10 Reasons to Visit Medan, Indonesia

Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city, is not only a rich melting pot of cultures but also an entry point to the wild nature of North Sumatra

1. Lakeside Serenity

Lake Toba is a gem near Medan
credit: Matthew Oldfield

With its glassy surface and surrounding mountains, it’s easy to see why Lake Toba has been included in the Indonesian government’s ‘10 priority tourism destinations’. The lake (four hours by car from Medan) is the country’s largest to result from a crater, and it’s the largest freshwater reservoir, with a depth reaching 505 metres. Tongging Village is located on Lake Toba’s periphery and is an accessible spot to have a closer look at the lake. Stroll through the streets to enjoy the quietness of the farming community.

Lake Toba also presents a cultural side on Samosir Island, which sits in the middle of the lake. It takes about half an hour to get to the island by ferry from the main pier, in the town of Parapat. Once on the island, visitors can check out the Tomb of King Sidabutar and watch a Sigale-gale funeral dance, which involves a life-size wooden puppet as one of the characters. Inspired by the story of a king’s son who died on the battlefield, the performance is accompanied by traditional music of the Batak (a North Sumatran ethnic group).

2. Slice of India

Little India in Medan
credit: Matthew Oldfield

Home to the largest ethnic Tamil community in Indonesia, Kampung Madras is known as Medan’s Little India. Indians’ history here dates back to the mid-19th century, when the Dutch colonialists sent Indian workers to the area, mainly as construction workers. Craving some roti canai flatbread? The stalls in this neighbourhood are sure bets for this and numerous other Indian-influenced dishes. If you’re in town during a big Indian festival, you’ll find all the vibrant celebrations here.

3. Some Like It Hot

A hot spring resort in Berastagi, near to Medan
credit: Matthew Oldfield

In Berastagi, about two hours from Medan, spa junkies can go for a hot spring dip at the foot of Mount Sibayak, thanks to its crater filled with sulphurous water. Many hike to the crater on the active volcano for steam-enveloped views, then head to the relaxing sulphur pools found at Semangat Gunung village. The minerals in the water are supposed to be good for the skin, and many visitors enjoy the springs late at night because they believe it’s a more effective healing experience.

4. Fascinating Chinese Heritage

Tjong A Fie Mansion
credit: Matthew Oldfield

Born in China’s Guangdong province, Hakka Chinese Tjong A Fie established several businesses in Sumatra, producing sugar and palm oil. What earned him widespread admiration, however, was his funding of public facilities in Medan such as bridges, schools and places of worship. His residence, the two-storey Tjong A Fie Mansion, is open to visitors. Built in 1900, the restored property occupying one hectare shows off a number of living rooms, the master bedroom, a photo gallery and a ballroom with their original furnishings. Tjong’s older brother, Tjong Yong Hian, was also involved in the city’s development, and his life is honoured at Tjong Yong Hian Gallery, a museum that houses memorabilia such as old photos, clothing and musical instruments that belonged to him. The compound’s garden is the highlight, consisting of ponds and manicured hedges.

5. Comfort Food

Snack time at Kedai Kopi Apek
credit: Matthew Oldfield

Medan has a rich culinary scene, with influences from Batak, Chinese, Indian, Malay and Minang (an ethnic group from West Sumatra) cultures. Kedai Kopi Apek, across from Pasar Hindu (Hindu Market), is a shop offering coffee that uses Arabica beans sourced from the North Sumatran town of Sidikalang. Toast with homemade kaya (coconut egg jam) is prepared on a firewood stove. If you prefer something more filling, try soto medan, a Medan-style soup made with coconut milk. RM Sinar Pagi on Sei Deli Road has been selling the dish since 1962. You can choose beef or chicken for the protein, and it’s all served with perkedel kentang (potato patties), white rice and sambal. Don’t miss Bihun Bebek Asie on Kumango Road. It serves Chinese-style duck vermicelli soup with a generous portion of shredded duck meat in duck broth, along with fried garlic and mustard greens.

6. Waterfall Adventures

Two Colours Waterfall in Tongging Village
credit: Gregorius Bhisma Adinaya / EyeEm / Getty Images

A massive eruption that took place about 74,000 years ago resulted in Sipiso-piso Waterfall, located in Tongging village, at the northern tip of Lake Toba. Walk down the hundreds of steps paved into the landscape to reach the 120-metre waterfall’s bottom. Also well known is the Two Colours Waterfall. Located in Sibolangit district, it’s famed for its blue and greyish-white colour gradations. Getting there requires a two-hour trek through the forest – perfect for nature lovers.

7. Jungle Treks

Jungle treks in Bukit Lawang
credit: Matthew Oldfield

About 3.5 hours from Medan, the jungles of Bukit Lawang offer eye-opening treks, with the chance to see rare Sumatran orangutans. Part of Mount Leuser National Park, the village is home to an orangutan rehabilitation centre. During a guided trek, visitors are also likely to spot long-tailed macaques, indigenous Thomas’ langurs and gibbons. All of the guides here are local residents, so the trekking operations are an important source of income for the community.

8. Palatial Grandeur

Maimun Palace in Sunatra
credit: Matthew Oldfield

Apart from its Chinese and Indian heritage, Medan also preserves its Malay cultural ties. Established in 1891 by the late ruler of the Sultanate of Deli, a Malay and Muslim sultanate that no longer rules in Sumatra, Maimun Palace incorporates Indonesian, Persian and European architecture styles. It has 40 rooms, as well as a prison in the basement. Visitors are invited to change into traditional Malay clothes, available at one of several stalls inside the palace, with fees depending on your choice of fabric quality and accessories.

9. Worship Sites

The Great Mosque of Medan
credit: Matthew Oldfield

With adherents to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism (in that order of prevalence), Medan’s mix of religions reflects its ethnic diversity. Its places of worship, many of them built in hybrid styles, represent this mix. Our Lady of Good Health Church, for example, is a Catholic church resembling an Indian temple. It honours Mary, who is said to have appeared in a coastal village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the 17th century. The Great Mosque of Medan is a major landmark. Designed by a Dutch architect and completed in 1909, it features an octagonal shape and materials including marble from Italy, Germany and China, and stained glass from France. Meanwhile, Gunung Timur Temple is an active Taoist and Buddhist temple complex that dates back to the 1960s. In the town of Berastagi lies Lumbini Natural Park, a four-hectare Theravada Buddhist temple complex and garden. It’s a replica of Myanmar’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda, with many of its statues imported from the country.

10. Homegrown Fruits

Homegroen fruits in Medan
credit: Matthew Oldfield

During a visit to Medan, Indonesia’s current president Joko Widodo took his time to visit Ucok Durian for the famed local durian, known for its sweetness. For more variety, head outside of Medan to Berastagi, where you’ll find the bustling Berastagi Fruit Market. Don’t miss the jeruk madu (sweet orange). Other local fruits to sample include salak, mangosteens and persimmons.

Local knowledge

‘Steeped in history as a trading town on the Strait of Malacca, Medan sits proudly as the gateway to Northern Sumatra, providing access to the stunning Lake Toba and the majestic yet fiery Mount Sinabung. But it’s rich mix of cultures make it much more than a gateway city, with a plethora of experiences, histories and sights to enjoy.’

Chris Bowden, Cathay Pacific’s country manager for Indonesia

‘The multiculturalism of Medan is not only gleaned through the city’s varied heritage sites but also in its culinary offerings. To savour the tastes of the city means sampling Batak, Jawa, Minang, Melayu, Indian and Chinese cuisines. They all influence and showcase the identity of Medan.’

Fred Reynold, director of sales and marketing at JW Marriott Medan

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