Should you visit Jakarta? My honest review

Alexis
Modified on June 18, 2024

Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, and for many, the gateway from Europe to the Indonesian archipelago. However, very few visitors take the time to explore it, even for just a few days. Why so much hate? Should you also skip it? Here is my opinion.

Jakarta: One of the Most Controversial Megacities in Southeast Asia

There is no doubt, Jakarta is not really the capital of Southeast Asia that is cherished by all travelers, and if it can reassure you, it is not much more popular among expatriates in Bali either.

It's simple, when I arrived in Bali, no one advised me to visit Jakarta. At the same time, these same people were rightly praising the merits of other Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Phnom Penh to name a few.

Unfortunately for me, or perhaps fortunately, I married a woman from Jakarta (I even got married in Jakarta by the way!) and therefore I often have to go to the capital to, among other things, see my in-laws.

Despite the warnings of many people, when I went to Jakarta for the first time, after living in Bali for about 4 years, I did not completely hate the Indonesian capital, without loving it either. 

I even found that even though it was not my favorite vacation destination, it was still something I maybe should have tried before. And I am not the only one. I have known some expats in Jakarta who would have been disappointed to be transferred to Bali.

So who to believe? I will try to make a summary as objective as possible.

center of Jakarta

Why Jakarta is Not More Often on Indonesian Itineraries

Almost all itineraries crossing Indonesia carefully avoid spending even a few days in Jakarta. Here's why.

Jakarta is Not a "Nature" Destination in Indonesia

It's obvious, but Jakarta is a large capital, and thus not exactly the postcard image that the average European has of Indonesia (beaches, rice paddies, and coconut trees to simplify).

Here, you are in a city of 10 million inhabitants, very expansive, with a megacity of 34 million inhabitants, which is already hard to imagine in itself!

To give you an idea, Paris has in comparison 2 million inhabitants within the city limits, and 10 million with the suburbs. The urban area of Jakarta is therefore 3 times more populated than that of Paris!

It stands to reason that with so many people in the same place, you are quickly not in a very natural setting. Therefore, many problems are felt: housing, traffic jams, and even pollution.

Jakarta is Not an Easily Understandable City for a European

Europeans are used to European cities: pedestrian-friendly, commercial, with parks, places to meet, and residential areas. They often have difficulty understanding cities based on another model, and Jakarta is one of them.

The city is not only endless, but it is also not very pedestrian-friendly, and as often in Southeast Asia, a large part of social life takes place in shopping centers (malls), in places of worship (often mosques in Jakarta), or in the neighborhood.

For the average European who does not know much about the continent and finds themselves parachuted into Jakarta without speaking Indonesian, without knowing the food or some aspects of the culture, the shock is often quite inevitable.

Social Inequalities and Ecological Problems are Very Striking in Jakarta

The cultural shock compared to Europe does not stop at the architecture of the city and its urbanism. Jakarta is also quite harsh for Westerners because social inequalities are very visible: you go from slums to very rich neighborhoods in a few meters.

These inequalities are not unique to Jakarta, they are everywhere in Indonesia. But they are more visible in Jakarta, as the economic capital, where the ultra-rich who run the country's economy or politics mix with the ultra-poor who have fled rural poverty in hopes of a better life. It is more or less marked depending on the neighborhoods, but in some areas of Jakarta, the misery that contrasts with the luxury can be shocking.

Similarly, the ecological problems are huge in Jakarta, and they too can hit you in the face.

jakarta from pasar baru

It Can Be Complex to Get Around Jakarta for the Uninitiated

Unlike some neighboring capitals like Singapore or Bangkok, getting around Jakarta is a real hassle, even for the locals.

If there are public transport systems that are improving, they are generally very difficult to understand without some knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia, and even then. Even just finding a “top-up” transport card can be a little adventure. Nothing compared to the ease of use of the Singapore or Bangkok network.

The network is also generally poorly connected and quite unpredictable, making it even less accessible for a tourist.

But with Gojek, Jakarta quickly becomes much simpler, as long as you don't get stuck in one of the enormous traffic jams the city is known for.

jakarta view from gojek

Jakarta is generally an exhausting city

If many people, including tourist guides, rarely include Jakarta in their travel itineraries in Indonesia, it’s also because, in addition to being difficult to understand for a non-local, the city is also exhausting.

It is very hot and stifling in Jakarta (much worse than in Bali), the pollution is very high, transportation is complex, constant agitation, violent contrasts, culture opposite to Western culture...in short, it’s not the perfect destination to relax.

The reasons why you should (still) visit Jakarta

Now that you know why Jakarta is so little visited, here are the good reasons to visit Jakarta, according to me.

Jakarta is a very safe city

I know this is a big concern when living in the West, but safety is really not a problem in Jakarta.

Nothing like the security issues of a city like Paris (hum hum), whether in transport, shopping centers, or on the street. There are police officers and security agents everywhere.

Jakarta is as safe as Bali, and Bali is really safe. So, you have no reason not to go to Jakarta because you fear for your safety.

 

You learn more about Indonesia and its culture by visiting Jakarta than by visiting Bali

It’s not really a secret for locals or expats, but it often surprises tourists: Bali does not represent the Indonesian archipelago as a whole. It’s really a unique cultural island that is present in only one place in the country.

Conversely, Jakarta is a capital, and like many capitals, it attracts people from all over the country for work. Therefore, in Jakarta, you have Indonesians from almost the entire archipelago, many from Java, but not only.

Java being the island where 50% of Indonesians live, unsurprisingly, Jakarta is a better representation of Indonesian culture as a whole than Bali, which houses only 2% of locals and lives almost solely on tourism. 

Whether it is to discover Indonesian food, religion, or way of thinking, Jakarta is not the worst representation of the country, even if it is not the only one.

Monas in Jakarta

Jakarta is an immense and perfectly dystopian city

Jakarta is a concentration of what not to do in terms of urban planning, transportation, waste management, etc...To the point that it can become fascinating. 

On one side, it’s a mess that many find unlivable, rightfully so. On the other, it’s an environment that is extremely stimulating, with something to awaken all your senses.

It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s for me a unique travel experience. 

Jakarta can quickly give the impression of wandering through Gotham City, which is both repulsive and entertaining.

Jakarta is almost not touristy at all

I hear many visitors to Bali complain about its popularity, and others who wish to have more authentic stays.

Oddly, these people never go through Jakarta, although it is super mega authentic and not touristy at all. 

All Indonesians from the cities live like in Jakarta or almost.

I’m teasing, but it’s still somewhat true. 

Any other destination in Indonesia is superb after passing through Jakarta

I don’t recommend ending a trip to Indonesia in Jakarta, as it often ends on a slightly bitter note.

However, visiting it at your arrival has a huge advantage: any destination after Jakarta will seem like paradise on earth!

If you fear being disappointed with Bali, Yogyakarta, Flores, or Sulawesi, make your first Indonesian stop in Jakarta and you will love your next destination without a doubt.

If you are Muslim, Jakarta's culture will not be too disorienting

Jakarta is largely Muslim, with a minority of Christians in fairly defined areas. But for the vast majority of the city's neighborhoods, they are Muslim neighborhoods, with many mosques, halal food everywhere, and few visible haram things (clubs, bars, alcohol, pork, etc...).

What can create some discomfort for Christian or atheist Europeans who naturally do not feel too much at home as soon as a beer is not conspicuously visible is, on the contrary, often much more accessible for Muslims who feel much more at ease.

Of course, being Muslim in Jakarta will allow you to understand some of its subtleties more easily, but you will also be able to build relationships with the inhabitants more easily because, as everywhere else in Indonesia, a good part of social life takes place in the mosque, church, or temple.

mosque in Jakarta

If you are single, you have much less competition in Jakarta than in Bali

For reasons I won't explain, those who love Jakarta, whether tourists or expatriates, often have in common being single and party-goers men.

Even if Jakarta is more traditional than Bali, there is of course a nightlife worthy of a capital, even if it is much more hidden and confined to specific places compared to Bali due to religion.

In a city that is not very touristy and especially with very little international tourism, “visible” foreigners (= anything that is not Indonesian-looking!) are easily spotted and quickly become very exotic to the locals.

I know a few blond, blue-eyed guys who quickly found themselves with Brad Pitt-like status when they lived in Jakarta, a status they were not entitled to in their home country and which would have been very difficult to obtain in Bali due to much fiercer competition.

Do what you want with this information.

Where to stay if you want to visit Jakarta?

For those who want to visit Jakarta, I recommend staying in one of the following neighborhoods:

  • Around Bunderan Hi and Plaza Indonesia, or in the Menteng area: perfect for those who want to be close to a large mall where you can easily eat and shop
  • In the Pasar Baru area: near the enormous “Istiqlal” mosque opposite the Catholic cathedral
 

What to Do During a Stay in Jakarta?

There are truly a thousand and one things to do during a stay in Jakarta. Here are the must-dos for me.

Visit Kota Tua: A Great Step to Learn More About Colonial History

Indonesian history is intrinsically linked to Dutch colonization. And the old town of Jakarta, called Kota Tua, is one of the few remnants of their presence in Jakarta when the city was known as Batavia.

Discover the Immense Istiqlal Mosque Facing Jakarta Cathedral

One cannot understand Indonesia without understanding its multiple religions. In Jakarta, the queen of religious buildings is clearly the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in the country and the eighth largest in the world. It can accommodate more than 200,000 worshippers!

Facing it, the Jakarta Catholic Cathedral is much more modest, but together they symbolize the tolerance between religions, which is one of the national principles known as Pancasila. There is even a tunnel connecting the mosque and the cathedral since 2021.

Stroll in the "Monas" Park, the National Monument

The Monumen Nasional Park, often shortened to Monas, is somewhat like Indonesia's Independence Square and one of the places where many Jakarta residents regularly gather.

A museum exists for those who wish to learn more about the country's independence.

Shopping in One of Jakarta's Many Renowned Malls

Malls are a true institution in Jakarta, and even if you are not particularly into shopping centers, some of them are still likely to impress you.

Among the must-visits:

  • Grand Indonesia: a veritable city with countless restaurants and shops
  • Sarinah: the city's first shopping center, where the most beautiful pieces of batik are sold

Eat, Eat, Eat and Eat

If you are in Jakarta to eat, you are unlikely to be disappointed, especially if you love street food. It's simple; it's everywhere or almost everywhere.

Try everything you can and that appeals to you. There is food from all over the Indonesian archipelago, as well as very good Asian and Arab food establishments.

Party If You Are Young

If you are young and a fan of clubbing, there are many well-known nightlife spots in Jakarta that might interest you. Among them:

  • Colosseum: one of the city's biggest and historic clubs
  • Dragonfly: an increasingly popular nightclub
  • Jenja: originally a club in Bali that has expanded to Jakarta
  • Jaya Pub: a hidden pub with live music in the heart of Jakarta

Who Should Really Avoid Visiting Jakarta?

There are, of course, people to whom I would advise against visiting Jakarta. Here are the main ones.

If You Don't Care About Indonesian Culture: Don't Visit Jakarta

For me, the advantage of visiting Jakarta is to understand Indonesian culture as a whole and to experience it as authentically as possible: the good and the bad.

Visiting Jakarta is challenging and remains an effort, which is not particularly "pleasant" or relaxing. If you don't care about Indonesian culture (I'm not judging, it's your right), then don't visit Jakarta because you will be disappointed.

If You Only Want to See Indonesia's Nature, Jakarta Might Not be It

If for you, Indonesia is synonymous only with rice fields, beaches, and other volcanoes, and you don't feel like tackling a big Southeast Asian metropolis that doesn't have the reputation of being easy to grasp, don't bother too much, you'll likely leave disappointed as well.

Jakarta is not really a beautiful city, and it is not very green either.

If You Are Allergic to Pollution, Jakarta Will Be a Torture for You

The air in Jakarta is one of the most polluted in the world. Waste is everywhere in Jakarta, and sewer emissions are noticeable in almost every neighborhood of the city.

If the pollution in Europe (or other western countries) is already too high for you, how to put it... the return to reality is likely to be very (very very) violent. Even for those who live in Bali, including me, Jakarta is really hardcore on this matter.

If you know that this will disgust you and ruin your vacation, it might be better to avoid Jakarta.

Avoid Jakarta if You Lack Perspective on Your Own Culture

Jakarta is really a difficult city to grasp when you come from a western culture.

If you can't take a step back from your own culture (religion, values, attitudes toward inequalities, urban planning, transportation, ecology...), the experience might just be unpleasant for you.

Jakarta is an interesting getaway when you seek to understand how its residents live and how this anthill is organized. Comparing Jakarta with a Western capital or Western lifestyle, for example, makes no sense.

Conclusion

Jakarta is a divisive city with a bad reputation in some aspects that is perfectly deserved, but we far too often forget to dwell on its good sides.

Yes, Jakarta is an extremely polluted, congested city with suffocating heat, a rather traditional culture, and glaring social inequalities. All of this is true.

But it is also the largest cultural crossroads in Indonesia, its political and economic center, and one of the most central cities in the country's history.

Is it worth visiting? If you have 3 days and a genuine desire to discover the deep soul of Indonesia, with its good and bad sides, then yes, I recommend it.

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