When you consider the bountiful wealth of idyllic beaches, culture and wildlife that Indonesia’s islands have to offer, Jakarta, somewhat understandably, falls to the bottom of the average traveler’s Indonesia Bucket List. Is that fair? Should a couple of days in Indonesia’s vibrant capital city on the island of Java actually be more sought after? These were all questions on my mind during my first trip to Indonesia. The problem for Jakarta when it comes to tourism is the horrifically bad press it gets. For example, a 2015 Castrol Study awarded Jakarta the unenviable award for the World’s worst city for traffic jams. In the very same year the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Jakarta at the very bottom of their Safe Cities List. Seriously, 2015 must have had Jakarta tourist board employees curled up under their desks in the fetal position! To the contrary, I found Jakarta to have a level of gritty charm; the same kind of gritty charm that other big South-East Asian cities like Bangkok have. Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I directly comparing Jakarta to Bangkok – Jakarta doesn’t even come close in its tourist offerings. However, what it does provide is an animated (and sometimes overpowering) insight in to modern Indonesia, its turbulent past and its challenging future development. My advice: spend a couple of days in Jakarta to check it out for yourself and hopefully my tips might help!
From Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport to the very center of Jakarta is a mere 35km, so you’d imagine you should have a fairly quick drive. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. If you arrive at the dead of night (as I did) then you should be just fine. On the other hand, arrive at rush hour and you could be stuck in traffic for an easy 2 hours+ – not the best way to start! In terms of getting to the city, you have a couple of options. The easiest after a long flight is a taxi, which are fairly good value in and around Jakarta (at the time of writing it should cost between US$15-20 to get to the city center). Blue, Silver and Golden Bird taxis are your best, reputable options, and the queues for them are right outside the terminal buildings (regardless of which one you arrive at). I would strongly recommend you don’t catch a ride from anyone that approaches you when you reach arrivals. Like any big city, crime can be rife, so better stick to the trusted taxi services. The second option is the public Damri bus (at the time of writing, this costs between US$3-4). You’ll need to buy a ticket from the Damri Ticket booths before you board (they’re pretty well signposted), and your best bet is to head to Gambir (the central railway station right in the middle of town near the Mona National Monument). From there you can hop in a taxi or grab an Ojek (Motorbike Taxi) or even walk (if you aren’t a sweaty mess carrying enough luggage to sink a battleship).
In terms of getting around the city, and if you want to use public transport, then there really is only one good option: the Transjakarta Busway. It’s still a fairly new service and operates air-conditioned buses on dedicated lanes that general traffic can’t drive in. As a result, it means you can get around the city much quicker (especially in rush hour) than by car or by other city buses (which are not air-conditioned, hot-as-hell, and extremely uncomfortable as a result). There are a whole host of different routes, so I’ve included the link to the route map in the additional resources section below. If you’re planning to use the bus a lot then you’re best bet is to buy a top-up card at one of the station ticket windows. Other than buses, your three main options are Bajaj (motorized rickshaws that are good for short distances), Ojeks (motorbike taxis that are great when the traffic is really bad) and taxis.
The government has also set up a tourist bus similar to the hop-on-hop-off services you see all over the world. However, the Jakarta version is somewhat unique. Firstly, it’s free, which is a great start. However, the problem is that it’s unreliable (there still doesn’t seem to be a reliable schedule – and on some days even a reliable set of routes). In addition, it doesn’t provide any information on what the stops are or what to see (it doesn’t even have brochures or a website in anything other than Bahasa Indonesian). Since it’s free, it tends to be used by locals looking for a free ride to work (sometimes meaning you can’t even get on). All-in-all, not exactly great, but if you have a guide book and don’t mind waiting endlessly for a bus that may or may not arrive in the next hour, then you might want to give it a try. If nothing else, you might have a good laugh – just don’t use it if you’re on a tight timetable and want to see as much as possible.
Monas National Monument: Big cities love a strong phallic symbol. London has Nelson’s Column, Washington D.C has the Washington Monument and Jakarta has Monas; which is dedicated to Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. It’s the most visited tourist attraction and is located in Merdeka (Freedom) square which a large, somewhat green open space in the very center of the city (one of very few open spaces and so it gets really busy). The base of the monument houses the Indonesian National History Museum dioramas which walk you through Indonesian history. Upstairs in the Hall of Independence you can see the Proclamation of Independence. Finally (and for an extra fee), you can take an elevator up the 137m tall obelisk for some decent views over the city; just beware that the queues can be long, and the elevator can be a pretty sweaty place. The monument closes at 3pm daily, so get there early.
Kota Tua (Old Town): It’s the second most visited tourist attraction in Jakarta, and I was told by a local that I’d be disappointed (managing expectations I guess). Jakarta’s Old Town is home to the most obvious remnants of the city’s Dutch colonial past, and it is admittedly a little run down. That’s to be expected when you consider the horrific impact of the riots back in 1998 that turned many buildings into burnt-out shells. In fact, I found wandering the streets of Kota Tua to be almost educational and weirdly charming. Starting at the wooden Kota Intan drawbridge, take a stroll (and engage in some fairly harrowing road crossings) to Fatahillah Square. The square plays host to a huge number of food carts, street entertainers and is flanked by the brightly striped parasols outside Café Batavia (a great place to stop for lunch). Equally colorful are the rental bikes lining the pavement (of the pedal variety that come with matching straw hats for the ladies and helmets for the gents). The square is also home to the Puppet Museum and Jakarta History Museum. If you only have time for one, then I would pick the puppet museum which plays an important part in Indonesian culture.
Pasar Baru (New Market) and Sin Tek Temple: Although it’s called the new market, Pasar Baru is actually one of the oldest markets in Jakarta. It’s a sensory experience combining elements of Indian, Javanese and Chinese culture focused predominantly on food (or at least it was for me as I was hungry by this point). Put simply, if you’re a fan of street food, then this is the spot for you. Although the market is a melting pot of culture it does have a distinctly Indian vibe and you’ll notice that many of the shops in the area are India-centric. Besides the market, the area is also the home of the Sin Tek Bio temple – a small unassuming temple founded by Chinese farmers. Worth a quick photo stop for sure.
Istiqlal Mosque & Jakarta Cathedral: The Istiqlal Mosque is the largest mosque in South-east Asia and located walking distance (subject to your propensity for engaging in death defying road crossings) from the Monas National Monument. You can arrange free tours of the mosque and then head across the road to visit Jakarta Cathedral. There’s nothing overly spectacular about the cathedral but worth a quick stop whilst you’re nearby!
Taman Mini: Basically, Indonesia’s version of Disney’s Epcot Center. Taman Mini is set around a lake and translates to the less catchy “Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park”. It is designed to take you on a journey through Indonesia’s 26 provinces and includes cable cars, IMAX theaters and the “Theatre of My Homeland”. You could actually get out and see Indonesia for real, but why would you want to when you don’t have to leave this cultural theme park wonderland (by the way, I was intending a lot of British tongue-in-cheek sarcasm in that sentence if you couldn’t tell). If you do want to check out the park, then I’ve included the link to their website in the additional resources section.
Sunda Kelapa Port: The Old Port of Jakarta is a mere 1.5km from Fatahillah Square. So if you’ve taken the plunge and rented a colourful bike with matching (and highly fetching) straw hat, then you can easily cycle between the two. Whilst it may not be your traditional tourist attraction, the port is fairly enjoyable to stroll around. You’ll find a busy fish market and rows of schooners. The crews seemed more than happy to chat with me and offered to take me out on the water for a tour of the harbour for a small fee. You might also want to check out the small maritime museum, called Museum Bahari, which is also located in the port area.
Malls and Sarinah Department Store: The shopping in Jakarta is a major draw for tourism and the city is flooded with malls. If you’re just looking for souvenirs, then I would recommend Sarinah Department Store, also known as the Indonesian Emporium. Although it’s actually a department store, it has a huge range of handicrafts from across Indonesia and is probably your chance of stocking up for exotic presents that nobody really wants (I’m a particular fan of a creepy-looking wooden puppet I picked up).
Check out more of our Destination Guides for inspiration for your next trip!
Transjakarta Busway Route Map: http://transjakarta.co.id/peta-rute/
Taman Mini Website: http://www.tamanmini.com/pesona_indonesia/