The gateway to north Sumatra

Medan's location in Indonesia makes it a draw for travellers looking for wildlife encounters, delicious local fare and a chance to get off the beaten tourist trail. 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.

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Things to do: Medan

  • Jungle-covered mountains with blue sky and white clouds in background at Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image credit:

    Go trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park

    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.

  • Traditional Batak houses on Samosir Island look over Lake Toba with a range of hills in the background, Medan, Indonesia.

    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.

  • The blue and white Grand Mosque with a green lawn in the foreground, Medan, Indonesia.

    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.

  • Vittle signs

    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.

  • Mount Sibayak’s steaming crater lake with a jungle-covered ridgeline in the background, Medan, Indonesia.

    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.

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Airport information

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.

Train The Railink airport train is the fastest way into the city centre. It takes around 45 minutes and costs IDR Rp100,000.

Bus DAMRI buses go to Amplas bus terminal then to Medan Fair Shopping Centre for IDR Rp15,000-20,000.

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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.

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Getting around

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!

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