North Sumatra’s capital city, is often overlooked thanks to its gridlocked streets and industrial feel. Long regarded as a stopover en route to more glamourous destinations in the province, a closer look yields some delightful treasures.
Spend a few days here the next time you’re in the province and discover the city’s fascinating, if crumbling, Dutch-era charms, plus some worthwhile sightseeing and shopping, contemporary nightlife and restaurants, and old-school backstreet food stalls.
A lot of Medan’s top attractions are focused around food and you can sign up for a food tour, or simply go it alone and explore the sights, smells, and tastes of the city by yourself. Culturally, this is a diverse city with Batak people, Chinese and Tamils originally from India who call this home.
We have put together a few options for those looking to enjoy a bit of culture and food.
The Museum of North Sumatra
Here, you will find galleries that tell the story of the different periods of North Sumatran history and take visitors through the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim eras as well as the Dutch colonial period.
There are also collections dedicated to ancient weaponry, textiles, farming equipment, and sculptures, and you will also find some amazing wooden coffins carved in the shapes of dragons.
Jl. HM. Joni No.51, Teladan Bar., Medan Kota, Kota Medan
Istana Maimun is the name of the royal palace in Medan which belonged to the Sultanate of Deli. Nowadays parts of the palace are open to the public and have been turned into a museum.
These include the throne room and there are a few displays that explain the history of the royal family and some collections of ancient clothing and other objects of interest.
One of the big draws here is that for a small fee you can dress up in period garb and take pictures in the throne room, and you can also walk around the lush grounds that encircle the palace.
Jalan Sultan Ma’moen Al Rasyid No.66, A U R, Medan Maimun, Kota Medan
Tjong A Fie Mansion
Anyone who has been to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang in Malaysia may find Tjong A Fie Mansion familiar, and Tjong A Fie was actually a relative of Cheong Fatt Tze hence the similarities between the two buildings.
The mansion is one of the top attractions in Medan and is a great place to see how people would have lived in this city in the 1900s. You can take a guided tour around the mansion which will take around an hour and hear all about the history here with one of the attentive guides.
As you walk around make sure to check out all the ornate decorations and the pretty garden for which the mansion is famous.
Jl. Jenderal Ahmad Yani No.105, Kesawan, Medan
Kampung Keling is the traditionally Tamil – and Indian — part of Medan The area is filled with shops selling colourful saris and Indian jewellery and there are several Indian restaurants here, too. It is also the spot of the Sri Mariamman Temple which was built in 1884.
Make sure to check out the ornate carvings that make up the temple roof.
Medan is known for its food but if you are not sure what you want to eat then head to Merdeka Walk.
This is basically a kind of promenade which is lined with different restaurants and stalls selling all different kinds of food in the centrw of the city. Just some of the choices here include noodle dishes, soups, rice, curries and desserts.
If you want to try some quintessential Medan style food then you need to go to Garuda Restaurant. This is actually a chain so there are a few dotted all over the city and the main reason to come here is to enjoy the Nasi Padang.
Located in Kampung Keling, Cahaya Baru is one of the most famous restaurants in the city. This simple eatery is dedicated to serving up delicious and cheap Indian food and this is the place to come if you want to try authentic curries and dhal.
If you want to get a taste of everything you can order the tali which comes on a metal tray that is separated into compartments and has a range of curries, rice, and vegetable dishes.
Unlike many restaurants in Medan you can also buy beer here and enjoy a cold one with your meal, or you can opt for the fresh juices or lassi.
Cafe Raya is an institution in Medan and is known as the best place to stop off for a few beers. Not all cafes in Medan serve alcohol, so this makes Cafe Raya a favorite with the expatriate community and with anyone looking for a quiet corner away from the bustle of the city.
Located in the centre of town on Jalan SM Raja, Cafe Raya also serves a range of international dishes and some simple Indonesian noodles and fried rice, and as many of the city’s hotels and guesthouses are located along the same road, this is a convenient place to come in the evening and relax before you turn in for the night.
In Medan you can choose 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 Indonesian up your sleeve so you won’t miss your destination.
The noisy becak is a tiny two stroke engine vehicle which is a cheap, though often nerve wrecking way to get around. Agreed 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, make agreement on your destination and price before getting in.
The closest airport, Kualanamu International Airport, is a two hour drive from the city. Sea routes also connect Jakarta with Medan.
North Sumatra has an abundance of natural attractions all of which are just a few hours from Medan. It’s incredible how diverse North Sumatra is, the scenic beauty comes in many forms – mountains, volcanoes, lakes, forests, islands, waterfalls, and more.
Sipoholon Hot Springs
These hot springs have been called the “soda water pools” as the baths supposedly taste like a dirty carbonated beverage (we don’t recommend trying it). The waters are a vibrant blue-green due to its sulphurous content, and the surrounding limestone hills dot the area with hues of orange, yellow, and green – such a picturesque landscape!
Did you know that there are pristine islands with lush greenery, white sand beaches and clear waters just hours away from Medan? Subtly located off the coast of North Sumatra, just a boat ride away from the Tanjung Tiram port, are the little-known islands of Pandang and Salah Nama.
Whitewater rafting along Wampu River
Rafting down Sungai Wampu is a truly special experience. As you traverse down the river, you will get a glimpse into the Sumatran forest, pass by wildlife, encounter challenging rapids, and witness waterfalls and the stunning river valley. Won’t that be such an exhilarating and memorable experience?
Lake Toba is one of the natural wonders of the world. This enormous crater lake has an island almost the size of Singapore in its centre. At over 1,145 square km, and a depth of 450 meters, Lake Toba is actually more like an ocean. This is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the deepest lakes in the world.
Feel the wind in your hair and do as the locals do by hiring a motorbike to explore this beautiful part of the world. If you’re on Samosir Island, take the day to explore by taking a drive on the road running around the edge of the island. Although rough and unpaved in places, this road offers some spectacular views of the lake from the highest points on the island. If you’re staying in the popular village of Tuk Tuk on Samosir, the best way to get around is to walk, or wander, down the main street at a leisurely pace.
Parapat, the town by Lake Toba, is 176 km from Medan and can be reached in under 6 hours by public bus which has two routes: Medan-Parapat or via Medan-Berastagi.
Travel agents in Medan can also organize a rental car plus a chaffeur for you. Medan is an international gateway. A number of airlines fly daily between the Kualanamu Airport Medan and all major cities in Indonesia and international flights also go from Medan to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Once you arrive in Parapat, you can catch the ferry to Samosir Island. The ferry goes every hour and a half. The two landing points on Samosir are the traditional village of Tomok, or Tuk Tuk, where the islands hotels and restaurants are concentrated. If you are coming overland from the south via Bukittinggi and Tarutung there is a public bus available.