Exotic Sumatra is one of the world’s last frontiers – an island of lush tropical rainforests, extraordinary flora and fauna, and active volcanoes. Home to Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants and a host of dynamic ethnic groups, it is the third-largest island in Indonesia and the fifth-largest in the world (roughly the size of Sweden). It is vastly rich in natural resources: over half of the country’s exports come from the treasure trove of Sumatra’s bounty of oil, natural gas, hardwoods, rubber, palm oil, coffee and sugar.
The best travel tips for visiting Sumatra
Sumatra is a travel haven for nature-lovers, with surfing beaches and 11 national parks sheltering tigers, elephants and orangutans. There is also memorable Danau Toba, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, along with impressive architecture, and ancient megaliths. Allowing enough time here is the challenge. The thorns in the island’s side are the west coast’s susceptibility to earthquakes and tsunamis but for the intrepid traveller, the rewards are worthwhile.
Situated at the western rim of the archipelago along the Strait of Malacca, for centuries the region was the gateway for maritime trade through Southeast Asia, receiving merchants from China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The early coastal kingdoms were the entry points for foreign influence that left a lasting imprint on the very fibre of Indonesia’s culture.
Today, Sumatra is a tapestry of ethnic groups living in rural communities: in the north are the devout Muslim people of Aceh; in the northern highlands, the Christian Batak; and in the west, the matrilineal Minangkabau. The Kubu and Rimbu in the south are the last remaining forest-dwellers, while the Orang Laut (sea people) traditionally lived aboard boats and continue to ply the seas off the east coast.
You never know where your Sumatra adventure will take you, so don't set off without securing great value travel insurance from our trusted partner Heymondo.
Keen on travelling here? Perhaps our local experts can help.
Best things to do in Sumatra
Vast, beguiling and beautiful, there is so much to see and do in Sumatra that you could easily spend a month exploring. Engrossing North Sumatra is known for its great cultures – especially the Acehnese and the Batak – and magnificent landscapes, as well as for its wildlife and rainforests. Rugged West Sumatra is home to beautiful upland scenery, proud Minangkabau culture with its fiery cuisine, fabulous surfing and a string of fascinating offshore islands. Very few travellers make it to the southernmost regions of Sumatra, which is a shame, but the region is home to interesting towns, fine jungle and mountain landscapes, and excellent surf.
#1 Gawp at Medan’s historical buildings
Most visitors enter North Sumatra via Medan, a sprawling and crowded city stuffed with architectural gems from its colonial days. The largest concentration of such examples is found along Jalan Jendral A. Yani and around Merdeka Square. Chinese shops line Jalan A. Yani, which is also home to the Tjong A Fie Mansion, the former home of the eponymous Tjong A. Fie, who arrived in Sumatra as a poor migrant from China in the 1870s but had become a fabulously wealthy tycoon by the time of his death in 1921.
The mansion, built in the traditional Chinese style, has been beautifully restored. 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. One block east is the imposing Mesjid Raya (Grand Mosque). Built in 1906 to complement the palace’s architectural style, it is the city’s largest mosque.
#2 Visit Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia's most accessible reserve
Northwest from Medan, some three hours by road, a narrow road winds up the Alas River Valley to Gunung Leuser National Park, an 8,000- sq km (5,000-sq mile) park covered in dense jungle that is home to elephants, rhinos, sun bears, tigers, 500 bird species and orangutans. The park is both a Unesco World Heritage and a World Network of Biosphere Reserves Site.
Surrounding sputtering Gunung Leuser, 3,404 metres (11,167ft) high and Sumatra’s second-highest peak, the park reaches all the way to the west coast and is probably one of the most accessible in Indonesia.
#3 Visit Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang is a stunning destination located on the island of Sumatra. The town is situated in the heart of the Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it an ideal destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers. It is renowned for its Orangutan sanctuary, where visitors can witness these amazing primates up close and in their natural habitat.
Trekking through the lush rainforests and exploring the local wildlife is an unforgettable experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression. Besides, the town offers a variety of other activities such as white-water rafting, tubing, and visiting nearby waterfalls. The friendly local community and laid-back atmosphere make it an excellent place to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
#4 See the great apes of Bohorok Orangutan Centre
Although it no longer rehabilitates the red great apes, visitors are still welcome to Bohorok Orangutan Centre. A one-hour hike through the jungle here brings you to the platforms used for early-morning and afternoon feeding of wild and semi-wild orangutans. Permits are required from the PHKA office (take a photocopy of your passport with you). The well-run Bukit Lawang station provides comfortable lodging, decent food, and a superb visitor centre complete with slide shows and information concerning local wildlife.
#5 Sail to the revered Samosir island
Around 170km (110 miles) from Medan, on the eastern shore of Danau Toba, is tourist resort Parapat. It's all deluxe hotels, golf courses, watersports and the like. Parapat is nestled on the lake’s eastern shore, and is a favourite weekend getaway for Medan residents. The best place to experience Danau Toba’s spell, however, 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 Sumatra, and the Toba Batak, the ‘purest’ Batak tribe. The carved boat-like tomb of King Sidabutar is here. In an enclosure opposite the tomb are ritual statues of a buffalo sacrifice. Boats depart from Parapat for Samosir daily.
#6 Embrace Minangkabau culture in Bukittinggi
A two-hour drive from Padang north through the lush tropical Anai Valley delivers you to picturesque hilltop Bukittinggi, the heart of Minangkabau culture. Blessed with friendly people, a relaxed atmosphere and cool mountain air, Bukittinggi is the best base for visiting the surrounding Minang Highlands. Bukittinggi, which means ‘Tall Hill’, stands at 930 metres (3,050ft) and is surrounded by the Gunung Agam, Gunung Singgalang and Gunung Merapi volcanic peaks. It is a pleasant town to stroll through. The cool mountain air also enhances touring on foot.
#7 Get stoned on Nias island
The main points of interest on Nias are the traditional villages and surfing beaches, all located in the south. The largest of the west coast islands, Nias is 100km (60 miles) long by 50km (30 miles) wide, and is home to one of Southeast Asia’s most unusual ancient cultures, which revolves around stone: in architectural style, sculptures and rituals.
In its most memorable traditional dance, Fahombo, Niasan tribesmen leap feet first over stone columns several metres high.
Tutotolo is a warrior dance performed by young men leaping in combat. Niasan villages are veritable fortresses, with great stone-paved central ‘runways’. Stilt houses stand in parallel rows on hillsides, shielded by a thorny bamboo barricade from foreign attack.
#8 Sniff out the repulsive Rafflesia arnoldii at Bengkulu
The small, sleepy seaside city of Bengkulu was founded in 1685 by the British. Its fort, Benteng Marlborough, was constructed in 1713–19 and restored in the late 1970s. Old gravestones with English inscriptions can be seen in the gatehouse. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was governor of Bengkulu from 1818 to 1823.
During his time in Sumatra local guides showed him and the botanist Joseph Arnold the vast parasitic flower known locally as padma raksasa or kerubut. Although the plant had previously been identified by a French traveller, Raffles’ account was the first made public in Europe, and today its scientific name is Rafflesia arnoldii Examples can be found at the Dendam Tak Sudah Botanical Gardens near the lake of the same name 8km (5 miles) southeast of Bengkulu.
#9 See the carved megaliths of the Pasemah Highlands
Inland is the beautiful upland Pasemah region, centred on the small town of Pagaralam. Dotting the surrounding mountain plateau are carved megaliths, tombs, pillars and other stone ruins thought to date from about AD 100. Oddly shaped rocks have been fashioned into figures of armed warriors riding elephants, wrestling buffaloes or fighting snakes. The area is dominated by volcanic Gunung Dempo, which can be climbed by hardy trekkers.
#10 Splash out on the Bintan and Batam islands
Once part of a maritime sultanate, the islands of the Riau Archipelago are now a zone of major economic activity. Batam has been developed into a major industrial satellite of Singapore and is popular with weekend visitors from there, who come for its golf courses, beaches, duty-free shopping and seafood. Ferries and hydrofoils ply the waters to and from Singapore almost hourly, from sunrise to sundown.
Bintan, meanwhile, is the largest of all the Riau islands, and its northern shore is a string of high-end resorts catering to well-heeled Singaporeans and Indonesians. The energetic Tanjungpinang port town, situated on the island’s southeastern coast, is also a jumping-off spot to nearby tiny islands and the Lingga archipelago.
#11 Explore the Hindu temple complex of Muaro Jambi
Jambi, the site of the ancient Melayu kingdom, is today a modern city. The surrounding forests are still home to a handful of Kubu people, the original hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the area, though most are now settled in modern communities. Exploration of the city starts along the river, where a large number of people live on floating rafts or in houses built on stilts over the Sungai Batanghari.
You can walk or ride on a dokar (horse-drawn cart), and visit the Pasar Raya (Central Market). The Hindu temple complex Muaro Jambi, 25km (15 miles) northeast of the city, is an hour by car or 30 minutes by speedboat.
#12 Visit the Mentawai Islands
The Mentawai Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Sumatra. These islands are a popular destination for tourists seeking a tropical paradise with pristine beaches and world-renowned surf breaks. The islands are also home to a unique culture and indigenous people who have lived on the islands for thousands of years. You can learn about the local customs and traditions by staying in traditional homestays and experiencing the daily life of the Mentawai people.
In addition to surfing and cultural experiences, you can explore the islands' lush jungle, trek to scenic waterfalls, and snorkel in the crystal-clear waters, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers.
To get to the Mentawai Islands, you can travel from Sumatra to Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra province. From there, they can take a ferry or speedboat to the islands, which typically takes around 10-12 hours depending on the weather conditions.
Where to stay in Sumatra
Sumatra is littered with a wide variety of accommodations that range from beach huts and bungalows to good quality hotels and hostels in the larger cities. Booking a homestay in some of the smaller villages can be a good way to meet local people too.
As the most popular area on the island, North Sumatra has the widest selection of accommodation to choose from. As well as resorts and some decent business hotels, there are numerous cheap guesthouses dotted both along the coast and further inland.
There are some great places to stay in West Sumatra for all budget ranges. The nearby islands have seaside bungalows, whilst the rural villages have basic guesthouses and homestays. There are good hotels and a range of hostels in towns like Padang.
South and East Sumatra
As these regions are a little more off-the-beaten-path, the places to stay aren't quite as sophisticated. That said, Pagaralam and Palembang both have reasonable and affordable guesthouses and bigger hotels.
Best restaurants and bars
As with much of Indonesia’s islands, the world-class seafood served in the resorts and restaurants of Sumatra is freshly-caught and prepared. Elsewhere, the island is famed for its Minang food – spicy meals with coconut milk. Meals usually include gulai (curry), lado (chilies), and rice. Padang in West Sumatra is the place to try it.
- Korintji Heritage, Sungai Penuh The talented chefs at social enterprise Korintji Heritage serve up delicious lobster dishes that are covered by bumbu perancis (cheese sauce) or lada hitam (a black pepper sauce). Their coffee is excellent too.
- Restoran Sari Raso, Padang For authentic Minang food, head straight to the town that gave it its name. This busy neighbourhood in the best around.
Best places to eat in Sumatra
How to get here
Most international travellers arrive in Sumatra via Medan, its largest city. Flights land at the modern Kualanamu International airport from both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as well as from elsewhere in Indonesia.
Kualanamu International airport has short-haul international links and an extensive list of domestic connections to Palembang, Pekanbaru, Batam, Banda Aceh and Padang. Other airports with domestic connections include Bandar Lampung, Bengkulu, Jambi, Pekanbaru, Bangka and Belitung.
International ferry services have mostly been discontinued, but there are still regular speedboats for the short hop between Singapore’s Harbourfront Centra and Bintan and Batam. Ferry operators include Penguin and Dino/Batam Fast. Travellers will have to go through Immigration upon arrival at Batam.
How many days do you need in Sumatra?
The length of time you need to visit Sumatra could easily stretch to three weeks should you wish to see the very best of everything on the island. For most, seven days is enough here. That allows you to go orangutan trekking in Bukit Lawang, relaxing around Lake Toba, and head to Bukittinggi for a cultural side to the island. That said, once you add in the time it takes to travel between some of the smaller islands - like the hundreds of atolls off the east coast - you could easily find yourself spending two weeks here. Most, however, will only need a week.
Planning a trip to Sumatra? Chat with our local experts and craft the perfect trip!
Tips for getting around
On mainland Sumatra, there are good highway systems in the north, west and south, but in the east, travel is more difficult. The long TransSumatra Highway is gradually being upgraded along its entire length, but conditions on remote sections can sometimes still be rough, and delays due to the upgrading work itself are frequent.
For intercity journeys, pre-booked door-to-door ‘travel’ (passenger car/minibus) is the most popular option, though there is also an extensive bus network.
Buses travel across the island, including express services. Among the routes are: Medan to Banda Aceh (11 hours); Medan to Prapat (4 hours) ;Medan to Padang (18 hours); and Padang to Bukittinggi (2 hours).
There are three unlinked rail systems in Sumatra. The North line runs from Medan north to Banda Aceh and south to Rantauprapat; West, from Padang north to Bukittinggi and Payakumbuh and south to Solok and Sawah Lunto. In South Sumatra, the line begins at Tanjung Karang and runs north to Prabumulih, east to Palembang and west to Lubuklinggau. The trains that run on these routes are hot, slow and crowded, generally taking longer than buses serving the same destinations.
Best time to visit Sumatra
Generally, the best time to visit Sumatra is during the dry season, (May to September). This is when the weather is generally sunny and dry, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as hiking, wildlife spotting, and hitting the beach. Expect higher humidity, more rain and cheaper accommodation during the monsoon season (November to March). Hiking in the mountains during the wet season isn't recommended.
Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.