Kota Bharu means ‘New City’ in Malay which is a bit of a misnomer as this is actually one of the most traditional places in all of Malaysia. Kota Bharu (which is sometimes also spelled Kota Baru) is the capital of the state of Kelantan on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia and many people simply visit it as part of a trip to the lush Perhentian Islands off the coast. Simply using Kota Bharu as an entry and exit point is a shame however, as there is plenty to enjoy here for a few days and you will get to see a completely different side of the country.
The east coast of Malaysia is known for being far more conservative than the west coast and the central region, but this allows you to get a glimpse of a fascinating culture here. This includes beautiful Islamic architecture in the form of graceful mosques and you can also enjoy traditional museums and a range of toothsome local dishes that are unique to the state of Kelantan.
Here are the best things to do in Kota Bharu:
1. Have breakfast at Restoran Capital
If you want to kick off a trip to Kota Bharu with one of the best breakfasts in the city then head to Restoran Capital where you can try a local favorite called Nasi Kerabu which includes blue rice and a number of delicious curries that you will only find in Kelantan.
A plate of Nasi Kerabu comes with hard boiled eggs and crunchy prawn crackers and you can also get coffee or tea here if you just fancy a drink.
Bear in mind that this is more of a breakfast venue than anything and if you arrive after 9 am then the nasi kerabu may already be sold out. It’s that good.
2. Relax on Irama Beach
Many people don’t immediately think of beaches when they think of Kota Bharu, although if you are prepared to explore outside the main city center then you will be rewarded with a number of choices.
One of the most famous of these is Irama Beach which means ‘Melody Beach’ in Malay.
The beach is known for its stretch of sand as well as its little local stalls which will sell you a fresh coconut and make the perfect place to stop off in the afternoon and relax.
3. Ride on the Jungle Railway
The Jungle Railway is one of the main reasons why many people travel to Kota Bharu in the first place.
The railway runs along the east coast and through the center of Malaysia and passes through Kelantan where it stops at the city of Tumpat.
When you travel on the railway, you can spend time enjoying the amazing jungle views and the train carriages hark back to another era when one of the only ways to travel here was by train.
4. Tour Istana Jahar
One of the best museums in Kota Bharu is Istana Jahar which dates from 1887. As such this is one of the prettiest buildings in the city in its own right and it contains an amazing display of craft objects from the state of Kelantan such as batik pieces which are weaved in the traditional style.
The museum will also take you on a walk through a range of local ceremonies such as a circumcision ceremony using diagrams and photographs, and you can even learn about Kelantanese weddings and funerals.
5. Have a drink at Bike Station Cafe
If you want to have a drink and look out onto the pretty Kelantan River then consider heading to Bike Station Cafe.
Here you will find a number of dishes and drinks available including a range of local snack options like spring rolls called popiah.
You can also simply relax with a fruit juice or an iced coffee, but if you are feeling active then there is also the opportunity to rent a bike here (hence the name of the cafe) and zoom up and down the main waterfront promenade.
6. Take a boat ride down the Galas River
The Galas River is one of the main rivers in Kelantan and is also a tributary of the main river artery in the state known as the Kelantan River.
Many people come to Kelantan to take a boat ride down the river and this is one of the most magical experiences that you can have in this part of Malaysia.
The river snakes through thick areas of jungle and you can choose different kinds of tours such as short jaunts up the river or longer trips that can take several days if you are game.
7. Visit Bank Kerapu
Bank Kerapu was built in 1912 as part of the Mercantile Bank of India.
As such it is one of the best examples of colonial architecture in Kota Bharu and during the Second World War it would have been the home of the Kempai Tai who were the secret police force of the Japanese forces.
As a result, the bank is also a War Museum and you can learn all about the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation of Malaysia in World War Two.
Some of the memorabilia on show includes old photographs as well as some ancient weaponry.
8. Walk along Pantai Cahaya Bulan
Pantai Cahaya Bulan means Moonlight Beach in Malay and is one of the premium beaches in the Kota Bharu area.
Interestingly, it used to be known as Pantai Cinta Berahi which means the Beach of Passionate Love, and so the locals, perhaps fearful of visitors to the beach taking this literally, decided to change the name to something more chaste.
Nowadays the beach is usually referred to as PCB and you will find a strip of sand here that backs on to some delightful little restaurants that sell local seafood dishes.
This mostly consist of grilled fish called ‘ikan bakar’ so try and time your visit to coincide with lunch or dinner.
9. Admire Istana Batu
You will know Istana Batu when you see it as it is painted a pastel yellow and dates from 1939. Istana Batu used to be the official palace of the crown prince of Kelantan who then donated it to the state as a museum.
As such, if you want to see how a traditional Kelantanese price would have lived then this is the place to do it and you will find opulent rooms here as well as family memorabilia and collections that would have belonged to the royal family.
One of the main highlights includes a quirky collection of hats that would have once belonged to the late prince.
10. Stop off at Muhibah Aneka Cake House
If you want some tea and cake then look no further than Muhibah Aneka Cake House.
This is the spot to visit if you want to order a good cup of coffee and you can also choose from the well stocked bakery.
Some of the treats on offer here include traditional cakes, iced puddings and pillowy doughnuts.
Many cafes in Kelantan do not serve a huge selection of coffees and teas outside the usual traditional beverages but at Muhibah Aneka Cake House you can order all manner of delights such as a green tea frappe or an iced cappuccino.
11. Watch a show at Gelanggan Seni
Gelanggan Seni is the name for the cultural center in Kota Bharu so if you want to see some traditional arts here then you need to make sure that you do not miss this off the itinerary.
Just some of the shows on offer here include top spinning as well as ‘silat’ which is a Malay martial art.
There are also kite making, drumming, and puppet shows here and younger visitors can also participate as many of the performances are geared towards children.
The best thing to do if you want to see a show is visit the local tourist office and find out the latest schedule.
12. Eat at Sri Devi Restaurant
Sri Devi Restaurant is a Tamil influenced eatery in Kota Bharu which serves up traditional banana leaf curries as well as delicious mango lassi which is a drink made with yoghurt.
Other Tamil dishes here include roti canai which is a kind of flat bread which is served with a curry dipping sauce.
This kind of food can be found all over Malaysia in areas with a Tamil community and it makes a nice change of pace from the usual fare found in the local night markets.
13. Check out the birds at Bird-Singing Field
If you are in Kota Bharu on a Friday or Saturday morning then head to Bird-Singing Field.
As the name suggests, this field in the center of town is known for its bird-singing competitions and you will find bird cages hung all over the area on long poles.
The locals usually bring their birds here in the mornings at the weekends and you can go for a walk and listen to the birds singing away.
14. Visit Wat Machimmaram
If you fancy a quick trip out of the center of Kota Bharu then think about heading to Wat Machimmaram which is one of the premium temples in the area.
Wat Machimmaram is known primarily for its amazing and ornate art work which is found inside.
This is a Buddhist temple and you will find tableaus that tell the story of different Buddhist visions of heaven and hell.
15. Have lunch at West Lake Eating House
West Lake Eating House is something of an anomaly in Kota Bharu as it is a Chinese restaurant and is actually famous along the east coast of Malaysia.
Most of the population here is Muslim and the food follows suit accordingly so if you are craving some pork then come here for the toothsome braised ribs.
You can also try roast duck or stuffed bean curd and they also do some delicious vegetarian stir fries.
16. Shop at the Central Market
One of the main attractions in Kota Bharu is its main market which is famed as being one of the best local markets in the whole of Malaysia.
The market comes in two forms and the ground floor area is made up of fresh produce.
This comes in the form of colorful local fruits and vegetables as well as fish, meat and seafood.
When it comes to the upper floor, you will find spices, brassware and textiles and this can be a great place to come and pick up some cheap and authentic Malaysian batik.
As with many markets in Asia you will also find a number of food stalls here if you want to grab a lunchtime snack.
17. Have coffee at Kedai Kopi White House
If you are looking for a coffee shop with a difference then take a trip to the Kedai Kopi White House.
This coffee shop is actually located inside an old Chinese building and is conveniently located in the heart of the museum and heritage area of Kota Bharu.
When you come here you can imagine the coffee scene in Kota Bharu in the days of old and some of the highlights here include the brunch menu which serves up boiled eggs on toast.
18. Visit Muzium Islam
The Muzium Islam is located in a villa which is called Serambi Mekah (the Verandah of Mecca in Malay). This tells you all you need to know about the religious fervor in Kota Bharu and this is a top spot if you want to learn more about the history of Islam in Kelantan.
Some of the collections on show here include photographs of Kota Bharu through the ages as well as fascinating Islamic artifacts.
19. Have a drink at Restoran Golden City
As Kota Bharu is one of the most conservative spots in Malaysia which means that beer, or any kind of alcohol for that matter, is not widely available in the city.
One place that you can get a glass of cold beer however is in the Chinatown area of Kota Bharu such as Restoran Golden City.
This restaurant is actually less of a restaurant and more of a sports bar and you can sip cold pints of Tiger beer during their happy hour which runs from 4 pm to 9 pm.
20. Visit Muzium Negeri Kelantan
The Muzium Negeri Kelantan is conveniently located next to the main tourist information center in Kelantan and is known as the official state museum.
The museum tells the story of the state and also of the rise of Kota Bharu and you will find a range of galleries dedicated to history and culture in the region.
21. Go shopping at Kampung Kraftangan
Another one of the main markets in Kota Bharu is called Kampung Kraftangan and is located opposite Istana Batu.
The market is mostly geared towards tourists although it has a nice range of local handicrafts if you are looking to pick up some souvenirs.
The market also has an adjoining museum which tells you more about arts and crafts in Kelantan such as woodcarving, batik making, puppet making and brass ware.
22. Take a trip to Gua Ikan
Gua Ikan means Fish Cave in Malay.
The locals claim that the reason for this is that there are a number of small streams that bisect the cave and which are the home to cave dwelling fish.
The cave is around five kilometers away from Dagong on the Jungle Railway and it makes a good place to come if you have exhausted all the sights of Kota Bharu and want to see something a little different when you are on your way out of the city.
Other caves in the area around Gua Ikan include Gua Keris which is so called because it has a large stalactite inside that looks like a ‘keris’ which is the Malay words for ‘dagger’.
23. Visit Bazaar Buluh Kubu
Located close to the central market in Kota Bharu is Bazaar Buluh Kubu.
This market is a good spot if you want to pick up some traditional gifts and souvenirs and you will find a range of pieces such as batik and other Malay textiles.
You will also find a nice selection of jewelry here and even though it is a little more expensive than other places in the city the souvenirs here are high quality.
24. Take a trip to Wat Phothikyan
Wat Phothikyan has the claim to fame of being a temple which once housed one of the tallest standing Buddha states in all of Southeast Asia.
The Buddha stands at 108 feet high and the temple is located in Kampung Balai which is a quaint local village around 35 minutes outside of Kota Bharu.
If you are looking for a day trip from the city, then this is a solid choice and you will be able to check out the famed dragon carvings on the temple walls which welcome you to the building.
The Buddha is covered in a sparkling white mosaic and it is worth the trip alone just to take in the intricate craftsmanship on show here.
25. Have dinner at Kota Bharu Night Market
One of the liveliest places in Kota Bharu is its night market which serves up an array of delicious local dishes that are unique to the state of Kelantan.
Some of these that you don’t want to miss include ayam percik which is basically spatchcock chicken which has been marinated and then grilled on a bamboo skewer.
You should also make sure to try nasi kerabu which is a kind of blue rice which gets its color from butterfly pea flowers.
The rice is usually served with fish and coconut.
Other choices include skewers of squid or pancakes called murtabak.