Gili Islands – Which is Best for Your Travel Style?

Your guide to responsible travel in Indonesia's island paradise

blog image for best gili islands showing horses on the beach at sunset

Which is the best Gili Island for you? What will you do when you get there? Where should you stay and where should you eat? We answer all your Gili Islands questions!

If you want all the amenities of Ubud or Canggu — without the terrifying traffic, the annoying scams, and the overwhelming hassle — hop on a fast boat from Bali or a charming slow boat from Lombok and enter the chilled-out world of the Gili Islands.

On the islands there are no cars and trucks, nor are there any scooters, aside from a few slow-moving electric ones. That means no dodging speed-racer motorbikes, no revving of motors right outside your window at 5am, and no car horns blasting your eardrums as you walk down the streets.

It’s pure bliss after the choked streets of Bali or Lombok.

horse and buggy driving the waterfront road on the gilis
Compared to Bali or Ubud, the Gili Islands are supremely chilled.

Visitors and locals alike get around by bicycle or on foot, while small wooden boats bring passengers and supplies to the islands. The exception, of course, is the “fast” boat services, which bring people from Bali in all their plexi-glassed and mega-motorized glory.

Though the Gili Islands provide lots of transformational things to do, like yoga, snorkelling, and SUP, don’t get the wrong idea. They aren’t deserted stretches of sand where solitude is your only companion.

Instead, they are tourist escapes, dotted with villas, resorts, and restaurants for every taste and budget. Of course, the islands are crawling with foreigners, especially in high season!

If you want to be Robinson Crusoe, castaway on an empty beach, these are not your islands. Try Nusa Penida or Nusa Menjangan instead.

But if you want a beach vacation in a laid-back setting, along with affordable luxury and some mind-blowing mindful food, then read on for your guide to…

How to Choose the Best Gili Island

Which Gili Island Should You Choose?

It’s not really a question of which is the best island but which is best for your style of travel. Each Gili has its own personality, so choose wisely!

Backpacker’s Paradise: Gili Trawangan

The biggest and most built-up of the three, Gili Trawangan (Gili T for short) caters to the European backpacker and flashpacker crowd. When you tell local people and Bali expats you’re going to Gili T, they often react with surprise and stop just short of saying “Why?!?”

Despite all the warnings, we liked it a lot!

stephen walking along the sandy beach next to crystal blue water
What’s not to like on Gili T?

Sure, there’s the mega-party scene along the sunset side of the island but these aren’t the seedy dens of sin you’ll find in Bangkok or Ibiza.

There are beachside bars a la Cocktail, the movie. They play mellow dance tunes and cheesy pop hits while offering 2-for-1 happy hours featuring sketchy bootleg booze.

Yes, you can party your face off all night long, on a mix of alcohol and magic mushrooms, but you can also go to bed at 9 pm and never witness any of the nighttime shenanigans.

Guess which one we did?

Choose Gili T if you want:

  • The largest range of accommodation to choose from
  • A big variation of vegan, vegetarian, or healthy food
  • The most epic sunsets
  • A late-night party scene

Lovers’ Escape: Gili Meno

As the smallest island, Gili Meno has the fewest services but is also the quietest, making it a perfect getaway for couples and misanthropes.

If you plan on doing nothing except lounging by the pool or beach and staring into your sweetheart’s baby blues, then Meno is ideal. If you can tear yourself from your beach lounger, there is yoga, snorkelling, SUP and other activities, too.

Choose Gili Meno if:

  • You’re looking for somewhere to switch off and chill
  • You want to avoid tourist crowds
  • You like a truly laid-back island experience

Beach Bum’s Paradise: Gili Air

On Gili Air, the vibe is a little more subdued than Gili T and a little more lively than Gili Meno. For us, it offered the perfect combination of home comforts — think Western vegan cuisine and cocktails on the beach — and tropical-island relaxation.

pink and blue sunset over gili meno in the distance
Sunsets are a very big deal on the Gili Islands.

There are beach bars and clubs if you want them, but there are also quiet spots to lie on the sand and watch the turquoise water lap the shore. It takes about an hour to walk around the entire island, which we found ourselves doing each night before dinner.

Wandering the interior of Gili Air after the sun goes down, you’ll hear the local islanders strumming their acoustic guitars and singing old hippie tunes. Kokomo for the modern age.

Choose Gili Air if:

  • You want to mix seclusion with modern amenities
  • You can’t decide between the three islands

(Related: If Gili Air is right for you, check out this guide to Gili Air on a budget by DIY Travel HQ)

Where to Stay on the Gilis

There is a huge selection of resorts, hostels, homestays, and hotels to choose from. You can get decent (but not great) accommodation on the Gilis starting at $10 per night. If you spend more than $150 per night, you can get a luxury villa in one of the islands most sought-after resorts.

eco friendly luxury tent at cocoteraie ecolodge
We would have loved to stay at La Cocoteraie Ecolodge on Gili T!

We booked last-minute during high season, we ended up overpaying for so-so accommodation. The best places get full quickly, so if you know your dates and you’re travelling in high season, book ahead.

Sleep well on the Gilis!
Check out our picks of the best accommodation on the Gili Islands for every budget and travel style.

Best Things to Do

There are so many options for eco-friendly, sustainable, and truly transformational things to do on the Gilis. If you can tear yourself away from the beach long enough, that is!

Yoga is growing fast on the islands and there are new studios and places to practice each time we go there. There is also plenty of water-based fun to look forward to, like SUP, snorkelling, scuba and even free diving.

For a more relaxed approach, you can go for long walks, find the best sunset cocktails, and fill your belly with incredible food.

Where to Eat

There’s a great food scene on the Gili Islands, especially on Trawangan.

buddha bowl with side dishes
Pachamama serves fancy bowls of deliciousness.

For cultural-focussed foodies, you’ll have your choice of incredible Indonesian dishes, made in simple kitchens by local entrepreneurs. There are also plenty of places for Western favourites, like pizza, pasta, smoothie bowls, and burgers.

Grilled seafood is a main attraction at the beachside restaurants, where friendly staff will try to entice you in as you walk by.

Vegetarians and vegans like us will also have no problem getting fed. There are a few plant-based restaurants around and most of the omnivore joints also cater to veggie eaters.

Hungry on the Gilis?
Bring our guide to the best restaurants on the islands because you don’t want to miss out on these tasty treats.

Customs, Clothing & Behaviour on the Gili Islands

As with all travel destinations in the world, being a respectful traveller usually just comes down to using your common sense. Smile, be friendly, be polite and any unintended faux pas will be forgiven.

sign that says this beach is not your ashtray on a gili island beach
Be mindful of where you drop your butts and litter on the Gilis. And everywhere!

Still, there are a few things you should know before you go.

Don’t Forget You’re in a Muslim Country

When you’re on the beach, basking in the sun with a cocktail in your hand, it’s easy to forget that you’re a guest in a predominantly Muslim country. While Bali is mostly Hindu, and therefore a little less conservative, the Gili Islands are populated by Muslims.

Once you leave the beach, have some respect for the customs and the people of the country and GET DRESSED. We saw way too many people head into restaurants in the middle of town, right next to the mosque, still in their string bikinis or with no shirt on.

Indonesians will not show you that they are offended by your clothing or behaviour but that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I was pretty shocked by all the barely there bikinis and in-your-face fake boobs I saw — and I lived in Los Angeles for seven years!

Go with the Flow

If you want German precision and prompt time-keeping, go to Switzerland (Germany is not as efficient as you might think). But don’t go to the Gili Islands, or any tropical island.

women carrying bags of goods balanced on their heads from a boat
It’s island time!

Island people the world over never hurry and neither do Indonesians. Expect delays and build them into your schedule, especially when you’re heading to the airport. When delays happen, just sit back, enjoy the view, and go with the flow.

Things will happen just when they are meant to happen — and not a moment before.

It’s All About Saving Face

One morning, at a beachside cafe, we witnessed a foreign woman screaming at her Indonesian tour guide because… well, we’re not sure why. It had something to do with the boat being 10 minutes late.

She caused a massive scene and the more she yelled, the more stubborn the tour guide became.

Disputes are not settled with rage and anger in Indonesia. Instead, if you feel you’ve been cheated or misled, smile, laugh, and pretend it was all a big mistake.

That gives the offender the chance to rectify the situation without losing face. You’ll have a much better chance of getting what you want with smiles instead of anger.

Bahasa Indonesia Phrases for Travellers

English is spoken widely on the Gilis, but it’s still nice to learn a few words of the local language. It’s amazing how much people open up when you make an effort to speak to them in their native tongue.

indonesian man in a striped shirt pulling in a line on a wooden boat
Learning a few phrases of Bahasa will go a long way to making the locals like you!

Here are a few useful words and phrases to learn in Bahasa, the most widely spoken Indonesian language. Luckily, the words are pronounced almost like they’re spelled and it is not a tonal language!

Greetings

Unfortunately, when it comes to saying hello, Bahasa is pretty complicated. They have four different words for hello, depending on the time of day!

Good morning (until around 11am): Selamat pagi

Good afternoon (from 11am–4pm): Selamat siang

Good evening (from 4pm–sunset): Selamat sore

Good evening (after sunset): Selamat malam

In a casual situation, in many places, it’s perfectly OK to just say the second word of the greeting. For example, just say “malam” instead of “selamat malam”.

Gratitude

Thank you is the most powerful word in any language and it’s the one word we learn in every country, no exceptions.

Thank you: Terima kasih

Listen when locals say this to each other. It’s often said with a little singsongy lilt on the end to express extra gratitude!

If someone thanks you, here’s what you reply:

Sama sama (meaning same to you)

How are you?

We don’t learn this phrase in most languages but in Bahasa, it’s such a fun one and almost everybody will ask.

How are you?: Apa kabar?

Fine thanks: Baik-baik saja (pronouced bike bike saja)

Non-Profits to Support

Any travel has an impact on the environment and on the people who live in the country. If you want to do a little more to help the locals, support local non-profit organizations. Here are a couple to support.

pony connected to a cart loaded with heavy bags on gili t
The ponies on the Gili Islands work hard and many are not treated well at all.

Gili Eco Trust. The trust is a collective of some of the main dive shops on the Gili Islands. They are involved in environmental projects on the islands, from marine and coral conservation to waste collection and sustainable eco tourism. Drop by their office to find out more or to buy an eco-friendly souvenir.

Gili Trawangan Weekly Beach Clean-up. If you want to help keep the wonderful beaches clean, join members of the Gili Island Dive Association every Friday at 5pm for a weekly beach clean-up. Not only will you be helping to save the environment but you’ll be rewarded with a free beer at the end of the clean-up.

Horses of Gili. We were horrified to see the working conditions of the ponies on the Gili Islands (see more below in the “Getting Around” section), which are used to cart tourists around and to haul building materials on the islands.

There’s no veterinary care, little food and fresh water, and many of the ponies are brutally overworked. This fund helps feed and water the ponies as well as taking care of other animals on the islands.

How to Get There

Getting to the Gili Islands is fairly straightforward but it’s definitely going to involve a boat!

man carrying boxes of bintang beer from wooden boats in the water on the gili islands
We didn’t encounter any hassle at Bangsal Harbour.

Lombok to the Gili Islands

There are no flights to the islands — the Lombok International airport is the closest you’ll get by plane.

Gili Islands from Bangsal Harbour. The cheapest boat from Lombok leaves from Bangsal Harbour. There are boats to all three Gilis, leaving from early in the morning until about 4pm. They don’t run on a set schedule but just leave when they’re full. You won’t have to wait long in high season but if you’re there in low season, it may be possible to pay extra to leave a little earlier.

You can pretty much ignore the overblown warnings about scammers and touts at Bangsal Harbour. Just take an Uber or Bluebird Taxi and they will drop you off as close as they can get.

Ignore the horse drivers who will ask you for ridiculous sums of money to drive you a couple of hundred metres. Instead, walk to the harbour. Once through the gate, turn left to the most official looking building there and go inside.

You’ll find an organized set of ticket windows and a line of people waiting to buy tickets. If a bystander tries to “help” you while you’re in line, just say no. They take an extra fee to barge in line and buy your tickets ahead of everyone else.

From Senggigi to Gili T. There is a fast boat from Senggigi to Gili Trawangan which can save you the hassle of making the trek up to Bangsal Harbour. As far as we could discover, the boat doesn’t come back that way, so you’ll have to go through Bangsal on the way back. Let us know if you find differently during your visit!

Bali to the Gili Islands

Fast boats. Boats leave from Padang Bai, Serangan Port or Amed in Bali. If you book your ticket in advance, most boat services will pick you up straight from your Bali hotel. Any travel agent or hotel in Bali can help you book a ticket.

Not all fast boats are created equal. If you go for rock bottom prices, expect a less-than stellar-boat with dubious safety procedures and major delays.

Our last trip from Gili Air to Bali was pretty much a nightmare. The water was very rough, we were smashed into wave after wave, and even the boat captain and crew were looking pretty worried.

Luckily, we spent a little extra on our tickets to go with one of the reputable companies, Gili Getaway, so they handled it all very well.

Gili Islands ferry. If you want to take a public ferry, there is one that leaves from Padang Bai on Bali hourly. It’s slow (minimum 4 hours) but cheap and certainly the best way to travel like a local.

The ferry drops you off in Lembar on Lombok. After that, you’ll have to take public transport or a taxi to Bangsal harbour where you can catch a wooden boat to your chosen island. Probably not worth the hassle unless you have way more time than money.

Gili Island Day Trip

If you’re considering a day trip to the Gili Islands from Bali, just forget about it. Bali is too far away to make it a worthwhile day trip.

From Lombok, a DIY day trip is feasible, although be aware that boats stop running around 4pm, so you’ll need to come back early.

As an alternative, you can book a Gili Island Day Tour and let someone else handle all the planning for you.

Getting Around

The Gili Islands are, more or less, a combustion engine-free zone, at least when it comes to motor vehicles. (There are lots of generators which rev to life every time the power goes out.)

sign for double rooms and a horse and cart on the road
We avoided riding in the Gili Islands horse-drawn carriages.

You have three choices for getting around the islands.

Walking. Gili Air and Gili Meno are very small, so walking is a viable option to get almost anywhere you want to go.

Bicycling. On slightly larger Gili T, bicycling is the way to go. Most resorts and guest houses have bikes for their customers – we had a lot of fun pedalling around on the islands. There pockets of deep sand and lots of oblivious tourists around, so ride carefully!

Horse-drawn carriage. At first, we thought that being chauffeured around in a horse-drawn carriage was kind of romantic. And then we thought again. For a start, with a transportation monopoly on the islands, the rates are outrageous. We weren’t going to pay more than $10 to go 1 km, thank you very much.

But, more importantly, we observed horses being beaten, over-driven, lathered in sweat, not properly watered, and looking skinny as hell. Reports vary about the treatment of these horses, and the treatment of the horses varies from owner to owner.

Sure, maybe we are stupid Westerners who just don’t understand the history or the culture, but for us, supporting this kind of animal cruelty is not OK, whether it’s tradition or not.

A Final Note About Visiting

When we first went to Bali, we avoided the Gili Islands because we expected them to be a trashy tourist trap. To some extent, that is true. There are lots of tourists on the islands and they are not a place you’re going to learn a lot about local culture.

However, for a laid-back beach escape, where you’ll find great services, lots of fab places to stay, amazing food, and a choice of great things to do, the Gili Islands are ideal.

Don’t expect an “authentic” cultural experience but do expect a fantastic place to kick back and spoil yourself for a few days.

More Bali Posts

We hope this guide helps you find the best Gili Island for your holiday. If you’ve got any questions, feel free to get in touch by email or on our Instagram account!

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