Sunset over the islands in Borneo
Destinations,  Asia,  Borneo

A Family-Friendly Guide to Kota Kinabalu 2024

A Family-Friendly Guide to Kota Kinabalu this year

Welcome to our guide to Kota Kinabalu, a fantastic destination for family travel in Borneo. With its breathtaking islands, cultural experiences, and diverse attractions, Kota Kinabalu offers endless adventures for families. 

In this Kota Kinabalu guide, we’ll explore our top family-friendly activities, from our Borneo adventure.

Where is Kota Kinabalu?

Kota Kinabalu is a buzzing coastal city located in Sabah, Malaysia, on the Island of Borneo. It’s on the small size which makes it the perfect stopping off point for a few days and is gateway to breathtaking adventures in Borneo’s lush rainforests, towering mountains, and pristine islands, making it a paradise for adventure-seeking families. With an international airport just 10 mins away from the city centre, and about 30 minutes away from beautiful beaches, it’s a perfect place to pop for a short stay or to start your Borneo adventure.

guide to kota kinabuu with kids
Exploring the beaches around Kota Kinabalu

Our Number 1: A guide to Kota Kinabalu Islands

Kota Kinabalu is blessed with stunning islands only 10 minutes away from the city, each offering unique experiences. We recommend starting your island adventure early in the day to beat the crowds and maximize your time. Here’s an overview of the must-visit islands:

  • Pulau Manukan: Begin your island-hopping adventure with Pulau Manukan, the most developed island in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Enjoy pristine white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and an abundance of marine life. Snorkel, swim, or simply relax under the shade of palm trees. There are facilities such as picnic areas, showers and restaurants which make it ideal for a family day out.

  • Pulau Mamutik: Next, head to Pulau Mamutik, a smaller and quieter island perfect for families seeking some peace and quiet. The shallow waters are ideal for young kids to paddle and play. Don’t forget to bring your snorkelling gear to explore the colourful coral reefs teeming with marine creatures.

  • Pulau Sapi: Known for its abundant marine life, Pulau Sapi offers excellent snorkelling and diving opportunities. Explore the underwater world together as a family, spotting colourful fish and vibrant coral formations. The island also features picnic spots, barbecue facilities, and nature trails for an all-round experience.

  • Pulau Gaya: For a more off-the-beaten-path adventure, venture to Pulau Gaya, the largest island in the marine park. Explore its lush rainforests, encounter wildlife, and embark on guided jungle treks. Take a family-friendly hike to the treetop canopy walkway, offering panoramic views of the island and surrounding waters. This is also the location of the zipline across the island.

TOP TIP!: You book a snorkelling trip to hop around these islands and get a taste for each one, then on your following days, pick your favourite islands and head back there.

The islands near Kota Kinabalu in Borneo
Kota Kinabalu is a great place for snorkelling with kids


The last time we visited these islands we left with more than just a tan, sandy toes and great memories. The sandflies here can be a real pest. We were itchy for days as these little $%^#@#$ nibbled away on us as we basked in the beauty of the islands. 

There isn’t much that these annoying insects are affected by but after years of hitting the wild sandfly beaches in Brunei there are a few things you can do.

  1. Smother yourself in sunscreen and bug spray and then add an oil based sunscreen layer or Avon Skin so soft! Don’t ask me why it works but it works. The downside is that you have a layer of oil on so sitting in the sun isn’t ideal.
  2. Cover up. The less flesh available, the fewer bits you will get.
Taking the short boat ride to the islands

Family-Friendly Activities in Kota Kinabalu:

Beyond the islands, Kota Kinabalu offers several other family-friendly activities. Here are some highlights:

Mari Mari Cultural Village is not only a fascinating cultural experience but also an excellent opportunity for worldschooling and engaging your kids in learning about different cultures. As you step into this immersive village, your family will be transported back in time to experience the traditional lifestyles of Borneo’s indigenous communities.

Worldschooling, a term coined to describe the education gained through travel and real-life experiences, becomes a reality at Mari Mari Cultural Village. Your children will have the chance to interact with friendly villagers, observe traditional practices, and learn firsthand about their customs, traditions, and beliefs. This unique hands-on experience fosters a deep understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures, enriching your children’s global perspectives.

At the village, each indigenous tribe showcases its distinct traditions, offering valuable insights into Borneo’s cultural tapestry. Your family can participate in activities such as traditional fire-making, blowpipe demonstrations, bamboo cooking, and tattoo artistry. These immersive experiences allow your children to gain practical knowledge while immersing themselves in the customs and skills of Borneo’s indigenous people.

Engage in conversations with the villagers, who are more than willing to share stories and answer your children’s curious questions. This personal connection and cultural exchange create meaningful learning moments, promoting empathy, respect, and an understanding of the rich diversity found in our world.

Encourage your children to embrace the opportunity to try traditional crafts, such as weaving, pottery making, and traditional games. These hands-on experiences not only promote creativity but also provide a deeper appreciation for the skills passed down through generations.

Through travel we have learned that learning extends way beyond textbooks and classrooms. It becomes an immersive and interactive experience that fosters a lifelong love for exploration, understanding, and embracing different cultures.

Other activities in and around Kota Kinabalu

  1. Gaya Sunday Market: Visit the bustling Gaya Sunday Market, a vibrant marketplace where you can find local handicrafts, fresh produce, and delectable street food. Engage with friendly vendors, introduce your children to new flavours, and discover unique souvenirs to take home. Don’t forget to haggle!
  1. Poring Hot Springs: Take a day trip to Poring Hot Springs, located in the nearby Kinabalu National Park. Soak in the therapeutic hot spring waters, surrounded by lush greenery. Enjoy a leisurely walk on the canopy walkway, where your family can spot interesting flora and fauna. The Butterfly Farm and Orchid Conservation Center are also worth exploring.
  1. Town Food Courts: Kota Kinabalu is renowned for its diverse culinary scene. Head to the town’s food courts, such as the popular Filipino Market, to savour a variety of local dishes. Let your taste buds go on a culinary adventure, trying seafood noodles, satay, and other delights. The food courts offer a vibrant atmosphere and an opportunity to mingle with locals.
Island hopping Kota Kinabalu guide
Cruising the island and the beautifully blue waters was definitely a highlight of our adventure in Borneo.

Top Tips for Kota Kinabalu with kids

To ensure a smooth and enjoyable family trip to Kota Kinabalu, here are some additional tips:

  • Pack Appropriately: Pack sunscreen, hats, swimsuits, and beach essentials for your island adventures. It’s also a good idea to carry insect repellent, especially during jungle treks.

  • Stay Hydrated: Kota Kinabalu can get quite hot and humid, so remember to stay hydrated throughout the day. Carry reusable water bottles and refill them whenever necessary.

  • Embrace the Local Culture: Encourage your children to learn a few local phrases and greetings. Respect the customs and traditions of the local communities you encounter during your journey.

  • Be Mindful of the Environment: Help preserve the natural beauty of Kota Kinabalu by practising responsible tourism. Respect the marine life and coral reefs while snorkelling or diving, and dispose of waste properly.

  • Prioritize Safety: While Kota Kinabalu is generally safe, always keep an eye on your belongings and stay together as a family, particularly in crowded areas. Follow safety instructions provided during island activities or jungle treks.

Kota Kinabalu is a fab destination for family travel, offering a great blend of natural wonders, cultural experiences, and memorable adventures. From the breathtaking islands with their vibrant marine life to the cultural immersion at Mari Mari Cultural Village and the bustling markets, Kota Kinabalu has the potential for a great Borneo destination for you and the kids.

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Meet the author

Lisa is the founder of Boston Tribe Travels. She has lived and travelled abroad for the last 15 years, visited more than 30 countries and has done most of that with her husband and two children. As a full time travel family, they like to travel slow, worldschool and seek new adventures. From living in Borneo for 5 years to backpacking South America, Lisa shares a wealth of travel experience to empower more families to travel and learn together.