Get on your bike to explore old Jakarta

On an eye-squinting and humid morning in old Jakarta’s Fatahillah Square (or Batavia Square) giggling school children in uniforms run around playing or sit on steps immersed in their books, but apart from our group of four, there’s only a few locals standing around drinking coffee and no other tourists. And no beggars with pleading eyes, no-one hawking postcards or souvenirs. Unlike other Asian capitals, Jakarta has that problem sorted.

What grabs my attention are the candy-colored bicycles for rent, some with sunhats accessories and sorbet-tinted helmets. They look more like a modern art installation and they’re just one of the surprises in this South-East Asian capital which has mostly domestic visitors. Jakarta isn’t a mecca for foreign tourists. If you want  explore somewhere completely different, come here.

The bikes are the best way to explore the old part of Jakarta, with yummy street food stalls down the side streets. They cost about 20,000 rupiah ($A2)  an hour. Bargain! The square is surrounded on all sides with Dutch colonial architecture. On our first day in the Indonesian capital, my fellow travellers and I have come to visit the Maritime Museum, the Fine Art and Ceramic Museum, and the Jakarta History Museum but we realise too late they’re closed on Mondays.

But Cafe Batavia is open 24/7.  It’s ranked #9 of 82 things to do in Jakarta by Lonely Planet travellers. The two-storey cafe first opened its doors in 1805, and largely retains its colonial atmosphere.  A favourite hangout for tourists and expats, it serves a combo of Dutch colonial dishes, Asian and Australian fare. It’s not cheap – you’re paying for ambiance. A beer is about $A15.

Fatahillah Square is a 1.8 acre paved open space that used to be the social and political centre of the Dutch empire in the East Indies. At night, it comes alive with food stalls and is popular with young people.

Like all capitals in the developing world, Jakarta is an eye-popping juxtaposition of old and new. Its residents are the most social media connected people in the world on Facebook and Twitter. The skyline is crowded with towering skyscrapers. Beyond them are teeming slums. Down at the old port, Sunda Kelapa, workers continue the back-breaking work of loading bags of cement onto pinsi, double-masted traditional boats, much the way they have for decades.

Store owners squat at the entrance of their shops which are cheek-by-jowl on dusty roads, where their goods are stacked methodically floor to ceiling.

Not too far away are air-conditioned mega-malls where you can also shop til you drop. And thank you, I do.


  • If you want to buy cameras and gadgets, Jakarta’s Chinatown in Glodok (Jakarta’s old town) is one of the best places to visit. The tiny shops at the port sell all sorts of curios
  • Museums are closed on Mondays
  • Jakarta’s population is close to 11 million, making it the largest city in South-East Asia
  • It covers 661 square kilometres
  • Established in the 4th Century, it became the capital of the Dutch West Indies, known as Batavia, from the 1600s until 1942 when the Indonesians kicked the Dutch out and renamed it Jakarta
  • Jakarta has a hot and humid climate
  • Unlike other Asian cities you won’t be bothered by beggars and hawkers. In 2007 the government outlawed all that and bans squatter settlements on river banks and highways, and prohibits smoking and spitting on public transport
  • Most tourism to Jakarta is domestic, so exploring this city is a fascinating new frontier.

I flew to Jakarta as a guest of Qantas, which flies daily to the Indonesian capital.

7 thoughts on “Get on your bike to explore old Jakarta

  1. Actually, America and Indonesia have a long friendship, and informed Americans do know where Jakarta is and some have visited. Not only for charity purposes. Lovely colors on the bikes, and nice story about a place that suffers majorly from developing world problems but has its own rewards. Thank you.


  2. It is true that Jakarta doesn’t hold the appeal that other Asian cities have, but really, opening our minds to visit is a good idea.


  3. The United States and Indonesia achieved another milestone under the Comprehensive Partnership between our two countries with the August 8 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to support greater bilateral cooperation on infrastructure projects. Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs José Fernandez and Indonesia Ministry of Industry Director General of International Cooperation Agus Tjahajana signed the MOU at the Ministry of Industry. We believe the MOU will create greater opportunities for American and Indonesian businesses to collaborate with the Government of Indonesia on infrastructure projects in priority sectors such as industrial zones, energy and power, transportation, water, and green industry development in key corridors under the Indonesian Masterplan, including Sumatra, East Kalimantan, and East Java.


  4. I bought the most amazing fish grille for 35c at that kitchen shop next to the music shop pictured.. I should have bought 20. It’s fantastic for bbq-ing fish and all my friends want one too.


  5. And I got an adaptor next door for $1.50. Good shopping in the most unexpected places. I’ve photographed the batik, the designs are so vivid, and have to write about them too.


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