The Republic of Indonesia, located in South East Asia, is the largest island country in the world, with over 17,000 islands and a population of over 225 million. Spanning over 1.9 million square kilometers, Indonesia stretches all the way from Aceh in the north down to Papua in the south east. Straddling the equator, Indonesia enjoys a tropical climate and is split into dry and rainy seasons, although temperatures and humidity remain high all year round. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, but other recognized state religions include Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.
Formerly colonized by the British, Portuguese, Japanese, and Dutch, Indonesia declared Independence in 1945, and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) was declared the national language. A form of Malay language mixed with loan words from Arabic, Dutch, and Portuguese, Indonesian was developed in an effort to provide the population with a standardized language as opposed to the hundreds of regional dialects that existed in each province.
Nowadays, Indonesia is famous for its diverse and multicultural islands, from deeply religious Aceh in the north; to the country’s center of government in Java; to the tropical paradise of Bali; and all the way down to the province of Papua on the border with independent Papua New Guinea. The 4th most populous country in the world and the 15th largest according to land mass, there is surely something for every traveler wanting to explore this vast and diverse nation. Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Indonesia.
1. Go surfing in Kuta
Visit the famous Kuta beach, a strip of beach in the south of Bali where the sea rests on a sand bar and provides gentle rolling waves which are perfect for beginners learning to surf. Surfing lessons by the hour are plentiful or visitors can rent a sponge board and ride the waves that way. For those not looking to get wet, crowds flock to the beach at night to take photos of the exquisite sunset and relax with a beer or a soft drink.
2. Visit Borobudur Temple
Borobudur Buddhist temple, located in Magelang, Central Java, is easily visited by travelers staying in the neighboring city of Yogyakarta. Dating from the 9th Century, Borobudur is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a central dome surrounded by 72 sculpted figures of Buddha, making it the largest Buddhist temple in the world. People come to worship, scale the central platform, and marvel at the scenery that stretches beyond the central temple complex.
3. Sunbathe on Pulau Weh in Aceh
Pulau Weh, or Weh Island, is located at the tip of Sumatra, off the coast of Aceh. The island still experiences volcanic activity and sits in the Andaman Sea, and is home to Sabang, the northernmost town in Indonesia. Visitors travel to the island to go snorkeling in the crystal blue waters which have an abundance of tropical fish as well as rare Megamouth sharks. Visitor can chose to stay at Gapang beach near Sabang or visit Anoi Itam Beach, made famous by its uncommon black sand.
4. Eat Padang Food
Many Indonesians maintain that the best food in Indonesia hails from Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra. Padang food is still served in the traditional way all over Indonesia, and a Padang restaurant is easily spotted by the tower of dishes stacked in the window. Tiny individual plates of the different dishes, sometimes as many as 20 or 25, are placed before customers who mix them with rice at the table. Visitors only pay for the dishes they touch. Traditional Padang favorites include Beef Rendang, a spicy curry paste made with chilies and coconut and cooked with beef, pounded cassava leaves with coconut milk, and jackfruit curry with snake beans.
5. Say a prayer at Tanah Lot
Tanah Lot is famous as a rock formation emerging out of the sea with a Hindu temple, Pura Tanah Lot (Tanah Lot Temple), perched on the top. Over the years the ocean tides have carved the rock from the shore leaving it to stand alone at high tide, and be accessible on foot during low tide. Venomous sea snakes are said to guard the temple and now visitors travel to the site to worship or to observe the stunning sunsets over the ocean.
6. Enjoy the culture in Ubud
Ubud is a town in the Gianyar regency and is known as the major arts and culture hub of Bali. Distinct from other areas of Bali, Ubud does not have a beach, but sits instead amongst rice paddies, steep terraces, and lush forests located in the surrounding foothills. Ubud boasts an abundance of art galleries that now house the works of a host of prominent Balinese artists, and visitors can also watch a Tek Tok dance at the Bali Culture Centre in Ubud, a new style of Balinese dancing mixed with traditional elements that was created in 2013.
7. Meander around Lake Toba
Lake Toba in North Sumatra is a natural lake that sprung from the crater of a long dormant volcano. It is the largest lake in Indonesia as well as being the largest volcanic lake in the world. Visitors to Lake Toba can choose to swim or enjoy a variety of water sports on the lake, or visit the traditional houses of the indigenous people, the Batak. They can also visit ornate stone replicas of Batak houses which are the graves of long dead Batak kings and nobles, or spend the afternoon in a traditional Batak village and learn about Batak weaving techniques and other art and craft forms such as blowpipe making.
8. Go trekking in Bukit Lawang
Located a four hour drive from the capital city of North Sumatra, Medan, Bukit Lawang has the largest sanctuary of Sumatran orangutan in Indonesia, and also forms the entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park, which stretches all the way to Aceh Province in the north of Indonesia. Common activities in Bukit Lawang are trekking, tubing on the river, or visiting the orangutan sanctuary to learn about the habitat and conservations projects of this graceful protected species.
9. Get away from it all on the Gili Islands
The Gili Islands consist of three islands, Gili Meno, Gili Air, and Gili Trawangan, all located off the coast of Lombok. The largest and most populated of these is Gili Trawangan, but even there, there are only basic roads and transport comes in the form of bicycles or horses and carts. There are no cars and no police, which is why many travelers make the trip by ferry or speedboat from Bali to get away from it all and to find a peaceful retreat from the busier towns of Sengiggi in Lombok or Bali.
10. Marvel at the lakes of Kelimutu, Flores
Kelimutu is the name of a volcano in central Flores which has three crater lakes located within it. The lakes are famous for their differing colors of blue, red, and green, thought to be triggered by continued volcanic activity and gases beneath the surface of the water. Many visitors choose to visit the lakes to witness this natural phenomenon or to hike to and sleep near the volcano to watch the sunrise over the crater.
11. Celebrate Independence at Monas in Jakarta
A national monument that stands at 433 feet tall in Central Jakarta, the Monas tower was built as a symbol of the Indonesian struggle for Independence. It is located in Merdeka (Freedom) Square and houses a museum which is open to the public. There is also an observation deck at the top of the tower with views over the city of Jakarta, and the tower is topped with a celebratory bronze flame called the ‘Flame of Independence’.
12. Observe the Komodo Dragons
Komodo Island, one of a group of islands located in Lesser Sunda, is most famous as the home of the fearsome Komodo dragons. The ‘dragons’ are actually the world’s largest lizards and have toxic saliva used to poison and kill their prey. Visitors can now see the lizards as part of a tour of Komodo National Park, established in 1980 to aid in their conservation and to perform ongoing scientific studies and breeding programs of these fascinating beasts.
13. Tana Toraja
Tana Toraja literarily translates as ‘Land of the Toraja’, and refers to the indigenous people of this area of South Sulawesi. Tana Toraja is described as the second most popular tourist destination in Indonesia after Bali, and visitors travel here to see traditional culture, ornate homes, and to glimpse how the local communities have lived and worked for centuries. Also of note are the traditional grave sites of the Toraja people which include carved effigies of the dead, as well as the local community markets that take place every Sunday.
14. Nusa Lembongan
For tourists wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of Bali, Nusa Lembongan has proven a welcome relief in recent years. Famous for its crystal blue waters, Nusa Lembongan offers visitors an array of water sports such as diving, snorkeling, and swimming. There are also surfing opportunities and the unpolluted waters are home to a vast cross section of marine life and pristine coral. There are also tourist attractions such as working seaweed farms that focus on education and conservation of marine life in the region.
15. Climb Mount Rinjani
Located on the island of Lombok, Mount Rinjani is an active volcano and the second largest volcano in Indonesia. Atop the volcano is a lake that has formed in the crater and which is considered sacred by the local Hindu and Sasak people (the indigenous people of Lombok). Guests can trek up to the summit of Rinjani to check out the sunrise and sunset, however, as the volcano is active and still erupts frequently, the summit is often closed and the ash clouds have been known to disrupt flights in and out of Bali and Lombok.
16. Dive in Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat, meaning ‘Four Kings’, is a cluster of islands off the coast of West Papua in Indonesia. An emerging tourist destination in recent years, this archipelago is known for housing some of the most diverse marine life on earth including thousands of species of fish, turtles, and rare coral. There are four major islands in the archipelago, some of which feature ancient rock paintings, and tourists can ride on traditional wooden boats between the various islands, run by the local fisherman.
17. Climb Mount Bromo
Mount Bromo, located in East Java, is yet another of Indonesia’s active volcanoes and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Java. Named after the Hindi god Brahma, visitors can climb Mount Bromo if the volcano’s activity status allows. Tours take visitors to the crater and early risers can trek to the summit and watch the sunrise over the Tengger massif, a group of mountains that includes Mount Bromo.
18. Explore the Mentawai Islands
The Mentawai Islands are actually a collection of over seventy islands off the west coast of Sumatra. Home to the indigenous Mentawai people, who lived in isolation until the 19th century, the islands have now gained a following because of the surfing opportunities on offer, and dedicated surfing holidays are now heavily promoted in the region. According to many hard core surfers, the Mentawai Islands provide some of the best surfing conditions in the world.
19. Watch a Kecak Dance performance in Bali
A popular dance dating from the 1930s, the Kecak dance is actually a mixture of dance and drama that tells the story of the battle scene from the Hindu classic, the Ramayana. Traditionally this dance was performed exclusively by men, although performances now include women, who stand in a circle and clap their hands in a ‘cak’ sound from which the dance gets its name. The musical accompaniment to the dance takes the form of a chant, which originates from a traditional musical performance called Sanghyang, which was part dance and part exorcism. Nowadays the dance is performed for tourists all over Bali.
20. Go Shopping in Jakarta
The capital city of Indonesia, Jakarta is best known for its shopping opportunities. Whatever the budget or style, there are options for all travelers, from the famous flea market in Menteng, to high end malls such as Plaza Indonesia or Grand Indonesia that carry all the latest labels and designers.
21. Candi Prambanan
A temple complex in Central Java, Candi Prambanan dates from the 9th century and draws comparisons as the Hindu version of the Buddhist temple Candi Borobudur. As with Borobudur, Candi Prambanan temple complex is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the largest Hindu temples in South East Asia. Visitors can roam the temple compounds and explore galleries, smaller shrines, and the diverse temples each dedicated to a different Hindu god.
22. Shop for traditional Batik in Yogyakarta
Often referred to as the cultural capital of the island of Java, Yogyakarta is a university town and home to the famous Gajah Mada University. In addition to the university Yogya, as it is also known, is still headed by a Sultan who lives in his palace known as the Kraton. Yogya has a thriving arts scene which includes the famous Batik factories, a textile technique that involves dying fabrics that have been outlined using wax. Curious visitors can tour these factories, try their hand at Batik making, and buy traditional Batik dyed clothes or accessories.
23. Explore Manado
The capital city of North Sulawesi, Manado is the second largest city in Sulawesi after Makassar. A diverse region, Manado is home to famous Chinese temples, Christian churches, and the 4th tallest statue of Jesus Christ in the world. There is also a national park on the island of Bunaken where visitors can enjoy the various scuba diving or snorkeling activities on offer and explore the local flora and fauna. Manado is also famous for its food, and has been declared an Indonesian food tourism hub.
24. Venture to Papua
The easternmost province of Indonesia, Papua Province is not to be confused with Papua New Guinea, the independent neighboring region to the east. Papua is often not visited by tourists, but hosts some of the largest areas of untouched rainforest outside of the Amazon. There is a variety of unique flora and fauna in Papua as well as coral reefs and tribal art for intrepid travelers to explore.
25. Get a bird’s eye view at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, which literally translates as Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park, is a theme park in East Jakarta. The park is divided into the 26 different provinces of Indonesia and visitors are given a whistle stop tour of the country with replicas of individual houses, traditions, customs, and snapshots of daily life. For visitors who don’t have time to explore much of Indonesia outside of the central areas, Taman Mini can provide an overview of one of the most interesting and diverse countries in the world.