This underrated Asian capital showcases Indonesia’s staggering diversity—most of the nation’s 300-odd ethnic groups are represented here—and warm hospitality, without Bali’s price tag or 3 million–plus annual tourists. Throw in some top-notch restaurants……as well as a lively nightlife scene. —Diana Hubbell
That got me thinking about whether Jakarta is truly recommended as a travel destination. My verdict? No. If you are going to be stopping over, perhaps yes, spend a day or two. But you don’t need to make a special stop, it’s not a special place, relatively speaking. It’s crowded, traffic is always bad, polluted, etc. Yes you avoid the so-called 3 million tourists of Bali, but you throw yourself amongst the 15+millions of harried (to put it mildly) Jakartans.
So where would I recommend you visit? These are my top four destinations for people who are first or second timers to Indonesia; who only have limited time (a week or two); like the outdoors and some culture; are not vegetarian; and would like to do some shopping.
It’s cliche, but yes, Bali is a top destination, especially for first-time visitors. Tourism has developed much earlier than elsewhere in Indonesia, so it’s relatively easy to arrange and navigate. Make no mistakes, it’s not ALL commercialized, rowdy and teeming. There are many places in Bali where life is still laid-back, unhurried, and relatively free of hordes. The northwestern and northern coastlines are relatively quiet, and it’s mostly locals going about their business. Head to Pemuteran in the North to acclimatize, and arrange your travels from there. Look over the wine production factory (Hatten wines) and grape vineyards. Visit the markets and haggle for local produce; visit the ports with the traditional outrigger boats and other traditional boats and see the myriad of fresh fish on sale; traverse the small, very clean and quiet villages and see farmers working the fields, find hidden waterfalls and lakes and jump in!. On your way back to the airport, go through the mountains and perhaps do a hike or two. Then visit Ubud which, for all its adverts, is relatively quiet, especially if you are willing to stay away from the city center. Then white-water raft your way down to the airport (well, closer to it, at least). When you’re ready for crowds of Cozumel spring-break proportions, head to Kuta, to also do your shopping where you can find Roxy bikinis to artisanal, hand-dyed ones.
2. Manado, North Sulawesi
North Sulawesi cuisine is my favorite amongst Indonesian cuisines. They’ve got everything covered: yummy pork dishes? Check. Fresh and tasty seafood? Check. Western-style cakes and desserts? Check, check, check! (A remnant of Dutch recipes and customs). You want city sights? Stay in Manado city and shop for hand-embroidered clothing, artisanal foods and crafts. You want beaches? Dive the renowned Bunaken National Park and surrounding hidden SCUBA-diving sites; or hire a boat and find your own stretch of beach. Hike the green, lush mountains and heck out the tarsier, the smallest primate in the world at the Tangkoko Nature Reserve.
3. South Sulawesi
I thought long and hard about the third destination for first or second-timers. Aceh is too … lame; Papua too wild; place-hopping in Java too much of a logistical nightmare; North Sumatra is properly frustrating; Yogyakarta too easy. So, South Sulawesi would be my recommendation. Start in Makassar, the capital, where you can acclimatize, especially your stomach. Fresh seafood is aplenty, and try a few conro soups (a rich rib soup). If you’re a vegetarian, you’re really, really out of luck here. Once you’re comfortable, make your way to one of the nearby islands for sun-bathing, snorkeling or diving (relatively speaking, the corals are crap but hey, it’s one a couple hours from city center). Drive south to check out artisanal boat builders (the famous phinisi), or way south til you hit the ocean for better diving/snorkeling. Makassar has awesome shopping to boot: shop for silk woven cloths (cheap and beyooootiful), silk everything from fans to bags to shoes, crafts and foods. Look around at the historic dutch buildings. Then eat some more! [If you have spare time, head up to Toraja for tomb-viewing. I promise, it’s not at all creepy. Do some whitewater rafting while you’re there].
Except for the Borobudur temple, Yogya has not really impressed me much. I don’t like the overly sweet cuisines (sugar cane plantations surround the central and eastern Java so that affects their cooking), and the cultural experiences reek too much of mysticism and feudalism for me. Apart from the temples, if you like batik obviously this is a shopping paradise (but haggle hard!). Some drives to the countryside might be interesting, though it’s a crowded, crowded place where even in the countryside streets are lined with houses on both sides so you can hardly see the sights. It’s like that everywhere in Java, actually. Mount Merapi, an active volcano, is nearby which has recently become a major attraction but I haven’t seen it for myself.