Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, with literally tens of thousands of islands, 8000 of which support human life. With its several hundred languages and distinct island cultures, Indonesia is as diverse a place as any. It’s a far cry from only welcoming the beach resort crowd. Adventure tourists, cultural experts, nature lovers and casual travelers will all be dazzled by the islands, their people, the history, the landscape and the ecosystems.
When many think of Indonesia, Bali first comes to mind. Bali is indeed the biggest tourist attraction in Indonesia, and when visiting you will be amazed with the beauty and the plethora of opportunities for tourist activities. However, Bali is far from being the only place in Indonesia worth visiting.
Whether you’re exploring the big, buzzing cities or sightseeing at one of the daunting Buddhist or Hindu temples, Java is an island that should definitely make your itinerary. Lombok, which neighbors Bali immediately to the east, is Bali’s less travelled counterpart, making it an appealing alternative for many tourists. There is so much more in Indonesia just waiting to be discovered. You’ll simply have to keep reading to find out the top twelve best places to visit in this incredible archipelago.
Okay, we admit it. Bali is an absolutely amazing place to visit. Whether it’s the urban life and white sandy beaches of the south, the dynamic culture of central Bali and Ubud, the incredible landscapes of the east, or the stunning nature of the west, you will find that the island of Bali has plenty to tempt you to miss your flight home. It is a compact island with much to share – there’s a reason it is one of the top tourist destinations in the world.
To get a feeling of the unique Balinese religious culture, head to the temple Pura Luhur Batukau, a structure that is not as touristy as the others and is surrounded by jungle and the second largest mountain in Bali. Check out the neighboring rice fields as well. More rice fields can be found in Ubud, where serenity is unavoidable and green is found everywhere.
If you’re more interested in parties and beachside cocktails, Gili Trawangan is for you. You’ll be well taken care of in this glamorous tourist hotspot. Many take a quick boat ride over from Bali, spend a couple nights, and then head back to the main island.
As far as cities go, Jakarta is one of the best. While it isn’t always on the map for tourists visiting Indonesia, Jakarta is a lively city with a population of nearly 10 million. As Indonesia’s largest, richest city, Jakarta certainly deserves some attention. This bustling city has everything a wealthy big city should: huge hotels, silver skyscrapers, glitzy condos and popular shopping malls. The further out you go, the more rural the architecture feels – people have been migrating to Jakarta from all over Indonesia for generations and settling on the outskirts of town.
You also shouldn’t visit Jakarta without seeing the National Museum, which is 200 years old and a well-known icon. It will help you better understand the natural and human history of Indonesia, and you can also see a cool elephant statue.
The nightlife in Jakarta is active and fun, with plenty’ of bars and clubs to choose from. Check out the expat favorite street, Jalan Jaksa, for some lively ones – and lots of food options, as well. To relax the next morning, try out a traditional Indonesian massage. For tons of exciting (albeit rather cheesy) fun, head to Ancol Dreamland, also called Taman Impian Java Ancol. It’s open 24 hours a day and has all sorts of theme parks and other activity options. An art market, Seaworld, and even paintball are available here — among dozens of other things to choose from.
This Buddhist temple complex, located in central Java, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that won’t disappoint. Stemming back to the 8th century, this temple is the biggest Buddhist building in the world, so don’t be surprised when your jaw drops at the sheer magnitude of the place. Standing proudly in front of more than one active volcano, you will really feel the importance of this incredible temple. Without a doubt, Borobudur should be on everyone’s list of world landmarks to visit.
If you prefer, you can hire a guide to tell you more about the details of the structure, but make sure to book at least the night before to ensure you have a quality one the next morning. Plenty of people also choose to visit individually and walk around at their own pace – either way, you won’t be disappointed with this experience.
You’ll get to feast your eyes on hundreds of Buddha statues and numerous levels of grey andesite stone (also simply called “temple stone,’’ or batu candi). Climbing up to the top isn’t the easiest walk in the world, but it’s difficult to ignore the temptation to make it all the way. Your ticket likely gets you a free bottle of water (and a coffee), so take advantage of it before you make the climb.
04. Komodo National Park
Spanning three islands of the Indonesian archipelago (Komodo, Rinca and Padar), Komodo National Park is famous for a reason you may have already guessed: Komodo dragons. This park is of immense biological importance and is protected not only as a national park (since 1980), but also as a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve, both titles granted by UNESCO in 1986. Other endemic species besides the famous Komodo dragon live in the park, so your visit will include glimpses of wildlife that you would never see anywhere else in the world.
Another good reason to visit Komodo National Park is to enjoy the amazing beaches and pure, colorful corals. These can be enjoyed best with scuba diving, kayaking or boat tours. Just make sure you don’t do anything without an experienced guide. Not only isn’t it allowed, but it is unsafe, given the prevalence of the planet’s largest reptilian predator. After a day of swimming or enjoying the beaches, be sure to hang around for nightfall in order to view the incredibly starry skies over the Flores Sea.
Long a little known hidden gem in terms of travel destinations, Lombok is the island located immediately east of Bali in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. It is an island famous for its rural, traditional lifestyle, but is becoming more well-known for its lovely southern beaches as well as the green flora of the west. Lombok’s culture treasures a harmonious society, meaning visitors are welcome and conflicts are minimal. Generally, tourists come to Lombok via Bali, making the contrast between the two islands all the more obvious.
For a different sort of beauty altogether, you will not want to miss the Taman Nasional Gunung Rinjani (Mount Rinjani National Park), famous for its challenging hiking trails and gigantic volcano. In this park you will definitely need to check out Danau Segara Anak, a deep blue lake surrounded by rocky cliffs, and if you can manage it then a climb up Gunung Rinjani is also in order – the incredible views from this highest spot on the island should motivate you to make it to the top.
Easily the most popular Java destination for tourists, Yogyakarta (usually shortened to “Yogya”) serves as a convenient base location for a visit to Borobudur and the Prambanan Hindu temples. That being said, Yogya is a town worth visiting in its own right, as it includes interesting sights like the Sultan’s Palace, the ruins of water gardens, a flashy bird market and the walled kraton area. In terms of culture, Yogya could be considered Java’s capital. You will find comfortable accommodation, exciting tourist packages, and a hip, young population in Yogya due to the university presence – we’re certain you’ll love it.
Of course, the unique and historic kraton also merits a visit. It is a palace and surrounding area, all walled in, built in the mid-1700s. It is also home to a crowded array of shops, private homes and markets. The kraton itself actually extends for more than a kilometer and is able to support thousands of people.
Kota Gede will illustrate the fact that Yogya was once the ancient Islamic Mataram capital – although if s now a Yogya suburb and the center of the silver industry. The town dates back to the 1500s, founded by Panembahan Senopat, whose tomb can be found in the southern part of the town.
Pasar Ngasem is Yogya’s bird market, which is exactly what it sounds like: a market selling live birds. Some legal, others not, the wide array of colorful bird species here is astonishing. Then head over to the neighboring Taman Sari or “water castle,” which is a site of a former royal garden along with ruins and pools.
07. Tana Toraja
Located on the island of Sulawesi, Tana Toraja is an area of fascinating culture and breathtaking scenery. Visitors come here to catch a glimpse of traditional rituals and unique, colorful architecture set amid a surrounding wall of mountains. The Toraja’s funeral ceremonies in particular are world famous, although the countryside has seen just a few travelers. You will be welcomed and treated with loving hospitality, and when trekking around you’ll get a sense of true isolation from Western life.
Before you leave, try out the local alcoholic beverage, called ballok. The darker it is, the stronger it is – but you won’t need much to feel the effects. Also be sure to try the coffee – it’s better and less expensive than finding it anywhere else, and is famous for its quality.
Bunaken is an island in the Indonesian archipelago that is world famous for one main reason: incredible diving opportunities. The Bunaken National Marine Park is located here, although this park also includes the islands of Manado Tua, Siladen, Mantehage, Nain and Nain Kecil – encompassing nearly 900 square meters in total. The national park is beloved especially due to its crystal clear water, amazing and diverse fish and coral, and supposedly the best dive spot in all of Indonesia. If you’re a diver, you definitely won’t want to miss it.
But let’s get back to diving. There are dive shops around that can arrange dives for beginners and experts alike, although generally the best dives are only for intermediate or advanced divers. The best dive spot in the park (and in Indonesia) is considered to be Bunaken Timur.
Snorkeling, the casual tourist’s favorite adventure activity, is possible at any resort on the island and will not disappoint, given the wide array of marine life swimming around here. Tip: never snorkel without fins, as the tide could prove too strong for feet alone.
09. Mount Bromo
Known to the locals as Gunung Bromo, this towering volcano (2329 meters high) is one of the most visited places on the island of Java. It is located within Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park and is known to many as the most memorable experience from their holiday in Indonesia. Tons of tourists wake up early to spend the sunrise here – and the loss of sleep is well worth the sunrise views. Unfortunately, mass tourism is a problem here during the high season, so don’t be surprised if you’re accompanied by droves of other picture-taking foreigners (even at 5 o’clock in the morning).
Experienced hikers will love this national park, as there are a wide variety of hiking trails available to mold your own visit schedule. There are plenty of spots to acquire maps or information, making it a user-friendly place to explore. If you have the time, another place in the park that you will want to get to is the Madakaripura waterfall, which is located within the national park’s foothills and is best reached by car.
10. Raja Ampat
Located on the furthest east province of Papua, Raja Ampat encompasses four major islands: Waigeo, Misool, Salawati, and Batanta. Whether you’re there to kayak, snorkel, see ancient rock paintings, trek or scuba dive, Raja Ampat has it all. You can enjoy a number of activities here while amongst the incredible natural formations and biodiversity of the area. Underwater photographers can’t get enough of this place – and, assuming you use goggles to glance underwater once or twice, you’ll quickly see why.
One of the best ways to experience Raja Ampat, however, is by hiring a small boat to go about discovering new things on your own — this type of experience never gets old, what with the four main islands and the hundreds of tiny ones next to them. You’ll find amazing birds, plant life, caves and waterfalls aplenty along the way.
For a picture of some of the local traditional culture, check out North and West Waigeo for a bamboo flute performance. It is usually performed during special events such as religious holidays, Independence Day in August or for particularly important visitors. For a natural phenomenon that is equally interesting on East Waigeo, year-end visitors can catch a few minutes of the Sea Ghost, a yearly occurrence where a mysterious light emerges from the ocean and flits about on land for 15 minutes or so, and then disappears and is never seen again until 365 days later. It is truly a once-in- a-lifetime experience.
For some human history check out the Tomolol caves, which feature cave paintings from ancient times. Other interesting caves are located on North Waigeo, but for different reasons; the Dutch and Japanese troops once built bunkers there.