A few days in Makassar in South Sulawesi, Indonesia reveals a city with a hidden wealth of things to do and see.
As the main port of entry to the island of Sulawesi, Makassar tends to be seen mainly as a stopover to Tana Toraja and the rest of Sulawesi's hotspots; sometimes it's left out of Indonesian itineraries altogether.
But leaving immediately is a mistake: there's more to do and see around Makassar if you give it more than a day's stay.
See Traditional Phinisi Boats at Paotere Harbor
Paotere Harbor’s long history tracks that of the independent Gowa Kingdom that dominated South Sulawesi from the 1300s to the 1670s. Phinisi ships – designed and built by Makassarese shipwrights – sailed forth from Paotere (Google Maps), reaching ports as far away as Malacca in present-day Malaysia.
Walk down Paotere’s wharf today and trade seems as busy as ever. Phinisi still crowd the quay, swarming with stevedores carrying sacks of goods down from the decks.
Beyond shipping onions, rice, coffee and many other daily essentials around nearby waters, Paotere’s wharf also receives fishing boats holding the day’s fresh catch – the fishermen sell them at the bustling fish market nearby.
Come to Paotere early in the morning to see it at its busiest and most scenic. Watch the sun glow golden against the phinisi masts, illuminating the scurrying stevedores filling and emptying the boats’ holds. Afterward, have breakfast at one of the wharfside street food stalls selling ikan bakar (grilled fish).
Explore the Sunny Islands of Makassar Strait
The islands off Makassar call for a whole day's worth of lazing at the beach, snorkeling to see the fish and sea urchins, and one last beachside picnic before heading back to the city.
You just need two islands for the trip: the Kodingareng Keke sandbar (Google Maps), whose fine white sand is (to this writer anyway) equal to any you'll find at any top-rated beach around the world; and Samalona Island (Google Maps), a favorite getaway for locals who love to picnic by the sea, or rent a house on the island for overnight visits.
An island-hopping trip to Kodingareng Keke and Samalona can easily be arranged at the Bangkoa fisherman's port on Makassar (Google Maps). Once you're paid up, you can take your rented boat to the islands in the Makassar Strait, where you can swim and sun to your heart's content. Don't get too much sun, though – remember to bring your sunscreen before you go!
See Butterflies and a Waterfall at Bantimurung Park
Karst landscapes are always magical to behold, and the Bantimurung-Bulusaraung river system in Maros (Google Maps) is no exception. The karst outcrops in Bantimurung are not quite as spectacular as those found in South China or Malaysia, but what you'll find here still quickens the pulse.
Its key attraction, a gently descending waterfall, provides a spectacular backdrop for picnickers and thrillseekers. The former gather around tables set around the waterfall and the ensuing river, while the latter ride inflated tire inner tubes down the waterfall. The ride is short but sweet, and riders climb back to make multiple trips down.
A series of concrete steps take visitors up to the gently meandering river that feeds the waterfall. The paved path leads to the entrance to the Goa Mimpi (Dream Cave), one of the 200-odd caves in the entire Bantimurung karst system.
If you're lucky, you'll find some of Bantimurung's butterflies flitting about around the waterfall or the walkway to the cave; their numbers have dropped as visitor numbers rose, and visiting the tiny butterfly enclosure onsite is the only reliable way to see these colorful beauties in the flesh.
Explore Maros’ “Stone Forest” and Its Mysterious Cave
The trip to Maros’ “Hutan Batu” (Stone Forest) is one of the most scenic in Makassar. A one-hour drive from the city takes you to the Rammang-Rammang Pier in Salenrang (Google Maps); from here you’ll board motorized canoes that speed down the Pute River, past cliffs, jungle, bridges, and traditional Sulawesi houses.
You’ll disembark at a village (Google Maps) next to rice fields, all surrounded by towering karst mountains that give the place its nickname. The “Stone Forest” is supposedly the second-largest karst landscape in the world, offering a series of adventures in and around the limestone cliffs.
The Leang-Leang Cave (Google Maps) holds Maros’ greatest mystery. Stone Age residents left red-and-white handprints and an illustration of a babirusa, or wild boar; the images are some of the oldest man-made art in the world, some 35,000 years old.
Boat rentals to the Stone Forest cost IDR 250,000 inclusive of up to six passengers. An entrance fee of IDR 3,000 will be charged at Desa Berua; homestays at the village are always available.
Take in Colonial History at Fort Rotterdam
After 1667, when the Dutch conquered the Gowa Kingdom that ruled over South Sulawesi, they cemented their rule by destroying the Gowa King's existing fortifications and building a Dutch star-shaped fort over the ruins.
The fort served as a nucleus around which the city of Ujung Pandang, later Makassar, grew over the centuries. When the Dutch ruled Indonesia, their authorities governed from Fort Rotterdam (Google Maps); its dungeons housed political prisoners such as the exiled Javanese Prince Diponegoro.
After independence, Fort Rotterdam became a repository for ancient documents and relics. Many of them can be seen on a tour of the La Galigo Museum, housed in two buildings within the fort.
Allot about an hour and a half to take the museum tour, there's plenty of ground to cover – including depictions of Makassar's legendary history; weapons and clothing from South Sulawesi's diverse peoples; and models of boats from Sulawesi's many seafaring tribes.
Go Shopping at Jalan Somba Opu
The stuff sold from the shops along Jalan Somba Opu (Google Maps) ranges from the high-end to the cheap n’ kitschy. From one shop, you can buy expensive silks and gold jewelry. From another, you can stock up on copies of Makassarese phinisi boats and souvenir T-shirts by the dozen.
Historically home to Makassar’s gold and silver shops, Jalan Somba Opu has expanded its scope to cover a wide range of retail activities. Beyond the famous silver filigree from Kendari in southeastern Sulawesi, you’ll also find batik from Manado and woodcrafts and textiles from Toraja.
After dark, noodle hawkers set up shop along Jalan Somba Opu’s narrow sidewalks, selling bakso and grilled meats.
Watch the Sunset on Pantai Losari
To see Makassar at its most spontaneous and fun, visit Pantai Losari (Google Maps) just before the sunset hours. The Pantai Losari seaside promenade is a favorite stop for locals and a tried-and-true magnet for local atmosphere.
In an hour or so just chilling out at Pantai Losari, we saw friends gathering for selfies, photographers jostling to get the best shot of the sunset, cartoon mascots trading snapshots for cash, and even reptile fanciers swapping snake-care tips!
After the sun sinks completely below the horizon, walk north up Jalan Penghibur for an early dinner at the kaki lima (food stalls) lining the sidewalk. These places sell easy-to-cook Makassar favorites like pisang epe (roast banana) and buroncong (roast cakes made of flour and grated coconut).
Eat Makassar's Favorite Foods
The aforementioned kaki lima only scratch the surface of the endless food possibilities in Makassar. The city's resident Makassarese and Buginese peoples are avid fishermen, and even more avid eaters – they've taken the larder they've been given by nature, and transformed it into a range of dishes that will dazzle even the most demanding gourmand.
Start with their ample seafood menu, like the ikan parape (grilled milkfish with spices) that you can eat with a fresh green mango condiment on the side. Then proceed at your own pace through Makassar's other food must-haves, like the rich beef stew called coto Makassar, and the decadent banana-based dessert called pisang ijo.
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