MEDAN – Must See City Highlights

Istana Maimoon (the Sultan’s Palace) Medan

Medan is a bustling, cosmopolitan commercial and business center and a regional economic powerhouse – it is big, boisterous, cluttered, crowded, noisy, heavily trafficked and often gritty and untidy.

A tourist destination with gleaming resort hotels and souvenir shops it most definitely is NOT.

Yet Medan is steeped in history from both pre-colonial and colonial times with a remarkable mix of ethnic groups and cultures, and truly interesting places to see for those who know where to look.

Medan is far and away the largest city in Sumatra and its capital. With a population of more than 2 million, it competes with Bandung for the title of Indonesia’s third largest city (after Jakarta and Surabaya).

The city’s bright and spacious new Kualanamu international airport, opened in 2013, is the third largest in Indonesia and designed to handle up to 50 million passengers a year by 2030. To put that into perspective, in 2017 Sydney’s Mascot Airport handled 43 million passengers.

A tour of a few hours is not enough to see all that Medan offers, but we will visit and view some of the highlights and share their stories to give you a flavor of this large and important city and the key role it has played in the shaping of Indonesia’s second most populous island.

It’s said that Medan and its surrounding region is as real and authentic as it gets, with a dash of romance thrown in. We’ll vote for that and we believe that by the end of your visit you will too.

A palace for an Indonesian dynasty created by an Italian with help from the Dutch

Istana Maimoon (Sultan's Palace) Medan in its heyday at the turn of last century

One of our first stops is the magnificent Istana Maimoon (Sultan’s Palace) – home of the Sultans of Deli since the 1880s.

The Malayu Sultanate of Deli came into being with colonial Dutch help in 1630 as a breakaway from the neighboring sultanates of Aceh and Siak. It had a chequered history over the following 200 years.

Then in 1887 Mahmud Al-Rashid the 9th Sultan of Deli, engaged an Italian architect to design this majestic building to serve as his court.

The complex covers 2,770 sq m, has some 30 rooms and combines Indian, Islamic, Malay, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences. Amazingly, the unlikely mixture works.

The present 14th Sultan, Mahmud Lamanjiji Perkasa Alum, succeeded to the title in 2005 after his father, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indonesian Army, died in a military plane crash.

The new Sultan was just a month short of his 7th birthday!

The Sultan and his family still live in the palace and it is the venue for special events like the weddings of princes or princesses and ceremonial observances.

Officially almost all of Indonesia’s royal Sultans were stripped of their power and entitlements following Indonesia’s 1945 declaration of Independence.

A bloody period known as the Social Revolution in 1946 saw violence unleashed against the nobility. Many kings and royal families in North Sumatra were murdered and robbed of property and belongings and their palace compounds burned and destroyed.

The family of the Sultanate of Deli survived, and Istana Maimoon emerged as one of the few royal palaces saved, because they were protected by Allied soldiers posted to Medan to accept the Japanese surrender following the end of World War II.

Though politically powerless, many of Indonesia’s nobility are still recognized and respected today by much of the broader population.

Masjid Al-mashun - the imposing GRand Mosque of Medan

A Moorish mosque built by a Sultan with money from Dutch tobacco and a Chinese businessman

Just 250 metres from the Sultan’s Palace is Masjid Raya (the Grand Mosque) or Masjid Al-Mashun built by the 9th Sultan of Deli between 1906 and 1909.

The Sultan received funding support from a Dutch company with tobacco plantation concessions and a Chinese businessman, banker, plantation owner and philanthropist then reputed to be Medan’s wealthiest citizen. The development budget was said to be 1 million Dutch guilders, a fortune at the time.

The octagonal building is in Moorish style with materials imported from Europe, including marble from Italy. Walls and ceilings are decorated with Islamic art.

Visitors are welcome, but we need to avoid prayer times and to dress appropriately – long pants for men and modest dresses and hair coverings for women. Footwear must be left outside the entrance.

Ornate Lacquered dining setting Tjong A Fie mansion, Medan

The mansion of the poor Chinese immigrant who became Medan’s richest man

A visit to the Tjong A Fie Mansion and Museum is a must for visitors to Medan.

This 35-room, 2-story mansion is a registered historical landmark and cultural heritage building. But the story of the mansion and the man for whom it’s named are what make it most remarkable.

Tjong A Fie was born into a poor family in 1860 in the southern coastal Province of Guangdong in China and left school early to work in his family’s shop.

He migrated to Medan to join an older brother in 1878 and through hard work, energy and ability the brothers built a business empire in plantations, mining, banks, real estate and railways.

He became the richest man in Medan, was recognized with honors back in China and was made leader of the Medan Chinese community.

He also achieved great respect within the wider local community for his generosity and philanthropy across all ethnic groups and religions, building schools, hospitals, temples, churches, mosques and more in Sumatra, Malaysia and China.

He is quoted as saying: “Success and glory consist not in what I’ve gotten but in what I’ve given.”

It’s a credo that we perhaps could offer as a reminder to some of our Western leaders in business and government!

Tjong built his mansion over five years from 1895 with a mix of Indonesian, Chinese and European design influences.

It underwent a major restoration in 2013, funded in part by a substantial grant through the US Embassy in Jakarta from the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

See more about the beautiful and symbolic Tjong A Fie Mansion and its restoration in the video below.

Play Video
Family shrine Tjong A Fie mansion

A Tip Top lunch and an introduction to the spikey ‘king of fruits” that Indonesians adore

Medan is famed for its food culture and we stop for lunch at the historic 90-year-old Tip Top Restaurant and Lunchroom, a landmark eatery that has become a Medan institution.

Later a visit to Ucok Durian where you can see, taste (and smell) the spikey Durian fruit which many South-East Asians consider to be the “king of all fruits”.

Medan is said to be the durian capital of Indonesia and aficionados say that no trip to Medan is complete without visiting this famous and extensive market stall-cum-local café that sells durian and durian products 24 hours a day!

The problem with durian is that they have a strong odor. In fact, to most Westerners they STINK!

So much so that hotels ban guests from bringing them into their rooms and airlines ban passengers from carrying them aboard their aircraft.

But they also taste delicious – the soft white flesh wrapped around a brown seed has a soft, rich, sweet custard cream texture and flavor and is just, well … really darned good!

Ucok Durian promotional sticker - the wording suggests durian is Medan’s unique souvenir
Durian to go – Lots of them! And evening crowds of locals enjoying the flavors of products like durian ice cream, drinks and pancakes

Durian goes wonderfully well with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream and it’s something you must try at least once in your life. You might even be hooked.

There is much more to see and experience in Medan but not in just one crowded day. Our tour group returns to the idyllic Deli River Hotel to rest and relax prior to dinner at the hotel’s poolside Omlandia Restaurant or an outside restaurant or food court.

For those stepping out, our crew is happy to make recommendations and help arrange transport.

More useful and interesting information

Medan is surrounded by real and authentic places of interest that are only now being discovered by international travelers. That’s why our REAL North Sumatra – Java Tour allocates 9 days and nights to exploring the North Sumatra region. For more descriptions and images from our tour program destinations click the links below.

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Head and should Douglas Cole - founder
Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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