Where to Go in Indonesia

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Updated: September 20, 2020

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Where to Go in Indonesia

Seminyak on Bali, Indonesia

Beautiful Seminyak beach on Bali.

Indonesia is simply extraordinary. Stretching over 3,000 miles across the equator, the 17,000 islands are part of the Ring of Fire, a volcanic and earthquake-prone arc around the Pacific Ocean. The world’s fourth-largest population with the most number of Muslims is as diverse as Europe – including the Batak in Sumatra, former head-hunters now predominantly Christian; Balinese practicing a unique version of Hinduism; Bugis still fishing and trading in gaudy traditional boats across the eastern islands; and Dani in the remote tribal regions of the far-flung provinces of Papua. Yet, Indonesia has just one currency and a single national language.

Of course, the most visited region by far is Bali where the distinctive culture as well as the sun, surf, shops, and cheap food/drink attract about 3-4 million Indonesian and foreign tourists each year. Similar in size and landscapes but so likably different in culture, religion, and tourist numbers is Lombok. Just off the northwest coast of Lombok, the trio of petite, pretty, and popular Gili Islands are havens for swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing.

Often used as just a gateway to the 34 provinces across the archipelago, the national capital Jakarta can be overwhelming but is still worth exploring for a day or two. More inviting than Jakarta (and, certainly, the country’s second-largest city, Surabaya) is the historic and regal capital of Yogyakarta, only an hour by car from the greatest sight in Indonesia: the ancient Buddhist ruins at Borobudur.

Well worth the effort is the remote but fascinating Danau Toba, an immense crater lake with an island the size of Singapore in the province of North Sumatra. The main way of reaching Toba is by car from Medan, Indonesia’s third-largest city. An incredible 2,200 miles east of Medan is the weirdly-shaped island of Sulawesi, home to the extraordinary Tana Toraja region in South Sulawesi and the remarkably developed province of North Sulawesi.

Even further east, Maluku, once known as the Spice Islands and fought over for centuries by European powers, offers history and charm unseen elsewhere across the country. Dangling off the coast of Singapore, recent years have seen the development of resorts and golf courses on the islands of Batam and Bintan, while the most remote region, Papua, has impenetrable jungle, tribal people, and, sadly, social unrest.

The Best Places to Stay in Indonesia

Gili Islands in Indonesia

Gili Islands has some of the best beaches in Indonesia.

Where to Travel in Indonesia for…

  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Sightseeing: Yogyakarta
    Unlike most Indonesian cities, this former royal capital boasts a rich history. The Sultan still lives in the centuries-old Kraton (palace) dominating the labyrinthine old town that’s a joy to explore on foot or by bicycle – and other streets are dotted with crumbling buildings from the Dutch colonial era. Yogya (pronounced ‘jogja’) is a manageable size and some hotels offer heritage and old-fashioned design that is virtually non-existent elsewhere across the country. But what makes Yogyakarta truly special is its proximity (only 25 miles) from the vast Buddhist ruins at Borobudur, one of the most remarkable sights anywhere in Southeast Asia.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Beaches: Bali
    Thousands upon thousands of foreign and Indonesian tourists arrive daily on one of the world’s most majestic islands for one reason – enjoying the beaches – but the quality of beaches does vary. While Kuta, Indonesia’s most famous stretch of sand, is overcrowded and more suitable for surfing than swimming, the scenic coves at Nusa Dua are among the world’s finest. There are, in fact, more attractive and empty beaches on remote islands like Togian (North Sulawesi) and Tanimbar (southern Maluku), but the beach regions on Bali also offer endless places to eat, drink, shop, and stay.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Scuba Diving: Bali
    Experts with plenty of time and money flock to some of the world’s premier diving spots in eastern Indonesia, e.g. Bunaken Island (North Sulawesi), Banda (southern Maluku), and especially Raja Ampat islands near Sorong (Papua). But decent – and certainly far more accessible – dive sites can be found in Bali where courses, trips, and equipment rental are readily available through many international-standard agencies. Reefs teeming with marine life and an occasional shipwreck attract divers to Nusa Lembongan Island, Padangbai, Amed, and Tulamben. And with equipment for rent at beachside shacks, these four places are also ideal for snorkeling in the calm waters just offshore.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Trekking and Mountain-Climbing: Lombok
    Many of the 17,000 islands across the Indonesian archipelago are dominated by volcanoes; in fact, some islets are little more than a village or two clinging to volcanic slopes. Strenuous mountain climbs using guides are possible across the country – from the remote snow-capped Puncak Jaya (Papua), Indonesia’s highest peak, to more accessible slopes in Java such as Mount Merapi and Mount Semeru. Easier to arrange, and not too arduous, are treks up and around Gunung Rinjani which overshadows all of Lombok Island. Treks for up to 5 days can be organized at Tetebatu or, more commonly, at Senaru – both cool, charming villages dotted with guesthouses along the mountainous ridges of Rinjani.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Water Sports: Bali
    Plenty of water sports are available at several beaches on the massively popular island of Bali. Not so, however, along the coast between Kuta and Seminyak, where the waves are more suitable for surfing, but a modest range can be found at Sanur and Nusa Dua. Best of all is Tanjung Benoa where hundreds of tourists line up daily to scream while jet-skiing or parasailing at a fraction of the cost charged in western destinations. Similar sports as well as speedboats, paddleboats, and canoes, are offered at rates designed for Indonesian tourists at the gorgeous crater lake of Danau Bratan.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Surfing: Bali
    Among the first foreigners to ‘discover’ Bali were surfers. Tens of thousands now come each year to ride some of Asia’s finest waves, enhanced by accessible rental, repairs, and lessons, as well as an abundance of inexpensive accommodations, restaurants, and bars. Waves along the coast of Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak are ideal for part-timers and novices, while the more experienced and dedicated often head to isolated places like Padang Padang and Ulu Watu along the southern peninsula. More interesting and less crowded are Nusa Lembongan island and Medewi, a surfer enclave on the mid-west coast. Generally, the best time for surfing in Bali is from April to October.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Nightlife: Bali
    A major attraction for many tourists visiting Bali is the extensive and comparatively inexpensive nightlife. Along the most popular tourist strip of Kuta and Legian, multi-story nightclubs offering international DJs and sports bars fiercely compete with promotions like ‘cocktail specials’, ‘free BBQs’, and ‘girls drink for free’. Just to the north, Seminyak provides a more sophisticated blend of live jazz, soul, and R&B in intimate settings, while even further north in trendy Canggu, the décor and prices in the cocktail lounges and beach clubs are comparable to Europe.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Food and Restaurants: Jakarta
    If in the nation’s sprawling capital for business or flight connections, why not enjoy some of Indonesia’s finest eateries and tastiest food? As well as bistros in 5-star hotels with prices to match the US and an endless supply of familiar and locally-operated fast-food outlets, a range of restaurants serve cuisines from across the country, continent, and globe. And the variety is extraordinary: e.g. bebek betutu (steamed duck) from Bali, coto Makassar (beef and offal soup) from Sulawesi, and padang from Sumatra, a modest buffet of Indonesian favorites cooked each morning but served cold throughout the day.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Vibe and Culture: Yogyakarta
    As explained earlier, Yogyakarta boasts an ancient and colonial history and culture that has virtually disappeared – or never really existed – across Indonesia. Within the modern city center, the walled old town features the Kraton (palace) where the Sultan still lives, as well as numerous museums, markets, and mosques. With so many artists, musicians, and other performers calling Yogya home, the purest examples of Javanese rituals, architecture, and language can be found here. Adding to the attractions are shops selling silver handicrafts and art using the batik wax method; performances of traditional dance, music, and wayang kulit (shadow puppets); historical hotels; and old-fashioned horse-and-carts which can be chartered for city tours.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Temples and Mosques: Lombok
    By law, every Indonesian must declare themselves a believer in one of six official religions on their identity card. As well as the world’s largest number of Muslims, Indonesia has millions of Christians based around Danau Toba lake (North Sumatra), Balinese who follow a unique brand of Hinduism, and others practicing tribal customs in remote regions of Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and Papua. Lombok Island is a fascinating blend of Hindus who mostly live on the west coast close to Bali and indigenous Sasak people who are overwhelmingly Muslim. Many Sasaks, however, also combine Islam with ancient animist traditions, especially those who are part of the Islamic sect, Wetu Telu.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for History: Maluku
    Nowhere in Indonesia is more historically fascinating than this far-flung cluster of islands in eastern Indonesia. The former Spice Islands were ruled by numerous belligerent kingdoms and visited by Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders. Later, during the 16th and 17th centuries, islands such as Ternate and the Bandas were plundered and fought over by the British, Dutch, and Portuguese for something more valuable than gold: nutmeg, cloves, and other spices. So, the islands of Maluku are dotted with remnants of pre-colonial palaces; colonial-era mansions and forts, some still ‘armed’ with rusting cannons; and, more recently, bunkers, caves, and shipwrecks from WWII.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Walking and Cycling: Bintan Island
    With so many overcrowded cities, congested roads, and steep mountains, cycling or simply walking is not always pleasant in most areas of Indonesia. Spared the ugly industrialization of nearby Batam Island, the development of Bintan has been more thoughtful, so tourists – mostly from Singapore less than an hour by boat – can walk or cycle along paths to pristine beaches, the historic town of Tanjung Pinang, and villages of ‘sea gypsies’. Ask the hotel about renting a bike.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Shopping: Jakarta
    Not surprisingly, the greatest selection of places to spend Indonesian rupiah is within the largest city. Across the inconceivably vast Greater Jakarta metropolis, abundant pasars offer all sorts of fresh produce and bustling multi-story markets sell arts, clothes, and specialty products like electronics, e.g. Tanah Abang Market and the smaller and more comfortable Pasar Baru (‘New Market’). These days, most locals prefer to shop (or, at least, window-shop) at massive malls that rival Europe for size, quality, and choice, such as Plaza Indonesia and Grand Indonesia. Both are linked underground within the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ sector of the city center.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Serenity: Maluku
    Far from overcrowded Java and over-touristy Bali are the isolated islands of Maluku in eastern Indonesia. The likable provincial capital, Ambon, is (like all Indonesian cities) clogged with traffic, but most other islands across the former Spice Islands are pleasant. Traditional villages, untouched beaches, and historical remnants are in abundance along remote islands such as Seram, Buru, and Morotai, but serenity is also easy to find in more populated and accessible islands like Ternate, Halmahera, and the Bandas.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Families: Bali
    For those traveling to Bali with children, finding a suitable base is essential. Numerous family-friendly resorts are in Legian, just north of chaotic Kuta, and in Nusa Dua, a gated complex of traffic-free streets, lovely beaches, and spacious gardens. Most resorts in Nusa Dua feature children’s pools (often with a water slide) and kids clubs offering engaging activities all day, as well as special menus for the young ones and child-minding services. Alongside Nusa Dua (but less expensive), Tanjung Benoa may be more appealing to teenagers because of its extensive range of water sports.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Value: Danau Toba Lake (North Sumatra)
    Generally, all Indonesian cities are expensive, especially Jakarta, while prices are also usually high in places where free-spending tourists visit, such as Bali. Transportation costs to remote islands and provinces add further to the prices of many goods and services. A lovely area to visit and stay awhile, but not too isolated or overcrowded with tourists, is Danau Toba, a massive crater lake in North Sumatra. Most accommodations are in the form of cheap but comfortable guesthouses with simple restaurants.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Festivals: Bali
    The unique brand of Hinduism followed fervently by almost every Balinese is regularly celebrated. Every one of the hundreds of temples across Bali is commemorated with ceremonies, often during the full moon, and about twice a year, the festivals of Galungan and, 10 days later, Kuningan celebrate the victory of good over evil with decorated streets, feasts of roast pigs, and boys carrying mock ‘lion-dogs’. Particularly extraordinary is the Balinese New Year called Nyepi when the entire island virtually closes down for 24 hours. Hotels (and usually their indoor restaurants) stay open, but stern police ensure that all shops, cafés, and bars are shut and every beach and road is empty. Even the airport closes. This may seem inconvenient but the days before and after Nyepi are fabulous fun for locals and visitors.
  • Where to Stay in Indonesia for Transport: Jakarta
    Unlike some Asian countries, Indonesia did not inherit a serviceable railway system from colonial rulers (perhaps deterred by the mountainous terrain), and not one city features adequate public transport. Recently, a long-overdue light rail system has spread across limited sections of Jakarta but is mostly ignored by car-loving locals and ineffective compared to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Bangkok. To avoid the hopelessly overcrowded bus services, use an ojek (ride on the back of a motorbike) or air-conditioned, metered taxis. And, of course, Jakarta offers the widest range of regional flights and inter-island ferries across this colossal country.
  • Best Place in Indonesia for First-Timers: Bali
    No doubt, the crowds, noise, traffic, and pesky salesmen along the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak tourist strip on Bali can often be overwhelming, even for experienced travelers. However, staying on Bali is still the best option for those visiting Indonesia for the first time because: (1) there are plenty of pleasant places to stay like Sanur, Nusa Dua, and Padangbai; (2) getting around is easy by comfortable tourist shuttle buses not available elsewhere in Indonesia and by air-conditioned, metered taxis (only in the south); (3) the range of Western food, including fast-food outlets, is familiar; and (4) the array of tourist facilities, e.g. flights, tours, hotels, and money-changers, is outstanding.
  • Most Romantic Place in Indonesia: Bali
    Most resorts in the gated and spacious complex of Nusa Dua on Bali offer honeymoon suites and packaged deals for newly-weds, but the pool may also be inundated with noisy families. Considerably more tranquil and intimate is Jimbaran, where hotels don’t really cater to children, and parts of the sandy and often-empty bay are ideal for strolling. A highlight of any honeymoon or romantic getaway to Jimbaran will be a candlelit dinner on the sand at sunset, with fresh seafood, dazzling fireworks, and wandering musicians adding to a memorable night out.
  • Safest Area in Indonesia: Gili Islands
    Many possible dangers while traveling around Indonesia are self-inflicted, e.g. excessive drinking or riding motorbikes recklessly, while physical and sexual assaults are not uncommon in Bali, though they are very rare. Also, every visitor to Indonesia should be aware of potential accidents while traveling in buses and taxis or simply crossing the road. While Gili Trawangan is dubbed the ‘Party Island’, the other 2 Gili Islands are quieter and more distant from hard-drinking tourists. Most importantly, the 3 Gili Islands are vehicle-free, so the only possible accident is falling off a bicycle on a sandy path.
  • Least Safe Area in Indonesia: Jakarta
    As is often the case, the larger the city the more chance of getting into trouble – whether from rare physical assaults to more common vehicle accidents in one of the world’s worst cities for traffic, exacerbated by poor roads and, often, reckless driving. Constantly rated as one of the least safe cities in Asia, petty crimes like bag-snatching and pick-pocketing are always possible at Jakarta’s many crowded markets and transport terminals. Also avoid areas like Blok M where excessive drinking, drugs, and prostitution are surprisingly common, and be wary of occasional protests that can turn violent.

The 11 Best Regions in Indonesia for Tourists

Beaches in Senggigi, Indonesia

Beaches to the north of Senggigi on Lombok island are pristine, wide, and deserted.

1. Bali

With rice-terraces cascading down volcanic slopes, flaming sunsets dripping over powdery-white sands, and a culture like nowhere else on earth, Bali is truly unique. Some visitors savor the surf, shops, and nightclubs, while others follow spiritual pursuits and relish the religious ceremonies. Other attractions include inexpensive water sports and scuba diving and the mountainous landscapes and centuries-old temples begging to be explored. Many – including families – stay along the 6-mile stretch of beach divided into Tuban/Kuta/Legian/Seminyak, while others prefer Sanur (relaxed and spacious), Nusa Dua (resorts facing lovely beaches), Tanjung Benoa (water sports center), and Ubud (Bali’s spiritual heartland). However, it’s still possible to stay elsewhere and escape the tourist crowds.

2. Lombok (except the Gili Islands)

With the sort of rice fields, volcanoes, and beaches found on Bali, Lombok Island is, however, significantly different: the indigenous culture and language are unique; the people are predominately Muslim (but no less welcoming and friendly); and there are far fewer tourists, mostly because of the lack of direct international flights. Lombok offers so much, including museums and palaces in the likable capital, Mataram; postcard-perfect tropical beaches at and near Senggigi and Kuta; accessible mountain-climbing on the omnipresent volcano, Gunung Rinjani; and gorgeous islets like the Gili Islands (see below). In August 2018, an earthquake shattered Lombok and the Gilis, killing over 500 and leaving tens of thousands homeless. By late 2019, much of the tourist regions had recovered, with little evidence of the past tragedy and no subsequent tremors. With far fewer tourists these days, Lombok remains great value compared to overpriced, overbuilt, and overcrowded Bali.

3. Gili Islands

Just off the northwest coast of Lombok island (see above) and rivaling parts of Bali for visitor numbers are 3 islets with turquoise waters and white sands known collectively as the Gili Islands (although gili means ‘small island’ in the local Sasak language). Each is less than a mile apart, delightfully dissimilar, devoid of vehicles, and small enough to circle on foot. The most popular, Gili Trawangan is justifiably regarded as the ‘Party Island’. The closest to the mainland of Lombok, Gili Air offers a more authentic village vibe, while on the smallest, Gili Meno, there is little to do but snorkel and snooze. Most accommodations are simple but comfortable guesthouses, although an increasing number of cozy resorts are available which are certainly not as large and sumptuous as those on Bali.

4. Jakarta

Most visitors to this inconceivably sprawling capital come for business or are waiting for connections somewhere else in Indonesia, but the monuments, markets, and museums – and fabulous range of food – are worth a stopover for a day or two. With unsettling extremes of opulence and poverty, the city has no real center, which is very frustrating for visitors, but the long overdue light rail service has made visiting the modest array of attractions far easier. Based around one of Asia’s most chaotic roundabouts, the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ is perhaps the closest to what could be regarded as ‘downtown’ and about 20 miles by taxi from the airport.

5. Yogyakarta

The most appealing city on the over-populated island of Java offers so much more than Jakarta: a manageable size, an artistic and cultural vibe slowly disappearing elsewhere across Indonesia, and historical buildings from a regal history still maintained with a Sultan living in a palace. Yogya (pronounced ‘jogja’) is also the gateway to the 1,200-year-old Buddhist ruins at Borobudur, one of the most remarkable sights in Southeast Asia. Some hotels are likably old-fashioned and many are designed and priced for budget travelers and Indonesian tourists.

6. North Sumatra

Stretching alongside the west coast of Malaysia, Sumatra is about 4 times larger than Java and home to around 25% of the population. Sumatran cities are densely populated and traffic-clogged, especially the provincial capital Medan, the country’s third-largest city, while in the jungles and mountains a few orangutans survive despite rampant industrialization and slash-and-burn farming. With a wide choice of hotels, Medan is the obvious gateway to Sumatra’s prime destination: Danau Toba Lake within a collapsed volcano. In the middle of the largest lake in Southeast Asia, Pulau Samosir Island is, remarkably, the size of Singapore. Most hotels in the Lake Toba region are at Prapat, where boats from the mainland leave for the island, and in Tuk Tuk, just across the water on Samosir. And all accommodations are terrific value.

7. South Sulawesi

The oddly-shaped island of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia is divided into 5 provinces but for tourism, it’s neatly sliced into South and North (see below). Makassar (formerly Ujung Pandang), the island’s capital and major port, is a gateway by air and sea for Maluku and Papua further east. Based along an extended coastline, Makassar offers more historical sights and cultural attractions than the usual Indonesian city, while the more adventurous can explore the beaches, islands, and mountains of the southeast peninsula. Most visit this part of Sulawesi, however, to get a connection by bus or, better, plane to Tana Toraja. Rugged and rarely developed, this mountainous region is home to the remarkable Toraja people and their traditional funerals, homes, and ceremonies. Most tourists stay in the unattractive town of Rantepao.

8. North Sulawesi

The narrow peninsula along the tip of Sulawesi Island is surprisingly developed. The province of North Sulawesi includes the inviting town of Gorontalo, home to numerous colonial-era buildings and old-fashioned hotels, and the thriving city of Manado with upmarket hotels and connections by sea and air to northern Maluku. Far closer to the Philippines than the Indonesian capital, the attractions of this area are its crater lakes, Crusoe-esque islands like Togian, remnants of WWII bunkers and Dutch forts, and some of the world’s most spectacular scuba diving, particularly on Bunaken Island.

9. Maluku

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spice Islands – now collectively known as Maluku – were fought over by European rivals for cloves, nutmeg, and other spices that were then worth more than gold. The likable and compact provincial capital, Ambon, suffered religious unrest in 1999-2000, but is now safe. From Ambon, small planes and crowded boats head to the province’s many islands, including Ternate which is so historic and enchanting, and the magical Banda Islands. The latter are dotted with remains of Portuguese, Dutch, and British mansions, forts, and cannons overlooking turquoise waters packed with coral reefs.

10. Batam and Bintan Islands

Part of the Riau Archipelago of jungles and oil fields are the adjacent islands of Batam and Bintan, both closer to Singapore than the mainland of Sumatra. Batam Island is unpleasantly sleazy in places but offers the main airport and the majority of boats to Singapore and Sumatra. More thoughtfully developed and almost twice as large, Bintan Island is home to traditional villages, idyllic beaches (some with water sports), ritzy resorts, golf courses, and paths ideal for walking and cycling.

11. Papuan Provinces

An incredible 3,000 miles from Banda Aceh in northernmost Sumatra is the western half of New Guinea Island (which is shared with a separate country, Papua New Guinea). The interior of the 2 Indonesian provinces – Papua and West Papua – is mostly impenetrable mountains and jungle, while the coasts are dotted with towns offering different purposes and attractions, e.g. Sorong (world-class scuba diving), Biak (WWII remnants), and Jayapura (provincial capital). The airport for Jayapura – actually at Sentani alongside a magnificent lake – provides the only possible transport to the region’s main attraction: Baliem Valley, where the Dani people maintain a tribal culture very rarely seen elsewhere on the planet. But note: both provinces – in particular, Baliem Valley, Timika, and Jayapura/Sentani – have seen serious civil unrest in recent years. Some hotels in the Baliem Valley’s main town, Wamena, have closed or been abandoned, so accommodations are currently limited to a few simple guesthouses.

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