Sumatra, the world's sixth largest island, spans over 1,200 miles in the western part of Indonesia and is split across the middle by the equator. North Sumatra offers many exciting things to do and unmatched natural beauty. Spend some time jungle trekking in the rainforest to see orangutans, or explore active volcanoes, swimming spots galore, and Indonesian cooking classes.
Don't let the geographical proximity to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore fool you: North Sumatra remains wild and inviting for travelers who know there's more to Indonesia than just Bali.
Danau Toba, the world's largest volcanic lake, was formed thousands of years ago during a cataclysmic eruption. Despite the extreme depths of over 1,600 feet in some places, the lake stays comfortable for swimming; healthy minerals are another great reason to take a dip.
As if Lake Toba wasn't interesting enough, Samosir Island (Pulau Samosir) formed in the center of the lake, home to the friendly Batak people. The tranquil island keeps travelers around far longer than planned. Samosir residents are always willing to share their culture; impromptu guitar-and-singing sessions break out almost nightly.
Spot Orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park
Bukit Lawang, a small village northwest of Medan, is the base for jungle trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park, listed by UNESCO as one of the most significant biodiverse conservation areas in the world. Visitors may see semi-wild orangutans that have been reintroduced back into nature. A lucky few travelers walking deeper into the jungle may see wild orangutans.
Many other endangered species (including tigers and elephants) take refuge inside the park, mostly because so much habitat has been lost to palm oil plantations. The serenity is well worth braving the ferocious mosquitoes—bring long sleeves, pants, and repellent.
See the Villages and Waterfalls Near Berastagi
The small town of Berastagi, around two hours from Medan, has a relatively cool climate that is refreshing, particularly if you've been sweating around Southeast Asia for weeks. Berastagi is easy to walk around in an hour and is surrounded by villages, waterfalls, and other natural attractions. It's a great place to visit traditional Karo houses to learn about local culture. Check out Taman Alam Lumbini (Lumbini Natural Park), a Buddhist temple and park almost 4 miles (6 kilometers) east of town.
One of the easiest active volcanoes to climb in North Sumatra is Gunung Sibayak, which hasn't erupted since 1881. The views of the green Karo Highlands from the top are spectacular. Climbing can be done in five to six hours, including the return. Sulfur-laden hot springs are ideal on the return path to soak sore legs after a lengthy downhill hike.
Berastagi is the base for tackling the mountain. Only those with sufficient experience should attempt without a guide. Team up with others and be prepared for sudden weather changes by packing appropriate clothing and supplies; trails are not maintained adequately, so bring maps to avoid getting lost.
At about 8,000 feet high, Gunung Sinabung is the tallest volcano in North Sumatra, but it is extremely active and off limits to trekking. The mountain erupted in 2010 after having been dormant for 400 years. It's been rumbling nearly every year since 2013, prompting many evacuations and causing seven deaths in 2016. A large eruption sent ash 22,966 feet (7,000 meters) into the air in 2019.
To see great views of the volcano from a safe area, ask a taxi driver to guide you or book a tour to places such as Tiga Pancur Village in Simpang Empat, Perteguhan Village, Tiga Kicat Village of Naman Teran, or Gundaling Hills. Certain hotels offer mountain views as well.
Tube Down the River
The Bohorok River between Bukit Lawang and Gunung Leuser National Park is a great spot for tubing (sitting in a tire) with family or friends. Rent tubes at many spots along the river or from guesthouses in Bukit Lawang. The guides will carry the big tubes up the river for a small fee and steer visitors down the river. After heavy rains, go with a guide and proceed with caution.
Study History at Bukit Barisan Museum
If you're in Medan and a history buff, check out Bukit Barisan Museum. This military museum was established in 1971 and houses several historic weapons, including those used in the revolt in North Sumatra against the Netherlands during the struggle for independence in the 1940s. The museum features paintings, archaeological exhibits, and a diversity of local tribal costumes.
Visit Indigenous Karo Villages
Take in daily life at one of the many Karo villages dotted around North Sumatra. The traditional thatched-roof longhouses are adorned with buffalo horns.
Arrange transportation from your guesthouse, or grab a map and rent a motorbike. Since many of the elders only speak their native languages, hiring a guide who speaks their dialect will give you a richer experience to better understand these traditional cultures.
A few of the villages to visit include:
- Peceren Village: Closest to Berastagi (1.2 miles or 2 kilometers), Peceren has some traditional houses with sloping roofs and a graveyard to visit.
- Lingga Village: At 7.5 miles or 12 kilometers away from Berastagi, Lingga is nicer to visit than Peceren. The king's house—the primary attraction—is 250 years old, and the village has a small museum.
- Dokan Village: Dokan, 15.5 miles or 25 kilometers from Berastagi, is the least touristy of the Karo villages, with well-preserved homes and an old graveyard.
Get Back to Nature at the Sipiso-Piso Waterfall
A nice stopover between Berastagi and Lake Toba, the Sipiso-Piso Waterfall in the Batak Highlands is one of Indonesia's tallest waterfalls, splashing over 390 feet (119 meters) onto the rocks below. The waterfall is reachable by steep trails and is surrounded by green scenery, jungle, and rice fields. Souvenir and food booths are nearby.
The waterfall is just 1.2 miles or 2 kilometers from the main road junction in Simpang Situnggaling and about a 45-minute drive from Berastagi.
Stroll Around the Colorful Local Market
To have some fun exploring local fish, produce, spices, clothing—and even rubber from area plantations—check out the Friday market in the bus station at Gotong Royong. Walk 15 minutes from Bukit Lawang, or to avoid the heat, take a becak (rickshaw).
Guides are available for a 2-hour tour detailing everything on sale. If it's not a Friday, a few vendors are typically selling fruit and vegetables.
Although North Sumatra gets more attention, it's even wilder and less visited in West Sumatra, with climbable volcanoes, another big volcanic lake (Lake Maninjau, with a road full of cafes and viewpoints), national parks, and interesting culture.
The tourism infrastructure has a small foothold in West Sumatra. English is a little less prevalent, so you'll learn some Bahasa.
Getting from North Sumatra to West Sumatra overland isn't a pleasant experience by bus. Consider grabbing a flight from Medan to Padang and then opting for the city Bukittinggi, Lake Maninjau, or an eco-friendly coastal accommodation.
If you'd like to stay in North Sumatra’s amazing rainforest while supporting the critically-endangered orangutan, the Ecolodge Bukit Lawang is your match. The lodge offers airy accommodations, and its restaurant often uses local produce from its own garden in a mix of Indonesian and fusion cuisine. You can rest well knowing that all profits from your stay go to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.
Kebun Binatang Medan, the Medan Zoo, is about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the center of Medan and gives visitors a great chance to see some animals they might not otherwise. The zoo houses almost 160 species, including endangered animals like Bengal tigers, Sumatran Elephants, and orangutans, as well as other animals, including bears.
Weekdays are less crowded, as many locals attend the zoo on weekends.
Explore a Bat Cave
Just 1.2 miles or 2 kilometers from Bukit Lawang, adventurers can follow the trail from the Ecolodge Bukit Lawang hotel to a cavern filled with thousands of bats. Landowners may collect a small fee from visitors checking out the cave, which measures about 0.3 miles or 500 meters long. Going with a guide is best; a torch is required to see anything inside the cave. Ask about the less popular Swallow Cave and Ship Cave.
Check Out Snow Beach
About 1.5 hours from Medan in Mabar Village, Sumatra offers Pantai Salju Natural Bath, referred to as "Snow Beach." The scenic site is not actually a beach and has no snow: It is a river of clean mountain water that looks like snow as it flows rapidly over various rocks. Locals and visitors enjoy playing in the water and taking a refreshing soak in a serene landscape.
Since the current is moderate, children need supervision.
Marvel at Maimoon Palace
One of Indonesia's most gorgeous historic palaces, the two-story and 30-room Istana Maimun or Maimoon Palace in downtown Medan is the royal house for the Sultanate of Deli. Built in the late 1800s, the palace features Malay, Indian, Islamic, and other influences.
Members of the sultan’s family reside in the back wing. Only the main room, which features the elegant inauguration throne, is open to the public daily, except when special ceremonies take place.
Venture to Monako Park
To relax surrounded by trees, take the whole family to Monako Park in Namo Suro Baru Village, about an hour's drive from Medan. The park features a swimming pool, a nice garden, pretty spots for taking photos, and a track for riding ATVs rented onsite.
Visitors pay a small fee, which keeps the park well-maintained; costs go up a bit on weekends and holidays when more people arrive.