Indonesia’s third-largest city, Medan is the gateway to North Sumatra. Often railed against by fast-transiting tourists as one of Southeast Asia’s least charming cities, Medan makes a better impression on visitors who stick around a bit longer. Chaotic as any Indonesian metropolis, it certainly has its fair share of pollution and traffic jams, but also boasts more urban comforts than anywhere else in Sumatra.
The best travel tips for visiting Medan
Medan has a diverse population hailing from all across the archipelago and beyond, including substantial Indian and Chinese minorities whose roots in the city predate the arrival of the Dutch, the latter having left a few graceful examples of colonial architecture – evidence of the wealth generated from the vast plantations that to this day stretch up the slopes of the Bukit Barisan to the west of the city. The city has some interesting early 20th-century architecture, a decent museum, plus a number of alluring temples in its Indian Quarter. Stick around.
Top attractions and things to do in Medan
There may not be that much by the way of things to see and do in Medan, but even taking in the cacophony of Indonesia’s third-largest city can be a compelling reason to stick around a bit.
#1 Puruse the Museum of North Sumatra
The large, informative Museum of North Sumatra, 500m east of Jalan Sisingamangaraja (often shortened to SM Raja) on the southern side of the Bukit Barisan cemetery near the stadium, tells the history of North Sumatra, and includes a couple of Arabic gravestones from 8 AD and some ancient stone Buddhist sculptures.
#2 Admire the Grand Mosque of Medan
The black-domed Mesjid Raya (Grand Mosque of Medan) is one of the most recognisable buildings in Sumatra. Designed by a Dutch architect in 1906, it has North African-style arched windows, blue-tiled walls and vivid stained-glass windows.
#3 Seek out some stunning architecture
Jalan Brig Jend A Yani, at the northern end of Jalan Pemuda, was the centre of colonial Medan, and a few early twentieth-century buildings still remain. The weathered Mansion of Tjong A Fie (no. 105), a beautiful green and yellow two-storey house built in 1900 for the head of the Chinese community in Medan, the fine 1920s Harrison-Crossfield Building, and the grand, dazzlingly white headquarters of PT Perkebunan IX, a government-run tobacco company.
#4 Wander around the Indian Quarter
In the west of the city is the Sri Mariamman Temple, Medan’s oldest and most venerated Hindu shrine. It was built in 1884 and is devoted to the goddess Kali. The temple marks the beginning of the Indian quarter, the Kampung Keling, which is the largest of its kind in Indonesia.
In recent decades, the shrinking Indian population has been offset by an increasing number of Chinese, whose presence is made known by the nearby Vihara Gunung Timur (Temple of the Eastern Mountain), the largest Taoist temple in Sumatra. Its multitude of dragons, wizards, warriors and lotus petals are tucked away about 800m south of Sri Mariamman.
Best areas to stay in Medan
The best accommodation in Medan is found to the southeast of Mesjid Raya. There is nothing here to blow your socks off – most hostels and hotels are compacted or super basic
Around Jl Sisingamangaraja
There is a clutch of half-decent, cheap hotels running alongside the western side of Jl Sisingamangaraja and in the shadow of the Grand Mosque of Medan. This is the most convenient place to stay for the city’s sights.
The best places to stay in Medan
Looking for specific hotels? Look no furhter. Our local travel specialists have selected the best options to stay in Medan.
- Pondok Wisata Angel The most popular backpacker spot in town, with clean, bright rooms with fan or a/c. Staff are helpful, and there’s free wi-fi and tasty food in the downstairs Angel Café
- Residence Clean and all-green hotel by the Grand Mosque with a decent range of compact rooms: top-floor rooms have a/c and TV, while standard rooms can be a tad musty (ask for one with a window) with a cramped, inside mandi. The café/restaurant downstairs is good value with free wi-fi, and there’s a pleasant rooftop garden.
- Sultan Homestay Right in the thick of the budget hotels, this cheapie has super-basic rooms with shared bathrooms. Escape the heat in one of the otherwise identical a/c rooms upstairs. Breakfast is included, and there’s friendly staff and free wi-fi.
Best restaurants and bars in Medan
Medan has its own style of alfresco eating, where a bunch of stall owners gather in one place and put out chairs and tables. Servers then bring around menus listing all the food available from each of the stalls. At night, travellers tend to go bowling at Yuki Simpang Raya or drink in ex-pat hangouts like the Tavern Pub, which also hosts live music.
- Cahaya Baru The best of the Indian restaurants in Kampung Keling, set in clean, a/c surroundings. The menu is mostly North Indian (think veg or chicken thali), with a handful of South Indian favourites (like masala dosa) and local dishes. Authentic flavours, colourful decor and local patrons combine to make you feel as though you’re in Delhi.
- Tip Top Restaurant Part-restaurant, part-Medan institution – this is a venerable old place that’s been serving European and Indonesian food since 1934. The large menu includes Western, Chinese and Indonesian dishes as well as an extensive selection of cakes and ice creams.
The best restaurants in Medan
How to get around Medan
For most visitors, the best way to get around Medan is using motorised becaks (rickshaws), though regular angkots (minivans) and taxis are handy for longer journeys.
The mainstay of the city transport network; they are numbered, and many have names too. The main angkot station is at Sambu, west of the Olympia Plaza, though the Medan Mall stop is more useful for travellers.
Another convenient way of getting around the city centre. Agree on a price before you set off.
Cheap and common, a taxi can be a helpful way to get around, especially at night. Only use metered cabs.
How many days do you need in Medan?
Most travellers spend no more than a day or so in Medan, using it as a transit point to Bukit Lawang, Danau Toba or Malaysia. As all the sights can be visited within 24 hours, it’s not worth sticking around any more than two days.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Indonesia travel experts.
Best time to visit Medan
Medan has a hot and humid climate that varies little throughout the year, except during the annual monsoon season. The city's wettest months are August to December when daily rainfall can arrive one hour and leave the next. Expect overcast skies and regular downpours.
Some of the hotels will offer discounts during this time but as Medan is such a busy, city rooms can still be needed by those visiting on business. Good sunny weather between March to May make it the best time to visit ahead of major holidays or events.
Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.
How to get to Medan
The easiest ways to arrive in Medan are by plane or bus. The city has two major bus stations, both serving destinations in different parts of the county.
Medan’s Kuala Namu International Airport, the second largest in the country, is about 30km east of the city. The airport is linked with the city by rail and bus. The trip is quicker but pricier by rail with becaks (cycle rickshaws) connecting Medan’s train station to the Mesjid Raya area.
Buses connect the airport to several spots in the city, departing roughly every 15min. Recommended taxis for the trip between the airport and city centre include Blue Bird and Express.
Medan has two main bus stations. The sprawling Amplas station, 5km southeast of the city centre, serves buses for all points south, including Bukittinggi and Danau Toba. The Pinang Baris bus station, 10k west of the city centre, serves buses for destinations to the north or west of the city, including Bukit Lawang, Berastagi and Aceh.
Plan your trip to Bali with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia On A Budget.