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North Sumatra Travel Itinerary: Where to Go & How Long to Stay

North Sumatra Travel Itinerary: Where to Go & How Long to Stay

How to experience the best of North Sumatra, Indonesia
Alexander & VictoriaHi! We're Alex & Victoria - a vegan digital nomad couple from Copenhagen always looking for adventures in our beautiful world. Learn more about us here.
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A fiery land

Sumatra doesn’t stand still.

This fiery island in western Indonesia sits right on top of the Pacific Ocean’s “ring of fire” making it a true hotspot for cataclysmic events. The 2014 tsunami hit North Sumatra especially hard.

There are 35 active volcanoes on Sumatra, and in North Sumatra, two volcanoes are of particular interest to travellers: Mount Sinabung and Mount Sibayak – both located closely to Berastagi.

There’s no doubt that these are fertile lands. The biodiversity in the rain forests of the north is staggering (and includes wild orangutans!) while the islands to the west of Sumatra are filled with marine life under the sparkling surface.

Lake Toba (formed by a supervolcano) is a great place to unwind after experiencing some of North Sumatra’s natural attractions.

In this travel guide and itinerary, we’ll do our best to give you an overview of what to do, where to go and how long to stay on North Sumatra.

The hostile environment of Mount Sibayak
The hostile environment of Mount Sibayak.

Understand North Sumatra

North Sumatra is Sumatra’s most populous province with about 13.5 million inhabitants of Sumatra’s total 54.4 million.

Medan is both the capital city of North Sumatra and Sumatra’s most important city. It is here most international tourists enter the island.

North Sumatra geography

To understand North Sumatra, it helps to briefly understand its geography.

With just the narrow Strait of Malacca separating Sumatra from Malaysia, Sumatra is the closest part of Indonesia to mainland Asia.

Sumatra is Indonesia’s largest island (if you don’t count the Malaysian part of Kalimantan/Borneo) and the world’s sixth-largest.

Surrounding area of Sipiso Piso Waterfall
Sumatra is a wonderfully diverse island.

Mountains and volcanoes

The Barisan Mountains (or Bukit Barisan) form the backbone of Sumatra with its 35 active volcanoes.

The range starts all the way north at Weh Island (Pulau Weh) and continues to the south of Sumatra towards Java.

The west of the island is dominated by this mountain range while the east is made up primarily of rivers and swamps.

Sibayak with Sinabung in the background
Sibayak volcano with the looming Sinabung in the background.

Nature

Deforestation is a big problem on Sumatra and these days you’ll mostly be able to find primary rain forest in the mountainous regions.

In North Sumatra, the Leuser Ecosystem is of great conservation importance for preserving the homes of orangutans and elephants among other species.

Morning light near Bukit Lawang
An uncountable amount of species live in these hills near Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra.
Palm oil from above on Sumatra
A palm oil plantation from above. Palm oil plays a devastating role in deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Islands

There are several islands off the north and west coast of Sumatra.

Some of the most famous are Simeulue, Banyak Islands, Nias and the Mentawai Islands.

Weh Island in Banda Aceh province all the way to the north is also a popular tourist stop.

The Hinako Islands
The Hinako Islands are a group of small islands off the west coast of Nias Island, part of the North Sumatra Province.

Our Sumatra itinerary

We flew into Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport from Penang in Malaysia to start our Sumatran adventure.

We also flew back out of Medan to Kuala Lumpur.

In total, we spent three weeks on Sumatra.

Map

These are the places we visited in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Orangutan spotting in Bukit Lawang

Being able to experience orangutans in the wild was the reason we started thinking about visiting Sumatra in the first place.

The obvious place to do so is from Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra, so that’s where we headed first.

We went on a 2 days/1 night ethical orangutan trek and absolutely loved the experience.

Not only did we get to see orangutans swinging around the treetops; we were also lucky enough to witness some of their babies!

Cutest orangutan baby
This young orangutan was just learning how to climb.

How long to stay in Bukit Lawang

With one night on arrival and one before leaving again, the absolute minimum time to spend in Bukit Lawang is two nights – but that will only have you going into the jungle on a short day trip.

We recommend that you spend a night in the jungle to fully immerse yourself in nature (or perhaps two or three nights if you want to venture even deeper).

For most people, three or four nights in total will be perfect.

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Bukit Lawang from above
Bukit Lawang from above.
Orangutan near Bukit Lawang

Climbing a volcano and seeing a waterfall in Berastagi

Berastagi is the famous home of the two volcanoes Sinabung and Sibayak.

Sinabung is the taller one at 2,460 metres (versus Sibayak’s 2,212 metres), and it’s pretty with its perfect cone.

But it’s also really dangerous and not to be climbed.

We went on a sunrise hike to Sibayak (from where it’s possible to see Sinabung) and really enjoyed both the trek and the amazing views from the summit.

If you get the chance, try to go at either sunrise or sunset.

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Sibayak from a drone perspective
The crater of Sibayak Volcano.

Sipiso Piso Waterfall

On our way to Samosir Island on Lake Toba from Berastagi, we stopped at Sipiso Piso Waterfall.

The running water drops 120 metres from an underground river and ends up in Lake Toba on the lake’s northern shores.

Though the sight is impressive enough from the viewpoints up top, getting down to the bottom of the falls was really the highlight of visiting.

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Alex in front of Sipiso Piso
Alex in front of the roaring Sipiso Piso Waterfall.

How long to stay in Berastagi

Before going, we thought that we could easily spend a handful of nights in Berastagi surrounded by pretty views.

While we loved the fresh mountain air, we found quality accommodation to be a bit too expensive for our budget. Which made us stay for just two nights.

If you get a nice place to stay, it’s easy to justify staying in Berastagi for three or four nights.

Especially if you visit Sipiso Piso Waterfall as a day trip from town instead of either to or from Lake Toba as we did.

Sunset in Berastagi
Sunset in Berastagi.

Chilling on Samosir Island, Lake Toba

With the most adventure-filled days behind us, we immediately felt at ease on Samosir Island in Lake Toba.

Even though it’s a really big island (technically only because a canal was built where it connects to the rest of Sumatra on the central western side), Samosir Island feels very relaxed.

Most tourists tend to base themselves near Tuk Tuk, and so did we.

We arrived by boat directly from Parapat across the water and got dropped off directly at our hotel.

Renting a scooter for a day (if you know how to drive) is a must when you visit. The southern part of the island is especially beautiful.

Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island in Lake Toba.
Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island in Lake Toba.

How long to stay on Samosir Island, Lake Toba

Staying for a few nights (or even weeks) on Samosir Island on Lake Toba is a must on any North Sumatra itinerary.

Originally, we had planned to stay for just two nights.

But we extended our stay to four nights as we enjoyed the lake views, mild temperatures, good food and incredible local hospitality so much.

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Samosir Island fisherman in morning light
The pace on Samosir Island is super relaxing.

Chilling even more on Asu Island

Asu Island was everything we dreamed of: Some of the most beautiful water we’ve ever seen, a perfect white sand beach and huts right next to the water.

The (vegan) food options were much better than anticipated and the seven puppies were just the best thing ever.

If you’re looking to unwind in a hammock while looking at an unreal tropical scene, Asu Island just might be the place for you.

Asu Island beach and hut
We really loved our time on Asu Island.

How long to stay on Asu Island

A few days on Asu Island would be sufficient, right?

Boy, were we wrong!

We ended up staying for 12 days and could have easily spent a couple of nights more in paradise.

Some people come just for a night or two while some (like us) end up staying far longer.

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Water at Asu Island
The water really was this blue.

Other ideas for your Sumatra itinerary

Banda Aceh and Weh Island

Banda Aceh is the capital city of Aceh province in Sumatra’s northernmost part and a popular stop for many tourists visiting North Sumatra.

It is known as Indonesia’s strictest city in terms of practising Islam, but also for being the gateway to some great snorkelling at Weh Island.

Avoid visiting the elephants at Tangkahan…

Marketed as an elephant sanctuary, many people arrive at Tangkahan thinking they’re supporting elephant rehabilitation.

Journey of a nomadic family called it a “glorified prison abuse centre” and we have read many reviews sharing those sentiments.

Avoid this place at all costs, no matter what the guides tell you.

Nias Island

Our original plan was to visit Asu Island for a few days and then spend about a week exploring Nias Island as well.

Alas, we didn’t – but Nias looks like it might have a lot in store for the adventure-traveller.

There are a lot of beaches, and the locals seemed super friendly and eager to cater to tourists.

Check out Visit Nias Island for tips on visiting Nias.

Nias' coastline
Nias’ coastline.

Other islands

There are a lot of islands outside Sumatra, and choosing between them can be difficult.

Apart from the Hinako Islands (of which Asu Island is one) and Nias Island, also check out Simeulue Island, the Banyak Islands and the Mentawai Islands.

Continuing south

Padang is the gateway to West Sumatra and from here you can reach lots of beaches and islands.

Also check out Mount Kerinci (Sumatra’s tallest volcano), Kerinci Seblat National Park and the Sianok Valley.

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How long to stay in North Sumatra

We spent three weeks in North Sumatra alone and had we had the time (or the visa needed!), we could have easily found amazing things to do for at least a few weeks more.

If you just want to see wild orangutans, you can get by with just a few days in Bukit Lawang.

But once you’ve made the trip all the way to Sumatra, why not discover what else the island has to offer?

Adding two or three nights in Berastagi for a volcano trek and for visiting Sipiso Piso Waterfall is a no-brainer if you’re into hiking and natural attractions.

Samosir Island on Lake Toba isn’t far away, so consider relaxing there for a few days as well.

Victoria trekking back down Sibayak
There’s a lot to see and do on Sumatra if you have the energy for it.

One week

If you have less than a week, we would choose just two locations (Orangutans + Berastagi or Lake Toba).

Here’s an example one week itinerary:

  • Day 1: Arrive in Medan. Drive towards Bukit Lawang. Sleep in Bukit Lawang.
  • Day 2: Go on an orangutan trek in the rain forest. Sleep in the jungle.
  • Day 3: Return to Bukit Lawang after the trek and sleep here.
  • Day 4: Transport from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi or Samosir Island.
  • Day 5: Hike a volcano or relax on Samosir Island.
  • Day 6: See a waterfall or relax on Samosir Island.
  • Day 7: Drive back towards Medan.

Two weeks

With two weeks, you can add in a third location – and even cram in some days on a tropical island if you’re travelling swiftly.

Here’s an example two week itinerary (slow-ish):

  • Day 1: Arrive in Medan. Spend a night in the city.
  • Day 2: Drive towards Bukit Lawang. Sleep in Bukit Lawang.
  • Day 3: Go on an orangutan trek in the rain forest. Sleep in the jungle.
  • Day 4: See even more orangutans. Sleep in the jungle again.
  • Day 5: Return to Bukit Lawang after the trek and sleep here.
  • Day 6: Transport from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi.
  • Day 7: Hike Sibayak volcano and relax in the hot springs.
  • Day 8: Take a slow day in Berastagi. Visit the fruit market.
  • Day 9: Drive to Sipiso Piso on the way to Samosir Island.
  • Day 10: Relax on Samosir Island on Lake Toba.
  • Day 11: Relax on Samosir Island on Lake Toba.
  • Day 12: Rent a scooter and tour Samosir Island.
  • Day 13: Relax and soak the last sun rays.
  • Day 14: Drive back towards Medan.

Here’s an example two week itinerary (fast pace with added island):

  • Day 1: Arrive in Medan. Drive towards Bukit Lawang. Sleep in Bukit Lawang.
  • Day 2: Go on an orangutan trek in the rain forest. Sleep in the jungle.
  • Day 3: Return to Bukit Lawang after the trek and sleep here.
  • Day 4: Transport from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi.
  • Day 5: Hike Sibayak volcano and relax in the hot springs.
  • Day 6: Drive to Sipiso Piso on the way to Samosir Island.
  • Day 7: Relax on Samosir Island on Lake Toba.
  • Day 8: Relax on Samosir Island on Lake Toba.
  • Day 9: Rent a scooter and tour Samosir Island.
  • Day 10: Transport to a tropical island (Asu Island, for example).
  • Day 11: Relax on a tropical island.
  • Day 12: Relax on a tropical island.
  • Day 13: Relax on a tropical island.
  • Day 14: Head back towards Medan.

A month

If you plan to spend your whole 1-month Indonesian visa on Sumatra alone, you can afford to travel slower and venture even further off the beaten path.

Think about what made you want to travel to Sumatra in the first place – and do even more of that.

Asu Island waters
There are so many beautiful islands near Sumatra.

Travel times on Sumatra

Remember: Sumatra is huge and travel times quickly add up.

After a five hour ride, you (probably) won’t want to have other activities planned for the day than just checking in at your hotel and eating a meal or two to replenish your energies for the following day.

The harbour at Parapat
The harbour at Parapat.

Transport in North Sumatra

Getting around North Sumatra by public transport is totally do-able and quite cheap.

But from what we heard, the money you save by going public instead of private may not make up for the hassle and extra time you’ll spend waiting around.

We mainly opted for the “tourist busses” which are just bigger cars or minivans.

No matter what type of transport you choose, the roads are quite crazy and people drive fast.

Road on Samosir Island on Lake Toba
The roads on Samosir Island are much quieter in general than on the rest of Sumatra.

Typical prices in North Sumatra

Sumatra can be really cheap to visit and even if you do your best to splurge, you won’t find too many expensive luxury options around (except perhaps in Medan).

We paid between IDR 20k and 40k for most main meals per person (~ 1.4 USD to 2.8 USD / 1.3 EUR to 2.6 EUR).

Most nights, we paid around IDR 150k for a room with a double bed, fan, shower and electricity (~ 10.6 USD / 9.5 EUR).

Sample transport prices (private):

  • Medan to Bukit Lawang: IDR 190k (~ 13.5 USD / 12 EUR)
  • Bukit Lawang to Berastagi: IDR 170k (~ 12 USD / 10.7 EUR)
  • Parapat to Samosir Island (by boat): IDR 20k (~ 1.4 USD / 1.3 EUR)
  • Parapat to Medan: IDR 130k (~ 9 USD / 8 EUR)

Read our guide to Asu Island for the full breakdown of transport prices there.

Jungle curry
A (cheap!) jungle curry in Bukit Lawang.

When to visit North Sumatra

Sumatra’s tourist high season is between June and August.

We visited North Sumatra in the middle of July and had great weather for most of the time. We didn’t think that visiting in the high season felt overly touristic at any point.

It generally rains a lot in the north from October to January and from November to February in the south.

Bukit Lawang is pretty rainy all year round but driest in the summer.

Rainforest sunset drone perspective
A sunset in the rain forest – where it, of course, often rains.

What to bring to North Sumatra

  • Good shoes with a hard sole will be nice to have for jungle and volcano treks.
  • Warm clothes. We both wore long socks, long pants, a t-shirt, a sweater/fleece and a rain jacket to Sibayak.
  • A refillable water bottle.
  • Sun protection; a hat, sunglasses and an eco-friendly sunscreen will come in handy for the harsh Sumatran sun.
  • Swimming shorts, swimsuit and/or bikini.
  • A quality camera. You’ll really want to photograph Sumatra’s amazing nature. Here’s a guide to the camera, lens, drone and more we use on our travels.
  • Extra tip: Consider buying a local sim card with data as wifi can be scarce in places. You can buy one when you arrive in Medan.
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Alex & Victoria on Sibayak at sunrise
Hiking Sibayak in the early morning was cold. Bring layers.

Living as a digital nomad on Sumatra

Sumatra isn’t really on the digital nomad radar in Southeast Asia.

We can understand why. On the surface, it’s very Indonesian. As opposed to Bali, for example, which is so dominated (in some parts) by western tourism.

But if you prefer nasi goreng to smoothie bowls, Sumatra just might be the thing for you.

We didn’t spend any real time in Medan, but there’s probably cheap rent to be had in new condos with great facilities. We have no reason to believe that wifi shouldn’t be super fast. Medan is well-connected to huge parts of Asia.

If you don’t need too many amenities, staying on Samosir Island on Lake Toba for weeks or even months sounds like a wonderful time. Not much happens, but the climate is mild, the food is good and the views are stunning.

Puppies on beach with Victoria
We almost didn’t work at all during our time on Asu Island – in big part thanks to these cuties!

Is it dangerous to visit Sumatra?

With all this talk of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis it begs the question: Is Sumatra (and North Sumatra) dangerous to visit?

In short… Yes.

Sumatra probably is a tad more dangerous to visit than many other places in the world.

The longer answer can be summed up by saying that travelling always carries certain risks.

Some of these risks may be more prevalent in Sumatra than in other places.

Volcanoes and earthquakes

Volcano eruptions and earthquakes do occur occasionally on Sumatra.

You can, of course, never know for certain exactly when there will be an eruption.

Our take is that if you stay away from exclusion zones and head the advice of the government, you’ll most likely be fine.

Millions of people live on this spectacular island peacefully and will continue to do so.

The biggest risk of visiting North Sumatra is more likely that you’ll fall in love with the magnificent landscapes, beautiful islands, varied flora and fauna, kind people and interesting culture – and never want to leave!

If you’re considering visiting Sumatra (or Indonesia in general) and wonder if you’ll feel safe travelling around, we can only say that during our three months in Indonesia in total, we felt very safe and comfortable.

The Indonesian roads are a much bigger threat to your safety than a volcano can ever be…

Indonesian’s are wonderful people, and whatever risks the natural world may present is made up a thousand-fold by nature here being downright incredible at the same time.

Victoria admiring smoke at Sibayak
Sumatra is a dramatic place on earth.
Thanks for reading

Thanks for reading our North Sumatra travel itinerary. We hope it has been useful in planning your trip.

If you’ve been to Sumatra it would be awesome to hear your best tips in the comments. If you haven’t been yet, please don’t hesitate to ask us anything. We’re glad to help!

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Travel Itinerary for North Sumatra, Indonesia
Travel Itinerary for North Sumatra, Indonesia
Travel Itinerary for North Sumatra, Indonesia

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