East Timor tourism has been on the rise in the past couple of years. You’ll most likely arrive at Dili Timor Leste airport to start your journey in this tiny country. Serving as the capital of East Timor, Dili is a great home base for East Timor travel. Be sure to read East Timor Tourism – 11 Things to Know before you go. You can also check out my review of D’City Hotel in East Timor. But what is there to do here? Here are several things to do in Dili.
Cristo Rei of Dili
Located on top of a hill in northeast from Dili’s city center, this gigantic 27 meter Jesus statue on top of a globe is hard to miss! Cristo Rei of Dili was completed in 1996. It was a gift from notorious Indonesian President Suharto when East Timor was still part of Indonesia. Less than six years after its inauguration, East Timor, locally known as Timor Leste, established a referendum to become an independent country.
You can reach the top of this hill by climbing 500 steps, a favorite local workout. Unfortunately, the steps are not accessible for those with physical limitation. Be prepared to bring enough water and sweat towel. There are plenty of rest areas along the route, centered around the station of the cross.
Cristo Rei overlooks the Bay of Dili, facing west. While you may want to consider hiking it in the morning while it’s still cool, the sun will be behind the statue, so you won’t be able to get a great shot of Cristo Rei’s face. For the best picture of the face, climb up in late afternoon for the sunset across the bay.
If you happen to visit Dili in late September to early December, you’re in for a treat. The Bay of Dili is an active migration route for several species of baleen whales, so sometimes you are able to spot them in the distance. Just keep an eye on the horizon!
East Timor Resistance Museum and Archives
The East Timor Resistance Museum and Archives is a treasure trove of information and important artifacts. It highlights the East Timor genocide and the people’s’ resistance on the road to independence in 2002. Museum information is well-narrated information and written in three languages – English, Portuguese, and Tetun. Interestingly, the museum decided to not include Bahasa Indonesia, which is the working language of Timor Leste. Bahasa Indonesia still has a negative connotation, particularly for elderly East Timorese; however,the younger generation embraces it.
The museum is not for the faint of heart, and is definitely considered a dark tourism site in Dili. There are many graphic photographs, as well as artifacts like bloody clothing of victims and weapons on display. You may want to plan your visit here only if you are ready. Their official website is here.
Chega! Exhibition at the Balide Prison
Due to its turbulent independence history, there are several dark tourism destinations in Dili. Besides the East Timor Resistance Museum and Archives, another important and eerie exhibit is the nearby Chega! Exhibition. While the East Timor Resistance Museum and Archives highlights the independence history itself, the Chega! Exhibition is about violations of human rights during the 1975-1999 Indonesian occupation in East Timor.
Chega! means “no more” or “stop” in Portuguese. The exhibit is in the Balide Prison (Comarca), an active Portuguese prison when built in the 1960s. It became a notorious political prison during the Indonesian occupation. All of the gruesome photos in the exhibition happened here, within the dingy walls of the prison.
To get here, you can ask locals or your taxi driver to drop you off at the Balide Prison, Comarca, or even the “CAVR” (the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) building. Once you’re there, ask locals for the actual location of the Chega! Exhibition, as it is not well-marked and is difficult to find.
Santa Cruz Cemetery
On November 12, 1991, Indonesian troops opened fire on a group of protesters inside the enclosed cemetery compound, killing around 250 East Timorese. It was the bloodiest day in the East Timor struggle to gain independence. Many believe this event ignited the East Timor quest for independence.
Santa Cruz Cemetery is one of East Timor’s most sacred places, but it is open to visitors. It is laid out like a maze with many narrow path between graves. Sometimes, you have to uncomfortably step on or mount some of the stones to get around.
The grave to visit is the grave of Sebastião Gomes, whose funeral procession lead to the Santa Cruz Massacre. Join an organized tour, or ask locals at the cemetery for directions to his grave, as there are no signs and it is impossible to find it yourself.
Taman Makam Pahlawan Seroja
Located next to the Santa Cruz Cemetery, the Seroja National Cemetery of Indonesia (Taman Makam Pahlawan Seroja) is a significant place for Indonesians. This is the only National Cemetery located outside Indonesia. It only makes sense if you understand East Timor history.
The Cemetery was first established in the mid-1970s when Indonesia gained East Timor from the Portuguese. By the time of East Timor Independence in 2002, this cemetery was already well-established, and both governments came up with the agreement for the status of this cemetery. However, there were recent talks on re-interring the remains elsewhere, due to the plan to reuse the plot for a highway project. If this ends up being the case, they may relocate the cemetery in the next couple of years.
Dili has the second largest cathedral in Asia, after Manila’s. Indonesian President Suharto built the Cathedral to win the hearts of the East Timorese during the Indonesian occupation, although he never visited the building after its completion. You can find Pope John Paul II’s signature, instead of Suharto’s, at the Cathedral’s main entrance.
Pope John Paul II sites
Pope John Paul II visited Dili in 1989, and the East Timorese were so stoked and honored by this rare event that they built several sites to host his holy visit.
Tasitolu Altar was built using traditional Timorese architecture and it was where John Paul II addressed the crowd. In this important place, East Timor declared its independence in 2002, and the peace park in front of the altar is now the center for big public gatherings and military parades.
After the Pope’s death in 2008, a church and memorial was built on top of a nearby hill, west of Dili. There is a great view of the Bay of Dili from the top of the hill, and a 6 meter tall Pope John Paul II statue adorning the hill.
The Church de São António de Motael is the oldest Roman Catholic church in East Timor. It was rebuilt in 1955 in the old Portuguese style and served as a temporary Cathedral while the current one was still in construction. But what’s famous about the Motael Church is its significance in the turmoil of East Timor independence history, which lead to the Santa Cruz Massacre incident.
You can visit this small and peaceful church during the daytime. It offers a beautiful setting along the waterfront road.
Basar Ai-Fuan Fruit Market
In the Tetun language, “Ai-Fuan” means fruit. The official name for the fruit market is the Fatin Fa’An Ai-Fuan, and it is located along the main coastal road of Dili. You can find attractively arranged colorful fruit in a row of stalls. It’s no surprises that this market is one of the most photographed sites in Dili. Prices here depend on the time of the year or whether a particular fruit is in season. Every morning, fresh fruit arrives here from all over the country to sell.
Across the street from the market is an important building, surrounded by tall white walls and lush vegetation. This is the house of Xanana Gusmão, a national hero, who served as the first East Timor president in 2002. It’s not everyday you can see a living national hero’s house!
If you are looking for a traditional East Timor souvenir, chances are you can find it in Tais Market, Dili’s main arts and crafts market. Here, you can find many keepsakes, mainly the colorful and intricate Tais cloth, a typical hand-woven textile that is unique to the Island of Timor.
Every region of Timor Island has its own style of Tais, so ask your seller if you have a specific design or area in mind. As in the rest of East Timor, the sellers here are extremely friendly and helpful. Most importantly, they are not aggressive. You are more than welcome to come in and browse or just take pictures. It’s difficult to resist taking photos here!
Alola Esperansa Foundation
The Alola Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to help local women and their families by teaching them how to craft the beautiful hand-woven Tais textiles. It serves multiple purposes: while creating jobs that help local Timorese, the Alola Foundation also commits to maintaining the Timorese tradition of Tais crafting. You can find their mission statement on their official website.
You can visit both the Alola Esperansa production center and the sales shop. You’ll have a better appreciation of Tais textiles after seeing local women hand craft them in the production center. You can even see the design process of the pattern here.
Dili’s Main Waterfront and the Government Palace
Dili is home to several East Timor beaches worth visiting, if you are up for activities like swimming and sunbathing. Don’t expect well-developed beaches though. The upside to this is that these beaches are still pristine.
Dili also offers a great laid-back city waterfront area in front of the Palácio do Governo (Government Palace). There, you can find locals hanging out under several massive trees to escape Dili’s intense sun.
If the Chinese-built Government Palace exterior isn’t impressive enough for you, then pay a visit to the giant dinosaur bones inside the entrance hall of the palace. The fossil is from Mongolia. Former president Ramos Horta asked the Monash University of Melbourne, Australia to assemble it inside the newly-opened Palace to greet foreign dignitaries and students on school field trips. These are probably theonly dinosaur bones in the whole country, and definitely is a great addition to your “Things to do in Dili” list.
Plaza Timor Mall
Timor Plaza is a multi-use development complex. It houses the Timor Plaza Hotel, several business and stores, a movie theater, and the only shopping mall in the East Timor capital.
The shopping mall part of Timor Plaza is small and fitting for this tiny country, and one of the biggest draws to the Timor Plaza is the food court. Here, you can conveniently choose different stalls for any kind of food you like! You can buy East Timor organic coffee beans at Gloria Jean’s, where they also have many options for locally produced East Timor coffee.
You can also find a grocery store, office, and clothing stores, as well as several electronics and cellphone stores. Those are handy places for those of you looking for East Timor SIM cards.
Outside Dili – Atauro Island: Diving in East Timor
Ataúro Island is technically not part of Dili – only about 20 km north of the capital of Timor-Leste. A short boat ride will take you to there. According to a recent biological survey, the waters surrounding Ataúro Island have more species of reef fish per site than any other place on Earth. Many species of baleen whales pass through these waters during their migration season, which is in late September through December.
The East Timor government is working to establish a protected area within these waters and Ataúro Island, with the hope that ecotourism takes off in the country.
And it is a highly recommended Timor Leste diving area!
Dili Organized Tour Group
Dili is a small and packed town, and you can tour all of these Dili main attractions in a day. If you opt to join a paid tour group, Timor Adventures is highly recommended. They offer a half-day Dili tour for $48 per person. A full day trip to nearby Liquica, Maubara and Rialco to see rural East Timor is $160 for up to 4 people. They have a great staff and can speak multiple languages, including English, Bahasa Indonesia and Portuguese. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org for details and reservations.
Have you visited Dili, East Timor? Do you live there and have more places in Dili that you recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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