Jakarta's history began as a flourishing port north of the city and developed southward over the centuries. Five autonomous municipalities emerged, together offering a veritable city of contrasts. As overwhelming as the crowds and congestion may be, the metropolis contains pockets of attractions that make a gratifying stay for those who plan their trip well.
Central Jakarta: The Moneybag
Embassies and businesses tend to gravitate towards Central Jakarta, the capital's nucleus. Indonesians from all over the archipelago flock to the city for a share of commerce. Most companies choose to establish their base along Jalan M.H. Thamrin. This district, with its close proximity to the concentration of government offices at Lapangan Merdeka, assures quick access to the rest of the city.
For the leisure traveler, Central Jakarta showcases some of the best museums in town and plenty of photo-taking opportunities. The National Museum, Textile Museum, Jakarta Arts Building, Puppet Museum and Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Center all do their part in initiating visitors to the city's past and culture.
Several monuments grace Central Jakarta's busy traffic circles. In the middle of the Lapangan Merdeka towers the gold-topped obelisk and the mos t famous landmark in the metropolis, the National Monument. Sooner or later visitors are bound to stumble upon the Welcome Monument and other imposing statues—Farmer's Statue, Arjuna Wijaya Statue and Prince Diponegoro Statue. The Istiqlal Mosque, Cathedral Church and Immanuel Church also make excellent backdrops for snapshots.
The avid shopper hunting for designer labels will find absolute delight in the luxurious Plaza Indonesia. For a taste of the local shopping climate, check out the Cikini Traditional Market for gold and trinkets, Jalan Surabaya Antique Market for antiques and handicrafts and the sprawling Tanah Abang Market for virtually anything else.
South Jakarta: Glitz and Glamor
South Jakarta covers an extensive area, stretching from the Golden Triangle financial district to Pondok Indah far south. It is synonymous with glitz and glamor, a description partly supported by the classy shopping complexes dotting the district—Blok M Mall, Blok M Plaza, Pasaraya, Plaza Senayan and Pondok Indah Mall. From international brands to local handicrafts, the district holds a plethora of merchandise for discerning shoppers.
The prime residential districts of Pondok Indah, Kebayoran Baru and Kemang are also situated in South Jakarta. Plush restaurants, cafés and bars abound, catering to the discriminating residents in the neighborhood. Café Gran Via, Toscana, Sportsmans and Prego Restaurant and Bar are but four competitors for your attention. Kemang Duty Free boasts the widest selection of fine wines in town.
East of the municipality lies the modest Ragunan Zoo, which provides a good platform for learning about endangered species and animal protection. (To experience wildlife up close, ma ke a day trip out of Jakarta to Taman Safari Indonesia at Bogor, down south.)
North Jakarta: Timeless
North Jakarta is also the historical district, where visitors can uncover the origins of the capital. An archaeological excavation near the Cilincing Coastline provides evidence of civilization dating from 3000 BCE.
The Lookout Tower commands an enchanting panorama of the Sunda Kelapa Harbor, the 12th-century port that once prospered on the spice trade. The late 16th Century V.O.C. Warehouse was built by the Dutch to store their trading goods. Today, the Maritime Museum immortalizes life on board the steamships that linked Batavia (Old Jakarta) and Holland around the turn of the 20th century through archived photographs. Further inland is Jembatan Pasar Ayam, a historical Dutch drawbridge that marks the Dutch occupation of Batavia.
Many locals also equate North Jakarta with recreation. Ancol Dreamland, a beach resort, packs in several fun-filled theme parks, an art and handicraft market, an oceanarium and even an 18-hole golf course. Ancol Marina operates as a gateway to the Thousand Islands scattered in the glistening Jakarta Bay.
West Jakarta: Glodok
Glodok, also known as Chinatown, dominates much of West Jakarta. Initially a Chinese ghetto, the area has developed into a bustling commercial district. Thousands of small businesses (some of which have been around for centuries), along with traditional markets and hawker stalls, bustle with activity. Ancient temples such as the Vihara Dharma Bhakti provide spiritual solace from the materialistic world outside.
In 1740, Dutch antipathy towards the Chinese community led to the massacre of at least 5,000 Chinese. Fatahillah Park (Batavia's old town square), Kota Train Station and Jakarta History Museum witnessed this horrifying bloodbath and, more recently, the May 1998 riots.
East Jakarta: The Hodgepodge
Of all the five municipalities, East Jakarta is the most difficult to epitomize, as it contains a bit of everything. Some of its popular spots include the Bird Market and Pasar Rawabening, a trove of exotic gemstones. A walk through the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah introduces one to the enormous cultural diversity of the vast Indonesian archipelago. The theme park houses many other attractions, such as the Keong Mas Imax Theater, several museums and a bird park. The historical town of Jatinegara Meester Cornelis also warrants a visit for its local-produce market, gemstone bazaar, several quaint places of worship and kampongs.