5 Reasons to Visit Kota Tua and Sunda Kelapa

Kota Tua - bikes for hire Fatahillah Square
Bikes for hire at Kota Tua, North Jakarta

Today we introduce you to our new series, “5 Reasons”. Inspired by a desire to continue exploring Jakarta and beyond, “5 Reasons” will: take you to new places, experience new foods and uncover new activities for you to try – whilst giving you 5 Reasons as to why you need to try these things for yourself (no second-guessing!) Today we invite you to join us on our trip to Kota Tua and Sunda Kelapa, in Jakarta’s north.
So put on your exploring shoes and ramp up your sense of curiosity, we’re off to the Old Town.

tiles at cafe batavia

Kota Tua and Sunda Kelapa – A Snapshot

Kota Tua, or “The Old Town” was formally known as Batavia, the Capital of the Dutch East Indies. Kota Tua spans an area of 1.3 square kilometres in Jakarta’s north and west and is considered the historic heart of Jakarta.  A stroll through Kota Tua in its current state may not fully return you to its former days of glory,  but efforts are now underway to restore this historic centre and hints of why Kota Tua was once dubbed “The Jewel of Asia” and “Queen of the East” by European sailors are becoming increasingly evident.

buildings bordering Fatahillah square
‘Historia Food and Bar’ occupies one of the restored colonial-style buildings in Kota Tua
shutters of yesteryear
Sash windows and shutters are not an unusual sight around Kota Tua’s central area, Fatahillah Square

Just north of Kota Tua, located on the estuarine of the Ciliwung River you will find the old port of Sunda Kelapa (Coconut of Sunda). Do not arrive here without your camera (and a sun hat as it’s hot and there’s no shelter). With every turn of your head you will spot a photo opportunity.

photography in action
Talented local photographer Nita Strudwick capturing Liz in front of her favourite Pinisi ship

Sunday Kelapa is a working port and although it is obviously functioning at well-below the capacity of former years, it is still a dynamic and highly entertaining place to visit. Be enchanted by the magnificent, brightly painted wooden pinisi schoolers from Makassar as they are loaded and unloaded by sinewy dockworkers bearing the brightest smiles. And make sure you take notice of the types of cargo being transported to and from the outer islands of Indonesia.

Bugis and Pinisi boats
The Bugis people are an ethnic group from South Sulawesi who have a strong affinity to the sea. Long before the Colonialists entered their waters, the Bugis built elegant, ocean-going schooners called ‘pinisi’. These timber vessels are still built using the same method
loading the salt from Madura (island off the NE coast of Java)
Incoming bags of salt from Madura (an island off the NE coast of Java)
garam (salt) from madura
Coarse salt from Madura

5 Reasons to visit Kota Tua and Sunda Kelapa

  1. Witness the transformation of the Kota Tua precinct
    Until recently, inconsistent efforts have been made to maintain and restore the significant buildings in the Kota Tua precinct, however, in 2013 a program called PT Pembangunan Kota Tua (PT Construction of the Old Town), was launched and to date, the Fatahillah Museum building (also known as the Jakarta History Museum) and the Kota Post Office building on Kota Tua’s main square have been restored with other buildings now listed for restoration. The vision for the revitalised Kota area is to turn it into a National Tourism Destination and World Heritage Site, “creating history as the soul of the City” (Luke Santoso, Site Manager PT Pembangunan Kota Tua). In an interview with Jakarta Post in May 2016, Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama said, “We will clean up Kali Besar Barat (the main canal) and its surrounding areas; renovating the Batavian fortress..” Next listed for redevelopment include Tjipna Niaga block (next to Cafe Batavia) and the G.Kolff & Co. building, which was once a publishing house and was the first book store in Batavia.

    Gedoeng Jasindo (corporate office)
    The historic Fatahillah Square with from left to right: Cafe Batavia, Gedoeng Jasindo (a corporate office) and the newly renovated Kota Post Office in the background
    Indonesian flag (bendera indonesia)
    Redevelopment of the Kota Tua area will restore the former glory of this significant historical area and provide Indonesia with a National tourist destination


  2. History and Significance of the area
    Built after 1619 and completed by 1650, Batavia (as Kota Tua was called), was a walled settlement of the Dutch. The history of this area is turbulent in nature and to appreciate it fully, you need to spend a good amount of time reading up on this topic. But in a nutshell: During the 17th – 19th Centuries, Batavia became the centre of commerce within the spice trade industry in Indonesia developing links with Europe. During this time, no native Javanese were permitted to live within the walls of the city. In the late 1700s Batavia started to become neglected and abandoned and, (skipping a head quite a bit), after 1945 and the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence, the business and banking districts, once located in Kota Tua were relocated to Central and South Jakarta, causing further deterioration of the historic area.

    Djakarte Kedai Seni restaurant
    Kedai Seni Djakarte is a cafe facing Fatahillah Square. Originally home to an insurance company called Batavia Zee en Brand Assurantie Mij, the building was designed and constructed in the early 20th century by the architect PAJ Moojen. Its 3 storey main façade, which faces Jalan Kali Besar was influenced by the Neo-Classic style

    Sunda Kelapa port was built in the early 1600s when the Portuguese established a trading post with the reigning Hindu Pajajaran kingdom. During the height of the Asian Spice Trade, Sunda Kelapa was a thriving port due to its strategic position. Over the centuries, Sunda Kelapa has also been called Jayakarta by the Dutch. In the late 19th Century, the Dutch East Indies Government decided to build a new port, Tanjung Priok and eventually Sunda Kelapa was returned to its original name as a tribute to the important role it played in Jakarta’s history.

    Pak Yuda explaining the Harbour
    Pak Yuda explaining the history of Sunda Kelapa port to Nita and Liz
    unloading salt from a ship
    Items manufactured in Java such as rice noodles, houseware plastics and empty Aqua bottles as well as bags of cement (pictured here) are shipped throughout the archipelago, in particular to neighbouring Kalimantan and Sumatra
    palm oil pulp from sumatra (to be processed in jakarta)
    The pulp from palm oil kernels is compacted to form a palm kernel cake or ‘palm expeller’. This product, shipped from Sumatra and Kalimantan to Sunda Kelapa is mostly used as animal feed
    tieing off vessel at bollard
    One of the many majestic pinisi made from Ironwood and constructed in Bulu Kumba, South Sulawesi. Other vessels found moored at Sunda Kelapa are made in Kalimantan


  3. The Architecture
    The architecture in and around Kota Tua reflects the many influences that Jakarta has experienced over an extended period, including influences from the Dutch,  Portuguese as well as the Chinese. Some examples of interesting architecture can be seen in the following buildings at Kota Tua:   Jakarta Kota Station (Stasium Jakarta Kota, also locally referred to as BEOS), was built in 1887 by a private Dutch railway company. In 1927 it was closed and rebuilt. It was officially reopened in October 1929. It is described as a combination of Western Art Deco and local architecture styles.

    stasiun jakarta kota (1887 then rebuilt 1929 western art deco:local architecture style) and BNI building (juxtapositioned)
    The Stasiun Jakarta Kota with its arched roof was originally built in 1887 and then rebuilt 1929. It represents a combination of Western Art Deco and local architecture style. Juxtaposed is the BNI building

    BNI Building near Jakarta Kota Station. Bank Negara Indonesia was founded in 5th July 1946 and is Indonesia’s state bank. Both the BNI building and the Jakarta Kota Station serve as a wonderful juxtaposition to the colonial-style buildings in nearby Fatahillah Square. Architecture students regularly study this area for the diversity in design.
    (Unfortunately, after much searching online, I wasn’t able to uncover any further information on this building… but I will keep trying!)

    Cafe Batavia was constructed in 1850 and is located in the northwestern corner of Fatahillah Square in Kota Tua. It is the second oldest building in Central Jakarta after the Jakarta History Museum, also located on the Fatahillah Square. Approximately 20 years ago, this colonial-style building was converted into a cafe and is the perfect place to eat lunch or dinner and watch the action in The Square. Be sure to sit upstairs.

    cafe batavia (second oldest building after fatahillah museum in central Jakarta - over 200 yrs old)
    The famous Cafe Batavia, considered a must visit when in Kota Tua
    upstairs diningroom cafe batavia
    The upstairs dining room at Cafe Batavia
    cafe batavia bar
    Cafe Batavia’s bar

    Kota Post Office was constructed 1929 and is one of a few examples of *Nieuwe zakelijkheid (‘New Objectivity’) architecture in Indonesia. Another example of this style of architecture is the nearby Bank Mandiri Museum (also constructed in 1929). Kota Post Office continues to function as a post office but also houses Batavia Market (see below).

    (*Nieuwe zakelijkheid was a Dutch period of modernist architecture that commenced in the 1920s and continued into the 1930s).

    Post office building
    The recently restored Kota Post Office

    Toko Merah was constructed in 1730 and is one of the oldest buildings in Jakarta. It was built as the mansion of Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, Baron Van Imhoff and once provided accommodation for William Bligh.

    Recently restored, it is now a venue for meetings, conventions and art exhibitions.

    Location: Jl. Kali Besar Barat 107, Kota Tua, Jakarta Utara.

    toko merah
    An assortment of interesting cars are often parked in front of Toko Merah


  4. The Museums and Art Galleries
    Set in the former Town Hall of Batavia which was constructed in 1710, the Jakarta History Museum sits proudly on the Fatahillah Square, opposite Cafe Batavia. This old Dutch building houses many examples of timber furnishings and old images of Batavia.

    Open Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9am – 3pm, Closed Mondays

    Museum Fatahillah
    The Jakarta History Museum also referred to as Fatahillah Museum or Batavia Museum. Constructed in 1710 as the Stadhuis (city hall) of Batavia, it was converted into a museum in 1974
    view from upstairs dining room in cafe batavia
    The view from the upstairs dining room in Cafe Batavia, looking across to the Jakarta History Museum

    The Museum Wayang celebrates the significance of shadow puppets in Indonesian life; in particular the life of the Javanese. Museum Wayang highlights the role of puppetry in regards to politics, relationships, religion and ethnic diversity. This museum also borders the Fatahillah Square.
    Within the walls of this museum is a memorial plaque that marks the resting place of Batavia’s founder Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

    Open Hours: Tuesday – Friday 9am – 3pm, Saturday & Sunday 9am – 8pm, Closed Mondays

    Museum Wayang facade-1
    View of Museum Wayang from Fatahillah Square

    Batavia Market is a fusion art, restaurant and bar establishment (the first of its kind in Indonesia) and is located in the historic Kota Post Office Building (Kantor Pos).

    Batavia Market also offers a range of tour packages, including guided tours. For more information refer to their website: www.bataviamarket.co.id

    Batavia Market is located in the same building as the Kota Post Office
    Batavia Market is located in the same building as the Kota Post Office
    Art gallery in Batavia Market-1
    An art exhibition at Batavia Market’s art gallery

    The Fine Art and Ceramic Museum, located inside the Old Court of Justice building (1870) provides a comprehensive display of traditional ceramics from across the archipelago as well as artworks and modern ceramics. The Museum extends along the eastern border of the Fatahillah Square.

    Open Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9am – 3pm, Closed Mondays
    Museum Fine art ceramic

    Museum keramic-1

  5. The People
    As with most of our adventures in Jakarta and beyond, it’s always the people that make our experience a most memorable one.The warm smiles, the curious looks, the shy inquiry, ‘Where are you from?‘ This interaction takes our experiences to a new level and this was no different in Kota Tua and Sunda Kelapa. From students keen to practise their English skills by interviewing us in Fatahillah Square, to the gentle, patient and extremely informative manner of our guide Pak Yuda at Sunda Kelapa, it’s always The People that make it for us.

    Students looking for Bahasa Inggris speakers
    Students on the look out for speakers of Bahasa Inggris (English)

    *Kenalkan Pak Yuda – Tour Guide at Sunda Kelapa

    Nita, Liz, Pak Yuda and Jo
    Nita, Liz and Jo with Pak Yuda as we prepare to start our walking tour of Sunda Kelapa

    Originally from Medan in Sumatra, Pak Yuda moved to Jakarta in 1983 with the hope of making a better life for his family. On arrival in Jakarta he began working as a guide at Jakarta’s National Monument, MONAS. In 1998 he changed his job and began working at Sunda Kelapa.

    Pak Yuda lives in Tangerang, West Jakarta with his extended family and travels to Sunda Kelapa daily, arriving by 8.30am. He attributes his command of English to the many tourists he has taken along the docks at Sunda Kelapa and previously at MONAS.

    With his gentle nature and obvious knowledge for the area, Pak Yuda made the perfect guide for us. Upon arriving at Sunda Kelapa, we spotted Pak Yuda. Prior to starting our walking tour, we negotiated our price with Pak (Rp150,000 for approx. 90 minutes) and then set out on our adventure!

    living quarters in vessel in background

    At the end of the tour, Pak told us to spread the word about his tour (as there are many other tour guides waiting patiently for your business at the entrance to Sunda Kelapa). We thoroughly enjoyed Pak Yuda’s guided tour, and can confidently share his details with you.

    Send Pak a whatsapp message or an email – he’s waiting to hear from you!

    Pak Yuda
    Phone: +62 812 810 88277
    or Gmail: yudatourguide@gmail.com  (message him at least one day before your intended tour date)

    boat maintenance (!)
    Boat maintenance

    Interested in finding out more about the Sunda Kelapa area? Why not try the Jakarta Hidden Tour which has been awarded a Certificate of Excellence with Trip Advisor and has received numerous outstanding reviews. (Please note: To date we haven’t completed this tour personally, however friends have and found it to be a profoundly moving and a wonderful experience).

    jo at sunda kelapa
    Jo at Sunda Kelapa


*Kenalkan – Let me introduce

Words: Jo    Photography: a journey bespoke




    • ajourneybespoke says

      Hi Helen, this part of Jakarta definitely needs to be add to your itinerary for your next visit. We know you would find the area very interesting.:)

  1. Pamela Davis says

    Hi there
    I’m Pam, an Australian retiree volunteering in Kendari, South-east Sulawesi . Your meanderings and musings make for great reading – have you let teachers of Indonesian know about this? If not, I will!!
    Happy jalan-jalan.

    • ajourneybespoke says

      Hi Pam, reading your message made us smile! It is so nice to know that you enjoy our musings. We really enjoy exploring and sharing our finds with you. We haven’t formally let teachers of Indonesian know about our blog but of course, we would be extremely happy for you to share our site. Best wishes and Happy Jalan-Jalan to you too! Jo and Liz 🙂

Leave a Reply