Top 10 Must Visit Places in Sumatra

The island of Sumatra, located to the west of Java, is home to rich landscapes, blustering volcanoes, and unique culture that makes it a fascinating if under-visited stop on the tourist trail. The tourism infrastructure is more basic in Sumatra than other areas, but for those who make the journey, a trip across this diverse island is a rewarding experience, and some of the highlights include tropical islands, limpid crater lakes, enchanting wildlife, and bustling cities, to name but a few.

Here we take a look at the Top 10 Places to Visit in Sumatra.

Mentawai Islands

Just off the coast of West Sumatra lie a cluster of volcanic islands that make up the Mentawai Islands, a hidden gem perfect for those who want some surf and sand that is firmly off the beaten track. Travel here is not too arduous if you take a ferry from Padang to the largest of the islands, Siberut, and from there you can venture on to smaller islands that boast better surf breaks like Pulau Sipora.

Mentawai Islands, Sumatra, Indonesia

Mentawai Islands, Sumatra. Photo by Claire

Medan

The largest city in Sumatra, Medan is often maligned as a tourist spot and only used as an entry and exit point for the nearby Lake Toba and Bukit Lawang, although to miss Medan altogether is to miss a trick. Internationally it may not be well known, but within Indonesia is it considered one of the country’s premium foodie destinations, particularly in neighboring Java, and visitors flock here just to eat and drink their way around the city. If you are using Medan is your main entry point on to other things in Indonesia, then at least make sure to sample some of its culinary delights before you leave, such Soto Medan, a spicy coconut milk based soup often eaten for breakfast and Mie Aceh, curried fried noodles.

Medan Grand Mosque, Sumatra, Indonesia

Grand Mosque, Medan, Sumatra. Photo by Ismail Batubara

Lake Toba

As you move around North Sumatra, one of premium attractions here is Lake Toba, which has the claim to fame of being the largest crater lake in the world, having been formed by a massive eruption of a now dormant volcano, or, if you believe the local legend, by a magic fish. Lake Toba is known for being the home of the Batak, one of the main indigenous groups in Sumatra, and the tombs of Batak kings of old as well as traditional Batak style houses can all be visited at Lake Toba.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Holmes Nainggolan

Padang

Padang is yet another place in Sumatra that is raved about by domestic travelers and largely ignored by international tourists. One of the main reasons that foreign tourists go to Padang is to move on to other places like the Mentawai Islands, and so the city has a wide range of accommodation options and facilities, but the biggest draw here is the food. Widely touted as the best food in the whole of Indonesia (a lofty claim in a county with over 17,000 islands) Padang food comes in the form of the ubiquitous Nasi Padang, a range of small plates of vegetables, curries, and accompaniments like tofu or tempe (compressed soybeans) served with rice.

Bukit Lawang

Orang Utan Sanctuary at Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia

Orang Utan Sanctuary at Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. Photo by Arian Zweger

To the north of Medan, you will find Bukit Lawang, most well known for its Orang Utan sanctuary that aims to rehabilitate these precious primates and reintroduce them into the wild. Bukit Lawang lies at the beginning of Gunung Leuser National Park, a protected area of jungle that stretches up into Aceh Province and due to its unspoilt charms it’s is a great place to go trekking and check out some of the local flora and fauna.

Pulau Weh

Pulau Weh is arguably one of the most beautiful islands in Indonesia, but unfortunately, most visitors never make the trip up there to find out. Located off the coast of Aceh Province, Pulau Weh has some of the best diving and snorkeling in Indonesia and is thankfully far less crowded than other beach locations, while still having just enough visitors to ensure that tourists will be well catered for.

Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Pulau Weh, Sumatra. Photo by Chalz

Banda Aceh

The capital of Aceh Province, Banda Aceh has sadly become synonymous with the devastating tsunami of 2004, although a trip here also offers a glimpse into a very different way of life to the rest of Indonesia. The Tsunami Museum, in particular, is an extremely moving experience, and the majestic Grand Mosque is an example of the beauty of Islamic architecture and is also well worth a visit to learn more about this conservative corner of the country. As Aceh is also famous for its coffee, visitors shouldn’t miss a trip to one of Banda Aceh’s most famous coffee shops, Warung Kopi Solong.

Nias

Bali may claim it has the best surfing in Indonesia but Nias has a well-established surf scene for those in the know. The island of Nias is perfect for those looking to get away from the crowds at Kuta, and there is just the right mix of facilities like guesthouses with a serene and unhurried atmosphere that is often lost in frenetic Bali. Aside from the surfing, Nias has some amazing local rituals such as stone jumping.

Nias, Sumatra, Indonesia

Nias, Sumatra. Photo by Atlas Obscura

Bukittinggi

The best thing about Bukittinggi may not be the city itself, but actually, the areas that surround it, and in particular the gorgeous Lake Maninjau that ripples with clear emerald waters and is firmly off the tourist trail. Located in West Sumatra, Bukittinggi is home to the Minangkabau, the indigenous people of the area, so it’s also a great place to find sweeping unique Minangkabau architecture and learn more about this matriarchal society.

Lake Meninjau at Bukittinggi, Sumatra, Indonesia

Lake Meninjau at Bukittinggi, Sumatra. Photo by Wikimedia

Palembang

The capital of South Sumatra, Palembang’s claim to fame is that it is one of the oldest cities of Indonesia, as well as being the center of the Srivijaya Kingdom in the days of yore. What makes Palembang a worthy stop in Sumatra is its status as a port town and its position on the Musi River. Many of the city’s main attractions are located along the river, and there are also quaint floating restaurants on local wooden boats that serve some of the best food in Palembang.

Even though still under the radar of the tourists of Indonesia, Sumatra has a lot of interesting tourist attractions to offer. Do you have another must visit place in Sumatra? Share with us so that we can learn more about what Sumatra has to offer.

Related articles:
Lake Toba Travel Guide
Sumatran Orangutan Trekking at Bukit Lawang
Diving Pulau Weh (Island), Sumatra
Sumatra Travel Guide

Going Local in Sumatra: Berastagi and Lake Toba

While Bali and Jakarta are high on most people’s must-see lists in Indonesia, the culture, mountains and waterfalls of North Sumatra were calling my name more than the beaches and cities crowded with heaps of tourists. By getting off the beaten track, I wasn’t only able to get a deeper feel for the country; I was able to leave my own impression on the nation as well.

Although my destination was only 40 miles from the Medan airport, crude roads and the occasional bovine traffic jam meant that getting to Berastagi took around 2 hours. The public transportation system also meant that this time was spent in the back of a crowded van painted with such vibrant colors that I could have sworn its original use was for transporting clowns.

Finally arriving at my destination, I found myself facing a dusty street lined with shops that seemed to be acting as venues for card games and lively conversations more than actual retail outlets. The fronts of houses were worn and many featured badly chipping paint, but their inhabitants carried a friendly and pleasant air that floated through the streets.

Mangosteens at Berastagi Market, Sumatra, Indonesia

Mangosteens at Berastagi Market, Sumatra

Almost immediately after getting out of the van, I was greeted with a lively wave by a fit man of 30. He looked upon me with kind eyes as if he was looking upon an old friend. After a brief moment, he introduced himself as Abdy Sitanggang, my host from Nachelle’s Homestay. My mind then clicked back to the endless emails we had exchanged prior to my arrival. Abdy had always been enthusiastic in his communication and was even more so in person. This seemed to be something the man carried in endless supplies as he immediately began to urge that we take off and explore the traditional market. Eager to see something that still excited a local, I promptly agreed. Pleased with my decision and bursting with pride, Abdy began explaining that as “Berastagi” means “rice store”, the town’s market is vital to its 40,000 residents.

I quickly found this importance to be far from an exaggeration as the moment I entered the market; I was met with open-air stalls, bursting with vibrantly coloured fruits and lively chatter. Abdy’s excitement fit right in as he bounded towards a large pile of round purple fruits topped with fluorescent green leaves. “Do you know what these are?” he asked excitedly. I made a guilty face in response; fearful my lack of knowledge would come as a disappointment. However, Abdy smiled on to explain: “they are mangosteens,” winking at the stall owner and taking a fruit off the top of the pile “see how this one is purple and squishy? That means it is the tastiest,” he explained as he peeled the purple skin to reveal a white interior.

Traditional Market, Berastagi, Sumatra, Indonesia

Traditional Market, Berastagi, Sumatra

I then took off to explore the market on my own and while wandering past a shop bursting with cheery flowers, I heard a group of school children call out “miss, miss” from behind me. When I turned towards the group, they began fiddling with their hands and whispering nervously to each other. Finally, one of the girls was pushed to the front of the pack and asked it I would practice English with them. I wasn’t going to deny them something as simple as my time, so I agreed. With this, the kids immediately began rummaging through their school bags to pull out notebooks filled with perfectly handwritten English phrases.

Their meek demeanours immediately vanished and I received inquisitions about things like: “what is your favourite colour?” and “do you like Indonesia?”. As I had only just arrived in the country, I told the kids they were my favourite part of Indonesia and was met by beaming faces.

The region offered more than traditional marketplaces however, and the next morning, Abdy and I embarked on a trek up Mount Sibayak, a stratovolcano three miles out of Berastagi, at 3am the following morning to reach its peak for sunrise. We headed towards the summit in the pitch dark while being guided only by a small flashlight. Despite having summited several mountains in the Canadian Rockies, all of my previous climbs had been during the day and trekking at night was a completely different experience. Despite my hiking boots, the lack of lighting meant I almost lost my footing on several occasions and instead of the usual treetop vistas, the sky was the main attraction, hosting the largest collection of stars I had ever seen.

The peak offered more surprises as we were greeted by groups of local children also eagerly awaiting the view with more zeal than I thought was possible for anyone to have at such an early hour. When the sun began to peak over the horizon, the sky erupted with pink and orange light. With each passing minute, more of the landscape was revealed and surrounding mountains seemed to appear from out of thin air.

Sunrise at Berastagi, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia

Sunrise at Berastagi, Sumatra

Once the sun had fully risen, I began my descent back down. The trail was incomparable to what I had experienced on my way up as I could now see the dense foliage and sharp outcropping of sulphuric rock that surrounded it.

My final excursion then took me to Lake Toba. Abdy explained this site as a caldera from an ancient volcano, which over time became inactive and flooded from a stream flowing down the tallest waterfall in Indonesia. This Sipiso-piso falls drop down a height of 360 feet before releasing their waters into the largest volcanic lake in the world at 702 square miles.

After trekking around the falls and witnessing the water rush powerfully off the cliff-face, Abdy took me to the small village of Tongging for lunch along the lake’s shore. Here, we entered a bright blue building overhanging right into the lake. There was a selection of tables, but I opted for a seat on a mat by the windows in order to get a full view of my surroundings. Rugged green mountains met trees with bright violet flowers before plummeting into shimmering turquoise waters. With a slight haze in the distance, the lake seemed to extend infinitely into the horizon.

Shops at Lake Toba, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia

Shops at Lake Toba, Sumatra

As much as I wanted to gaze simply upon the calm waters and breath the clean, crisp air, Abdy pulled me away to introduce me to “the best cook on Lake Toba”. To my bewilderment, this cook turned out to be a spunky young girl of 13, Lina. Despite her young age, she lived up to her title, giving me a full demonstration on how to catch, cook and season Tilapia to perfection.

The process began by using a large net to remove the fish from their pen. Then, a couple of incisions were made and rubbed with lemon juice, onions and curry paste. Once the fish had been fully coated, Lina then placed it in a pan a top a wood burning stove to grill for about 5 minutes on each side. Once the fish was prepared, we all sat down to enjoy our creation. Although full sets of cutlery were put out, Lina and Abdy dug into their saucy fish with bare hands and I decided to dig right in as well. While enjoying crispy and spicy mouthfuls of fish and picking out a surprisingly large amount of bones for such a small animal, Lina asked in broken English about my favourite colours and what I liked most about Indonesia. Clearly wanting to practice her English, I told her my favourite thing about the country was her fish and asked her about her favourite colours and what she liked most about Indonesia. Without hesitation, she replied: “I like to teach nice people like you how to cook fish here”.

Tilapia fish at Traditional meal, Lake Toba, Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia

Tilapia fish at Traditional meal, Lake Toba, Sumatra

We continued to chat as a gentle lake shore breeze wafted across the restaurant. I looked out over the lake and couldn’t help but get caught in the infinite aquatic beauty that extended around me. As I admired the crystalline waters and the lush arbours mountain-scape, I realized the landscape wasn’t the only besieging allure at Lake Toba. There was also a kind, welcoming beauty in the new friendships that were forming.

Despite coming from upbringings half a world apart, I was able to create honest connections with Abdy and Lina. Since my visit, I’ve kept in contact with both of them and have come to see that it only take a few days to lay the foundation for a lasting friendship.

I had come to Sumatra to hike volcanoes in the middle of the night and visit waterfalls. While I accomplished both these feats, neither was the highlight of my journey. Instead, the new friendships I made took centre stage and opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of travel.

Guest Post by Judi Zienchuk
Nachelle Homestay
Address: Jalan Kenanga No. 82, Berastagi, Indonesia
Phone: +62 821-6275-7658
Website: https://www.facebook.com/NachelleHomeStay

Related articles:
Lake Toba Travel Guide

Diving Pulau Weh (Island), Sumatra

Pulau Weh (Weh Island) or sometimes known as Pulo Weh by the locals, is a volcanic island off the coast of northwest Sumatra. The largest city in the island is Sabang.

Pulau Weh had been well known for its ecosystem, diving and considered off the beaten track in oppose to its famous distant sister Bali of Indonesia. A part of this island had been declared as wildlife protection are by the Indonesian government because it is the home to many rare species on land wild the coral reefs are bursting with large and diverse variety of Indo-Pacific marine life.

Pulau Weh, Sabang, Sumatra, Indonesia Map

Pulau Weh, Sabang, Sumatra, Indonesia Map

Where is it

It is located on the Andaman Sea, about 15 km off the northwestern tip of Sumatra. It takes 45 minutes of a fast boat or 2 hours regular boat from Banda Aceh to Pulau Weh.

Why go

Boat at Iboih, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Boat at Iboih, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Off the beaten track from Sumatra and one of Indonesia’s beautiful islands, this jungle island house many rare species from the land to the sea.

Also, one of the best diving site in Indonesia with 20 diving spots, though not as well known as the others but many who had dived here agree it is among the top stars.

Visiting this somewhat remote island is also suitable for conscious independent traveling where you can contribute to the locals here yourself and keep to eco-travel.

When is the best time to go

Best time to go to Pulau Weh, Sumatra is during April to November, the dry season of Indonesia tropical climate. This is the time with good weather where you can enjoy more of the sun and sea.

What to see

Not that much to see in Sabang or land, most travelers head to the beaches either Gapang beach or Iboih beach.

Iboih Beach at Pulau Weh, Sabang, Sumatra, Indonesia

Iboih Beach at Pulau Weh, Sabang, Sumatra, Indonesia

What to do

Diving of course with up to 20 dive spots around Pulau Weh to choose from and it is known as one of Indonesia’s best diving site!

Here are the top dive spots in/around Pulau Weh:

Arus Balee – with water passage around a rocky pinnacle between islands of Seulako and Rubiah, offering chance of drift diving in strong currents
Batee Meuduro – an hour south of Pulau Weh, worthy to go to for being a top site where you can chance upon several species of shark
Gapang house reef – famous for its dense marine life
Pulau Rubia for a lush coral garden that drops 30 meters.
Batee Tokong – steep and rich with marine life, this 40 meters downwards wall will be sure to delight
Pantee Aneuk – lined with caves, arches, wall and canyongs that many divers love to explore.
Pantee Peunateung – famous for the 70 meters drop off that boasts wild marines like baraccuda.
Sophie Rickmers – for impressive wreck dive, this is a cargo steam ship built back in 1920 in Germany, which sunk at the bay of Pria Laot. Decompression dive is needed here.
Sabang harbour – for shallower wreck dive of a tugboat

Diving Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Diving Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Where to stay

Stay in the island’s main city Sabang for various choices on backpackers hostels or guesthouse mainly at Iboih beach.

-> Find the best hotel deals in Pulau Weh *

How to get there

Ferry from Banda Aceh, Sumatra to Sabang, Pulau Weh.

Ferry Banda Aceh to Sabang, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Ferry Banda Aceh to Sabang, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Fast ferry/boat, it will take about 45 minutes at 60000-80000RP. It leaves everyday 9.30am and 4pm from Banda Aceh and 8.30am and 4pm from Sabang. The fast boat is call Pulo Rondo .

Slow ferry/boat will take about 2 hours and cheaper priced at 18000-32000Rp. It leaves Banda Aceh at 2 pm and from Sabang, Pulau Weh at 8 am.

How to get around

You can rent a motorbike to go around on Pulau Weh or rent a minivan and guide if you are in a group.

Where to go nearby

Being at the northernmost tip of Indonesia off Sumatra, there is nowhere else to go but back to Banda Aceh. From Banda Aceh you can make your way to Bukit Lawang for Orang Utan or chill at famous Lake Toba.

Sabang, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Sabang, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia

Travel Tips

Tsunami struck Banda Aceh at 2004 and had heavily affected Pulau Weh too. At 2005, the reefs of Pulau Weh was surveyed at depths and was reported that most sites are still alright especially those deeper than 10m. For some shallow areas, the reefs are damaged, and out of the chartered dive sites, only reefs at Rubiah/Iboih was affected. Restoration efforts are also being looked into.

Photo credits from top: Rachel, BenJam, hartanto, Eric Beerkens, Franc López and Franc López

Related articles:
Lake Toba
Top 10 Must Visit Places in Sumatra
Sumatran Orangutan Trekking at Bukit Lawang

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2 weeks or 15 days Itinerary in Sumatra


I plan to take a trip to Sumatra for about 2 weeks (15 days) this coming August, can you please suggest a brief itinerary to cover some of the tourist attractions so that I can plan my route?
– Aman

Day 1 – Medan
Day 2-4 – Bukit Lawang
Day 5-7 – Parapat for Lake Toba
Day 8/9 – Berastagi
Day 10 – Banda Aceh
Day 11-13 – Diving Pulau Weh
Day 14/15 – Banda Aceh

Author: Pearl

Living in Jakarta for more than 20 years now, she still have not manage to cover the tip of Indonesia’s diverse destinations, people and even food! Pearl loves shopping as much as enjoying luxury but she knows all these have to be done sensibly and on a budget. Therefore you may find the best scoop and offers in Jakarta and beyond with her.

Looking for something else?