Travel Guide to the Magical Island of Gili Air, Indonesia

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Dive into the magical world of Gili Air, one of Indonesia’s mesmerizing islands loved by both luxury and budget travelers. Read more now.

Gili Air boat and ocean blues

Seduced by stories of car-free islands, crystal clear waters, and sandy beaches, I visited Gili Air in Indonesia on a whim in December 2022. 

Arriving on the island on a tiny ferry, I fell in love the moment my feet hit the boardwalk. And you will, too. The island’s serenity is a welcome break from the chaos of backpacking life, and I almost wish I never left. 

Here’s my insider’s guide for all the best tips to enjoy one of the country’s smallest and most stunning islands to the fullest. 

About the Gili Islands 

Gili Air and other 2 Islands from a plane

The once uninhabited trio of Gili Islands (Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and Gili Air) were first populated about 200 years ago when sailors from Sulawesi, who were from the Makassar, Bugis, and Madnar ethnic groups, settled there. The plentiful supply of fish and fresh water on Gili Air made it like a siren’s song. 

The nomadic peoples cultivated the land, established coconut plantations, developed fishing communities, and built a strong trading network to bring non-native produce to the island, like papayas, mangos, and banana trees.  

Initially left unseen by travelers, the first Western explorers visited the Gili Islands in the 1980s. As Bali developed into an international tourist destination in the 1990s, the Gili Islands began attracting more visitors, too. They entice visitors with their unrivaled underwater adventures and serene atmosphere. Especially after the traffic madness of Bali because no motorized vehicles are allowed. Bicycles, horse-drawn carts, and your feet are the only transportation. 

These days, the islands prosper as a destination for luxury and budget travelers. And it’s easy to see why, with surreal views on land and underwater. 

Why Gili Air?

sunset on Gili Air with two boats in the water

Each island is stunningly beautiful, but I fell deeply in love with Gili Air for its raw, untouched feel and welcoming atmosphere. 

Gili Meno is designed for quieter travelers and families because loud music isn’t allowed in the evenings. It’s also an idyllic paradise for honeymooners. 

Gili Trawangan is great for connecting with fellow travelers, partying the night away, and as a starting point for snorkeling trips.

Gili Air just called my name. It’s an island made for nomads and sunseekers, with just enough of a party scene to escape boredom and any beachside hangovers. 

Hopping over to Gili Air from Gili Meno felt like arriving in a new world. It’s now popular with tourists but has retained a village-like charm thanks to its tiny size. You can walk around the whole island in under an hour. 

The tiny town by the port has the most intense touristy feel, but it only lasts as long as the five-minute walk to leave. Horse-drawn cart taxis hang around the port and offer rides to your accommodation for between $9 and $12. However, most resorts and hostels are reachable on foot in 20 minutes or less. 

My travel buddy and I walked. I thanked my past self for choosing a rolling suitcase instead of a backpack to travel with because the sun beat down mercilessly. With no trees to seek shade under, we stopped every few minutes to rehydrate and pant away our pain. 

The 15-minute walk to our hostel felt like an age, but we arrived to find an empty swimming pool and delicious cocktails. It immediately felt like home and the perfect destination for the other reason we had chosen Gili Air, to celebrate my friend’s birthday. 

Gili Air is an unrivaled paradise to bring in another year of joyful travel adventures. 

Gili Air’s beach

boat floating in the aqua water of Gili Air

Yes, there is technically just one beach on Gili Air because it loops around this minuscule slice of paradise. 

To differentiate between the two sides of the island, one side is nicknamed Sunset Beach and the other Sunrise Beach. 

Sunset Beach covers the eastern shore and is populated by restaurants, beach bungalows, and shops. 

Travelers will find a more tranquil atmosphere on Sunrise Beach, with fewer bars and cafes along the shore. 

I spent most of my time lounging on Sunset Beach, getting a massage in one of the nearby parlors, or leisurely swimming and chatting in the shallows. However, there are plenty of more adventurous activities to try, too, like kayaking, surfing, or kite surfing. Hostels and resorts can recommend the best spot to rent gear or take a few lessons. 

The best diving and snorkeling in Gili Air

people snorkeling at Gili Air

Aside from their natural beauty, the Gili Islands might be best known for their surreal underwater landscapes. 

I have terrible eyesight, so unless I want to pay to see an underwater blur, scuba diving and snorkeling are pointless for me. 

However, those blessed with good eyesight or a prescription mask should head to one of the island’s many reputable diving and snorkeling centers. It’s also a great place to get your scuba diving qualifications.

Most boat trips from Gili Air will include stops around all three Gili Islands. Some must-see sites include Shark Point, Manta Point or Sunset Reef, Turtle Heaven, and Simon’s Reef. 

Snorkeling lovers should take a day trip to check out the island’s top spots for spotting wildlife. Lucky swimmers can see black-tip reef sharks at Hans Reef, dive with the underwater statues offshore from Gili Meno, and look out for sea turtles at Gili Air Wall.  

Gili Air’s party scene

Gili Air chill nightlife

I arrived on Gili Air in December when there were barely any tourists, so the party vibes were more subdued than in the peak season between April and October. The atmosphere was perfect as I am not the party animal of my younger years.  

However, Gili Air does host a monthly full moon party inspired by Thailand’s Koh Pha Ngan. It’s simultaneously held on Gili Trawangan and Gili Air and is a wild experience. The location varies, so look for printed signs to find the venue. 

The island generally has a more laid-back party scene for the rest of the month. Beachside bars are usually laid back, but DJs ramp up the party a few nights a week.

Even the wildest parties on Gili Air are still quiet, though. The island simply doesn’t have enough room to accommodate the people required for parties on a grand scale. 

Pro tip: Hardcore partygoers should stick to Gili Trawangan.

Other things to do in Gili Air:

Hop on a horse

two people on horses in Gili Air

The island is a heavenly place to spend a few days doing nothing but lying on the beach, sipping cocktails, and sunbathing. Still, if that gets boring, there are a few activities to pass the time. 

I took a sunset horse ride along the coast, which I’ll never forget.  

After finishing our serene beach ride and watching the sunset, we were returning to the hotel when a giant Connect 4 game collapsed in a crash. It scared the heck out of me and my horse, which reared up in shock and dropped me on my back on the sand. 

I escaped with just a few bruises, and the horse was fine, too. Thankfully, there was a bar nearby. I grabbed a cocktail to ease the shock and watch the last of the sun’s orange rays dip beneath the sea. 

It was a unique end to the experience, but I’d still recommend it to anyone. 

Rent a bike

blonde girl on a bike in Gili Air

If horses aren’t your vibe, then how about a bike? 

Renting a bicycle for a few dollars gives you a little speed and a nostalgic kick. I felt like a little kid exploring the narrow, winding paths connecting the patchwork collection of houses, cafes, and alleys that populate the island.

Learn to cook

indonesian cooking class ingredients

Why not take a cooking class and learn about Indonesia’s delightful cuisine?

Catch a flick

 movie night on the sand

When was the last time you watched a movie under the stars? Head to Bel Air or Ombak Paradise around 8 p.m. to catch a movie on the beach.

Beach clean up

person cleaning up the plastic bottles

Leave Gili Air better than when you arrived. Invest in the island’s preservation by joining a beach clean-up with Gili Shark Conservation or Trash Hero, who work with most of the diving centers around the island. 

Treat yourself

Gili Air massage on the beach

After all that hard work, indulge in a luxurious spa day at one of the island’s many top-quality parlors, or relax at a morning yoga class on the beach at Blue Marine. 

Food on Gili Air

Indonesian food in a warung

Gili Air is a treasure trove of delicious food, which surprised me considering its tiny size. 

I found the most delicious Indonesian food in little local restaurants or warungs all over the island. 

As an island, fresh fish is always on the menu in Gili Air. I had the best fish curry of my life on the beach at a restaurant I never found the name of. 

My favorite dish was a fish dish called pepes ikan, the national dish of East Timor. Ikan means fish, and pepes refers to the Indonesian cooking technique. The fish is seasoned before being wrapped in banana leaves to be steamed or grilled on charcoal. 

My version was cooked on charcoal, and the smoky flavor added a delicious touch to the flaky fish. 

Accommodation on Gili Air

boat at sunrise in Gili Air

Accommodation on Gili Air is available for every kind of taste and budget. 

Think private villas for anywhere between $75 and $500 a night. Budget-conscious explorers can find private rooms and dorms at hostels and hotels from $10 and $30. The island also has adults-only resorts for those who want a child-free holiday. 

Gili Air Weather

drone view of Gili Air beach

Gili Air is a tropical island, so brace yourself for heat and humidity. 

Generally, the temperature on the island is between 73°F (22.7°C) and 90°F (32°C). 

The dry season is between April and October; the best time to visit is June to September. The seas are calmer, making for an easier crossing to the island and better visibility for scuba diving and snorkeling. 

The wet season between November and March is a little riskier, but the accommodation is significantly cheaper. I visited in December, and the weather was still sunny and clear, with just a little sticky humidity. It only rained for twenty minutes for the five days I was there. 

Packing list essentials for Gili Air

Gili Air sign over a swing on the water at sunset

Only bring the essentials when traveling to smaller islands like Gili Air. You’ll save yourself some hassle. Don’t forget to pack:

  • Slip-on shoes. Most places are shoe-free, so leave the trainers at home and wear slides or flip-flops. 
  • Lots of sunscreen. Protect your precious skin and pack plenty of sunscreen because it’s expensive on the island. 
  • Light and flowy clothes. Stick to wearing light layers to survive the humidity. 
  • Modest clothing. The island’s occupants are used to seeing swimsuit-wearing tourists around, but it’s respectful to cover your shoulders and upper thighs when away from the beach. 
  • Cash! ATMs can be temperamental on Gili Air. Bring plenty of money to avoid using them. 

Map of the Gili Islands and how to get there 

Getting to Gili Air is easy. 

When traveling from Bali, catch a ferry from Padang Bai Ferry Terminal or Sanur. Express ferries can be a little more expensive, but it’s possible to get there for as little as $19. The journey takes about two and a half hours, longer with rough seas.

Travelers in Lombok can catch a ferry from Bangsal Ferry Terminal for a 15-minute ride to Gili Air. 

For travel between Nusa Penida and Gili Air, take a speedboat ferry from the harbor. It’s a nearly four-hour journey, but the views make it worth it. 

FAQ

Which Gili Island is the best?

I might be biased, but for me, it’s Gili Air. It’s peaceful, has just enough of a party scene, and you can meet lots of interesting people. It is a tiny slice of heaven on earth. 

How long should I spend on Gili Air?

Backpackers don’t need more than three days on Gili Air. Three days is enough time to party, snorkel, and relax on the beach. Sunseekers looking to achieve ultimate relaxation could spend up to seven days enjoying the island’s tranquil beaches and delicious food. 

Is Gili Air affordable?

Gili Air is a great place to go for people with any budget. It has budget-friendly food and accommodation for backpackers, with affordable snorkeling trips. Luxury travelers can live it up to the fullest without breaking the bank, and budgets in the middle can have the best of both worlds. 

Posted October 26, 2023
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Hannah Shewan Stevens
Hannah Shewan Stevens is a disabled and LGBTQ+ freelance writer, editor, and sex educator. She started out as a digital content producer before transitioning into managing press and communications for charities. These days, she focuses on feature writing for international publications, specializing in sex, relationships, and health. Since leaving the UK to travel full-time as a digital nomad, she has started to explore the world of travel writing. Primarily, she is passionate about shining a spotlight on issues and topics that are rarely given an opportunity to make headlines.
Image of the author Hannah