One of the world’s greatest Ctiy, Jakarta is a dynamic city of daunting extremes that’s developing at a pace that throws up challenges and surreal juxtapositions on every street corner. An organism unto itself, this is a town in the midst of a very public metamorphosis, and despite the maddening traffic, life here is lived at an all-out pace, driven by an industriousness and optimism that’s palpable. Dysfunction be damned. Translation: it’s no oil painting, yet beneath the unappealing facade of new build high-rises,
relentless concrete and gridlocked streets, fringed with rickety slums and shrouded in a persistent blanket of smog, Jakarta has many faces and plenty of surprises. Its citizens – even the poorest among them – are remarkably good-natured and positive, and compared to many of the world’s capitals, crime levels are low. From the steamy, richly scented streets of Chinatown to North Jakarta’s riotous, decadent nightlife, the city is filled with unexpected corners. Here it’s possible to rub shoulders with Indonesia’s future leaders, artists, thinkers, movers and shakers in a bohemiancafe or a sleek lounge bar and then go clubbing till dawn and beyond, the sober desires of current lawmakers notwithstanding.
Jakarta’s earliest history centres on the port of Sunda Kelapa, in the north of the modern city. When the Portuguese arrived it was a bustling port in the last Hindu kingdom of West Java, but they were driven out in 1527 and the city was renamed Jayakarta, meaning ‘victorious city’.
At the beginning of the 17th century the Dutch and English jostled for power in the region, with the Dutch prevailing. The city was renamed Batavia and made the capital of the Dutch East Indies, as Amsterdam-style houses and canals were constructed. By 1740 ethnic unrest lead to the massacre of 5000 Chinese, and virtually the entire community was subsequently moved to Glodok, outside the city walls. Dutch colonial rule came to an end with the Japanese occupation in 1942 and the name Jakarta was restored.
Despite its nooks of fun and culture, to the uninitiated Jakarta can feel overwhelming and its gifts inaccessible. Kota is where they’re easy to find. The old town of Batavia, now known as Kota, was the hub of Dutch colonial Indonesia. Today, it’s a faded vision of a once-grand empire, replete with crumbling historic buildings and stinky canals where handicrafts and art are sold on the street. Some of the whitewashed Dutch colonial buildings have been turned into museums and cavernous cafes as elegant as they are lazy, often with good tunes on the stereo, but with so many fine old structures still vacant there remains loads of room for growth. Taman Fatahillah, Kota’s central cobblestone square,
surrounded by imposing colonial buildings including the former town hall, is where you can get your bearings. A block west of the square is Kali Besar, the great canal along Sungai Ciliwung (Ciliwung River), lined with once-grand homes of the wealthy, most built in the early 18th century. Check out the red-tiled facade of Toko Merah, the former home of Governor General van Imhoff. At the northern end of Kali Besar is the last remaining Dutch drawbridge, the Chicken Market Bridge, which dates from the 17th century. Walking along the canal to the restored drawbridge, you’ll see real life unfold. Bemo (minibus) drivers getting massages, playing chess, and eating bakso (meatball soup) curbside before their shift.
Laundry drying on the railings. Here are garbage dumps and florists, and all manner of cottage industries half-hidden behind courtyards of relics. This is Jakarta’s subsistence poetry of struggle and will. To reach Taman Fatahillah, take the busway Korridor I from Blok M or Jl Thamrin to Kota train station and walk. Trains from Gondangdia, near Jl Jaksa, also run here. A taxi will cost around 40,000Rp from Jl Thamrin.
What to do
Museum Bank Indonesia
One of the nation’s best, this museum is dedicated to the history of Indonesia from a loosely financial perspective, in a grand, expertly restored, neoclassical former bank headquarters that dates from the early 20th century. All the displays (including lots of zany audiovisuals) are slickly presented on flatscreens and engaging, with exhibits about the spice trade and the financial meltdown of 1997 (and subsequent riots) as well as a gallery dedicated to currency, with notes from virtually every country in the world.
Openings hours: 8am-3.30pm Tue-Thu, 8-11.30am & 1-3.30pm Fri, 8am-4pm Sat & Sun
Museum Sejarah Jakarta
Also known as Museum Kesejarahan Jakarta, the Jakarta History Museum is housed in the old town hall of Batavia, a stately Dutch colonial structure that was once the epicentre of an empire. This bell-towered building, built in 1627, served the administration of the city and was also used by the city law courts. Today, it’s a poorly presented museum of peeling plasterwork and lots of heavy, carved ebony and teak furniture from the Dutch period. But you will find the odd exquisite piece, such as the stunning black granite sculpture of Kali, a Hindu goddess associated with death and destruction. There are longstanding plans to renovate the museum, but work had been delayed at the time of research.
Openings hours: 9am-3pm Tue-Sun
This puppet museum has one of the best collections of wayang puppets in Java and its dusty cabinets are full of a multitude of characters from across Indonesia, as well as China, Vietnam, India, Cambodia and Europe. The building itself dates from 1912. There are free wayang performances here on Sunday at 10am. Be warned: we have received reports of a scam involving freelance guides who pressure people into making exorbitant purchases after a tour of the exhibits
If a centre for this sprawling city had to be chosen, then Merdeka Square (Lapangan Merdeka) would be it. This huge grassy expanse is home to Sukarno’s monument to the nation, and is surrounded by a couple of museums and some fine colonial buildings
The National Museum, built in 1862, is the best of its kind in Indonesia and an essential visit. The enormous collection begins around an open courtyard stacked with magnificent millennia old statuary including a colossal 4.5m stone image of a Bhairawa king from Rambahan in Sumatra, who is shown trampling on human skulls. The ethnology section is superb, with Dayak puppets and wooden statues from Nias sporting beards (a sign of wisdom) plus some fascinating textiles. Over in the spacious new wing there are four floors with sections devoted to the origin of mankind in Indonesia, including a model of the Flores ‘hobbit’.
There’s also a superb display of gold treasures from Candi Brahu in Central Java: glittering necklaces, armbands and a bowl depicting scenes from the Ramayana. The Indonesian Heritage Society organises free English tours of the National Museum, at 10.30am on Tuesdays, and on Thursdays at 10.30am and 1.30pm. Tours are also available in French, Japanese and Korean and at other times; consult the website for the latest schedule.
Just east of Merdeka Sq, Lapangan Banteng has some of Jakarta’s
highlighted by geometrically grated windows, was designed by Catholic architect Frederich Silaban and completed in 1978. The mosque has five levels, representing the five pillars of Islam; its dome is 45m across and its minaret tops 90m. During Ramadan more than 200,000 worshippers can be accommodated here. Non-Muslim visitors are welcome. You have to sign in first and then you’ll be shown around by an English-speaking guide
Ingloriously dubbed ‘Sukarno’s final erection’, this 132m-high National Monument, which rises into the shroud of smog and towers over Merdeka Sq, is both Jakarta’s principal landmark and the most famous architectural extravagance of the former president. Begun in 1961, Monas was not completed until 1975, when it was officially opened by Suharto. The monument is constructed from Italian marble, and is topped with a sculpted flame, gilded with 35kg of gold leaf. Entrance to the monument is via an underground tunnel behind it as you approach from the park entrance.
Openings hours: 8.30am-5pm
Price: 5,000Rp – to reach the top 10,000Rp
Jakarta has real retail appeal. The capital has handicrafts from across the nation, gargantuan malls stuffed with big brand and luxury labels (though prices are rarely a bargain) and lots of galleries full of interesting contemporary art and design goods. Jl Kebon Sirih Timur, just east of Jl Jaksa, has a number of shops that sell antiques and curios. Because of the traffic in Jakarta, it is best not to try to cover too much ground. You could end up seeing a lot of exhaust fumes and no shop windows.
This mall is centrally located and very classy, with a wide selection of stores that includes leading Indonesian design boutiques and the likes of Cartier and Lacroix. Check out Toko Ampuh for local medicines and remedies and Batik Karis for high-quality Indonesian batik. In the basement there’s an excellent, inexpensive food mall.
This luxury mall contains a tempting plethora of luxury fashion outlets, good local and international restaurants, and a cineplex.
Drinking & Nightlife
If you’re expecting the capital of the world’s largest Muslim country to be a sober city with little in the way of drinking culture, think again. Bars are spread throughout the city, with casual places grouped around Jl Jaksa, fancy-pants rooftop lounge bars and beer gardens in central and south Jakarta, and many more places in between. Cafe culture has really taken off in the last few years. All the malls have a Starbucks (or an Indo clone) selling extortionately priced coffee, but there are some very interesting and quirky local cafes emerging, too. The recent national crackdown on selling beer and alcohol has cost some restaurants their liquor licence and the ban on selling beer from minimarts was still in effect in Jakarta in 2015, even while the law was reversed in Bali. We’d heard of long-time expats having to purchase their home Bintang stash from the storage area of their favourite supermarket. On top of that, the so-called no-fun initiative capped closing time of all bars and clubs at midnight, although enforcement has been lax thus far.
Set on the top floor of Kosenda Hotel, here is a lovely rooftop garden bar that manages to be both understated and dramatic. There’s a vertical garden, ample tree cover, plenty of private nooks flickering with candlelight and a vertigo-inducing glass skylight that plummets nine floors down. It has a tasty bar menu, electronica thumps at a perfect volume, and the crowd is mixed local and expat. Weekends can get overly crowded. Midweek it’s an ideal datenight rendezvous.
Hours – 5pm-1am Sun-Thu, to 2am Sat & Sun
Brilliant warehousestyle bar-bistro with remarkable artistic decor (including a vertical garden, lots of statement art and vintage seating) that also promotes music and cultural events. Great cocktails, great grub, great concept. Check the website for upcoming shows.
Occupying a minimalist, corrugated-tin prefab structure with walls scrawled in evocative street art, an island bar huddled with colourful bar stools, and rotating DJs, this is the new cool spot in Kemang and it draws a regular, mixed Indo and expat crowd.
Hours – 5pm-2am Mon-Thu, to 4am Fri & Sat
A great neighbourhood bar, Tree House is an intimate hang-out on a Kemang backstreet with rotating art exhibitions and classic funk, soul and hip-hop on the sound system.
hours – 4pm-midnight Tue-Thu & Sun, to 3am Fri-Sat
A classic British-style pub in the heart of Kemang, with a pool table, welcoming atmosphere and filling international and Indian grub. Service is prompt and friendly, the beer’s cold and there’s live music on weekends. It’s a key older expat hang-out.
High tea or cocktails? You can have both, plus a divine Indonesian dinner in between at this re-imagined Dutch colonial, once Batavia’s fine arts centre (it showed works of Van Gogh, Picasso, Chagall and Gauguin in its day). It remains a room filled with art. The main Pangeran Diponegoro Room, replete with wall-sized canvases, is where you’ll have traditional tea service with an Indonesian twist. Or come a bit later and enjoy a drink in the red-lit Susie Wong lounge, named and inspired by the infamous Hong Kong madame.
This classy restaurant doubles as an evocative place for a cocktail, a cool Bintang or a coffee.
Backpackers be prepared: Jakarta lacks good budget options, so book ahead or consider a midrange option (which are plentiful). At the luxury end of the market, there are some excellent deals with four-star hotels available from as low as US$70 per night.
Jalan Jaksa Area
Once Jakarta’s backpacking hub, though travellers are thin on the ground these days, probably because most hotels on Jl Jaksa are grungy if not sleazy. That said, you will find a selection of restaurants and bars, as well as some terrific midrange options on nearby Jl Wayid Hasim and Jl Sabang. The location, near Jl Thamrin (for the busway) and Gambir train station, remains excellent.
Hip but not overbearing, minimalist and modern but comfortable, rooms aren’t huge but they are very clean and tastefully designed with wall-length built-in desks, floating beds and glass-box baths. Prices are a steal when offered on booking websites. It does a lovely breakfast buffet, makes excellent coffee, has a good 24-hour restaurant in the lobby and a superb rooftop bar. price – from 750,000Rp
A moderately priced hip hotel. Rooms are smallish but nicely styled, with a pleasing pastel colour scheme. We love the steep weekend discounts, in-house minimart and excellent location.
Price – r from 550,000Rp
Looking like a cross between an alpine mountain lodge and a pagoda, Cipta is not fabulous, but its clean, carpeted rooms with wood furnishings are comfortable and bright enough, and bathrooms sparkle. Weekend discounts plummet to 330,000Rp. If you can book at
that price, you’ll be thrilled.
Price – 580,000Rp
Cikini & Menteng
Cikini (south) and Menteng (southeast) of Jaksa have a selection of decent midrange hotels, a guesthouse or two and some excellent restaurants and cafes.
Set in a mini-mall, this hostel – run by a helpful and friendly Irish/English/Sumatran There’s a relaxed, sociable atmosphere, a pool table and TV room, a guests’ kitchen and roof garden. Dorms are tight but clean; breakfast is included. It’s tricky to find, but located right opposite the Ibis Budget Hotel. price – 125,000-160,000Rp, 280,000Rp
Gondia International Guesthouse
This modest-looking guesthouse, with hostel-esque signage, occupies a leafy garden plot on a quiet suburban street and has spacious tiled rooms. Breakfast included.
Price – 400,000-500,000Rp
Ibis Budget Hotel
A modern 3-star hotel in a good location. It’s institutional but clean, with flat-screen TVs and wi-fi. Downstairs there are several restaurants, a minimart, and you’ll find a huge pool right behind the hotel.
Price – from 571,000Rp
Hotel Indonesia Kempinski
Formerly Hotel Indonesia, Jakarta’s original luxury hotel, this renovated and re-imagined beauty still delivers the glamour. Upper-level rooms are huge with tasteful rugs and black wood floors. sumptuous marble baths, glass desks, ergonomic desk chairs, wood furnishings, quality linens and firm beds.
Price – from 2,500,000Rp