Although Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, it is in fact not a city but a district. Officially known as Daerah Khusus Ibukota Jakarta Raya or ‘Special Capital Territory of Jakarta’, the district (abbreviated to DKI Jakarta) is subdivided into five kota or ‘cities’, all of which have their own administrative systems.
The district was established in the fourth century and was originally named Batavia. The de facto capital of the Dutch East Indies, it was renamed Jakarta, meaning ‘complete victory’, after the independence of Indonesia in 1945.
Today the district is a gateway for the numerous foreign visitors keen to explore Indonesia’s 13,000-strong island archipelago – which includes popular destinations such as Bali. The area is also favoured by neighbouring Malaysians and Singaporeans keen to pick up bargain textiles and crafts. However, the district is more than a stopover or shopping centre, and once you dig beneath the chaotic, traffic-filled surface you’ll discover its unassailable spirit and energy, distinctive monuments and several good museums.
A sprawling conurbation of five cities in one, Jakarta is neither easy, nor practical to walk around. Sidewalks are congested with street vendors and, even if the traffic jams slow traffic to a snail’s pace, drivers won’t stop for pedestrians. The best way of getting from one place to another is in a bajaj; a three-wheeled scooter which carries passengers in an open cabin and is capable of weaving though the gridlock.
Start in the city of Central Jakarta, home to the district’s beloved and symbolic National Monument. Situated in Merdeka Square and known locally as Monas, you can visit the observation deck for a panoramic view of the five cities and Java Sea. North of Monas is the Presidential Palace, the official residence and office of the Indonesian president, while south is Jalan Thamrin, the city’s main avenue and the location of the Selamat Datang statue. Here you’ll also find the cobblestone streets of Old Batavia which contain colonial era buildings that have been converted into museums. Visit the fascinating Jakarta History Museum, located in the former Batavia City Hall or the National Museum of Indonesia in the ‘Elephant Building’.
East Jakarta is also full of museums; the cultural park of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah alone contains 14. The park also introduces the large roofs and pointed peaks of the country's provincial architecture.
Jakarta is home to a kaleidoscope of tribes, languages, cultures, customs and religions; diversity which is mirrored in its cuisine. Ten million Jakartans enjoy a culinary stew which comprises multi-ethnic ingredients imported by centuries-old Indian, Arab, Chinese and European traders, and modern-day influences from other global cuisines.
For a true taste of Jakarta try Indonesian food which ranges from traditional Padang restaurants to low-budget Javanese Warteg food stalls. Try the ubiquitous satay, nasigoreng and gado-gado, or the local favourite: soto betawi, beef offal with coconut milk broth. Food is generally spicy so those with sensitive palates might want to request "Tidak Pedas" - without chilli.
Although Jakarta is the capital of the world’s most populated Islamic country, it harbours a dedicated party scene and the clubbing is arguably among the best in Southeast Asia. Pulsating nightclubs dot the five cities, while every modern high-rise hotel in the central business district has a sophisticated bar or three. Popular areas include the expat pubs of Blok M, karaoke bars of Little Japan and the arty haunts of Kemang in South Jakarta, and the bars around Menteng and Jalan Jaksa in Central Jakarta. The further north you go the seedier the bars become: Kota in North Jakarta is best avoided after dark due to its sleazy reputation.
In addition to Jakarta’s five kotas, or cities, it includes the regency of Kepulauan Seribu. Translated as an exaggerated ‘Thousand Islands’, the regency is a collection of 105 small islands located on the Java Sea.
Easily accessible by ferry from Jakarta’s Ancol Marina, the archipelago of sandy islets – all but 37 of them uninhabited – provide a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of Jakartan life. The area has been designated a marine national park and offers superb diving amongst stunning coral reefs, plus windsurfing and jet skiing.