The Best Indonesian Islands To Visit

Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 11.06.2024

If any country in Asia can bear the title of 'Island Paradise', it is Indonesia. With 17,508 islands, of which more than 6,000 are inhabited, there is plenty of choice when it comes to a holiday on one of the islands of Indonesia. The best known or most visited Indonesian islands are Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Flores and the Gili Islands, but there are a lot more. Indonesia is one of my favourite countries and although I’m not even close to visiting all 17,500 islands, I think it's safe to say that I've seen quite a lot. So here are my favourite islands in Indonesia.

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

In Bali, I find myself in the best tourist destination among all Indonesian islands. With its pounding surf, emerald-green rice terraces, and exceptionally artistic culture, this small volcanic island has long captivated me as one of the top Indonesian islands. Home to 3.1 million people, Bali stands out as the only Hindu society in Southeast Asia. Despite facing the predictable issues of congestion and commercialization, the charm that originally drew me here is still very much alive. 

Even though I've been here multiple times, I’m still mesmerized by the distinctive temples and elaborate festivals that are set against a backdrop of a mountainous, river-rich interior landscape. Make sure to check out this list of Bali travel tips but if you don't have time to read it, here are mine:

Sidemen in Bali, one of the best Indonesian islands

The view on Sideman rice paddies from my Airbnb

2. Lombok for unspoilt beaches

Thirty-five kilometers east of Bali, at its closest point, I discover Islamic Lombok, an island stretching 80km by 70km and populated by the Sasak. Its character stands in stark contrast to its Hindu neighbor, featuring wide-open spaces, unspoilt beaches, and significantly less traffic and pollution. 

Here, tourist facilities are more scattered, and public transport is less frequent, emphasizing the island's untouched charm. The northern area of the island captivates me with the imposing presence of Gunung Rinjani. Trekking at least part of the way up this mountain is a highlight for many visitors, including myself. 

Most travellers stay in the nearby villages of Senaru or Sembalun Lawang, gateways to Rinjani's natural splendors. I preferred the cool foothills of tiny Tetebatu (hello ricepaddies!). For the best beaches, head south to Kuta, not to be mistaken with Kuta on Bali, when booking accommodation.

Planning a visit to Lombok? Check out this tailor-made trip to Java and Lombok. Not sure where to go? Make sure to check our guide to the best things to do in Indonesia.

Lombok, one of the best Indonesian islands

Overlooking the rice paddies in Tetebatu during my trip in Lombok

3. Sumba for its stone carvings and more

Anyone looking for a unique destination in Indonesia should go to Sumba. It is one of the best Indonesian islands I have visited in Indonesia. The inhabitants still live according to age-old traditions and rituals, the landscape is mysterious with rice fields and grassland landscapes and the beaches are dazzling. And most importantly… tourism is almost non-existent here. 

Sumba is relatively small, but offers a lot of beautiful things. From snow-white sandy beaches and rainforests to waterfalls and rice fields. The island is only an hour's flight from Bali, which makes it extra special that so few travellers come here. The island is becoming better known, but is still completely unspoilt.

The beaches are snow white, without any form of commercialization, the interior is beautiful with grass landscapes, traditional villages and rice fields and the people are genuinely happy that you are there.

Rough Guides tip: From beaches to mountains, discover the best of Indonesia in 14 days with our itineraries.

Me overlooking the magical Sumba coast line

4. Maluku Islands for history buffs

Centuries ago, the idyllic islands of the Moluccas were an important trading port for spices such as nutmeg and cloves. Today, this tropical paradise is rarely visited. Where islands such as Bali, Java, Lombok or Sulawesi are overrun with travellers, in the Moluccas you have the beaches to yourself. Transport between the islands is a challenge. Don't let it stop you, though. The colourful coral reefs, powdery white sandy beaches and impressive volcanoes are worth the trip!

The Moluccas are, undoubtedly, the best Islands in Indonesia. If you are looking for unspoilt islands, little tourism and off the beaten track destinations, then the Moluccas are “the place to be”. Also known as the Spice Islands. It was one of the few places on earth where nutmeg, cloves and several other valuable spices were grown.

It's one of the most beautiful islands I have ever been. Tourism is still in its infancy here. It is especially popular among divers, but it is also a perfect destination for backpackers, couples and families.

The Banda Islands and the Kei Islands are the most famous destinations, but Seram, Haruku and Saparua are also truly beautiful. Travelling between the islands is a challenge. But with a little flexibility and patience you can visit pristine coral reefs, walk deserted beaches, sleep in beautiful water bungalows or climb perfectly formed volcanoes.

Maluku, part of the best Indonesian Islands

View from our accommodation (Ora Beach) in Maluku

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

It took me 3 days on a wooden boat to get from Lombok to Flores (best experience ever!) but it was totally worth it.

Flores, a fertile, mountainous barrier between the Savu and Flores seas, stands out among the Indonesian islands I've visited. Its volcanic spine, soaring to 2500m, and the lushness brought by torrential wet seasons set Flores apart from its scorched neighbours. A significant aspect that distinguishes Flores for me is its religious composition – 95 percent of islanders are Catholic.

The most breathtaking sight I've encountered in Flores is the magnificent Kelimutu, near Moni, northeast of Ende. Experiencing the three craters of this extinct volcano, each containing a lake with different, vibrant, and gradually changing colours, is unforgettable. In the east of Flores, I discover that high-quality ikat weaving still thrives, a testament to the island's rich cultural heritage. At the island's extreme western end, Labuanbajo captivates travellers with its fine coral gardens. This location also serves as the port for ferries to and from Sumbawa, marking it as a crucial gateway.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Flores

Traditional vilage in Bajawa in Flores, Indonesia © Shutterstock

Traditional village in Bajawa in Flores, Indonesia © Shutterstock

7. Nusa Lembongan for white sand beaches

Part of my trip to Bali I made it to Nusa Lembongan, a perfect retreat from the Bali's hustle. Although the beaches aren't spectacular, the rough coastline is. Recently, Lembongan sees an influx of tourists - surfers, snorkelers, divers, and those like me, in search of hidden beaches, opportunities for gentle exploration, and an addictively somnolent atmosphere.

You could easily visit Lembongan as an island-hop trip, but my tip is to stay around longer. There's quite a lot to see, but make sure to do this:

Certainly! Lembongan offers a plethora of unique experiences, perfectly suited for those seeking tailor-made adventures:

  • Snorkel at Crystal Bay: this is an idyllic snorkeling spot for those in search of underwater beauty and serenity.
  • Mangrove forest kayaking: this peaceful journey offers a close-up view of the diverse ecosystem, expertly guided by locals who know every hidden nook.
  • Relax on Dream Beach: It's the quintessential spot for relaxation, sunbathing, or sipping a cocktail as the sun sets.
  • Explore Devil’s Tear: this spot is a magnet for photographers and nature lovers alike, eager to capture its wild beauty.
  • Swim with Manta Rays: This unique experience brings you face-to-face with these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

Find the best accommodation options to stay in Nusa Lembongan

island of Lembongan and Jungutbatu village, Bali © Shutterstock

Island of Lembongan and Jungutbatu village, Bali © Shutterstock

8. Sumbawa for a laid-back atomosphere

Crossing the scorched, mountainous landscape of Sumbawa, east of Lombok, I often find myself peering through the window of a long-distance bus, much like most travellers. However, I quickly learn that merely passing through doesn't do justice to this friendly, laidback island. 

With its fine beaches, surfing opportunities, offshore islands, and traditional villages, Sumbawa offers a distinct experience. Notably, it has earned a reputation for some of the finest surfing in Indonesia, minus the crowds encountered in Bali.

I spent two weeks in Lakey Beach, known as the surfer paradise in Indonesia, but there are more surf spots like Hu’u and around Maluk Beach on the west coast, where the waves and the serenity far exceed my expectations, marking Sumbawa as a standout destination in my travel experiences.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Sumbawa


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, as part of a 3-day boat trip from Lombok to Flores, I find myself in Komodo National Park, a group of parched but majestic Indonesian islands. This unique habitat is home to the Komodo dragon, or "ora" as it is known locally, which resides nowhere else. The south coast of the main island is adorned with impressive, mostly dormant volcanoes, and the north with mainly dusty plains, which are irrigated to create rice paddies around the major settlements.

Although the practice of feeding live goats to the dragons ceased a long time ago, my visit, still evokes a feeling as if I've stepped straight into Jurassic Park.

My tip: combine several islands on one tailor-made trip to Bali, Flores & Komodo

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

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

10. Sumatra for orangutans and more

Sumatra is without a doubt one of the best Indonesian Islands I visited, searching for unspoiled nature. It offers a breath of fresh air for those 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.

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, its tortuous outline resembling a one-thousand–kilometre letter “K”, making it one of the country’s most compelling islands. 

I find that 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 found it challenging to colonize beyond the coast, leading to a unique blend of cultures and habitats. In the south, I discover a split between the highland Torajans and the lowland Bugis. There are various isolated tribes in the central highlands, and in the far north, I come across the Filipino-descended Minahasans.


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. A day trip up one of them gave me a taste of traditional Dayak life and introduced me to lush areas of dense jungle. 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.

Find accommodation options to stay in Kalimantan


Kalimantan orangutans © Shutterstock

13. The Togian Islands for snorkelling and diving

The Togian Islands stretch out as a fragmented, 120-kilometre-long crescent across the shallow blue waters of Tomini Bay, their steep grey sides weathered into sharp ridges and capped with coconut palms and hardwoods. Here, I find exceptional snorkelling and diving opportunities, featuring turtles, sharks, octopuses, garden eels, and a diverse array of reef and pelagic fish species.

From west to east, Batu Daka, Togian, and Talata Koh stand as the Togians’ three main islands, with Walea Kodi and Walea Bahi lying further east.

I explored the main settlements of Bomba and Wakai on Batu Daka and Katupat on Togian. Wakai, in particular, serves as something of a regional hub.

Rough Guides tip: Any journey doesn't start until you get to your destination. Find out about how to get to Indonesia.


Togian islands © Shutterstock

14. The Gili's for easy relaxation

Gili Meno, one of the three Gili Islands, emerges as the most tranquil Indonesian island in my eyes. With its small local population, absence of nightlife, and arguably the best beaches, this place offers a serene escape. Unlike its neighbours, here, less space is occupied by fishing boats and hawkers, enhancing its peaceful ambiance.

It takes me just a couple of hours to stroll around the island. On the other hand, Gili Trawangan, the furthest from the mainland and the largest of the islands, attracts the greatest number of visitors. Many are drawn here by the magic mushrooms, for which the island is infamous. It's the most developed of the islands, with the southeast brimming with guesthouses, restaurants, and dive shops. Yet, outside the high season, it retains a low-key, relaxing vibe. 

Seeking quieter surroundings, I find it's better to skip Gili Trawangan and head over to Gili Air for a more authentic experience. Gili Air combines the best of both worlds, offering a peaceful ambiance with enough amenities to ensure a comfortable stay, without the commercialization of Gili Trawangan.

A few tips:

Dive deep into Balinese culture with this tailor-made trip to Bali's Culture & Gili's beaches

 Kasia Soszka/Shutterstock

Gili Meno ©Shutterstock

15. Banda islands for diving

Far away from the famous sights of Indonesia, you will find the Moluccas. One of the most beautiful archipelagos in Asia. The Banda Islands are part of the Moluccas and are among the most beautiful islands in Indonesia. 

It's quite a journey to get there. It took me about 4 days to fly from Amsterdam to Bali, from there to take the plane to Ambon and then travel another 6 hours by boat to Banda Neira. A journey that was worth every second. 

Of all the destinations I have visited in Indonesia, Banda Neira is among the most beautiful, unspoilt and diverse. The natural beauty, friendly residents, fascinating history, the beautiful underwater world, the unprecedentedly delicious food and the wonderfully relaxed atmosphere make it a great destination for anyone who wants something different from Bali, Java or Lombok.

Looking at Gunung Api from the Banda fortress

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.

Looking for more options for travelling? Check out our selection of the best holiday destinations from around the world

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.

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Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 11.06.2024

Ties is a true world explorer - whether it be for work or leisure! As Content Manager at RoughGuides, and the owner of Dutch travel platform, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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