24 Hours in Jakarta
Exploring Indonesia’s gateway city.
Expats have appropriately labeled Jakarta “The Big Durian,” referring to the Southeast Asian fruit with a strong odor. Upon first impression, the Indonesian capital is unimpressive, intense and even overwhelming to the senses. But once you probe beyond its husk, you will discover fascinating history, richness of culture, and the sweetness of its people. Behind its futuristic skyscrapers and shopping malls lay remnants of yesterday’s rich cultural exchanges and colonial past. Often overlooked, this gateway to getaways across the archipelago nation warrants an immersion of its own.
Rise refreshed at the Pullman Jakarta, centrally located in the city’s business and shopping district with front-facing views of the iconic Thamrin Roundabout. Enjoy breakfast at the hotel’s signature Sana Sini Restaurant, a labyrinth of live cooking stations. Just be sure to bring along the map provided by the hotel (really!), or else you may get lost as you traverse the path of diverse cuisines.
Head to the center of the city and soak in some local artwork at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia. (Arriving early to this museum-meets-art gallery helps ensure that you avoid the long lines.) Take your time admiring the paintings and sculptures that fill this sprawling Dutch East Indies–style complex spruced with palm trees. Be sure to peruse paintings by Raden Saleh, in particular — a 19th-century pioneer of modern art in Indonesia.
Hail a cab to Kota Tua, or Jakarta’s Old Town, and be transported to the country’s colonial past. Wander the streets — lined with food carts and vendors selling trinkets — that lead to Taman Fatahillah, a bustling cobblestone square surrounded by Dutch-era buildings. Rent a bike to explore the area and admire the architecture, or simply wander about on foot amid throngs of visitors.
After working up an appetite, calm your growling stomach at Cafe Batavia, a charming restaurant housed in a 200-year-old colonial building in Taman Fatahillah. To enjoy live music while you dine, grab a seat on the ground floor. But if you mind the cigarette smoke, head up the staircase past the hundreds of framed vintage photos and perch yourself by the windows looking out on the square — the perfect vantage point from which to people-watch as you sip an ice-cold Bintang beer and nibble on Indonesian–style fried chicken.
Pay a visit to the Jakarta Cathedral (also known as the Church of Our Lady of Assumption), an impressive neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church that serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Jakarta. Its tall twin spires stand out in the sky as a testament to religious diversity in the world’s largest Muslim country.
Proceed across the street to Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Former President Sukarno insisted this grand mosque be built near the Jakarta Cathedral to symbolize religious harmony. Visitors are welcome, but ensure you are dressed modestly before entering the modernist structure. If you’d like, you can enlist an English-speaking guide to accompany you on a short tour of the premises (for which you can offer a small tip or donation). Highlights include the mosque’s interior gold dome and serene courtyard.
Wander to the nearby Merdeka Square, and take a few minutes to admire the Mahabharata Monument just outside. This beautiful sculpture brings to life Krishna and Arjun’s journey on chariot in the epic Mahabharata, a nod to Hinduism’s imprint on local culture.
Retire on the grounds by Monas, or the National Monument — a marble structure with a gold flame that towers over the Merdeka Square. Find a comfortable spot on the grass to sit and watch life in Jakarta unfold: children flying kites, teenagers extending their selfie-sticks to pose for photos, and couples canoodling. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the durian ice cream or one of the many other snacks on offer by surrounding vendors. Stay past dusk to watch the monument illuminate into a succession of bright colors.
Head back toward the Pullman and dine at the nearby Seribu Rasa Restaurant for flavorful Indonesian fare: deep-fried seafood, scrumptious satay (seasoned and skewered grilled meat), and perfectly spiced nasi goring (Indonesian stir-fried rice). Don’t forget to drizzle your food with sambal — Indonesia’s famous condiment made of chili peppers.
After a hearty meal, walk over to the BCA Tower and wind down the day with a cocktail or two at SKYE Bar and Restaurant, a swanky and lively rooftop bar on the tower’s 56th floor. For another taste of local flavor, try the Dragon Fruit Margarita: a concoction of tequila, orange curaçao liqueur, fresh-squeezed lemon and homemade dragon fruit syrup.
Escape the frenzy of Jakarta’s streets by retiring to your room at the Pullman. Soak in all the day’s vivid sights and sounds even as you rest up for your next grand adventure.
Sumit Galhotra is a New York–based freelance journalist who frequently travels to write about human rights issues. He hopes to visit at least one new country each year so that the number of stamps in his passport corresponds to the number of candles on his birthday cake.