The beautiful Indonesian islands in Southeast Asia have drawn travellers to their shores for decades.
With over 17 000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, there is plenty to see, but it can be confusing which island to choose when planning a trip to Indonesia.
The must-see main islands of Indonesia, like Bali, Gili Air and Java, offer visitors a cosmopolitan vibe, with many digital nomads living out their days in trendy cafes and on sandy beaches.
But head off the beaten track to places like the Banda islands, and you will find an authentic taste of colonial Indonesian alongside incredible natural features.
Whichever one of the Indonesian islands you choose, you will have the holiday of a lifetime.
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How to choose the right Indonesian Island
All travellers are looking for something different to experience, and a trip to the Indonesian islands offers visitors some very diverse experiences.
Expect to find incredible diving, bucket-list wildlife experiences and beach party vibes.
Or, for those looking to get away from it all, some of the Indonesian islands found off the beaten track will be untouched by mass tourism and retain their authenticity.
I have compiled this list of the best Indonesian islands to visit with the help of fellow travel writers who have experienced each one themselves.
Map of 15 Best Places to Visit in Indonesia
I bet you’ve already seen thousands of pictures of Bali on Instagram and in travel magazines – I know I did! The whole island seemed like paradise based on the photos, so naturally, it was at the top of my bucket list for a long time.
We spent two weeks in Bali on our first visit to the island, which has been one of my favourite travel experiences ever since.
We visited the island at the end of October, technically the start of the rainy season, but we got very lucky as we had perfect weather.
If you’re visiting Bali for the first time, I recommend going between April and September.
Although Bali seems like a teeny-tiny island on the map, it’s pretty big. We stayed in different parts of the island for a few days to discover individual areas.
The most popular way of getting around in Bali is to rent a scooter; however, the traffic is pretty overwhelming, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t have any prior experience.
We hired a private driver instead, so we didn’t have to worry about transportation; it was the best choice!
Favourite destinations in Bali
We started the trip in Canggu, home to some of Bali’s best cafes and restaurants. Then we spent a few days on the nearby Nusa Islands before moving to the cultural heart of Bali, Ubud.
For fabulous restaurants, I loved the Kynd Community in Seminyak (vegan), Lazy Cats Cafe in Ubud, and The Avocado Factory in Canggu.
This location was hands down my favourite part of the island, and it’s a great base to visit some of the best temples, waterfalls, and rice terraces in Bali.
We also took a day trip to East Bali from Ubud, where we visited the famous Pura Lempuyang Temple and climbed on top of Mount Batur.
For the last few days, we moved to Munduk in northern Bali. This part of the island is unique as it has a slightly different climate and is characterized by lush green mountains and misty lakes.
As you can see, Bali is diverse, and you can do anything from lying on the beach, surfing, and visiting waterfalls to volcano trekking, temple hunting, and so much more. It’s truly a paradise on Earth!
Insider Top Tip:
I loved Munduk Moding Plantation in the north, they have an epic infinity pool and the whole property is beautiful.
Nusa Penida, situated near Bali, is hands down my favourite island in Indonesia. I have visited twice and will return on my next visit to this part of the world; that’s how much I love Nusa.
I initially visited this Indonesian island to see the famous viewpoints of Kelingking Beach, Broken Beach and Angel Billabong, but Nusa Penida turned out to be so much more!
The best way to visit the island is to hire a scooter and go around to see all its epic spots – and there are quite a few!
Some must-see places include Diamond Beach, visiting Rumah Pohon Tree House at sunrise to fully appreciate its jaw-dropping scenery and swimming in Tembeling natural pool, a little off-beaten track.
My favourite activity was a boat tour and swimming with manta rays.
The first time I travelled to Nusa Penida was in June, and the weather was perfect – blue skies and 30 degrees Celsius; the second was at the end of the rainy season in March, and I had a few cloudy days with some rain.
I visited Penida island from Bali along with Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, two smaller islands nearby.
Nusa Penida is relatively small, but you need at least two days to explore most of its epic places. There is an excellent ferry service between the islands.
Insider Top Tip:
Make sure you go to Penida Colada Beach Bar, which is super cute and has fantastic vegetarian food and if you own a drone, visit Teletubbies Hills!
I visited the Indonesian island of Lombok to experience the beautiful white sand beaches, attend a yoga retreat and enjoy the slower pace of life on a less-developed island.
It also offered an interesting cultural contrast with the Hindu tradition of Bali, as most locals on Lombok are from the predominantly Muslim Sasak cultural group.
My trip to Indonesia took place in September, and the weather was consistently dry, warm and sunny.
The island of Lombok is similar to Bali in physical size and population.
Besides enjoying Lombok’s best white sand beaches, visitors can try surfing, snorkelling, cooking and yoga classes, waterfall hikes, climbing and trekking around the active volcano of Mount Rinjani or visit a textile and weaving cultural village experience.
A highlight for me was an evening at Ashtari, which featured a restaurant, lounge, and a covered outdoor yoga studio overlooking the ocean.
I visited this part of Indonesia on an island-hopping tour of Bali, Lombok and the Gili islands, and arrived from Gili Trawangan via a private-hire speed boat and returned to Bali on a public ferry.
I hired a private minibus to travel around the island of Lombok, but rental motorbikes are also popular.
My accommodation in Lombok was in the seaside village of Kuta Lombok at the Kuta Baru Hotel, which had a large outdoor pool area and offered wifi and daily breakfast.
Insider Top Tip:
A great beach I visited was Selong Belanak, which was ideal for learning to surf. We often saw herds of water buffalo walking along the beach!
One of my favourite islands in Indonesia is Java. It is located between Bali and Sumatra and is a real travel highlight of the country. We chose Java because of the impressive volcanoes, mountains and cultural sites to explore. We travelled to Java in April, and the weather was excellent: not too hot and hardly any rain.
Thanks to the excellent location, we arrived comfortably by ferry from the neighbouring island of Bali, with Java being the last stop on our island tour. As I said, the island is extensive; however, you can travel everywhere by bus or minibus. There are good connections to the capital by train.
Java is one of the largest Indonesian islands, with over 130 million inhabitants. 60% of the Indonesian population lives here. Thanks to the size of Java, we could experience some incredible sights.
Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple complex in the country, was an impressive landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I also particularly loved the Buddhist temple complex Borobudur. In addition, there are also numerous impressive natural wonders, such as the volcano Bromo and the sulfur volcano Ijen, where we did unforgettable hikes.
As an accommodation tip, we can recommend the Nextdoor Homestay in Yogyakarta. The lovely garden has a small pool, beanbags and a cosy atmosphere.
Insider Top Tip:
Head to Yogyakarta, which has made a name for itself as a cultural capital for its Indonesian street art and as a centre for yoga retreats.
When I visited Indonesia, one thing I wanted to do was an Orangutan trek.
The obvious place everyone mentions is Borneo; however, what put me off, was that most of the tours were over-invested, making them more expensive. After speaking with other travellers and researching, I decided on Sumatra island instead.
Sumatra is the largest island entirely within Indonesian territory; you could easily dedicate a whole trip to Indonesia on this island alone. However, my focus was on seeing orangutans in the wild. One of the best places to see them is near Bukit Lawang in the island’s north.
I travelled throughout Sumatra during July and August. Although it was warm and sunny most of the time, there were also daily downpours; I was in the rainforest, after all, so it did rain a lot; however, even during the nights, it was not cold.
The town of Bukit Lawang is a bit of a challenge to reach; this is also why Orangutan tours here are much quieter than on Borneo island.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
The nearest airport is in the city of Medan, which is 86km away, and from there, it’s over 4 hours by taxi to get to Bukit Lawang, the roads are slow and bumpy, but it’s a great insight into local life as you pass through many small towns. You could get a public bus from Medan; however, this does require a whole day of travel to make the connections.
Once in Bukit Lawang, you’ll find a small cluster of houses and accommodations straddling the Bahorok River, which runs through the centre. It’s in the heart of the jungle and nearby palm plantations. Bukit Lawang is the gateway to see Orangutans because it’s a stone’s throw from UNESCO-listed Gunung Leuser National Park.
Although Bukit Lawang has some basic shops and facilities, take everything you need for the jungle.
Waterproofs, bug repellants and clothes that are quick-drying and cover your arms and legs will protect you from mosquitos, flies and leeches.
Insider Top Tip:
In some parts of the jungle trek, you will have to wade through shallow rivers, so take shoes that can get wet and swimwear to bathe in the rivers at the camps.
Sulawesi is one of the biggest Indonesian islands and an excellent choice for travellers who want to get off the beaten path. It has everything, from stunning beaches and lush jungles to incredible culture and food.
Visiting the island has been an incredible experience for me; away from it all, I discovered a few places where the culture is truly unique.
There are some ferry routes to the island, but your best option is to fly to Manado or Makassar. The weather is pretty consistent year-round (hot and humid).
The island is massive, so consider transportation time when planning your Sulawesi itinerary; you will lose a day when going from one place to another. You can more or less easily travel via public transportation although renting a car can be a more comfortable way of travelling.
Must-see locations on Sulawesi
If you want a lovely beach and great diving, head to Bira, a laid-back town with a quiet atmosphere. For unique cultural experiences, take a boat tour on Lake Tempe and visit a traditional floating village. Make sure to visit Tana Toraja, where people have unique burial traditions you won’t see anywhere else on earth.
In Bira Beach, I stayed at Salassa Guesthouse. The place was basic but conveniently located; the owners were friendly and helpful, serving delicious food.
To get more off-the-beaten path, head to Lore Lindu National Park, where you can trek to see many endemic bird species and centuries-old megaliths.
Lastly, please spend a few days on the Togian Islands, relaxing at the beach and swimming with jellyfish (don’t worry, they are harmless).
Insider Top Tip:
Make sure to try Pisang Ijo and Mi Titi, some of my favourite Indonesian dishes from Sulawesi.
The Togian Islands are some of the most remote off-the-beaten-path islands that make up the country of Indonesia and comprise an archipelago of 56 tiny islands in the Gulf of Tomini, close to the island of Sulawesi.
The islands are dreamy, with crystal-clear water, powder-white beaches and tropical jungles. The untouched coral reefs and clean water create fantastic conditions for diving.
My mission to explore the best dive sites in Asia and my curiosity to visit an authentic ‘sea gypsy’ settlement took me here. I went to this tropical island paradise in late May, during the dry season that stretches from March to December, which is also a good time for diving.
The highlights of scuba diving from Kadidiri were the spectacular untouched reefs and diving on the wreck of a B24 Bomber plane that crash-landed during WWII, now covered in marine life.
The Bajo settlement, Pulao Papan, is an unreal cultural experience. Here we could see how these ocean-dwelling “sea gypsies” of Indonesia and Malaysia have lived a nomadic lifestyle on the water for centuries. We stayed in their village raised above the water on poles and joined them spearfishing wearing wooden goggles and traditional equipment.
Incredibly, these unique islands remain off the main tourist trail; however, travelling to the Togian Islands is not easy and takes two days by ferry and speedboat. I stayed on the small island of Kadidiri at Black Marlin dive resort, an excellent place to stay with lovely accommodations, a restaurant and a dive centre.
Insider Top Tip:
Swim in the jellyfish lake, Mariona lake, where the unique jellies have lost their poisonous sting. This activity is something that can only be done in a handful of places in the world.
Karimunjawa is the biggest island in the Karimun Jawa archipelago consisting of 27 islands, some of which are part of a marine reserve.
I travelled to Karimunjawa in early October, when the weather was pleasantly warm, with a few rain showers.
I visited the Indonesian islands as a part of a guided tour and stayed on the island for three days, and one of them was completely rainy; on the other two, there were rain showers for a few minutes, and that’s it.
My guide hadn’t been to Karimunjawa before, but he thought these secluded Indonesian islands would be interesting as they are less touristy and more authentic than others in the region.
Karimunjawa is great if you want to go snorkelling; this was my favourite part of the stay. It was a full-day trip visiting several nearby islands, seeing corals and the sea life, having fresh fish for lunch, and viewing a sunset from a swing on an uninhabited island.
From my experience, Karimunjawa is great for snorkelling or just exploring a small island for a few days. There are some lovely white sand beaches, a few cute hotels, and just one small town where you can find a scooter rental, a small market, and a few cafes.
I went to Karimunjawa from Jepara on Java island by ferry and returned on a speedboat. I highly recommend the speedboat if your budget allows it.
Insider Top Tip:
Karimun Lumbung is a cute accommodation in private huts that you should consider for your stay.
I spent three weeks on Gili Air in Indonesia as part of my 2-year backpacking trip and chose this island because it seemed like a great place to create a relaxing home base for a longer-term stay.
It has a mix of everything that travellers may be looking for: sandy beaches, snorkelling and diving, nightlife, and great restaurants and hotels for a low price. It also offers a gym, cooking classes, a shopping street, and a yoga and meditation studio.
I arrived on Gili Air, directly from Bali, during the rainy season in January. Although it rained often, it would come only in short bursts leaving plenty of time to enjoy the sunshine and otherwise hot and humid island weather.
Travellers can easily reach Gili Air from the other Gili Islands in Indonesia and nearby Lombok and Bali. Plenty of speed boats and larger ferries run services multiple times per day between these islands.
At only 5 square kilometres, Gili Air is one of the smallest islands I’ve visited. You’re never more than 30 minutes away from anything on foot or 10 minutes away by bicycle.
Chill out on Gili Air
My favourite activity on Gili Air was hanging out at the many beachside cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Many have bean bags or cabanas, decorative lights, live music, and plenty of cheap food and drinks, making it easy for travellers to spend all day living the best island life.
While on the island, I stayed at Bel Air Resort, which has beautiful rooms at mid-range prices. Each room has a private courtyard and outdoor shower. The resort has a large pool and a restaurant where guests can enjoy a complimentary breakfast with ocean views every morning.
Insider Top Tip:
The waters around Gili Air are relatively shallow, making it easy to go snorkelling on your own to see marine wildlife. Although I didn’t see any sea turtles, a few of them have been seen just off the coast!
The main thing that inspired us to visit Belitung Island was the boat tours. Belitung is surrounded by many tiny islands and granite rock formations, making it heaven for island-hopping boat tours!
In July, we travelled to Belitung, the middle of Indonesia’s dry season, but we still ran into a few rainy days. The island seems to be slightly rainier than average for Indonesia, but thankfully we had planned some buffer days for this, and most of the weather on our trip was great.
The island of Belitung is located off the east coast of Sumatra and almost as big as Bali (about 4,800 square kilometres), so it’s a decent size, but it’s still pretty easy to navigate. The main town area is Tanjung Pandan, which has plenty of hotels, restaurants, and an airport with flights from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
There are many good things to see and do on Belitung island by driving around, but our favourite activity was probably Indonesian island hopping. You can explore the island by car or scooter, and there’s very little traffic on the roads outside of town. We usually avoid renting motorbikes, but the lack of traffic made this island perfect for scooters!
I stayed at MaxOneHotels Belstar, which was friendly and affordable.
Insider Top Tip:
We enjoyed Lengkuas island and the sunsets at Tanjung Tinggi beach. These are two of the most photogenic beaches on the island.
The Banda Islands in Maluku province is a tiny archipelago that is quite difficult to reach, but it’s my favourite island in Indonesia.
I came to the Bandas searching for incredible snorkelling and seeing the historical legacy of Indonesia’s colonial era. The Bandas indeed delivered! These islands have some of the best snorkelling on earth, and the Spice Islands of fame are peppered with colonial forts, mansions, churches and history from the VOC period.
The weather in Banda is different from the rest of the Indonesian island. While June to September is dry and sunny elsewhere, the Bandas experience the height of the rainy season. I came in July, and it was WET! It rained daily and came down in heavy torrential downpours that lasted a few hours before clearing up.
There are a few guesthouses and warungs, and that’s about it. No cars are on the island; you can walk around it in a few hours. It truly is a quiet and off-the-beaten-path experience.
The snorkelling in the Banda islands is out of this world and the best I’ve ever experienced. If you are looking for big fish such as Napoleons or Baracuda, Keraka island is the place to be. For the best coral and sheer amount and variety of fish, get a boat to take you out to the lava flow on the side of the volcano. Climbing to the top of the volcano gives you a sweeping view of the entire island group.
I reached the Bandas by the twice-monthly ferry from Ambon and continued on to the Kei Islands afterwards.
Insider Top Tip:
Vita Guesthouse in Bandaneira is a great place to stay, and their nutmeg jam pancakes are fantastic!
Flores Island might not be on the tourist radar when it comes to travel in Indonesia, and yet, this hidden gem offers a different side compared to popular tourism mainstays like Bali or Lombok.
Most tourists come to Flores because of its proximity to Komodo National Park, home to mysterious Komodo dragons, pristine pink beaches and smouldering volcanoes that mass tourism hasn’t reached.
But that’s not everything that there is to this part of Indonesia.
The good news is that Flores is a big island, and you could spend weeks here getting off the beaten track. However, most tourists only come for a few days to visit Komodo National Park before flying back to Bali or Jakarta.
Visiting the dragons on Komodo Island
Visiting Komodo National Park is possible only with an organized tour with a guide who knows how to spot Komodo dragons and behave around them without jeopardizing everybody’s safety. Komodo dragons reach up to 10 feet (or 3 meters) and can easily eat a full-size deer.
Another famous attraction of the Komodo National Park is the famous pink beach. The pink colour originates from the pigment created by the coral reefs and creates a stunning natural effect. Many tours offer snorkelling equipment to see the stunning corals within 10 feet of the beach.
If you want to escape the crowds, consider visiting the incredible tri-coloured lakes of acid volcanic water in Kelimutu.
I visited Flores in September and had an incredible time with hot and sunny weather and the temperature staying in the 80s most of the time.
Since the island is relatively undeveloped, your best bet is to visit some of the most popular places with an organized tour from Labuan Bajo, the island’s capital.
Insider Top Tip:
I stayed at SeaEsta Komodo Hostel and Hotel and highly recommend it to all travellers!
Let’s talk about a lesser-known Indonesian island destination, West Timor, located on the western half of the island of Timor in the East Nusa Tenggara province. Although easily accessible, West Timor is not on the regular tourist path.
I flew into Indonesia from overseas and changed to a domestic flight in Jakarta.
Within Indonesia, you can fly to Timor from Sumba, Flores, Java and Bali.
There are also ferries from Flores and Sumba you can catch to Timor.
Of course, there are beautiful beaches, but I went to see the other unique natural wonders of West Timor.
Some free natural wonders in and near the capital Kupang include an underground lake (Goa Kristal or Crystal Cave), waterfalls, river caves, and a mountain.
When heading outside of Kupang, I borrowed my friend’s moped to partake in the adventure that is driving on West Timor roads!
And within Kupang, I walked and used ‘disco buses’, locals with mopeds/motorbikes who offer short rides for a fee. Visitors to Timor can also hire mopeds.
Christmas is an exciting and colourful time in Kupang, but it is the wet season from December to April, so if you are not a fan of the rain better to travel in the months from May to November.
Insider Top Tip:
I was lucky enough to have my friend cook Indonesian delights for me. If you don’t have friends in Kupang, head to Cafe Tebing, near Bolok, for great food and views.
West Papua – New Guinea
When it comes to scuba diving, it’s hard to beat Raja Ampat in Indonesia.
Located to the east, off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, Raja Ampat offers some of the best scuba diving in the world. With turquoise water, spectacular coral reefs and the chance to see giant Manta Rays, turtles, dolphins, whales, hundreds of fish species, and tiny creatures, such as stunning little nudibranchs, it’s hard to beat.
Above water, Raja Ampat is gorgeous, with a plethora of jungle-covered islands, white sand beaches and tropical birds.
To get there, it’s usually best to fly into West Papua and spend the night in Sorong before joining one of the many liveaboards for a week of boating throughout the islands.
Getting on a boat is practically the only way to enjoy this area, as most of the magic lies within the Raja Ampat archipelago, once used as a route to trade spices.
While it’s undoubtedly a beautiful place to visit for any adventurer, there’s a lot of magic under the water for those willing to strap an oxygen tank to their back. As someone who loves scuba diving, visiting Raja Ampat was a bucket list opportunity.
As a budget traveller, I chose Wicked Diving, a budget liveaboard diving cruise around Indonesia.
Insider Top Tip:
It’s a fabulous year-round destination, but for Raja Ampat diving, the best months are from September to April as that’s when larger numbers of Manta Rays can be seen.
When I planned our three-week trip to Indonesia, I couldn’t wait to take my four children and my husband to Borneo to trek orangutans in the wild. It was a dream for me to see these endangered majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
I booked four days at the Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge in Tanjung Punting National Park in Borneo at the end of March. It was hot and muggy but bug-free.
Borneo is Asia’s largest island and the third-largest island in the world. It is divided into Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, with Tanjung Punting located in Indonesia.
Tanjung Punting National Park contains 1,174 square miles of swamplands and rivers which connect to the Java Sea.
It is the world’s most significant and diverse coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest. In addition to orangutans, it has remarkable wildlife, including nine primate species, hundreds of birds, snakes, and crocodiles.
How to Get to Tanjung Punting National Park
It isn’t far from Bali, but getting there is not easy as there aren’t any direct flights to Pangkalan Bun airport in Borneo.
Instead, you will have to take two flights totalling 2 ½ hours. If you are flying from another island like us (we flew from Ende airport on Flores), we had to take four flights with a required stay in Bali for the night because of the timing of each of the flights. Each flight was only 1-2 hours long, but they added up.
Once you land in Pangkalan Bun, it is a 30-minute drive to the port and then another 2 ½ hours on a Klotok, a type of floating houseboat, to reach Rimba Lodge, located at the boundary of Tanjung Punting National Park.
We paid a flat rate per person for our accommodation, food, all transportation, and daily tours. The lodge cannot sell alcohol, but you can bring your own.
Our experiences were simply extraordinary. We boated along the river and saw wildlife all around us. We hiked into the jungle, saw dozens of orangutans, and learned about nature, trees, and their life-saving medicinal benefits.
Insider Top Tip:
Make sure you bring proper enclosed walking shoes for jungle trips.
In conclusion, Indonesia has diverse cultures, languages, and religions. The country’s natural beauty, delicious cuisine, and friendly people make it an ideal destination for travellers worldwide. Whatever your budget, Indonesia remains a vibrant and dynamic place worth visiting and exploring further.
A popular way to see the Indonesian islands is by cruising on a luxurious vessel, which enables you to enjoy the most rewarding coastal cruise itineraries in the world.
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