The capital of Sabah, Borneo's northernmost state, Kota Kinabalu is wedged between a tropical rainforest and the South China Sea. Many explorers use it as a launching point to venture off and see the surrounding jungle and marine life. Mt. Kinabalu challenges climbers daily, and top diving spots reel in underwater adventurers. The city is made up of a dense grid of concrete buildings built over reclaimed land along the coast. Several waterfront seafood restaurants and a diverse mix of hotels appeal to the travelers passing through, mostly off to explore the region.
Serving a mix of Western and local fare, El Centro attracts a range of tourists and expats with open-mic sessions, quiz nights, and arts events. The open storefront allows for those cocktail-in-hand minglers to spill out onto the street, while diners can take a seat at one of the tables made from repurposed driftwood, under lights made from old jars. The menu includes everything from tacos and Caesar salad to fried mee hoon and laksa. Katie, the owner, is sharing recipes she has picked up throughout her travels. As a former tour guide, she's a great asset to those looking for advice about travels around Borneo.
Brass Monkey Café & Bar
About 10 minutes' drive outside the city center, this is hands-down the best steak house in KK, but it's Raja Sagaran, the owner, who probably deserves credit for people coming back. He's around almost every night, often mingling with diners. The beef and lamb is flown in from Australia and New Zealand, and the portions are generous, so order light. The inside of the restaurant is filled with bric-a-brac and monkey paraphernalia—there are even masks on hand if you cannot resist the photo opportunity. Weekend visitors should make a reservation, as this place fills up fast.
Kak Nong Restaurant
Always bustling, this kopitiam—a traditional-style coffee shop found through much of Southeast Asia—is one of the most widely regarded in the region. While often times the service can be lacking, the quality of the budget bites makes up for it. It serves arguably the best fish soto nyonya (noodle soup) in town, and the fried kuey teow (flat rice noodles) are also worth a try.
Yu Kee Bak Kut Teh
Located along Gaya Street, this scruffy stall serves what is argued by many to be the best bowl of bak kut teh. Literally translated as "pork bone tea," this Chinese dish is a staple through much of Malaysia. The soup, filled with meaty pork ribs and a long list of herbs and spices, is served with rice and strips of fried dough. For those interested in tasting more than just ribs, the pork liver, pork belly, and various other intestines are available as well. Plastic tables are set up on the street outside and all of the offerings go down well with a large bottle of Tiger beer.
Ocean Seafood Village
This Chinese seafood restaurant displays dozens of giant tanks overflowing with live tiger prawns, lobsters, mud crabs, clams, and countless other types of fish. All diners are given the opportunity to play God, with the option to select your own catch of the day and let the chef know how you would like it prepared—the Sabah special is always a good choice. With high ceilings painted in bright red and large round tables covered with white tablecloths, the restaurant can seat up to 400 people.
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Named in honor of the nation's first prime minister, this marine park is a cluster of five islands. Visit the Jesselton Point jetty and hire a speedboat to take you on a 20-minute ride to the island of your choice. Pulau Sapi is a popular pick for snorkelers and offers 5 km (3 miles) of nature trails through the interior of the island for hikers, and Pulau Manukan has always been a favorite, being the most developed and offering various recreational facilities. Can't decide on just one? Negotiate a price for an island-hopping itinerary.
North Borneo Railway
Originally constructed in 1886 to transport tobacco to the coast for shipping, North Borneo Railway was restored in recent years to offer travelers a chance to board an old steam train and ride through the coastal towns, rice fields, and rain forests that lead from Kota Kinabalu to the agricultural town of Papar. Two journeys take place per week (Wednesday and Saturday) year-round and last for about four hours. Breakfast and a typical "tiffin" colonial lunch is included in the ticket price and served onboard. Booking is required at least a day before departure.
Right by Le Meridien hotel, KK's Filipino Market—formally known as Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Centre—is a maze of stalls, selling a range of crafts and souvenirs from around the region. Look out for traditional woven baskets, dry-food goods, and cultured pearls. Follow your nose and you'll be led to fish and prawns being grilled slowly over little gas stoves and numerous other vendors preparing scrumptious snacks. Evening is the best time to visit.
Designed to resemble one of the traditional tribal long houses, this modern four-story museum houses an assortment of relics that tell the story of Sabah's history. Ceramics include bowls and jars that date back to China's Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), and among the artifacts you'll find weapons, musical instruments, and various household items that have been used over the years. Visit the natural history section to learn about animals, birds, and insects that are local to the region, and stop by the museum shop for handicrafts and souvenirs.
The biggest tourist attraction in Sabah is less than a two-hour drive from KK. Mt. Kinabalu is Malaysia's first World Heritage site and—at 4,095 meters (13,435 feet)—it's the highest peak in Southeast Asia. It's a must-visit for botanists, bird-watchers, and nature lovers. While all climbers need to be in tip-top shape before undergoing the challenge, it is regarded as one of the easier mountains of its height in the world to conquer. Keep an eye out for 800 species of orchids and 600 species of ferns, as well as a glimpse of Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. Those not feeling up for the climb can scour around Kinabalu National Park. While the wildlife is not quite as varied as what you will find at the top, there are still more than 4,000 species of flora and fauna to explore. Surrounding hot springs and treetop walks are also worth experiencing.