Why You Need To Visit Medan
Medan is famously home to Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. While planning my trip there, the only thing on my mind was getting to Toba’s clear blue waters. We touched down in Medan, a city on the cusp on modernisation. You’ll see crumbling colonial facades and street food vendors sitting right beside modern cafes and bars. The real intrigue of Medan though, lies away from its city.
With the guidance of our driver, we took a trip around the outskirts of Medan, travelling from Lake Toba to the small town of Berastagi, to Bukit Lawang nature reserve and finally back to the Medan city centre. Medan is as real as it gets. You’ll feast on durians in rickety wooden sheds and walk on riverbanks lively with the chatter of local Medanese.
But you’ll also steal moments of wonder watching the sun set across Lake Toba, or hiding in the lush greenery of the Sumatran jungle waiting for an orangutan to appear. In a city where tourism is catered to the local population, you’ll see the nature of Medan - exactly how the locals see it.
Medan isn’t the most popular place to visit because quite simply, nobody knows much about the place. Take a leap of faith and you’ll find that Medan can offer you close encounters to the nature of Sumatra. Here are 15 reasons why Medan is one of Indonesia’s most underrated destinations. But first, check out our Medan highlights video!
TSL Tip: You need at least a week to explore the place fully. We unfortunately didn’t have the time to go for a week-long trekking experience in Bukit Lawang, which will give you ample time to spot wildlife - even tigers.
1. It’s home to the largest volcanic lake in the world
Yes, Lake Toba is the biggest volcanic lake in the world. It’s also the site of a supervolcanic eruption that took place some 77,000 years ago.
The largest known explosive eruption in the last 25 million years, the Toba catastrophe is believed to have killed most humans living at that time, causing a 3-5 degree worldwide decrease in temperature. Ash from Toba has been discovered as far as East Africa and the United States.
With a history as dramatic as this, it’s no surprise that Lake Toba is the top destination for tourists visiting Medan. You’ll see that there’s no trace of its catastrophic birth, with clear blue water that stretches across an area larger than the whole of Singapore.
TSL Tip:It’ll take you a 5 hour drive to get to Lake Toba from the airport. Stay a night on Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba for a panoramic view of the lake. Samosir is accessible by a short ferry ride but check the schedule to avoid missing the last ferry to or from the mainland.
2. Watch the sunset over Lake Toba
If you, like me, have a soft spot for sunrises and sunsets, set aside one evening by the banks of Lake Toba. Ask your driver to park outside the Sukarno House at Parapat.
It offers an elevated view of the lake, in the grounds of a lovely colonial bungalow. If you’re staying the night in Samosir, head to Tele, the highest point on the island.
3. Walk the former residence of a Batak king
The indigenous Batak people practised cannibalism - usually as punishment for wrongdoers - before they discovered Christianity. Stop by Rumah Bolon, a well-preserved palace complex for the former Simalungun Batak chiefs.The main longhouse was the king’s quarters - and a harem for his 22 wives. This site is a fascinating look into the Simalungun Batak culture.
Decorative buffalo skulls symbolise power and motifs of geckos represent the adaptability of the Batak people. The address of Rumah Bolon is unavailable but your local guide should know the exact location. Located near Parapat, it’s easy to slot in a visit on the way to Berastagi. The entrance fee is a mere S$0.30.
4. Wander around Samosir Island
If time permits, take half a day to explore Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. It is home to the Toba Batak people, who are known for being fiercer than their other Batak counterparts. Visit Tomok Village and Ambarita Village, where remnants of the Toba Batak kingdom still stand.
You’ll need to take a ferry out to Samosir Island. We unfortunately couldn’t fit it into our schedule due to time constraints.
5. Traditionally brewed ginger tea
En route to Sipiso-piso waterfall, stop by Simarjarunjung for a cup of their signature hot ginger tea. Ginger tea has multiple health benefits, from improving digestion to strengthening immunity. Here you get a lethal brew of spicy ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass and brown sugar.
Not everyone’s cup of tea but still worth a drink because of the multiple health benefits. Order a side of crispy goreng pisang to go along. Our entire lunch, including a very tasty mee goreng, cost us around S$5 each.
Address: Kecamatan Dolok Pardamean, North Sumatra, Indonesia
6. Visit Sipiso-piso waterfall
Sipiso-piso waterfall is the tallest waterfall in Indonesia, at a height of 800m above sea level. Water pours from an underground river into a deep gorge and you can admire the waterfall from an elevated height. You also get a lovely view of Lake Toba.
Take a short hike down the stairs to see the waterfall up close. The climb back up is painful but the view is definitely worth it. If you’re lucky, you even get to see a rainbow forming over the falls. Entrance to the falls is about S$2.
7. Stand between two active volcanoes
Stop by the town of Berastagi to get up close and personal with two active volcanoes. Gundaling Hill is a popular spot where the local Medanese picnic. From this elevated spot, you’ll see Mount Sinabung and Mount Sibayak right before you.
Mount ‘Sina-boom’ is so volatile that it had just erupted some 2 weeks before we visited! We heard that locals have now evacuated the town around Mount Sinabung because it is way too unpredictable. Mount Sibayak is still active, but hasn’t erupted in about half a century, so if you’d like to hike up to the crater of Sibayak, take a day off to do it.
Address: Berastagi, Karo, Berastagi, Indonesia
8. Soak in a hot spring at the foot of a volcano
To soak off all that travel fatigue, I highly recommend a soak in one of the hot springs at the foot of Mount Sibayak. The warm sulphur water can relieve rheumatism and help you de-stress. The smell of bad eggs and the entrance fee of S$0.30 is a small price to pay for a spa experience surrounded by nature.
We soaked in the comforting warmth of the hot spring, with the smoking peak of Mount Sibayak in the background.
TSL Tip:Bring your own towels and swim wear. The stall at the hot spring sells towels, but at an inflated price.
9. You may get to see an orangutan in the wild
Bukit Lawang is the Medanese version of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. An orangutan rehabilitation centre, Bukit Lawang was started to reintroduce captive orangutans to the wild. If you’re lucky, you can watch the red-haired primates in their natural habitat during meal times.
We weren’t that lucky as it was fruiting season and the orangutans had plenty of food in their natural forest habitat. We did see long-tailed macaques among other flora and fauna.
For a higher chance to see wild animals such as Sumatran tigers, you may want to take a week-long trek into the forest.
TSL Tip:Every camera you bring in will cost you around S$5 and the entrance permit is around S$2. Prepare some cash on hand before you trek in. Bukit Lawang is 5 hours from Berastagi by car.
10. Dine by the river in a wooden bungalow
Bukit Lawang has many cosy restaurants and guest houses lining the river. We dined at Sam’s Bungalow, right next to the lush forest and running river. While the food is decent, the real draw is the resort-style feel of the entire dining experience.
You can also join the locals for a leisurely swim in the Bahorok river. It’s their version of your neighbourhood swimming pool.
TSL Tip:Go further up where the water is clearer and there are fewer people.
11. Eat good durian at crazy prices
I’m a massive fan of durian so imagine my excitement when my guide told us that Medan is famous for its durian. The best durian we had cost us S$5 for two whole durians! The taste of Medanese durians is lighter than the Malaysian or Thai durians we are used to. It’s less acidic and has a lighter-coloured whitish flesh.
It tastes something like durian flavoured custard cream. This means that you can keep going without even feeling “jelat”. I finished an entire durian on my own. Oops.
TSL Tip:Get your durian fix at Bukit Lawang. Bukit Lawang is famous for having the sweetest durians in Medan.
12. The bar and cafe scene is growing rapidly
Photo Source: District 10
Kick back with drinks at District 10, a mod restaurant and bar in central Medan where you can enjoy a good variety of beer and liquor going at very reasonable prices.
Address:Forum Nine, F&B Gallery, Jl.Imam Bonjol No.9 Medan, 20112, Sumatera Utara, Indonesia
Photo Source: Roemah Kopi Wak Noer
The cafe scene is also growing rapidly. You can get good kopi luwak in a classy colonial setting at Wak Noer.
Photo Source: Roemah Kopi Wak Noer
The cosy cafe serves up comfort nosh like all-day American breakfast and mee goreng.
Address:Uskup Agung no. 15, Medan, Indonesia
13. It’s got amazing food from many different cultures
Mee Pansit is one of the most popular noodle dishes in the area. Try the one from Acai Mee Pansit in Pematang Siantar, a local hot favourite. At less that S$3 a bowl, this dish is both satisfying and affordable.
Photo source: @gilchan
For a taste of true blue Indo, dig into hearty Nasi Padang at Restaurant Garuda. This place has rave reviews from both tourists and locals alike.
Address:Jl. Gajah Mada no. 8, Medan, Indonesia
14. Eat Teng-teng or Ting-ting - and bring some home
I have to be honest. I still can’t tell the difference between Teng-teng and Ting-ting. Both are variations of a tasty peanut cookie that is popular with locals and tourists alike. At the Patent Shop, you get to sample these cookies before picking which one you want to buy. Each box goes at a very reasonable S$2.60.
15. Gorge on a heart-attack in a box
Martarbak apparently means “fat” in Tagalog. I’m not sure if there was any gratuitous language borrowing from Filipino neighbours but I sure can understand the correlation. This is basically a beefed-up version of your regular mee chiam kueh.
Twice the thickness, and ten times the sin with generous slathers of chocolate sauce, margarine, condensed milk, peanut and cheese. Calling it a heart-attack in a box is about right.
According to our local friend, this is what most Medanese buy the minute they’re home from abroad. Order the chocolate cheese flavour, we know it sounds dodgy to combine cheese with chocolate but trust me, this is one pancake you will never forget. It’s available at various locations along the streets of Medan.
16. Incredibly knowledgeable and reliable local guides
Of the three cities we’ve visited, Medan was probably the most tourist friendly because the guides we encountered all spoke fluent English. Our guide, Bob Sumatran (his real name is Taufik Hidayat) was a pleasure to travel with. Knowledgeable, helpful and genuinely interested in meeting new people, Bob made our entire trip pleasant and comfortable.
His rates differ depending on the dates of your visit, but we felt his services were excellent and prices reasonable, given that we travelled in an air-conditioned modern four-seater all the way. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for enquiries.
Getting real in Medan
Medan is both gritty and gorgeous, real and romantic. Seasoned travellers often lust after an authentic travel experience. Medan is as real as it gets, even with an English-speaking guide in tow. You just need to look around you to realise that you’re sharing the nature of Medan with those born and bred in the area.
To the residents of Lake Toba, the lake is their swimming pool, their water source and a part of daily life. To us, it is breathtaking beauty. Bukit Lawang is a nature reserve just as much as it is their habitat. The guides you’ll meet walk the paths of the forest umpteen times every day of the year. They can live a month in the depths of the forest - and they can teach you how to.
Medan is your access point to Sumatra but don’t expect gleaming hotels and shiny souvenir shops. Dress down and get real for the best experience.
Getting to Medan
In this series, brought to you by Changi Airport, The Smart Local team went off the beaten track to explore five undiscovered Indonesian cities. Check out the rest of our guides and videos to learn more about these hidden Indonesian gems as we suss out the best things to do and eat in each city.
Singapore Changi Airport connects you to Medan via Indonesia AirAsia, Jetstar Asia (operated by Valuair) and SilkAir, with a total of 35 services per week.
Visit changiairport.com/discoverindonesia for the latest special travel deals to discover the world next door.
Read more from our TheSmartLocal Discovers Indonesia Series!
- 15 reasons to visit Semarang at least once in your lifetime
- Surabaya - 10 Unforgettable Memories on the way to a Live Volcano
- 14 Reasons why Makassar is the best place you have never heard of
- Bandung - 10 Reasons to visit the Paris of Indonesia
- Medan - 16 reasons why Medan is one of Indonesia’s most underrated destinations
This post was made possible by Changi Airport.