South East Asia has long been one of the world's most popular regions for travellers, with Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City topping wish lists. Until now. In recent years, a number of other Asian cities have emerged as unlikely hot-spots. This includes Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, where a riverfront redevelopment project has transformed the city. But hot on its heels as the hip new destination for Western travellers is Jakarta, Indonesia's sprawling, vibrant capital.
Once regarded as a skyscraper-filled metropolis with little to offer tourists, the city's undergone a major transformation, thanks to a slew of luxury hotel openings, a blossoming bar scene and government efforts to enhance the city's appeal, from monthly car-free Sundays to the shiny new Mass Rapid Transport system. Here's why Indonesia's capital should be on your hit list this year.
Jakarta's annual Jazz festival brings in the big names every March © Tamara Hinson
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Why Jakarta might just be Asia's most underrated city
When people talk about Jakarta's comeback, they'll most likely point out its brilliant bar scene as proof, closely followed by its live music scene. Jakarta is Asia's jazz capital – there's an annual festival (Java Jazz, in March) and some brilliant jazz bars. Take Prohibition Asia, a Sinatra-worthy speakeasy-style bar accessed via a toilet cubicle; cocktails are inspired by prohibition-era tipples, and the negronis are legendary.
Another reason we love Jakarta? It's got one of Asia's oldest Chinatowns, also known as Glodok. Head to its smoky, fragrant Vihara Dharma Bhakti temple (built in 1650) to admire the ornate roof, complete with carved, pearl-eating dragons. Afterwards, wander down nearby Petak Sembilan, a narrow market street. It's not for the squeamish, however – goods on sale range from live frogs and hamsters to huge joints of meat and fresh fish. A short walk will take you to Fatahillah Square in Jakarta's old town, otherwise known as Old Batavia. Locals come here to rent one of the eye-wateringly bright pink and green bicycles from the vendors surrounding the square, before nervously embarking on a few laps. Join in the fun by hiring one – your wheels will come with an equally bright straw hat.
Neon bikes are a regular fixture at Fatahillah Square © Tamara Hinson
There are also plenty of quieter neighbourhoods to escape to when the city's hustle gets too much. One of our favourites is Kemang, a couple of miles from the centre. You'll find plenty of art galleries and independent boutiques here, such as Tulisan, famous for its homeware and traditional Indonesian fabrics. And when you've shopped 'til you've dropped, there are plenty of hip coffee shops for some much-needed time out. Chief Coffee, with its art-filled walls and New York loft-inspired decor, is a favourite with both locals and ex-pats.
Must-do activities in Jakarta
First things, first. Jakarta is huge, so be prepared for some serious pavement pounding. You can ease the strain by using Grab - Indonesia's ride-sharing service. And although locals will moan about the traffic, the roads only become truly clogged during rush hour. But we digress. Essential sights in the city include MACAN, or the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (try saying that after too many Bintang beers). It's Indonesia's first modern art museum, and there's a packed calendar of temporary exhibitions alongside some brilliant permanent ones – within months of opening, the gallery announced an exhibition by legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. We also love the Museum Bank Indonesia, with its collections of currencies from every country in the world, and the imaginatively curated exhibits focusing on the country's financial history.
Colourful horses and carts in Merkdeka Square © Tamara Hinson
Then there's the National Monument, a 132-metre sword-like structure representing Indonesia's struggle for independence. You'll find it in Merdeka Square, a huge, grassy park in Jakarta's centre. It's a great place for a stroll, though if you're struggling with the humidity you can hop into one of the impossibly ornate horse-drawn carriages lined up by the entrance. From the park, it's just a short walk to the National Museum of Indonesia – simply look for the building that resembles a huge Greek temple. Its numerous galleries, spread over four floors, cover everything from ethnology to archaeology. A great place to take time out is the central courtyard, with its collection of priceless stone carvings.
Where to eat in Jakarta
Indonesia has some of the best street food in Asia, and it's wonderfully cheap, too. In Jakarta, you'll find the best dishes at warungs – tiny, often family-fun restaurants and stalls and pedagang kaki lima – wheeled street food carts. Chinatown is a brilliant option due to the sheer range of cuisines on offer, while the open-air Gading Food City has food stalls specialising in Indonesian, Chinese, Korean and western cuisine, and there's live music, too. Local favourites include kerak telor (spicy omelette), bebek goreng (fried duck) and of course satay, a dish which originated here in Java.
Fine dining is also taking off in Jakarta. For high-end Chinese fare, head to Hakkasan at the Alila in the Central Business District. Namaaz Dining, in the district of Kebayoran Baru, is Indonesia's first molecular gastronomy restaurant. It's become famous for its multi-course tasting menu, which changes every six months. It's delicious but bizarre – on a recent menu, highlights included a marshmallow and popcorn dish re-imagined as a smoking ashtray.
Jakarta's fine dining scene is on the up © Tamara Hinson
Where to stay in Jakarta
Jakarta's top hotel is the beautiful (and famous), art-filled Raffles hotel, with its spectacular rooftop garden, complete with sculpture-lined running track (opt for a garden-view room for the best views of the greenery). The breakfast, served in the Arts Café restaurant, is regarded as the best in town. The spread includes everything from dumplings and doughnuts to curries and omelettes. We also love the fact that the hotel is connected to the enormous Lotte Shopping Avenue, a retail therapy paradise where you'll find high street brands along with quirkier stores, such as Tony Moly for cute Korean cosmetics and the weird and wonderful Miniso, best described as a Japanese pound store (and a great spot for cut price kids' toys). There's a number of exciting hotel openings on the horizon, too. An Alila (complete with a Hakkasan restaurant) opened in early 2019, and a Waldorf Astoria, Langham and St Regis will open their doors in 2020.
The opulent lobby at the Raffles hotel © Tamara Hinson
Heading further afield?
The beauty of Jakarta is that it makes a great base for explorations further afield in South East Asia. It's a 90-minute flight to Bali, a 95-minute flight to Singapore and a 90-minute flight to Ho Chi Minh. Back in Java, Bogor, a mountain-backed city famous for its neoclassical Istana Bogor (Bogor Palace) and botanical gardens, is an hour's train journey away. And then there's Puncak, with its tea-plantation covered hills and mist-shrouded mountains, a two-drive from the city and a popular weekend getaway for Jakartans. We recommend spending the night at the Gunung Mas Tea Estate, where you can sign up for tours of the plantation.
Header Image: An arial view of Jakarta by night © Jakarta Tourist Board