Sumatra is an Indonesian Island located in the Malay Archipelago. It is one of the larger Lesser Sunda Islands and offers a diverse landscape, perfect for those eager to get off the beaten track. Sumatra is the ideal destination for exploring lush rainforests, discovering ancient tribal cultures or heading off to remote beaches and tropical islands.
However, with Sumatra being roughly the same size as Spain, the distances can be confusing for many travellers. This, coupled with poor infrastructure can make planning your Sumatra itinerary a tough job.
The below itineraries for Sumatra have been created by Ellie, a British expat. Along with her husband Tyson, she founded Sumatra Orangutan Discovery, an ethical Bukit Lawang based trekking and tour agency.
If you’re looking to work out your plans for visiting Sumatra, the below itineraries are guaranteed to help you get the most out of your visit.
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Recommended Sumatra Itineraries
10 days or two weeks is often touted to be the ideal amount of time to see a few of Sumatra’s highlights. However, this should really be viewed as the minimum time to spend on this amazing island.
As Sumatra is a big place, it can take a while to travel around and those who are strapped for time can feel rushed. Here are our recommended Sumatra itineraries. They have been tailored to fit both 10-day and two-week trips.
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Sumatra 10-Day Itinerary
Day 1 – Arrive in Medan
The easiest way to get to Medan is to catch a flight from Jakarta, Bangkok, KL or Singapore. However, this might not be the most budget-friendly option for backpackers. If flying is too much of a cost sucker for you, consider getting the ferry from Penang in Malaysia.
You will arrive in the dusty, densely populated city of Medan. The capital of Sumatra tends to be a place most travellers are eager to leave but even though you won’t be hanging around, we still recommend grabbing some food from the hawker centres there. Delicious!
To get the most out of your time on this island, head to the bus station and book your ticket to the wildlife hotspot, Bukit Lawang!
Day 2,3,4 – Bukit Lawang
There are a variety of ways to reach Bukit Lawang but arguably the most convenient way is to ask your guesthouse to arrange a private car pick-up. This should set you back somewhere in the region of approximately $40-50 USD. If you’re on a tight budget, instead use public transport or hop on a shared tourist bus. It won’t be as comfortable but it will be a darn sight cheaper!
Your trek will take you into the breathtaking Gunung Leuser National Park where there will be the opportunity to see wild orangutans and other incredible wildlife such as Thomas Leaf Monkeys, Pig-tailed macaques and various bird and reptile species. Opting for an overnight trek is the best way to truly experience the jungle and heighten your chances of seeing animals.
The number of endangered animals living in this national park highlights the importance of choosing an ethical trekking company to ensure responsible practices and the protection of the habitat. Always do your research before booking.
After an overnight stay in the jungle, you’ll arrive back at your guesthouse in the late afternoon. This will allow you time to have a cool drink, take in the local sights or join your jungle guides for music and games.
If you’re already thinking about where to stay in Bukit Lawang, our favourite guesthouses are Sumatra Orangutan Discovery Villa (I’m biased but it really is great), Jungle Inn, On The Rocks, Bukit Lawang EcoLodge and Cheeky Monkeys.
Day 5, 6 – Berastagi
On day five, you’ll leave Bukit Lawang and head to Berastagi. The journey will take around four or five hours and you can stop off at Sipiso Piso en route. This is one of Indonesia’s tallest waterfalls and has a drop of 120 metres.
The name means ‘like a knife’ and the plunging cascade looks very dramatic, especially in this lush green setting. If you have time, follow the winding, steep paths to the bottom of the waterfall for a different perspective. Otherwise, sit and enjoy the view from the seating area at the entrance.
Berestagi is a highland town which is located 1,300 metres above sea level. It’s picturesque, with mountains all around and is home to two active volcanoes; Mount Sibayak and Mount Sinabung.
The combination of cooler weather and fertile land creates the perfect growing conditions for some of the best fruits and vegetables in Sumatra. Make sure to visit some local karonese markets to enjoy some of the fresh local produce on offer, including the famous passionfruit grown in this area.
The best way to take in the views and make the most of the photo opportunities is to wake early around 4 am and make the trek up to Mount Sibayak for sunrise. You can do this independently or arrange a tour. Nearly every guesthouse or homestay in the local area offers these so ask around for the best deals.
On the way back from your morning hike, you will have the chance to stop at the hot springs nestled under the volcano. There are also some unique churches to check out, including St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, built in traditional karonese style with multilayered pointed roof designs and topped off with buffalo horns.
If you’re looking for accommodation in the area, Nachelle Homestay provides an authentic experience and the owner also offers cooking classes. Alternatively, for a bit more luxury, there is Berastagi Cottages, Hotel Alloy and Country Cottage.
Day 7, 8, 9 – Lake Toba
On day seven, you’ll set off for the magical Lake Toba, the largest natural lake in North Sumatra and home to the Batak people.
Lake Toba is an incredible destination and it is worth staying for at least two or three days if you have the time. Although this isn’t nearly enough time to discover the whole place, it will give you a taste of Batak culture and the unique geological features of the world’s largest volcanic crater lake.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Lake Toba, head to Samosir Island which floats in the middle of the lake. Fun fact! Samosir island is actually only a tiny bit smaller than the whole of Singapore! The main tourist area is the town of Tuk Tuk, where we would recommend the following digs: Tabo Cottages, Zoe’s Paradise, Romlan, Reggae Guest House and Toba Village Inn.
The main attraction that’s worth doing on Samosir island is visiting Tomok village. This is a unique cultural experience which provides a fascinating insight into Batak houses and their history. Here you can also find a number of stalls selling traditional Batak souvenirs.
Day 10 – Medan
If you are following the 10-day Sumatra itinerary, this is where your trip ends. Hop on a flight out of Medan and head to some other islands in Indonesia or instead jet off to another Southeast Asian destination.
Sumatra 2-Week Itinerary
If you have longer to spend in Sumatra, we recommend following the first itinerary but with a few tweaks!
Day 1 – Medan
You’ve arrived in Medan and already it is time to leave. Don’t worry though, you’ll have time to explore the city at the end of your time in Sumatra (if you want to). Leave the bustle of the city for the jungle paradise of Bukit Lawang! Once you arrive in this small village, you can put your feet up and get an early night before you head off hiking the next day.
Day 2,3,4,5 – Bukit Lawang
For the two-week Sumatra itinerary, we suggest you stay approximately four or five nights in Bukit Lawang. This way, you can embark on a longer trek into the national park or spend extra time exploring the village of Bukit Lawang.
Soak up the sights, sounds and flavours of the area on a bicycle village tour or if your legs are aching from trekking, you can take a becak (local tuk-tuk). This offers a great insight into local village life and traditional practices, including brown sugar processing, tofu and tempeh production and agriculture.
For those with an interest in cuisine, Bukit Lawang offers a diverse range of Indonesian food from the different ethnic groups; Batak, Jawa, Karo, and Malayu. Make sure you check out Arsik (carp fish stewed with spices native to northern Sumatra) and Sate Padang (beef skewers native to west Sumatra) if you get the chance! A cooking class is a fantastic way to explore these cultures and learn a new skill to take home.
Day 6, 7 – Berastagi
On the two-week Sumatra itinerary, you’ll spend the same amount of time in Berastagi as the 10-day schedule allows. Although the town is very agricultural and doesn’t play host to hoards of tourists, it’s a great place to get those legs moving and search for a bit of adventure. Berastagi also offers a cool, refreshing break from the humidity of Bukit Lawang so trekking may feel easier here.
Spend a day climbing Gunung Sibayak alongside a jungle guide for some incredible views or head into the jungle on a trek to experience more of the landscape. Berestagi also has some natural hot springs which are a great place to relax after a long hike!
Day 8,9, 10 – Lake Toba
For a change of scenery and the opportunity to explore one of the most diverse places in Indonesia, check out Lake Toba. The world’s largest volcanic crater lake has much to offer travellers – not just boat trips or swimming!
As well as relaxing (which is what you will need after all the hiking in Berestagi), you can rent a motorbike and tour the area that way. Learn about the local Batak people and take a peek into their culture through impressive dance and music shows. This is sure to be an unforgettable experience on your travels!
Your next destination will be Banda Aceh, however, there is no direct connection from Lake Toba. Therefore, you’ll need to head back to Medan on day 10 and continue your travels from there. Fly to Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport in Banda Aceh or travel overland – overnight buses do the same job for less money (and save you paying for a night in a hostel or hotel!).
Day 11 – Banda Aceh
Capital of Aceh province, this predominantly Muslim city is off the beaten tourist track. Although it is most commonly visited as a jumping-off point for trips to Pulau Weh, it is still worth staying a day to explore the museums and mosques.
Don’t miss sampling a bit of the local cuisine, it is truly delicious! If you’re a surfing enthusiast and you’d rather use this time to catch some waves, head to Lhok Nga Beach located just 15km from the city of Banda Aceh.
Lala Hostel is our pick of the places to stay in the area. It’s cheap and cheerful and one of the cleanest hostels you are likely to find!
Day 12,13 – Pulau Weh
From Banda Aceh, you’ll head by ferry to the island of Pulau Weh, located in Sabang, off the north of Sumatra. Located in the Andaman Sea, Pulau Weh is a haven for water enthusiasts. Palm trees, volcanoes and marine life are aplenty here and diving is the name of the game.
If you’re interested in exploring underwater, opt to stay at Sea Gate Bungalows. The owners are both certified PADI instructors and can offer you plenty of tips about the local area, both on land and in the water!
If diving is a little out of your comfort zone, there are also plenty of snorkelling opportunities. Simply rent your gear and jump in. Pulau Weh is another Muslim area so always be respectful of the local customs and dress respectfully.
Aside from underwater pursuits, the best way to explore this place is by bike. Rent a motorbike and go on a tour of the island. En route, you can visit Japanese bunkers and thermal pools.
Day 14 – Medan
On your final day in Sumatra, you’ll need to head back to Medan. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can either fly back to the city or hop on a night bus. The latter is definitely our preferred option – kinder to the planet and your wallet!
Spend your final day in Sumatra visiting the temples and mosques in Medan. It is worth sampling some local food from the hawker centres too. There are loads of accommodation options in the city if you wanted to stay the night, including budget-traveller favourite K77 Guest House and several cheap and cheerful hotels.
From Medan, head to the airport and continue your travels further afield.