Unforgettable Indonesian islands to visit

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 11.04.2023

There are over 13,000 islands in the 5200-kilometre-long archipelago of Indonesia. With so many to choose from, we’ve whittled it down to 16 of our favourite Indonesian islands.

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

1. Bali - the best tourist destination among all Indonesian islands

With its pounding surf, emerald-green rice terraces and exceptionally artistic culture, the small volcanic island of Bali has long been one of the best Indonesian islands. Bali has a population of 3.1 million and is the only Hindu society in Southeast Asia.

Although it suffers the predictable problems of congestion and commercialization, Bali’s original charm is still much in evidence. You'll find here distinctive temples and elaborate festivals set off by a mountainous, river-rich landscape of the interior.

This tailor-made trip to the best of Bali will take you from modern-day Bali to the traditional one. Bali has many adventures to offer, tour the countryside with a Vespa or glide through the hidden canyons. You will also be able to enjoy visits to enchanting villages, where you can take in the local way of life.

While planning your Bali holidays don't forget to read our list of Bali travel tips which will help you to make the most of your visit.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Bali

Tanah Lot Temple, Bali © Shutterstock

Tanah Lot Temple, Bali © Shutterstock

2. Lombok for unspoilt beaches

Thirty-five kilometres east of Bali at its closest point, Islamic Lombok (80km by 70km) is populated by a Sasak population. It differs considerably from its Hindu neighbour, with lots of wide-open spaces and unspoilt beaches, and much less traffic and pollution. Tourist facilities are less widespread and public transport sparser.

The island’s northern area is dominated by the awesome bulk of Gunung Rinjani, and trekking at least part of the way up is the reason many tourists come to Lombok. Most base themselves in the nearby villages of Senaru or Sembalun Lawang. Other visitors enjoy the cool foothills at tiny Tetebatu and Sapit. For many, a big draw is the beaches.

You will start this tailor-made trip to Java and Lombok in Yogyakarta (also called Jogja) with its rich cultural past such as the Borobudur temple. From there continue to hike Mount Bromo and explore more of East Java in Malang and Surabaya. End your trip on the dreamy beaches of Kuta/Lombok, dubbed 'the next Bali'.

Explore Indonesia's diverse culture and nature with our guide to the best things to do in Indonesia.

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Lombok Indonesia © Shutterstock

3. Gili Meno for birdwatching and more

This is one of the most tranquil Indonesian islands of the three Gili Islands, with a small local population, no nightlife and arguably the best beaches. Here, less space is taken up by fishing boats and hawkers. It takes a couple of hours to stroll around the island.

There’s a bird park in the middle of the island (Taman Burung) that’s worth a visit. It houses three hundred tropical birds. The snorkelling is good along the east coast. Start at Royal Reef and drift down to Kontiki in the south. Take care – there may well be boats coming in and out to the harbour along here.

Aerial view of  Gili Meno, Gili Air and Lombok © Shutterstock

Aerial view of Gili Meno, Gili Air and Lombok © Shutterstock

4. Gili Trawangan and its magic mushrooms

Furthest from the mainland, the largest of the islands, Gili Trawangan attracts the greatest number of visitors (many of whom come for the magic mushrooms for which the island is infamous) and is the most developed. The southeast of the island is wall-to-wall guesthouses, restaurants and dive shops, although it is still low-key and relaxing outside the high season. For quieter surroundings, head further north.

Dive deep into Balinese culture with this tailor-made trip to Bali's Culture & Gili's beaches. Visits include rice field walks, the Gates of Heaven, water temples like Tirta Empul and Tirta Gangga as well as a traditional cooking class. Your trip ends with the beaches of Gili Air and Jimbaran.

Swing on Gili, Trawangan © Shutterstock

Swing on Gili, Trawangan © Shutterstock

5. The Mentawai Islands to learn about traditional cultures

The enticing rainforest-clad Mentawai Islands, 100km off the west Sumatran coast, are home to an ethnic group who are struggling to retain their identity in the modern world. There are over forty islands in the chain, of which the four main ones are Pulaus Siberut, Sipora, North Pagi and South Pagi. Only Pulau Siberut, the largest, at 110km long by 50km wide, is accessible to tourists. All visitors must be registered by the authorities.

The islanders’ traditional culture is based on communal dwellings in longhouses (uma) and subsistence agriculture. Their religious beliefs are centred on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world.

With the advent of Christian missionaries and the colonial administration in the early twentieth century, many of the islanders’ religious practices were banned, but plenty of beliefs and rituals have survived. However, the islanders are still under threat, not least from an Indonesian government seeking to integrate them into mainstream life.

Find accommodation options to stay in the Mentawai Islands

Mentawai people © Shutterstock

Mentawai people © Shutterstock

6. Flores for the vibrant volcanic lakes

A fertile, mountainous barrier between the Savu and Flores seas, Flores comprises one of the most alluring Indonesian islands. The volcanic spine of the island soars to 2500m, and torrential wet seasons result in a lushness that marks Flores apart from its scorched neighbours. It also differs religiously – 95 percent of islanders are Catholic.

The most spectacular sight in Flores is magnificent Kelimutu, near Moni, northeast of Ende. The three craters of this extinct volcano each contain a lake of different, vibrant and gradually changing colours. In the east of Flores, high-quality ikat weaving still thrives. At the extreme west end of the island, Labuanbajo has some fine coral gardens and is also the port for ferries to and from Sumbawa.

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Traditional vilage in Bajawa in Flores, Indonesia © Shutterstock

Traditional village in Bajawa in Flores, Indonesia © Shutterstock

7. Nusa Lembongan for white sand beaches

Southeast across the Badung Strait, encircled by a mixture of white-sand beaches and mangroves, the tiny island of Nusa Lembongan (4km by 3km) is an ideal escape from the bustle of the south. Seaweed farming is the major occupation here. This is supplemented by tourist income from surfers, snorkellers, divers and anyone seeking attractive beaches, a bit of gentle exploring and an addictive somnolent atmosphere.

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.

island of Lembongan and Jungutbatu village, Bali © Shutterstock

Island of Lembongan and Jungutbatu village, Bali © Shutterstock

8. Sumbawa for a laid-back atomosphere

Most travellers crossing the scorched, mountainous island of Sumbawa, east of Lombok, experience it solely through the window of a long-distance bus. But transit travel doesn’t do justice to this friendly, laidback island, with its fine beaches and surfing, offshore islands and traditional villages. Sumbawa has gained a reputation for offering some of the finest surfing in Indonesia, without the crowds you’ll find in Bali.

Getting to the beaches with a surfboard can be an arduous task unless you charter a car from Sumbawa Besar, but once there you’ll find plenty of accommodation and facilities. The main breaks are at Hu’u, off Lakey Beach, and around Maluk Beach on the west coast.

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Sumbawa is one of the top surf destinations among all Indonesian islands © KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock

9. Komodo Island for the infamous dragons

Off the east coast of Sumbawa lies Komodo National Park, a group of parched but majestic Indonesian islands. This is home to the Komodo dragon, or ora as it is known locally, which lives nowhere else. The south coast of the main island is lined with impressive, mostly dormant volcanoes, and the north with mainly dusty plains irrigated to create rice paddies around the major settlements.

Although the practice of feeding lives goats to the dragons stopped a long time ago, you may still feel as if you’ve stepped straight into Jurassic Park if your visit coincides with big tour groups.

Combine several islands on one tailor-made trip to Bali, Flores & Komodo - start in Bali's cultural capital Ubud before heading to the rice fields in Sidemen. A short flight to Flores allows you to explore volcanoes and local villages before hopping on a cruise around Komodo and other islands close to Labuan Bajo.

Komodo National Park from Rinca Island, Flores, Indonesia  © Shutterstock

Komodo National Park from Rinca Island, Flores, Indonesia © Shutterstock

10. Sumatra for oragnutans and more

Sumatra offers a breath of fresh air for those travellers looking to escape the chaos of Java. An explorer’s paradise, the vast majority of the island remains undiscovered. Most of the highlights are in the north at places like Bukit Lawang — jungle-shrouded river offering the best chance in Indonesia to see orang-utans in the wild.

Danau Toba is Southeast Asia’s largest lake and a magical place to lose a few days and relax in one of the numerous waterside resorts on the island of Samosir; and the stunning crater lake of Danau Maninjau.

Experience the magic of Java, the third-largest of the Indonesian Islands, with this stunning tailor-made Java Discovery. Explore stunning ancient temple complexes, ride a bicycle through idyllic rural villages, climb to Mount Ijen's crater at sunrise and laze around on palm-fringed tropical beaches!

Find more accommodation options to stay in Sumatra

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

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

11. Sulawesi for its local culture

Sulawesi sprawls in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, a tortuous outline resembling a one-thousand–kilometre letter “K”, and one of the country’s most compelling regions. Nowhere in Sulawesi is much more than 100km from the sea, though an almost complete covering of mountains isolates its four separate peninsulas from one another and the outside world.

Invaders were hard pushed to colonize beyond the coast, and a unique blend of cultures and habitats developed. The south is split between the highland Torajans and the lowland Bugis, there are various isolated tribes in the central highlands, and the Filipino-descended Minahasans reside in the far north.

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Sulawesi funeral © Shutterstock

12. Kalimantan for those looking for an adventure

With dense tropical jungle, murky village-lined rivers teeming with traffic and with wildlife so abundant it becomes the norm, Kalimantan is a jungle-cloaked landmass that appeals to those looking to venture into undiscovered territory. Occupying the southern two-thirds of the island of Borneo, Kalimantan remains largely untouched by tourism.

With few roads, the interior’s great rivers are its highways and a trip up one of them will give you a taste of traditional Dayak life and introduce you to lush areas of dense jungle. More intrepid explorers can spend weeks on end navigating their way through seldom-ventured parts, and a visit to one of the national parks could bring you face-to-face with wild orangutans.

The provincial capitals of Pontianak, Palangkaraya and Samarinda are sprawling, dusty towns which offer little aside from their services. However, once out of the crowded, populated areas, Kalimantan’s character starts to unfold.

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Kalimantan orangutans © Shutterstock

13. The Togian Islands for snorkelling and diving

The Togian Islands form a fragmented, 120-kilometre-long crescent across the shallow blue waters of Tomini Bay, their steep grey sides weathered into sharp ridges capped by coconut palms and hardwoods. The exceptional snorkelling and diving around the islands feature turtles, sharks, octopuses, garden eels, and a mixed bag of reef and pelagic fish species.

From west to east, Batu Daka, Togian and Talata Koh are the Togians’ three main islands, with Walea Kodi and Walea Bahi further east. The main settlements are Bomba and Wakai on Batu Daka and Katupat on Togian. Wakai is something of a regional hub, with transport out to smaller islands.


Togian islands © Shutterstock

14. Sumba for its stone carvings and more

Sumba is a land of contrasts. The east of the island is made up of arid grasslands and limestone plateaux, while the west is fertile and green, with rolling hills and a long rainy season. Waingapu, the capital, is well known for producing the finest ikat fabric in Indonesia.

A little further out at Rende and Melolo sit stone tombs with bizarre carvings, and in other villages on the east coast, you’ll find quality weaving, traditional structures and deserted beaches. The main town in the west is Waikabubak, where characteristic houses with thatched roofs soar to an apex over 15m above the ground.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Sumba

Traditional house of "Ratenggaro - Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara" Indonesia © mbojobackpacker/Shutterstock

Ratenggaro, Sumba, East Nusa, Indonesia © mbojobackpacker/Shutterstock

15. Maluku Islands for history buffs

The fabled Spice Islands, once coveted by European powers, are today a sleepy backwater. However, for divers and adventurers, this is one of the most prized Indonesian islands. Scattered across the sea north of Timor and east of Sulawesi like a double-handful of dropped pearls, part of Maluku extends to the Arafura Sea south of Papua.

Due to remoteness, Maluku’s two national parks bring in few visitors, but its spice trade era and World War II historic sites are of interest to history buffs. It is the sensational diving, however, that lures most visitors. With so much sea, virtually every type of marine topography can be found here.

Banda Islands Molucca, Indoensia  © Shutterstock

Banda Islands, Malukas, Indoensia © Shutterstock

16. Ternate Island — one of the best Indonesian islands

North of Ambon, the administrative and geographical district of the northern third of Maluku is dominated on maps by Halmahera, but tiny Ternate island is the real centre of power and communications as it is the capital of North Maluku province. Two-thirds of the island’s people live in Ternate town, the business and market centre of the region.

There are many ancient cannons in the large complex. On the outskirts of town, towards the airport, there is a mosque whose foundations date back to the 15th century. Its multi-tiered roof covers an airy space, beautifully designed for prayer and meditation.

Laguna Lake At Ternate City, Maitara and Tidore Island, North Maluku, Indonesia  © Shutterstock

Laguna Lake At Ternate City, Maitara and Tidore Island, North Maluku, Indonesia © Shutterstock

With its golden coastline and azure waves, Indonesia 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.

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Rough Guides Editors

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 11.04.2023

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