kota Kinabalu, I suppose that would be to take a ride on the North Borneo Railway to relive the nostalgic romance of British North Borneo.

I might skip the experience this time, but I wasn't really disappointed as I could get in the miniature of the train in the locomotive displayed around the smaller building in Sabah Museum.

It's quite nice to read through the history, however all information is displayed manually. And even when I could see some museum staff around, they seem to get too busy doing something else.

The locomotive of the train.

The Heritage Village

Village Heritage at Sabah Museum.

Still around the same complex, you can also check out the heritage village where you could see the miniature of some ethnic houses in Sabah. There's even some miniature of the longhouse where you could enter.

Be mind to take off your shoes/sandals when you decide to enter these ethnic houses. FYI, there are some houses that work pretty much like the souvenir shops where you could buy stuff.

While it is not the kind of place where I would buy souvenirs since it's too pricey, but it could be your alternative if you think about giving some souvenirs for your beloved ones at home.

To be honest, the museum complex itself is so big that I felt like it was quite tiring to stroll around the whole museum. That's the other reason why I decided to skip going to the Islamic Civilization Museum as well as the Sabah State Mosque.

Some ethnic houses at the Heritage Village.

I think people would find Sabah Museum either interesting or boring. It really depends on the perspective. I personally find the latter, because it's so big and without a tour guide, the museum seems to be not attractive enough. However, I didn't regret the time I spent there either.

4. Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

Don't mistake it with Sabah State Mosque, as apparently, they are two different things. HAHA. Sabah State Mosque is the one located around Sabah Museum Complex. It's not so far from the Sabah Islamic Civilization Museum that I skipped. 

I've been to Kota Kinabalu City Mosque with Sentiya, my Indonesian friend who's basically a local there since she was born and raised in the city. Even though I skipped the Sabah State Mosque, she ensured me that the city mosque was worth visiting more than the state mosque for some reason.

From Sabah Museum Complex, the city mosque is quite far. I suppose it takes around 30-minute drive. But you could always rely on Grab if you want to get around the city.

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque.

If you're a Muslim, you're free to enter. If you're not a Muslim and identified yourself as a tourist, I think you should pay around 5 MYR to enter the mosque. Some people chose not to enter the mosque, and instead only have some selfie in front of the building.

5. Sabah State Administrative Center

Me and Sentiya.

This one is probably the hidden gem in Kota Kinabalu, as I suppose I wouldn't have known if only I wasn't going around the city with Sentiya.

So, yes… It is actually an office building. It's pretty much obvious from the name itself: Sabah State Administrative Center. It is a government office complex building that is located around a 10-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu City Mosque. 

Currently, the office tower is claimed as the tallest building in Borneo, taking over the record from Wisma Sanyan in Sibu, Sarawak.

But, it is not the building that makes it worth visiting. Yes, even though rumor has it that the shape of the Sabah State Administrative Center complex from above is similar to an eye.

While it is interesting to know, since I don't have a high-tech drone to prove it for myself and I can't even get to the peak of the building to see how high it could, it doesn't really bother me.


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What makes me recommend this spot, in particular, is the fact that it's actually a nice place to see the sunset in Kota Kinabalu.

According to Sentiya, not so many people know except for the locals. Especially since it's still free parking to enter the complex itself.

And not just for the sunset, since if you're into people-watching, it's quite a nice place to just sit and see people. During the sunset, some workers just finish their job. You could see some of them leaving the building. Some turned out to take the boat to get back home as well. It's a pleasant thing to watch. 

Sunset snapshot, taken from Sabah State Administrative Center complex.

So, Is Kota Kinabalu Still Worth Visiting Without the Hype of the Mount?

While some of the must-visit places in the city are quite overrated, I think Kota Kinabalu is a nice place to visit for a day or two. It's even a better version of Miri, like at least I wouldn't mind to transit here for a couple of days.

Even when you get bored by the big city life, you could always hop on the boat and go to the nearest island from Jesselton Point.

So, have you been to Kota Kinabalu? Are you considering to visit the city next time? Let me know what you think, and whether you have some other places that you would recommend in the city… Cheerio! πŸ™‚

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14 thoughts on “How to Enjoy Kota Kinabalu Without Visiting Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia”

  1. I actually haven’t heard about either, so it was interesting learning from you through this post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hello Marya,

    I enjoyed reading about your trip to Kuta Kinabalu and about the Sabah thing it made me laugh about the kidnapping thoughts. Why? Because in the Philippines we always heard that Malaysian or Indonesian will crossed the China Sea and kidnapped tourists and bring it to Sabah Malaysia or in Indonesian side but mostly I’ve listened to the Malaysian side. This talk takes one of the reasons that we must seek advice and research before heading to a destination. I’m glad you had fun on your trip, and I couldn’t wait to venture more Asian countries in the future.

    1. hahaha. yes, that actually makes sense the fact that in the philippines you’d hear the other around. i suppose that’s why media these days are so biased that we’re not sure which part is true to begin with. but well, it’s more political really. china sea itself has never been the most friendly area in our region. hahaha. but once you’ve visited the area, you understand why all those governments fight over it. it’s such a beautiful and strategic ocean! πŸ˜€

  3. Many Malaysians on the Peninsula have never been to KK, which is a shame. I didn’t get to spend much time there because I was on a work trip, but I plan on going back soon. Thanks for your handy guide Marya!

    PS: The next time you go to local museums you should say “Kejap ye” (short for sekejap) because I think it’s more commonly used than Sebentar, which is more formal – I think that gives it away πŸ˜›
    * When I bring my bf around I always buy the tickets because he looks Malay (he’s Filipino) so we get local prices, haha!

    1. yesss, i honestly know about this ‘sekejap’ part, yet it was just my indonesian spontaneity to say ‘sebentar’. such a big mistake, i basically gave it away that i’m definitely not a malaysian. definitely learned it the hard way. hahaha. πŸ˜€

      and i’m totally with you on that, i also did that kind of things whenever i got my other SEA friends visiting. like, let me settle with all the ticketing and don’t speak at all so that they don’t have to pay for the international tourist fee. especially here in indonesia, for major tourist destinations, the ticket fee could be 10 times more expensive than the local ones. so pricey! πŸ™

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