Timor Leste is the least visited country in Southeast Asia and has remained sort of hidden from the popular backpackers’ trails and routes in the region. It’s off the beaten track, it’s remote, and it’s unspoiled by mass tourism (yet).
Most people start their journeys in Dili – the capital and biggest city after arriving at the airport or, like I did, by bus from Kupang.
Do you wonder if there are any things to do in Dili? Of course! Dili offers a variety of attractions and landmarks that are worth visiting!
Here is my complete list of 23 top things to do in Dili for 2023 and beyond!
Religious Things to Do in Dili
Timor Leste is a very religious country, with 96% of people following Catholicism and almost everyone attending the Sunday Mass at their local church. It’s no wonder that there is a fair share of religious sites in the capital Dili too.
1. Cristo Rei of Dili
One of the most iconic landmarks in Dili is the Cristo Rei statue, which stands tall at 27 meters high on a hill overlooking the city, mimicking the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
It was a gift from Indonesia to Timor Leste given to the Timorese people in 1996 by President Suharto. Back then Timor Leste was an Indonesian Province (although de facto a brutal military occupation).
While initially seen as a symbol of Indonesian oppression, after independence, the Timorese have changed their stance and transformed the statue into a popular tourist attraction and a place for recreation.
To climb up close to the statue, you must pass the Way of the Cross – 14 stations that mark moments of Jesus’ day on his crucifixion. At the top, you can enjoy breathtaking views of Dili and its surrounding areas.
It’s a great spot to take pictures, especially during sunset, and one of the top things to do in Dili.
To get to Cristo Rei, take microlet #12 from Largo de Lecidere.
2. Motael Church
Motael Church is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in all of Timor Leste and is located in the heart of Dili, almost at the beach.
The Church was first built in the 18th century but got destroyed by the Japanese occupiers during the Second World War. The current building dates back to 1955.
Motael Church has a very Portuguese feel to it but hides a bloody history. In 1991 a demonstration against the Indonesians started in front of the church, where two weeks earlier an activist was shot dead.
The demonstration would a few hours later finish with the Santa Cruz Massacre and 271 killed.
3. Dili Cathedral
The Immaculate Conception Metropolitan Cathedral, commonly known as the Dili Cathedral is the second biggest cathedral in Southeast Asia after the one in Manila.
It was inaugurated on 2 November 1988 and consecrated by none other than Pope John Paul II in October 1989. You can see Pope John Paul II’s signature at the main entrance of the cathedral.
4. Statue of Pope John Paul II
While on the topic of the third longest-serving Pope in history, there’s a memorial dedicated to him in the west of Dili.
Erected in 2008, the 6-meter statue faces Cristo Rei on the other side of Dili, creating what I call a circle of protection around the capital.
Microlets #10 (from the city center) and #11 (from Comoro Bridge) go to Tasitolu, the district of Dili where the statue is.
Museums in Dili
5. Museum of East Timorese Resistance
The Resistance Museum in Dili is a must-see for anyone who is even remotely interested in learning about the troubled and extremely bloody history of Timor Leste.
The museum also doubles as an archive for the hundreds of letters, newspapers, resistance communications, meeting notes, etc. about Timorese resistance during the Indonesian Occupation.
The exhibition is incredibly well made! It’s divided and organized by years and includes hundreds of pieces of primary evidence. It only costs 1$ to enter and you can easily spend 2-3 hours there.
The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays and open from 9 AM to 4:30 PM on other days. It’s in a very central location behind the Palacio do Governo.
6. Chega! Exhibition and Balide Prison
To complete your lesson on the history of Timor Leste, head to the Chega! Exhibition, housed in the former Balide Prison.
Chega is a word in Portuguese meaning “stop” or “no more“.
Balide Prison was used by the Indonesian occupying forces to interrogate, torture, and execute Timorese, who they believed were involved in the resistance struggle for independence.
The museum is closed on Saturday and Sunday and open from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM during the week. It has no entrance fee. Microlet #1 passes in front of the museum.
7. Centro Audiovisual Max Stahl Timor-Leste
Opposite the Resistance Museum is the Audiovisual Center dedicated to Max Stahl – the brave journalist who filmed the Santa Cruz Massacre, buried the footage to hide it from the Indonesians, then smuggled it out of the country to show the world the committed atrocities.
You are free to browse the archive and there are English language clips and films available to watch.
8. Xanana Gusmão Reading Room
Dedicated to the former resistance leader and president of Timor-Leste Xanana Gusmão, this small museum has paintings, medals, some posters about WW2, and a small library.
Opening hours are Monday to Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM, and Saturday, 9 AM to 3 PM.
Free of charge, but donations are welcome by the volunteers.
9. Dare Memorial Museum and Cafe
Overlooking Dili from the nearby hills to the south, the Dare Memorial is more of a commemoration of Timor Leste’s role in WW2, than a proper museum. It pays respect to the Australian and Timorese soldiers who fought on the island against the Japanese.
Nonetheless, the place has breathtaking views of Dili! It’s a nice place to spend the afternoon sipping strong Timorese coffee.
It’s only open on the weekend between 8:30 and 18:00.
There’s no public transport that goes to the cafe, but you can either take a taxi or hitchhike.
Historical, Cultural, and Political Things to Do in Dili
10. Palácio do Governo
In English – the Government’s Palace. This is the official workplace of the Prime Minister of Timor Leste and a big part of the administration and governing bodies of the country. It was built in the early 1950s and follows the architectural style of official buildings within the Portuguese Empire.
You can enter the Palace from the left gate and see the dinosaur fossil brought from Mongolia.
In front of the Palace, next to the sea is a popular waterfront where young Dilians go to relax and socialize. Even though it’s called “Palacio Beach”, it’s not exactly suitable for sunbathing. Check out my “beaches” section for better options.
11. Santa Cruz Cemetery
The Santa Cruz Cemetery was the site of the Dili Massacre on 12 November 1991 when the Indonesian military killed 271 people for protesting the occupation.
There isn’t any information there, so I recommend you visit the Resistance Museum first to get an overview.
The cemetery is very full and walking between the graves is at times impossible.
Santa Cruz Cemetery is close to the Chega! Exhibition (15 min walk), but if you’re coming from the center, microlets #7 and #1 will take you there.
12. Taman Makam Pahlawan Seroja (Indonesian Military Cemetery)
Located just across from Santa Cruz Cemetery is the only Indonesian Cemetery outside of Indonesia.
The cemetery was created in the 1970s when Timor Leste was a province of Indonesia. It is a bit surprising that it has survived after Independence, given the brutal nature of the occupation.
The difference between the two cemeteries is striking. The graves in the Taman Makam Pahlawan Seroja are ordered in perfectly equal columns and rows.
13. Nicolau Lobato Presidential Palace
Formerly the residence of the President, this historical building is a good example of Timorese architecture. Unfortunately, as of 2023, it’s closed to the public. You can only look at it from the outside.
14. Largo de Lecidere
Okay, okay, this isn’t really neither a political, nor a historical place, but can we count it as a cultural one? Largo de Lecidere is the best-maintained park in Dili and offers a lot of shade to hide from the heat on hot days.
Talking about the heat, there are also many coconut vendors ready to chop open a coconut with a machete right in front of you. Drink the coco water, then go back to have it cracked open so you can eat the flesh too. Yes, this place deserves a spot on my list of things to do in Dili!
Markets, malls, and places to shop
15. Tais Market
The tais is the traditional textile of Timor Leste and is considered an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Tais of different colors and motifs are used in various Timorese ceremonies, festivals, and traditions. The tais also show social class and belonging to a group.
The tais are handwoven, and made of cotton dyed with natural ingredients. The art of making tais is almost exclusively reserved for women and passed down from mother to daughter.
If you can only take one souvenir with you from Timor Leste, it should be a traditional tais. The best place to buy authentic tais in Dili is the Tais Market, tucked away in a small street close to Hotel Timor.
As with all countries in Southeast Asia – negotiating the price beforehand is a must!
16. Alola Esperansa Foundation
An alternative to shopping at the Tais Market is to go to the Alola Esperansa Foundation and check out the local production center. It is a non-profit organization that helps local women by teaching them how to hand-weave Tais.
Alola Esperansa has two parts – production and retail. You can watch local women work and produce beautiful Tais or go to the next hall and purchase any of the ready fabrics.
They also sell virgin coconut oil, pottery, baskets and bags, wallets and accessories, bookmarks, candles, postcards, handmade jewelry, and even Timorese coffee.
17. Fruit and Vegetable Market
The official name of this market is Fatin Fa’an Ai-fuan. In the Tetun language ai-fuan means fruit. The market has all the locally available fresh fruits like bananas, watermelons, passion fruit, papaya, rambutan, etc.
Do note that the market is a bit overpriced as compared to smaller, more out-of-the-center markets in Dili.
18. Timor Plaza
Timor Plaza is the biggest shopping center in Dili. There’s everything you need – restaurants, food courts, shops, ATMs accepting all kinds of cards, gym, electronics, sim cards, and even a hotel.
Microlet #3 passes in front of Timor Plaza
Beaches around Dili
Dili is on the coast and surrounded by beautiful beaches. In a radius of 1 hour driving you can visit many spectacular beaches, and some of them will be all for you!
19. Jesus Backside Beach
Don’t you dare laugh! The proper name of this beach is Dolok Oan Beach, but since it’s right behind Cristo Rei of Dili, people have started calling it the Jesus Backside Beach. It’s also known as the Praia dos Portugueses as this is where Portuguese officials liked to relax before 1975 when Timor Leste was part of the Empire.
The beach has white sand, azure water and is easily reachable by microlet #12 and a 20-30 minute walk to the other side of the Cristo Rei Peninsula.
20. Cristo Rei Beach
On the other side is the more popular Cristo Rei Beach. Most locals go to this beach and you will definitely see a family or two having a picnic somewhere on it. An occasional coconut vendor may help you combat the thirst.
Every Friday and Saturday night, after sunset, there is a free screening of a movie right on the beach next to the Beachside Cafe.
21. Areia Branca Beach
Areia Branca Beach is the one before Cristo Rei if coming from Dili. The sea here is peaceful and there are many corals. There are good bars on the beach.
22. Maubara Beach
A nice beach with white sand and gentle waves. Perfect as a day trip or an overnight escape from the buzz of Dili. It’s about 40 km / 1h east of Dili.
23. One Dollar Beach
If you want a whole beach all for yourself, this one is for you. Located 40 km / 1h east of Dili, this beach offers pristine water and soft, fine sand. Best of all – it’s usually empty!
It takes its name from back in the early days of Independent Timor Leste when locals would charge 1 dollar for entry to the beach. Today it’s all free!
How to travel within Dili
The best way to travel to all the things to do in Dili is to use the microlets. There are 12 lines, each recognizable by its number.
Riding in a microlet is an experience on its own. All microlets are painted differently, have different interiors and the drivers’ taste in music is always different (although mostly Brazilian rhythms).
To hail a microlet wave your hand up and down and to get off tap a coin on the metal railing inside. All rides cost 0.25$ regardless of distance.
You can check the microlet routes here.
Where and What to Eat in Dili
Being the capital and biggest city, Dili has no shortage of places to eat.
If you’re on a budget, you can try the smaller warung-style eateries serving fried fish or chicken, rice, and the traditional lalapan (rice with vegetables, basically).
If you’re into street food you can check out the beach barbecue stands that pop up near Largo Lecidere in the evening to surprise you with just how tasty a 0.25$ meat skewer can be. Similar skewers are prepared in the night market near Timor Plaza.
If you want something more akin to fine dining, then there are a few restaurants that will satisfy your hunger for exquisite local food. A good restaurant that comes to mind is Restaurante Tavirense.
Some of the food you should try in Dili includes:
- Batar Daan: rice with pumpkin and beans. Weird, but tasty;
- Ikan bakar or Ikan sabuko: fried fish, a Dili specialty;
- Feijoada: the famous Portuguese dish made with pork and beans;
- Pastel de nata: Another Portuguese remnant, but nobody is mad – it’s a delicious dessert!
Where to Stay in Dili
Surprisingly, Dili is not a cheap place to stay! Well, it isn’t super expensive either, but also not as cheap as nearby Indonesia or its ASEAN brothers Thailand, Vietnam, etc. It is so because of the constant influx of UN personnel that fill up the rooms and keep the prices high year-round.
There are few hostels in Dili and they cost 15-20$ per night. There are many more hotels, with prices between 30-80$ for a double room.
Where to go after Dili
Another direction you can take from Dili is to go south. You can go to Maubisse, Hato Buillico, hike Mount Ramelau, the highest point in East Timor (also called Tatamailau), then go to Same in the south.
Yet another popular destination after Dili is Atauro Island. The government-owned Nakroma Ferry makes the journey between Dili and Atauro every Saturday at 9 AM and goes back at 3 PM, giving you three hours to explore.
However, it’s best if you stay a couple of nights to soak in the energy of this place. There are other ferry options and even a flight. Check them out here.
I’ll end with the hardest destination to reach in Timor Leste – the exclave of Oecussi. You can get there by an overnight ferry twice a week or a daily flight. Check the full and up-to-date schedule here.
This is my complete guide to traveling to Timor Leste.