There is a big difference between living in and traveling in Jakarta. When I travel to a new city I aim to get to know it as intimately as possible. I check out the tourist attractions, I eat the street food and I wander around aimlessly to see what I can find. But I haven’t really done these things in Jakarta. Like I said, living in Jakarta is way different than traveling in it.
Living here does allow me to see a side of this complex city that most visitors don’t get to see. And I’m grateful for that. But now that my time here is rapidly coming to an end, I’ve had this gnawing feeling that I’ve been missing out on certain things Jakarta has to offer.
After all, I am a traveler through and through. And now that I have less than two weeks before I leave Jakarta, I came to the conclusion that I needed to see this city the way a true tourist would before I leave. So last weekend Aaron and I finally got our act together and sought out some of Jakarta’s top tourists attractions. And, believe it or not, we had a blast playing tourist!
Our quest to see the top tourist attractions in Jakarta…
Aaron and I decided to tick off all the top tourist attractions in Jakarta first, so we started in Central Jakarta. This is kind of like the Washington, D.C., of Indonesia. It’s the country’s political epicenter and is home to four of Jakarta’s top tourist attractions. The best part is, they are all located within walking distance of one another. Although if you’re terrified of having to bolt across the city’s traffic-riddled roads – and you should be – you might want to take a tuk-tuk.
Aaron and I started our day at Jakarta’s number one tourist attraction, Monas. Monas is another name for the National Monument. The iconic structure is located in the heart of Central Jakarta in Merdeka Square. The 137-meter high monument was finished in 1975 and serves as an important symbol of Jakarta’s independence from the Dutch in 1945.
We had grand plans to go to the top of the monument to check out the view, but after seeing how long the wait was we opted not to. Perhaps visiting on a Sunday wasn’t the best idea because the line was exceptionally long.
Regardless, we were able to admire Monas from the ground and wander around Merdeka Square. The enormous square is actually one of the city’s few public spaces (a sad reality in Jakarta). So it was nice to finally visit a place where people can actually gather outdoors. In this regard, I’m glad we visited during the weekend because it was a fun place to do some people watching. Although the lack of shade made it incredibly hot!
After I took about 100 pictures of the monument, we decided to head outside to Istiqlal Mosque and the Jakarta Cathedral, both of which are a mere five minute walk away. Aaron and I love to walk everywhere but Jakarta is probably one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly cities I’ve ever been to. So we rarely walk anywhere. But because we were in traveler mode, we were determined to walk between Central Jakarta’s tourist attractions.
We completely underestimated just how difficult it is to cross the street in Jakarta. In order to reach the mosque from Monas we had to cross a pretty hairy five-lane road which was a little sketch. As Aaron put it, it was kind of like playing real-life Frogger.
Istiqlal Mosque is actually the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. It opened in 1978 and is another symbol of the country’s independence (the word istiqlal actually means independence). The Jakarta Cathedral is directly across the street. I’m such a big fan of Islamic architecture but this Catholic Church was exceptionally cool and it is officially one of my favorite structures is the city. I mean just look at it!
Next on the agenda was Pasar Baru, one of the oldest markets in Jakarta. I honestly didn’t know too much about what to expect but I kind of fell in love with Pasar Baru. It is probably one of the most diverse areas of Jakarta. The Chinese, Javanese and Indian populations all have a rich history in this city and many of them still either live in or operate businesses in Pasar Baru.
Pasar Baru dates back to 1820 and used to be the place where average Indonesians would go to shop before shopping malls took over the city. Despite the fact that there are now nearly 200 malls in Jakarta, Pasar Baru is still a popular place for everyday Indonesians to go to shop for clothes, textiles, food and more.
The first thing I noticed is that Pasar Baru has a very Indian vibe. Stores sold colorful sarees and there were a bunch of Indian restaurants. This is not the norm in Jakarta.
Considering my obsession with Indian food, I was jazzed. And regardless of the fact that Aaron and I weren’t all that hungry we couldn’t resist lunching at the first vegetarian Indian restaurant we came across. Yes, there are tons of pure-vegetarian Indian restaurants sprinkled around Pasar Baru! And yes, I almost died of happiness.
After we’d stuffed ourselves with garlic naan, chicken masala and some sort of potato curry we decided just to wander around and walk it off. What I absolutely love about Pasar Baru is that it’s a quintessential Southeast Asian market. It’s a lot like Chinatown in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur except there are no red lanterns and it’s not at all tourist oriented. It’s simply an authentic and chaotic Indonesian marketplace.
A word to the wise, do not eat before visiting Pasar Baru. Aside from an abundance of Indian food this place is also street food central. There were all sorts of fried treats, skewers of chicken satay and some downright bizarre fruits. If I hadn’t been so full from my Indian lunch I probably would have just snacked on all of the amazing street food in Pasar Baru.
After we’d ticked off the four major tourist attractions in Central Jakarta, we decided to take a taxi uptown to the colonial district of Kota Tua. Aside from Monas, Kota Tua is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Jakarta. This is the part of town where Indonesia’s former Dutch colonists really left their mark.
I honestly hadn’t heard very good things about Kota Tua. Travelers mainly say that it’s disappointingly small and really rundown. While this is true to an extent, I was fascinated by the area because it offered a glimpse into Jakarta’s tragic history. There are still some impeccably preserved Dutch-colonial buildings, many of which line the city’s once pristine canals.
However, most of Kota Tua’s buildings are in compete disrepair either from age or from the riots in 1998. Walking around we noticed just how many of these once beautiful structures had been reduced to burned out shells. And it goes to show just how many of the city’s buildings were destroyed during that tumultuous time. (To learn more about Jakarta’s 1998 riots read this article…seriously it will shed some light on Jakarta’s recent history.)
History aside, the scene at Kota Tua was seriously weird and not at all what I’d expected. Because it was a Sunday there were hordes of Indonesians gathered in the main square. There was a particularly strange magic show taking place when Aaron and I arrived. As I teetered on my tiptoes, trying to peer over the crowd all I could see was a small boy who was swaddled in a sheet, like a mummy, and bound with ropes. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out how the show ended. All I know is that massive bull whips were being flicked around as we left…
At the far end of the square there were adults dressed in creepy zombie, witch and vampire costumes. This might have made sense had it been Halloween back in the US, but this was June in Jakarta. I guess people just like to dress up in creepy costumes in Kota Tua? There were also Indonesians riding colorful bikes around the square and wearing matching wide-brimmed hats. Weirdness aside, Kota Tua was a great place to wander around, people watch and eat lots and lots of street food.
I’ve been very honest about my rocky relationship with Jakarta, but I was pleasantly surprised by how fun it was to spend a day being a true tourist in Jakarta. Being cooped up in my apartment and hanging out primarily in malls for 11 months made me forget that I’m in a city that’s full of history, culture and great street food.
I also realized that there are in fact loads of fun things to do in Jakarta and for anyone who’s wondering whether or not Jakarta is worth a visit, I can honestly say that it is.
If you’re looking for more things to do in Jakarta, make sure to check out my previous post, 9 Fun & Weird Things to do In Jakarta.