Love it or hate it, Jakarta’s the main gateway to Indonesia – here's how to spend your first day in the city
Where? Java, Indonesia
Why? Direct flights from UK are set to open up Indonesia, the world’s most extensive archipelago
When? Dry season (Jul-Oct); avoid the worst of the monsoons (Jan)
Seat of government for an estimated 17,508 islands, Jakarta is a phenomenally diverse and enchantingly cosmopolitan city. People tend to either love or hate the ‘Big Durian’: fans say the name is an Asian response to NYC’s fame; others that it’s an allusion to the local fruit’s drain-like smell.
At first glance, South-East Asia’s biggest city is hectic, noisy, sprawling and (during rush-hour) infuriating, but take time to get under its skin – to delve among the traditional markets and historical centres – and you’re sure to find that liberal doses of Far Eastern excitement will rub off on you.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population; while dress rules here are easy-going, excessively skimpy outfits are considered offensive. That said, most Indonesians are too polite to ever complain.
Your first view of Jakarta is likely to be the first of many surprises: as the plane banks over the Java Sea you stare down on the atolls and islets of Pulau Seribu (literally ‘Thousand Islands’), an immense archipelago that actually lies within the administrative boundaries of the city.
Visa on arrival formalities are smooth and hassle-free these days; you can fill in the arrival/departure forms before landing.
ATMs are available throughout the airport but landing with a stash of rupiah is the safest bet.
Indonesians may turn out to be the friendliest people you have ever met on your travels. However, the experience of getting away from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport is not the best introduction to this incredibly hospitable country.
The airport is 20km west of the city centre, about 45 minutes’ drive – though double that if you’re trying to cover the distance by taxi during Jakarta’s infamous rush-hour. As with a first-time arrival in any big city, consider upgrading for the first night to a hotel that offers an airport pickup. Otherwise, take an official metered taxi rather than a private car (which are especially risky at night). Fares should cost around IDR150,000 (£9.50).
The cheapest option is a Damri bus; to get into the centre, buy a ticket to Gambir (around IDR25,000 [£1.60]) from one of the Damri booths and wait. Take care of your belongings.
The sheer size of Indonesia (5,270km from end to end) means that, despite fairly reliable regional road and rail networks, most travellers fly in and out of Jakarta (a 15 hour flight from London).
For example, a bus trip to the neighbouring island of Bali could take you more than 30 hours; a train ride from Jakarta’s Central Station to the ‘nearby’ city of Yogyakarta (Java’s cultural capital) will take 12 hours.
Regional flights are inexpensive and connect hubs across the archipelago. However, if you do take the trouble to travel overland, and head offbeat, you’ll reap the benefits of wonderful landscapes and priceless Indonesian hospitality.
Change from purchases can run into thousands of rupiah, and short-changing is rife in touristy areas. Boycott places where it is clearly deliberate.
You can’t fight Jakarta’s infamous traffic so try to make it a part of the experience. Buses are often packed to bursting and tend to run on erratic timetables but the iconic bajaj (tuk-tuks) can zip through the traffic in a way that no other vehicle can. Haggle for a price before you get in; about UK£20 should be enough for a half-day shuttle around the most important tourist sites.
Start where Jakarta itself started. Sunda Kelapa harbour was the centre of a trading empire that once stretched from Java right through to Malaysia. This sea-faring heritage lives on in the ranks of elegant Bugis schooners and in the Maritime Museum that occupies an old Dutch gedung warehouse.
In 1619 the Dutch founded their Indonesian capital nearby, in what is still known as the Batavia (or Kota) section of the city. The wonderful Café Batavia, on the cobblest one square of Taman Fatahillah, remains the perfect place for lunch. Afterwards, ask your driver to drop you at the southern gate to Taman Medan Merdeka (Independence Square) to take a leisurely stroll through the indigenous trees. In the centre of the park is the National Monument – it was designed as a lighthouse that would send a reassuring (and wholly metaphorical) beacon out across the entire archipelago. It’s a handy place for a disoriented tourist to try to get their bearings in one of Asia’s most bewilderingly vibrant capitals.
Top end: Shangri-La Jakarta is one of the city’s finest hotels. Views from suites above the 20th floor offer bird’s-eye views, and the exclusive Horizon Club on the 26th floor provides complimentary afternoon tea, buffet and cocktails to guests. The hotel is in the business district, a short drive from Merdeka Square and the old town; it can arrange limo transfers to/from the airport. Luxurious rooms cost from around US$290 (£187).
Mid-range: For a completely unexpected Jakarta experience, check into one of the gorgeous open-fronted waterside bungalows on Tiger Islands Eco Resort. Technically still in Jakarta, this seemingly remote islet is just 90 minutes by speedboat from the city’s Ancol Marina. Bungalows from IDR1,390,000pp (£87), including boat transfer.
Budget: Most backpackers tend to gravitate to the relatively low-key little ‘backpacker ghetto’ around Jalan Jaksa with its wide selection of budget hotels, cheap eateries and beer-splashed bars. Some hotels in this area do a roaring trade in ‘short-term room rental’ and security can be questionable. Le Margot Hotel (Jalan Jaksa 15c) has friendly, helpful staff and clean doubles with en-suite hot-water bathrooms for UK£20, including aircon.
For most, Jakarta is a jumping-off point for exploring other parts of this immense country. It’s a launch-pad from which you can easily arrange flights to the wilds of Borneo, Sumatra and New Guinea or less challenging spots such as Bali and Lombok. For expert travel advice, contact Indonesia Trip Advisors.
It’s worth spending a few days in the city to acclimatise to Indonesian life. Taman Mini Indonesia Indah is a heritage theme-park that offers a surprisingly enlightening way to sample the cultural diversity of the islands.
Before abandoning Jakarta altogether, consider recuperating from jet-lag on the white sand of a tropical island. How many capitals can boast an archipelago of 120 isles within its city limits? The liberally named Pulau Seribu area (meaning Thousand Islands) comes close to living up to its ‘paradise’ tag (if you take a speedboat beyond the coastal zone’s garbage problems). Tiger Island Resort (see left) not only offers wonderful accommodation and good snorkelling but also showcases some innovative ways in which Indonesian resorts can deal with environmental problems.
Population: 10.2 million
Language: Bahasa Indonesia
International dialing code: +62
Visas: A 30-day visa can be issued on arrival (UK£16).
Currency: Indonesian rupiah (IDR), currently IDR16,000 to the UK£
Best viewpoint: Take the elevator up the 130m tall ‘Monas’ tower (National Monument) to enjoy unparalleled views across the city.
Health: No specific vaccinations are required. Street-food is delicious and cheap, but reasonable caution should be taken. Those caught with drugs could face the death penalty.
Useful resources: Keep abreast of current events with The Jakarta Post app (free). Find your way around with Jakarta Map, Jakarta Vacation Guide and Discover Jakarta (all free). To navigate the pitfalls of Bahasa Indonesia use the excellent iKamus (free); it only translates Indonesian to English so you need to download its sister app eKamus (for 69p). The website for the Jakarta City Tourism Office is www.jakarta-tourism.go.id.
Climate: Lying just south of the equator, Jakarta’s ‘winter’ (Jul-Oct) is the best time to avoid the rain and sweltering 85% humidity. A coastal breeze often helps to keep the temperatures down from rainy season highs (40°C-plus).
Give a boost to the city’s nominal attempts to cut down on pollution by using the newer, relatively ecofriendly blue tuk-tuks rather than the old noisy, smoky red ones.