North Sumatra: Why Is It Worth Visiting

written by
Petra Shepherd

updated 18.04.2023

North Sumatra in Western Indonesia is the sixth largest island in the world. While it doesn’t have the temples of Bali or Java, what this Indonesian island lacks in historic sites it more than makes up for. North Sumatra is an island of awesome scenery and thrilling adventure experiences. The area is steeped in tradition and fascinating culture. Here are a few reasons why you should visit North Sumatra.

This article is inspired by our Rough Guides guidebooks — your essential guides for travelling the world.

1. To leave the beaten track far behind

North Sumatra has some stunning scenery and an extremely welcoming population, yet with so little tourism development here traditions have remained intact and visitors are few. Take the drive from Lake Toba to Berastagi to experience the region at its best.

Spend half a day slowly snaking your way north and enjoy the extraordinary views, the bucolic landscape, the brilliant Piso Piso Waterfall (the highest in Indonesia), roadside markets, and some fine Batak villages.

From your base on Bali's renowned beaches, you'll island-hop your way around glorious Hindu temples and heritage sites. See komodo dragons, partake in a traditional Balinese ceremony, meet with a Hindu High Priest and visit local villages: this tailor-made trip to Indonesia ticks all the tropical getaway boxes.

Traditional Batak houses on Samosir island, Sumatra, Indonesia © Shutterstock

Traditional Batak houses on Samosir island, Sumatra, Indonesia © Shutterstock

2. Spotting orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park - one of the best experiences in North Sumatra

The tropical rainforests of the Gunung Lesuer National Park surrounding Bukit Lawang (a small village two hours northwest of Sumatra's capital Medan) are one of the few places where you get to see our red-haired cousins in the wild.

Treks ranging from a couple of hours to several days are on offer. You venture into the heart of the jungle where it's possible to feed the orangutans, bushwhack through the undergrowth, and, if you stay overnight, wake up to an exotic dawn chorus.

Giant parasitic rafflesia flowers, Thomas Leaf monkeys, macaques and gibbons are just a handful of the thousands of species found in this thriving ecosystem.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Bukit Lawang


Orangutan in the Gunung Lesuer National Park, North Sumatra © Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

3. To find some peace and quiet on Lake Toba

At over 1145 square kilometres with a depth of approximately 500 metres, Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. It’s so enormous that it even has an island the size of Singapore at its centre. This is a place to relax and enjoy pristine scenery whilst exploring the traditional Batak villages on Samosir Island.

Lake Toba © Pixabay

Lake Toba © Pixabay

4. To visit Pulau Samosir, the largest island-within-an-island

The best place to experience Lake Toba’s spell is Samosir, a 1,000-sq km (380-sq mile) island in the lake. Samosir is regarded as the original home of the Bataks in North Sumatra. Boats depart from Parapat for Samosir daily. The main entry point is Tomok, a 30-minute ride across quiet water.

The carved boat-like tomb of King Sidabutar is here. In an enclosure opposite the tomb are ritual statues of a buffalo sacrifice. At the end of an avenue of souvenir booths leading from the jetty are dozens of stands selling kain ulos (hand-woven fabric), two-stringed mandolins, ornate woodcarvings, Batak calendars and many other items of cultural interest.

Other boats from Parapat will take visitors directly to the dozens of attractive, waterfront guesthouses scattered in Tomok, Ambarita and on the Tuk-Tuk peninsula.


Holbung hill, Samosir island © Shutterstock

5. To see the Sipiso-Piso Waterfall

Only a short bus trip from Kabanjahe, north of Sidikalang, is a spectacular viewpoint near the northern tip of Danau Toba that overlooks the remote Tongging Valley and Sipiso-Piso Waterfall.

The Sipiso-Piso waterfall is about 120 metres high and feeds its waters into a small stream that flows out of the caldera of Lake Toba. The waterfall is encircled by abundant green flora and provides a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape. Visitors can get to the waterfall's base by walking along a spiral staircase that winds its way through a dense forest.

Sipisopiso waterfall in northern Sumatra, Indonesia © Shutterstock

Sipisopiso waterfall in northern Sumatra, Indonesia © Shutterstock

6. To visit a longhouse

Although the Batak have many traditions, they are probably best known for their unique architecture. The bale ("meeting hall"), rumah ("house") where groups of families live communally, and sopo ("rice barn") are the three main types of building, and the typical 'Siwaluh Jabu' longhouses, with their distinctive saddle-shaped roofs, are often home to as many as twelve families.

At Dokan, a Batak village, an hour’s drive from Berastagi you are able to see inside one of the traditional houses. For a small donation, a local guide will enthusiastically tell you about his home and village.


Longhouse, North Sumatra, Indonesia © Wunigard/Shutterstock

7. To watch a Batak Toba traditional dance

The Batak Karo people are famous for their traditions and rituals dating back centuries. The most striking are the wedding and funeral ceremonies, often lasting several days.

To get a taste of their unique culture, head to a traditional Batak Toba dance called the tortor. At the Museum Huta Bolon Simanindo on the Northern tip of Samosir Island on Lake Toba, displays take place daily at 10:30 am, Monday–Saturday.

Batak Toba dance, Samosir island © SHutterstock

Batak Toba dance, Samosir island © Shutterstock

8. To get your five-a-day

The fruit market in Berastagi has an enormous variety of tropical fruits, many of them unfamiliar to visitors. There's no difficulty in getting your five-a-day here. Passion fruit, known as mariska, is particularly popular, especially the yellow variety. Also look out for salak, often known as "snakeskin fruit" due to its scaly skin, and tamarillos, small tree tomatoes, another speciality from one of Sumatra’s most fertile regions.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Berastagi

Lumbini Natural Park in Berastagi, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Buddhist temple located at Berastagi in North Sumatra © Shutterstock

Buddhist temple located at Berastagi in North Sumatra © Shutterstock

9. Climb to the summit of a volcano

Choose between Gunung Sibayak volcano at 2094m, or take the more strenuous climb up Gunung Sinabung, slightly higher at 2452m. The hardest part of climbing Gunung Sibayak is finding the path back down. Be sure to take a guide and reward your tired legs with a leisurely soak in the hot spring at the bottom.


Sinabung mountain, North Sumatra, Indonesia © didikh017/Shutterstock

10. Marvel at the Maimoon Palace

Most visitors enter North Sumatra via Medan, a sprawling and crowded city with one of the strongest economic growth rates and the highest per capita incomes in Indonesia. Once the marshy suburb of a small court centre, Medan developed into a commercial city after the Dutch overran the Deli sultanate in 1872, and 14 years later, became the regional capital.

At the southern end of Medan’s longest street, Jalan Sisingamangaraja stands the magnificent Istana Maimoon, constructed by an Italian architect in rococo style in 1888. It is still the official residence of the sultan’s descendants and may be visited during the day. One block east of the palace is the imposing Mesjid Raya (Grand Mosque). Built in 1906 to complement the palace’s architectural style, it is the city’s largest mosque.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Medan

Maimoon Palace in Medan © Shutterstock

Maimoon Palace in Medan © Shutterstock

With its awesome scenery and thrilling adventure experiences, North Sumatra is perfect for a family trip. Looking for more inspiring family holiday ideas? Find some inspiration in our guide to the best places to go with kids.

Visiting Indonesia is a truly unforgettable experience. For more inspirational travel tips check our Rough Guide books.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Indonesia without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Top image © Shutterstock

Petra Shepherd

written by
Petra Shepherd

updated 18.04.2023

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