Bounded to the north by the Java Sea and the south by the low Bogor Hills, Indonesia’s overwhelming capital, Jakarta, has long been the focus of the country’s changing political face, most dramatically with the student-led demonstrations against Suharto in 1998. Indonesia’s most populous city, it has grown from 900,000 inhabitants in 1945 to well over thirteen million (and more than twenty million if you take into account the greater urban region known as Jabotabek). Emblematic of the nation’s most striking contrasts, the capital sprawls over 661 square kilometres of northern Java in an amalgam of glamorous shopping malls, colonial-era relics, upscale neighbourhoods and slums spread beneath a soaring skyline. While few foreign visitors find the city as alluring as the local population does, there is no better place to glimpse the modern face of Indonesia. Among the city’s highlights are Kota in the north, the former heart of the old Dutch city, and the neighbouring Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s bustling old port. Both districts are dotted with historic buildings, including a few of the country’s finest museums, among them the Maritime Museum, the Wayang Museum and the National Museum.
To head from north to south through the centre of Jakarta is to go forward in time, from the quaint old Dutch area of Kota in the north, to the modern golf courses and amusement parks in the south. Medan Merdeka, a giant, threadbare patch of grass, marks the spiritual centre of Jakarta, if not exactly its geographical one, bordered to the west by the city’s major north–south thoroughfare. The main commercial district and the budget accommodation enclave of Jalan Jaksa lie just a short distance to the south of Medan Merdeka.
Jakarta’s cluster of backpacker-oriented lodgings fill up fast and should be booked ahead – prices start at Rp40,000 for a dorm bed. Nearly all budget places are on or around Jl Jaksa, the city’s travellers’ enclave to the south of Medan Merdeka.
There is more variation to the cuisine here than elsewhere in the country, which makes a welcome change after endless nasi goreng in the rest of Java. Food is surprisingly affordable here and local street food thrives, particularly along Jl HA Salim (also known as Jl Sabang).
While Jakarta hosts hundreds of nightclubs and a wide range of entertainment, most travellers don’t leave Jl Jaksa in the evening, preferring to hang out in one of the many bars strung along the road.
The quaint old district of Kota was known as Batavia when it was the administrative centre of the Dutch trading empire. To reach Kota, either take the Trans Jakarta from Sarinah or catch the local red-and-yellow bus, both of which end up in front of Kota train station. North from Kota station along Jalan Lada, past the Politeknik Swadharma, you enter what was once the walled city of Batavia, whose centre, Taman Fatahillah, an attractive cobbled square hemmed in by museums, lies 300m to the north of the train station. On the south side, the Jakarta History Museum covers the history of the city from the Stone Age. Most displays have descriptions in English. The finest exhibit is the ornate Cannon Si Jagur, which previously stood in the square and was built by the Portuguese to defend Melaka. The whole thing is emblazoned with sexual imagery, from the clenched fist (a suggestive gesture in Southeast Asia) to the barrel itself, a potent phallic symbol in Indonesia.
The largely disappointing Wayang Museum, to the west of the square, is dedicated to the Javanese art of puppetry and housed in one of the oldest buildings in the city. Puppets from right across the archipelago are displayed, and on most Sundays there is a free wayang show (between 10am & 2pm). While in the area, don’t miss the chance to luxuriate in the stylish surroundings of the historic Café Batavia, on the northwestern corner of Taman Fatahillah. To the east of the square, the Balai Seni Rupa, Jakarta’s fine arts museum, and the Ceramics Museum house works by Indonesia’s most illustrious artists.
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.
About 1km north of Kota lies the historic harbour of Sunda Kelapa, the most important in the Dutch empire. Although the bulk of the sea traffic docks at Tanjung Priok these days, a few of the smaller vessels, particularly some picturesque wooden schooners, still call in at this eight-hundred-year-old port. You can either walk here from Kota (about 20min) or hail an ojek.
From Sunda Kelapa, cross over the bridge to the west (on the right as you exit the port) and turn right at the nineteenth-century watchtower, the Uitkijk, built to direct shipping traffic to the port. Here, buried in the chaotic Pasar Ikan (fish market) that occupies this promontory, is the entrance to the Museum Bahari, or Maritime Museum, housed in a warehouse dating from 1652. All kinds of sea craft are on display, from the Buginese pinisi to the kora-kora war boat from the Moluccas.
Head towards the VOC Galangan restaurant, keeping the Kali Besar canal on your left until you come to the ornate wooden drawbridge, Jembatan Pasar Ayam, which is in immaculate condition. The grand Dutch terrace houses on the streets south of here were once the smartest addresses in Batavia, the most famous being the Chinese-style Toko Merah (Red Shop) at no. 11 Jalan Kali Besar Barat – the former home of the Dutch governor-general, Van Imhoff. The Batavia bus station lies on the other side of the canal, from where you can catch a pale-blue minivan back to Kota or the Trans Jakarta.
Eighteen kilometres south of Medan Merdeka, on the road to Bogor, is the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah theme park. This peculiar oasis is like an Indonesian Neverland celebrating the archipelago’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity with gondolas offering the best view of the sprawling complex. At its centre is a man-made lake, around which are 26 houses, each built in the traditional style of Indonesia’s provinces.
The park also contains a reptile garden, bird park and several museums. Among these are the Museum of Indonesia, which has displays on the country’s people, geography, flora and fauna, and the neighbouring Museum Purna Bhakti Pertiwi, which displays a fabulously opulent collection of gifts presented to President Suharto, including a whole gamelan orchestra made of old Balinese coins, a series of carved wooden panels depicting Suharto’s life story, and an enormous rubber-tree root decorated with the nine gods of Balinese Hinduism.