Looking for the ultimate holiday getaway? Or maybe you're desperate to escape the hustle and bustle of city life? Then the Gili Islands, located off the northwest coast of Lombok, are perfect for you.
The definition of paradise, these three small islands are surrounded by shimmering turquoise waters and fringed by white-sand beaches and coconut palms. Divers and snorkelers will delight in visiting what’s known as the sea turtle capital of the world. There are no gas-powered vehicles, so you’ll explore on foot, by bicycle, or in a horse-drawn cart.
The Gilis have been through a lot in the past few years. Major earthquakes in 2018 caused significant damage, and more recently, COVID-19 stalled the tourism-dependent economy. Although many businesses are temporarily shuttered, most have plans to reopen soon and you’ll find many new hotels and restaurants under development.
Before you book a hotel online, email to confirm it can provide what’s advertised. You can get great deals at the moment, whether it’s on a longer-term stay or if you’re keen to quit your job and open your own business in paradise, so this is the perfect time to visit.
But which one will you choose? Despite their similarities, each Gili island has a distinct personality. Find the one that matches yours…
Gili Trawangan is the party island
Why go to Gili T?
The largest, liveliest and most developed of the three Gili Islands, Gili Trawangan (known as Gili T) is also one of the world’s cheapest and safest places to learn to dive. You can say hello to napping sea turtles at one of the many beautiful dive sites by day and attend a raucous beach party by night. Although Gili T is known for its bustling main strip, you can easily find a more chilled-out atmosphere if you head to the interior of the island, or up to its northwest beaches.
The best things to do on Gili T: partying, diving, and sunsets
Gili T has a friendly backpacker vibe and is full of people keen to get to know one another. The social atmosphere is a massive draw – pre-COVID a different club or dive center bar hosted a party most nights of the week, so everyone ends up in the same place. The parties haven’t happened as consistently during the pandemic, but there are still plenty of people looking for fun.
Gili T is the only island with an uninterrupted view all the way to Bali, so head to one of the quaint beach bars and savor an ice-cold Bintang at sunset – or upgrade your beer for the island’s signature drink: vodka mixed with Joss energy drink powder.
You can still enjoy Gili T if you’re not into partying – the scuba trips, free-diving classes, and sunbathing spots are more than enough to keep most people here – and the party atmosphere isn’t too overwhelming for open-minded families, particularly the further away you travel from the harbor.
There are several dive centers currently operating, including Manta Dive, Trawangan Dive Centre, and Blue Marlin, and more will reopen soon. If you prefer snorkeling, hop on a bike and head to the northern coast for the best marine life. If you love animals and want to stay on land, try horseback riding with STUD Horse Riding and Rescue.
There is a good selection of restaurants on Gili T to suit all tastes, budgets, and dietary needs. For great burgers, head to Voodoo Gili. Craving delicious Asian fusion for a good price? Try the curries at Jali Kitchen. If you’re looking for some vegetarian and vegan fare, The Banyan Tree is the place for you.
Gili T has a good range of places to stay
Gili T has accommodations for every budget. Splurge at Utara Villas or Pondok Santi, which also organizes sunset cruises on an elegant wooden boat. For a midrange option in the traditional lumbung style, Paradesa Living is a good bet. If you prefer a hostel in a busy neighborhood, check out My Mate’s Place. There are also many budget-friendly homestays that will open on request. To book the homestays, you can simply show up on Gili T and ask around at the restaurants or dive shops.
Gili T might be for you if: you’re traveling alone and looking to mingle while you log a few dives, or if you’re with friends and seeking a few memorable nights out.
Glil T might not be for you if: the hedonistic backpacker party scene isn't your thing.
For a romantic island escape, head to Gili Meno
Why go to Gili Meno?
The smallest and quietest of the Gilis, Gili Meno feels like your own private island and arguably has the best beaches. There's a definite honeymoon atmosphere that you can sense as soon as you step off the boat and see couples canoodling in the thatched-roof open-air berugas along the shoreline.
The best things to do on Gili Meno: perfect for rest and relaxation
In terms of dive centers, Meno Dive Club and Divine Divers also both offer restaurants and lodging. Meno boasts some spectacular dive sites just offshore, which include the Bounty – a sunken pier – and Meno Wall, a top pick for macro lovers. Selfie-taking snorkelers head out to Nest, an underwater sculpture from British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, with 48 life-sized human figures.
There are just a handful of restaurants to choose from, and most serve Indonesian fare. Head to Umar Café for the best nasi goreng (fried rice) on a beautiful beach. Sasak Cafe, serving crispy fish, is the best spot to eat at sunset.
Gili Meno is mainly about rest and relaxation and is the perfect place to read in a hammock while listening to the ocean waves. If you get bored easily, it may be best to limit your visit to a day-trip.
Places to stay on Gili Meno are mainly high-end
Currently open lodging options on Meno tend to skew upmarket. Consider the newly renovated Kura Kura near the harbor, stay at Seri Resort for its fresh seafood and yoga, or find peace in the secluded and eco-friendly Mahamaya.
If you’re looking for a more boutique experience, check out the charming Sea La Vie. You can still get a deal on Meno, including at Ana Warung, which has a collection of no-frills bungalows and a popular restaurant serving locally caught fish.
Gili Meno might be for you if: you’re traveling with a partner and are seeking a stunning beach escape to set a romantic mood.
Gili Meno might not be for you if: you’ve just been dumped and need a distraction.
Gili Air is the best chill-out island
Gili Air is the perfect blend of the other two Gilis. While it has a range of dining and hotel options, like Gili T, it's almost as peaceful as Gili Meno. There's a slight hippie feel to the island – think guitar strumming and Bob Marley tunes – and it’s the perfect location for a yoga retreat (once the popular yoga studios reopen later this year).
Things to do on Gili Air: diving, water sports, and gourmet food
There are several quality dive centers on Gili Air, including Oceans5, which has hosted daily fun dives and PADI training courses throughout the pandemic. Other open dive centers include 3W and Blue Marine. You can also rent stand-up paddle boards and make your way around the island, being mindful of the strong currents. If you prefer snorkeling, check out the coral reef off the east coast and then sunbathe while you take in uninterrupted views of Lombok’s rugged coast, including Mt Rinjani. On the western side, you’ll find unspoiled white-sand beaches and iconic ocean swings, perfect for sunset photo shoots. Also consider exploring the beaches at sunset on horseback.
Gili Air has some great – even gourmet – food, including Mowie’s, serving craft cocktails and arguably the best eggs benedict on earth. Begadang, a backpacking hostel with a mushroom-shaped pool, dishes up tasty burgers, while Dolcemare, an authentic Italian seafood restaurant offers homemade pasta. Boho-chic Pachamama is the place to go for fresh vegetarian and vegan options.
In terms of nightlife, there's more of a laid-back bar culture on Gili Air, though you can still find pool and beach parties where you can take in live music while watching fire dancers (try Lucky’s Bar).
Gili Air has lots of great places to stay
There are many lodging options on Gili Air, including unique private pool villas with locally inspired decor (try Rimba Villas, Kempas Villas, or Villa Kayu). Pink Coco Gili Air and The Koho are chic hotels that are good for big groups. There is also a wide range of temporarily closed budget-friendly bungalows and local homestays that are eager to welcome back travelers.
Gili Air might be for you if: you’re looking for somewhere to relax and for a more local experience, yet still want to enjoy a variety of hotel and restaurant options.
Gili Air might not be for you if: you only want to party, or you only want to relax.
How to get to the Gili Islands from Bali and Lombok
Indonesia’s COVID-19 travel requirements change frequently, so make sure you check the government’s website, talk to your local consulate, or connect with a visa agent before booking your trip.
There are fast boat connections from Bali
Fast boats offer 2.5-hour connections between Padangbai and the Gilis. There is also a route between the Gilis, Nusa Lembongan, and Nusa Penida, with additional options likely to reopen later this year. Most boats dock first in Bangsal, Lombok, north of Senggigi, before continuing to Trawangan, Meno, and then finally, Air.
A provider like Gili Bookings is useful for getting an idea of what’s available, but it’s not comprehensive and prices fluctuate. Keep in mind that the fast boats are unregulated and safety standards vary – there have been some major accidents.
Alternatively, you can fly from Bali to Lombok for nearly the same price as a fast boat ticket. It’s only a 40-minute journey, though flights are often delayed.
On Lombok, buy boat tickets at Bangsal Harbor
From Lombok airport, take a metered taxi or Gojek to Bangsal Harbor. Hotels in Mataram, Kuta, or Senggigi can help you arrange a private car. Coming by public transport, catch a bus or bemo to Pemenang, from where it’s a 1.2km (0.75 mile) walk to the harbor.
From Bangsal Harbor, it’s a 20-minute public boat ride to the Gili of your choice. Boat tickets cost around US$2 and are sold at the port’s ticket office. Buy a ticket elsewhere and you’re getting played. Public boats to the Gilis run most frequently before noon; after that, because of the limited number of tourists, you can wait up to two hours for boats to Gili T or Gili Air, as they only depart when full – at around 25 people.
Special boats depart for Gili Meno later in the day. When no public boat is running, you may have to charter a boat. Insist on paying no more than 400,000Rp (US$28) and the boat captain will see that you know what you’re talking about.
Despite newly constructed piers, boats often pull up on the beaches, so be prepared to wade ashore. Expect to get hassled at Bangsal Harbor. Be respectful but firm when avoiding touts, and note that anyone who helps you with bags expects to be paid – 10,000Rp per bag (US$0.70) is appropriate. Although there are ATMs on the islands, it’s best to get cash in Senggigi or Mataram.
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