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The ultimate guide to Jakarta

Beyond the daunting skyscrapers and maddening crowds, Jakarta is a cultural and culinary goldmine that often goes unnoticed in the rush. By Wong Boon Ken

Heading to a frantic, traffic-infested city in the name of a quick getaway might seem absurd to most, but there really is no better time to pay Jakarta a visit than on a weekend. Come Saturday and Sunday, the cosmopolitan Indonesian capital becomes a shadow of its harried, chaotic self. The decreased activity doesn’t miraculously transform the sprawling Javanese metropolis, formerly known as Batavia, into a Bali or a Lombok overnight, but it does offer added breathing room to explore Indonesia’s buzzing cultural, economic and political hub at a less frenetic pace.

Jetstar flies direct to Jakarta from $104 return.

Walk the talk
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Walk the talk

Nothing quite juxtaposes Jakarta’s rush hour traffic nightmare like the hugely popular car-free Sundays. Every Sunday (6–11am), all motorised vehicles (except TransJakarta public buses on the dedicated busway lane) are barred from entering Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin, two of Jakarta’s busiest streets. Pedestrians, joggers and cyclists revel in their newfound freedom by soaking in the carnival atmosphere – stalls with street food like Betawi-style omelette kerak telur and gado gado-esque ketoprak are staples here, as is the traditional horsedrawn carriage known as delman. This eco-friendly government initiative also represents the most opportune time to take unhindered snapshots of the historical landmark Monumen Selamat Datang along the Bundaran HI roundabout.

Café culture meets hawker fare 
Jakarta’s answer to Bangsar, Kemang is teeming with hip restaurants and trendy nightclubs, but nothing sets our pulses racing in this gentrified neighbourhood like Common People Eatery & Bar(Plaza Bisnis Kemang I, Jalan Kemang Raya 2, Jakarta. +62 21 718 1843, commonpeople.co.id). Unlike its Pulp hit namesake, there’s nothing ‘slumming’ about this classy dining space, which has earned rave reviews for its delectable brunch menu and tantalising porcine dishes since opening its doors in late 2012. The must-try caramelised pork belly, with stewed red cabbage and roasted baby potatoes in apple cinnamon, is melt-in-your-mouth tender, while the tangy grilled shrimp salad and reinvigorating smoothies deserve mentions as well.

Café culture meets hawker fare
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Café culture meets hawker fare

Jakarta’s answer to Bangsar, Kemang is teeming with hip restaurants and trendy nightclubs, but nothing sets our pulses racing in this gentrified neighbourhood like Common People Eatery & Bar(Plaza Bisnis Kemang I, Jalan Kemang Raya 2, Jakarta. +62 21 718 1843, commonpeople.co.id). Unlike its Pulp hit namesake, there’s nothing ‘slumming’ about this classy dining space, which has earned rave reviews for its delectable brunch menu and tantalising porcine dishes since opening its doors in late 2012. The must-try caramelised pork belly, with stewed red cabbage and roasted baby potatoes in apple cinnamon, is melt-in-your-mouth tender, while the tangy grilled shrimp salad and reinvigorating smoothies deserve mentions as well.

For affordable Dutch-inspired treats and coffee, you can’t go wrong with new café on the block Goedkoop (Jalan Bendungan Hilir Raya 62, Jakarta. +62 21 573 4430, goedkoopjkt.com). Housed in the administrative village affectionately known as Ben Hil, this charming warung kopi specialises in apple caramel pannekoek (very roti canai-meets-French toast) and local chocolate wafer snack Beng Benginfused frappe. If your sweet tooth remains unsatisfied, chocolate specialist Pipiltin Cocoa (Jalan Barito 2, 5 Kebayoran Baru, Jakarta Selatan. +62 21 7280 0011, pipiltincocoa.com) should be the next port of call. The Indonesia Chocolate Cup 2013 gold medal winner (no joke) crafts inventive self-produced desserts using locally sourced cocoa beans. We recommend Tabanan Chocolate 70%, a sophisticated concoction comprising spiced creameaux, chocolate pearl and dehydrated chocolate mousse, and the addictive pure chocolate drink.

Away from the glitz and glamour commonly associated with the more affluent city centre and CBD enclaves is dingy supper spot Warung Sate & Sop Kambing M Sani (Pasar Tanah Abang, Jalan KH Fakhruddin, Tanah Abang, Jakarta Pusat). Located in a makeshift tent, the secluded stall has made a name for itself over the years with steaming bowls of hearty and peppery lamb soup. The succulent lamb satay with thick peanut sauce is equally well-liked here. 

And for every mamak in KL, there’s a nasi padang restaurant in Jakarta. Natrabu (29A Jalan KH Agus Salim, Jakarta Pusat. +62 21 3193 5668), which once boasted a Malaysian presence in the early 2000s, is one of the oldest and most consistent nasi padang restaurants in town. Having served its first signature ayam pop in 1967, the modest original outlet’s low-key vibe, coupled with the friendly wait-staff’s traditional Minang attire, certainly provides a quaint alternative to Jakarta’s many posh eateries.

Let’s go to the mall
Photo: The Goods Dept
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Let’s go to the mall

Swanky malls are a dime a dozen in Jakarta – shopping, wining and dining are national pastimes after all. Featuring a decent selection of food (opt for Kafe Betawi’s rich soto Betawi every time) and an intriguing blend of fashion brands, Pacific Place (SCBD Jalan Jend. Sudirman Kav. 52–53, Jakarta Selatan. +62 21 5140 2828, pacificplace.co.id) marginally edges out Plaza Indonesia as our choice shopping destination. The fact that you have easy access to industrial chic bistro-bar Potato Head’s (+62 21 5797 3322, ptthead.com/jakarta) stellar range of cocktails tips the scales further in the roomy six-storey mall’s favour.

Aside from holding the distinction of housing the sole Galeries Lafayette department store in Southeast Asia, Pacific Place’s biggest claim to fame is being the spiritual home of The Goods Dept (+62 21 5797 3644/thegoodsdept.com). Opened by the masterminds behind the acclaimed Brightspot Markets fashion bazaar, The Goods Dept is regarded as the country’s pioneering retail concept store, whose success has paved the way for likeminded establishments like Bandung’s Widely Project and Popshop. While mulling over local Ensemble dresses and Swedish watch brand Daniel Wellington, hop over to the expansive three-year-old outlet’s The Goods Café, which serves some alluring ice cream sandwiches. 

Established in 2001, Aksara (+62 21 719 9288, aksara.com) is the go-to store in town for novelty gifts, indie music and hard-to-find magazines. Nestled between copies of cult title Monocle and The Slow Journalism Company’s Delayed Gratification are camera and phone accessories you never knew you needed. Aksara’s well-curated vinyl and CD collection is no slouch either, with LPs by Belle & Sebastian, The Knife and Foxygen sitting proudly on the shelves.

Golden oldies
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Golden oldies

To catch a glimpse of Jakarta’s humble past, head 20 minutes outside the city centre to Kota Tua(Jalan Taman Fatahillah, Jakarta Barat. +62 21 691 6275, kotatuajakarta.org), which houses remnants of the 16th century urban centre of Batavia built during the Dutch colonial era. This rustic area where Jakarta began is still home to several heritage buildings and sites, namely Bank Indonesia Museum, Glodok Chinatown, Jakarta History Museum and Wayang Museum. Café Batavia (+62 21 691 5973, cafebatavia.com), for one, is worth a visit, if only for its old world architecture and classy ambience. A frequent haunt among tourists and expatriates, this elegant Dutch-Indo restaurant serves extravagantly overpriced food, but trust us when we say that the pretty toilets at this 200-year-old building are alone worth the price of admission.

Jakarta after dark
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Jakarta after dark

When dusk gradually settles over the city after 6pm, make your way deep into the upmarket residential area of Menteng, which was once home to Dutch officials a century ago. Here you’ll come face to face with the erstwhile Fine Circles of the Dutch East Indies building, which was given a facelift by Tugu Hotels & Restaurants Group earlier this year and now goes by the name Tugu Kunstkring Paleis (Jalan Teuku Umar 1, Menteng, Jakarta Pusat. +62 21 390 0899, tuguhotels.com). Particularly gorgeous in the night time, the majestic restaurant, bar and art space is a history lesson and cultural spectacle rolled into one. To wit: The Rijsttafel Betawi celebratory feast that was once a Dutch culinary fixture in the 1910s is available upon pre-booking, while antiques and paintings of all sizes dominate the various rooms that are named after historical figures like Diponegoro. A brightly lit art gallery and shop dedicated to supporting promising local talent is also located at this 99-year-old structure.

ith the night still young, rub shoulders with Jakarta’s who’s who at the two most fashionable nightspots in town – Immigrant (Sixth floor, Plaza Indonesia, Jalan MH Thamrin 28–30, Jakarta. +62 21 398 38257, immigrant-jakarta.com) and Social House (First floor, Grand Indonesia, Jalan MH Thamrin 1, Jakarta. +62 21 2358 1818, ismaya.com/socialhouse). The ironically (or unfortunately) named NYC loft-like Immigrant (depending on how you view the escalating number of expatriates here) is divided into a plush private lounge and a decidedly livelier bar area. Meanwhile, the wood-accented SoHo, as Social House is widely known, exudes a more pretentious vibe but offers a breathtaking view of Bundaran HI. If music is all you’re after, we suggest Black Cat Jazz & Blues Club (Plaza Senayan Arcadia Units X – 208/209, Jalan New Delhi – Pintu I Senayan, Jakarta. +62 21 5790 1264/blackcatjakarta.com). The classy jazz and blues venue draws in the crowd with its groovy regular performances and open mic nights. The Jaya Bar (Jalan MH Thamrin 1–2, Jakarta. +62 21 3192 5633) also comes highly recommended for its monthly Superbad live indie music nights, which have been graced by the likes of Hightime Rebellion and Answer Sheet in the past.

Getting around
Photo: Soekarno-Hatta International Airport
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Getting around

Once you arrive at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, ignore the touts and instead look out for the Blue Bird Group stand, where the reputable budget taxi company’s metered cabs are a-ready. Also take note that before your departing flight, you’ll have to fork out IDR150,000 ($16.35) for airport tax.

For travelling around the city and major attractions (like Bundaran HI and Kota Tua), the TransJakarta public bus service, at IDR3,500 ($0.40) per one-way trip, is a workmanlike option. If you prefer the comfort and convenience of taxis, Blue Bird, Taxiku and Express are the way to go, although more adventurous tourists can try the traditional tuk tuklike bajaj vehicle.

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