Made up of more than 17,500 islands that stretch almost 5,000 kilometers along the equator, Indonesia isn’t a country lacking variety. The world’s fourth most populous nation blends diverse cultures, traditions, foods and landscapes that are just ripe for exploration. But with so many potential destinations, which Indonesian islands should you visit?
First on any list of the best islands to visit in Indonesia should be Bali, the ‘Island of the Gods’. Undoubtedly the most well-known of any of the islands, Bali offers visitors an Indonesia in miniature, with a varied landscape that ranges from traditional rice terraces to the active volcano Mount Batur, breath-taking beaches, an intriguing Hindu culture, and a famed nightlife. Nor can we fail to mention the world-class surfing and scuba diving on offer.
Check out our travel guide on Best time to visit Bali.
More rarely visited, Ternate is the provincial capital of the Maluku Islands (perhaps better known as the Moluccas), west of New Guinea. Since the trade in valuable spices such as nutmeg began here, Ternate was fiercely defended, and boasts an impressive collection of colonial-era fortifications. Above all you won’t want to miss Fort Oranje, the Dutch East India Company’s local headquarters for many years.
A relaxing boat ride away from Bali, Gili Trawangan is one of the trio of the Gili Islands small enough to be explored by bicycle in a few hours. Adding to the overall ambience of slow-paced tropical idyll is the ban on motor vehicles, making it one of the quietest Indonesian island escapes for those seeking some head space. An island of two halves, it’s possible to explore the serene inland villages by day before heading to the thriving bohemian bar scene by night.
Home to Bunaken National Marine Park, this island off the north-eastern tip of Sulawesi is a magnet for snorkelers and divers since it harbors 70% of all the regions fish species and boasts underwater visibility of up to 35 meters in the summer months. While more experienced divers will be eager to take on the trickier and deeper spots, corals in the shallows close to shore mean even first-time snorkelers can have amazing underwater encounters.
There’s only one island in the world where you can find Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizard, and that’s Komodo. The main attraction are the dragons, which can be admired with a ranger escort from a series of paths that take in the best of the island, but you should also be sure to visit Pink Beach, Pantai Merah. It’s one of only seven pink sand beaches in the world (the result of microscopic pieces of coral mixing with the sand), and a popular spot with snorkelers because of the hundreds of species of coral found there.
Planning a trip to Komodo island? Make sure to check out our Top tips for visiting Komodo Island.
Considered one of the best Indonesian islands to visit alongside Bali, neighboring Lombok is popular with backpackers, who cluster around the surfing beaches of Kuta due to its laid-back vibe. There are lots of experiences to be had here. The island’s largest city, Mataram, hails some significant sights, including a stunning eighteenth-century water palace, and a ‘fountain of youth’ in Narmada Park that promises a long life for anyone who drinks from it, while Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, Gunung Rinjani, is a huge lure for hikers.
Nature lovers will adore the four Wakatobi Islands, south of Sulawesi. Part of Wakatobi Marine Reserve, the few who make the journey from Bali can explore the islands’ untouched earthly habitats before disappearing beneath the waves with either snorkel or scuba apparatus into what is thought of by many as one of Indonesia’s best dive spots. For the local touch, head to one of the homestays on Kaledupa island.
Part of the larger Raja Ampat island group in West Papua, Wai is possibly the most difficult of any Indonesian island to reach due to its geographical isolation. The reward for doing so is an island formed from a coral atoll peeking through the waves, covered in white sand beaches and completely encircled by crystal clear waters that abound with corals and colorful fish. And having made it this far, it would be foolish not to explore Raja Ampat further. Head to Piaynemo for extensive views of the 1,500 islands that make up the group, or the jungles of Arborek and Salawati for the chance to catch sight of the majestic birds of paradise.
To the east of Sumatra, the seven Bangka-Belitung islands are well known to Indonesians but rarely visited by foreign tourists. Encompassing a mixture of local flora and fauna and mesmerizing granite rock formations, it’s relatively straightforward to visit the islands, with boat tours allowing you to hop between the islands’ perfect beaches as your whim dictates. What’s more, head inland and you’ll discover a world of well-preserved colonial buildings from the Dutch period of rule.
One of the Derawan islands, off the east coast of Indonesian Borneo, Kakaban is rapidly becoming a must see because of its quirky wildlife. Home to giant clams and coconut crabs, the main draw is the chance to swim with stingless jellyfish. Growing as large as an adult’s hand, four species of these delicate creatures while away their lives in a large lake at the center of the island, surrounded by lush rainforest and stunning limestone rock formations.
Close to Komodo and named after the Portuguese word for flowers, it’s no surprise that the beauty of Flores’ flora and fauna has been on the tourist radar some time. But away from the mountains, lakes, and beaches that create its wondrous landscapes, the island is home to a number of different ethnic groups each with its own customs and traditions, making it an intriguing cultural destination too.
One of the ‘Thousand Islands’ in the Bay of Jakarta, the popularity of Seribu is largely due to its proximity to the capital, making it a great weekend getaway if you’re short of time. Surely one of the best islands in Indonesia for this reason alone, its closeness to Jakarta does nothing to take away from the island’s allure, with swimming, diving, sunbathing and snorkeling all on offer for those seeking out some much needed rest and relaxation.
It may be the largest of the Indonesian islands, but Sumatra has never received huge numbers of visitors. Now opening up to tourism, you can see the immense landscapes of tropical rainforest and protruding peaks for yourself by hiking in the jungles of Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan, while the volcanic lakes of Maninjau and Toba are also not to be missed, but for many, it’s the hunt for Sumatran orangutan that brings them to the island.
If hiking is your bag, you can do far worse than making for the Banda Islands, too. Popular treks include that to Gunung Api, around which the crescents of the two main islands, Neira and Banda Besar, miraculously curve. The highest peak in the archipelago is Banda Api that stands at an ominous 666 meters, it’s also an active volcano. At the top you can walk a loop of the rim in search of the steaming vents that dot the crater edge before returning to picture-perfect shore.
Reminding many who visit of Bali, the Mentawais are a group of more than 70 islands off the coast of Sumatra with a well-developed surf scene attracting those in the know from around the globe. A range of surf tournaments are held throughout the year, on what are regularly regarded as the best waves in South East Asia, while the island’s forests are home to a rare black and yellow monkey found nowhere else.
Those with culture in mind will love Bali and Flores, while if it’s adventure you’re after, look no further than Lombok, Sumatra or Banda. Sun-seekers will be happy to lounge on the beaches of Gili Trawangan or Seribu, and nature-lovers will fall head over heels for Komodo, Wai, Kakaban and Mentawai. For history, it has to be Ternate or Bangka-Belitung, while snorkelers should head to Bunaken or Wakatobi in particular. There’s perhaps nowhere quite as varied as the Indonesian islands, and our list of the best 15 is sure to inspire you whatever you look for in a holiday destination.
If you are looking for a guided tour on Indonesian Islands, check out this 22-day tour around the Islands of Indonesia.