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When you think of Indonesia, you’re sure to conjure images of its most famous island, Bali. But this small volcanic island is just one part of what is a rather mind-bogglingly big country. With over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is a whole world waiting to be explored.
When exploring different parts of the country, you’ll find that the languages, culinary traditions, and religions can shift dramatically. You might hear the morning call to prayer in Yogyakarta, but wake up to church bells in Flores, or enjoy the twinkling waters around the laid back Gillis, before meeting orangutans deep in wild Sumatra.
But with so many options, how do you decide where to go in Indonesia? Below, we’ve shared some recommended destinations, as well as some tips on how to best combine Bali with the other lush islands in Indonesia.
Sumatra is best for wild jungles, volcanic lakes and orangutans.
It’s the island nearest to Malaysia and Singapore and is one of Indonesia’s less-visited islands, though it also holds some of the most rewarding experiences. With untamed jungles and more than 10 national parks, you’ll have many chances to spot different species of monkeys, tropical birds, and other exotic animals. In Bukit Lawang, you can even meet semi-wild orangutans.
Along the shores of the volcanic lakes of Mininjau and Toba, you’ll find an inviting and laidback atmosphere. Tourism still has a “roads-less-travelled” feel on Sumatra, making it a perfect itinerary addition for any intrepid explorer
Java is best for ancient temples, city culture and rumbling volcanoes.
As the most populated Indonesian island, Java often has the liveliest character. City streets whirl with cyclists, tuk-tuks and motorbikes, while its many cultural sights are visited by domestic and international tourists alike. Jakarta is notoriously congested and has little to offer visitors, though Java truly shines as you head east from the capital. Java’s cultural hub of Yogyakarta is home to countless palaces and heritage buildings, as well as two of the most mesmerising temple complexes in Southeast Asia: the Hindu temple of Prambanan and Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. For some wonderful tranquillity, head to places like Lembang, situated among rolling green hills and tea plantations.
Java also has two of the most impressive volcanoes in Indonesia. The views of Mt. Bromo in East Java are stunning, with volcanic craters creating a lunar-like landscape. The sulfur-spewing Ijen volcano, in turn, is unique in the world as it glows blue at night—a sight you’ll not forget.
Bali is best for beaches, traditional arts and rice terraces.
Bali is Indonesia’s most popular destination and with good reason. Its iconic temples, rice terraces and beaches put this island paradise firmly on the map. The south is the most touristy part, particularly around Kuta. It can be very busy and congested here, though it’s obviously the picturesque beaches that draw the crowds to this side of the island.
Distances on Bali are very manageable which makes travelling on this island a breeze. Just a couple of hours inland from Kuta is Ubud, a more cultural destination, brimming with temples and a thriving art scene. Here, you can find authentic experiences, especially along the northern coast, for instance around Lovina, where lush green rice terraces and small fishing villages define the landscape. Fewer tourists make it out to these parts as they’re further from the airport and not all of the beaches here are sandy (some are covered in beautiful black volcanic pebbles). However, it’s a side of Bali that is sure to appeal to anyone wanting to get the proper Bali experience.
Lombok and the Gili Islands
Lombok and the Gili Islands are best for laid-back islands and volcano trekking.
Lombok sits just a two-hour boat ride or a 20-minute flight from Bali. While it may lack the Hindu temples and culture that give Bali so much charm, Lombok is a more modest and peaceful island just a stone’s throw away.
Lombok’s beautiful white-sand beaches are pleasantly low-key and its jungle interior and green rice paddies invite you to explore. The island is great for escaping the crowds, seeing authentic Indonesia, and still having a beach nearly to yourself.
At the heart of Lombok also stands Mount Rinjani, an active volcano that rises to 3,726 metres. It’s a popular trekking destination, with a typical choice of 2- or 3-day treks up to the crater summit. Mount Rinjani is different from the volcanoes on Java or Flores, which are usually easier to reach by car or have shorter hikes up to a panoramic view. Rinjani is favoured by those looking for more of a climb, and the breathtaking sunrise views of the crater lake make this well worth the effort.
Along the northwest of Lombok, you’ll find a series of three islands collectively named the Gilis. The biggest, Gili Trawangan, is a busy island mostly frequented by backpackers. For more of a Robinson Crusoe feel, we recommend the wonderfully quiet Gili Meno. View our Gilis and Lombok trips.
Flores is best for seeing Komodo dragons and authentic, rural Indonesia.
The Komodo Islands off the coast of Flores are famously the only place where you can find the legendary Komodo Dragons. Guided by a park ranger, you can meet these ferocious reptiles in their natural habitat (don’t worry, it’s safe!). The Komodo Islands are also increasingly gaining fame as a scuba diving and snorkelling paradise, as the area has some of the highest marine biodiversity on the planet.
Flores itself is wonderfully low-key, with just a single ‘highway’ running through its interior (it’s actually just a quiet two-lane country road). Originally named by the Portuguese, the island of Flores is mainly Catholic, which gives it a distinctly different feel to other parts of Indonesia.
The quiet roads lead you to various traditional tribal villages, as well as the three multi-coloured crater lakes of Kelimutu volcano. Flores is the perfect choice for seeing a different slice of Indonesia.
Best islands to combine with Bali
While Bali is one of the highlights of Indonesia, it’s also a perfect gateway to the many other islands. If you are planning a holiday within a specific time-frame, you may wish to choose islands that are closer together, in order to minimise transit times while getting a varied sample of what Indonesia has to offer.
Several islands combine especially well with Bali. In particular, we suggest the following combinations:
Java & Bali – Bali, Lombok & the Gilis – Bali, Flores & Komodo.
Our top Indonesia itineraries
From 12 days / 11 nights (flexible)
Indonesia, Yogyakarta - Sukuh - Malang - Mount Bromo - Palangkaraya - Bapallas Island - Sanur