Jakarta is huge, complicated and oftentimes daunting for tourists to navigate. Yet beyond its legendary gridlock traffic and its seemingly endless mass of gray buildings is a surprisingly straightforward place to explore. Jakarta’s must-see attractions lie within easy reach of each other along a north-to-south axis — a simple route that takes only a day to complete. There isn’t much else required to get a good taste of the so-called Big Durian, really — just put on your walking shoes, grab a fistful of rupiah (around IDR700,000, the equivalent of US$50, should be more than enough) and sample the gritty, the exotic and the eye-opening charms of this city.
1. Sunda Kelapa
Located at the mouth of the Ciliwung River on the northern coast, the port of Sunda Kelapa was already a bustling trading hub as far back as the 12th century. Dutch colonizers built the city of Batavia (Jakarta’s earlier name) around it in the 1600s, and it has since served as the seat of power in this archipelago.
Amazingly, Sunda Kelapa harbor still operates today despite the passage of centuries — albeit with a rather less hurried pace. Come here early in the morning for an eye-opening glimpse into modern inter-island trade. Docked on its banks, traditional phinisi schooners hark back to the time when massive sailing ships arrived to load cargo bound for faraway Europe. Whereas business back in the colonial days revolved around the spice trade, today’s goods fill the needs of local inter-island commerce.
The pier-side activity is interesting, and one can easily spend an hour or two watching the dockhands at work. But there’s a lot more in this area to explore. Make your way south from the port, past streets named after familiar spice trade commodities. There’s Jalan Cengkeh (clove street) and Jalan Kunir (turmeric street), for instance, along with Jalan Ketumbar (coriander), Jalan Kopi (coffee) and Jalan Teh (tea). Keep walking until you reach a wide plaza surrounded by a cluster of nicely restored, colonial-era buildings. In the old days, this was the stadhuisplein, the city hall square where government officials held office. It is the center of Old Batavia.
2. Kota Tua
Kota Tua, or “Old Town”, boasts dozens of heritage buildings sprinkled throughout its 1.3km2 area. Many of these have been restored and converted into museums and commercial establishments.
The 17th-century Batavia City Hall still dominates the stadhuisplein, with its symmetrical lines now housing the Jakarta History Museum. To one side of the plaza, the Wayang Museum showcases traditional Javanese puppetry from a restored century-old warehouse. There’s also a nearby row of restaurants and cafés oozing with the atmosphere of tempo doeloe (“the old days” in Indonesian). You can chill out at the quirky Kedai Seni Djakarte, which serves classic Indonesian food in photogenic, hip presentations. There’s also the elegant Café Batavia, with its palatial interiors and an extensive collection of antique memorabilia.
3. Merdeka Square
From Kota Tua, a five-kilometer ride south takes you to the next chapter of the Jakarta story. Four years after declaring independence in 1945, Indonesians finally managed to drive out their Dutch colonizers through a mix of diplomacy and armed conflict. This struggle for nationhood is enshrined at the aptly named Merdeka Square (or Independence Square), a picturesque setting for the 132m-high Monumen Nasional (that’s National Monument). At the base of this four-sided obelisk, concrete murals and finely detailed miniature dioramas depict notable scenes from Indonesian history. An elevator whisks visitors up to the top of the structure for a sweeping bird’s-eye view of the surrounding buildings. Also in the park are mimes mimicking bronze statues, and hawkers selling everything from street snacks to souvenir shirts.
4. The central business district
If City Hall Square is the heart of Old Batavia, the Selamat Datang Monument — right at the junction of five main roads in the bustling CBD neighborhood — could arguably be the center of modern Jakarta. The marker itself isn’t much (just a statue and a pretty fountain), but surrounding this roundabout are some of the most prestigious addresses in the capital. In fact, many of them belong to multinational companies like Pertamina Oil and the BBC, and banks like BNI and Mandiri.
Facing the north-west side of the monument is Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, a wide collection of high-end boutiques spread out over a staggering 640,000m2 of floor space. Here you can continue the hunt for souvenirs (Alun Alun Indonesia and Allure have particularly good collections of local products), or simply cool down amid the posh surroundings. You can also sample more local delicacies at Food Louver on the third floor, which places some of the country’s favorite regional dishes under one air-conditioned roof. Whatever else you do, make sure to end your day at Skye Bar at the top of BCA Tower, at the south end of this huge complex. There’s cold beer to nurse and a truly stunning view of the city to admire from this rooftop watering hole.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Smile magazine.