Medan is the capital city of North Sumatra and the largest city on the island of Sumatra. With a population of around 2 million people, Medan is also the third largest city in all of Indonesia, right after Jakarta and Surabaya.
Its current population and status is surprising when you take into consideration Medan’s history, which dates back to 1590. In 1823, nearly two centuries ago, a British government official reported Medan to be a ‘small village of around 200 inhabitants.’ But soon the Dutch took over and the tobacco plantations they started flourished the village, expanding it to well above 80,000 inhabitants until it was made capital of North Sumatra in 1886.
Much like the rest of Indonesia, Medan has a fantastic diversity of ethnicities and cultures: Chinese, Javanese, Toba-Batak, Minangkabau, Mandailing Batak, Karo Batak, Southern Indians, Northern Indians, and many more ethnic minorities. Most of the ethnic groups exist have comparably-sized populations, so Medan has no single ethnic group forming a majority.
Medan is not really known as a tourist destination. As the biggest city in Sumatra with an international airport, Medan serves more as a convenient stepping stone to more popular destinations in Sumatra, such as Lake Toba or Bukit Lawang.
Still, there are quite a few interesting sights to see and things to do if you stick around Medan for a day or two!
Best Time to Visit Medan
The best time to visit Medan is throughout the year since the temperature stays within a comfortably warm range year-round (20°C to 30°C). It tends to rain year-round as well, but rainfall is heavier during the autumn and winter months of September to December. The rain comes quickly and leaves usually just as quickly and you won’t experience whole days of rainfall so even if it’s raining, you’ll be able to schedule around it.
What you do want to avoid are the big holidays, when it’ll be hard to find hotels and take double to triple the amount of time to reach popular close-by destinations.
How to Get to Medan
Medan is the easiest city in Sumatra to get to – which is precisely why it’s the most popular jump-off point to reach other destinations on the island. Both Medan’s Polonia International Airport and its Belawan Sea Port are visa-free and visa-on-arrival points.
The Polonia International Airport is located a short 15 minutes from the city and it has plenty of both international and domestic flights flying to and from it, including:
- Firely Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Lion Air
- Malaysia Airlines
- Mandala Airlines
- Swriwijaya Air
A taxi into the city will cost you around 40,000 IDR ($4 USD) and a bus costs around 3,500 IDR ($0.35 USD).
How to Get Around Medan
Getting around Medan is pretty easy – there are becaks, taxis, and angkots to choose from.
Becaks are tricycle rickshaws – you know, these guys:
The price for a becak ride is between 5,000 – 10,000 IDR ($0.50 – $1 USD). Make sure to negotiate the price you want to pay.
Local taxis charge 30,000 IDR ($3 USD) and hotel taxis charge 35,000 IDR ($3.50) to pretty much anywhere to Medan.
The absolute cheapest method of public transport is the angkots (minivans) but they’re not very reliable and you’ll have to know or at least be able to ask about the local routes in order to get to your destination. The standard fare is 3,000 IDR ($0.30 USD).
Things to See and Do in Medan
Medan may mostly serve as a jump-off point but it also offers the usual benefits of a larger city. If you’re in the middle of a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, you’ll appreciate Medan’s huge shopping malls where you’ll be able to restock on the sunscreen and mosquito repellant brands you can find back home.
But Medan has more to do and see than shopping. Here are some of the most popular:
This palace was built in 1886 by the Sultan of Deli and is now open to the public.
It is worth visiting as it is one of the most beautiful palaces in Southeast Asia – you’ll find a mixture of Malay, Islam, Spanish, Indian, and Italian style elements blended into the exterior and interior of the palace.
Mesjid Raya (Grand Mosque)
Not too far from the Palace grounds, you’ll find the Mesjid Raya, an architectural beauty topped with an impressive dark dome.
The mosque is particularly stunning in the early morning light – remember to take a veil if you’re a woman visiting, otherwise, they will not let you in.
Marian Shrine of Annai Velangkanni
This is a fascinating church that is definitely recommended if you’re in the Medan area. What makes this particular shrine so interesting is that it is a Catholic shrine but with South Indian influences and with Tamil Hindu architecture. It is unlike any church you’ve ever seen before.
The outside wall murals feature scenes from the Book of Genesis as well as dinosaurs, outer space, and God. The church itself is no architectural beauty, but if you like ‘different’ – this is a must-see sight. There are neon lights, random color schemes and a sprinkling of kitsch religious ornaments, including a ‘Buddy Jesus’ statue.
Also a big plus: a fresh spring was discovered directly under the shrine of Our Lady and locals believe its water to have miraculous healing properties. Whether miraculous or not – it is clean, fresh water and it’s free.
Shri Mariamman is an iconic Hindu temple devoted to the Goddess Kali and built in 1884 by Medan’s South Indian community. The pristine temple offers a peaceful and ornate interior.
A beautiful place to stop by on your journey through Medan.
Tjong A Fie’s Mansion
This two-story mansion is a Medan must-see for anyone who is interested in history. It was built by Tjong A Fie, a Hakka merchant who went on to own most of the land in Medan through his plantation. He was later dubbed the Majoor der Chineezen – ‘Leader of the Chinese.’
Tour the Chinese-European Art Deco style mansion for a direct glimpse into the riches that Medan’s economical and political elite possessed in the past.
Also fun places to check out are…
- Merdeka Walk: A street full of pretty much everything you can eat from tiny streetside warungs to more high-end restaurants. Note: There are lots and lots of touts here.
- Vihara Maha Maitreya: This Buddhist temple is the biggest temple in Southeast Asia.
Medan Travel Tips
Medan is a large city and whereas it is as safe as any other large city, you should also exercise the same precautions. Just keep your bag close and make sure you keep an eye on your belongings at all times.
The same rules apply here as elsewhere in Indonesia – sun and mosquitoes are a fact of life here so bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent (preferably from your own country since the local mosquitoes get immune to the local sprays).
It’s also a good idea to have a raincoat or umbrella since sporadic rainfall is a possibility here. If you don’t have those, though, you can also find them here.
And as always – travel insurance can a traveler’s best friend.
Where to Go From Medan
Medan is the gateway to the rest of Northern Sumatra and you’ll soon want to move on to more scenic places. Here are some popular destinations you can get to from Medan:
This picturesque Lake Toba – known in Indonesia as Danau Toba – is the largest volcanic lake in the world and holds a small island the size of Singapore in its center. It’s the perfect place to relax and swim in the mineral-rich waters of the lake for a few days. You can reach Lake Toba from Medan in around 4 hours.
Berastagi is a charming, sleepy little village located a short distance (1.5-hour drive) from Medan. Berastagi makes the perfect stop-over town on your way to either Lake Toba or Bukit Lawang, but there’s plenty to see here too. You can hike out to the nearby volcanoes Sinabung and Sibayak and visit the traditional Batak houses of the Karo Batak tribe living in Berastagi.
Bukit Lawang is the gateway to the Gunung Leuser National Park as well as the largest sanctuary of Sumatran Orangutans. This place is a must-visit for animal and nature lovers. Here, you’ll have the chance to jungle trek, tube down a river, and even spot rare Sumatran wildlife. Bukit Lawang is about a 3-hour drive from Medan.
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