Jakarta is a huge megalopolis spread out over 290 square miles on the western side of Java Island. Generations of conquest, trade, and recent rapid modernization has not erased the irrepressible "Betawi" spirit of the city.
You might say that Jakarta sports its culture by layers: Dutch colonial rule, dictators with a serious edifice complex, and today's bustling democratic tide have all contributed to make Jakarta an endlessly fascinating place.
It's hard to pick out just a few interesting spots to visit in this vast expanse, so we've settled for nine activities and destinations for first-time visitors to the "Big Durian".
Jalan Surabaya is an open-air antique market on the border of Menteng District (where President Obama lived for a few years). Its Central Jakarta location makes it easy to reach by taxi or "bajaj". (Location on Google Maps.) Jalan Surabaya has a wide variety of stalls selling crafts, antiques, and many other souvenirs, some Balinese, some Javanese, some Dutch colonial, some unclassifiable.
Much of the antiques on display come from the Dutch colonial era, left over from old Dutch families… or are they? A lot of the “crafts” on display are newer than they look, so it takes a good eye for detail and a willingness to dicker over the price to get the most out of your Jalan Surabaya shopping experience.
Padang cuisine is the Indonesian version of an eat-all-you-can buffet - dishes are cooked in the beginning of the day, then rationed out into individual servings. Patrons of a padang food joint are served plates upon plates of different dishes, and pay only for the plates they polish off.
The food is spicy and flavorful - beef rendang and skewered shrimp are particular favorites, as are more exotic concoctions like cow lung with fava beans and ox brain. The timid will be unsatisfied by this spread, the adventurous will be amply rewarded.
For a clean, air-conditioned, yet absolutely scrumptious padang food experience in Jakarta, try Sari Bundo on Jalan Hayam Wuruk 101 (location on Google Maps).
Explore Central Jakarta by Bike on Car-Free Sundays
From 6am to 11am on Sundays, Jakarta closes off a four-mile stretch of Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin to automobiles, permitting only bikes and pedestrians to cruise the roads between the Monas and Ratu Plaza shopping mall.
Over 100,000 show up every weekend to take advantage of this break from the usual Jakarta gridlock: fitness freaks jostle with each other, and congregate at street food stalls, colorful banners and traditional Betawi ondel-ondel (giant puppets) on the sidelines.
Car-Free Sunday is a great time to see Jakarta at its cleanest and most colorful: neon-colored fixies and plastic balloons set off the modern skyline you'll see in the city center, particularly the part of Jakarta around the Bundaran HI roundabout, which is surrounded by skyscrapers, shopping malls, and five-star hotels.
Encounter History at the Jakarta History Museum
Jakarta History Museum at Fatahillah Square brings you face to face with the Dutch colonial experience - a harsh period that the museum's curators do not whitewash.
The Dutch brought with them an alien culture and government, which they then imposed on the Indonesian nation. The building was an integral part of their rule, having been the Batavia Town Hall before independence where civic duties and penal functions were performed.
The interior of the museum is filled with cultural artifacts left over from Dutch rule. Around the museum perimeter, a covered-up well and a cramped casemate stand witness to the cruelty inflicted on Indonesian prisoners back in the day.
- Address: Jalan Taman Fatahillah No. 1, West Jakarta
- Phone: +62 21 692 9101
The biggest Islamic country on Earth deserves to have one of the biggest mosques in the world - which it has in the Istiqlal Mosque (fourth biggest, to be exact).
Located in Central Jakarta next to the Monas, the Masjid Istiqlal was begun under then-President Sukarno in the 1960s - his successor completed the project in 1978, contributing a massive cowhide drum that now stands in a second-floor hallway. The mosque's 5 floors can handle up to 250,000 worshippers. On most days the mosque is nearly empty, but is filled to capacity at the end of Ramadan.
When visiting, wear modest clothing. Make a donation, so staff can take you on a guided tour around the mosque.
- Address: Jalan Taman Wijaya Kusuma, Central Jakarta
- Phone: +62 21 386 8347
The National Monument commemorates Indonesian independence in its many forms - from an exhibition at the monument's base that relives the declaration of independence in August 1945, to statues around the perimeter that preserve key moments in Indonesia's post-independence history.
The monument itself towers over 137 meters over Medan Merdeka (Freedom Square), topped by a flame covered in 35 kg of gold. A cramped lift carries visitors to the very top of the monument, where visitors can get great views of Central Jakarta. Binoculars and a handy map of the surrounding buildings help visitors get a grip of the surrounding skyline.
- Address: Jalan Silang Monas No. 1 Jakarta Pusat
- Phone: +62 21 6902387
Learn About Nature at Taman Mini Indonesia
Taman Mini is a huge park that attempts to represent the different provinces of Indonesia within its sprawling confines, and by and large it succeeds. A series of museums with different themes (science, sports, even one on Indonesia as a whole), and an IMAX theater give a more complete picture of what the country is all about.
A cable car takes you above a large lake that contains a replica of the Indonesian archipelago. Around the park, you'll find different traditional houses from all over the country, each one housing exhibits that explain the house's province of origin.
- Address: Jalan Bambu Apus, East Jakarta
- Phone: +62 21 840 9210
- Site: www.tamanmini.com
Encounter Wildlife at Ragunan Zoo
Indonesia is a white-hot center of biodiversity, so it’s only natural that its capital should have a huge zoo to show its wildlife off to the world. The Ragunan Zoo in Pasar Minggu is home to almost 300 animal species from all over the world. It is also the site of the world’s biggest primate center, with gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans on display in enclosures that mimic their natural habitats.
The zoo is 135 hectares in size, with miles of walkways shaded by trees. Featured attractions include a crocodile section, a hippopotamus pool, and a daily orangutan tour (they’re brought around the zoo in a pony cart).
- Address: Jln. Harsono Rm. No. 1, Ragunan, Pasar Minggu
- Phone: +62 21 780 5280
Go Sightseeing at Sunda Kelapa
Sunda Kelapa is one of the oldest parts of Jakarta; the city grew from this port and its attached town. The area is incredibly odorous, but once you get over that, you’ll want to come close to the lines of Buginese schooners moored along the wharf. Some of them will allow you to climb up the precarious gangplanks, and you’ll get a better view of the surroundings from the top deck!
A short drive nearby, a Dutch-style drawbridge still stands, a testament to the long Dutch presence in Indonesia. The drawbridge is still in use, but heavy traffic is not permitted to cross it these days.
The easiest way to get to Sunda Kelapa is by taxi. You can also ride the Trans Jakarta Busway to Kota Tua, then take a taxi or bajaj to the harbor.