Whether you’re looking for a beach vacation, eco escape, or party destination, you’ve probably considered traveling to Bali at some point. With seven million international visitors a year, however, the once peaceful island is becoming increasingly commercialized and overcrowded. The good news is that there are plenty more exotic Indonesian islands to visit and, in my opinion, they’re much more beautiful and interesting than Bali!
From dense forests and indigenous wildlife to quiet beaches and impressive coral reefs, each Indonesian island has something unique and exciting to offer and won’t leave you disappointed by tacky beach bars and rowdy tourists.
1 | Java
I was surprised that the administrative center of Indonesia was fairly unpopular among tourists, despite the fact it’s home to Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta. There, you’ll find gorgeous colonial buildings in the Old Town, historic landmarks in Merdeka Square, and great shopping at Plaza Indonesia. I also enjoyed visiting Java’s religious sites, such as the Borobudur Temple and Candi Prambanan Temple, and taking challenging hikes up Mount Ijen.
I was spoiled for choice when it came to beaches! Batu Karas is great for some peace and quiet, while Anyer Beach is perfect for watersports enthusiasts. Alternatively, visit the five inhabited islands of Karimunjawa, just off the Java coast, for stunning beaches, calm waves, and great beginners’ snorkeling.
2 | Flores
If you’d like to learn more about traditional Indonesian culture, visit Flores’ Melo Village, where you can try local food and watch an impressive Caci dance performance. Alternatively, take the 10-kilometer-long jungle hike to reach the remote village of Wae Rebo, or visit the small towns in the East to learn how to weave with ikat.
There’s also plenty of natural beauty to be enjoyed on Flores. The Kelimutu Volcano, for example, towers over deep valleys and offers multicolored lakes at its 2,500-meter-high peak. The 17 Islands Marine Park, meanwhile, is popular for snorkeling in its turquoise water, or spotting giant fruit bats and flying foxes a little further inland.
Like Bali, Flores also offers the chance to see rice paddies. On Flores, the paddies are known as “spider web fields” because they are arranged in a web formation. I’d recommend visiting as early as possible and organizing a tour to learn about the production process and meet local farmers.
3 | Sumba
Sumba is another great option if you’re looking to learn about culture and traditions. Buy ikat weavings at Waingapu’s night market, take in traditional architecture in Kodi, or learn about ancient tribes at the tombs in Rende and Melolo. If you’d rather just relax, head to the shimmering shores of Weekuri Lake, or some of Sumba’s gorgeous beaches, like Tarimbang, Marosi, or Mandorak.
I really enjoyed this island’s national parks, such as Laiwangi Wanggameti, where I was both honored and terrified to spot some wild pythons. Sumba Manupeu Tanah Daru was also stunning, with its 120 rare plants and 100 different bird species.
4 | Lombok
Travelers often visit Lombok as an alternative to Bali and I completely understand why! Check out the southern side of the island for scenic, secluded beaches, such as Pink Beach, Tanjung Aan, and Selong Belanak. Alternatively, take a trip to one of the nearby Gili islands. The largest is Gili Trawangan, which is popular for its vibrant nightlife scene, while Gili Meno is the quietest of the three. Gili Air, meanwhile, makes for a great compromise and was my favorite, thanks to the great mix of entertaining beach bars and more secluded areas.
Lombok also offers gorgeous natural beauty. Its Mount Rinjani is a hiker’s paradise. With a peak of more than 3,500 meters, it’s the second-highest volcano in Indonesia and will take you two days to hike to the crater lake at the top. For a more peaceful day trip, enjoy the island’s waterfalls, such as the five falls at Benang Stokel or Tiu Kelep, located deep in the jungle.
5 | Sumbawa
Nature enthusiasts will love Sumbawa, where you’ll find the impressive Liang Petang Caves. Remember to take a flash light to see the unique stalactites, stalagmites, and other weird and wonderful rock formations in the caves’ deep dark chambers. Afterwards, refuel in a seafront restaurants on popular beaches such as Lakey or Benete.
I’d also recommend visiting some of the smaller islands just off Sumbawa’s coast. Kenawa, for example, is full of quiet grassland areas, as well as diverse marine wildlife, such as crabs and starfish. The Moyo Island National Park on the island of Moyo, meanwhile, boasts animals like boars and lizards, as well as the scenic Ai Manis Beach.
6 | Sumatra
Located in the North of Indonesia, Sumatra is home to some of the rarest plants and wildlife on Earth, including tigers, rhinos, and orangutans. To spot the latter, don’t miss out on Gunung Leuser National Park, where I was also lucky enough to see colorful peacocks and cheeky monkeys. For gorgeous flora and fauna, I’d also suggest visiting the Minang Highlands, where you’ll find the rare Rafflesia arnoldi. I was warned about this plant before visiting, but I didn’t take much notice about the stench until I arrived. The flowers only bloom for a couple of days each month and emit an awful smell to attract a special kind of insect.
I couldn’t leave Sumatra without visiting Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake on Earth. Perhaps stupidly, I was expecting the “volcanic” water to be hot, but it actually offered a cool escape from the blazing temperatures on Sumatra. If you’re looking for a beach day, I’d recommend the Mentawai Islands for scuba diving, or the southern province of Lampung for spotting majestic dolphins, if you’re lucky.
7 | Borneo
If you love the heat, you’ll adore Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Kalimantan lies directly over the equator and you can even visit the equatorial line in the city of Potianak! This large city is great for history buffs, with landmarks like the former royal palace of Istana Kadriyah and the Negeri Pontianak Museum teaching visitors about the island’s past.
My favorite memory on Kalimantan, however, was spotting orangutans. Borneo is one of the very few places in the world that these gorgeous creatures live in the wild. For the best chance of spotting one, you should visit Tanjung Putting National Park, home to the largest orangutan concentration on the island. I took a river cruise through the wetland area and was lucky enough to see them, living alongside other stunning animals like deer and bears.