Many people head to Kota Kinabalu with kids, drawn to its white sandy beaches and tropical weather. But the majority of these families never leave the confines of their luxury Kota Kinabalu hotel, completely missing out on all the fun things to do in Kota Kinabalu for kids.
During our Borneo family holiday in Malaysia, we spent a lot of time exploring the region and found plenty of family friendly Kota Kinabalu attractions, from island hopping around the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, visiting the Mari Mari Cultural Village, river cruising in search of proboscis monkeys and braving the canopy walkways of Kinabalu Park.
If you are wondering what to do in Kota Kinabalu, then here is our pick of the best Kota Kinabalu things to do with kids:
Island Hopping in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is one of the most popular Kota Kinabalu tourist spots to go island hopping. This daytrip from Kota Kinabalu is a good choice for snorkeling in crystal clear waters, partaking in some water sports, or just kicking back on some of the best beaches in Borneo.
The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is just a 15-minute speedboat trip ride from Kota Kinabalu, making this an easy day trip from your hotel. During our day trip, we visited both Manukan Island and Sapi Island and had the opportunity to go snorkeling, play on the beach, explore the jungle and even go parasailing. Fun!
Mari Mari Cultural Village
The Mari Mari Cultural Village is one of the most interesting places to visit in Sabah. Set in the countryside outside Kota Kinabalu, the Mari Mari Cultural Village is set up as a living museum, designed to give an insight into the history, culture and traditions of Borneo life.
We expected it to be a little cheesy, but in fact the Mari Mari Cultural Village turned out to be one of the most fun Kota Kinabalu tourist attractions for the kids. During our visit we explored the traditional houses of the five main Borneo tribes, and learned a little of their daily lives along the way.
We learned how to make (and drink!) rice wine, learned some traditional cooking techniques, how to start a fire using just bamboo, how to make clothes from tree bark, and got to sample some local snacks.
Kota Kinabalu has some of the most spectacular sunsets I have experienced anywhere in the world, and we were lucky to take to the seas for a sunset cruise while we were there, and witness it in all its golden, orange and red glory.
We set off at around 5pm from Sutera Harbour, then headed off towards Gaya Island to watch the sun sink into the ocean, before taking in the sights of Kota Kinabalu lively waterfront area at night, before returning to berth.
The kids loved waving at all the local kids jumping off the jetties we passed along the way, and having a turn to ‘drive’ the boat – while I enjoyed a cold beer as the glowing oranges and reds took over the sky. Perfect.
A River Cruise in Search of Proboscis Monkeys
One of the best things to do in Borneo is seek out the wildlife, and another highlight of our trip to Borneo with kids was a river cruise along the Kawa Kawa river. Also known as the ‘Little Kinabatangan’, we cruised along this river in search of proboscis monkeys and fireflies.
Our adventure began with us boarding a small motorboat at the Kawa Kawa jetty and heading up the river. We were lucky to see several families of Borneo’s big-nosed monkeys playing in the trees, and also got to witness a spectacular sunset along the way.
After a traditional Malay dinner, we embarked on our second mission – to spot fireflies by night along the river. With clever use of a flashlight and a leaf, our boat guide enticed a few of the fireflies to leave their bush and fly into our boat – even landing on our hands, faces and life jackets – much to the delight of our kids who spoke about this for weeks! Definitely one of the best Kota Kinabalu activities for kids.
Walking the Canopy Walkways of Kinabalu Park
Mount Kinabalu is one of the most famous places to visit in Kota Kinabalu, and at 4,096m in height, it is Malaysia’s tallest mountain. Climbing Mount Kinabalu is one of most popular things to do in Sabah, but for us – with a 3 year old and 5 year old in tow – this wasn’t really an option.
Instead we opted to explore Kinabalu Park – the 754 square kilometer park that surrounds Mount Kinabalu. Named as Malaysia’ first World UNESCO Heritage site, Kinabalu Park is home to more than 5,000 plant species and 90 lowland mammal species.
At this Kota Kinabalu national park, we trekked along some of the jungle paths and visited the Botanical Gardens. But for us the highlight was in the nearby Poring Hot Springs national park – the Canopy Walkway – the highest canopy walkway in Sabah at over 40 metres high – roughly the height of an 8-storey building. Not for the feint hearted – although my kids happily skipped across it without a care in the world!
The Best Time to Visit Kota Kinabalu
Borneo’s tropical climate means that the Kota Kinabalu weather is hot and humid all year round. Although Kota Kinabalu does experience and wet season and dry season, you should be prepared for heavy downpours at any time of year.
The Sabah dry season runs roughly from December to March, making this a good time to visit Kota Kinabalu. May to September also experiences less rainfall and is peak season in Kota Kinabalu. You can expect it to be more crowded and hotel prices higher at this time of year.
Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu
There is a good choice of family friendly Kota Kinabalu resorts. We stayed at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa. This Kota Kinabalu beach resort is ideal for families, with loads of great family friendly facilities, including a choice of swimming pools, water slides, a fabulous kids club, good choice of restaurants and a fun activities centre for older kids.
It is also set on an enormous stretch of beach and boasts some of the best sunsets I have ever seen from its gorgeous beach bar. This was definitely the best resort in Kota Kinabalu for us. Click here to read our full review of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria.
Other Family Hotels in Kota Kinabalu
Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa
The other Kota Kinabalu Shangri-La hotel is every bit as family-friendly as the Rasa Ria. This family hotel near Kota Kinabalu airport has a large swimming pool and kids pool, and a great fun water play area, including water slides that kids of all ages will love.
A small sandy beach, kids club, tennis courts, and pitch & putt, in addition to a good choice of family restaurants all make this many families’ choices as the best hotel in Kota Kinabalu.
Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu
This 5 star hotel near Kota Kinabalu town centre enjoys and enviable position on the Kota Kinabalu waterfront, close to a selection of restaurants, shopping malls and the renowned night markets. It has a lovely outdoor pool and a good choice of restaurants. This is a great choice for your Kota Kinabalu trip if you are looking for a hotel in Kota Kinabalu town area. It is also in a good location for day trips to the islands.
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