The booming city of Medan, capital of North Sumatra, is an economic hub and commercial centre for the region. This is the largest city in Sumatra attracting residents from all over Indonesia who come here to do business.
For visitors, Medan is best known as the gateway to North Sumatra with many travellers flying into the city and setting off from here for adventures in the cool highlands of Lake Toba or the wild Sumatran jungle.
This is a busy and sprawling metropolis so you’ll need to be patient as noisy minibuses and becak compete with taxis and motorbikes for space through the crowds and heat.
In it’s earliest days, the area which is now Medan was home to a community of traders and seafarers, under the rule of Islamic Malay leaders. This was until the Acehnese finally conquered the area after years of battling in the early 17th century. During the period of conflict, the plains were used as a battlefield between the two kingdoms which is why Medan translates literally as field or battlefield.
The modern history of the area begins in the 1860’s when entrepreneurs recognized the potential of the rich volcanic soil here and began plantation agriculture. In 1865 an adventurous Dutch entrepreneur introduced tobacco to the area ushering in a new era of prosperity. This led to an influx of foreign investment and a steady stream of European capitalists. Crops of tobacco, rubber, oil palms, sisal and tea were all planted here. Thus from a small village, Medan grew into a prosperous colonial city.
In 1886 the Dutch made Medan capital of North Sumatra and by the end of Dutch rule the population had swelled to about 80,000.
After independence in 1948, the population of Medan exploded and it is now the third largest city in the country. Today the influence of Medan’s colonial plantation past is reflected in the European architecture of many of the cities biggest buildings. Medan has become a blend of the modern and the ancient.
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Food in Medan, like most of the food found throughout Sumatra, is hot and spicy. But this city is so big that even if you don’t like spicy food you should still be able to find something to satisfy your appetite. From cheap warungs on the side of the road serving local Indonesian fare, to Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants, Medan has a wide variety of cuisine.
On the colonial main street Jalan Jenderal Ahmad Yani, the famous Café Tip Top in an original building is a lovely spot to sit and nibble on some Durth style cookies and watch the world go by.
Medan is filled with street vendors offering a great variety of traditional cuisine. While these places may not look fancy, they serve cheap and tasty local food that you can’t find anywhere else in the country. Check out the popular food street of Jalan Selat Panjang which comes alive at night with vendors cooking up a storm for the hungry crowds.
Check out Merdeka Walk. This the first Tensile Structure (Alfresco Outdoor Concept) in Indonesia and the hottest place to hang out in Medan city with many choices of cafes and restaurants
Durian is popular all over Indonesia and nowhere more so than in Medan. This thorny fruit, with it’s very distinctive taste and smell, is available cheaply all over the city. Sit with the locals at a street stall and munch on some durian. If the taste is too strong for you, you might want to try a durian pancake instead.
Snack on dried fruits with sugar which you’ll find in Pasar Rame, a famous market that lasts from morning till afternoon, located beside Thamrin Plaza.
Medan has the shopping facilities of any big city including many malls. If you’re after more specialist items then Jl Yani has a collection of antique shops which sell all kinds of Batak, Acehneses, Minang and Javanese antiquities.
For clothes try Monginsidi Plaza or ‘Monza’ as the locals say. This collection of vendors has mostly Indonesian sized garments but even if you’re larger you can still enjoy browsing at how the local people keep themselves well dressed. If you do purchase something remember to haggle.
In Medan’s Chinatown around Jl Sutomo you will find everything from heavy machinery to toiletries. Make sure you keep an eye on your things though as pickpockets are common.
Medan is famous for producing some of the best bika ambon in Indonesia. This is a delicious cake made of rice flour. Visit Jalan Majapahit for the best selection bika ambon and marquisa syrup. These make great gifts for family back home.
There is a wide range of accommodations available in Medan.
See some of natures most terrifying creatures at the Crocodile Farm at Asam Kumbang, located about 10 km from the heart of the city. This farm has nearly 2,000 crocodiles of different sizes and species. Come here during feeding time to see these fierce reptiles use their sharp teeth to cut their lunch to shreds. Learn more about these animals and follow their stages of development. Souvenirs made of crocodile’s skin are also sold here. The farm is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm.
Soak up some culture and educate yourself about Indonesian traditions with a visit to Museum Negara. Here you’ll find a fascinating collection of archaeological relics from 12th century South Indian statues to remains of an Islamic nisan or gravestone.
The Grand Mosque of Medan is an impressive sight complete with Arabesque domes and crystal chandeliers. At the Palace of the Sultan you can see photos and memorabilia from the days of royalty. The building’s design reflects Malay influences, painted in a yellow trim (the color of Malay royalty).
Medan is the ideal place to arrange a tour into the wild jungles of North Sumatra. Contact tour operators in Medan to arrange a rafting or trekking tour that will surely leave you awestruck over the natural beauty this region has to offer.
In Medan you can choose from public bus, taxi or becak to get around. The local minibuses or sudako are basic and cheap. Only use these if you have a bit of bahasa Indonesian up your sleeve as they can be difficult to navigate otherwise.
The noisy becak is a tiny two stroke engine vehicle which is a cheap, though often nerve racking way to get around. Decide on a price with the driver before you get in.
Taxi’s are a cheap and convenient way to get around. Make sure you use a metered cab or if not, agree on your destination and price before getting in.
The city of Medan is connected by air through the Kualanamu International Airport. Located in the Deli Serdang Regency, about 2 hours’ drive from Medan, the Kualanamu Airport was opened in 2013 to replace the 85 years old Polonia Airport, that was getting too close to the city.
Airlines flying to Medan include: Garuda Indonesia , Lion Air , Air Asia , Sriwijaya Air , Citilink, Wings Air, and Susi Air. Among major cities in Indonesia connected to Medan via flights are: Jakarta, Makassar, Batam, Banda Aceh, Bandung, Surabaya, Pekanbaru, Sibolga, and more.
Kualanamu Airport also serves international flights by various airlines like: Malaysia Airlines, Mihin Lanka Air, Firefly and Valuair. While some international cities connected are Kuala Lumpur, Penang in Malaysia, Singapore and Colombo in Srilanka.
You can get to Medan by sea from Penang (Malaysia). Passenger ships also operate between Medan and Jakarta.
For those with time on their hands and don’t mind adventurous travel, there is a bus which travels overland from Jakarta to Medan.
It’s wide to keep a close eye on your belongings. Medan is known for it’s experienced pickpockets.
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