Indonesia is a big country. Despite spending 8 weeks there across two different trips, I can’t say I’ve even covered half of it. This page does not pretend to be an exhaustive guide to all of Indonesia, though hopefully, it can help you learn about the different islands you can visit.
Many people visiting Indonesia go to one place only: the island of Bali. While super touristy, many parts of Bali can still be genuinely enchanting, particularly if you leave the southern beaches and head inland. Of course, there is also much more to Indonesia than just Bali.
Just glance at a map and you will immediately notice how huge Indonesia is. The island chain actually spans an area wider than the United States, so you might well be scratching your head as to where to go.
The islands of Java and Bali, and the less-visited islands of Lombok and Flores (part of Nusa Tenggara) are great places to start, as here you will find some of the more popular travel experiences. Other islands range from vaguely off-the-beaten-track to there’s-literally-no-tourism-infrastructure-here, so it’s a good idea to read up before you go
Broadly speaking, here’s what each island is known for (going roughly from west to east)
There are some population centres here, but mostly it’s rainforests, farmland, and national parks here. If you’re on a regional Southeast Asia trip it’s certainly possible to travel overland through Sumatra, following a route from Singapore to Jakarta or vice versa. But relatively few do this due to the long distances involved, the points of interest being quite spread apart, and having to transit through an unappealing city like Medan. If overlanding seems like a lot of work, it may be tempting just of fly in.
That said, Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake, is the main travel hub here—it is in the north near Medan. Sumatra is also a great place for going on trekking tours and seeing Urang Utangs in the (semi)wild, for which Bukit Lawang is a popular location. My own experience with Sumatra is limited, though I’ve heard particularly good things about the trekking and wildlife. Sumatra has an unspoiled feel, with relatively few tourists.
This is Indonesia’s main island and home of its capital city. Expect the atmosphere of Java to be very different from the rest of Indonesia. The first thing you will notice is that it’s very crowded here, as much of the population is concentrated in this part. Jakarta is one of the most congested cities in the world; chaotic and hard to navigate, expect your transportation here to easily take twice as long as scheduled. Many opt to skip Jakarta to save the headaches. Java gets far more interesting as you leave the capital behind.
Java has many points of interest. Most famously, it’s home to Borobodur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. The nearby city of Yogjakarta is a cultural hub and a good base from which to visit Borobudur as well as other temples like Prambanan.
As you go further east on Java, you’ve got some incredible volcanos, such as the still-active Mt. Bromo (a spectacular sight especially at sunrise) and the blue-flame spewing Ijen volcano, where you can go right into its sulphur-spewing crater. Both these volcanos are popular sights, usually reached by either a short walk or a 4×4 ride—if you want more of a trekking experience you should look specifically into a trekking trip to Mount Bromo, or consider climbing Mount Rinjani on Lombok.
Many tourist sites around Java will be crowded with domestic tourists, including large groups of school children who may shower you with attention. They’ll want to take pictures or to practice English with you, and while this can be fun initially it can also get annoying quickly. Try to visit the popular tourist sites early in the morning to avoid being trailed by groups of overexcited teenage fans. Maybe that makes me sound like a sourpuss who doesn’t want to engage with the locals, but you’ll know what I mean when you get there!
Since Java is heavily populated and busier, it can be nice to put some quiet places in your itinerary. For example, I stayed an extra day in a small village near Mount Bromo, and spent the day just walking around the area (where I was constantly greeted by friendly locals) and having a nice bath in a volcanic thermal spa. This gave a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of Java’s cities and the crowds that gather at all the famous temples and viewpoints around the volcanoes. Java is a fascinating part of Indonesia, but I also think it’s best enjoyed in combination with the relative calm of the other islands. After all the buzz and excitement, it’s nice to have a break.
Bali is Indonesia’s main tourist destination. Here the vibe ranges widely from crass commercialism in Kuta, the main tourist area in the city of Denpasar, to pleasant and authentic further inland.
Kuta is a lot of things. To some Australians, it’s just a cheap place to drink yourself silly, and some do come here just for the weekend to go clubbing or boozing. There are backpackers too, as well as plenty of families on a holiday. It’s a bit of a congested maze of little streets and alleyways… with a mix of hostels, hotels, spas, tacky souvenir shops, scooter rentals, Western brand stores, McDonald’s, Starbucks, a Hard Rock cafe, and a whole lot more. You might find a nice local Indonesian warung tucked away somewhere, but it’s equally easy to have German schnitzel in a tacky tourist restaurant. On Kuta’s fringes, there are many high rise hotels along a (mostly disappointing) beach. As you can maybe tell, I’m not a big fan of Kuta.
Besides the Australian binge drinking or fly-and-flop holiday crowd, Bali also attracts an older and gentler tour crowd especially around the inland village of Ubud, a place incidentally made famous by the movie Eat Pray Love. While Ubud is pretty touristy, I find it is pleasantly so. There are many beautiful temples to visit in and around Ubud, the tourist shops sell genuinely impressive handicrafts and local art, and the surrounding hills are wonderful for an afternoon hike. Ubud also makes for a great central base from which to explore other parts of Bali, so if Kuta is not to your liking, you should try your chances in Ubud.
While Bali can be pricey in its most touristy parts, you can still easily travel there on a backpacker budget. Read how to travel in Bali for under $25 a day. You can also find some great information here on backpacking in Bali.
Rice fields in northern Bali
I think Bali truly shines inland. Consider renting a scooter so you can enjoy the wonderful rice terrace landscapes or visit temples at your own pace. Bali is also a great place for more active pursuits – there’s some amazing scuba diving in Amed and Nusa Lembongan, and you can go white water rafting and canyoning in central Bali as well.
Along the north and northeast coast many of the beaches have dark volcanic pebbles instead of powdery white sand, which means fewer people visit these parts… but that’s precisely what makes them great. Consider visiting the small fishing villages of Lovina and Amed, or take a boat to the small island of Nusa Lembongan. A popular activity in Lovina is to head out on a small boat for some dolphin spotting.
If you’re a scuba diver, I hugely recommend Amed/Talumben. This small town is right next to the wreck of the USAT Liberty, which once stranded relatively close to shore. You can literally walk from your dive shop into the sea, and then slowly descent from the shores right down to the wreck. Since no boat ride is required, dives cost very little. It’s a perfect place for getting your certification as well, and I saw prices cheaper than on Koh Tao, Thailand.
Mt Agung, northern Bali
Lombok is right next door to Bali, just a 2,5-hour boat ride away. It doesn’t have all the cute little houses and Hindu shrines that you find on Bali, and to some it might be lacking a sense of honeymoon romance. Lombok is a bit less explored and you might say a bit more rugged, but that also makes it a great place to go for something a bit different.
The main attraction is Mount Rinjani, a volcano that you can hike up to as part of many multi-day trekking tours. The various waterfalls, villages, etc. around the island are also well worth exploring. Kuta on Lombok (not to be confused with Kuta on Bali) is a small and low-key surfer town that’s fun to visit as well.
But the biggest magnet for visitors to Lombok are the Gili Islands, a group of three islands that have long been a backpacker favourite (although they’ve been going more upscale in recent years).
The biggest island, Gili Trawangan, is also the busiest. Trawangan sees an odd mix of tourists, ranging from backpackers to couples on holiday, to luxury tourists and maybe a corporate retreat or two in the handful of resorts. While only foot traffic and horse-drawn carriages are allowed on the island, it can be very busy along the main strip, not to mention there’s constant honking from passing horse carriages. For much quieter spots, rent a bicycle and go to the far side of the island.
Relaxed beaches on Gili Air
While not exactly 100% tranquil, Gili Trawangan has a lot to do and a fun bar scene as well. It’s sometimes referred to as a “party island”, but I think that creates the wrong image. It’s maybe better to say that it’s “an island where you can party”. The reggae bar Sama Sama has some live music almost every night, and there are several other bar parties regularly throughout the week. Before sunset, many people gather for friendly drinks at the Sunset Bar where there might be drums or fire dancers.
La Boheme is one of the best hostels on Gili Trawangan: go here to meet people. At night, there are friendly social drinks here, as opposed to the much more boozy Gili Hostel. The all-day pancake making station is also much appreciated.
For a more relaxing time,head to neighbouring Gili Meno or Gili Air. There aren’t as many people here, and the slow pace will feel like a breath of fresh air. Anything you can do on Trawangan (scuba diving, snorkelling, yoga, bike rental, etc.) you can also do on Gili Air, just don’t look for a big night out.
I went to the Gili Islands twice, and it was pretty trippy to come back to it two years later. It felt so much had changed… but was that only in my memories?
Nusa Tenggara (Flores)
Flores to me felt very much like an up-and-coming addition to the backpacker trail—tourism still seems in its infancy but you could easily see it becoming more popular in the future. Some people only go to Labuan Bajo (taking a flight from Lombok or Bali), as this town is right next to the Komodo National Park, Flores’ main attraction. But it’s also very much worth going further east from Labuan Bajo and exploring Flores itself.
I wrote a more detailed guide to Komodo and Flores, but will also give you the gist here.
Komodo National Park gives you the opportunity to scuba dive some of the world’s most beautiful reefs, as well as to see the giant Komodo dragon lizards in the wild. Meeting these crocodile-sized lizards might not meet everyone’s high expectations (travel companions of mine complained they were only sunbathing and barely moved!), but I still think it’s not something to miss out on. Just hiking around the islands is worthwhile in itself, and seeing the Komodo dragons is an awesome bonus. Just try not to get eaten…
Flores gets increasingly remote as you go east. Go this way if you don’t need everything handed to you on a platter and enjoy travelling just for the immersive experience. I loved exploring Flores by motorbike as all the kids from the villages will be excited to see a foreigner and come out to high-five you, and rice farmers will be waving at you all along the way.
There are some traditional villages you can visit on Flores, and the multi-coloured volcano lakes of Kelimutu are worth a look as well (though you’ll be dropped off at a parking space with visitor center 10 minutes from the craters—for a true volcano hike go to Rinjani on Lombok, or elsewhere). There are some tourist sights, but Flores is mostly about going somewhere relatively low-key and just enjoying the journey. As you can probably tell, I liked it a lot. Flores and the Komodo Islands, as well as my 3-day boat journey there starting from Lombok, were among the best things I’ve done in Indonesia.
Borneo is home to vast stretches of untouched rainforest, although much of it is also disappearing because of palm oil production. I did not go to the Indonesian part of Borneo as I only visited the more easily accessible Malaysian side. However, from visiting Borneo generally I can confirm that with the right guide it’s possible to see a ton of incredible wildlife including various species of monkeys, tropical birds, crocodiles, etc.
Sulawesi is the one place I wished to have also gone last time I was in Indonesia, but I didn’t have time before my visa ran out! It’s high on the list for when I return in the future. It’s mainly known for its many traditional ceremonies that still take place here. There are some key scuba diving destinations particularly in the north, though these tend to cater to more high-spending divers than the casual enthusiast. For the budget-conscious diver, I’ve heard nice things about Bira Dive Camp, a backpacker scuba diving on its southern coast.
Maluku and Papua
These are remote, lacking tourist infrastructure, or sometimes just lacking in infrastructure period. Relatively few people go to these parts, though I’ve heard whispers of wonderfully hidden islands and undiscovered beaches on the Malukus in particular.
There is some limited tourism on Papua, though prices for things like accommodation are higher than elsewhere—beware of this if travelling on a budget. Exploring Papua itself may require a special permit beyond just your standard visa; be sure to check the current regulations.
Travel cost in Indonesia
Indonesia is inexpensive, though there are some exceptions. Southern Bali with its luxury hotels and resorts can be very pricey, as are (maybe counterintuitively) the most remote places like Papua. While Indonesia used to be known as the region’s ultimate cheapie, it is now actually a bit more expensive than mainland Southeast Asia. Note that various park entrance fees have been increased a lot in recent years—for more information, check out my Southeast Asia Cost of Travel Overview.
Above: population density in Indonesia. Java can be chaotic and busy, while there is seemingly barely anyone in Nusa Tenggara. I found this map helpful in visualising what to expect.