While first impressions of KOTA KINABALU, which everyone calls KK, may be of a rather utilitarian concrete sprawl, many visitors end up charmed by its lively buzz and the friendliness of its citizens. As well as good places to eat, it also has excellent transport links and is the headquarters of most of the main tour operators.

The best of the city’s few specific sights are its markets, the Sabah Museum and the Mari Mari Cultural Village. A further highlight lies offshore in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, whose popular islands are just a short trip away by boat.

Brief history

Modern-day KK can trace its history back to 1882, when the British North Borneo Chartered Company established an outpost on nearby Pulau Gaya. After followers of the Bajau rebel, Mat Salleh, burned that down in 1897, the Company chose a mainland site – a fishing village called Api-Api – to develop as a new town. Renamed Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, the vice-chairman of the Chartered Company, the town prospered. By 1905 the Trans-Borneo Railway reached from Jesselton to Beaufort, allowing rubber to be transported efficiently from the interior to the coast.

The Japanese invasion of North Borneo in 1942 marked the start of three and a half years of military occupation; little of old Jesselton survived the resultant Allied bombing. In 1968 the name was changed to Kota Kinabalu and city planners set about expanding outwards into the sea. Interconnecting concrete buildings have been constructed on the reclaimed land – the Sinsuran and Segama complexes and Asia City in particular have developed their own identities. Progress has been startling, and today, with a population of over a quarter of a million, KK is a beehive of activity once again.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Malaysia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

7 places to get off the tourist trail in Malaysia

7 places to get off the tourist trail in Malaysia

Already gaped at the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, lazed on a white beach in the Perhentians, met orangutans at Sepilok and filled a whole SD card with…

31 Aug 2017 • Marco Ferrarese insert_drive_file Article
9 tips for backpacking Malaysia

9 tips for backpacking Malaysia

Despite having turquoise-ringed tropical islands, misty rainforests, cosmopolitan and arty cities, colourful festivals and one of the world's most interesting e…

08 Jun 2017 • Marco Ferrarese insert_drive_file Article
26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook