One of the world’s greatest megalopolises, Jakarta is a dynamic and vibrant city. Its chaotic charm and juxtapositions can be found on every street.
An organism unto itself, Jakarta is a town in the midst of a very public metamorphosis and, despite the maddening traffic, life here is lived at speed, driven by an industriousness and optimism that's palpable. With this fast developing pace come challenges. It's no oil painting, yet beneath the new high-rises, relentless concrete, gridlocked streets, smattering of slums and a persistent blanket of smog, Jakarta has plenty of pleasant surprises, including a world-class food and coffee scene. Its citizens – even the poorest among them – remain good-natured and positive, and compared to many world capitals, crime levels are low.
City of Contrasts
From the steamy, potent streets of Chinatown and Glodok to Kota’s vestiges of a colonial past, the old city is the prequel to Jakarta's development. The newer Merdeka Square is where Indonesia presents the face it wants the world to see: bold and confident. Further south, luxurious mega-developments are plopped next to humble neighborhoods, with pockets of emerging art scenes and bohemian coffee shops. Across the city it’s possible to rub shoulders with Indonesia’s future leaders and thinkers in sleek restaurants and roof-top bars. Hedonists can go clubbing and drinking 'till dawn, much to the dismay of the current administration.
In Jakarta, you can find all of Indonesia. It’s not just that people pour in from all corners looking for a better life (as they’ve done for centuries), it’s that they bring along their wonderful melange of cultures, beliefs and desires from the nation’s 17,000 islands. Walk down an alley with food stalls and you’ll find a huge diversity of flavors, while the glitzy malls and hotels offer fine dining from around the archipelago and the world. Meanwhile, goods come in from all over and are sold at shops and on street corners around the clock.
Temptation & Allure
Jakarta is where Indonesia puts on its best face. It has the country’s top museums, the greatest diversity of restaurants and public spaces in countless shopping malls that rival anything in Singapore or Bangkok. You can stroll the grand boulevard of Jl Thamrin when it's closed to vehicles on Sunday mornings and marvel at all that’s been built. Although religious pressure has slightly dimmed Jakarta’s reputation as a place to party beyond bounds, it is still a city where people can enjoy long nights in lounges and clubs or linger with gatherings of friends.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Jakarta.
The National Museum is the best of its kind in Indonesia and an essential visit. The enormous collection begins around an open courtyard of the 1862 building, which is stacked with magnificent millennia-old statuary including a colossal 4.5m stone image of a Bhairawa king from Rambahan in Sumatra, who is shown trampling on human skulls. The ethnology section is superb, with Dayak puppets and wooden statues from Nias sporting beards (a sign of wisdom) plus some fascinating textiles.
It is here that Jakartans come to take a breather from the traffic. The figurative centre of Jakarta, Merdeka Square ( merdeka means independence) is actually a trapezoid measuring almost 1 sq km. In the 19th century, the Dutch called it Koningsplein (Kings Square) and it became a focal point for the city after they moved the government here from old Batavia (Kota). It's always had an important role in local life. The main entrance is on the south side.
RUCI Art Space has become a favourite on the city's burgeoning art scene. Occupying an industrial space in the hip neighbourhood of Senopati, the gallery hosts regular solo and group exhibitions from local contemporary artists. Work ranges from painting and photography to installation art. A large cafe is attached, decorated with designer furniture and selling drinks (coffee from 30,000Rp), mains (noodle and rice dishes from 55,000Rp, tacos from 35,000Rp) and desserts (milk fritters, panna cotta, cinnamon banana fritters from 35,000Rp).
Kota’s central cobblestone square, surrounded by imposing Dutch colonial buildings, is Jakarta's most attractive location and a popular gathering spot for tourists and locals. The stately bell-towered former town hall (1627) now houses the excellent Jakarta History Museum, while the former Palace of Justice (1866) building has been transformed into the Museum Seni Rupa Dan Keramik, showcasing traditional and contemporary Indonesian artists. Also here is Museum Wayang, featuring the best wayang (flat wooden puppets) collection in Java.
This 100-hectare park has full-scale traditional houses for each of Indonesia's provinces, with displays of regional handicrafts and clothing, and even a mini-scale Borobudur. Museums, theatres and an IMAX cinema are scattered throughout the grounds, which all command additional entrance fees (from 20,000Rp to 140,000Rp). Other attractions include a small water park, space exploration museum and an atrium with more than 760 species of birds from around Indonesia. Free cultural performances are staged in selected regional houses.
Families will love Jakarta's kite museum, located in a quiet backstreet in Pondok Labu, South Jakarta. Inside a traditional Indonesian house, complete with courtyard, there's a collection of around 600 kites. A 10-minute educational video explains the different styles and origins of kite flying (and that it probably all started in Indonesia). The impressive range of kites includes a 3D giant horse and cart, dragon, ship and lion fish, plus 2D kites made of bamboo and banana-tree leaves.
Over 1700 works of art by foreign and Indonesian artists are part of the National Gallery collection. While only a few works are on display at any time, there are also large spaces for regular – and well-curated – special exhibits. The centrepiece of the sprawling palm-shaded complex is an 1817 Dutch building.
This museum presents an engaging and easily consumed history of Indonesia from a loosely financial perspective, in a grand, expertly restored, neoclassical former bank headquarters that dates from the early 20th century. All the displays (including lots of zany audiovisuals) are slickly presented, with exhibits about the spice trade and the financial meltdown of 1997 (and subsequent riots), as well as a gallery dedicated to currency, with notes from every country in the world.
Opened in late 2017, Museum Macan is Indonesia's first modern and contemporary art museum and an exciting cultural development for the city. It was built to house the private art collection of businessman Haryanto Adikoesoemo, who has amassed some 800 works by Indonesian artists. Touring exhibitions have included Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama.