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“OMG get me out of here!” is most visitors reaction when they first arrive in Jakarta, Indonesia’s seething capital, one of the world’s biggest and undeniably craziest of cities.

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Pollution choked, traffic clogged, drowning in its own swampy mire, it may seem it has very little to love, but, despite what decades of guidebooks have been telling people, relax, not everyone is out to scam you—Jakarta is often a genuinely friendly city, in fact it’s known as a “big kampung” and is indeed perhaps the world’s biggest “village”. The city’s open-hearted citizens will talk to you on public transport, yell hello in the street and even cross the road just to shake your hand—where else does that happen in a modern city? And one with around ten million inhabitants to boot!

On a clear day, the city can be pretty fab. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

On a clear day, the city can be pretty fab. Photo: Stuart McDonald

It is true that Jakarta has massive infrastructure challenges, and the traffic jams can be absolutely appalling, but an MRT project is well on the way, and other public transport systems have been slowly improved over the last decade. Despite the challenges and dysfunction the predominant undercurrent of this megatropolis is optimism—most people just get on with the business of living, often with a smile on their face—however challenging life can be for some here—and the city seems to function as if it were a living entity.

The city is not only a microcosm of Indonesia, the embodiment of the national motto “Unity in Diversity”, but also a microcosm of emotion, sure it can be bewildering at times but in equal measures Jakarta has plenty to delight and beguile even the most sceptical of travellers, you may even want to stay an extra day.

Not all street side grazing is good for the waistline. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Not all street side grazing is good for the waistline. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Jakarta is officially called “Daerah Khusus Ibu Kota Jakarta” abbreviated as DKI (the Special Capital Region of Jakarta), located on the northwest coast of Java and is the nation’s centre of economics, politics and power. The city was likely established as the trading port by the Hindu Sundanese Kingdom, perhaps as early as the first century, known as Sunda Kelapa. From here spices were shipped to the rest of the world, with local pepper being particularly prized and even today the port remains active in the city’s north.

Over the centuries the constant battle for dominance of the lucrative spice trade saw power shift to Java’s Islamic kingdoms who renamed the port “Jayakarta” meaning “The glorious victory” (or some such hyperbole), the Portuguese, the English and eventually at the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch took control and renamed the port Batavia, planned and built a walled city and for the next 300 years ran their mighty mercantile empire from the area know today as “Kota Tua”. By the mid-18th century constant bouts of malaria from the swampy canals saw the city grow as people moved to healthier areas to the south.

Jakarta is more than just malls and traffic though. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Jakarta is more than just malls and traffic though. Photo: Sally Arnold

World War II brought the Japanese invasion, and finally at the end of occupation in 1942 the name Jakarta (a contraction of “Jayakarta”) was installed. Indonesia gained independence in 1945 and Jakarta became the capital of the new nation. The southern area established by the Dutch was designated the official city centre and a post-independence fervour to glorify the republic saw mass construction of modern monuments and public buildings. The city continued to grow rapidly and mostly unplanned until the sprawling urban mess became indistinguishable from its satellite cities. Today the greater urban area is known as Jabodetabek for Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi and has a combined population of more than 30 million inhabitants.

Alongside Jakarta’s modern buildings and shopping malls, much of the early Dutch architecture survives and Kota Tua, the old walled city of Batavia, has been redeveloped and many buildings have undergone restoration and reopened as museums. For most visitors arriving in Jakarta, this is an interesting area to explore along with the nearby port of Sunda Kelapa where you can still see old wooden pinisi ships.

Do explore Glodok. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Do explore Glodok. Photo: Sally Arnold

Heading south, Glodok is Jakarta’s Chinatown established in 1740 when the Dutch forced the Chinese out from the walled city. Here you’ll find temples and some excellent street food. Around the modern city centre, take the opportunity to see one of Southeast Asia’s finest collections of antiquities and curiosities at the National Museum, take a bird’s-eye view of the city from Monas, the National Monument or just wander around the city square and soak up the atmosphere. Visit the modern Istiqlal Mosque—the largest in Southeast Asia—and discover a number of historic churches too.

For lovers of the arts, learn about Indonesian modern Art at Galeri Nasional Indonesia and the Museum Tekstil Jakarta may be of interest to some or join the queues at one of the private contemporary art museums, Museum MACAN or Art:1. Antique aficionados may want to have a potter around Jalan Surabaya Flea Market a little south of the city centre.

MACAN is one of a number of galleries worth a looksee. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

MACAN is one of a number of galleries worth a looksee. Photo: Sally Arnold

To get your bearings, join a pay-as-you-wish walking tour with Jakarta Good Guides or simply pick up some maps and brochures at the Visitors Information Centre (but do double check what they tell you). Once you have done seeing the official “sights”, discover Jakarta’s true heart—step back from the glitzy malls and glass-fronted skyscrapers and head to the backstreets and kampungs, pull up a stool in one of the ubiquitous warungs or street stalls, order a steaming bowl of Soto Betawi or a strong Kopi Jawa and in no time one of Jakarta’s famously congenial residents will start up a conversation, you may even make a lifelong friend.

Jakarta offers a smorgasbord of culinary choice from across the nation and across the world from Michelin Star restaurants to street food and everything in between, and the bar and nightclub scene thrives despite certain political factions chagrin. If you’re in town on an expense account, you’ll have no trouble finding excellent accommodation, but for budget travellers the pickings are somewhat less bountiful, but there is still comfort to be found.

Thumbs up. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Thumbs up. Photo: Sally Arnold

Jakarta’s public transport system may seem daunting at first, but commuter trains and the TransJakarta Busway are surprisingly efficient and friendly folk will point you in the right direction (you’ll avoid the “macet” too), or there is always Go-Jek or a taxi. This notorious “macet” (traffic jam) is somewhat alleviated on weekends, when Jakarta becomes generally calmer and less frantic. The city centre enjoys a car free day every Sunday from 06:00 to 11:00 and it’s fun to join in the action as thousands walk, run, cycle and skate on the street. Many hotels offer discounted rates on weekends and if you can, this is the best time to plan your visit to the capital.

If your intent is to travel to Bandung or Bogor on the weekend, we would seriously consider changing your itinerary or adding another night in Jakarta (really, there’s plenty to see), as that midweek traffic has simply moved to these satellite cities along with half of the population of Jakarta.

The more you wander, the more you find. Photo taken in or around Jakarta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

The more you wander, the more you find. Photo: Sally Arnold

When you do want to get out of town, Gambir, the main intercity train station at the southeastern corner of Merdeka Square has frequent connections to Bandung, Yogyakarta, Semarang and Surabaya. It’s from here that you can also catch a bus to the airport. Trains to Bogor are on the commuter route from any commuter station. The main bus terminals are all far outside the city centre, but connected to the TransJakarta busway although trains are generally the better bet when moving on from Jakarta.

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Jakarta is laid out with a north-south axis with Monas—the National Monument—the official geographical centre sitting in the middle of Merdeka Square, an easy reference point for everything else in the city. A short walk south of Monas is the once popular backpacker district of Jalan Jaksa, with its seedy bars and sometimes even seedier accommodation. This is the sad first impression that many visitors get of Jakarta and the main reason that many choose to move on as fast as possible and we can’t blame them.

A short walk southwest of Jalan Jaksa brings you to the Selamat Datang (Welcome) Monument roundabout overlooked by large hotels including Hotel Indonesia, Jakarta’s first international standard hotel and two megamalls, Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia. Further south will take you to more affluent residential areas, each with their own malls, hotels and centres.

Kota Tua is to the far north, and moving south towards Monas is Glodok, the Chinatown area. The city’s primary airport, Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, is northwest of the city centre.

Jakarta is a modern city with ATMs on many street corners, access to modern medical care and police assistance easy to come by.

Jakarta Good Guides: T: (0856) 766 9954;
Jakarta Visitors Information Centre: Jakarta Theatre Building, 9 Jalan MH Thamrin, Menteng, Jakarta; T: (0213) 142 067; (0213) 154 094; (0213) 161 293;


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Jakarta.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Jakarta.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Jakarta.
 Read up on how to get to Jakarta.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
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