Jakarta and Surabaya: Two Cities You Shouldn’t Miss

Two cities that aren’t really cities; the terms megalopolis and metropolis are more apt for the gigantic urban jungles that are Jakarta and Surabaya. Situated at practically opposite ends of Java, they make for convenient starting or finishing points if you plan to begin at one end of the island and finish at the other. In most cases, travelers try to avoid the big cities. Here, however, I’ll tell why you shouldn’t skip these places and show you that they’re worth at least a day’s exploration.


This city is probably one of the world’s greatest megalopolises. If you spend only a day here, you’ll barely scratch the surface of the sprawling sightseeing opportunities and plethora or different areas that burst with a diverse mixture of cultures, cuisines, beliefs and languages.

Despite its size, Jakarta is surprisingly easy to navigate and get around. Multiple inter-city transport options make it easy to get from one area to another. It’s advisable to get transport to one particular area that you want to see and then, after exploring on foot, move to a different one. When walking around though, remain vigilant at all times as you would in any big city.

A Rare Quiet Moment in Jakarta

When it comes to crossing a road, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, will stop for you! To stand any chance of getting across, wait for a sensible gap then walk out cautiously but with confidence, holding out your hand. The traffic will have no choice but to stop or at least slow down for you. If you wait patiently on the pavement, you’ll be there until Christmas and that’s no exaggeration!

What to see in Jakarta

Kota is the main area for exploration. The architecture in this area will give you an idea of how Jakarta looked in its former days as a Dutch colony. Here are some worthwhile sights that you can see:

Taman Fatahillah

This grand cobbled square has imposing buildings surrounding it, all of which have impressive architectural designs. Don’t miss the former Town hall.

Kali Besar

One block to the east of Taman Fatahillah is a street lined with the once grand homes of wealthy residents; they were mostly built around the 18th Century.

Toko Merah

View the stunning architecture of this building that was once the home of Governor General van Imhoff.

Chicken Market Bridge

The last Dutch-built drawbridge is still in operation today; it is a worthy photo stop.

Street Art

Artists have made the outer walls of buildings their canvas; this creative art adds a certain uniqueness to the city. Keep an eye out and you’ll spot the fascinating murals dotted around.

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Museum Bank Indonesia

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Friday: 8am-3:30pm, Saturday-Sunday: 8am-4pm Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR

This museum is dedicated to the history of the nation from a financial perspective. Aptly housed is a former bank headquarters; all exhibits (including audio-visuals) are well presented and engaging.

Museum Sejarah Jakarta

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Sunday: 9am-5pm                                            
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR

Aka Museum Kesejarahan Jakarta; it is housed in the old town hall of Batavia that was built in 1627. Inside, you’ll find a good collection of artifacts and impressive paintings. 

Museum Wayang

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Sunday: 8am-4:30pm                                       
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR

Wayang translates as ‘flat wooden puppets’. A multitude of these puppets can be seen within the dusty cabinets of this museum; they come from all over Asia and Europe.

Museum Wayang

Museum Bank Mandiri

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Thursday: 9am-3:30pm, Friday: 1-3:30pm, Saturday-Sunday: 9-11am
Entrance Fee: 10,000 IDR

View the fine 1930’s art-deco structure whilst taking a look at the behind-the-scenes inner workings of a bank. Old ATM’s and huge cast-iron safes can also be seen here.

Balai Seni Rupa

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Sunday: 9am-5pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR

This former Palace of Justice building, built in 1870, is now a fine arts museum with a vast collection of historic ceramics as well as contemporary and abstract works. The shady grounds make for a nice resting place too.

Gereja Sion

Much less grand and not nearly as big as the others, this is the oldest church in Indonesia. It has been standing proud since 1695 and still holds a service every Sunday.

Gereja Sion Church

Heading a kilometer north of Taman Fatahillah will bring you to the Sunda Kelapa area. Here you can see the following sights:

Sunda Kelapa

The dock scene hasn’t really changed here for centuries. Despite the fact that the area is very run-down, the magnificent Makassar schooners can still be seen, although that’s about it. It is a very quiet area nowadays, sadly with polluted waters.

Museum Bahari (Maritime Museum)

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Sunday: 8am-4pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR

This museum is built within the old warehouses of the Dutch East India Company. Many galleries take you through the area’s extensive history. Large traditional boats, as well as other interesting objects, can be found here. Included in the ticket price is the Syahbandar Menara observation tower, built in 1839. It’s located just before the museum.

Pasar Ikan

This early morning fish market (Ikan meaning fish in Indonesian) is a colourful array of the day’s catch waiting to be sold. Later on in the day, souvenir sellers can be found here instead.

Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, is another famous area with a couple of sights worth seeing. To get here, go back through Kota and head south. Once you arrive, you can find the following:

Jin De Yuan

Opening Hours: Dawn-Dusk

Dating back to 1755, this Chinese Buddhist temple is one of the most important in the city. It has a colourful and traditionally decorated interior and is often thick with smoke from the incense and candles that constantly burn.

Petak Sembilan Street Market

Opening Hours: Dawn-Dusk

Down this narrow street of crooked red-tile roofed houses, you’ll find everything for sale typical of a Chinese market (even live bugs!) The piles of produce extend down even narrower lanes off the main street.

On your journey through this immense city, a day’s sightseeing wouldn’t be complete without delving into Central Jakarta. When you are in this area, be sure to take a look at the main sights that include:

Merdeka Square

Situated in the large Monas Park, Merdeka Square measures almost 1 square kilometer! It’s a wonderful place to escape the craziness of the city and catch a breath of fresh air. Take a stroll and enjoy the greenery. The park is surrounded by huge colonial buildings, which adds to the grandeur of the scene.

National Monument

Lift Opening Hours: 8am-4pm, 7pm-10pm
Lift Entrance Fee: 15,000/8000/4000 IDR (Adult/Student/Child)

Situated in the grounds of Monas Park, the 132m-high National Monument, otherwise known as Monas, lies at the centre of Merdeka Square. The structure is made from Italian marble and is topped with a sculpted flame, gilded with 50kg of gold leaf.

You can take the lift to the top of the monument, which leaves every hour (except 5pm and 6pm); access is via an underground tunnel below the large terrace. It’s also possible to ascend only to the monument’s first platform for lower views over the square.

The National Monument in Merdeka Square

National Museum

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Thursday: 8am-4pm, Friday: 8am-11:30am, 1pm-4pm, Saturday-Sunday: 8am-5pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR (Indonesian citizens)/ 10,000 IDR (Foreigners)

Built in 1862, this museum is considered one of the most impressive in the whole country; it has a huge collection for any history buff to admire.

Within central Jakarta, Lapangan Banteng is a neighborhood of great importance that plays host to much of the city’s grand architecture. Here, it is possible to find important buildings such as:

Catholic Cathedral

Opening Hours: Monday-Friday: 6am-12pm,

Built in 1901 to replace an earlier church, the catholic cathedral is a grand and important place of worship. The twin spires rise high, adding to its already beautiful architecture.

Immanuel Church

Opening Hours: Monday-Friday: 6am-8pm

Large and white washed, the entrance of the Immanuel Church resembles that of a grand house. The church dates from 1834; it has a round dome and an organ from 1843.

Masjid Istiqlal

Opening Hours: Monday-Friday: 4am-12pm,
Saturdays: 4am-11pm, Sundays: Closed

Masjid Istiqlal is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia; its five levels represent the five pillars of Islam. Non-Muslim visitors are free to look around outside prayer times; they will, however, request that you wear conservative clothing and (ladies) cover your head.

Masjid Istiqlal

Mahkamah Agung

A fine example of majestic architecture that was built in 1848, Mahkamah Agung was the colonial-era palace of the Dutch governor-general Hermann Willem Daendels. Nowadays, it is part of the Ministry of Finance complex.

Ministry of Finance Building

Built in 1809, this building was formally known as the White House. It was the administrative centre during the time of the Dutch Government.

Gedung Pancasila

Built in 1830, Gedung Pancasila was the residence of the Dutch army commander. Later, it became the meeting hall for the People’s Council. The building is, however, best known as the place where Sukarno made his famous Pancasila speech on 18th August 1945, in which he laid the foundation for Indonesia’s constitution. It’s now part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Gedung Pancasila

Textile Museum

Opening Hours: Monday: Closed, Tuesday-Sunday: 9am-4pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000/2,000/40,000 IDR (adult/child/batik class)

A great place for anyone interested in fabrics, this museum houses precious textiles, including hundreds of antique and contemporary batik pieces, looms and a garden where plants used for natural dyes grow. Classes are also available to study batik.   

Where to Sleep in Jakarta

As it is such a large city, the range of accommodation available is extensive. We stayed at Six Degrees Hostel in Central Jakarta. Usually we avoid hostels but we had trouble finding suitable, budget friendly lodgings. This place was a pleasant surprise with a nice open common area, free tea and coffee available and friendly, helpful staff. Dorms and private rooms with shared bathrooms are available with a small breakfast included in the price.

The location, right on a main road, didn’t make it easy to reach on foot from the train station. There are also few budget eating options close by, which was a bit of a downside, however we would stay there again.

What to Eat

Pretty much any taste and budget can be accommodated to when it comes to food; you just have to search for what you want. Fast food chains, expensive restaurants and cafes are aplenty! However, if you head down the side streets, it’s possible to find little restaurants serving local dishes, such as nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodle), which can be altered to your spice tolerance on request.

I must give a shout out here to a vegetarian’s best friend: gado gado! This dish can be found pretty much everywhere and is a delightful mix of sticky rice, salad and peanut sauce. Road-side carts serving different types of martabak (stuffed square pancakes of both sweet and savoury varieties) can also be found dotted around.

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Jakarta Transportation

To/From the Airport:

Taxi drivers will have you believe that they are your only option. They’re lying! Damir airport buses run shuttles between the airport and Gambir train station with several other stops. They run daily every 15-30 minutes from 4am to 8pm and cost 25,000 IDR/person. However, if you do want to take a taxi, the prepaid company Bluebird is considered reliable and professional.

Getting Around the City:

Heading anywhere by taxi can be complicated in terms of pricing; fares begin at around 5,000 IDR for the first kilometer and then 300 IDR per 100 meters! There are plenty of rouge taxi drivers, where tipping is expected if not demanded. Bluebird taxis are metered and the drivers are more honest!

TransJakarta Busway is a relatively quick way to get around the main areas; a route map from the tourist office can be very handy! Grabbing a Bajaj (much like a tuk-tuk) or an Ojek (motorbike taxi) is, however, a speedier and more direct way to traverse the city.

Leaving Jakarta:

Jakarta has four bus terminals for long-distance journeys; however the fastest and most comfortable option is to take the train. There are as many train stations as there are bus terminals; the most important however is Gambir. This station handles all express trains to all the major destinations in Java. Staff at the station can assist you with times and tickets. There are also self-service ticket machines.

For more information on leaving Jakarta, check out this useful page on the Lonely Planet website!

There’s no doubt that Jakarta is a big modern city. Around every corner, you’ll find a piece of its history or something unique. With so many points of interest and an electric urban buzz, it is definitely worthwhile to take some time to explore this magnificent giant!


Surabaya is a business driven, big, polluted city; it’s likely that your initial impressions won’t be great. Despite this, it does have pockets of interest including an Arab Quarter. It also has one of Indonesia’s largest Chinatown settlements.

Travelers predominantly use it as a place to change planes, trains or automobiles but if you find yourself with some time to kill, the city does have some character that is worth exploring. A note that the same actions are necessary when crossing the road as in Jakarta!

Street Scenes in Surabaya

What to see in Surabaya

Although it’s not as large as Jakarta, Surabaya certainly has its share of sights to see. If you have a day, getting out early and seeing as much as possible is, as always, recommended! Here are the main things to see:

Canal Walkway

Taking a stroll along this pleasant stretch, following the narrow canal, allows for some good photo opportunities; you can see the small statues dotted around and admire the architecture from times gone by.

Submarine Museum

Opening Hours: 8am-9pm
Entrance Fee: 15,000 IDR

A cool naval museum, built within an old Russian submarine, sits on the waterside next to the canal. The submarine, Pasopati, was commissioned into the Indonesian navy in 1962.

Hero Monument (Tugu Pahlawan)

Opening Hours: Monday-Friday: 8am-4pm, Saturday-Sunday: 7am-3pm
Entrance Fee: 5,000 IDR (for the museum). It’s free to walk around the monument.

Considered the symbol of the city, this monument is dedicated to those who lost their lives during the Battle of Surabaya on 10th November 1945. The 10th November Museum is located underneath the monument itself.

House of Sampoerna

Opening Hours: 9am-7pm
Entrance Fee: Free

Built within a working factory, the House of Sampoerna is home to one of Indonesia’s most famous kretek cigarette manufacturers. The museum, inside the former lobby, details the history of the company and its development through time with lots of information and interesting exhibitions. Upstairs you can look down upon the factory floor, where hundreds of women roll, trim and pack the Dji Sam Soe brand (banned in most countries because of the strong tar content).

Kang Co Kong Tik Cun Ong Temple

A fascinating Chinese temple that is predominantly Buddhist with hints of Confucian and Taoism. The complex is located in Chinatown.

Masjid Ampel

Masjid Ampel is considered the most sacred mosque in Surabaya. Located in the Arab Quarter, access is only available on foot. You can see it at the end of a walkway lined with stalls selling food and other goods.

A note that non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque itself. Behind the mosque, you’ll see pilgrims chanting and presenting rose-petal offerings at the grave of Sunan Ampel, one of the wali songo who brought Islam to Java.

Masjid Akbar

An impressive modern Mosque, the beautiful tiled domes of its roof can be seen from a distance. Staff will happily show you around and will accompany you to the top of the freestanding minaret, which offers panoramic views.

Jembatan Merah

Jembatan Merah is a famous bridge that once connected the two halves of the old city. It saw fierce fighting during the battle for independence; Jalan Jembatan Merah, running parallel to the canal, contains some worthy examples of Dutch architecture.

Pasar Pabean Market

Pasar Pabean is a delightful local market with amazing displays of local produce; it’s great for a wander and to appreciate the colourful sights and smells! The market links the Chinese and Arab Quarters.

Pasar Pabean Market

Where to Sleep in Surabaya

Like its fellow cities in Java, there are plenty of sleeping options in Surabaya. You’ll need to keep in mind the location where you want to stay as some areas are better than others. Cheap accommodation isn’t all that easy to come by, as we found out.

We did, however, find a reasonably priced room at an OYO franchise situated in a quiet area not far from the Submarine Museum. My guess is that it was previously a colonial house, given the age of the architecture.

Where to Eat

There are a scattering of small local eateries serving simple fare; the dishes that I have previously mentioned can be found in most local places. Other areas have bigger and better restaurants. However, if you’re searching for cheap local grub, look out for the small, non-descript places. They’ll serve simple tasty dishes, fresh and cheap! By chance, we found an excellent street-side gado gado vendor!

Surabaya Transportation

To/From the Airport:

Damir airport buses run shuttles between the airport and Purabaya bus terminal that include several other stops. They run daily every 15-30 minutes from 4am to 8pm costing 25,000 IDR/person. Bluebird will typically charge 100,000 IDR to and from the city. They’re considered the most reputable taxi company in Java.

Getting Around the City:

There is an extensive bus network running around the city; normal buses cost 6,000 IDR and patas (express) buses cost 5,000 IDR. The most useful is the Damri P1 bus from Purabaya bus terminal to the city. In reverse, catch the J1.

A standard taxi can cost around 25,000 IDR for a 4km journey. Bluebird taxis can be called in advance and can be hired for longer trips to places such as Malang. Other options, such as online/app booking services Grab, O-Jek and Uber, are also available.

Leaving Surabaya:

Surabaya’s main bus terminal is known as Purabaya and is located 13km south of the city centre. Buses from here head to destinations all over Java, Madura and Bali; bookings can be made either at the terminal itself or at travel agencies in the city centre.

Trains are, however, generally faster, cheaper and more comfortable. Surabaya has two main stations – Pasar Turi, handling trains taking the northern route, and Gubeng, for destinations on the southern line, including Yogyakarta and Banyuwangi.

For more information on leaving Surabaya, check out this useful page on the Lonely Planet website!

Despite its size, Surabaya has a laid back feel and lots of culture and history on its streets to explore. With colourful street art, old architecture and multiple cultures everywhere you go, you’ll be glad that you gave Surabaya a chance to show you what an incredible city it truly is.

Often, big cities are avoided by travelers or simply used as little more than transport hubs. But, occasionally, there are metropolises that have something worthwhile to stick around for. Java is an island full to the brim with culture, merged with the intervention of modern conveniences and speed. As long as you watch your step as you cross the constantly busy roads, you too will see why it’s worth taking a look around these marvelous cities and the sights that they have to offer.  

Heading to Yogyakarta? Check out our post: Your Complete 4 Day Guide to Yogyakarta!

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