Post-Asian Games, Indonesia’s lively capital boasts even more cultural, culinary and retail options for the inquisitive visitor
Packed with fascinating history, diverse cultural highlights and a vibrant independent foodie scene, Jakarta has quietly blossomed into one of Southeast Asia’s must-visit destinations.
Thrust into the spotlight as host of the recent 2018 Asian Games, the Indonesian capital has spruced up its offerings for foreign visitors, hoping to use the momentum to encourage even higher tourist numbers.
Business travellers used to holing up in the CBD to avoid the city’s notorious traffic, should instead look to extend their trips and explore the captivating blend of Dutch colonial architecture, contemporary skyscrapers and varied entertainment options. So sit back with a piping hot kopi (coffee), and plan your visit to the place known affectionately as the Big Durian.
Begin your exploration with a good helping of history, culture and an unexpected dose of wildlife by heading over to Merdeka Square. The public plaza is one of the world’s largest – five times the size of Tiananmen Square – and a popular spot for locals to enjoy sports and recreation. It’s home to the 132-metre-tall National Monument, official presidential residence Merdeka Palace, the fascinating and informative National Museum of Indonesia, and the neo-Gothic St Mary of the Assumption Cathedral. The square is also home to a herd of deer that live, somewhat incongruously, in the southeastern corner of the city-centre park.
Another notable central landmark is the imposing Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, with capacity for up to 200,000 worshippers. Built on the site of a former 19th-century citadel and set within established gardens, the mosque is a key pillar of Jakarta’s diverse community and offers fascinating insight into the melting pot of Jakarta’s cultural and religious elements (for example, regularly providing support and practical help – such as parking facilities – to the nearby Christian cathedral).
For the growing numbers who like to combine city exploration with some health-focused activity, a stroll or jog around leafy Suropati Park is in order. Built in 1920 to provide a cool and shady space for Jakartans to enjoy a break from the often intense midday heat, this lush public park is a peaceful spot for everything from people-watching to a spot of yoga.
If you happen to be in town over the weekend, you can also enjoy a rare traffic-free opportunity to explore the city by foot, bike, scooter or skateboard, as every Sunday Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin (two of Jakarta’s main thoroughfares) are designated car-free from 6am to 11am. The vehicle-free window offers a fresh and unusually calm perspective on the city.
If you’re in the mood to shop till you drop, you’ve come to the right place – Jakarta is bursting with excellent “shopportunities”. Whilst there are street markets galore, if you’d rather browse from the comfort of an air-conditioned mall, there are dozens of options throughout the city; some of the biggest include Grand Indonesia, Pondok Indah Mall and Central Park Mall (which even boasts its own 3.5-acre/1.4-hectare outdoor oasis, Tribeca Park).
For big-name labels, check out Galeries Lafayette; this upscale department store (think the French equivalent of Barneys in New York or Selfridges in London, transplanted to Indonesia) features four spacious floors of luxury fashion, beauty and accessories. With more than 300 brands represented, including designer names, high-street chains and more exclusive private labels, you’re bound to find something to splurge on – and if it doesn’t quite fit perfectly, there’s an on-site tailor for complimentary alterations.
If you’re more interested in checking out home-grown Indonesian labels, there’s a store for that too – The Goods Dept. Initially a pop-up market dedicated to celebrating local designers, it has since grown into an ultra-slick bricks-and-mortar venture, with ten locations throughout Indonesia (many with their own cafés) and an in-house fashion line. Specialising in young Indonesian designers and alternative streetwear with a few international favourites thrown in, the vibe here is urban, edgy and eclectic – this is the place to come for trendier-than-thou slogan tees, baseball caps and funky sneakers, with ranges for women, men and children all available.
For a totally different vibe, head to Pasar Santa – a traditional market that’s been converted into the latest hip hangout spot, with a slew of buzzing restaurants and indie boutiques that have revitalised the area. Leading the charge is Aksara Kemang, a quirky bookstore that has expanded into something of a cultural and creative hub. In addition to Aksara’s own superbly curated selection of classic and contemporary literature (with a focus on supporting independent Indonesian publishers), it’s also partnered with a range of other local businesses to make this a unique cross-sectional space for all things cool – including speciality coffee, homemade doughnuts, vinyl records, analogue film development, an art studio and a micro cinema. Expect to lose a few hours very happily here.
If you fancy sharpening your bargaining skills, then don’t miss the opportunity to haggle hard at Jalan Surabaya Antique Market. From Dutch colonial ceramics, ancient coins, batik fabrics and Balinese carvings to silk lampshades and collectible vinyl LPs, whatever you’re looking for you’ll probably find it here – and have plenty of fun browsing along the way.
Such serious retail therapy will require plenty of pit stops to refuel. Luckily, there are numerous mouth-watering options that show off the Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and indigenous influences that contribute to Indonesian cuisine.
When there’s a branch of Potato Head in a city, you can be guaranteed it’s one of the coolest places in town. The original Jakarta branch kick-started the whole chain, and its funky industrial-chic décor, laid-back outdoor garden and all-day menu of crowd-pleasing comfort food and creative cocktails have only got better with time. Expect bold flavours, locally sourced ingredients, chilled-out tunes and refreshing drinks
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A favourite of Indonesia’s celebrity crowd, Dapur Babah Élite is located in a pair of renovated 1940s shophouses; divided into several vibrantly hued rooms, it’s a gorgeously romantic setting, stuffed full of period antiques and beautiful artwork. The Peranakan cuisine on offer is just as memorable too; a stunning mix of Javanese, Chinese and Dutch influences, the menu showcases traditional recipes that have been handed down through generations and executed with contemporary flair. The must-order here is Nasi Tjampoer Babah, a fragrant pandan-infused rice served with nine side dishes including marinated beef, fried shrimp and sautéed tempeh.
Another gloriously historic setting awaits at Cafe Batavia, the second-oldest building in central Jakarta. At more than 200 years old, this two-floor beauty overlooks Kota Tua (the city’s Old Town) and with its dark-wood furnishings and endless rows of elegant shuttered windows, exudes colonial charm. The menu serves a range of classic international and Indonesian fare, all set to a soundtrack of smooth jazz.
The best way to enjoy Jakarta’s glittering skyline? With a drink in hand, of course! Rooftop bar Cloud Lounge, located on the 49th floor of The Plaza building, offers an incredible near 360-degree panorama of the city – head here at sunset for some wonderful views. Once you’ve finished gawking, cool down with some shots in their zero-degree Vodka Room – the first of its kind in Indonesia.
As one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, it would be wrong to visit Indonesia without enjoying a cup or two of caffeine-loaded goodness. If you like your kopi served with a side of Pinterest-worthy décor, head to Trafique Coffee. All bare-brick white walls, high ceilings and quirky knick-knacks, it looks like it’s come straight out of a design magazine – complete with a lovely courtyard, plenty of workspace and, of course, an excellent coffee menu. Specialising in Indonesian beans that are ground and roasted on site, Trafique is also renowned for its more unusual creations, including the Ugly Nutella (coffee mixed with yes, Nutella), Listretto (a refreshing lemonade-ristretto combination) and Almond Crème Brulée (featuring that all-important layer of caramelised sugar on top).
Where to stay?
Artotel Thamrin Jakarta
For a taste of Indonesia’s burgeoning creative scene, head to the glitzy district of Menteng, and the Artotel Thamrin Jakarta. Designed in collaboration with eight Indonesian artists, the bright and contemporary rooms are all individually decorated with murals in each artist’s trademark style. The theme continues downstairs in the hotel’s own art gallery, which focuses predominantly on local art across a variety of media, enabling guests to pick up a unique memento of their Jakarta stay. Conveniently located within easy reach of many of the city’s main attractions, guests are encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint by hopping on one of Artotel’s trademark purple bikes during their stay. artotelindonesia.com
If you prefer to step things down a gear after a busy working week, then The Hermitage, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, offers guests a peaceful oasis of calm that feels a million miles away from Jakarta’s typically frenetic pace. Located in a beautifully preserved art-deco building with charm to spare, the hotel offers a variety of generously proportioned rooms and suites – many with terraces – that are large and comfortable enough to linger in. Plush bedding, neutral décor and tasteful wood furnishings all underpin that sense of serenity, while on-site amenities including a lap pool and full-service spa ensure that even the most burnt-out executive leaves feeling blissed-out. hermitagejakarta.com
Pullman Jakarta Indonesia
A byword for luxury and comfort for business travellers, Pullman hotels are always a reliable choice for discerning guests, and the Jakarta outpost is no exception. It offers understated, modern décor, work-friendly amenities such as dedicated desk space in each room, and luxurious touches that include the brand’s crisp, white linens and memory foam pillows, plus drenching rain showers that are perfect for rinsing the day away. With a wide range of on-site bars and restaurants, including the unique Le Chocolat Lounge, where guests can savour handmade truffles over an all-important cup of Indonesian coffee, and UNA, a rooftop bar with stunning skyline views, you’ll undoubtedly struggle to tear yourself away. pullmanjakartaindonesia.com
Rachel Read and Kate Farr