While Indonesia’s capital is powering ahead as a global business hub, Kota, its old town, is arguably still its top traveller highlight. Indonesia’s Dutch colonial roots can be explored here, and Jakarta's historical quarter gives a snapshot of how the cityscape looked before the skyscrapers moved in.
In the 1600s, Kota became the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. Sadly this colonial heritage was not preserved as well as it has been in the likes of other Southeast Asian colonial outposts such as Singapore and Penang, and there are only a few remnants of the attractive wooden-shuttered buildings left today. Still, Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah Square) and its surroundings are a sensory feast for a first-time visitor to the city.
Set off on a walking tour at Kota Intan bridge (also known as Chicken Market Bridge). Constructed by the Dutch in the 17th century, the wooden drawbridge extends over the Kali Besar canal, and would have been raised to accommodate merchant ships. The last remining bridge of its kind, it is no longer raised, and can’t be crossed by pedestrians – its planks are in disrepair – but there is talk of a renovation project. For now, it’s worth a visit to witness a rare monument to the city's Dutch colonial era.
From the bridge, with the Kali Besar canal on your right, it’s just a ten-minute walk straight down towards Taman Fatahillah, though it does involve crossing a couple of busy roads – if you feel intimidated by the swarms of cars and motorbikes speeding towards you, find a group of locals and cross with them. The buildings along this strip have a distinctly European feel, combined with a poignant sense of decay. As you approach the square, the street becomes lined with trees and gerobak (mobile food carts) selling strips of vacuum-packed sweets and siomay bandung – steamed fish dumplings served with peanut satay sauce from wooden carts. Eventually you reach an intricate cast iron arch on the left that marks the entrance to Taman Fatahillah.
Kota's 1.8-acre central square is usually teeming with Indonesian tourists, and encapsulates the vibrant, edgy and slightly daunting character of Jakarta. Dotted with multi-coloured striped parasols, it is the business arena of some 200 carts selling all manner of tourist tat and street food. A multi-layered aroma of sweet, spicy and barbeque scents permeates the square, and you can sample local delicacies - from gado-gado (Indonesian salad with peanut sauce) to kerak telor (omelette fried with sticky rice, dried shrimp, and shredded coconut) from the animated vendors for next to nothing. A food festival is held at Taman Fatahillah every year in March.
Take some time to explore the side streets leading away from the square (be careful to watch your belongings as you weave around the crowds) to spot more decaying colonial relics, and see local tatoo artists at work in their crude, streetside studios. Another option is to rent one of the many colourful bicycles for hire – with matching-hued floppy hats thrown in for free to shield you from the sun’s glare – and explore on two wheels.
It’s worth popping into the tiny Museum Wayang (Puppet Museum) to understand how integral puppeteering has been to Indonesian storytelling for centuries. The museum’s exhibits range from 16th century Wayang Banjay puppets from Borneo to the hand puppets from the 1980s children’s TV show Unyil which look a bit like alarmed Cabbage Patch Kids. Free performances with traditional rod puppets take place in its theatre every Sunday – they are in Bahasa, but watching the live gamelan orchestral accompaniment is a worthwhile cultural experience. Entrance to the museum is 5,000Rp. There’s also the Museum Sejarah Jakarta (Jakarta History Museum) in the former town hall on the south side of the square, though its exhibits are a little sparse.
Dominating the northern side of Taman Fatahillah Cafe Batavia, named after the former colonial name of the capital. Housed in a 19th century building that was originally used by the Dutch government, it’s a great spot for escaping the heat and people-watching over Taman Fatahillah. Grab a window seat upstairs in the Grand Salon constructed entirely of Javanese teak wood, and try the Batavia Punch mocktail – a zingy blend of pineapple and lime juice. The menu offers delectable dim sum, western staples and Indonesian fare, with mains averaging 200,000Rp.
If you’re keen to see more colonial buildings, rent a bicycle from Taman Fatahillah (around 20,000Rp/hr) and pedal the 1.5km to Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s historical port, and the original reason why the city was an international trade hub. Stroll among the rows of traditional Bugis Phinisi Schooner ships anchored on the dock and peruse the stalls of the busy fish market, soaking up the local ambience. If you have time, pay a visit to the turquoise- shuttered Museum Bahari, which recounts the maritime history of Indonesia’s archipelago.
Alternatively, exit Taman Fatahillah from the southeastern corner and continue southwards along the main road for about 30 seconds to reach Kota Station. Originally built in the 19th century, it was renovated and reopened in 1929 after being re-designed by a Dutch architect, who created a western art deco facade with an indefinable local twist.
Rose Dykins is a freelance travel journalist driven by curiosity and fuelled by copious amounts of black coffee. She tweets at @rose_dykins