For the majority of its residents, Jakarta is a city of promise. The lure of jobs and a better life has caused the city’s population to escalate at an alarming rate, to more than 10 million. Visually unprepossessing, this is a city of monotonous skyscrapers, apartment buildings, shopping malls and traffic-choked highways, with few green spaces to break things up. More positively, the nation’s largest metropolis has a rich cultural life, with an abundance of performing and visual arts, and a laid-back, courteous persona.
Capital to the world’s fourth most populous nation, Jakarta is a city that verges on the chaotic. Just south of the harbour on Jakarta Bay and Ancol recreation park is Kota, the old Batavia area, where remnants of Dutch colonial rule reside. Heading south are Pecinan (Chinatown) and busy Glodok, the electronics, gadget and computer centre of the city. A major north–south artery, Jalan Hayam Wuruk merges into Jalan Gajah Mada, lined with shops, restaurants, hotels and nightlife, ending at Monas (Freedom Square) in the heart of Central Jakarta.
The busy Jalan Thamrin-Sudirman corridor, south of Monas, is one of two major Central Business Districts (CBDs), a wall of glimmering glass and steel with some of the most interesting high-rise architecture in Southeast Asia. Creeping in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the thoroughfare in turn connects with Jalan Rasuna Said and Gatot Subroto, the second CBD and a golden triangle for national and international companies, banks, hotels, shopping malls and embassies.
Surrounding the city mayhem on all sides are residential areas, ranging from upper- and middle-class streets to the most basic shanties. Scattered throughout are pockets that seem frozen in time, including diminutive residential districts with market gardens and makeshift kampung (village) dwellings that impart something of a village atmosphere to many back alleys. | Also, see the Westhill Consulting Travel Insight Guide Overview Destination Jakarta.
Places to visit in Jakarta
Sunda Kelapa Harbour
The city’s history began at the old spice trading seaport of Sunda Kelapa Harbour. Early morning is the best time to walk along the 2km (1.25 mile) wharf among the ships’ prows and gangways and witness one of the world’s last remaining commercial sailing fleets. Filled with the romance of a bygone era, watch the unloading of cargo from the majestic wooden pinisi schooners built by the seafaring Bugis people of South Sulawesi.
The area around Sunda Kelapa is rich in history, and the best way to survey the area is on foot. Near the river stands a 19th-century Dutch lookout tower (Uitkik), constructed on the site of the original customs house of Jayakarta. Behind the lookout stands a long two-storey structure dating from VOC times, now the Museum Bahari (Maritime Museum). This warehouse, now a maritime museum, was built by the Dutch in 1646 and was used to store coffee, tea and Indian cloth. Inside are displays of traditional sailing craft from all corners of the Indonesian archipelago, as well as some old maps of Batavia.
The Old City
The area known as Kota in the old Batavia quarter came to life in the 1620s as a tiny, walled town modelled on Amsterdam. Most of the original settlement – Old Batavia – was demolished at the beginning of the 19th century. Only the town square area survived and has been restored and renamed Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah Square). Three of the surrounding colonial edifices have been converted into museums, and the main square bustles at weekends with street entertainers, old-fashioned bicycle rentals, artists and food vendors.
The Museum Sejarah Jakarta (Jakarta History Museum; closed for renovations until 2014) was formerly Batavia’s city hall (Stadhuis), completed in 1710 and used by successive governments until the 1960s. It now houses memorabilia from the colonial period, notably 18th-century furnishings and portraits of the VOC governors, along with many prehistoric, classical and Portuguese-period artefacts.
The Museum Seni Rupa (Fine Arts Museum) occupies the former Court of Justice building, completed in 1879. Its collections include paintings and sculptures by modern Indonesian artists, and an important exhibition of rare porcelain, featuring many Sung celadon pieces from the Adam Malik collection, ancient Javanese water jugs (kendhi), and terracotta pieces dating from the 14th century.
A 137-metre (450ft) tall marble obelisk is set in the centre of Medan Merdeka (Freedom Square). There is an observation deck at the top surmounted by a 14-metre (45ft) bronze flame sheathed in 33kg (73lbs) of gold symbolising the spirit of freedom. It was commissioned by Sukarno and completed in 1961 – a combination Olympic Flame-Washington Monument with the phallic overtones of an ancient Hindu-Javanese lingga. The National History Museum in the basement contains 12 dioramas depicting historical scenes from a nationalistic viewpoint. A high-speed elevator rises to the observation deck, where on a clear day there is a fabulous 360-degree view of Jakarta.
The imposing white-marble Mesjid Istiqlal (Istiqlal Mosque) on Jalan Veteran is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and was built on the former site of the Dutch Benteng (Fort) Noordwijk. During the Islamic fasting month, Ramadan, the mosque is filled to capacity. Tours of the mosque are available.
On the west side of Medan Merdeka lies one of Indonesia’s great cultural treasures, the National Museum. Known as Museum Gajah because of the bronze elephant statue in front, presented by King Chulalongkorn of Siam, it was opened in 1868 by the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences – the first scholarly organisation in colonial Asia, founded in 1778. The museum houses valuable collections of antiquities, books and ethnographic artefacts acquired by the Dutch during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Objects of interest include Hindu-Javanese stone statuary, prehistoric bronzeware and Chinese porcelain. The star collection is housed in the Treasure Room – a stupendous hoard of royal Indonesian heirlooms. The Ceramics Room features the largest collection of Southeast Asian ceramics under one roof.