At least among international travellers and travel writers, we’re in a distinct minority in liking Medan—we love it actually. Yes, as a general rule—at least from a tourism perspective—Indonesia does not do large cities all that well, but in Medan, in the fairly compact downtown area around and to the west of the train station, we found an at times pretty, and very walkable city. The Indonesian food is extraordinarily good and we found the locals (with just a couple of exceptions) to be universally welcoming, friendly, helpful and hospitable. Really!
Medan does not boast much in the way of top line attractions, but there is a very good museum which serves as a great primer before venturing into Karo country, a beautiful and historic villa and an impressive mosque all of which can be used to fill in one full day in Medan. But, for us, the real attraction is the food and we’d say the prime reason for lingering is simply so you can eat more.
The transport hub of northern Sumatra, Medan is also the jumping off point for ground transport to Aceh, Berastagi, Bukit Lawang, Ketambe and Lake Toba so even if you are not planning on overnighting here, you will most likely need to pass through—give it at least a night we say!
As with much of North Sumatra, at least as far as foreign tourists go, peak season in Medan is late June through August, coinciding with European summer. Even at this time though, it is unlikely you will need reservations as the city attracts a bare trickle of tourists, and there are over one hundred hotels to choose from.
Weather wise, Medan is steamy hot and humid year round, but peak season coincides with the region’s dry season, so expect warm and often dry weather at that time. While Medan can see wild and beastly thunderstorms year round, it is subject to North Sumatra’s general wet season which runs roughly November to March, so expect even more rain then.
While Medan is a large city, the downtown area, using Merdeka Park and the train station as a centre, is relatively easy to navigate. We walked much of downtown, but Go-jek, becaks and taxis are common and easy to use, bringing the greater city easily within reach.
The city’s above mentioned primary attractions are all situated to the south of Merdeka Park, Tjong A Fie Mansion is as easy walk away, though Istana Maimoon, the State Museum of North Sumatra and Raya Al-Mashun Mosque, while walking distance from one another, are best reached by taxi or Go-Jek from the train station.
The city boasts over one hundred hotels, but many are chain hotels scattered all over the city. The two primary hubs which put the primary sights within reach, are within walking distance of the train station and, to the south, along SM Raja (near Raya Al-Mashun Mosque). If you stay further afield, be prepared to walk a lot or use transport to get around.
Foreign access ATMs are everywhere and all hotels should offer WiFi. There is a small tourist kiosk on the north side of Merdeka Park, but every time we visited it, it was locked up, so your mileage may vary. On the same northern side of the same park is a police station should you find yourself needing assistance. Siloam Hospital is one of the most central hospitals should you be in need of medical care.
Siloam Hospital Dhirga Surya 6 Jl Imam Bonjol, Medan. https://www.siloamhospitals.com/en/Hospitals-and-Clinics/Hospitals/Rumah-Sakit-Siloam-Dhirga-Surya
While Medan is a large city with loads of hotels to choose from, for most it will make sense to choose a property fairly central. Most of the following are within walking distance of at least some of the sights, with one further flung option for those who want to spend more time eating and drinking coffee along Jl Ring Road.
Set right above the train station, the friendly and uber-clean Hotel d’Prima ticks a lot of the boxes we look for in a hotel, making it our prima choice in Medan.
Staff are especially helpful and friendly, spacious rooms immaculate, showers piping hot and the beds’ crisp linen a refreshing blast after a few weeks touring the non-so-hot linen of North Sumatra. Free Wifi is standard and rooms include tea and coffee, flatscreen TV and big glass windows which let the light pour in. One minor quibble is the “desk” is not really a desk and if you need to do some work, you’ll be working on the bed or in a nearby cafe.
We’re not joking about the location—the hotel is literally on top of Medan train station—making it ideal for those wanting to use the train service to the airport and it is just across the road from the Merdeka Park and, beyond that Merdeka Walk with its many cafes and restaurants. You’re also just a ten minute stroll from Tjong A Fie Mansion.
Rates (superiors 350,000 rupiah, deluxe 400,000 rupiah) are very reasonable for the standard and really the only word of warning would be to do your laundry elsewhere as it is expensive here! If this is your first night in Sumatra and you want to ease yourself into Medan, if Hotel d’Prima fits with your budget, look no further. Shop online for a discounted price—room rates include a complimentary breakfast from the Starbucks downstairs.
Large with carpet that wouldn’t look out of place in The Shining, the five floor Hotel Madani is kitty corner to Raya Al-Mashun Mosque and offers up good midrange, if a bit dowdy, fare rooms.
As with the nearby Angel and Residence, the hotel is convenient to the mosque and Istana Maimoon but little else and we’d say if you were looking to spend in this kind of price bracket you’d probably be better with one of the more downtown and more modern hotels, like d’Prima or Hermes Palace—this feels like a tour group and/or wedding hotel.
Nevertheless rooms are comfortable and well–sized with a yellow hue throughout. Beds are not as firm as they look like they should be, but have bed lamps and side tables along with upholstered furniture and a small desk. Hot water bathrooms are immaculate. No alcohol or drugs are allowed on the premises and travelling couples may be asked for a wedding certificate if they want to share a room. Walk-in rates (superior 750,000 rupiah, deluxe 900,000 rupiah) are high—shop online for a far more reasonable rate.
With a modern, almost hipster-style cafe on the ground floor (a serious reflection on Tip Top across the road), the smart and pretty modern Kama Hotel fits the bill if d’Prima doesn’t do it for you.
Rooms are clean and well kept, if a little pokey and given how busy the road out front is, the hotel is not as noisy as you’d expect. Located just down the road from Tjong A Fie Mansion, you’re barely a hop skip and a jump from Medan’s premiere tourist attraction and also just a short walk to Merdeka Walk—a foreigner friendly strip of eateries and cafes.
The one minus here are the staff who, on our visit were abrupt to the point of rude and it took quite a bit of cajoling for them to even show us a room when we were not satisfied with the photo album they showed us (and even then they would not let us take photos inside a room). Studio rooms (from 260,000 rupiah) are very tight and if you’re going to head here, we’d say the standard (350,000 rupiah) or superior rooms (400,000 rupiah) are worth the extra money. The deluxe rooms (580,000 rupiah) apparently sleep four and would work for a family.
Location is good—there are a few vestiges of old Medan on this street—lets hope they don’t meet the wrecking ball that has befallen so much of the rest of Medan’s heritage.
If you’re looking for an old school guesthouse style place in Medan, forever–running Angel Guesthouse remains reliable, affordable and friendly—even if the location, on a busy Medan thoroughfare, leaves a bit to be desired.
With a deep blue and bright yellow theme throughout the rooms (apparently the favourite colours of the owner the friendly staffer who showed us around said) rooms come in three primary flavours: Dorm (80,000 rupiah), fan cooled (130,000 rupiah) and with air-con (150,000 rupiah). We were shown an air-con room, which, for the money struck us reasonable value, though the street front location means only the hardiest of sleepers will not require earplugs, as the road out front is real busy—rooms back off the street are certainly what you should be aiming for. Within, they are barebones affairs, with a standing fan and a bed with clean linen in good condition. The bathrooms are acceptable for the money.
The ground floor plays home to a traveller style cafe which dishes out surprisingly good local fare (try the soto—when they say spicy they mean it), and going by the number of musical instruments laying around, the evenings could be fun. Angel can arrange all manner of tours and onwards transport and is walking distance to Raya Al-Mashun Mosque and Istana Maimoon, but little else.
If you’re looking for a backpacker crashpad, then this is a solid bet. If you want something more hotel style, the also long running Residence is just around the corner, but the rooms were pretty dire, though the hotel was starting to renovate, so it may improve in the future.
RedDoorz is an Indonesian franchise/chain hotel group that has a bunch of hotels in Medan, and if you happen to be looking for a property away from the centre of things, the RedDoorz Plus @ Setiabudi Medan is terrific value.
Set down a relatively quiet street, rooms are large and immaculate, with very comfortable beds and plenty enough space to throw a party for you and your travelling companions. The hot water bathroom is immaculate (as is the room) and the room is fitted out with typical mod-cons you’d expect at this price-point. Standards start at 200,000 rupiah and superiors at 250,000 rupiah. The deluxe rooms (350,000 rupiah) make for very good value family value as they sleep four. There is also an upstairs shared terrace area and a large downstairs common area with brightly coloured furniture and plenty of light. We found the staff to be friendly and accommodating.
While the area is not convenient to the main sights of Medan (which are about 20 minutes away by ojek or taxi depending on traffic), it is convenient to the raft or restaurants and late-night coffee shops on Jl Ring Road. So, if you’re looking for something a little off the beaten track, this is a good flashpacker option.
Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
Tell any Indonesian you’re heading to Medan and the food recommendations will come thick and fast, and while chances are you can eat pretty well in any Indonesian city, Medan really is in a class of its own. Pack an empty stomach.
One of the most common recommendations you’ll hear is for Rumah Makan Sinar Pagi, a soto joint a fifteen minute walk from Merdeka Park. While it was closed for Ramadan over our most recent visit, it was so often recommended we’re slotting it up top (and Travelfish has eaten here in the past). The medium-sized eatery is busy with people slurping on bowls of delicious soto ayam and soto daging. The soto is a fragrant, comprised of coconut milk infused with a barrage of spices and mounds of shredded chicken or beef.
Nearby, slightly closer to Merdeka Park, but on the same street, you’ll spy the similarly simple and old school Rumah Makan Soto Medan, which we opted for when we found the above to be closed. The soto ayam delivered the goods (as did the spicy green chilli it was served with) all washed down with an iced tea.
Sticking with soto, and more conveniently placed if you are staying right in the centre of things, Soto Kesawan is a narrow warung on Jalan Ahmad Yani which serves terrific curry prawn soup or soto udang. The coconut milk based soup is topped with piles of large peeled and ready to eat boiled prawns so that every mouthful of the velvety broth contains at least one chunk. Also served here and highly recommended is the roti canai with curry. Conveniently located almost straight across from Tjong A Fie Mansion.
A little further to the south (about a ten minute walk) from Soto Kesawan, you’ll strike upon Mie Ayam Kumango. Compared to the above-mentioned places, this is a more modern eatery whose air-con makes it a great spot to escape Medan’s often blistering heat. We went with the house speciality Mie Ayam Kumango (32,000 rupiah), but the menu contains a full raft of other noodle dishes. This is a good option for people looking for a few more creature comforts in where they eat. Very friendly staff.
Set a block to the east of Tjong A Fie Mansion, Bihun Bebek Kumango Koh Asie is a small hole in the wall serving enormous but delicious bowls of thin rice noodles topped with piles of succulent duck or chicken. The noodles are bihun while the meat is free from large sheets of fat and skin that often taints lesser versions of this dish. At 80,000 rupiah, this is not a budget bowl—they apparently used to serve half portions which would have been welcome as the servings really are huge—if you’re a travelling couple, consider sharing a single bowl!
Medan has a couple of downtown food streets which are great for if you’re not wanting to spend much money yet want to be spoiled for choice. These two streets, walking distance from each other and both north-south running, are Jalan Selat Panjang and Jalan Semarang. Of the two, we preferred Selat Panjang, having a good nasi ayam at Nasi Ayam SP3 and a mie pangsit at Mie Tiong Sim (not on the same night mind you!) Jl Semarang has more footpath eating along with hole in the wall restaurants, but there is also plenty of choice—take a look and see what you find—in most cases expect to pay 25,000–30,000 rupiah per dish, and don’t forget to grab some satay before you bail.
Not quite a walking street, Merdeka Walk runs along the west side of Merdeka Park and offers up about a half dozen restaurants and coffee shops (yes, there is a Starbucks here) in a social and fun setting. Come in the evening and it can be packed with local Medanites kicking back and cooling off with a few cold meals and plenty to fill the stomach. We ate well at both Srikandi (Indonesian) and Nelayan (dim sum) and, for the setting, prices are reasonable.
A nationwide Padang chain, Restoran Sederhana Masakan Padang has a half dozen branches in Medan and we chose a branch on Jl Ring Road for our final meal in Medan and, take our word for it, it did not disappoint. If you are not familiar with Padang food, a vast selection of plates, each loaded with a different dish are placed on your table and you help yourself, paying for just what you eat. This is a great (and not overly expensive) way to try a lot of dishes. The branch we tried was out on the ring road, but there are more central options. Garuda is another popular Padang chain with multiple outlets in Medan.
If Medan was your grandmother’s house, Tip Top would be the out of place lounge on the back veranda, which, despite the dust and cat fur is a comfortable spot to lose an hour or so. It is here you’ll find A Home Connect Direct phone, a collectors item cash register and a menu that ranges all the way from baked goods and Chinese fare to Mexicaner Ice ice cream (do try the latter). According to their menu in business since 1929 (though their website says 1934), this is a good spot to escape the heat during the day or, should it be to your taste, enjoy live entertainment thrice weekly in the evening.
If you’re looking for some South Asian fare, Medan has a small Indian quarter and there you’ll find Cahaya Baru offering up North and South Indian food in a clean and cool (yes it is air-con) setting. We had a mutton biryani (48,000 rupiah) but the thali sets (from 30,000 rupiah) looked good.
For coffee, Medan is absolutely awash in places to sip coffee, so we’ll point you to three places to get you started. Downtown, on the ground floor of Lippo Plaza you’ll find Tre Mon, which has a leafy open-air garden area along with an air-con interior. They also do decent lunch fare including pasta, should you have reached soto capacity.
Meanwhile out on Jl Ring Road, there are two very different spots, almost side by side. Piacevole is your typical modern cafe with comfortable seating and service with a smile—think Starbucks but not Starbucks and better than Starbucks. At the other end of the spectrum, and almost next door, is King Kuphi Ulee Kareng, an old school bag coffee joint which we loved—it is open nice and late too.
The above barely scratches the surface of where to eat in Medan and for further tips, we found Eat With Roy’s wrap on 30 places to eat in Medan to be handy, while on Twitter, as always when it comes to Indonesian fare Indonesian food guru Arie was very generous with his tips for both Medan and Aceh.
Click on the restaurant name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
Bihun Bebek Kumango Koh Asie 15 Jl Kumango, Medan. Mo–Sa: 07:00–11:00
Cahaya Baru 12/16 Jl Teuku Cik Ditiro, Medan. T: (061) 453 0962 Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00
Jalan Semarang food street Jl Semarang, Medan.
King Kuphi Ulee Kareng 8 A-B Jl Ring Road, Medan. Mo–Su: 08:00-late
Merdeka Walk Jl Baliakota, Medan.
Mie Ayam Kumango 16 Jl Mangkubumi, Medan.
Piacevole Ringroad Jl Ring Road, Medan. https://www.instagram.com/piacevolecoffee/ Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00
Restoran Sederhana Masakan Padang Gagak Hitam 80 Jl Ring Road, Medan. T: (061) 4208 1877 https://www.restoransederhana.id/ Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00
RM Soto Medan 8 Gatot Subroto, Medan. Mo–Su: 07:30–21:00
Rumah Makan Sinar Pagi Cnr of Gatot Subroto and Jalan Sei Deli Medan. Mo–Su: 08:00–15:00
Selat Panjang food street Jl Selat Panjang, Medan.
Soto Kesawan Jl Ahmad Yani, Medan. Mo–Sa: 08:00–15:00
Tip Top 92 Jl Ahmad Yani, Medan. T: (061) 451 4442 http://tiptop-medan.com/ Mo–Su: 08:00–23:00
Tre Mon Lippo Plaza, ground floor, 6 Jl Imam Bonjol, Medan. T: (061) 8051 1188 https://tremonconcept.com/
Tjong A Fie Mansion is a fabulous old house built in 1895 by Chinese immigrant and successful businessman, Tjong A Fie.
Born in 1860 in Guandong, China, Tjong A Fie headed to Sumatra in 1878 to join his brother Tjong Yong Hian in Medan to pursue his fortune. While his brother was already well established, together they grew even more successful as they dealt between the Dutch and Chinese businessmen both in Sumatra and mainland China. In 1906 Tjong A Fie partnered with Cheong Fatt Tze in Penang and between them they built the first railway in China. Later, following the death of his brother, Tjong A Fie was declared Kapitan of Medan and under his guidance many schools, hospitals, places of religious worship (of all faiths) and more was built.
It was the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang that was the inspiration for Tjong A Fie’s mansion in Medan and the similarities are striking, with much of the internal design quite similar. Original colourful tiles, hardwood floors, painted ceilings and shutters still grace this majestic structure and provide a stunning insight into how the elite in Indonesia lived at the turn of the 19th century.
Tjong A Fie died at the age of 61, still living in his mansion, and the town honoured his legacy with one of the largest funeral processions Medan had ever seen. Unlike its counterpart in Penang, Tjong A Fie mansion remains in the hands of his descendants (a relative still lives upstairs) though after his death family members gambled away much of the furniture—guides will happily point out the few items which are original. The grandeur though is more about the actual house than its contents, and while it is a shame much of the contents have been lost, this remains a fascinating house to wander through.
51 Jl HM Joni, Medan
The one worthwhile to see museum in Medan, the sprawling State Museum of North Sumatra delivers a rounded approach to the history and culture of the region.
The museum is well documented in both English and Indonesian, though the lighting is low, so some squinting is required. Ground floor exhibits range from a large stuffed tiger to anatomically correct stone statues, temple lions and an entire whale skeleton, through to a blow by blow explanation of the colonial period through to independence and beyond.
Upstairs is arguably the more interesting section, with scale models of Batak houses, examples of traditional clothing of the various ethnic groups who populate the province, tools, handicrafts and a weaving display.
If you’re planning on exploring North Sumatra and have a few spare hours in your day, a visit here will help to give you a grounding in what you’ll see and encounter once you break out of Medan. If you are a real museum hound, the Museum Perjuangan TNI at 8 Jl KH Zainul Arifin near Sun Plaza is worth a quick look if you are in the area.
Sticking with the State Museum, if you’re in the area, swing by Raya Al-Mashun Mosque and Istana Maimoon as they are a ten and 15 minute walk away. Recommended.
61 JL SM Raja, Medan
Mesjid Raya Al–Mashun, or simply Mesjid Raya for short, was commissioned in 1906 by Sultan Ma’mum Al Rasyid and first opened for prayer in 1909.
The impressive mosque is bright white with inlaid green tiles which contrasts blindingly with the massive black domes sitting atop the roof. Inside, stunning tiles, stained glass, marble and some fine stone and wooden carving adorn many of the surfaces of the structure. It is interesting to note that many of these materials were imported from France, Germany and Italy.
This is a particularly beautiful mosque and if you plan to visit any mosque in Indonesia, this is a good one to start with. Non-Muslims are permitted to enter the mosque outside of prayer time. Entry is by donation and you may be asked for payment by the guy who minds your shoes.
45 Jl Brigjen Katamso, Medan
Istana Maimoon was built in 1888 by the then sultan as the centre of governance in Medan until the 1920s and today it is still worth a look, if primarily for the building rather than the contents.
While it once received dignitaries and entertained guests, nowadays it serves as a tiny museum of sorts although most of the building is off limits to visitors. A number of gift shops sell knick-knacks inside and the most popular past time appears to be getting dressed up in Sultaneque garb and having your photo taken. The building is still largely in original condition with the floors and ceiling being particularly impressive, though it is as its best from a distance.
Istana Maimoon is a short walk from Raya Al-Mashun Mosque so it is easy to visit both in the same visit.
Getting to and from Medan’s Kualanuma International Airport (KNO) airport is most easily accomplished by train at a cost of 100,000 rupiah per person. This train arrives and departs from Medan station in the centre of town a short becak ride or walk from much of the downtown accommodation. The journey time varies between 30 and 45 minutes depending on which direction you’re heading and the train leaves roughly hourly depending on the time of the day. Tickets can only be purchased with a credit or debit card—no cash.
By taxi expect to pay around 150,000 to 200,000 rupiah depending on where you are going in the city and traffic conditions.
If you are heading to Bukit Lawang, aside from getting the train to the airport, trains also run from Medan central station to Binjai—a small town located to the west of Medan. The trip takes about 45 minutes and costs 5,000 rupiah. From Binjai train station you can get a bejak (it is not walking distance, bank on 15,000–20,000 rupiah in a bejak or use Go-Jek) to where vans leave for Bukit Lawang—just tell the bejak driver you want to go to Bukit Lawang and they (should) know where to take you.
If they don’t, the vans leave from beside a park called Tanah Lapang Merdeka Binjai to the south west of the train station—as mentioned, it is not a comfortable walking distance from the train station. The vans charge 50,000 rupiah for foreign passengers and the trip takes about three hours. The main advantage of this route is it allows you to avoid the touts at Pinang Baris bus station.
Transport in and out of Medan is a little disorganised and confusing and getting to where you want to go can be a bit of a pain depending on where are headed.
If you are booking a long distance bus, we strongly recommend booking your ticket online through Traveloka as the bus ticket will clearly indicate which bus station or bus company office you need to go to.
There are two primary bus terminals in Medan, Pinang Baris roughly 10 kilometres to the north of town serving destinations to the north and Amplas roughly 8.5km to the southeast of the city.
In theory Pinang Baris serves destinations to the north, notably of interest to foreign travellers, Berastagi and Bukit Lawang, while Amplas serves everything else. However there are plenty of exceptions, and in the case of both bus stations, many bus companies run their own terminals. So, when you book your ticket, it is important to clarify which terminal (or bus office) the departure will be from.
With that in mind...
Sample fares and rough trip durations are as follows:
Berastagi: Departs every hour, takes around 2-3 hours and costs 20,000 rupiah.
Bukit Lawang: Minivans depart when full, takes 3-4 hours and costs 50,000 rupiah for foreign tourists. You may be dropped off outside the bus station, about 500 metres up the road. This is preferred as these vans are usually filled with passengers first and therefore depart first.
For Banda Aceh there are departures throughout the day but from bus company stations. Trip time is 10 to 15 hours and tickets go for 180,000 to 200,000 rupiah. Companies include Putra Pelangi, Sempati Star. These services also stop at Lhokseumawe and Pidie.
Although Amplas technically serves destinations to the south, in reality it operates primarily as a vehicle pool for the bus companies lining the main road in the surrounding area. So depending on your destination, you may have to depart directly from the terminal or from a bus operator’s office up the road. Check beforehand!
Bukittinggi: Departs 4-5 times daily, takes 17-23 hours and costs 180,000 to 280,000 rupiah. Carriers include ALS and Sempati Star.
Danau Toba depart from the terminal proper regularly throughout the day, cost 40,000 rupiah and take 4 to 5 hours.
Padang: Departs 5-6 times daily, 19-28 hours and costs 190,000 to 290,000 rupiah. Carriers include ALS and Sempati Star.
The Padang Bulan area to the south of Medan is where you need to come for services to Kutacane which connects with services to Ketambe. Opposite Citra Garden on Jl Jamin Ginting are a series of small travel agents including Dairi Transport who run vans and share cars. For Kutacane, tickets in a share car depart roughly hourly and take 7 hours. We were quoted 200,000 rupiah per person, which is high—bargain.
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