Jakarta: full of flavour

My kind of place Intriguing, lively and charming, the Indonesian capital is a city of intense experiences, writes Iain Stewart.

Motorcycle taxi drivers play chess in central Jakarta while waiting for passengers.
Powered by automated translation

Never judge a book by its cover (or a metropolis by its appearance). Criss-crossed by expressways, choked by traffic and with a horizon scarred with random concrete high-rises, Jakarta is never going to win a beauty contest. And yet it's a city I've grown to enjoy while updating Lonely Planet Indonesia, for Jakarta certainly has charm. Its citizens are courteous, cheerful and helpful, the restaurants are superb, the club scene is incendiary and there are some intriguing sights. But most of all Jakarta is fantastic value for money. Taxi rides rarely cost more than US$5 (Dh18) in the central area and it's very possible to live like a sultan on little more than a backpackers' budget.

There's a glut of rooms in the luxury bracket, which means that most five-star hotels periodically offer very special rates, as low as $60 (Dh220). My favourite address in Jakarta is the sleek and contemporary Kemang Icon (www.alilahotels.com/kemangicon; 00 62 21 719 7879) in a happening district in the south of the city. Here the colossal suites cost from $180 (Dh661) - all are individually styled with modish furniture, iPod sound systems and designer bathrooms. There's a terrific roof terrace with sweeping city views and a lovely lap pool.

The Icon's sister hotel, Alila Jakarta (www.alilahotels.com/jakarta; 00 62 21 231 6008), where rooms on weekdays start at $86 (Dh316), is another good choice if you're looking for a more conventional hotel in the heart of the city. The same in-the-know design flourishes are adopted but you'll also find full business and leisure facilities. For a very inexpensive bed for the night, you can't beat the simplicity and comfort on offer at Formule 1 Cikini (www.hotelformule1.com; 00 62 21 319 08188) which offers no-frills but very clean, modern rooms (US$35; Dh128) with satellite TV and a great location in the Cikini district (very close to where Barack Obama spent four years of his childhood).

Jakarta does not have an obvious centre, or a metro, but its Transjakarta Busway system is reasonably efficient. Koridor 1 covers many of the main sites, beginning in Kota, the historic heart of the Dutch East Indies, surrounded by grand colonial buildings. Close by the Kota terminal are the Maritime, Puppet and Jakarta History museums. South of here Koridor 1 passes the landmark Monas monument (take its lift for unparalleled views of the city) and the National Museum (the nation's finest) and continues past Plaza Indonesia, one of the slickest malls in town. In the south of the city, Jakarta's liveliest neighbourhood is Kemang. Replete with cosmopolitan restaurants, lounge bars and food markets, it's your best bet for a night out.

On Jalan Kemang Raya, Casa is a cafe-cum-restaurant-cum-bar that's a key hangout for the capital's creative professionals: TV producers, actors, film directors and fashion industry moguls. There's Wi-Fi for workers, modernist tables for diners, Eames chairs for loungers and even Murano ashtrays for smokers. It's a great spot for lunch with floor-to-ceiling windows flooding the space with light and a menu that takes in Italian, Indonesian, grilled meats and gourmet sandwiches. Nasi campur bali (US$5, Dh18) comprises several little sweet, spicy dishes and coconut rice, while the grilled salmon with chilli relish and mash (US$8, Dh29) is sublime. Casa is located above Ak'Sara, one of Jakarta's elite stores, which has a great range of books devoted to design, art and architecture, as well as magazines, CDs and hip homewear.

Plenty of Jakartan restaurants serve great food but lack atmosphere, an accusation that could never be levelled at Samarra on Jalan Kebon Sirih Raya. A lot of thought has gone into the design, which combines oriental cushioned seating, Asian artefacts, antique textiles and subtle lighting to great effect. The large dining room is cleverly divided into sections with tables set around niches, fostering intimacy and conversation. The cuisine - Middle Eastern and Indonesian - is outstanding. Treat yourself to Lebanese classics such as crispy kibbeh (US$5; Dh18) or try ikan kare hijau, a signature Javanese fish curry flavoured with lime leaves, baby eggplants, mint and green tomatoes (US$7; Dh26). On weekends the restaurant's Waldirum rooftop terrace, which has a fine outlook over the city's neon, comes into its own, as a hip crowd enjoy al fresco cocktails and DJs play funk and house until late. It's more geared to casual dining and has an inexpensive tapas menu.

Jakarta sits just south of the equator and the climate is humid and sticky, the punishing heat alleviated only by intense rainy season downpours. Unsurprisingly, air-conditioned malls are wildly popular, with more than 50 scattered around the city. Plaza Indonesia is centrally located and very classy, with a great selection of stores including Camper for quirky Spanish footwear, Cartier, Lacroix and Gucci for designer treats and Marks & Spencer for virtually everything else. In the basement there's an excellent, inexpensive food mall, where stalls knock out everything from sticks of satay to filling martabak. Cork & Screw, one of Jakarta's best wine bars, is located here and also serves great European cuisine.

Jakarta's morning and evening rush-hour macet (traffic jams) are horrific, so if you're in a hurry avoid taxis, private cars and public buses completely at these times of day. Hop aboard the air-conditioned Transjakarta Busway, which runs on special lanes, cutting through the gridlocked streets like a hot knife through butter.

Barack Obama spent four years of his childhood in Jakarta (between 1967 and 1971) when he lived in the exclusive Menteng district. His mother's second husband was from Java, and the US president still speaks Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. There's a bronze statue of Obama, depicted as a 10-year-old with a butterfly perched on his thumb, at his old school (Menteng 1, on Jalan Besuki). The school welcomes visitors who want a closer look, though the statue is visible from the entrance gate.