Medan is the largest city in Sumatra, with over two million people. While it is not exactly a world tourist hotspot, in North Sumatra pretty much all roads go to Medan, so you will at least pass through it, maybe several times, during  your trip to North Sumatra.

Although there has been a settlement on the site for centuries, its current prominence dates from the late 19th century, when it was part of the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch first planted tobacco plantations in the surrounding area (using imported Chinese labour), and then in the early 20th century they began to plant rubber (a Brazilian plant originally, although experiments were made using a local jungle rubber tree) on plantations with mainly Javanese immigrant workers.

All of the natural resources grown in the area were exported via Medan's port of Belawan, and the city grew to become a melting point of different ethnic groups. Today the largest group (but still a minority) are the descendants of the Javanese plantation workers, while the Chinese are now by far the wealthiest group in the city, with varying proportions of every other ethnic group found in Sumatra, such as Batak, Karo, and Acehnese. There is also a small but noticeable Indian quarter in the city.

Activities for tourists consist either of visiting different religious buildings of the various ethnic groups, enjoying their native cuisines, admiring the remnants of colonial architecture from the early 20th century, or just shopping in one of the many air-conditioned malls. The city also has a few poorly maintained wildlife attractions, such as the zoo, and a crocodile farm, both of which Western tourists would probably prefer not to visit


The best hotel in Medan is the JW Marriott. It's a 5* hotel with room rates from around 700,000rp up to 2,000,000rp per night typically including (check room rate)buffet breakfast for two (otherwise around 150,000rp so well worth including) - prices varying according to seasonal demand. At the lower price, it's superb value. At the higher price it's still not expensive by international standards, but maybe by Sumatran standards.

The Deli River hotel is popular with guests for its quiet colonial style. It's also around 700,000rp. However, it's located far south of the city, so is not suitable for those wanting to go shopping. The location for access to  the airport, Lake Toba, or Berasatagi is fine, but for moving on to Bukit Lawang it's less convenient.

There is now (since late 2015) a hotel close (3km) to the airport. This is a 3* hotel, the Crew Hotel. Room rates are typically 300,000 (economy), 400,000 (business), 500,000 (first) rupiah. The hotel usually sells out of the cheaper rooms as it plays host to all of the overnighting flight crew from the airport. The hotel is around 3km from the airport. Hotel shuttles may be unreliable, but plenty of taxis are also available from the hotel to the airport. The hotel doesn't have too much to recommend it, as there is nothing nearby, but for an early morning flight it could be convenient, as it cuts out the traffic from Medan city to the airport.

As an alternative, guests can depart directly from Bukit Lawang in the night, say at 2am, for a 7am flight, rather than attempt a night at a hotel in Medan.

The D'Prima hotel is a 3* hotel located on top of Medan's train station. This takes you to the airport with less risk of traffic than a taxi. It's worth checking the train timetable before considering this.

The closest hotel for travel onwards out of Medan to Bukit Lawang or Tangkahan is the Grand Serela. If you need to be out in the morning early it might save you a few minutes.

Other upscale hotels in Medan include the Aryaduta, and Grand Aston. There are a number of hotels in the 300-500,000rp range that you might consider. 

The traditional backpacker area of Medan is around the Grand Mosque, on Jalan Sisingamaraja. Backpackers still stay in this area, but it is not as prominent as in previous decades.

If you don't have any interest in staying in Medan, it's often cheaper and/or more convenient to leave Medan by private car and stay the night in Bukit Lawang, where rooms are cheaper, rather than waste a day travelling from Medan the next day. We offer private transportation services, priced at €45 from Medan to Bukit Lawang, book by email.


Most tourists in Medan shop in one of the large air-conditioned malls. These contain boutiques, supermarkets, food courts and restaurants. Prices for imported Western goods will be higher than in the West, but some brands, such as Levi's are produced locally, and are likely to be cheaper in Indonesia. All the malls also contain some kind of video game arcade, which are powered by smart card, costing around 3,000rp per game.

The main malls in Medan are:

  • Sun Plaza - one of the largest malls, it has the largest variety of different shops.
  • Plaza Medan Fair, also called Carrefour, it is anchored by a large Carrefour supermarket, which has two floors, one for food, and one for household appliances, sporting goods, etc. Low prices. There are also other stores in the mall such as camera shops, and a small branch of the Matahari department store.
  • Plaza Millennium is devoted to computers and mobile phones. There are also some camera shops outside.
  • Thamrin Plaza consists of Medan's large Matahari department store (selling middle-class clothes) and some other stores.
  • Centre Point - the newest megamall in Medan, it's maybe now the best mall in Medan, anchored by the Parkson department store selling higher quality goods than in some of Medan's other stores. The mall also branches of most of the clothing brands found in Medan.
Besides the malls, the Berasatagi supemarket on Jalan Gatot Subroto, 4km out of Medan towards Bukit Lawang is maybe the best supermarket in Medan. There is a small wine/liquor store in the building.

There are also traditional wet markets in Medan, such as Pasar Petisah, where you can see fish and meat on sale.


In Medan you can find food in shopping centre food courts (where you order from one or more of the stalls and eat in one of the central tables), from a street cart (selling food such as satay, noodle soup, etc.), from a simple cafe/shack known in Indonesian as 'warung', or  a Western-style restaurant known either 'rumah makan' or 'restoran'. You can also find Western fast food brands, most notably KFC (and two copies: Texas Chicken, and California Fred Chicken), and McDonalds

You can find good food in all types of eating place, but generally food is better on the street than inside malls.  

In Medan the style of food called 'Padang food' is very popular. You will see it from the many dishes of food in the window. When you go into the restaurant a plate of each item is brought to your table. You pay for each plate that you eat, but if you don't eat from the plate, then you don't pay - look but don't touch. There are several Padang chains in Medan, which usually cook the food to a very high standard - these include Garuda and Acc. A larger, busy Padang restaurant is a good sign for quality, but small warungs can be tasty also.

More formal, Western-style restaurants exist in Medan, but they are not really of international standard. 

Medan has some good Chinese food. At Jalan Selat Panjang, you can find many choices of Chinese food such as roast duck, dumplings, and others.

One type of food you will see in Medan if you keep your eyes open is 'B2'. This is a polite word, to avoid offending Muslims, for 'babi', or pig. It is BBQed, and served with pork bone soup, and a very spicy sauce made from pig blood and chili. In some areas, where there are more Christians (Karonese and Batak people), most of the whole street is 'B2' warung. In other areas there is none at all.

In the area of central Medan known as 'kampung keling' (India town), you can find Indian warungs serving traditional Indian food.


The recommended transport in Medan is metered 'Ekspres' or 'Bluebird' taxi. These taxis cost around 4,000rp per kilometre. Other taxis are not metered, so you must agree a price. Expect to pay more.

If you cannot find a metered taxi (a common problem), then you will probably take a becak (motorised rickshaw) - everywhere in Medan. These are priced by negotiation, but they will charge typically 10-30,000rp depending on a journey length.