If you’re thinking about visiting East Timor, this post is your quick travel guide to Dili and its surroundings. My goal is to provide the main information you need to start planning your trip, and all of the details below are based on my own recent travels to this country.
Of course, once you have a read, if you still have any questions, just let me know!
Travel Guide to Dili: PART 1
Travelers from the following European countries can enter East Timor without a visa for up to 90 days as a tourist: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland
For all other nationalities, you must obtain a visa, which depends on how you enter the country:
Land crossing – If you cross the land border with West Timor (Indonesia), you will need to apply in advance for a “Visa Authorization” using the government’s online visa system. You then take the visa authorization with you to the border, pay a $30 USD fee and if all goes well, you’ll get your visa to enter. This visa is usually valid for 90 days. (Indonesian and Portuguese citizens don’t need to apply in advance.)
Arrival by Air – If you plan to arrive in Dili by air, you will simply obtain the visa at the airport upon arrival. You cannot apply in advance for air arrivals. The cost is $30 USD for a visa that should be valid for up to 30 days. However, when I arrived, the immigration officer only gave me a 10 day visa for some reason so the 30 days isn’t set in stone. (Instructions on obtaining the visa are below.)
Once you step off the plane, you’ll simply walk along the above walkway to the tiny Arrivals Hall. Before you enter the building though, you should head to the small “Visa on Arrival” window on your left. If you’re from one of the countries above that doesn’t need a visa, you don’t need to visit this window. For all other nationalities, you need to go to the window and pay $30 USD for the visa. Once you pay, you’ll get a visa sticker that you take with you to immigration right inside the building.
Before standing in the immigration line, be sure to fill out an Arrival Card as they do not provide these on the plane.
Once through immigration, there’s a sole luggage carousel. After collecting your luggage, you’ll head through a very casual customs inspection (although you will need to fill out a quick customs form here in order to pass through). And then you hand the form over, walk through the door and just like that you’re outside, where drivers are waiting for incoming passengers and where you can find transportation if needed.
*Most hotels offer free airport pickup and drop-off or they can arrange it for a fee. Otherwise, from what I was told, it should cost around $10 USD for the 10 minute taxi ride from the airport to any hotel in central Dili.
The main currency in East Timor is US dollars and that is what’s used everywhere. When paying for small items, you might receive small change in the form of Timorese centavos. However, 1 centavo is equivalent to 1 US cent so it’s basically the same as using US coins.
ATMs – There are ATMs all around Dili and I had no problem taking money out of several different ones. With that said, the ANZ Bank ATMs charge a $7 USD fee (at least for US card holders) so you might want to use the other banks’ ATMs. None of the others charged me a fee.
Exchanging cash – Apart from hotels, which offered lower exchange rates, I didn’t see any other money exchange offices around Dili. However, I’m sure you could go into a bank to exchange Euros, AUD, GBP and so on.
If you need to be reliably connected to the internet during your trip, I highly recommend getting a SIM card. As my girlfriend and I both work online, we need a relatively good connection and the Wifi we experienced in our hotel and in a couple of cafes was poor at best. Often, it was not usable at all.
To obtain a SIM card, simply visit the Timor Telecom shop inside the Hotel Timor right in the city center along the water. For around $6 USD you’ll get a SIM card with a 3GB data package. This connection worked very well everywhere we went in Dili and allowed us to hotspot to our laptops to get our work done. (There is also a Timor Telecom shop in the Timor Plaza Shopping Complex.)
Travel Guide to Dili: PART 2
I did a decent amount of research before choosing a place to stay. In the end, I went with the Discovery Inn. For $70 USD per night, we had a large, comfortable room, with a slightly rundown bathroom, located right off a small courtyard. The location was excellent, only a 5 minute walk from the water and 10 minute walk from the city center. There were also plenty of restaurants and a large supermarket on the same block. The staff were incredibly welcoming and helpful and the room came with a great breakfast and free airport pickup and drop-off.
Of course, there are other options in town too, not a ton, but a good handful. You can find a couple of backpacker hostels, decently rated mid-range hotels and a luxury property or two.
One quick search for “Dili” on booking.com shows all the options on one page: Booking.com – Dili
*With this link above you’ll also save about $25 off any hotel booking.
Overall, for what you get, the accommodation prices are definitely high. However, that’s due to many reasons, such as the need to import everything, the expenses involved with offering constant electricity and maintaining the building and also the simple fact that most visitors to East Timor are business people whose companies are paying for the rooms.
We flew in from Bali where the same room I had in Dili would probably cost $15 USD per night over there! But that’s how it goes and again, there are definitely reasons why the prices are higher.
When it comes to eating, there are a decent amount of options in the city. You’ll find small local eateries, Portuguese-inspired restaurants, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, fast food and more.
We didn’t venture too far from our hotel at night, mostly because we were tired after long days out and about and there really weren’t many taxis on the road in the evenings. So we generally stayed in our neighborhood to eat dinner.
Here’s where we ate some meals:
Diya – This restaurant is attached to the Discovery Inn Hotel and while it was a bit pricey, there were some reasonably-priced items on the menu, too. The food is more western style but was very good.
Castaway – A friend of a friend that had lived in Dili a while back told me about this place and we ended up there for lunch one day. It has a huge menu with all kinds of food and everything we ate, from soup to homemade veg burgers to salads was excellent, and very well priced.
Great Wall – This cozy Chinese restaurant was a great find. Excellent food, huge portions and decent prices. One dish would be plenty for two people.
Places that we didn’t have time to eat at but that were also recommended were:
Food can naturally be a big part of travel so I would recommend doing a little research about specific places in order to figure out which eateries might be best for you. Or simply wander around and see what you find!
Walking – Getting around Dili and its surroundings was actually quite easy. First, within the city center, you can pretty much walk anywhere, if you’re there when it’s not 40C (100F) outside! There are sidewalks almost everywhere, very little traffic on the roads and you’ll end up seeing a lot more if you’re exploring by foot. And you’ll pass many people in the streets of course, most of whom will be super friendly and be up for a quick chat.
Taxi – When you need a taxi though, all you do is walk to the street and wait for one to come by. Stick out your hand and that’s it. I would always tell the driver where I wanted to go before getting in and in the beginning, I asked for the price as well. Every single time, the taxi driver quoted me exactly what the hotel staff told me is the normal fare. For a short trip, it was $2 USD and for a longer trip across the city, $3 USD. When the driver didn’t know our destination, we settled on a price based on some other landmark that was close by.
We never had any problems with taxis. They are actually quite fascinating in Dili as most of them have the front windshields almost completely covered up. Yes, they put on some kind of sticker to block out the sun but the problem is that the sticker that covers 80% of the windshield is not transparent, so it leaves only a tiny section of the window for the driver to look through. And then they stuff all kinds of circular mirrors, stuffed animals and other random things up there as well, which blocks the view even more.
Sometimes, the driver didn’t really understand where we wanted to go and didn’t even know the street names (including the main avenues) but they’re all friendly enough and dedicated to figuring it out, which we always did. I would often turn on my Google maps and simply direct the driver as we drove.
(We also took a taxi out to the famous Cristo Rei statue. This longer 20 minute trip cost $4 USD one way.)
Microlets – Within Dili and its surroundings, you also have the option of taking a microlet. These are funky, shared minivans that are typically owner-operator and run along certain routes. We took one from Cristo Rei back to an intersection near our hotel towards the end of our stay but I wish we had taken these starting on the first day! The only thing is that you need to know which van to take but once you see your van (the route number is in the window or on the side somewhere), you flag it down and get in.
When you want to get off, just yell out to the driver or push the buzzer, pay your 25 centavos on the way out and you’re good to go.
Here’s a pretty good map of the microlet routes in Dili, although it might be missing a route or two: Dili Microlet routes
Most vans are very creatively decorated and named and the drivers have their favorite tunes blasting out of the speakers, definitely making this a cultural experience worth trying out. And as more people get in to the van, it’s a perfect opportunity to interact with more Timorese that will definitely be surprised by your presence inside!
(Van #12 goes between Cristo Rei/Jesus Backside Beach and the city center, making it a great option for this trip.)
Rental Car – Apparently you can also rent a car or a car with driver but from what we heard, it’s quite pricey starting at around $100 USD per day. Also, while the roads in the city were quite good, many of the roads outside the city, especially up in the mountains, are not so good and require a 4WD vehicle, even if it looks like a main road on the map.
Travel Guide to Dili: PART 3
Within the city of Dili, there is enough to keep you busy for several days. Here’s a list of options:
Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum – This new structure is a must-visit as the exhibits inside detail the difficult history of the island and its people. We tried to visit on Saturday and even though it said it was open, it was actually closed. It seems to only be open Tuesday to Friday. Entrance was $2 USD.
Santa Cruz Cemetery – The site of a 1991 massacre, when Indonesian troops open fired on a peaceful memorial service, it’s another important place to visit to truly understand the history of this country.
Tais Market – All of the stalls here sell Tais, which is cloth made from an East Timorese traditional method of weaving. It’s well worth a visit and even though this market in the heart of the city center appears to be set up for tourists, during the hour we spent here, we were the only people walking around the two dozen stalls. The shopkeepers were friendly, the products were good quality and colorful and the prices were extremely cheap. We ended up buying two small-sized pieces of work and one larger piece (about the size of a coffee table) for a total of $25 USD.
Taibesi Market – This is the main local market and it’s located about a 10-15 minute drive out of town, at the foot of the mountains. It’s quite large and has everything you’d expect from such a market. And while there weren’t many shoppers there at all (it was basically empty), we had a great time interacting with the various vendors and learning about what they were selling. After meeting one very kind fruit seller, we decided to buy a few of the tasty red bananas he was offering. I handed over $1.00 and he just kept filling up the bag until we had 15 of those bananas. I highly recommend wandering around the market and talking to as many people there as you can!
Sunset walks – As the sun begins to go down, it’s great to head down to the water and walk along the ‘boardwalk’ or the beach in front of the Novo Turismo Resort and Spa. There’s a few vendors out there selling drinks and coconuts, a few NGO workers jogging around and plenty of benches or stretches of sand to watch the sunset over the water.
Cristo Rei – A towering statue of Jesus standing on a globe, it was built under Indonesian rule in an attempt to persuade the Timorese to abandon their desire for independence (it failed). Located at the edge of a hilly piece of land that juts out into the sea, there’s a 500 step climb from the parking lot up to the statue. I will say, the views from the statue looking back down towards the coast is beyond spectacular, making the climb up more than worthwhile.
The drive there isn’t so bad either…
Jesus Backside Beach – I have no idea what the official name of this beach is but it often is referred to as Jesus Backside Beach because it is the beach located behind the Jesus statue. When you walk back down from the statue towards the parking lot, about half way down you’ll find some steps leading off to the left. Take those steps and in a couple of minutes you’ll be on a beautiful white sand beach! The beach was very empty when we were there, with maybe 5 or 6 locals hanging out, too. There are no facilities, shops or food…it’s just a relatively untouched, super picturesque beach to enjoy, with warm turquoise water and some goats wandering around the sand as well.
There’s another beach opposite the parking lot of the Cristo Rei statue but that one is right next to the road and didn’t look nearly as impressive as the huge stretch of white sand on the other side.
DAY TRIPS / EXCURSIONS
Getting out of Dili is also easy. There are local buses and also the possibility of hiring a guide/driver for a day trip, or longer. Since we had limited time, we hired a local guide, Julio, through Timor Adventures and he was excellent. He really gave us a great deal of insight into every aspect of life in East Timor and was ready to answer every question we had with statistics, personal stories and endless details about the history, politics and social situation of the country.
Gleno – Julio took us out into the mountains, through the coffee plantations and over to the very quiet town of Gleno. We had a chance to hang out at the Gleno market where, once again, we met super friendly people everywhere we turned. There were no other foreigners here and it seemed like anyone we made eye contact with gave us a big smile and wanted to interact in some way. I could have spent a couple of days in this town, just for the interactions alone.
Liquica – Coming back out of the mountains, we drove down the coast to the small town of Liquica where we had lunch along the beach and then walked along the sand (again, we were the only people around, with nobody else on this long stretch of beach).
Maubara – From Liquica we continued further down the coast to Maubara, home of an old Portuguese fort. And even though it’s just the outer walls that are still standing, there’s a small little shop and restaurant inside those walls that is run by a local women’s cooperative. It’s a good place for a coffee, meal or to purchase some hand-made local items at, again, very inexpensive prices. The town also has a small market across from the fort and another stretch of beach without a soul on it.
While the towns themselves might not seem like the most fascinating places on Earth, they are all worth visiting nonetheless. When traveling to East Timor, the experience is all about learning – about the people, the history and the current situation. And the best way to do that is to simply get out there, travel around and try to interact with as many Timorese as you can.
All of the people we came across were simply wonderful. Huge smiles, enthusiastic thumbs ups and always a willingness to communicate, despite any language barrier. This is what greeted us every single day, everywhere we went. This is also what made this trip so unique and rewarding.
For more reading about my travels to East Timor, here’s another post I wrote: What It’s Like to Travel to East Timor
I hope this travel guide to Dili was useful and I wish you a great trip!
Any questions? For those familiar with East Timor, any additional information or advice that I can add to this travel guide to Dili?