10 of the best things to do in Indonesia's Gili Islands

Anyone who’s been to Indonesia’s Gili Islands would likely agree on one thing – you can’t help but feel relaxed as soon as you set foot on the fine white sands.

These three little islands off the coast of Lombok are a popular holiday destination, and it’s easy to see why. Its vivid blue waters, rich marine life and dramatic sunsets are like a tropical postcard, with the ban on motor vehicles further enhancing the peaceful atmosphere.

They may be small in size, but the islands pack a punch in terms of things to do. Adventurous travelers can enjoy action-packed days of water sports and island hopping, while those who prefer to take it at a more leisurely pace can make the most of the beach bars and spas. Whichever island you choose, here are the top experiences to add to your itinerary.

The Gilis are a fantastic place to learn to scuba dive, with a huge choice of international dive schools offering PADI-certified lessons in different languages, as well as trips for all levels of divers. The surrounding waters are dotted with fascinating dive sites where you can spot everything from shipwrecks to sharks (don’t worry, these are reef sharks, and they’re quite shy when it comes to humans). Some of the most popular locations include Shark Point, Turtle Heaven and Gili Meno Wall, which is an excellent spot for night diving.

Planning tip: For the best underwater visibility, plan your trip during the dry season (April to September). Although it’s still possible to dive during the wet season, thunderstorms and increased sediment mean you won’t be able to see as much.

A couple snorkel in clear turquoise waters above an underwater sculpture of figures standing in a circle
Head out to Gili Meno to snorkel above an underwater sculpture © Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

Scuba diving isn’t for everyone, so if you prefer to stay on the surface, grab a snorkel and mask to peek below the waves instead. If you don’t have your own gear, there are places to rent snorkels and fins all along the beaches. The waters here are clear and shallow, and are teeming with colorful tropical fish, turtles, octopus and starfish. It’s easy to snorkel off shore, and as you walk along the coastline you’ll see signposts indicating the best snorkeling areas. For beauty spots further out – such as the Gili Meno underwater sculptures by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor – join a boat tour and go island hopping.

If you’ve fallen in love with the local cuisine and plan on recreating it back home, then one of the must-do activities is to join a cooking class. There are a handful of cooking schools where keen foodies can learn to prepare classic Indonesian dishes like mie goreng (fried noodles) and kare ayam (chicken curry) using fresh ingredients from the local markets. Gili Cooking Classes is by far the most popular option, where English-speaking local chefs take you through three-, four- or six-course menus. There are outposts on Gili Trawangan and Gili Air.  

For those staying on Gili Trawangan, make sure to visit the night market right by the harbor. Open every evening from sunset, this open-air market is packed with stalls selling delicious local food. Find everything from nasi campur (rice with a selection of sides) to traditional desserts like terang bulan (a thick pancake-like treat with various fillings) and klepon (sweet glutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and coated in shaved coconut). The highlights of the market are the barbecue stands where you can choose from a selection of fish, prawns and lobsters, and have it freshly grilled.

A cyclist pedals her way through the greenery of a coconut grove
Flat paths and paved roads make cycling an easy island activity © Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

Depending on the island, it takes between one and two hours to walk the circumference. It’s even quicker by bike, and rentals are cheap and easy to find. The Gilis are very flat and many of the roads are paved, making it a top family-friendly activity. Cycle along the coastal paths and into the islands’ interior, passing through coconut fields and villages. Remember to bring your swimsuit with you, as you’ll want to end your ride with a refreshing dip in the sea.

Local tip: The traditional horse-driven carts that you’ll see on the islands are called cidomo. Drivers may offer you an island tour, but beware that there are animal welfare concerns around the way the horses are treated, and we don’t recommend riding with them. For responsible horseback rides, check out Gili Air Horse Riding.

As well as diving and snorkeling, the Gilis offer other exciting water sports including paddle boarding, sea kayaking, water skiing and banana boat rides. While you’ll find rental shops across the islands, Gili Trawangan has the most variety of water sports available. Although professional surfers may be more interested in the world-class breaks on mainland Lombok, the Gilis have a handful of decent breaks too, especially during the dry season (April to September) when the winds are stronger.

Eco-conscious travelers can give back to the planet by getting involved in local conservation initiatives. Gili Eco Trust is an NGO based on Gili Trawangan, and has several projects and charities that visitors can support while on holiday here. Cat lovers can lend a helping hand to the local felines at Cats of Gili, where efforts include volunteer-led free clinics, spaying and neutering programs and donating to the Cats of Gili charity shop. Similarly, STUD Horse Riding & Rescue focuses its efforts on rescued and retired horses, offering beach and island rides – book a slot at sunset for an unforgettable experience. With any volunteering opportunity, we recommend that travelers always check and assess the standards and suitability of the project before giving their time. 

Planning tip: If you’re staying on Gili Air and want to go horseback riding, check out Gili Air Horse Riding, which offers rides with well-trained, cared-for horses.

People at a beach bar are silhouetted as the sun sets behind a volcano
Find the right party for you at the beach bars and pubs of Gili Trawangan and Gili Air © Mazur Travel / Shutterstock

Get a taste of the local nightlife at the many bars and pubs across Gili Trawangan and Gili Air. For true partygoers, Gili Trawangan promises a lively night out, from live reggae bands at Sama Sama Bar to DJs at Jungle Bar. If you prefer something a little more lowkey, Gili Air has a more laid-back party scene, with well-known beach bars like Legend Bar and Cheeky Monkey offering cocktails and live music to people relaxing in bean bags on the sand. 

Planning tip: Want to avoid the party scene all together? Stay on Gili Meno, known as the “honeymoon island” for its tranquil atmosphere. Thanks to a local ban on late-night music and parties, this is where you can really experience a quiet island retreat. 

Amongst all the outdoor adventures, take a moment to slow down and treat yourself to a spa day. This is one of the best things to do in the Gilis, where you can pamper yourself with everything from traditional massages to beauty treatments. If your hotel doesn’t have an inhouse spa, there are plenty of them along the bougainvillea-lined streets.

On Gili Trawangan, the uber-cool Rose Spa is a favorite for manicures and pedicures, while You Spa offers a range of treatments with tranquil greenery views and private rooms with flower-filled bath tubs. Those staying on Gili Air can enter a state of bliss at Slow Spa’s bamboo haven, or let the worries melt away in the cool and cavern-like Zone Spa. Gili Meno has less options, but if you walk along the coast you’ll come across simple beach shacks offering massages on sea-facing beds.

As soon as the sun starts to get low in the sky, most people head towards the west coast of Gili Trawangan where rows of beach bars offer live music and happy hours. If you’re seeking somewhere a little quieter, lace up your walking shoes and take on the relatively easy trail that leads up to the Gili Trawangan Hill viewpoint. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of Lombok’s Mt Rinjani, Bali’s Mt Agung and the other two Gilis. It also makes for a stunning spot to watch the sun rise.

Local tip: Gili Trawangan was used as a naval base during WWII. While you’re up here, keep an eye out for the Japanese machine gun bunker and the remains of tunnels that snaked through the hill.

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