Sumatra’s major metropolis, and Indonesia’s third-largest city, is somewhat mythical in travellers’ circles, regularly popping up in ‘What’s the worst place you’ve ever visited?’ conversations in global backpacker bars. As ever with these things, perspective plays a huge part in the Medan experience. For most tourists, just off the boat from squeaky-clean, multicultural Malaysia, the pollution, poverty and persistent cat calls of ‘Hello mister!’ can be an unnerving jolt of dirt-under-your-fingernails Asia. However, if you’ve worked your way north through Sumatra, and are a little more immune to the culture shock, it’s easier to see past the grime and discover an amenity-filled, leafy and modern town with more than a hint of crumbling Dutch-colonial charm.
Because first impressions are often misleading; just when you had Medan dismissed as a chaotic nightmare, you’ll pass by one of its grand marble mosques, fading art-deco buildings or a group of smiling locals and you'll realise it's a city worth hanging around for.
Recommended things to do & see
Our top picks for Medan
Having recently received a much-needed lick of paint, the Maimoon Palace stands as grand as ever. Built by the sultan of Deli in 1888, the 30-room palace features Malay, Mogul and Italian influences. Only the main room is open to the public; it features the lavish inauguration throne. The back wing of the palace is occupied by members of the sultan’s family. The current sultan, Aria Mahmud Lamanjiji, was only eight years old when he was installed as the 14th Sultan of Deli in 2005, replacing his father, who died in a plane crash. He is the youngest sultan in Deli history. He currently resides in Sulawesi, and his role is purely ceremonial.
Tjong A Fie Mansion
Tjong A Fie Mansion is the former residence of a famous Chinese merchant; his home, which mixes Victorian and Chinese styles, is intentionally similar to his cousin's (Cheong Fatt Tze) home in Penang. Across the street is Tip Top Restaurant, a historic spot for sipping colonial nostalgia. Further north is Lapangan Merdeka, a former parade ground surrounded by handsome Art Deco buildings, such as the Bank Indonesia, Balai Kota (Town Hall) and the post office.
Inspired by Singapore's alfresco dining, this collection of outdoor cafés occupies Lapangan Merdeka and is anchored by one of the shiniest McDonald's you'll see outside the Soviet bloc.
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