Jakarta Travel Guide

Overview

For most travelers, Jakarta, Indonesia, is either part of a business trip or a pit stop on the way to more popular tourist destinations such as Bali and Yogyakarta. In truth, most find little that makes them want to linger in Indonesia's capital: A large, crowded city on the island of Java, Jakarta evokes few beautiful or memorable images. One exception is the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta, the city's art building.

To appreciate this city, visitors need to seek out Jakarta's sights that invoke the historical heritage as a meeting place for East and West. These include the remnants of the Dutch colonial era and the old schooner harbor, Sunda Kelapa, still hard at work and looking much as it did in previous centuries.

Don't be surprised, though, if modern Jakarta begins to grow on you: Its jarring mix of trendy nightspots, teeming streets and occasional political demonstrations bespeaks a place where the present is unfolding in an exciting—if not always orderly—manner. The city's image is slowly changing, however, and Jakarta has many fine hotels, shopping malls and golf courses in and around the metropolitan area to entice visitors to stay a little longer.

Because of the natural disasters that hit Jakarta and much of Indonesia in recent years, we advise that you call ahead or check with your travel agent about possible event cancellations and venue closings before you travel to Jakarta. Travelers to Indondesia should be aware that tsunamis and earthquakes are part of the travel equation. Both are unpredictable, but travel warnings from embassies come into force quickly in the unlikely event that they should occur.

Geography

Jakarta sprawls over a large area, and coming in from the airport provides a good introduction to the city's layout. When the Gatot Subroto Toll Road (the principal route from the airport) reaches the Semanggi intersection, you'll get your first glimpse of the Golden Triangle—the precious real estate of skyscrapers and palatial homes known as Menteng and Kuningan.

Running north and south from Semanggi is Jalan Jenderal Sudirman, the main thoroughfare of the central business district. To the north it becomes Jalan Thamrin, a wide boulevard that ends at Merdeka Square, the administrative heart of the city. Farther north is Glodok, home to centuries-old Chinatown, which merges into the old city (Kota) at Fatahillah Square. Beyond that lies the historic Sunda Kelapa docklands and the modern port of Ancol. Going south on Jalan Jenderal Sudirman takes you to Kebayoran Baru, the former Dutch residential suburb, and the swanky residential districts of Kemang, Pondok Indah and Ciganjur.

History

Jakarta began in the 1300s as a settlement called Sunda Kelapa, the capital of the last Hindu kingdom in West Java. The Portuguese made their first contact with Java there in 1513, but before they could establish a colonial foothold, the city fell to the Muslim warrior Fatahillah. He renamed the city Jayakarta (Victorious City), which it remained until 1619, when the Dutch stormed the town and razed it to the ground.

A shoreline fortress named Batavia rose from the ashes, eventually becoming the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Dutch colonial rule fostered the racial and economic divisions that continue to influence Indonesian society.

During World War II, the Japanese army occupied Batavia, ending Dutch rule and renaming the city Jakarta. The Japanese allowed Indonesians to rule themselves for the very first time, and it was during this time that independence leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta rose to prominence. After a four-year struggle with the Netherlands, Indonesia became a nation in 1949. Sukarno's flirtation with communism led to what's sometimes described as an abortive communist coup attempt. In the aftermath, Suharto rose from the chaos to rule Indonesia for 32 years.

Suharto's emphasis on ceaseless economic growth brought great prosperity to Jakarta and gave rise to the skyscrapers that dominate the modern city's skyline. But Suharto's power was broken by the economic crisis of 1997. He stepped down in 1998, and the country's first free elections in June 1999 saw the emergence of the democratic process. Today, together with a coalition of the four largest Islamic parties, the Democratic Party has a strong parliamentary majority, but civil unrest continues in some areas, particularly Aceh.

For a time, Indonesia had one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia, despite pressure on the economy from issues that affected its tourism industry. Unfortunately, decreased demand for exports and high inflation have threatened the country's decade of unprecedented economic growth. It's becoming increasingly clear that Indonesia's economic miracle was more of a mirage. Until the country rights its many structural problems, millions of Indonesians will remain out of work or underemployed; poverty continues to be a severe problem.

Sightseeing

If you have only a day or so to sightsee, you'll want to concentrate on Jakarta's historic sites. When the city was established as the capital of the modern nation of Indonesia, Sukarno, the country's first president, established many museums and built public monuments to instill the new republic with a sense of nationhood and destiny. City leaders don't do enough to make them attractive, but they're still among Jakarta's most interesting sights.

Start your tour in Jakarta's historic quarter, Taman Fatahillah. This public square was the heart of 18th-century Batavia, and the colonial buildings that flank it once housed the nation's administrative setup. The square has been both execution ground and fairground, and today, flanked on three sides by museums, and with a generous shade tree at its center, it mainly hosts tourists.

Of the three museums surrounding the square, Museum Wayang (Puppet Museum) is by far the best, but the Museum Sejarah Kota Jakarta (Jakarta History Museum) and the Balai Seni Rupa (Museum of Fine Arts) are worth a visit when you're in the area. When you're finished, take a break in the airy Cafe Batavia, which also looks onto the square.

The energetic or those fascinated by all things maritime may want to strike farther north to Museum Bahari (the Maritime Museum) and Sunda Kelapa. Early birds may want to visit Pasar Ikan, the large fresh-fish market, but if you're there after sunrise, you're wasting your time.

Heading south from Taman Fatahillah takes you to Glodok, Jakarta's Chinatown, but this is a Chinatown that doesn't really come into its own until the evening, well after all the museums have closed. You may also head farther south to Jalan Juanda and pass the northern entrance of the Istana Negara, the State Palace where the president's office is located. You soon will reach the huge modernist Mesjid Istiqlal (Grand Mosque), which is open to visitors, except during services.

The Grand Mosque (the largest in southeast Asia) faces onto the eastern flank of Medan Merdeka (Merdeka or Freedom Square), which is the site of the National Monument, Monas. The top of Monas has an observation deck that, on a clear day, offers a stunning panoramic view of the city. A number of governmental buildings, including the presidential palace, face the square.

After ascending Monas, you could exit Medan Merdeka to the northwest and walk down its west side. You'll shortly arrive at the Museum Nasional (National Museum), which contains an exquisite collection of all things Indonesian and is easily the best museum in the nation.

Nightlife

Jakarta has long had a reputation as a city with a lively nightlife, but with continued political uncertainty, including the bombing of places that cater to overseas visitors, the night scene has quieted down considerably. Nightclubs are generally open until at least 2 am.

A less savory side of Jakarta after dark is the city's prostitution industry. Visitors—male visitors, at any rate—may find themselves being solicited, often in the bars and clubs of some of the city's best hotels. The famous female impersonators and cross-dressers known as banci—lady-boys—are one of Jakarta's illicit sights that have almost become a tourist attraction. If you want to take a peek, make a late-night drive down Taman Lawang in exclusive Menteng: They will flash any car that slows down.

Dining

In recent years, the restaurant scene in Jakarta has experienced enormous growth, catering to the young business elite who have profited from the national economy's precipitous ups and downs. There's a wide selection of elegant restaurants, some set in lovely old mansions, others in cool, chic, modern hotels. Geographically, two areas stand out for dining: Jalan Wahid Hasyim, near Merdeka Square, and Kemang in the southern part of the city. Both offer diversity in terms of cuisine and price.

Because weekend recreational activities are limited in Jakarta, the city's luxury hotels try to outdo each other with their all-you-can-eat Sunday brunches. Diners are presented with many choices of locations and delicacies.

For a uniquely Indonesian treat, try the rijsttafel, or "rice table," invented by the Dutch, which includes an array of small dishes that are brought to the table by a parade of servers. Restaurants specializing in fusion food—Asian cuisine with a twist—are also increasingly popular. Vegetarians will have a tough time finding meatless offerings, although most hotel cafes and Indian restaurants do offer some vegetarian dishes.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 100,000 Rp; $$ = 100,000 Rp-250,000 Rp; $$$ = 250,001 Rp-400,000 Rp; $$$$ = more than 400,000 Rp.

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