Jakarta’s colonial heart
Published/Last edited or updated: 3rd July, 2018
Kota Tua, is the historic heart of Jakarta, literally Jakarta’s “Old Town” usually just referred to as simply “Kota”.
The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) established the walled city of Batavia here in the 17th century from where they ran their mercantile empire for the next 300 years. Once the Dutch departed, the area was pretty much left to deteriorate, however changes are afoot and many of the dilapidated mansions and warehouses are slowly been given a facelift and a development project is in the process of rejuvenating the old canal.
In contrast to the haphazard development of most of modern Jakarta, historically Batavia was a planned city. A prominent 17th century mathematician and scientist was commissioned to design the “ideal city”, a grid dissected by a canal (Kali Besar) still discernible today. The administrative hub of the city was around the stadhuisplein, the city square now renamed Taman Fatahillah or Fatahillah Square for the 16th-century commander Sayyid Fatahillah who captured Sunda Kalapa from the Portuguese for the Islamic Sultanates of Demak, Cirebon and Banten prior to the Dutch conquest.
Surrounding the square the former administrative buildings of the VOC have been reinvented as museums and cafes although much of the former could do with a good overhaul. The square itself is one of Jakarta’s most popular spots for nongkrong—hanging out, and is a fun place to join the throngs, take selfies with the costumed characters or try some local snacks. It gets particularly busy on weekends which may or may not add to the appeal, depending on your point of view. Much mirth and merriment can be had hiring a Dutch-era bicycle, donning a frilly hat or pith helmet and exploring the old town. Bikes cost 20,000 rupiah for a half-hour spin.
Around the square, the museums are worth a look more so for their architectural value—check out the Jakarta History Museum housed in the former Stadhuis from where the colonial empire was administered, see the collection of puppets at Museum Wayang on the site of an old church and the Fine Art and Ceramic Museum in the old Hall of Justice. Bear in mind that all museums are closed on Mondays.
Other buildings worth noting are the Art Deco Gedung Jasino and the post office, and, in a small fenced enclosure in front of Gedung Jasino, look for the Si Jagur Cannon. This Portuguese cannon was reputably seized from Malacca in 1641. Note the clenched fist with the protruding thumb at the rear of the cannon, a Portuguese gesture of good luck, but in Indonesia this hand gesture has sexual overtones. In the past it was viewed as a fertility symbol and local women would straddle the cannon in the hope of improving their chances in the bedroom, hence the fact that it is now fenced off!
Escape the heat and crowds and stop for a drink in the breezy Cafe Batavia where you can bask in colonial grandeur overlooking the square. Alternatively wander down the lane to Jalan Pintu Besar where a row of newly renovated old buildings house cafes and restaurants. We like Historia with its retro styling and good value Indonesian menu or try Kedai Seni Djakarte next door.
Once you’ve cooled off, head a block west and meander along the canal, once an affluent residential area. Notable here is Toko Merah, the “red shop”, the former residence of the Dutch Governor-General Gustaaf Willem Baron van Imhoff. At the northern end of the canal is a 17th century drawbridge officially called Jembatan Kota Intan, but known as Chicken Market Bridge and locally believed to be haunted by a Dutch lady who flies over the bridge at night. You have been warned.
From here, you could continue to Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s historical port and visit the Museum Bahari (Maritime Museum) on the way, or double back to Jalan Pintu Besar, where the original “Big Door” of the old walled city was located and explore Museum Bank Indonesia and check out the terrific architecture at the neighbouring Museum Bank Mandiri.
Proceed along Jalan Jembatan Batu to Gereja Sion, Jakarta’s oldest church, then double back to the Art Deco Kota Train Station built in 1929. Pop inside to have a look at the barrel ceiling or jump on a train to Juanda Station in the city centre to check out Monas, the National Monument, the modernist Istiqlal Mosque and the surrounding historic churches.
Cafe Batavia: 14 Jalan Pintu Besar Utara, Kota, Jakarta; T: (0216) 915 531, (0216) 915 534; http://www.cafebatavia.com; Su–Th: 08:00–24:00, Fr–Sa: 08:00–01:00
Historia: 11 Jalan Pintu Besar Utara, Kota, Jakarta; T: (0216) 904 188 Mo–Fr: 10:00–21:00, Sa–Su: 09:00–22:00
Kedai Seni Djakarte: 17 Jalan Pintu Besar, Kota, Jakarta; T: (0818) 0837 4431; Mo–Su; 09:00–22:00
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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