Jakarta perfectly sums up the spirit of Indonesia: dynamic, optimistic and adventurous. The capital of Java – and of the nation – has evolved into a teeming modern metropolis, but there’s history at its heart, particularly in Kota, where traces of the Dutch colonial capital of Batavia endure amongst the gleaming office towers.
Buses are the backbone of public transport in Jakarta, and TransJakarta buses run around the city on dedicated busways, avoiding the city’s infamous traffic jams. When the traffic is moving, air-conditioned taxis are the preferred way to get around, and there are also dwindling numbers of bajaj (auto-rickshaws).
Jakarta is a city of museums and markets, though there’s history here too if you know where to look. Start in Kota – the site of the former Dutch capital – where unmistakably European buildings surround cobbled Taman Fatahillah square. The once-grand homes of the Dutch rulers are dotted along the Kali Besar canal.
What Jakarta lacks in landmark monuments, it makes up for in myriad museums, from the eclectic historical displays in the Museum Sejarah Jakarta to the puppet collection at Museum Wayang and the impressively varied Museum Nasional. Close by is Jakarta’s principle mosque, the Mesjid Istiqlal, the city’s most striking piece of modern architecture.
Jakarta’s other landmark building is the 132m-high Monumen Nasional (Monas), but most visitors pay more attention to the delicious food served on nearby street corners. As well as lavish feasts of Imperial Javan cuisine at top-end restaurants, take time to sample delicious Indonesian snacks for small change at the city’s street stalls.
After dark, Jakarta surprises again. Bars are fun-filled and friendly in this cosmopolitan city, from rooftop sky-bars to hip youth hangouts where DJs and bands keep things moving to the small hours. Then there are the city’s famous coffeeshops – would you expect any less from the birthplace of Java coffee?
The shopping bargains are famous during Jakarta’s Great Sale in June and July, but there are interesting treasures to be found year-round in the Pasar Rawa Bening gemstone market and the flea market on Jalan Surabaya in Menteng. Other markets worth browsing include the Pasar Tanah Abang clothes market and the Pasar Barito caged bird and flower market. When the traffic gets too much, locals decamp to the Thousand Islands, where sandy beaches and colonial relics provide a break from the urban sprawl; the ghost town on Pulau Cipir is a fascinating reminder of the Dutch era.
Locals swear that the finest food in Jakarta is served on the streets, and food stalls serve up treats from across the archipelago, from sate (grilled skewers of meat or chicken) to soto (spicy soup with rice cakes). Jalan Pecenongan and Jalan Sabang (Jalan Haji Agus Salim) are good places to start sampling. When it comes to fine dining, all of Asia is your oyster (or lobster, or mud crab) in Jakarta. For the best in fresh Indonesian seafood, visit Pondok Laguna or Bandar Djakarta, on the waterfront at Ancol; for dinner with a colonial twist, try Café Batavia in Kota or Dapur Babah Elite.