Things to do in Jakarta
I spend a lot of time in Jakarta waiting. This isn’t a city that moves quickly and the locals are used to it.
But for visitors, it’s a bit of a shock. The big question is, though, is it worth waiting for?
As I sit in traffic while the bus moves slowly forward metre by metre, I see Jakarta residents in the back of taxis reading books, playing video games, working on laptops.
They lead so much of their lives in traffic that daily commutes are now just an extension of the work or home.
I have arrived here unprepared, though, and so I use the time in traffic from the airport after my Garuda Indonesia flight from London to stare out the window and try to get a sense of Indonesia’s capital city.
On the face of it, it is a sprawling and perhaps never-ending jumble of a concrete jungle.
I count the shopping malls – apparently there are about 150 of them in the city these days – and am amazed by the enormous housing projects where tall apartment buildings rise from basic low density suburbs to form an interconnected mini-city.
Jakarta is one of the most populous urban areas in the world with more than 28 million residents in the Greater Jakarta region. It is still growing and local authorities estimate that each year 90,000 new cars and 320,000 new motorbikes are put on the streets.
The government of Jakarta is aware of the problem it has with a large population and inadequate infrastructure. Ambitious and expensive projects are underway to build a subway system and flyovers at major intersections.
These projects still have a few years until completion, though, and so I’m left staring out the window for now.
From a tourist’s perspective, this is a major issue. The first impressions of Jakarta are of a long drive in from the airport with poor traffic, a crowded and confusing city, and no obvious reason for visiting (Indonesia’s greatest attractions are spread out elsewhere in the archipelago).
There must be more to it than this, surely?
Scratch a little bit below the superficial and the truth starts to reveal itself. It is impossible to have a city of this size without a plenitude of things to do.
And, because Jakarta is usually not on the radar of tourists, there’s an authenticity to much of it that is hard to avoid.
Dutch colonial influences stand alongside those of the dominant Islam religion, while cultural traditions from the diverse Indonesian islands meld with the Western comforts of the expat community.
There is also a burgeoning middle class in Jakarta and this has led to an explosion of recreational facilities catered to this market. Shops, restaurants, nightclubs and theme parks have helped the city become more of an enjoyable city to visit.
To tackle Jakarta – and ‘tackle’ is the most apt word – it helps to know where to start.
With that in mind, I spent quite a few days trying to get to know the city. These are my suggestions for getting most out of a visit to Indonesia’s daunting but stimulating capital city.
You can’t overlook the food in Jakarta, where dishes from across the archipelago have come together over the centuries and have now been joined by cuisines from the whole world.
A restaurant chain called Sate Khan Senayan has locations across the city serving excellent quality Indonesian food. There’s also street food on almost every corner where you can get a decent meal for about a dollar.
If you’re worried about hygiene, try the evening street food market at the Menteng shops which has regulation to ensure health standards. It’s right near where I stayed on this trip – an excellent five star heritage hotel called The Hermitage.
More upmarket restaurants serving everything from French to Chinese food can be found near all major hotels including some by Michelin-starred chefs.
Hotels themselves have great options rivalling some of the best restaurants in the world and the Sunday buffet brunches are a popular option for expats.
National Monument area
To see the sights in Jakarta, the best place to start is the area around the National Monument. Here you will find the ultimate blend of the city’s history.
The National Monument itself is a 137 metre high obelisk with a flame sculpture covered with 50 kilograms of solid gold foil at the top. It was commissioned to celebrate Indonesia’s independence and it’s possible to go to the top for views across the city.
Across the street is the National Museum which has exhibits from cultures across the archipelago country. It covers the colonial history in the context of how it affected local populations and also offers information about the natural history of Indonesia.
The Presidential Palace is on one of the streets that form the border of the National Monument park and nearby are the Istiqlal Mosque and National Cathedral which face each other across a road.
The mosque is the largest in Southeast Asia and offers guided tours for free to visitors.
The Old Town of Jakarta is also known as Kota Tua. It is north of the National Monument and is full of heritage buildings from the Dutch colonial years.
I felt it wasn’t quite as large or charming as you might expect but it does provide a good insight into how the city looked for many centuries.
The main buildings around the central square are mostly museums – including exhibitions on puppets, ceramics and Jakarta’s history. The Museum Maritime and Museum Bank Indonesia are also in this area and easily accessible by foot.
None of them are spectacular but they are an interesting way to spend an afternoon.
Colourful bikes are available for rent in the main square of the Old Town but you cannot go too far with them before you hit traffic that encourages you to turn back.
If you need a rest, the Batavia Café is the best option for food in a heritage building.
In Jakarta, it seems shopping is the national hobby. I’m convinced half the cars on the city’s streets would disappear if residents here stopped driving to the malls.
As mentioned earlier, there are about 150 malls across Jakarta with an explosion of new sites opening just in the past few years.
For the avid shopper, it is possible to find anything you want – much of it at reasonable prices.
Designer items which have been imported from overseas are still quite expensive but it is possible to get excellent deals on clothes and accessories at most of the major malls. It’s common for people to travel to Jakarta just for shopping expeditions.
The smaller malls and shopping complexes around Chinatown are your best bet for electronic items or uncommon gadgets. In fact, a visit to Chinatown just to do some odd window-shopping is worth it in itself – and it’s right in between National Monument and the Old Town.
Jakarta has a reputation as the best nightlife city in Asia. Certainly, compared to other cities I’ve visited in the region, one of the advantages it has is that it’s not full of tourists.
The mix of upper class locals and Western expats gives the bars and nightclubs of Jakarta a hospitable and familiar atmosphere.
The first stop for any visitor to Jakarta wanting to experience the nightlife has to be the Skye Bar. On the 56th floor of a skyscraper, it offers amazing views of the city with a comfortable and stylish bar.
Other good options are Potato Head for the earlier part of the evening and Dragonfly for the early part of the morning.
The most dynamic part of the city for clubbing is around Kemang with popular haunts like Barcode.
Kemang has the advantage that many of the venues are close together and it’s easy to move between them throughout the night.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN JAKARTA
Although there are a few good areas to stay in Jakarta, I would recommend Menteng for most visitors.
The friendly staff and evening entertainment are just part of the appeal at Konko Hostel, which is also clean and modern.
With its colonial-style architecture, Hotel Des Indes Menteng offers more than the standard budget hotel, plus it’s got a great free breakfast.
There’s a wonderful mix of modern and old charm and The Hermitage, where its garden and pool feel like an oasis in the busy city.
With a beautiful panoramic view of the city, the Park Hyatt also has large rooms, modern facilities, and a lovely outdoor pool.