<Home/Articles/Our guide to the main islands of Indonesia

Our guide to the main islands of Indonesia

|

In a country of over 17,000 islands, choosing which tropical shores to drop in on can feel overwhelming. To help narrow it down (just a little), only around 6,000 Indonesian islands are inhabited. Across these tropical isles, you’ll find blissful beaches, glorious reefs, tropical rainforests, jungle-clad mountains, smoking volcanoes, and a wonderful diversity of wildlife and cultures. But if you don’t have all the time in the world to island-hop, then have a look at this handful of islands in Indonesia that we recommend you consider, perhaps choosing two or three to dive into on your travels.

Highlights of the five largest islands in Indonesia

In many ways, several of the five main islands are some of the best islands in Indonesia for travelers. They have good infrastructure for getting around and an established tourism network; their larger populations make them culturally exciting, too. Here’s a snapshot of the main islands, along with a few of our other favorites.

Java: best for urban culture and ancient temples

The Indonesian island of Java is the most densely populated in the world. Over half of the Indonesian population lives here (some 140 million), many of them in the teeming megacities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta. Frenetic and fascinating, yes, downtown Jakarta is clogged with traffic and noise, but it also buzzes with energy. You’ll find a fantastic arts scene, world-class dining and a fun-fueled nightlife to get in on. There are also many layers of history and heritage to uncover. Shiny new skyscrapers are interspersed with cobbled squares, colonial Dutch townhouses, and serene Chinese Buddhist temples.

But even here on jam-packed Java, there are pockets of wilderness to get lost in. In the Gunung Halimun Salak National Park, tumbling waterfalls cut through vibrant forest and the smoking Mount Bromo volcano is surrounded by otherworldly hiking terrain. For beaches, make like the locals and head just offshore to a string of white-sand beauties known as the Thousand Islands.

Java is also one of the best places to go in Indonesia for temples. The superlative Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple complex and was built during the 8th and 9th centuries. This enigmatic UNESCO World Heritage Site is set amidst jade and emerald-green rice paddies and forest. The temple is 29m high and surrounded by hundreds of exquisitely-carved sculptures illustrating the teachings of Buddha.

Sunrise at Borobudur, Java, Indonesia

Sulawesi: best for diving and distinct local cultures

As you travel through Indonesia, you won’t find an island with a more unusual shape than Sulawesi. Made up of four long peninsulas curving out in different directions from a mountainous center, Sulawesi takes some time to negotiate. Because of this unique geography, the island has an extravagant length of coastline and is well-known for its first-rate diving and coral reefs, especially around Bunaken Marine Park in the north.

This disparate geography also means that Sulawesi was tricky to colonize, and because of this, it has quite distinct cultures from peninsula to peninsula. These include the Torajan, who have lived in the northern hills of South Sulawesi since the 9th century and are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites. Its largest city, Makassar in the far south, has a strong Dutch influence and both Muslim and Christian heritages to explore.

Tongkonan ancestral houses in Sulawesi, Indonesia

Sumatra: best for exuberant wildlife and surf beaches

Wild and relatively untouched, Sumatra is the largest Indonesian island fully under Indonesian rule. The first two are islands shared with other nations. Sumatra is incredibly rich in natural resources, including hardwoods, natural gas and oil. Despite this, it is a joy for nature enthusiasts, with vast swathes of national parks protecting tropical, wildlife-rich rainforests and dramatic volcanoes. In fact, this is one of Indonesia’s best travel destinations for wildlife and is especially favored for its population of orange-haired orangutans. Other wildlife taking the jungle by storm are rhinos, elephants, sun bears and Sumatran tigers. Add to this hundreds of colorful bird species and an enthralling array of plants and insects.

Sumatra is also home to an intricate mosaic of cultures and ethnic groups. There are Muslims and Christians, the ancient forest-dwelling tribes of Kubu and Rimbu, and the sea-faring Orang Laut. Along Sumatra’s shores, surfers make a beeline for the powder-soft sands and perfect barrel waves.

View of Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia

Borneo/Kalimantan: best for adventure far from the crowds

Indonesia shares the jungle-clad island of Borneo with both Malaysia and the tiny nation of Brunei. Kalimantan is the second-largest of the main islands of Indonesia, covering around two-thirds of Borneo. This is a land of dense forests, furrowed mountain ranges and snaking rivers. To venture deep into the wilderness, traveling by boat is the only sensible way to go.

The adventurous few that head for the interior will almost certainly encounter wild orangutans in some of the planet’s most ancient forests. They will also meet the local Dayak people, a former head-hunting tribe who live in small settlements along the riverbanks. The most accessible way to explore Kalimantan is by houseboat along the Mahakam River.

Orangutan family in Kalimantan, Indonesia

Western New Guinea: best for far-flung adventures

Just 150km from Western Australia across the Torres Strait, Western New Guinea is the largest Indonesian island and is shared with the autonomous country of Papua New Guinea. If Kalimantan travelers are adventurous, those heading to Western New Guinea could be classified as intrepid. The terrain here is even more wild and impenetrable – so much so that there are hundreds of distinct tribes almost entirely cut off from each other, some of them potentially uncontacted. Remote Western New Guinea is one of the final frontiers of world travel.

Korowai house in Western Papua, Indonesia

Smaller islands in Indonesia: where to visit?

Bali and Sumba: best for culture and tradition

At the other end of the scale is the much-visited Indonesian island of Bali. This tiny jewel in the Indian Ocean is probably the most popular for Indonesia travel, and has long been frequented by sun-seekers and surfers from around the world. Unique in Indonesia, it is predominantly Hindu and the colorful rituals of Balinese Hinduism are all around. You’ll see daily offerings to the divine, with intricately-crafted arrangements of flower petals, leaves and incense appearing on the streets each morning. In the mountains, there are beautiful temples and shrines to visit, along with acres of dazzling rice paddies and a coastal dusting of tropical white-sand beaches. Bali envelops visitors with a gentle and open hospitality, and it’s a firm favorite for wellness escapes.

Just an hour’s flight east from Bali, the island of Sumba is a step change. Pretty much untouched, it has only had the very gentlest of tourism development, with a handful of eco-hotels dotted around its pristine jungle coast. The local people here are animists; it’s a fascinating culture to discover, with many rituals and ceremonies and some of the most beautiful traditional ikat-weaving in Indonesia.

Traditional huts in Kampung Adat Praijing on the island of Sumba, Indonesia

Komodo and Flores: best for back-to-nature escapism

Wild, rugged and volcanic, Komodo Island is part of the wider Komodo National Park. This is the territory of the fearsome Komodo dragon and the only place in the world where you can see them. Witnessing these three-meter-long creatures hefting along the beach, with their armor-like skin and forked tongues, feels like you’ve been transported back to Jurassic times. The waters around the island are also some of the clearest and best in Indonesia for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Named by the Portuguese, Flores (meaning flowers) is mostly Catholic, but tempered by traditional Indonesian village life and beliefs. The landscapes here are superlative, with brightly-colored crater lakes, dizzying coastal cliffs, and Indonesia’s trademark color scheme of ultra-green rice paddies, white sands and turquoise waters.

View of Komodo Island's national park in Indonesia

Lombok and Gili: best for beach relaxation

No Indonesia travel guide would be complete without a mention of the Gili Isles. This trio of tiny dots off the coast of Bali and Lombok is so petite, that you could jog around them in a couple of hours. Not that you’d want to do something so strenuous on these sun-kissed isles. The delights of the Gilis are kicking back, shore snorkeling with sea turtles, and plenty of languid sunset-gazing. Gili Trawangan is the larger of the three and has a backpacker party atmosphere. Gili Air is more serene and laid-back, and Gili Meno is even more so. The latter is favored by couples looking to unwind together on a bona-fide paradise island.

Just across the water, neighboring Lombok is similar in size to Bali, but much less visited. The scenery here is extravagant: green-clad mountains laced with waterfalls, a towering volcano (3,726m), and miles of untouched coastline. It’s popular with hikers and surfers in particular, though it is beginning to attract a wider audience. The culture here is predominantly Islamic, and traditional village life is easy to find.

Sea turtle off the coast of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia

Make it happen

Ready to set sail for paradise? Chat with a local expert in Indonesia and take your pick from these gorgeous island gems.

Get inspired

Here's some articles to inspire you...

Back-to-nature escapes: rainforests

July 22, 2024

Our recommendations for your next fall vacation

July 17, 2024

10 must-visit places in Malta

July 16, 2024

Book with confidence