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The gateway to Indonesia, Jakarta is a teeming supercity that makes a convenient stepping stone to other destinations in the archipelago. Here, modern development stands cheek by jowl with vestiges of a colonial past. If you’re spending some time in the city, we can arrange a guided tour of all the highlights, including the historic port, the old town and Istiqlal Mosque.

JakartaPeople from all 17,000-plus Indonesian islands gather at this massive city on the northwest coast of Java, creating a seemingly endless traffic snarl across the city. Jakarta is an agglomeration of their mingled cultures, threaded through with remnants of the days when it was Batavia, the colonial capital of the Netherlands’ global empire.

Those remnants are most obvious in the old town, known as Kota, which is located near the docks. Beginning in 1611, the Dutch East India Company’s spice empire was run from offices in the town hall here.

A stately whitewashed building, it houses the Jakarta History Museum, where you can peruse exhibits that examine the city’s turbulent history. Head downstairs to the prison cells to see where 19th-century freedom fighters were held in their struggle for independence.

The museum is just one of the many red-roofed colonial buildings that face onto Fatahillah Square. This stone-paved plaza draws locals and visitors alike to linger, eat, and hire neon-painted bicycles to pedal through the crowds (an activity that’s not safe on most of the city’s chaotic streets). It’s also home to the Wayang Museum, which is devoted to displays of traditional Indonesian puppets and masks.

Kota borders onto Glodok, Indonesia’s oldest Chinatown. It dates back to 1740, but still retains an identity apart from the rest of the city.

Here, you can wander through uneven brick streets crowded with Chinese-language shops and bright-red temples. Awning-covered stalls are packed with local fruits and vegetables, as well as ranks of fresh fish and buckets of live crabs.

Glodok is also home to Kopi Es Tak Kie, a coffee shop founded by Chinese immigrant Liong Kwie Tjong in 1927. The bare-bones shop, with peeling linoleum and time-stained tiled walls, is an unlikely looking but popular destination for java lovers, who come for the smooth, rich iced brews. Street-food carts cluster at the entrance, and you can have a meal delivered to your table as long as you keep ordering drinks.

Sunda Kelapa, JakartaJust north of Kota, Sunda Kelapa is a port where very little seems to have changed over the centuries. Stevedores still unload cargo by hand from two-masted ships with brightly painted hulls known as pinisi. Usually made in Sulawesi, pinisi are still a vital part of the Indonesian economy.

South of Kota and Glodok, Merdeka Square is a park in the modern heart of Jakarta. When the Indonesian sun gets to be too much, you can emulate the locals by relaxing in the shade under the trees that ring the grassy central sward.

The park is dominated by the towering National Monument, commonly known as Monas. Commissioned after the Dutch finally acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1950 (merdeka means ‘independence’), this obelisk offers the best view of the sprawling megalopolis if it’s a rare clear day — smog is an ever-present problem. In the basement, 48 dioramas bring the country’s struggle for independence to life.

Adjacent to the square, Istiqlal Mosque’s gleaming white dome rises well above the treetops. Built after independence — the name is an Arabic word for ‘freedom’ — this is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, able to accommodate 120,000 worshippers.

If you choose to visit, time your tour between prayers and be sure to dress modestly. It’s worth the small extra effort to see the gilded interior of the massive dome, which is supported by 12 columns and sports a diameter of 45 m (147 ft), said to be homage to the 1945 proclamation of independence.

Best time to visit Jakarta

Jakarta is steamy and hot all year, but crowds are thickest during the less-rainy months between May and September. We suggest visiting in March, April or October.

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Audley Travel specialist Glynn

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