Jakarta, with its population of 20 million, is a huge, sprawling metropolis. While culturally rich, the city is also infamous for its perceived concrete jungle character and the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s worst traffic . Travellers visiting Indonesia often skip the capital for Bali, Bandung and Yogyakarta – which is unfortunate.
While I agree that macet in Jakarta is incredibly frustrating (imagine spending 2.5 hours in the car for what would have otherwise been a 30-minute ride from the airport), this is a very exciting city. It’s clogged and congested, but also very vibrant and cultured, if you know where to look.
I have made it a point to visit the city every year over the past three years, and I was there last weekend, this time around with four cousins, for our own little family bonding time. We had a massively good time exploring the city.
For those who want to check out what Jakarta has to offer, and learn a bit about Indonesia’s history that culminated into the making of its people’s modern-day psyche, here’s a short itinerary of what you can do in Jakarta within a day.
Jakarta within a day
Start with a cuppa
Indonesia is known for its quality coffee beans, with regions like Acheh and Papua having their own distinctive beans.
Some of Jakarta’s best cafes and coffeehouses are outside the main CBD area, which may take some time to get to, considering the traffic.
So, if you want to try out the coffee without leaving the city centre, head to Djournal in Grand Indonesia – there’s a good selection of drip coffee there for you to try out. The ambiance is pretty decent too, and since it’s located in Jakarta’s version of our Pavilion (vibes and location), the crowd is pretty much young-ish. Expect a lot of Snapchat and Instastory shooting taking place around you, as you take your morning coffee.
The cafe also has a decent, albeit relatively limited range of brunch menu and sandwiches to choose from.
After the coffee, it’s tempting to walk around the lavish Grand Indonesia mall for some shopping and people watching – it’s a great place to be, with many familiar international brands and some local names as well. There are also plenty of decent places to eat, and one thing you’ll notice about Jakarta is that a lot of them do make a serious effort to look good and dress well when spending their time in the mall. Quite a contrast from what we in KL; I, for one, prefer going to the mall in the most casual attire I could find in the wardrobe.
Enough with the mall. From Grand Indonesia, take an Uber, or as locals love to do it, Gojek (motorbike taxi) to Jakarta Cathedral.
Understanding Indonesia’s religious diversity
Indonesia prides itself as a beacon of religious tolerance, and a visit to Jakarta Cathedral and Istiqlal Mosque is a good way to understand the people’s pluralistic view towards religion.
Jakarta Cathedral, constructed during the colonial period, is a large Gothic style structure that wouldn’t look out of place in Europe. It’s still bustling with worshippers every Sunday, and acts as a symbol of strong Christian presence in the city.
Locals worship in Bahasa Indonesia, and just outside the cathedral are Muslim hawkers selling Bakso and light snacks for hungry worshippers. Truly an image of harmony in the predominantly Muslim country (Indonesia is 80% Muslim).
Just across the road from the Cathedral is Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest in the world. The location close to the cathedral was chosen by Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, to symbolise religious harmony in the then recently independent nation. Sukarno’s Pancasila assured equal rights to six major monotheistic religions. Unlike Malaysia’s constitution, Pancasila does not recognise Islam as the sole religion of the Federation, and because of this, it is often deemed to be comparatively much more secular and pluralistic in nature.
Kota Tua – understanding Indonesia’s colonial history
Jakarta was called Batavia during the colonial period, and it derived its much of its prosperity from the bustling port of Sunda Kelapa. The Kota Tua area, which orientates around the Fatahillah Square, is the most preserved remnant of colonial Jakarta. Formerly run-down, many buildings in the area have seen successful revitalisation efforts over the recent years.
Jakarta’s Kota Tua is very touristy, however, so expect the main square to be extremely crowded during the weekend. Locals love their selfies, with many taking photos of themselves using tongsis (tongkat narsis selfie sticks). If you want to join in the fun, there are plenty of stalls selling low-grade selfie sticks, along with other cheap souvenirs.
While buildings surrounding the main Fatahillah square are fairly well-maintained and taken care of, some of the gems of old Jakarta have sadly fallen into various stages of disrepair, like this one:
So much potential, let’s hope the authorities will do something to preserve the building as a reminder of the city’s history.
For some cooling drinks and a respite from the searing heat outside, head to Cafe Batavia, conveniently facing the main square. While the food is mediocre at best, the colonial cafe has a very Instagram-worthy interior. Expect to pay premium prices here, as this place is a tourist trap.
Monas – still a popular hive of activities
Construction of Indonesia’s national monument (Monas) began 1961, during a turbulent chapter in Indonesia’s post-Independence history. President Soekarno wanted Jakarta to be Indonesia’s showcase capital, a manifestation of the nation’s emergence as a new regional power, and he directed for Monas, with its gilded flame of Independence on the top) to be erected during the time of tough economic situation in the country – still a controversial decision for some critics today.
Monas is still a prominent landmark in today’s Jakarta – it’s no longer the tallest edifice in the city, but it remains as an enduring symbol of the city. The parklands surrounding Monas is also extensive, and functions as the much needed green lung in the city where parks are scarce.
At night, Monas park becomes a hive of activities, popular amongst many Indonesians, especially those from the working-class backgrounds. Families picnic here during sunset, and couples sit on the benches, holding hands into the night. There are also some bikers testing their rides just outside its compounds.
Immersive cultural experience at Dapur Babah
Five minutes from Monas is Dapur Babah Elite, a place that I have fallen in love with. Set in an old shophouse building in Gambir, the restaurant is owned by a prosperous Chinese Indonesian family. The interior is very intimate as much as it is lavish, with antiques owned by the family faithfully put on display. Dining there does feel like eating in a well-curated museum gallery.
The food is also top-notch, from the perfectly marinated sweet beef satay to the rich sup rawon, the kitchen definitely does the Indonesian rich gastronomy justice. It’s also not too pricey, considering the opulent setting – expect around Rp200,000 (MYR70) per person.
Martabak for dessert
Martabak is a new street food phenomenon in Indonesia – it works like our apam balik, but thicker, and commonly prepared with thicker fillings. There are many variations of martabak, some of them savoury (eg cheese and meat), while others, and arguably the more popular ones, are sweet (eg Nutella, cheese & banana, Toblerone).
Martabak Boss in South Jakarta is particularly popular – I got to try this one, and their chocolate martabak is sinfully good. Expect to pay about Rp60,000 (MYR20) for a good size of martabak that can feed 2-3.
Party with the locals
Jakartans know how to party too – clubs in the city close at 4pm. There is no centralised entertainment districts and bar strips like KL’s Changkat and Singapore’s Clarke Quay here, however, so make sure you have your Uber and Grabcar application ready if you plan to do bar hopping.
Bauhaus in Kuningan is my favourite – the crowd here is predominantly made up of friendly young professionals. The place is quite small however, and the place works more like a bar than a nightclub, so if you love dancing, this might be a deal-breaker. The space, with its small mezzanine floor, sofas and lounge seats, wouldn’t look out of place in Berlin and London.
After a drink or two in Bauhaus, head to Dragonfly for the real action. This is where Jakarta’s wealthy young socialites go to for a dance, and the steep entrance fee Rp350,000 (MYR120) means that the place is out of reach for many. The music is awesome, however, and the club’s awesome 360 degree lighting setup adds on to the experience.
I felt a little too old for Dragonfly, so Bauhaus is definitely my favourite :p
So there you have it –
Within a day you will have seen different sides of Jakarta, from Jakarta Cathedral to Dragonfly, where the trendiest youth dance their night away, and from Soekarno-era Monas to the remnant of the Dutch colonial legacy in Kota Tua.
What this one-day itinerary shows you is the great diversity that not only Jakarta, but also Indonesia, possesses. This is by no means a monochromatic society; it is plural, artistic, rich and in many ways, tolerant – the latter, I found to be very precious.
Will be back for sure.