West Sumatra in Indonesia is an off-the-beaten-path tropical paradise, full of jewels, most of them still undiscovered by most travelers. And those who are familiar with this place, know about the fantastic Mentawai, the city of Bukittinggi, or Mount Kerinci. When they arrive in Padang, they usually use it only as a starting point to these destinations. But don’t skip Padang, add more travel experience to your adventure, there are certain things to do in this city!
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Basic info about Padang
So, you arrive at Minangkabau International Airport- the main airport of West Sumatra. This is the entry point for Padang, the capital of West Sumatra Province. The center of the city is more than 20 km south of the airport. When you travel to the center, you can notice that it is a colorful city with low buildings, full of life. And your eyes can’t skip the wonderful weird roofs of some of them, reminding you of buffalo horns!
This is Padang, the administrative and cultural center of West Sumatra. It is established on the plain between the Barisan Mountains (the main mountain chain of Sumatra Island) and the coast of the Indian Ocean. The mountains, rising east and south of the city are covered by lush equatorial rainforest, and the coast is straight, with long sandy beaches.
A curving river flows from the mountains and through the southern part of Padang. It is called Batang Arau River, and it “closes” the flat plain between the ocean and the mountains. South of it is a hilly area, and the coast is different- it is rugged, with promontories, bays, nearby islets, and small beaches.
Padang is located in a highly seismic area. The main rift between the Asian and Indian Ocean plates is here and the city is regularly hit by earthquakes. However, you don’t need to worry- the earthquakes are not stronger and not more than those in Tokyo, California, or Istanbul.
The ancient local people discovered the good properties of this place and created Padang. Let’s see how.
From ancient times, the lands around what is today Padang were covered by jungles and inhabited by Minangkabau people who lived in scattered villages beside the ocean coast and the rivers. Some local kingdoms and even empires controlled this area but with an insignificant presence.
In the 14th century, the land of Padang became a part of Pagaruyung Kingdom. Gradually, the villages around the Batang Arau River merged and established a trade harbor. And since the 16th century, the new village cluster, now called Padang, started its growth as a trade center with the neighboring kingdoms and the first Europeans. Pagaruyung kings ruled over Padang until 1663.
From 1663 to 1942, Padang has been mostly a part of the Dutch Indies, and only temporarily under the control of the British Empire. Actually, the Pagaruyung Kingdom still existed until the 19th century, but the authority of the Dutch was higher than that of the Pagaruyung kings.
As in the rest of Indonesia, it was the colonial period of Padang. The city continued growing, and more cultures were added to the local Minangkabau- the Dutch culture, and the Chinese, some of which migrated here. The best area where you can see the traces of them is beside the Batang Arau River, where you can spot some buildings in Dutch architecture, as well as the small Chinatown.
In 1942, Padang was conquered by the Japanese for three years. And when they left, the newly independent Indonesia was established. The city grew more and gradually developed into a modern metropolis. And due to the exotic destinations nearby, travelers started noticing Padang, although the tourism is still in an initial stage here.
When you walk around the streets of Padang, you can see what the people look like. Almost all women wear hijab, and many men have beards and traditional Muslim caps. They are Minangkabau, and most of them are Muslim.
But although they are conservative, they are very friendly. It is totally normal when a foreigner (non-Indonesian-looking) walks around the streets to hear “Hello Sir”, from men and women. These people are also very helpful, and in general, you can feel safe and cozy in Padang.
Our journey to Padang
Padang was inevitably the first destination of our West Sumatra journey since we arrived by plane.
We came from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Padang was our starting point for visiting Mount Kerinci, the Mentawai Islands, and the area around Bukittinggi. It was not a circle route, so we had to back to Padang three times. And we used these opportunities to explore the most essential of this city.
Below are the eight best and most essential things to do in Padang. We tried seven of them (we skipped the eighth, visiting a nearby small island, because we had a similar experience in one of our next destinations- Mentawai), and we can say that we got the taste of this nice and cozy city.
Things to do in Padang
Some of these things are related to certain spots, while other things you can try everywhere in Padang.
For first-timers: get familiar with the local life!
This is mostly for those who visit most of Indonesia for the first time. I mean, if you have already been to other neighboring cities in Sumatra, you probably would not see too much difference in Padang. But if you haven’t been to Indonesia yet, or you have been only to Bali or Jakarta, this experience is highly recommended.
You can try it everywhere in Padang, in every part of the city. But still, the best area to do it is in the center. Go to Pasar Raya and the area around Imam Bonjol Square. Here you can see just normal average streets, but also a nice park, a lively market, shops, restaurants, and more.
So, walk around, buy some fruits from the market, do some shopping (you may not be a fan of shopping, but now this is about diving into the local life rather than shopping itself), or just relax in Imam Bonjol Square. Then, go to a café or a restaurant to see how everything looks and tastes!
Explore the Old part of Padang- Chinatown and the Dutch architecture
This is the historical and cultural core of Padang, the oldest part of the city. It is located north of the Batang Arau River. Here you can see not only an ordinary local urban area but also some old Dutch buildings, as well as the Chinese temples and halls of Padang’s Chinatown.
You can explore it on foot. The best route can start from the last railway station of the local train- Pulau Aie and can end at Mentawai Fast Harbour. It is about a 20 min walk. First, you can see one of the oldest mosques in Padang- Masjid Muhammadan, then you enter Chinatown. The highlights in this area are Kelenteng See Hin Kiong Temple, the Chinese halls, Pasar Tanah Kongsi (a local market), and some cafes and restaurants (if you want to try Chinese meals, go to Liong Hai restaurant).
From Chinatown, go south to the north bank of the Batang Arau River and just follow it. On the way you can see several old Dutch buildings like Gebouw van Padangsche Spaarbank, and Gebouw Handelsonderneming “Geo Wehry & Co”. And there are dozens of elegant cafes where you can relax.
On your way, you can’t skip the Siti Nurbaya Bridge. Although it is just a normal bridge over the river, with normal traffic on it, it is beautifully decorated with flowers and other ornaments, making it one of the local landmarks. Eventually, you will reach Mentaway Fast Harbour, the starting point for a journey to the fantastic Mentawai Islands. And beyond it is the coast of the Indian Ocean.
Visit Adityawarman Museum
This is the largest and most representative museum of history and culture in West Sumatra. And it is located again in the same area, not far from the Batang Arau River and the old town.
Adityawarman Museum is named after the first king of Pagaruyung Kingdom, who reigned over what is today West Sumatra in the 14th century. It is arranged in a splendid traditional Rumah Gadang house, with its typical buffalo-shaped roof and richly ornamented walls. The building, as well as other additional buildings containing more exhibitions behind it, is established in a beautiful garden with two rangkiangs (traditional rice granaries).
The museum contains several exhibitions. The largest and most important of them is located in the main Rumah Gadang building which has two floors. It consists of historical and ethnographical relics, mostly from the Minangkabau people, as well as some from the Mentawai. There are also natural and technical exhibitions in the buildings behind the Rumah Gadang.
Entrance fee: 5000 IDR
Working hours: from 8:30 to 17:00. Monday: closed.
Try the Minangkabau cuisine
The local Minangkabau cuisine is well-known in the whole of Indonesia and beyond. It is well-known for its heavy use of coconut milk and chili, something with curry. Here the people eat mostly rice and sometimes noodles as basic meals.
So, in general, the local food is spicy. Not too spicy, but enough to make a problem for those who can’t get used to eating spicy (anyway, you still can tell the waiter in the restaurant to not add spicy ingredients, and in most cases they understand, at least can make it much less spicy).
While you walk around Padang, you can see several types of restaurants and food corners. The most traditional one is where a lot of meals are exposed in buffet style, and you just choose from whatever you want. You can use a spoon and a fork, but if you want to be like a local, you have to eat directly with your fingers. And there is always a cup with water where you can wash your fingers.
Besides these, you can find more “normal” restaurants with a menu (instead of exposed meals). The most popular meals in such places are nasi goreng (spicy rice with egg), mie goreng (spicy noodles with egg), ayam goreng (chicken with rice), and more.
Spot the Grand Mosque of West Sumatra, one of the main landmarks of Padang
This is one of those projects in the world that are intentionally designed to serve as a grand symbol of a destination, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In Padang, this is the Grand Mosque of West Sumatra- a religious center, and a landmark at the same time.
The Grand Mosque is located in a different place, a few km (miles) north of the old town. It was accomplished in 2014, and it is the second-largest mosque on the island of Sumatra. The mosque’s design is unique and is intended to present the traditional Minangkabau Rumah Gadang roof style. There is a large square-type garden around it.
Today, it is an active religious center, but for those who are not Muslims, it is a landmark for visiting and exploring. It is a good spot for photos, and you can also enter inside (but with proper clothes, of course) and see its interior.
Enjoy the views of the beach
Padang has a long beach, a part of a long beach chain on the southwest coast of Sumatra Island. This is not a beach for swimming- no people are swimming or relaxing on the sand under an umbrella, like in the “classical” beaches. First, because the water is not so clean- several murky-water rivers flow into the ocean and much of the city water pollution flows with these waters too. And second- the local people still don’t have this “mass-beach” culture, partly due to their religion.
But the charm of the beaches of Padang is in the panoramic views. There is a road with an alley beside it, and it is perfect for a walk. If you walk to the south, on your left side will be the colorful urban park of Padang. And on your right side- the vast Indian Ocean. However, it is not “empty”- you can notice several small islets like spots before the horizon.
And the most beautiful part of the beach is its southern end. It ends with the mouth of the Batang Arau River, and beyond it is a small hill covered with lush forest, with letters “PADANG” on it. And before the end of the beach, on your left side, you can see another landmark mosque. This is Masjid Al-Hakim, entirely in white color, built in 2020.
Go to the green south
What is south of the Batang Arau River? Here the landscape changes drastically. It is hilly, covered by equatorial rainforest, with a rugged coastline. The first hilly area is Puncak Gado-Gado, today used mainly as a park, with some villa and resort zones, and entertainment spots. The highest point of Gado-Gado is not too tall, but it reveals breathtaking views of Padang, the Indian Ocean, and the small islands in it. Today, it is a popular place for paragliding.
There are several beaches in this area (different than the long beach of Padang in the north). The most popular beach is Air Manis. Its coast is full of stalls, restaurants, and cafes, and it is well-known for ATV activities on the beach sand, especially during low tide.
And there is a small famous spot on the beach, called Malin Kundang. It is a rock formation that looks like a prostrating man. According to a local legend, there was a son who disowned his poor mother and she cursed him to turn into a stone.
Finally, you can rent a motorboat to the nearby islands of Pisang Gadang and Pisang Ketek. They are small “tropical paradise” types of spots, great places for relaxation.
Float to one of the small islands offshore of Padang
I already mentioned Pisang Gadang and Pisang Ketek. But there are more than 15 small islands not far from Padang. You can see some of them from the long beach of Padang, while others are hidden in the south, beyond Gado-Gado.
These small islands are uninhabited, covered by jungle and coconut palms, usually with small beaches. They are flat, no more than 400-500 m wide and long, and are great spots to escape from the city. The waters around them are cleaner than at the beach of Padang, but still not crystal clear, because they are not too far from the mainland coast.
Some of these islands can be reached by a “boat taxi” from Air Manis Beach, or from Semen Padang Port. Those of them with resorts usually can be reached only by private resort boat, arranged only for the guests of the resort (like Pulau Sinyaru). And some islands like Pulau Pieh are completely uninhabited, but you can rent a boat to go there- the waters around Pulau Pieh are great for diving.
These are essentially the best things to do in Padang. And you can accomplish these activities for two days. However, you have to be prepared with some useful information- about transportation, accommodation, and other important details.
How to reach Padang and roam around it
Usually, travelers reach Padang from Minangkabau International Airport, as a traditional entry point. Although the airport is international, the only convenient connection with abroad is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There are also flights from Jeddah and Medina, Saudi Arabia, but obviously, they are mostly used by Muslims who go to Mecca, rather than foreign tourists.
However, there are domestic flights from Jakarta, Batam, and some other cities in Sumatra. So, if you are previously in other parts of Indonesia (like Bali or West Java), you can use these flights.
Another option is to include Padang in your on-land journey- by bus, or by car, from Medan, Pekanbaru, Jambi, Palembang, or other destinations in Sumatra. There are travel vans that operate between these cities and they are not expensive.
But let’s back to Minangkabau Airport. Once you get your Visa on arrival (unless you have already gotten it in advance), you go out. There are taxis and private drivers waiting for tourists outside. Needless to say, they are expensive. But there are cheaper options to go to the center of the city.
This is a very convenient system, well-developed in Padang, with cars or motorcycles. You have to download your Grab app on your phone in advance, point your destination, and book. Of course, you would need some internet, and if you haven’t bought your SIM card in advance, there is free WiFi at the airport. Use it! Usually, getting to the center by car is about 80,000 to 100,000 IDR (about 5-7 USD), and from 60,000 to 80,000 by motorcycle.
This is a cheap and very convenient option. A van takes passengers for 400 m from the airport to the first railway station. Then, the price to the center is only 10,000 IDR. There are only 5 trains per day but their schedule is calculated according to the arriving flights.
There are various types of local transport around Padang. Ojeks (motorcycle taxis) can be easily found everywhere, but for foreigners, they are always more expensive than Grab. Angkots (red vans with open doors) are very cheap and usually used only by locals unless you know their routes. Their price is between 5000 and 10,000 IDR. There are also several city buses but with limited route range.
But again, the most convenient way is Grab. There is another system, called Maxim, and it is similar to Grab, with the same prices. You can use both of them. Their prices are fixed by the app, but they would be always happy to get some tips. You can pay them in cash.
However, keep in mind that they seldom go to more remote areas like Air Manis- yes, they can take you there, but when you want to back to the center, you can’t find them but only local, more expensive ojeks.
Where to stay in Padang
Hotels in Padang are cheap. Even the most luxurious ones like Truntum Hotel offer rooms for only 50 USD per night. Keep in mind that the cheapest hotels are between 6 and 10 USD, but their quality can be very low. For example- dirty rooms, dirty toilets, out of the room, without hot water, etc.
You can easily find a lot of hotels on Booking or Agoda. The best area to stay is the old town, especially if you plan to go to the Mentawai Islands on the next day with the ferry from 7:00 a.m. This location is more touristy and convenient for exploring the area.
The travel vans that go for Sungai Penuh (including Mount Kerinci and other destinations in the area) depart from Tabing, in the north of Padang, far from the old town. There are a few hotels in Tabing but with very low quality. So, since the travel vans can roam around the city before leaving it, you can ask the hotel manager in the reception to call them, and they can pass by your hotel to take you.
I would advise you to talk to them by Booking or Agoda messages before you arrive. I booked a hotel in Tabing (I thought it would be convenient for my next destination Mount Kerinci) on Agoda, but when I arrived, they told me that they no longer work with Agoda, so I had to pay twice. At least, the people from Agoda were so good to refund me the money.
Another option is Airbnb, which can allow you to get closer to the local people. However, it is usually more expensive than the hotels.
Keep in mind that most people in Padang (and in the whole of West Sumatra) can’t speak English. So, the only way to communicate with them, other than “body language” is to use Google Translate. And for that, you would need the Internet.
Getting a SIM card in Padang is not as easy as it looks. Have it in mind if you haven’t bought it online in advance! First, there is no SIM card shop in Minangkabau International Airport. You have to go to the center, and you can find some shops. But the cards they cell are usually problematic- you have to insert your Indonesian ID card (which obviously you don’t have if you are a foreigner!), and the whole guide on how to install it is in Indonesian.
So, the best way is to go to the central offices of the Indonesian mobile companies. The best of them is Telkomsel, and I bought a SIM card with 30GB of internet for 80,000 IDR. You can add an additional 30,000 to include minutes for talking on the phone.
The whole procedure was slow (I waited more than 2 hours in their office until the girl inputted all the necessary information and installed my SIM card). But it was worth the waiting- I had good quality Internet, and I could freely browse, look at the maps, and communicate with Google Translate everywhere, even in some remote areas in the next destinations of our trip later.
Padang is located very close to the Earth’s Equator, and it has an equatorial climate. It is a quite wet city, one of the wettest in Southeast Asia. There is not much difference between the “dry” and the “wet” seasons. Sometimes, it can rain a whole morning, sometimes- only about 30 min in the afternoon. And very seldom- without rain at all. Statistically, the least wet (I would not say “dry”) months are February and July.
This is Padang- a nice city full of life, in a beautiful tropical area. It is also full of local culture, with friendly people, and definitely worth exploring before you leave for the other exotic and adventurous destinations in West Sumatra.
Check some travel books about Padang and Sumatra:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.