Medan Travel Guide: All You Need to Know About This Multicultural City

A Guide to Travelling in Medan — North Sumatra’s Multicultural Metropolis

There’s so much to eat, see, and do here!

It’s no wonder different kinds of travellers would consider Medan as one of their top destinations in Indonesia. As the capital of North Sumatra, the city is known for so many things. For starters, it is a multicultural metropolis bursting with diversity, as there are many people of different ethnicities living here; the Bataks and the Javanese form a huge segment of the local population, followed by the Chinese, Minang, Sundanese, Acehnese, Malays, and even Indians. 

However, Medan is so much more than that! Tourists have known the city as a gateway to Lake Toba, while investors may have regarded it as a sought-after economic hub. Some may prefer to explore the historic and cultural side of things, while others may prefer to eat their hearts out with a gastronomic hunt. 

Image credit: shirophoto via Canva Pro

There’s always something for everyone here, which is why we’ll be introducing you to a local-certified Medan travel guide for first-timers! In this article, we’ll be taking you through the most famous attractions, popular things to eat, and everything in between. 

Also read: Third-Culture Kid Blues: My Experience as an Indonesian Who Grew Up in Malaysia

How to get to Medan from Kualanamu International Airport

There are two ways to get to Kota Medan from Kualanamu International Airport: the Medan Airport Train and the airport taxi. 

If you’re on a bit of a time crunch, you can book a one-way train ticket for Rp100,000 (~S$9.37). You can book your ticket in advance online on the Railink website or buy it directly at the train station. Each journey takes about 30 minutes, and you can sit back and relax as you watch the scenery pass by. Once you’ve reached the City Railway Station, you can walk directly across the street to Centre Point Mall, where you can check out various branded outlets and go shopping! 

Image credit: Nurul Hasanah via Canva Pro

On the other hand, you can book yourself an Airport Taxi, which is located in the arrivals area of the main terminal. As there are more than one taxi company, the fare varies depending on what you choose. A one-way trip to the city costs around Rp7,000-7,500 and will take you less than an hour’s ride. While it may take you to your preferred destination directly, we recommend choosing somewhere near your hotel for safety reasons. 

Also read: Jakarta to Yogyakarta by Train: An Easy Guide for This Scenic Train Journey in Indonesia

Travelling within Medan

Getting around Medan is pretty easy. Most of the time, we rely on the apps Grab and Gojek as our primary sources of transport to get where we need to go. You would be pleasantly surprised that the taxis are quickly available, which also extends to a pretty short waiting time per pick-up. 

But if you want the full Medan travel experience, take a becak, which is essentially a rickshaw. You can find two different types in the city — the motorised version that is powered by a motorbike, and the cycle version that is powered by a bicycle. It’s an experience like no other because you get to really soak in the sounds of the city and feel every bump in the road. Plus, you can negotiate the price with the driver who’s happy to take you where you want to go! But just remember, when you’re on the road, hold onto your personal belongings and keep them on your lap. This is to prevent potential robbery or loss. 

Image credit: Wibowo Djatmiko

Corresponding to its diverse culture, there are various languages spoken in Medan. These include Medanese Hokkien and Mandarin among Chinese communities, as well as a range of dialects commonly spoken among the Indonesian ethnic groups. However, regardless of where you go, it’s best to be proficient in Bahasa Indonesia. Knowing just the basic phrases will greatly help in getting around hassle-free (i.e., asking for directions) and immersing yourself in the culture.  

Also read: 70 Words in Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog That Have Similar Meanings

Things you can do in Medan

1. Go shopping at Centre Point Mall and Sun Plaza

Centre Point Mall and Sun Plaza are two of the most popular malls in Medan. If you love to shop, then these are the perfect places for you! Like every other mall, apparel and food are the main attractions. At Centre Point Mall, you can browse clothes at Adidas, Braun Büffel, and ALDO, or treat yourself to a new handbag from BONIA and Charles & Keith. On the other hand, Sun Plaza has more outlets to shop at, including Hush Puppies, Colourbox, and Everbest. No matter the mall, if you ever get hungry you can eat both international and local food at any of its wide range of restaurants and food kiosks.

2. Visit Medan’s oldest Hindu temple

In Medan, Indian-Indonesians form a huge segment of the local population. They are descendants of Indians who migrated from their home country to Indonesia during the 19th and 20th centuries. In Kampung Madras — the Little India of Medan — you can visit the site of several Hindu temples, five historical churches, and four historical Muslim mosques. 

medan's top attractions - sri mariamman temple

Image credit: Pratyeka

Adjacent to Sun Plaza would be the Sri Mariamman Temple, the city’s oldest Hindu temple and one of the most iconic Medan tourist attractions. It was initially built in 1884 by early Tamil settlers, but today, it’s an important site for worshippers during Thaipusam and Deepavali festivals. After that, you can go explore the rest of Kampung Madras with its myriad stores selling colourful Indian sarees and jewellery. Better yet, you can try authentic Indian food at any of its restaurants! 

3. Learn history at Tjong A Fie Mansion

For a taste of history and heritage, go on a guided tour of Tjong A Fie Mansion. This is also one of the Medan tourist attractions you cannot skip out on. Tjong A Fie was a Hakka Chinese merchant and kapitan (high-ranking government individual in civil administration) who established a large plantation in Indonesia. 

Upon his employment as Majoor der Chineezen in 1911, he built a range of public facilities (e.g., schools, libraries, hospitals, and religious establishments) throughout Sumatra, Malaysia, and China. He gave back to the community and was seen as a generous yet wise leader. Upon his death in 1921, many took to the streets to pay their final respects.  

Today, the mansion stands as a restored historical site worthy of sightseeing, and one of the best attractions in Medan. The style boasts Art Deco, Chinese, and Malay architectural styles, with elements of feng shui incorporated into its layout. Expect opulent rooms and furniture to match, as well as depictions of what it was like for people living in China. You can visit any time from 9am to 5pm, with an entry fee of Rp35,000 (~S$3.27). 

4. Try old-school cakes at Tip Top Restaurant

Right across the street, you can sample old-school-style cakes at Tip Top Restaurant. It’s one of the major Medan attractions, especially if you love to eat! Dig into bite-sized cakes with a rich creamy buttercream topping, complemented with a generous shower of chocolate sprinkles. Like its cakes, the whole restaurant feels like a blast from the past. The colonial-style architecture has remained the same since its initial opening. 

On the note of cakes, there are two other kinds of cakes in Medan you should consider taking home. Bolu Meranti is a famous swiss roll brand in the city, and if you’re at the airport, you might see people bringing it with them. The most famous flavour would be the cheese, which is not what you’re used to — it’s shredded cheddar cheese in the middle of your swiss roll. 

Kek lapis in Medan is also really famous, and just as great as a souvenir to gift to your close ones. You’ll never find it anywhere else. The cake’s layered interiors are highly sought after and made with lots of love. Contrary to your belief, there’s a complicated process to making the cake. Each layer is individually baked, and it could take hours to finish one batch. 

medan food - bika ambon and kek lapis

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The third souvenir you can consider taking home would be bika Ambon, a popular Medan dessert. It’s also known as “honeycomb” cake because of the unique — somewhat lined — texture achieved after baking it. If you were to ask us what it’s like, bika Ambon is spongy, soft, and fluffy. 

5. Go on the ultimate food hunt of Medan’s local dishes

When we tell you Medan food is to die for, we’re not kidding. In most cases, it’s a huge reason why people would want to come here — just to eat. Lucky for you, we’re here to tell you what you should try while you’re in Medan. 

top medan food - lontong medan, soto medan

Image credit (L-R): Suhailee Johari via Canva Pro; Gani Pradana Ongko Prastowo via Canva Pro

Medan food *have* to try: kari bihun, kweitiau goreng, bihun bebek (duck beehoon), mie pangsit (wonton noodles), sate padang, tau kua he ci, nasi lemak Medan, es campur, martabak manis, tahu isi, martabak telur, mie aceh, sayur asem, soto Medan, pecel lele, bika ambon, mie rebus, nasi ayam, bakso lembu (meatballs), lupis, putu bambu, lontong Medan, and uyen (fried taro) with pecel sauce (peanut sauce). 

Also read: 10 Restaurants in KL & Selangor to Fix Your Indonesian Food Cravings

6. Eat your heart out at Garuda Restaurant

Garuda Restaurant is the top place in the city for Medan food, let alone a feast. They specialise in nasi padang, which is a really good way to get into trying the local food. Pair a plate of steaming white rice with several of many small dishes ranging from fish, meat, curries, and vegetables. While you only pay for what you order, it’s so much better if you come with more people. This is so you can order more dishes to share and try together! 

7. Grab dinner at Merdeka Walk

top medan food - merdeka walk

Image credit: deepgoswami

On some days when you don’t want to brainstorm what to eat next on your list of Medan food, the solution is simple: Merdeka Walk. It’s both an indoor and outdoor food court where you can solve all your eating dilemmas. You’ve got both international and local cuisine here, and there are endless restaurants to pick from. At night, the whole food court turns into an epic hangout spot. You can grab a friend or two, and just relax over a good meal.

Besides Merdeka Walk, you can also choose to eat at a range of Medan’s restaurants! If you love seafood and Chinese dim sum, Nelayan is a great place to eat. They’ve got restaurants throughout the city, even inside malls. Plus, their dim sum is halal, and a great option for Muslim travellers in Medan. Likewise, you can go to Restoran Ayam Goreng Kalasan for great Indonesian food. Their signature dish is Kalasan fried chicken, a local delicacy that’s flavourful and puts the normal fried chicken to shame. 

P.S. — You can eat Restoran Ayam Goreng Kalasan in Kualanamu Airport!

8. Visit Indonesia’s largest Buddhist temple

Medan has a large Buddhist community; as such, there are many Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city, including Vihara Maha Maitreya in Cemara Asri. It was built in 1991 for Buddhists in Medan and North Sumatra, and by 2008, it was officially inaugurated. While it is a primary place of worship, it is also open to the public. The temple is divided into three rooms: a banquet hall, a meeting hall, and a Baktisala where people can worship Buddha Sakyamuni, Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva Satyakalama Avolokitesvara. 

Image credit: deepgoswam

When exploring the temple, you’ll be met with a serene atmosphere. You may find that the interior is influenced by the teachings of the Maitreya Buddha. Do pay a visit to the floating teapot fountain, and stop by the vegetarian restaurant inside the temple for lunch! 

9. Appreciate the interiors of Mesjid Raya Al Mashun

Image credit: B10m

The Mesjid Raya Al Mashun is Medan’s main mosque, and arguably, the prettiest. In its construction, the mosque used Italian marble and French stained glass. On the other hand, the architecture is influenced by Middle Eastern, Indian, and Spanish elements. Those who love architecture should come here to just admire the mosque and the intricate details that you can find in the stained glass. Non-Muslims can visit the mosque outside of prayer hours, but please make sure to dress respectfully. 

10. Stroll through the lush green lawns of Istana Maimun

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Istana Maimum was a royal palace that belonged to the Sultanate of Deli. It’s one of the architectural examples of what happens when you combine Malay and Indonesian cultures. Today, a part of the palace has been opened to the public as a museum that’s right in the middle of Medan. You can visit the throne room and learn more about the family, or tour the lush green lawns outside. But if you really want to amp up your experience, you can dress up as a king or a queen for a day and take pictures around the palace! There are also souvenir shops in case you want something to bring home. 

Things you can do around Medan

11. Stop over in Berastagi for a day

Image credit: Christian Advs Sltg

For the most incredible views on your Medan travel, you have to visit the town of Berastagi. It’s on the way to Lake Toba and totally worth a stop! One of its main attractions includes Berastagi Fruit Market where passionfruit is aplenty. If you want panoramic views of the whole town, stop by Gundaling. It’s a hill located in the town centre, and when you’ve reached the top, you might feel like you’re on top of the world! Similarly, you can visit ​​Bukit Kubu and picnic on the gorgeous green lawns. 

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But if you’re ready to take on a more thrilling activity, visit two active volcanoes that are in the area — Mount Sibayak and Mount Sinabung. Guided tours of both of the mountains are provided, and the hot springs of the first volcano make it all worth it. At night, you can go camping at Kebun Efi, which comes with pretty flower fields and bold mountain views. 

12. Take panoramic pictures at Lake Toba

Now you’ve reached the pinnacle of Medan travel — after a day in Berastagi, you can drive ahead to Lake Toba. It’s a very large lake in North Sumatra, taking up the space of a supervolcano’s caldera. Though it might seem unassuming, you have to stay for the picturesque scenery and peaceful environment. Here, the greenery runs for miles and the air is fresh.

top medan attractions - lake toba

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It’s no wonder photographers may be inclined to come here, and we’re here to tell you where you can achieve the most incredible shots. For starters, at sunset or sunrise, you can go to the top of Tarabunga Hill. It’s near Balige, a small town in the Toba Regency. Another great option would be to go to Holbung Hill, which is more memorable at night; you can go camping under the stars and wake up to the afterglow of dawn. 

But let’s say you want to approach a different angle to your pictures. What if you included the green hills near the lake? At Huta Ginjang, you can reach sensational heights like no other.  There’s also Bukit Indah Simarjarunjung, where you can look out and have some alone time with the tree. Last but not least, you can stop by the three-tiered tower of Tele Observation Tower. You’ll be rewarded with a chance to take Insta-worthy shots for a lifetime, with full visibility of the lake below.  

Also read: Escape From the Touristy Bali Crowds in North Sumatra, Indonesia (Lake Toba, Medan & More!)

13. Discover the rest of Lake Toba’s attractions

Samosir Island is an island literally in the middle of Lake Toba. On top of being one of the many Medan tourist attractions in the area, it’s also a major site for the Batak people. You can find many of the traditional homes of Toba Batak, and even buy Batak handicrafts (e.g., ulos cloth) at any of the souvenir stalls. Similarly, you can visit Jangga Dolok Village and Tomok Village to learn more about Batak culture. 

Image credit: Christian Advs Sltg

Parapat is another town that’s just as beautiful. It’s usually the stopping point for people coming from and going to the island, but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on what it has to offer. Here, you can fall in love with a small Dutch-style town that may remind you of your travels in Holland. For outdoor adventure enthusiasts, you can partake in a range of water-based activities like kayaking, canoeing, fishing, water skiing, and more! 

Image credit: hotmahtg

In ​​Sapo Juma Tongging Garden, you can literally stop and smell the lovers. The garden boasts many kinds of different flowers, and it’s more than enough to brighten up your travels (pun intended). On the other hand, you can also dip your toes in a sulphur bath at Sipoholon Hot Springs, and go hiking to witness the majestic waterfalls of Air Terjun Sipiso Piso.

Also read: Things to Do in Samosir Island, Indonesia: A 5D4N Itinerary For Nature Lovers

Image credit (L-R): Lake Toba Official Website; NOVA BARUS 

Best places to stay in Medan

There are many hotels in Medan you can stay at. On top of being comfortable, they’re accessible and, depending on your location, close to a mall or several eateries. 

1. JW Marriott Hotel Medan

JW Marriott Hotel is Medan’s first five-star hotel, so you’re in for a treat! Located in the Central Business District, the hotel also has stellar facilities and amenities, including a 24-hour gym, a gift shop, and an infinity pool. The rooms are well-furnished, and waking up to the Medan skyline every morning is something you should never miss out on. On days when you don’t feel like going out, you can wind down in the spa rooms or try fine-dining at Marriott Café

2. Permata Inn

For those travelling on a budget, the Permata Inn is an affordable inn with clean rooms and safe rooms. Though it’s not as fancy as you’d like your stay to be, you can still get your basic comforts ensured. There are front desk services, a shared lounge, airport shuttle, and Wi-Fi. What’s more, you can upgrade your package to include breakfast!

3. Swiss-Belinn Hotel

If you value convenience and accessibility during your travels, the Swiss Belinn Hotel is the right one for you. You’ll be within walking distance from the best Medan attractions, like Tjong A Fie Mansion and Mesjid Raya Al Mashun. On top of that, there is a decent selection of restaurants and shops nearby! The rooms are well-stocked with entertainment and sleeping amenities, and laundry services are provided. 

4. Grand Central

Similarly, Grand Central is a great option for international travellers. Despite the affordable room rates, you can expect great facilities during your stay. These consist of soundproof rooms, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and a well-equipped bathroom. Booking a room here means you’re located close to shopping malls like Medan Mall and other attractions like Maimun Palace. If you’re interested to rent a car to get around, the desk services would be happy to help you out. 

5. Hotel Deli River

For a stunning getaway out of the city, the Hotel Deli River feels like a dream come true. You can spend your free time at ease with views of the Deli River and a tropical garden. If not, you can sign up for cooking classes at Restaurant Omlandia, which also serves both Indonesian and Western cuisines. Within the property, you may come across fruit trees and unique bird encounters. 

6. d’prima Hotel

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It’s highly recommended for foodies to come and stay here because the d’prima Hotel is near Merdeka Walk. The strategic location grants you a gateway to the Medan food scene, which may intrigue you to go on a memorable food tour! Besides Merdeka Walk, you’ll also be located next to the City Railway Station and Centre Point Mall, where you can go shopping or catch a movie while you’re in town. 

Also read: Indonesia Plans to Introduce a ‘Digital Nomad Visa’ for Destinations Like Bali

So, that’s all folks! We’ve reached the end of our Medan travel guide. The city’s truly an underrated gem, and we hope you end up loving it as much as we do. In fact, if you’re considering moving there for the food… then it means we did something right! (*Wink.*) 

Featured image credit: Muhammad Amir via Canva Pro

About Author

Natasha Effendy
Natasha Effendy

Natasha is a wordsmith and digital content creator who's been trying to write her way into the adventure of a lifetime. If she's not writing, you'd definitely catch her nursing her addiction to romance and fantasy novels with a cup of tea.