The gateway to north Sumatra
Medan won’t be winning any beauty pageants anytime soon, but its location within Indonesia (along with its delicious local fare) makes it a draw for travellers all the same. It’s the perfect jumping-off point to explore the jungles and volcanic highlands of north Sumatra, and to meet the island’s most famous inhabitants – orangutans.
Drive out of Medan and it won’t be long before you’ve reached something interesting. Relax on the shores of vast Lake Toba and enjoy the fruits of local fishermen’s labour, or go hunting for the 120-m tall Sipiso-piso waterfall. Trek up to Mount Sibayak’s summit for sunrise, or trek into the Gunung Leuser National Park to get up close with wildlife.
Don’t count the city out though, as there’s a lot of fascinating history and intriguing architecture in Medan itself. Enjoy the opulent palaces and beautiful mosques, and make sure you leave plenty of time for eating from one of Medan’s excellent street food vendors.
Things to do: Medan
Befriend some orangutans in Bukit Lawang
Drive a few hours out of Medan and you’ll find yourself in some of the dense jungle Sumatra is known for. Base yourself at the charmingly lo-fi village of Bukit Lawang within Gunung Leuser National Park and explore the surrounding area on foot. There’s a range of different treks through the park and if you’re lucky, you’ll come across macaques, gibbons and of course, orangutans.
Take a break on Lake Toba
Lake Toba is one of the biggest volcanic crater lakes in the world. Its cool, clear waters offer incredible kayaking, spectacular fishing and a blessedly cool respite from Sumatra’s equatorial climate. The island in the middle of the lake, Samosir, is a laid-back, friendly community, and the centre of Indonesia’s indigenous Batak culture.
See the city from the back of a becak
Medan is the gateway to north Sumatra, but there’s plenty worth exploring in the city itself. Jump on one of the ubiquitous motorised becaks and take in some of the sights. There’s Maimun Palace, the royal seat of the Sultanate of Deli and an architectural melting pot, the Medan Grand Mosque, and Tjong A Fie Mansion, a fascinating museum in a famous tycoon's 1900 residence.
Sample some culinary delights
Medan has a reputation for being one of Indonesia’s gastronomic capitals, with everything from bustling street-food vendors to fine dining. Make sure you try arsik, a freshwater fish dish laced with andaliman, a Sichuan-esque spice that grows in the highlands around Lake Toba. There’s also Soto Medan, a thick chicken and coconut soup, Bakso Lembu Medan meatballs, and sweet Bika Ambon cake for dessert.
Experience geothermic activity on Mount Sibayak
This dormant volcano offers stunning sunrise views, clouds of dramatic steam, challenging jungle trekking and best of all – hot springs to soak in after a morning of strenuous activity. It’s around a 3-hour trek to the top from the town of Berastagi, and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with incredible views of the sulphuric crater lake and the surrounding countryside.
Kualanamu Airport (KNO)
Distance to city centre 39km
Taxi A taxi into the city will take an hour or so depending on traffic, and will cost between IDR Rp150,000-200,000. Stick with the reliable Blue Bird brand.
Bus DAMRI buses go to Amplas bus terminal then to Medan Fair Shopping Centre for IDR Rp15,000-20,000.Back to top
When to go
Like most cities in Indonesia, it’s pretty hot year-round in Medan. Temperatures average between 25-31°C all year, and there’s plenty of humidity as well. Lake Toba and the surrounding areas can be a bit cooler due to their elevation. Rainy season runs from October to March, and heavy rains can make it tricky to visit the national parks due to flooding and mudslides.
Medan is home to the International Coffee Festival, Medan Film Festival and Lake Toba Festival.Back to top
Metered taxis can be flagged down just about anywhere – stick with Blue Bird taxis, the most reliable. They can also be booked by phone. Be wary of drivers who offer a fixed price as this is not a common practice. You can also take a motorised becak, but get ready for a bumpy ride!Back to top