Sumatra has a mixture of people from many different backgrounds and religions that live side by side, all with a joint admiration, respect and fear for the other inhabitants of the island: the volcanoes! These gigantic original residents quietly watch over the land, coastal beaches, buzzing cities and of course, dense jungle. Within the jungle is where another group of locals live, the orangutans! Sumatra certainly has a wonderful mixture of scenery, people and sights.
When to Visit Sumatra
It is advisable to spend a minimum of 30 days in Sumatra. With this amount of time, you’ll have the opportunity to see as much of the island as possible! There is reason to visit at any time of year but October-December is when Sumatra receives its annual drenching from monsoonrains. May-July is when rainfall is at its lowest and temperatures are optimal but be warned that, when trekking in the jungle, this can make things very hot and sticky!
Getting to/from and Around Sumatra
The international airport is located in Medan. Both international (commonly Singapore and Kula Lumpur) and domestic flights (including to Banda Aceh and Padang) depart and arrive here.
Getting around by bus is the most common practice to get between places, although this option is far from efficient or comfortable. Tickets can be bought directly at the bus station or from company specific ticket offices located outside the station. Prices vary greatly depending on the type of bus and level of comfort, from small sardine cans to freezer-like air-con coaches with reclining seats. Check prices on the ground and remember that booking agents often charge a commission.
Minibuses are considered a good option for short journeys, often offering door-to-door services. Most are in good shape, though some can be a bit rickety. Bookings can often be handled by your accommodation.
For local transport around town there are a couple of options: a bemo (small minivan) or becak (cycle rickshaw) are good ways to get around in many cities. It’s advisable to establish and agree on the price before climbing aboard and, from personal experience, always have changewith you! If you can’t give the exact money, the driver will often say they don’t have change, even if they do!
As Sumatra’s own metropolis and Indonesia’s third largest city, Medan is primarily used as a transport hub for travelers. It has gained somewhat of a bad reputation among backpackers as it is considered dirty, horribly busy and notorious for scams, so you need to have your wits about you!
That’s not to say, however, that it isn’t worth stopping to explore. There are a few noteworthy sights that are a throwback to the colonial-era and they’re worth taking a look at!
What to See in Medan
Museum of North Sumatra
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday: 9am-4pm, Friday-Sunday: 9am-3:15pm
Entrance Fee: 10,000 IDR
Housed in a traditional building, this museum has exhibits that range from the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and colonial periods, as well as displays on military history. Fine textiles and carvings made from wood and stone can also be found here.
Opening Hours: Monday-Sunday: 8am-6pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR
Built in 1888 by the Sultan of Deli, Istana Maimoon is a very grand 30-room structure with Malay, Mughal and Italian influences. Only the main room featuring the inauguration throne is open to the public.
Tjong A Fie Mansion
Opening Hours: Monday-Sunday: 9am-5pm
Entrance Fee: 35,000 IDR
The former home of one of the wealthiest men (at the time) in Medan, this mansion perfectly blends Victorian and Chinese styles and is complete with a Taoist temple. It is considered one of the most impressive historical buildings in town.
Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni
Opening Hours: 24 hours
A surreal catholic church with a mixture of Hindu and Islamic architecture, this building is of religious diversity! It lies 8km southwest of the city centre.
Masjid Raya Al Mashun (Grand Mosque of Medan)
Opening Hours: Monday-Sunday: 9am-5pm (except prayer times)
Entrance Fee: By donation
This Moroccan-style building was commissioned in 1906. It is a grand and impressive mosque with high ceilings, Italian marble and stained glass from China.
Sri Mariamman Temple
Medan’s oldest Hindu temple was built in 1884. Constructed in typical South Indian style, it is eye-catching, colourful and often busy with devotees, who come to pray and burn incense.
Located in downtown Medan, this ornate Dutch colonial building was built in the early 1900’s and is still in service today as the town hall.
Where to Stay in Medan
We visited Medan three times in total. As it’s the island’s main transport hub, we had no choice. There are many accommodation options, given the size of the city, though budget options aren’t that pretty. There are numerous midrange and top-end places, if your budget permits. Each time, we stayed somewhere different.
First up was K77 Guesthouse. Rooms here are basic but clean enough; it’s located off the main road down a side street and is thus slightly tricky to find. It’s run by a friendly family, who offer a lovely breakfast that includes a western dish of toast and eggs and local food as side dishes, as well as a fruit plate and tea… it sure set us up for the day!
Second time round we stayed at The Z Suites. Rooms are basic and a little run-down but it’s good enough for one night. The location isn’t great though; there is nowhere around to eat! It’s very much a standard hotel where you aren’t a guest but rather a room number.
Lastly, before we left Sumatra we stayed at The Grand Impression Hotel. It has a very nice interior and we had a really cosy room (with the first hot shower in weeks!) It’s very much a hotel in terms of cleanliness with efficient, uniformed, polite staff who say “sir” at the end of every sentence!
There’s an onsite supermarket as well as ATM’s in close proximity. We ate at the hotel restaurant and the food was very good. The buffet breakfast is very Asian with rice, noodles and small slices of white bread for toasting; it’s tasty and filling though. If we’d known about this hotel on our first visit to the city, we would have stayed here each time!
2. Banda Aceh
A place that gained infamy when severely struck by the 2004 tsunami, Banda Aceh is rebuilding itself to its former glory. A very conservative Muslim area, the city has some wonderful architecture and other sights.
For detailed information, check out Lynette’s post – Quick Guide: Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh.
3. Pulau Weh
Pulau Weh is a fascinating yet quiet place that is ripe for exploring! Lynette tells you all about the best things to see and how to see them independently, as well as lots more must-know information, in her above post!
4. Bukit Lawang
If you came to Sumatra looking for an orangutan encounter, this is the place for you! Given its location, the area is well set-up for tourists. All of the accommodation, restaurants and shops are along one main strip. When looking to book a tour there are many, many companies! Prices and quality can vary so my advice would be to shop around, chat to a few people and don’t get pressured into booking something you’re not happy with. Ask to see the guide’s license and if you’re a female solo traveler, it’s a good idea to get together with other travelers and go as a group!
To find out all about our unique experience with these amazing endangered creatures, as well as other information you need to know about Bukit Lawang, check out my post: Encountering Orangutans in the Sumatran Rainforest!
A cooler place in Indonesia at an altitude of 1300m, Berastagi is predominantly a market town in the mountains. It was established by Dutch traders, eager to escape the sweltering heat of Medan.
What to See and Do in Berastagi
Entrance Fee: 10,000 IDR
Hike up one of Indonesia’s most accessible volcanoes that offers incredible views! Reaching the summit for sunrise is a very popular option. Guides aren’t strictly necessary as the peak can be accessed by an easy-to-follow road to the volcano’s base and then a 2 hour hike up, with stairs part of the way. Transport to the ticket office and to the start of the hiking trail can be arranged on the ground.
Opening Hours: Daily, 9am-5pm
Entrance Fee: 3,000 IDR
An impressive palace complex that was home to chiefs of surrounding villages until 1947. It has multiple traditional buildings to explore.
Opening Hours: 8am-5pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR (only if you wish to go into the buildings)
Possibly the most visited village in the area, Lingga has a small selection of traditionally-built houses, all of which are occupied; it’s possible to look inside some.
St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church
Opening Hours: 24 hours
This church is an odd mixture of styles, built in the traditional Karo Batak style but with stained glass windows! The interior is rather impressive and holds a Sunday mass (8-11am).
Taman Alam Lumbini
Opening Hours: Daily, 9am-5pm
Located 6 kilometres to the east of town, this Buddhist temple is a replica of Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar.
Air Terjun Sipiso-Piso
Opening Hours: Daily, 8am-6pm
Entrance Fee: 4,000/2,000 IDR (adult/child)
Air Terjun Sipiso-Piso is a narrow yet impressive waterfall, cascading 120m; it’s roughly 300m off the road.
Opening Hours: Daily, 7am-8pm
Entrance Fee: By donation
A place to learn more about the local Karo culture and see some related artifacts, this museum is also in a good location for a photo opportunity of Gunung Sinabung!
Museum Pusaka Karo
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday: 9am-12:30pm and 1:30-4:30pm, Saturday: 8:30am-1pm, Sunday: Closed
Entrance Fee: 5,000/1,000 IDR (adult/child)
This museum is a great place to learn all about the Karo culture with displays of traditional costumes, weaponry and tools. The compound also contains a scale model of a traditional house.
Gundaling Hill is a unique vantage pointed that’s shaded by trees; from here you can see both local volcanoes! It’s around 45 minutes’ walk past the turn-off for Sibayak.
There are two prominent landmarks in Berastagi: a giant cabbage that was erected in 1972 as a thank you for the riches the vegetable brought to the local economy, and the Tugu Perjuangan in the city centre.
Where to Stay in Berastagi
We stayed at Berastagi Nachelle Homestay; run by a friendly woman and her family, it’s a nice, clean place to stay. Our room was spartan but functional with a shared bathroom downstairs. It’s a little out of town but hop-on transport is easy to get from outside on the road.
6. Danau Toba (Samosir Island)
Danau Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia at 1,707 square kilometers. Samosir Island sits proudly in the middle, surrounded by incredible blue water. It’s not technically an island as it’s connected by a very thin road to the mainland, but it sure feels like one!
What to See and Do on Samosir Island
There are no specific ‘sights’ on the island but there are some unnamed gems in nooks and crannies. The best thing to do is hire a scooter or mountain bike from your guesthouse, get out there and explore. The roads are reasonably easy to follow and your accommodation will be able to provide maps and information.
There is potential for hiking on the island but trails are hard to find and follow. Seeking local information is highly advisable. With such a large lake on your doorstep, swimming is obviously a good way to cool off. Being aware of conditions and not swimming alone is, of course, always a good idea!
Where to Stay on Samosir Island
We stayed at Romlan Guesthouse, which was the best place we stayed on our trip! We had a little house with what we dubbed a ‘hobbit door’, right on the lake. Romlan is located in a beautiful setting with friendly staff and great food, all for a decent price.
Traditionally a market town, Bukittinggi has seen plenty of change in its time. It’s very peaceful in the early mornings when the market is in full swing; at 9am, however, the craziness and air and noise pollution kick in for the remainder of the day!
What to See and Do in Bukittinggi
Opening Hours: Daily, 6:30am-7pm
Entrance Fee: 20,000 IDR
Gua Jepang is an expansive network of underground caves that were built for the Japanese in 1942. Exploring the complex, which stretches for nearly 1.5km, can be a spooky experience!
Opening Hours: Daily, 7:30am-5:30pm
Entrance Fee: 20,000 IDR
This location offers a good viewpoint of Sianok Canyon. Fruit bats can be seen swooping in and out at dusk.
Entrance Fee: 10,000 IDR
Climbing this dormant volcano can be quite an adventurous undertaking. A local guide is highly recommended.
Batang Paluph Nature Reserve
This stunning reserve is home to many different types of flora and fauna. Although a guide can assist you to get to the best parts of the reserve, hiring one is not strictly necessary. It’s 16km north of town.
Where to Stay in Bukittinggi
An abundance of hotels, guesthouses and hostels are available to suit all budgets and amenity requirements. Unfortunately, we’re unable to recommend our chosen accommodation choice. It’s best to shop around.
8. Danau Maninjau
Danau Maninjau is a perfectly formed lake; it takes a dizzy 44 hairpin bends to descend to the lakeshore from the main road. A prosperous tourist town in its hay day, the lakeside village is now much quieter with agriculture as its main source of income.
What to See and Do around Danau Maninjau
Danau Maninjau is a nice place for swimming or canoeing on the lake although, as always, caution is advised! We took a scooter around the 50km lake, a scenic drive, and got invited in for tea and fried pisang (banana) by a friendly shop owner keen to practice his English. Other than that though, there’s not a huge amount to do apart from relax and enjoy the views.
Where to stay on Danau Maninjau
We stayed at Beach Guest House & Bagoes Café, another place with a lovely lakeside setting. Our large room was clean, although we struggled to locate the light switch at first! It’s run by a nice family that are friendly and helpful, answering all the questions we had! We ate all of our meals here; there aren’t many other options around but, even if there were, we’d have eaten here because the food was fantastic!
9. Harau Valley
Harau Valley is a beautifully peaceful, quiet area with nothing but lush green rice paddies as far as the eye can see! It makes for a lovely couple of days to enjoy the slow pace of the countryside.
What to See and Do in Harau Valley
Harau Valley is a place with stunning views and some impressive waterfalls. Going on a day hike is a fantastic opportunity to enjoy the surrounding area. We did just this with another couple from our homestay, which enabled us to explore the luscious countryside and see new rice saplings being planted.
Where to Stay in Harau Valley
We stayed at Abdi Homestay, which was very much a case of ‘back-to-basics’, a wooden hut on stilts that had no shower or sink. There was just a cold water tub with a small hand held bucket, used for a bucket shower and to flush the toilet.
However, the quiet setting, a lovely family running the place and a really nice breakfast made up for it. With no other option, we ate dinner here too; the homestay lies in the middle of nowhere! Thankfully, all the food was delicious!
Padang is an urban area on the west coast of Sumatra; it is a good transport hub with decent connections by land, air and sea. It also offers some nice views of surrounding hill country.
What to See and Do in Padang
Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Friday: 7:30am-4pm, Saturday-Sunday: 8am-4:30pm
Entrance Fee: 3,000/2,000 IDR (adult/child)
This is an excellent museum, offering an in-depth overview of the history and development of Padang. There is also a sobering exhibit that details all of the natural disasters to have struck the area over the years.
Exploring the city on foot, taking in its architecture and tasting some of the local cuisine are considered other good ways to experience some of the local ways of life that have evolved over time.
Where to Stay in Padang
We stayed at Brigitte’s House, tucked away down a side road; it’s well hidden and took us and our non-English speaking taxi driver some time to find! Our room was awesome with a digital TV and AC; it was a good size too! The included breakfast was varied, which made a nice change. One morning it was scrambled eggs on toast, the next a banana pancake, both with tea and a fruit plate included.
So there you have it, our 10 Unmissable Places to Visit in Sumatra, an Indonesian island that has a bit of everything to spark the interest of any traveller!
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