One of the first things you’ll notice about the Indonesian capital is that it has somehow managed to keep the hordes of tourists that head to Bali and Lombok at bay.
In fact, you might not see another international traveller the entire time you’re in town. This can be both a blessing and a curse, but if you take the time to explore ‘The Big Durian’ (as it is affectionately known) you’ll experience an increasingly complex, sophisticated and fascinating megalopolis — where the speed of development is matched only by the enthusiasm and vitality of the local population.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Jakarta.
Jakarta has a long and complex history. From its Dutch colonial days (when it was known as Batavia) the city has acquired some stately architecture, not to mention a significant portion of its vocabulary.
For top historical things to do in Jakarta, head for Kota Tua (Jakarta Old Town) where you’ll find plenty of background at the Maritime Museum, the Museum Bank Indonesia (it’s a bit of a process to gain entry, so plan ahead) and the excellent History Museum (Museum Fatahillah).
The National Monument was the vision of Sukarno, the Republic of Indonesia’s first president and marks the country’s independence from the Dutch. If you catch the train to or from Kota Tua you will certainly pass it, but it’s worth actually spending some time exploring the area, if only for the fact that in such a densely populated city there is so much open space and a pedestrian-friendly square.
Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Moslem population, and unsurprisingly, mosques play a central role in the cultural life of the capital. Istiqlal Mosque is the largest in Southeast Asia and a tranquil haven in the midst of the bustling city.
Across the way, the beautiful Catholic Cathedral is a symbol of the pluralistic nature of Indonesian society (Indonesia also has the second largest Christian population in Southeast Asia).
Tie everything together at the National Museum, which celebrates centuries of cultural heritage.
For some local colour, head to Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, which features a tangle of produce markets, authentic food stalls and trinket stands that are bound to capture your attention, and possibly your rupiah.
In Jakarta you are never far from a retail experience. In fact, shopping — or perhaps more accurately, window shopping — could very easily be considered the city’s unofficial favourite pastime.
There are monuments to consumerism across the city, ranging from the very basic flea market to the ultra chic and shiny mall. At Grand Indonesia you will find all the standard chain stores like Gap, Zara and H&M. For all your bargain needs head to Blok M.
If you suddenly find yourself in the market for a gramophone or an antique diving helmet, Jalan Surabaya is the place to go.
There are many fabulous places to eat in Jakarta, but Café Batavia is famous and it’s easy to see why. As you step inside, you are instantly transported to another time. Downstairs is a lounge bar that is still home to live music, while upstairs you can eat a deconstructed gado gado while looking at the mind-bending street performers in the square below. Make this a ‘must-try’ during your visit.
While not a uniquely Indonesian phenomenon, luxury hotel brunches in Jakarta are legendary. Most offer an amazing array of Western and Asian canapés, entrees, mains and desserts. Two of the best options are Hotel Mulia and the Kempinski.
For relaxing things to do in Jakarta like a massage or spa treatment, there are plenty of salons lining the streets. However, if you don’t want to contend with the traffic, motorbike transport company GoJek has branched out into providing mobile massages and cream baths (an Indonesian hair treatment specialty). They’ll come to you at your hotel.
Kids will love the Pondok Indah Water Park, complete with slides, an Olympic-sized pool and a surf machine. The hardest part will be dragging them away at closing time.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Jakarta? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Samantha Wasson is a Sydney-based freelance writer and former educator whose heart remains in Vietnam, where she lived for three years. Samantha has travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and the United States, with a brief sojourn in Africa. Highlights from her international escapades include studying German in Freiburg, volunteering with an elephant rehabilitation project outside Chiang Mai and travelling by motorbike through the Mekong Delta. A lover of literature and travel, Samantha subscribes to Augustine of Hippo’s observation that ‘the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’.