The heart and lungs of Jakarta, Medan Merdeka is a square kilometre of sun-scorched grass and pleasant manicured gardens in the middle of the city. At its centre stands the Monas Tower, a soaring 137-metre marble, bronze and gold torch, commissioned by Sukarno in 1962 to symbolize the indomitable spirit of the Indonesian people, and known as “Sukarno’s last erection” in recognition of his world-famous philandering. You can take a lift up to its top for an impressive city view; the ticket includes entry to the National History Museum and Goblet Yard in Monas’ basement, a series of 48 dioramas that depict the history of Jakarta and Indonesia’s struggle for independence.
The National Museum, on the western side of Medan Merdeka, is an interesting detour and a great introduction to Indonesia. Many of the country’s top ruins have been plundered for their statues, which now sit, unmarked, in the museum courtyard. Other highlights include huge Dongson kettledrums, the skull and thighbone of Java Man, found near Solo in 1936, and the cache of golden artefacts discovered at the foot of Mount Merapi in 1990.
The dazzling white, if rather unprepossessing, Mesjid Istiqlal looms over the northeastern corner of Medan Merdeka. Completed in 1978, it is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and can hold up to 250,000 people. For a donation, and providing you’re conservatively dressed, the security guards will take you on an informal tour. At the foot of the minaret sits a 2.5-tonne wooden drum from east Kalimantan, the only traditional feature in this otherwise state-of-the-art mosque.