On a fertile volcanic plateau that covers much of northern Central Sumatra, lies the lovely Lake Toba, a vast crater lake containing the lush Samosir island (nearly the size of Singapore). The result of a great prehistoric eruption, Lake Toba is one of the highest (900 metres/2,900ft) and deepest (450 metres/1,480ft) lakes on earth.
The best travel tips for visiting Lake Toba
More than 3 million members of six distinct Batak tribes make their homes in the surrounding high country, which stretches 500km (300 miles) north–south and 150km (90 miles) east–west around the lake. Each group has its own dialect, customs and architectural style.
Each of these groups – the Toba, Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing Batak – has its own dialect, customs and architectural style.
On the lake’s eastern shore is Parapat, a tourist resort since colonial times. Today it offers deluxe hotels, golf courses, water sports and a refreshingly brisk climate. For most visitors, Batak sights are the main attractions.
The best place to experience Lake Toba’s spell, though, is Samosir, a 1,000-sq km (380-sq mile) island in the lake. Regarded as the original home of the Bataks in Sumatra, and the Toba Batak, the ‘purest’ Batak tribe, boats depart from Parapat for Samosir.
Best things to do in Lake Toba
From golden beaches and Batak scripts to juicy Berastagi passion fruit, the best things to do in and around Lake Toba will surprise you.
#1 Spend the afternoon at the beaches of Cermin or Sialangbuah
The main route from Medan to Lake Toba runs southeast along the coast through the market town of Tebingtinggi and inland to Pematangsiantar. Side roads along the first 50km (30 miles) offer access to fine beaches such as Cermin and Sialangbuah, renowned for its mudskippers that swim like fish and climb trees.
#2 See ancient shamanic Batak scripts at Museum Simalungun
Pematangsiantar, the second-largest city in North Sumatra, is a cool highland rubber and palm oil centre notable for Museum Simalungun, which contains an excellent display of Batak artefacts including pustaha laklak, bark-leafed books containing sacred formulas in Batak script used by ancient shamans.
#3 See the remote Sipisopiso Waterfall from Kabanjahe
A short bus trip from Kabanjahe, north of Sidikalang, is a spectacular viewpoint near the northern tip of Lake Toba that overlooks the remote Tongging Valley and Sipisopiso Waterfall.
#4 Visit a traditional Karo Batak village
In the surrounding area are Barus Jahe, a traditional Karo Batak village, and Lingga, with its massive, pyramid-roofed rumah adat (traditional clan houses), some over 250 years old. A lucky visitor might stumble across a Karo Batak wedding or rice harvest festival.
#5 Try some Berastagi passion fruit
Berastagi is a hill resort and market town with Dutch-built villas and a cool climate. Located between two volcanoes – Sibayak and Sinabung – Berastagi produces fresh vegetables such as carrots, cabbages and tomatoes and is known for its passion fruit, usually made into syrup.
#6 See King Sidabutar’s tomb at Tomok
A 30-minute ride across quiet water, Tomok is home to the carved boat-like tomb of King Sidabutar. 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.
#7 Visit the megalithic complexes of Ambarita
An hour’s walk from the tourist town of Tuk- Tuk are three megalithic complexes. The first is just up from the jetty and is notable for its 300-year-old stone seats and the tomb of Laga Siallagan, the first raja of Ambarita.
If an enemy was captured in Ambarita, neighbouring hilltop complex for an initial conference before moving on to the second, a cluster of stone chairs where the fate of the prisoner was decided.
The third complex is located south of Ambarita and includes a unique breakfast table. Here, the prisoner was reportedly beaten to death, decapitated and chopped up on a flat stone, cooked with buffalo meat, and eaten.
Where to stay
Hotels and guesthouses are scattered around the fringes of Lake Toba with the best accommodation often right on the shoreline. Parapat has a number of hotels, but most travellers stay elsewhere.
This tourist village to the east of the lake is composed largely of small hotels.
Boats from Parapat can take you to the lovely waterfront guesthouses in Ambarita.
Blessed with some attractive, lakefront hotels, Tomok is a great place to spend the night.
A 10-minute boat ride off Simanindo is little Tao island, where a few tiny bungalows offer an escape to those who find even Samosir hectic.
A growth in popularity with tourists means you will often find burgers, curries, pizzas and other Western food around Lake Toba as well as Indonesian grub. Here’s where to eat.
The resorts here will largely have their own restaurants, but there are a number of Indonesian and Western places to eat looking out onto the lake.
Most of the good places to eat in Ambarita are located on Jl Pulau Samosir. Expect small stalls selling local takeaway food too.
There are pockets of lakeside diners in Tomok, most of which are just average.
There are some decent restaurants around the docks but little to write home about.
How to get there
Most travellers heading to Lake Toba will arrive in Sumatra via its biggest city, Medan. It’s then a four-hour bus ride to Prapat for Lake Toba.
Medan is Sumatra’s largest city, with international flights arriving from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, as well as from other points in Sumatra and elsewhere in Indonesia, at the modern Kualanamu International airport. From here, you will need to take a bus to Lake Toba.
For intercity journeys, pre-booked door-to-door ‘travel’ (passenger car/ minibus) are the most popular option for getting to Lake Toba. Book with your accommodation.
Sumatra has an extensive bus network. It takes around four hours to get to Prapat (for Lake Toba) from Medan.
Find out the best ways to get to Indonesia.
How many days do you need in Lake Toba?
You will need at least 3-4 days to explore Lake Toba. This includes time at the beach, a visit to a traditional Batak village, a boat ride to Samosir island and a hike to the top of the Sipisopiso waterfall. If you want to do some further trekking or try out some watersports, you may want to spend more time here, especially if you're visiting during the Lake Toba Festival.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Indonesia travel experts.
Tips for getting around
You'll need a little patience to get around Lake Toba. It's often best to speak with your accommodation and book your own private ride.
Public buses chug all around Samosir but don't stop at Tuk Tuk.
All of the major towns have minivan connections and private minivans can be booked via your accommodation.
A number of guesthouses in Tuk Tuk can set you up with a set of your own wheels. It can be a great way to see the lake.
Best time to visit Lake Toba
The best time to visit Lake Toba is during the dry season, which runs from May to September. During this period, the weather is generally pleasant, with little rainfall and plenty of sunshine. This makes it ideal for outdoor activities such as trekking, cycling, and exploring the lake and its surroundings.
Lake Toba Festival takes place on Samosir Island in June or July, featuring Batak art, cultural performances, boat and horse races, and handicrafts exhibitions.
However, keep in mind that this is also the peak tourist season, and the area can get crowded with visitors. If you prefer fewer crowds and lower prices, you may want to consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of April or October, when the weather is still good but there are fewer tourists.
The wet season in Lake Toba runs from October to April, with the heaviest rainfall occurring between November and January. During this time, some roads and tourist attractions may be affected by floods or landslides.
Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.