The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

Indonesia is how you've always imagined Asia – jungles, rice terraces, beaches, coral reefs and volcanoes © Martin Puddy / Getty Images

It really is hard to beat Indonesia when it comes to the sheer variety of experiences on offer. One day, you might find yourself strolling beneath the glistening skyscrapers of a modern city. The next day, you could be dining on colorful dishes in a traditional hilltop village.

You can climb to the freezing-cold summit of a puffing volcano, or descend into a sultry rainforest in search of orangutans or tigers. Or perhaps you're the type to salute the sun at sunrise, then surf a world-class barrel back to a virgin beach at sunset?

Roughly half of all international tourists land in Bali, but the nation is so much more than this one enticing isle. From Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi to the frontier islands of West Papua (shared with Papua New Guinea) and Borneo (shared with Malaysia and Brunei), here are the top places to visit on a trip to Indonesia.

Introducing Indonesia

Jakarta, Java

Best city for art and history 

There’s no better place to get to grips with this vast and complex nation of 273 million people than its capital, Jakarta, which is home to more than 10 million residents all by itself. Sure, it’s chaotic, traffic-clogged and sprawls over nearly 700 sq km (270 sq miles), but it’s also home to the nation’s finest restaurants, its wildest nightclubs and its best museums.

Take time to browse the collections in the Museum Nasional (for history), Galeri Nasional (for classical art) and MACAN (for modern and contemporary art). From the Dutch colonial buildings of the Kota Tua neighborhood to the modern skyrises of the Golden Triangle, the city is both a study in contrasts and a crossroads of cultures, classes and cuisines.

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The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

Tanjung Puting National Park is one of the best places in Indonesia to see orang-utans © Silverman1 / Shutterstock

Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan, Borneo

Best place to see orang-utans

If you want to see orang-utans, the island of Borneo is the last place on earth (other than a few spots in neighboring Sumatra) where these great apes still thrive. Travelers looking for surefire sightings of orang-utans head to Tanjung Puting National Park, a coastal tropical swamp forest that looks today like much of southern Borneo looked a few decades ago.

Most visitors hire liveaboard boats to travel up the Sekonyer River to feeding stations in the rainforest and Camp Leakey, the iconic rehabilitation center deep in the jungle where these auburn-haired "men of the forest" live out a serene, semi-wild existence.

Raja Ampat, West Papua

Best place for snorkeling and diving

Raja Ampat was once an under-the-radar destination visited only by intrepid scuba divers, but the whispers about this enticing island group have now reached a fever pitch. Off the coast of West Papua, the archipelago is a picture-perfect vision of paradise. Its lumpy green isles are blanketed in rainforests, dotted with languid lagoons and surrounded by warm turquoise seas at the vibrant heart of the Coral Triangle – an area of ocean with some of the greatest marine biodiversity on earth.

Raja Ampat's prismatic birds-of-paradise, which dance through the trees each morning at sunrise, informed the theory of evolution through natural selection, first developed by Charles Darwin’s less-appreciated contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace. The British naturalist's restored hut is a popular attraction on the island of Gam. In addition to the dive lodges on Waigeo and Misool, many visitors sleep in homestays on virgin beaches, offering a chance to learn more about West Papua's distinctive culture.

The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

Bali's Hindu culture comes to the fore in the historic town of Ubud © CHEN WS / Shutterstock

Ubud, Bali

Best city for wellness and culture

Rice paddies tumble down palm-lined hills, gamelan music fills the air and floral offerings fill the streets in Bali’s most alluring (and on-trend) city, Ubud. By day, you can take motorcycle out to the Monkey Forest for simian encounters, pop into the Yoga Barn for an ashtanga session, ogle the art at the Agung Rai Museum or shop for word-class beauty products, woodcarvings and batik textiles downtown. After dark, many people attend evening performances at local temples, where visitors are hypnotized by the beauty of courtly Legong ballets or wild Kecak fire dancing. Be careful! Many foreigners come to Ubud for a few days and end up staying a few years.

Komodo National Park, Nusa Tenggara

Best place for surprising wildlife encounters

Dragons really do roam the earth at this sprawling national park, covering the three arid islands – Komodo, Padar and Rinca – that provide shelter for the world’s largest lizards. Komodo dragons are ancient-looking creatures that can grow up to 3m in length and weigh up to 70kg. Sadly, there are fewer than 1,400 of these fork-tongued giants left in the wild. The chance to see them lures thousands of visitors each year, many of whom arrive on a boat tour en route from Lombok to Flores, stopping along the way to snorkel or dive off the coast of Sumbawa.

The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

Borobudur on Java is one of Indonesia's greatest architectural treasures © Alex Varani / Lonely Planet

Borobudur & Yogyakarta, Java

Best place for Indonesian history

Peru has Machu Picchu, Cambodia has Angkor Wat and Indonesia has Borobudur, a 9-tiered temple from the 9th century that clocks in as the largest Buddhist structure in the world. Emblazoned across its walls are some 2,672 intricately-carved bas relief panels, featuring Buddhist legends and scenes of daily life in Java, as well as 72 distinctive, perforated stupas and more than 500 Buddha statues.

This colossal World Heritage Site lies amid sprawling rice paddies near Yogyakarta, an important education center and a hub for classical Javanese artforms, including batik-making, wayang puppetry and silversmithing. Yogya, as the city is known locally, is fiercely independent and still headed by a resident sultan, whose walled palace complex is the city’s top attraction.

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Best place for cultural traditions

The jungle-clad hills and rugged granite cliffs of Tana Toraja would be enough of a lure for most places, but the big draw of the central highlands of Sulawesi is the Torajan people themselves. The inhabitants of this fascinating region maintain traditions that mark them apart from other Indonesians, living in villages of elaborately decorated houses, with intricately carved walls and boat-shaped roofs,

Many rituals here revolve around death and the afterlife. The bodies of the deceased remain in the homes (and lives) of their relatives for months or even years after they pass – for Torajans, death is viewed as a gradual and social process, and locals are generally comfortable sharing these unusual traditions with visitors.

The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

You may feel like celebrating when you reach the summit of Gunung Kerinci, the highest volcano in Southeast Asia © Muhammad Rinandar Taysa / EyeEm / Getty Images

Kerinci Valley, Sumatra

Best place for hiking

Southeast Asia’s tallest volcano, Gunung Kerinci – a 3805m (12,484ft) monster – lords over this remote highland valley on Sumatra, which has become one of Indonesia’s top spots for adventure travel. You can climb to the summit of this active volcano, swim beneath cascading waterfalls or search dense jungles for gibbons and langur monkeys.

Much of the land here is protected as Kerinci Seblat National Park, which is two times the size of Bali and protects more forest than all of Costa Rica’s national parks combined. At 13,791 sq km (5325 sq miles), Kerinci Seblat is the last large refuge for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, which survives here in greater numbers than anywhere else on earth.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java

Best place for beautiful Indonesian views

You don’t have to look far in Indonesia to find a volcano, but Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park in East Java contains a whopping five volcanoes right next to each other. These conical peaks are dotted around a lunar landscape that has sprung from the ancient Tengger caldera.

The most striking site is smoldering Gunung Bromo, which rises 2329m (7641ft) out of a crater that is almost 10km (6 miles) across, surrounded by the nation’s only erg (dune sea). Most visitors time the trek to the summit to arrive at dawn to view the crater and volcanoes at their ethereal best.

The best places to visit in Indonesia to feel the spirit of Southeast Asia

The Gili Islands serve up the tropical island experience you've always imagined © Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock

The Gili Islands, Lombok

Best place for beach parties

These tiny dollops of coral and sand off the coast of Lombok carry an outsized reputation thanks to their crystalline turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, ambitious vegan and health food restaurants, renowned freediving schools and epic beach parties. The Gilis started out as a boho backpacker destination but the islands now cater to all types of travelers, with everything from backstreet hostels to luxurious beachfront cabanas (beach huts). 

Gili Trawangan (aka ‘Gili T’) is the largest and most developed of the islands, with a main drag that heaves with shops, massage parlors and cafes. Gili Meno is the smallest and most traditional island, while Gili Air offers the best of both worlds, and is a lively hub for yoga tourism.

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