The Top 14 Destinations in Sumatra

Waterfall in a tropical rainforest, West Sumatra, Indonesia
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These top destinations in Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island, are mainly frequented by domestic travelers or visitors from nearby Singapore and Malaysia. But that’s beginning to change as news spreads of Sumatra’s exciting culture, islands, and natural wonders. Still, even in busiest season, you’ll rarely have to deal with crowds of tourists (looking at you, Bali) while visiting these popular places.

No matter if you’re drawn to the lakes, islands, or busy cities, these top destinations in Sumatra have all the adventure you need for an exciting trip!

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Banda Aceh and Weh

Bay at Pulau Weh in Sumatra

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Banda Aceh, Banda Aceh City, Aceh, Indonesia

Although Bandah Aceh on the very northern tip of Sumatra was completely destroyed during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it’s valiantly recovering. Lampook Beach is where the devastating, 100-foot-tall wave first made landfall. The picturesque Baiturrahman Grand Mosque miraculously survived and is open to visitors—make sure to dress appropriately.

One enticing reason to visit Banda Aceh is nearby Pulau Weh, a beautiful island blessed with mostly undamaged reefs, walls, and wrecks that are a delight for divers. The snorkeling is excellent, too, and the water is the color you would expect at a dreamy tropical paradise.

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Bukit Lawang

An orangutan in Gunung Leusser National Park, Sumatra

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Bukit Lawang, Bohorok, Langkat Regency, North Sumatra, Indonesia

Just west of Medan in North Sumatra, the little tourist village of Bukit Lawang is a top destination in Sumatra for plenty of good reasons beyond its easy accessibility. Inexpensive ecolodges, river tubing, and outdoor activities draw adventurous travelers. Nightly cookouts and guitar sessions with the jungle guides are part of the charm.

Most importantly, Bukit Lawang is the jump-off point for trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park to spot wild orangutans and semi-wild ones being rehabilitated. The area is home to the largest population of Sumatran orangutans remaining on earth. You can see some of the semi-wild forest residents on a relatively easy half-day trek or go for a strenuous multi-day trip with nights spent in the jungle.

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Gunung Sibayak

The caldera atop Gunung Sibayak in North Sumatra

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Mount Sibayak, Jaranguda, Merdeka, Karo Regency, North Sumatra, Indonesia

Gunung Sibayak is one of the easiest volcanoes to climb in Sumatra—and maybe the closest you can get to standing inside an active caldera.

Gunung Sibayak hasn’t erupted in a long time, but nearby Gunung Sinabung has been erupting off and on since 2013. You can tell Sibayak wants some of its bigger sibling’s attention. The ground often trembles inside the caldera, water boils around you, and noxious sulfuric gas sometimes blasts from vents with a roar.

To climb Gunung Sibayak, base yourself in the small town of Berastagi. Make a stop at the majestic Sipiso-Piso Waterfall just north of Lake Toba along the way.

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Lake Toba

Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Indonesia

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Lake Toba, North Sumatra, Indonesia

Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world, is the top destination in Sumatra for many international visitors. Samosir Island was pushed up in the center of the big lake by volcanic pressure and has become a popular place to relax. Yes, you can technically be on an island that's on an island.

Days at Toba are spent swimming, exploring, and learning about former headhunting practices from the (now) friendly Batak people. Even with the many reasons to visit, Samosir Island only gets busy around Chinese New Year.

Despite its extreme depth, geothermal activity keeps Lake Toba nice and warm for swimming. The climate is mild and the air is fresh when the rest of Sumatra feels hot and sticky. The scenery at Lake Toba is captivating, as is the idea that you’re having breakfast in the crater of a supervolcano that altered the earth’s climate and population when it blew thousands of years ago!

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Lake Maninjau

Lake Maninjau in West Sumatra
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Lake Maninjau, Tanjung Raya, Agam Regency, West Sumatra, Indonesia

West Sumatra’s Lake Maninjau is a deep caldera lake that’s around 12 miles long and 5 miles wide. You can ride a scooter around it in an hour, meeting the friendly Minangkabau people along the way—or you could just do what most visitors do: enjoy a couple lazy days admiring the view. Same as at Lake Toba, the breeze feels refreshing after enduring the usual climate in Sumatra.

Lake Maninjau is an idyllic place to grab a lakeside guesthouse and enjoy the clean air with a book in hand. Fishing is also an option.

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The "Great Wall" just outside of Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

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Bukittinggi, Bukittinggi City, West Sumatra, Indonesia

The small town of Bukittinggi makes a perfect base for exploring West Sumatra, especially on scooter or motorbike. Not only is Bukittinggi easier to get around than Padang, it’s situated directly between Lake Maninjau and Mount Marapi, a volcano that can be climbed in one day with an early start.

Bukittinggi has a few small points of interest in the area. The Great Wall of Koto Gadang is jokingly referred to as Indonesia’s version of the Great Wall of China. Regardless, the walk to Koto Gadang village is a memorable day adventure with canyon views from the wall—and often at least one monkey attack.

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The Harau Valley

Harau Valley in West Sumatra
Greg Rodgers

Only two hours northeast of Bukittinggi awaits the verdant Harau Valley. Like most places in West Sumatra, you’ll probably be one of only a handful of tourists within sight; that means you’ll get to enjoy the waterfalls, scenery, and adventure without much competition. For a bonus, you can make an exciting two-hour motorbike drive to the Harau Valley from Bukittinggi.

Vividly green rice fields and impressive rock formations make the Harau Valley unforgettable. Pleasantly, resorts are nowhere to be found. You’ll need to book with one of the friendly homestays by calling ahead. Rent a bicycle or scooter and go waterfall hunting!

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Traditional house in Padang, Sumatra

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Padang, Padang City, West Sumatra, Indonesia

Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of nasi padang—a buffet-style of cuisine loved throughout Indonesia. Customers are given a plate of steamed rice and then charged for whatever offerings (typically on display in the window) they add. Eating nasi padang is a cheap, delicious way to try some popular Minang dishes, including beef rendang, a local favorite.

Padang’s long beach is home to ikan bakar (grilled fish) shacks that grill seafood in evenings. If the city feels too hectic, several off-grid bungalow operations are options farther down the coast. Padang also serves as the jump-off point for Nias and the Mentawai Islands, two places of legend for serious surfers around the world.

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Kerinci Seblat National Park

A large rafflesia flower in the jungle

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4GV5+46M, Lubuk Minturun, Kec. Koto Tangah, Kota Padang, Sumatera Barat 25586, Indonesia

With an area of more than 5,300 square miles, Kerinci Seblat National Park is the largest national park in Sumatra. Unlike many of the other national parks, Kerinci Seblat National Park is easy to access from the capital of Padang. The largest population of remaining Sumatran tigers lives within the park’s boundaries along with other highly endangered species such as Sumatran elephants, sun bears, and clouded leopards.

Hot springs, waterfalls, trekking, and a chance to see a rare Rafflesia in bloom—the heaviest flower in the world—are all great reasons to visit.

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The Mentawai Islands

A Mentawai hunter with a bow and arrow


Mentawai Islands Regency, West Sumatra, Indonesia

The Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra are a playground for serious surfers. But even if you don’t surf, the lightly developed islands are rich with beautiful beaches and indigenous culture. Some of the Mentawai people on the roughly 70 islands still live a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They practice teeth sharpening and are famed for their traditional tattooing methods.

The Mentawai Festival held each November is meant to promote tourism. The 2017 documentary "As Worlds Divide" provides a peek into the lives and challenges of the Mentawai people.

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Nias Island

A surfer at Nias Island in Sumatra

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Nias, North Sumatra, Indonesia

Like the Mentawai Islands, Nias Island is famous for its world-class surfing. Budget travelers have been drawn to the waves and vibe on Nias since the 1960s.

For the non-surfers, Nias Island is home to some attractive beaches including a rare pink-sand beach. Sea turtles seem to outnumber tourists on some of the beaches. The indigenous Nias culture, and especially their practice of “stone jumping” is fascinating.

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Bintan Island

Pristine beach and water at Bintan Island in Sumatra

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Bintan Island, Riau Islands, Indonesia

Bintan Island in Sumatra’s Riau Archipelago is a large island located closer to Singapore than Sumatra. The popular island has golf clubs, spa resorts, and excellent beaches.

But Bintan isn’t only all about poolside massages. A temple there with 500 lifesize Lohan statues, each with individual facial expressions, is reminiscent of the terracotta warriors in Xi’an. Other cultural, religious, and historical sights abound.

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Pagar Alam

Mount Dempo and a tea plantation in Pagar Alam, Sumatra

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Pagar Alam, Pagar Alam City, South Sumatra, Indonesia

The lovely, green Pagar Alam area in South Sumatra is a top destination for domestic tourists, but not many international visitors make the trip.

Despite less proliferation of English, you’ll have no trouble meeting friendly people. The landscape at Pagar Alam is dominated by Mount Dempo, the tallest volcano in South Sumatra. You can opt to climb the volcano or simply appreciate its prominence from the lush valley floor. The fertile soil and cool climate are ideal conditions for the many tea and coffee plantations that can be visited.

Pagar Alam is also home to ancient megaliths and carvings, some of which date back 2,000 years. Seeing these archaeological wonders in fields rather than museums makes for a different experience.

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Belitung and Lengkuas Island

Lengkuas Island in South Sumatra

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Belitung, Bangka Belitung Islands, Indonesia

Belitung Island is situated between Sumatra and Borneo, and although that sounds wildly remote, you can find direct flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur under $100! Belitung is home to uncrowded beaches, dining, and shopping.

Tiny Lengkuas Island, a speedboat hop from Belitung, is known for its Dutch lighthouse constructed in 1882. The lighthouse is iconic (and still functioning), but most visitors to Lengkuas are interested in the pristine beaches and water. The wonderland of smooth boulders on the beach lets snorkelers enjoy interactions with the abundant marine life such as starfish and sea turtles.

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The Top 14 Destinations in Sumatra