Old Jakarta, Kota Tua, Batavia, Jakarta Kota: the old city of Jakarta goes by many a name, but this old heart of the city is seeing somewhat of a renaissance after years of being overshadowed by, initially the grand planned city around Weltervelt during the Dutch replaning, and by the area around Thamrin-Sudirman in modern Indonesia. A distinct charm is ever pleasant, and it is one of the most interesting places to see a different side of Urban Indonesia.
The focus of Old Jakarta, or Batavia if you are so inclined, is the old town square, now named after one of Indonesia’s local heroes. Most of the monumental buildings of Old Jakarta built during Batavia’s heyday in the 18th century was concentrated here, before the gradual move upriver in the 19th century.
On weekends, this square becomes alive, with buskers, street performers and tradespeople vying for the attention of youth armed with large cameras, families grouping in for selfies and couples cycling on tandem bikes: this old square becomes the nexus of local Jakarta life.
Look out for the old cannon, and look very carefully at the end: I’m convinced the cannon is trying to indicate something with that fist.
Stadthuis/Town Hall/Jakarta History Museum
The iconic backdrop to Jakarta, the old Town Hall dominates the square, with her white washed walls, wooden outward opening windows and frontage evoking, unsurprisingly, a small town Dutch civic building.
What was the old hear of the Dutch East Indies, and functioning as the governor’s offices and residence, is now a museum to the Dutch East Indies, with a rather, if I may say, eclectic display of artefacts.
Personally, the internal architecture, old staircase, statements the rooms tried to exude and the view from the loggia are the main highlights, with stunning views overlooking the square. Worth a detour if you don’t mind the crowds on weekends.
The wayang kulit, or shadow puppet, is a cultural institution in Indonesia, and a potent symbol of the rich heritage of the region. This collection of old trading houses built in the style of, naturally, a Dutch merchant’s establishment, is filled with it, with fine display cases showcasing the different types of puppets, the different styles and the unique history of the art form from ancient times to present.
The collection is not only confined to shadow puppets, made from cow hide, but also conventional puppets, each with their own style and story to tell. The gift shop downstairs by the exit as a fine collection of puppets on display. Do haggle, it becomes part of the ‘game.’
Numerous Bank Buildings
Part of the restoration of the Kota Tua/Old Jakarta involved active private sector participation, and quite a number of the modern iterations of old Batavian banks took up their old buildings and did them up as museums of their respective banks.
The architecture is monumental, and the restoration commendable, making them a shining beacon amidst the forlorn buildings that surround them. While the interiors are stunning and the setting elegant, crossing the street from the Fatahilah Square quarter to them might take nerves of steel: it is at a busy junction.
Jakarta Art Gallery
Housed in a fine, low neoclassical building, the gallery is set in its own gardens, and serves as a green oasis set apart but adjoining the ever busy Fatahilah Square. A nice stop if only for the elegant architecture and imposing yet human scale of the buildings.
This is essentially an institution in Jakarta, and especially of the Old City/Kota Tua. A perfect pit-stop and a respite from the heat after a day looking around the Kota Tua. There is a decent selection of local cuisine in the menu, local drinks including the local concoction they call jamu which, in a nutshell, makes me think of a juice mixer.
The décor feels as if someone froze the café in the 1950s, with old black and white pictures and period posters placed all over the walls and in the washrooms. The bar is well appointed, with a fine wooden grand staircase and dark wood abounds in the upstairs dining area.
Grab a seat by the window and watch the world go by from your perch, overlooking the hectic yet quaint Kota Tua of Jakarta.
Side Trip: Jakarta’s Old Port, Sunda Kelapa. This destination is not exactly walking distance from the Kota Tua. Advisable to get a car. The sights of old, wooden ships, mast up high, ready to sail the high seas is something.
Transport?: I rented a Silver Bird from the hotel to bring me to and fro, including stops. You can get your taxi to wait for you as you explore. Taxis can be challenging to get to in this part of town, in particular the ever reliable Blue Bird or Silver Bird taxis, but the local ojeks or motorcycle taxis are everywhere.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.