Sulawesi truly has a lot to offer, not many tourists make it there, and they are missing on some great adventures. If you love tribal culture and nature, then Sulawesi is the right place for you. It also offers some great diving experiences and some amazing wildlife encounters. In this article, I will share with you the best things to do, the must-see tourist attractions in Sulawesi, as well as the off-the-beaten-track adventures.
When planning your trip there, remember that Sulawesi is huge, the bus ride from Manado to Makassar takes 50 hours, and the tourist spots don’t always have an airport nearby. If you want to visit all the places above, you’ll need at least a month. You’ll lose a day in transportation between each spot.
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Sulawesi must-visit places and best things to do
1 – Diving in Bira Beach
What to do in Bira Beach
Bira Beach has some impressive diving to be done, its prolific marine life makes it the perfect spot. It’s also a good place for beginners as most of the reefs are not really deep and the current is usually weak. The visibility is exceptional.
There are also some beautiful snorkeling spots and the beach is a nice place to relax, really clean with white sand and translucent water.
If you are in the area, you should also check out nearby Tanah Beru, famous for being the main city producing bugis boat in Indonesia. You might also want to check Kajang, a traditional village where people reject any kind of technology and only wear black. You don’t need to have a guide to go there but dress in black, remove your shoes at the village’s entrance and don’t enter it with your motorbike.
Where to stay in Bira Beach
If you’re going to dive, you can check out Scuba Republic, you can go diving with them, and they offer basic dorms and private bungalows. If you want something a bit more comfortable, you can stay at Nini’s Beach Bungalows for around 40 US a night, right on the beach.
If you want to treat yourself with a luxurious hotel, check out Amatoa Resort, offering beachfront bungalows, an infinity pool, and a great restaurant.
2 – Take a boat ride on Danau Tempe
What to do in Danau Tempe
Visiting Danau Tempe is a unique experience, many people have built floating houses and just live on the lake. Meeting them and witnessing this different type of lifestyle is really exceptional. Most of them are fishermen and live on the lake during high tide season, moving to the land when the tide is low. The starting point to visit Danau Tempe is Sengkang, you can arrange for a boat ride with your accommodation. Consider hiring a guide if you want to communicate with the villagers as the boat driver won’t speak English.
The lake is also good for nature lovers as many bird species are living there.
Related article – Danau Tempe complete travel guide
Where to stay near Danau Tempe
You won’t find many accommodations online for Sengkang. I stayed at Amira Guesthouse, it’s cheap, comfortable clean and the owner is super friendly. He helped me arrange the boat ride. They also have a restaurant serving delicious local food.
3 – Discover the special death rituals of Tana Toraja
What to do in Tana Toraja
Tana Toraja is a once in a lifetime experience and is one of the best things to do in Sulawesi. You cannot miss it. If you love tribal cultures, this place is for you. Located in Central Sulawesi, Tana Toraja is famous for its peculiar death ritual. Many ceremonies have to take place before the dead can be buried, and some families have to wait for months before the funeral either because they don’t have enough money or either because all the relatives cannot come back for the ceremonies.
One of the most impressive rituals is the buffaloes’ sacrifices, the more the better and after you’re invited to eat the barbecued buffaloes with the family.
The architecture of the houses is also worth a look, everything there is truly authentic and has not changed a bit despite tourism increasing. What is also impressive is the way they incorporated catholic religion into their traditions.
You can rent a scooter for the day and drive around the villages and rice fields. You can also hire a guide, which I recommend, to learn more about the culture and know where to go.
Where to stay in Tana Toraja:
Tana Toraja is a huge region, the main city being Rantepao. That’s where you’ll find most of the accommodation options, and it’s the easiest location to explore the region from. You can also, once there, organize a homestay in one of the more remote villages, just ask at the tour agencies or at your hotel.
In Rantepao, there are plenty of cheap options starting at 10-15US for a private room with a private bath (check out Rosalina Homestay).
There are also a few pricier options but there’s not much quality or service difference between them and the cheaper options.
If you’re looking for something spectacular, check out Toraja Misiliana Hotel. They have turned traditional houses into hotel rooms and the result is unique.
4 – Visit the 700 years old Megaliths in Lore Lindu National Park
What to do in Lore Lindu National Park
Lost in the mountains are about 400 megaliths representing humans and animals, most of them carved 700 years ago, some dating back as far as 3000 BC. No one knows exactly how the statues got there, especially as the stone used to make them is not found anywhere near the site.
You’ll need to hire a guide to find them. It’s also a good opportunity to do a homestay in one of the traditional villages around the park.
The park is also famous for trekking and its prolific wildlife. You can find there the shyest and smallest primate in the world: the tarsier.
Related article – Mysterious megaliths in Lore Lindu National Park
Where to stay near Lore Lindu National Park
You can take a day trip from Tentena. There you can stay at Ue Datu Cottages, surrounded by nature. You can also just show up and ask around for hotels, most of them are not online.
If you want to stay more time there, you can either stay in Bomba, where most of the megaliths are, or Wuasa, where you can trek and go bird-watching. Coming from Tana Toraja, Bomba is easier to reach, coming from Palu or the Togian Islands, Wuasa is easier to reach. In both villages, your only option is a homestay. If you don’t go through a tour operator, you’ll have to just show up and ask around.
5 – Meet with the Wana tribe in Morowali Nature Reserve
Meeting the Wana tribe truly is a unique experience. To reach the Wana village, you’ll have to trek through the reserve for about a day. You will spend one or two nights there and then trek back. Not many people make the trip, and you’ll be welcomed with open arms. You’ll need to hire a guide and bring some presents for the tribe. Contact a tour agency in advance to book the trip, they’ll usually include an airport pickup in Palu.
The area is really beautiful and scenic. Meeting this remote tribe, almost totally cut from the outside world, is just amazing.
If you are in the area, you might want to stop by Tomori Bay. Located on the east coast of Central Sulawesi, the bay is famous for its rock formations and impressive rock paintings.
6 – Enjoy a relaxing time at Tanjung Karang Beach
Pantai Tanjung Karang, in Donggala, near Palu, is really beautiful, the sand is thin and white, and the water is transparent. Boarded by coconut trees, it’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
This beach is really unknown to most tourists, so it’s really quiet, maybe too quiet. If you are solo traveling, it might be best to just take a day trip from Palu. Same if you want to stay there, stay at Prince John Dive Resort, it’s the most expensive one but it’s the only one truly operating, the other ones look like they are abandoned. The day I went there, the hotels were all deserted, I couldn’t even find someone from the staff. The only one where I found the caretaker, the place looked really ran out, I didn’t see myself spending the night there.
7 – Swim with jellyfish in the Togian Islands
What to do in the Togian Islands
The Togian Islands are one of Sulawesi’s most famous spots and probably the more touristy. As Sulawesi doesn’t get many tourists, the island is far from crowded. It’s quite hard to get there, but it’s totally worth it. The easiest way to get there is simply to contact your hotel and ask because the boat route and schedule is always changing.
The islands are perfect for snorkeling and diving, although the reef has been badly damaged by fishing activities. You’ll most likely see turtles, rays, and sharks (not the dangerous type). What’s great with the Togian Island is the laid-back lifestyle that comes with it. It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy unspoiled beaches. You’ll also meet many sea gypsies moving between the islands.
One of the famous features of the Togian Islands is the jellyfish lake. You can actually swim in it and be surrounded by jellyfish. The best part is that they are not poisonous. There are only two lakes like this in the world, the second one is also in Indonesia, in Kalimantan.
Where to stay in the Togian Islands
Surprisingly, you won’t find many hotels online. You can just get there and look around for a hotel, as there are plenty of those. The islands’ main city is Wakai, where you’ll find most of the accommodations. It’s also a central location to explore the rest of the islands.
8 – Meet Sulawesi’s endemic wildlife in Tangkoko Nature Reserve
Tangkoko National Park is the best place to see wildlife in Sulawesi. You’ll mostly be likely to see Tarsiers, Hornbills, Crested Macaque, and Bear Cuscus.
Manado and its surroundings have a lot to offer: beautiful beaches, impressive National Parks. It’s the best place if you love nature and adventures.
9 – Discover Sulawesi diverse marine life in Bunaken Marine Park
What to do in Bunaken Island
Bunaken Marine Park is absolutely fabulous for diving and snorkeling. The water is crystal clear, and the reefs are amazing. The island, close to Manado, is easily accessible, and most accommodations are cheap. It’s the perfect place to chill for a couple of days, enjoy the beach and do some snorkeling. You can also just take a day trip from Manado if you’re short on time.
Where to stay in Bunaken
There are plenty of accommodations for all budgets to choose from in Bunaken. Better to book in advance as the island can get crowded during weekends and public holidays.
10 – Explore remote Sangir and Talaud Islands
Exploring Sangir and Talaud Island is the ultimate adventure. They rarely see any foreigners but have so much to offer, especially in terms of nature. The fauna and flora there are really diverse and so well preserved. The cluster of islands is also famous for its many volcanoes.
Get ready to explore the lush jungles and meet with remote tribes.
From Manado Harbour, you’ll find boats heading daily to Sangir. Avoid going during monsoon as the sea becomes dangerous. On Sangir (sometimes spelled Sangihe), the main town is Tahuna, where the boat arrives and where you’ll find most of the hotels.
What to eat in Sulawesi
Pisang Ijo, or Green Banana, is one of my favorite Indonesian treats. Originally from Sulawesi, you can find them in most places in Indonesia, but there are not as good as the one you’ll eat in Sulawesi.
Pisang Ijo is a boiled banana rolled in a thin green pancake (the dye is natural) and served with a type of coconut pudding and pink syrup. It is super tasty, always add some ice cubes to the porridge for the perfect taste.
Mi Titi is one of my favorite Indonesian dishes. Originally from Sulawesi, with luck, you can find them in other parts of the country. Mie Titi are crunchy noodles served in a gooey sauce, it’s delicious.
Coto Makassar is a type of beef stew. The stew is delicious, but what they don’t tell you is that there’s no meat, only organs, and every type of organs imaginable, intestines and lungs included. I was told they make a version with only meat but I never found it.
Sulawesi is huge and the road terrible, I once spend 24 hours on a bus instead of 8 because the road had collapsed. When planning your itinerary count at least a day to get to one place to another.
Spending less than 2 weeks in Sulawesi, in my opinion, is not worth it, distances between attractions are too great. If you have the budget, you can go through a tour operator, that will save you time, especially if you want to explore the more remote places such as Lore Lindu or Morowali.
Sulawesi highlights – 3-week itinerary
This itinerary starts in Makassar and finishes in Manado. You can also do it the other way around. Both cities have an airport well connected to the rest of Indonesia.
Makassar – 1 night
Arrive at Makassar airport, spend the night there and head to Bira in the morning, go as early as you can if you travel with public transportation.
Bira – 3 nights
You’ll have two full days, you can do one at the beach or diving, and the other one, exploring the surroundings.
Danau Tempe – 1 night
You’ll arrive in the evening, you can go early morning to the lake then directly head to Rantepao.
Rantepao (Tana Toraja) – 4 nights
You’ll have 3 full days to explore all of Tana Toraja. On the last day, head early morning to Tentena.
Tentena – 2 nights
Spend the night in Tentena, and the next day take a day trip to Lore Lindu. The next day head to Ampana.
Ampana – 1 night
You might be able to catch a boat to the Togian Island on the same day but it’s safer to plan to spend a night in Ampana just in case.
Togian Islands – 5 nights
Here, relax, relax and relax. You could spend less time there but the islands are so hard to reach and so beautiful, you’ll want to stay longer.
Manado – 4 nights
In Manado, you can spend a day exploring the city, the next, go to Bunaken National Park and the last head to Tangkoko Nature Reserve.
Sulawesi 2-week itinerary
If you can’t spare 3 weeks, you can skip Bira and Danau Tempe, and fly directly to Rantepao from Makassar, and spend less time in each place.
Related articles to help you plan your trip:
- Indonesia – Everything you need to know before traveling there
- Kalimantan – 8 adventures of a lifetime
- Items to make backpacking easier
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