Sulawesi, Indonesia

It's no wonder nature lovers regard Sulawesi in Indonesia as paradise on earth: its terrestrial fauna is a mosaic of Asian and Australian animals that have produced new species found nowhere else on the planet. The mountainous regions of the central highlands are separated by deep gorges and fast-flowing rivers. In the lush rainforests – such as in Lore Lindu National Park – live an astonishing array of endemic fauna, including babirusa pig deer and eccentric maleo birds. The waters surrounding the island are teeming with marine life, rich coral reefs, and underwater valleys. Plus some of the world's best diving.

The best travel tips for visiting Sulawesi

This strangely shaped island with unusual jagged contours contains an astonishing variety of life within its jungles and offshore reefs, as well as fascinating indigenous cultures.

To the north, islands are being developed for marine tourism. Together with Wakatobi Marine National Park – located in the Coral Triangle in the southeastern quadrant – they may soon replace Bunaken in popularity.

The Togian Islands Marine National Park between the northern ‘arms’ of the islands is also attracting increasing attention, as is the Taka Bone Rate National Park off the southwest coast. The population of nearly 18.5 million is also diverse, made up of people who speak more than 40 languages. Sulawesi, meaning Island (sula) of Iron (wesi), is aptly named for its rich deposits of nickel-iron, copper and gold.

Its best-known ethnic groups are the coastal Bugis, Indonesia’s primary shipbuilders and seafarers, and the Torajans, whose arc-roofed houses and effigy-guarded burial caves decorate breathtakingly scenic valleys in the southwestern part of the island. But there are also the Makassarese of the area surrounding the capital city, historical rivals of the Bugis for maritime mastery, and the proudly Christian Minahasan in the northeast, famed for their spicy cuisine.

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© Oscar Espinosa / Shutterstock

Best things to do in Sulawesi

From the castaway lifestyle of the isolated Togian Islands to enigmatic megaliths, pristine national parks and fabulous underwater scenery, nearly all the best things to do Sulawesi revolve around nature.

#1 Promenade in Pelabuhan Paotere at sunset

In the late afternoon, Pelabuhan Paotere in the northern part of Makassar makes a pleasant place to stroll and watch the activity aboard the many pinisi schooners. Pantai Losari, a sand-free seafront promenade and cruising strip, is a popular sunset gathering place. Also on Pantai Losari is Trans Studio Theme Park, a three-hectare (7.5-acre) indoor recreational centre with entertainment, safaris and rides inspired by children’s programming on the owners’ two television stations.

#2 See round-bellied pinisi (schooners) be built at Tana Beru

A breathtaking coastal road with steep precipices and spectacular views leads to Tana Beru, heart of the Bugis shipbuilding industry. Round-bellied pinisi (schooners) are still fashioned here with simple hand tools and without the use of metal or nails. Teak cords are hewn into planks, then fastened with wooden pegs according to an ancient design retained in the communal memory. Sails were once made of plaited banana and pineapple fibres, then later of woven cotton and silk.

Rituals are employed in all phases of construction, from the selection of the tree to the final launching, to ensure that the craft will be seaworthy. The finished 200-tonne pinisi or a lighter vessel called bago appear to be unstable until fully loaded with copra or timber – then they are among the best cargo ships afloat today

Phinisi ship - Traditional wooden sailing ships at Paotere Harbor © Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

#3 Explore the remote Togian Islands

The remote, forest-capped Togian Islands are a huge Marine National Park consisting of 56 islands clustered in the calm, azure Tomini Bay. Sheer limestone cliffs, secluded white-sand beaches, and wonderful snorkelling and diving can be found here. Species to spot are hawksbill and green turtles, coconut crabs and dugongs.

The beautiful setting and relaxed pace often lull travellers into extending their stay to include trekking in the forests for many of Sulawesi’s unique birds and mammals. The Togians have a mixed population, though many villages are occupied by Bajau, the so-called ‘sea gypsies’ who once lived largely on boats and now dwell in stilt villages over the water. Isolated resorts are scattered across the Togians

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Island Togian, Indonesia Shutterstock

#4 Summit Gunung Sesean from Batutumonga

The mountain village of Batutumonga offers spectacular views across the heart of Tana Toraja, especially at first light. Bag popular Gunung Sesean, a 2150m peak accessible via a 3.5km trail from Batutumonga. The views are incredible.

#5 Hike to the lesser-visited Mamasa

The 80km (50-mile) route connecting Toraja to neighbouring Mamasa offers an excellent introduction to rural life on Sulawesi. The entire route is now just about passable by jeep, but the section between Bittuang and Mamasa town is best traversed on foot. The journey takes two to three days, with accommodation in village homestays along the way.

Few travellers visit Mamasa, also known as West Toraja. As well as the mountain jeep/trekking route, it can be approached from Makassar – a hard 10–12 hours, and the road up from the coast west of Pare Pare. Mamasa’s spectacular villages rest on rugged tracks, but several are accessible with a jeep and a guide.

Traditional village with boat shaped roofs in the remote Mamasa Valley © Shutterstock

Traditional village with boat shaped roofs in the remote Mamasa Valley © Shutterstock

#6 Go wildlife-spotting at Tangkoko-Batuangas Nature Reserve

From Bitung, a fairly bumpy northern road winds through to the Tangkoko-Batuangas Nature Reserve, one of the most important places for terrestrial nature conservation in Minahasa. There are few places in the world where such a wide variety of habitats, plants and animals are crammed into one small forest (8,890 hectares/21,990 acres).

To date, scientists have documented 26 mammals, 18 birds, 15 reptiles and over 200 plant species here, including spectral tarsiers – one of the world’s smallest primates – troops of endangered crested black macaques, marsupial cuscus, endemic red-knobbed hornbills and eight species of kingfishers. Local guides are available at Batu Putih village at the entrance of the reserve.

Kingfisher © Jamie Hall/Shutterstock

Kingfisher © Jamie Hall/Shutterstock

#7 Dive at Bunaken Marine National Park

Manado is an excellent staging point for diving and snorkelling trips to Bunaken Marine National Park, 15km (10 miles) offshore. The coral reefs teem with thousands of species of colourful tropical fish along steep drop-offs that plunge thousands of metres into the abyss. Sea turtles, sharks and pods of dolphins make their way around the park, and there is also a World War IIera wreck to explore.

Further to the north, the 70-odd islands in the Sangihe-Talaud chain offer white-sand beaches and equally spectacular diving. Dotted with volcanoes and unusual rock formations, some of the islands are over 1,500 metres (4,920ft) high and are densely covered by coconut palms. Like most unspoiled areas, the islands are not easy to get to. Divers who are not deterred by the long journey and want to discover the unknown are rewarded with 60-metre (200ft) visibility and 100-year-old gigantic sponges.

Some of the other highlights include an underwater lava flow and Mahangetang, a submarine volcano that releases silver bubbles into the sea – an unforgettable sight.

A Common clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) hides among the tentacles of an anemone, Bunaken National Marine Park, Indonesia © Shutterstock

A Common clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) hides among the tentacles of an anemone, Bunaken National Marine Park, Indonesia © Shutterstock

#8 Snorkel at remote Taka Bonerate National Park

Another of Sulawesi’s difficult-to-reach locations, Taka Bonerate National Park appears to be in the middle of nowhere in the Flores Sea, some 30km (20 miles) offshore. The islands of Taka Bonerate (a Bugis name meaning ‘coral piled up on sand’) are surrounded by table reefs, making the marine park a paradise for snorkellers and divers, who can spot four species of endangered sea turtles, jackfish, eels, groupers and giant clams.

Underwater visibility is usually excellent, while above water the bird life is also of interest. The problem is getting there: the journey takes at least 14 hours from Makassar on a series of bus and boat rides, and the only accommodation on the islands is in villagers’ homes.

#9 Try some local delicacies in Tomohon

North Sulawesi is the only part of a strangely sprawling island that has volcanoes. Nestled between two of them, is Tomohon, meaning ‘people who pray’. The town is a bustling place with a pleasant climate. The large traditional market, uphill from the centre, is infamous for its grizzly array of exotic meats – from whole fruit bats to pythons. There are far less gruesome culinary attractions closer to the centre of town where a large array of colourful food-stalls and small roadside eateries operate.

Delicious pork sate (miniature kebabs) is a local favourite, and there are also some fine baked goods available. For energetic travellers, a trek to the top of either of Tomohon’s adjacent peaks, Lokon or Mahawu, is both challenging and worthwhile for spectacular views.

#10 Seek out the shy anoa in Bogani Nani Wartabone National

Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park (formerly called Dumoga Bone National Park), a vast mountainous rainforest rich in fruit-bearing trees such as durian, nutmeg and figs, and home to a collection of endemic Sulawesi animals including the babirusa (Sulawesi ‘pig-deer’) and the shy anoa.

The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, established in 1895, partners with a local conservation group to manage three of the largest communal nesting grounds for the maleo birds in the park. Its southern coast is the last known site of beach nests for this endangered land-bird.

Anoa portrait © Shutterstock

Anoa portrait © Shutterstock

Where to stay in Sulawesi

Sulawesi offers a range of accommodation that starts from losmen (hostels) and lead all the way up to five-star diving resorts. The main cities of Makassar, Manado and Palu have the most choice, including a number of chain hotels. On the smaller islands and in the Central Highlands, homestays can be a good way to get an authentic local experience. Sometimes, they might be your only choice. On the whole, you won't need to book ahead.

North Sulawesi

With diving the most popular pull for the top end of the island, you can expect to find a number of equally top-end resorts along the coast. There are plenty of other options here too, from bungalows and hostels to decent cheap guesthouses.

South Sulawesi

Again, there are some excellent resorts along the coast near Makassar. The city itself is stuffed with high-rise hotels and lovely boutique boltholes too. The further away from the city you go, the more basic the accommodation, namely guesthouses.

Central Highlands

Tourism is a nascent industry in the hills and the choice of accommodation reflects that. Most town guesthouses will offer small, basic rooms. Consider booking a homestay.

Browse the best places to stay in Sulawesi.

Best restaurants and bars in Sulawesi

Eating in Sulawesi means exploring a diverse range of dishes, particularly in the north where time-honoured Minahasan cuisine means bushmeat and seafood dishes that have been heavily fragranced by hot spices. There are plenty of Dutch and Chinese influences in the cooking here too.

Western-style food, like pizzas, is mainly found in the bigger cities. Don't miss the amazing, local coffee grown in the Sulawesi highlands. These are the best restaurants in Sulawesi.

    Best places to eat in Sulawesi

  • Coto Nusantara, Makassar The lunchtime queues at this Makassar institution are proof of just how good their coto Makassar (spiced beef stew with peanuts) is.
  • Maminon Kitchen, Manado Serving updated Minahasan cuisines like smoked skipjack cooked in bamboo, this popular restaurant is one of the best on Sulawesi
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© Rigamondis / Shutterstock

How to get to Sulawesi

Overland travel in Sulawesi is slow, because of the mountainous geography, and off the main cross-island highway road conditions are often poor. Travel by air is advised whenever possible.

By plane

Makassar is the provincial capital of Sulawesi and has the largest number of flights, including international connections to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. However, there are good connections in Manado, serving the north and gateway to Bunaken, and in Palu, with more limited connections to Gorontalo. Kendari is the entry point for Southeast Sulawesi, including Wakatobi.

By ferry

By sea, PELNI is the main connection with other Indonesian islands. PELNI ferries schedule routes to the Wakatobi area, but are unreliable, making it best to use one of the fast boat services there.

How many days do you need in Sulawesi?

Most visitors to Sulawesi will need at least a week to explore the island. This is because the distances are long between the major sights and transport across the island is slow. Seven days gives travellers enough time to visit Tana Toraja, see the beaches of Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, go diving at Bunaken Marine National Park and explore the bustle of Makassar. Throw in a hike or a visit to some of the smaller islands and you'll need at least 10 days here.

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© Fabio Lamanna / Shutterstock

Tips for getting around Sulawesi

Overland travel in Sulawesi is slow, because of the mountainous geography, and off the main cross-island highway road conditions are often poor. Travel by air is advised whenever possible.

By plane

Due to the highlands, travelling around inland Sulawesi can be slow, cumbersome and frustrating. Travel air is advised whenever possible. The island is dotted with regional airports.

By mikrolet (private SUV)

These days, however, most locals and many tourists avoid the hassle of traveling out to the bus terminal and book door-to-door travel services instead. In Sulawesi these are usually large SUV type vehicles seating up to seven passengers. Most hotels will be able to book these ‘travel’ for you. Though slightly more expensive than buses, they will drop you directly to your chosen accommodation at the other end.

By bus

Air-conditioned buses are useful for longer distances, but travel times can be slow.

By taxi

Good for travel around towns and cities, plus some shorter inter-city travel, air-con metered taxis can be hailed on the street or booked via phone.

By boat

PELNI ferries' scheduled routes will get you between some of the bigger islands off of Sulawesi. For shorter trips to smaller islands, expect speed boats. Note that bad weather can prevent ferries and boats from leaving.

By becak (pedicabs)

For short trips in cities, becak (pedicabs) are a cheap and environmentally-friendly way to get around.

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© Shutterstock

Best time to visit Sulawesi

Blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, the best time to visit Sulawesi is when it is looking its best. For diving, that means visiting from April to October when the seas are calmer and the visibility is at its furthest. Crossing the equator, Sulawesi has a tropical climate but the northern part of the island is subject to more rainfall than the southern half. Monsoon season is from November to April. Expect high humidity and regular downpours. The best time to visit is June to August which coincides with the elaborate funeral ceremonies of Tana Toraja.

Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.

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Ties Lagraauw

written by Ties Lagraauw

updated 17.01.2024

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 Reis-Expert.nl, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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