Things to do in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia- cultural capital of the Minangkabau

Things to do in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia- cultural capital of the Minangkabau

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West Sumatra is an amazing place, with a great variety of natural wonders and landscapes. It is inhabited by the Minangkabau people who present their rich and unique culture. And there is a city where you can dive deeper into their culture. It is a tourist city, with some interesting historical and natural sites, and a specific local atmosphere. This city is called Bukittinggi, which means “high hill”, and is one of the most attractive places to visit in this part of Indonesia. So, let’s go exploring Bukittinggi and discover the variety of things to do in this amazing destination!

Some geography

Let’s open the physical map of Sumatra Island, Indonesia. You can see a long mountain chain stretching across the whole length of the island, from Aceh to Lampung. It is called the Barisan Mountains, and a part of it, called Minangkabau Highlands, crosses the province of West Sumatra.

The city of Bukittinggi is located here, in the northern part of West Sumatra, amidst these mountains, at around 950 m altitude. Bukittinggi is surrounded by two volcanoes- Singgalang and Marapi, rising like two majestic sentinels south of the city, and a lot of hills and valleys from the other sides.

Bukittinggi is only about 30 km south of the Earth’s Equator. However, due to its altitude, the climate is relatively cool and pleasant. This is one of the reasons for the choice of its first inhabitants to establish the city here, along with the fertile fields around it. Today, this is one of the reasons why tourists are attracted to visit it. But there are more reasons- its history and culture.

Some history

The Minangkabau Highlands were the cultural and political core of the Minangkabau people. Centuries ago, they established five villages in what is today Bukittinggi. These villages formed a local market center that gradually united into a town. And when the Dutch colonized this area, they named the town Fort de Kock.

Dutch rule

In 1825, the Dutch built an outpost on the Jirek Hill (today in the center of modern Bukittinggi) which still stays today, in the middle of a beautiful park. Although they developed the economy and education for the local people, they were still foreign rulers, and the Minangkabau people of Fort de Kock were fighting occasionally for independence.

A canonball from Dutch era
A canonball from Dutch era

Japanese occupation

During World War 2, the islands of Indonesia were occupied by the Japanese. The Japanese 25th Army established its headquarters here and is known for forcing the local people to dig tunnels at the slopes of the nearby Sianok Canyon. Today, these tunnels are one of the local tourist attractions, located not far from the center.

Mohammad Hatta

Bukittinggi (at that time still known as Fort de Kock) is also known as the birthplace of Mohammad Hatta, the Co-Proclamator and first Vice-President of Indonesia. Today, you can visit his house, turned into a museum. When Indonesia gained its independence, Fort de Kock was renamed Bukittinggi.

Modern Bukittinggi

Since then, Bukittinggi faced some unrest, but for more than 60 years it has been a city of peace and gradually started attracting tourists. Its historical and cultural sites were turned into tourist attractions, and the whole city is one of the best places where you can dive into the local Minangkabau culture.

Some culture

Bukittinggi is the best city where you can experience the culture of the Minangkabau people. Minangkabau is one of the major ethnic groups in Indonesia, along with Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, and more. They are mostly Muslim, and their culture, traditions, food, and daily life are deeply influenced by Islam.

So, while you walk on the streets of Bukittinggi, you can see almost all women wearing hijabs, and many bearded men wearing a local version of songkok (Indonesian traditional Muslim hat). There are a lot of mosques and you can hear the Muslim prayers regularly at certain hours of the day.

At the same time, people are incredibly friendly and open to communicating with foreigners. You can easily make friends with them. There are a lot of markets, shops, and restaurants with local food (mostly spicy), and in general, the whole city is vigorous and full of life.

A normal scenery in the center of Bukittinggi during a rainy day
A normal scenery in the center of Bukittinggi during a rainy day

So, why you would love to visit this place? There are several worth visiting specific tourist attractions in the city, products of the city’s unique geography, history, and culture. And all of the above offers a lot of things to do in Bukittinggi.

Our journey to Bukittinggi

It was the main reason why we included Bukittinggi in our West Sumatra itinerary. We came from Padang, the capital and the largest city in West Sumatra, and spent 3 nights in Bukittinggi- it was our “base camp” for exploring the city itself and the nearby interesting destinations. During that time, we tried and tasted a lot of what this unique city can offer.

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Things to do in Bukittinggi

If you still wonder why you should visit Bukittinggi, what makes it so special, and what to do there, read further about the things you can do in this city.

Visit Jam Gadang, the main symbol of Bukittinggi

This is not only the main symbol of Bukittinggi, but also one of the main landmarks in the whole island of Sumatra, the heart of the city, and the main must-visit spot. Probably the reason is in its symbolic meaning.

Jam Gadang in the Minangkabau language means “Big clock”. It is a clock tower built by the Dutch in 1926 as a gift from the Queen of Holand to the mayor of Bukittinggi. Initially, it was just a normal clock tower in European architectural style.

But when the Japanese occupied the islands of Indonesia, they built a Japanese Shinto-style roof on it, symbolizing their power. After the independence and the creation of Indonesia, the locals removed this roof and built a Minangkabau buffalo-horns-style roof, symbolizing the independent rule of the Indonesians over their own land.

Jam Gadang- the symbol of Bukittinggi
Jam Gadang- the symbol of Bukittinggi

Jam Gadang is located in the middle of the Central Square of Bukittinggi, a favorite place for the local people to meet, walk, and relax. Today, it is surrounded by a fence and ordinary tourists can’t enter inside. It is possible only by a special application in advance. But you can walk around it, take photos of it, and enjoy the panoramic views of the city from above and the local bustling atmosphere.

Stroll around the center of Bukittinggi

Of course, just visiting Jam Gadang should not be your only goal in the center of Bukittinggi (unless you really don’t have time). This iconic tower and its square are surrounded by colorful streets, markets, two malls, and restaurants. It is especially colorful in the evening.

Directly west of it is Plaza Bukittinggi. This mall can be a pleasure for those who like shopping, but even if you don’t such an activity, just strolling inside for a while would be another opportunity to dive into the local life and atmosphere.

On the north-northeast, you can see the new Pasa Ateh Bukittinggi. It is a new mall, still half-empty, but still with some good shops for souvenirs and clothes.

In the center of Bukittinggi
In the center of Bukittinggi

Right beside Pasa Ateh, you can walk through Pasar Atas, the main market of the city, full of stalls for clothes, products for daily use, souvenirs, and food street- another great place to taste the local culture.

Finally, walk down on Ahmad Yani Str. Here you can see some of the best restaurants in Bukittinggi. You can see a lot of horse carriages waiting for tourists. You can try a carriage ride, it can be another exciting experience, however, be ready to discuss the price in advance (they are a bit expensive).

Observe the spectacular Sianok Canyon

A small river gathers its waters from the slopes of Mt Marapi, south of Bukittinggi. When it approaches the southwestern part of the city, it digs a spectacular canyon, considered one of the most beautiful canyons on the island of Sumatra. It is called Sianok Canyon.

Sianok Canyon is not too deep, and its bottom is wide. And it is located only about 10 min walk from the center of Bukittinggi. There is a tourist site, established at the edge of the canyon, called Panorama Park. When you enter inside, you can walk on a short alley to an observing tower.

Sianok Canyon
Sianok Canyon

On your left side, you can see a lot of local monkeys (they are very curious, aren’t afraid of people, and can come very close to you, but don’t touch them, they can bite!), and on your right side, you can buy some souvenirs.

But that’s not all. The same tourist site offers another attraction- the Japanese Tunnels.

Go deep underground in the Japanese Tunnels

This is a network of underground tunnels, reaching more than 40 m depth below the surface at the edge of the Sianok Canyon. The tunnels were built during the World War 2. When the Japanese army realized that they were losing the war, they decided to force the locals to dig these tunnels and use them as an “underground fortress”.

Of course, after the liberation of Sumatra Island from the Japanese, these tunnels were abandoned, but in recent years were restored and turned into a museum. The managers of the tourist site offer guide service, and it would be good to follow them, they would share a lot of stories about this place. If you go alone, be careful! There is a possibility of losing yourself inside the tunnel network!

In the Japanese Tunnels
In the Japanese Tunnels

So, here you have two places to visit in one tourist site- Panorama Park: Sianok Canyon and the Japanese Tunnels.

Working hours: 8:30 to 18:00
Entrance fee: 25 000 IDR

Watch the city from above in Fort de Kock

Here you have a triple tourist site, presenting Fort de Kock, an ethnographic museum, and a Zoo. Let’s start with Fort de Kock.

There are two hills in the center of Bukittinggi. The western one is called Jirek Hill. As mentioned above, in 1825 the Dutch built an outpost here and called it Fort de Kock, named after Hendrik Merkus de Kock, the vice governor of the Dutch Indies at that time. Soon, Fort de Kock became the name of the whole city.

Today, the outpost is restored and turned into a building with a panoramic deck. It is different than the original building, and not so spectacular. But the park around it is beautiful, especially with the great panoramic views of the city. And of course, it has its historical value.

Bukittinggi from above
Bukittinggi from above

After you explore it, you can proceed to the next places of interest- the History Museum of Minangkabau Culture and The Zoo. A beautiful bridge, called Jembatan Limpapeh connects Fort de Kock with them, over one of the main streets of Bukittinggi.

Explore the Minangkabau culture in the History Museum

When you cross the Jembatan Limpapeh Bridge, you can hear some animals’ voices. And one of the first things that you can see is a splendid Rumah Gadang (a traditional Minangkabau house). Go to its central entrance and start exploring it- this is the ethnographic Museum of Minangkabau Culture. Both the museum and the Zoo are located in Taman Bundo Kanduan Park.

The Museum of Minangkabau culture
The Museum of Minangkabau culture

This museum is small, there are only two floors to explore. Most of the artifacts inside are crafts, clothes, some historical documents, coins, and more- quite similar to the Adityawarman Museum in Padang. However, along with the things that are traditional for such types of museums, you can also see something that is a bit shocking- preserved genetically deformed animals (with 6 limbs, 2 heads, etc.).

Nevertheless, this museum is a good place with educational value.

Enjoy the wildlife animals of The Zoo

The Ethnographic Museum is surrounded by animals. You can notice that this Zoo is a bit different than most zoos in the world. One of the first animals you can see is the two Sumatran elephants- the managers provide corn cobs, and you can feed the elephants. Many of the other animals are also quite close to the visitors. However, many visitors may find their cages too small.

Sumatran tiger in the Zoo of Bukittinggi
Sumatran tiger in the Zoo of Bukittinggi

The Zoo of Bukittinggi presents mostly animals from the island of Sumatra. You can see Sumatran tapirs, Sumatran tigers, orangutan, and more. There is also a small Aquarium (with an additional entrance fee- 5000 IDR), and some species from other regions of the Earth.

The whole site has two entrances.

Working hours: 8:30 to 18:00
Entrance fee: 75,000 IDR

Visit the house-museum of Mohammad Hatta, one of the founders of modern Indonesia

Bukittinggi has played an important role in the struggle for independence of Indonesia. One of the most prominent symbols of the city is Mohammad Hatta, the first Vice President of the country. He was born in Bukittinggi (then Fort de Kock) in 1902. Today, his house is renewed and turned into a museum.

Bung Hatta House
Bung Hatta House

The house Hatta is small, with two floors, and additional small buildings in the backyard. Inside, you can mostly see the environment where he spent his childhood, with some preserved furniture, a kitchen, and more. You can also learn more information about him, although most of it is in Indonesian.

Working hours: 8:00 to 18:00
Entrance fee: free

Dive into the colorful local life in the open markets of Bukittinggi

Open markets are some of the best places where you can feel the local atmosphere in a city. In Indonesian, they are called “pasar”. There are several pasars in the city. I already mentioned one of them- Ateh Bukittinggi, located just beside the Clock Tower of Jam Gadang. But there are several more.

Just south of Bung Hatta House Museum, on the other side of Jl Soekarno-Hatta is Pasar Bawah Kota, where you can find mostly food- local fruits, vegetables, and spices. Another one is Aur Kuning, located a bit far from the center, under an overpass of Jl By Pass, with more types of goods.

An open market scene in Bukittinggi
An open market scene in Bukittinggi

Of course, visiting these places is not necessary for shopping, although I would recommend trying some fruits. It may be difficult for some people to endure various smells that can be felt there. But even for taking photos or videos in the pasars is worth visiting it.

Useful tips

This is in brief what Bukittinggi looks like, and what to do in the city. Now, let’s share some useful information about how to do it.

How to get to Bukittinggi

The most popular way to reach Bukittinggi is by bus, van, or car from Padang. You can find shared vans waiting at Minangkabau Airport. They usually leave when they are full, and the trip is about 2-3 hours long (depending on the traffic, especially in the section between Padang Panjang and Bukittinggi). The price is around 50,000 IDR. The main bus terminal in Bukittinggi where they arrive is Terminal Aur Kuning, right beside the pasar that I mentioned above.

“Travel” service

Another more convenient way is to use the service of the “Travel” companies. What do they do? You contact them from your hotel in Padang, they tell you a fixed hour to wait there, and they come to take you. However, they usually don’t know English, so you have to ask a person from the reception of your hotel to help you call them.

Then, they come, and take you on board, but don’t leave Padang immediately, because usually more passengers have called them, and they have to go to their doors. It is a van with 10-12 seats. When it departs, it stops in their office in Padang where you pay the ticket- 60 000 IDR per person.

We used the service of PT Sikumbang Tours. But you can find more in Tabing. When they depart, you have to tell them your destination in Bukittinggi, so they will drop you there.

Long-distance buses

Bukittinggi is also connected to other destinations in Sumatra, even in Java- Medan, Lake Toba, Jakarta, Bogor, Bandung, and more. Long-distance buses travel between these destinations and Bukittinggi is just one of their stops on the way. They are big buses and stop at another bus terminal- ALS Bukittinggi, at Jl Soekarno-Hatta. For them, you have to book in advance.

Check for long-distance buses to Bukittinggi!

Moving around Bukittinggi

All of the places to see in Bukittinggi are located in the center or quite close to it. And if your hotel is in the center, basically, you don’t need transport, you can walk around. If you want to go a bit further, there are local public vans, called “Angkutan Kota”. They are very cheap, however, if you don’t know their routes, they can be not so convenient.

A local "Angkutan Kota"
A local “Angkutan Kota” van

So, a much better way to move around Bukittinggi is by Grab. Download the application on your phone, register, and you can call a Grab motorcycle or car almost everywhere in the city. It is convenient because you don’t need to explain to the driver where you want to go- you just point it on the map of the application. Another similar service is Maxim, with similar prices.

Besides these, there are motor taxis (ojeks) and car taxis, but they can be much more expensive, especially if you are a foreigner.

Where to stay in Bukittinggi

Bukittinggi is a tourist destination and has a lot of places to stay- from luxurious to budget. You can easily find them on Booking or Agoda. Most of the accommodation properties are located in the center, and it is very convenient for exploring the nearby points of interest. The price of the majority of them is between $9 to $30.

Check for accommodation in Bukittinggi on Booking!

Check for accommodations in Bukittinggi on Agoda!

From the budget hotels, some of the best include Bukittinggi Homestay, Al Barra Syariah, and Syakirah. There are more, however, these three not only have good user reviews but also have a good location. And there are a lot of middle-ranged and luxurious hotels in the center too, like Grand Rocky Hotel Bukittinggi, Hotel Santika Bukittinggi, and Novotel Bukittinggi.

There are also some Airbnb properties, but most of them are more expensive than the hotels. However, they can be a good opportunity to get closer to the local’s daily life.

Another view of the center of Bukittinggi
Another view of the center of Bukittinggi, with Mount Singgalang hidden in clouds

Bukittinggi as a starting point

These are the things to do in Bukittinggi, in the city itself. But there is more- Bukittinggi is an excellent starting point for visiting many more destinations- and you can use it as a “base camp” for that purpose (so, plan an itinerary for at least 3-4 days and book a hotel for 3 nights!).

These are only some of the most interesting places to visit around Bukittinggi:

  • Koto Gadang Great Wall. It is a beautiful park with a miniature version of the famous Great Wall in China. Located only about 6 km from the center of Bukittinggi.
  • Batang Palupuh Nature Reserve. Located about 10 km north of Bukittinggi. The highlight of this place is the largest flower in the world- Rafflesia Arnoldi. There is a small museum where you can see and learn more about it.
  • Mount Singgalang. It is one of the “sentinels” of Bukittinggi. Mount Singgalang (2877 m) is a non-active volcano. There is a hiking route to its top, and the starting point for it is about 17 km southwest of Bukittinggi.
  • Mount Marapi. This is the other “sentinel” of Bukittinggi. It is 2891 m high, the top is above the tree line, and in general, it is more challenging. Mount Marapi (don’t confuse it with the famous Mount Merapi on Java Island) is the most active volcano on Sumatra Island. The starting point for the trail leading to the top is about 26 km southeast of Bukittinggi.
  • Harau Valley. This is an amazing canyon system, located 49 km northeast of Bukittinggi. It is wide but with vertical cliffs and multiple waterfalls falling on these cliffs.
  • Pagaruyung Palace. This is the most beautiful traditional Rumah Gadang house in Sumatra- the restored version of Pagaruyung Palace, from where the kings of Pagaruyung Kingdom ruled. It is located 45 km southeast of Bukittinggi, near the town of Batusangkar.
  • Lake Singkarak. It is the largest lake in West Sumatra- a beautiful place with a pristine coastline and spectacular views. Located about 50 km south of Bukittinggi.
  • Minangkabau Villages. This area is the core and the route of the Minangkabau people. In Balimbing village you can see the oldest preserved Rumah Gadang house, and Pariangan is the traditional village, with most of its houses in old traditional architecture.
  • Lake Minanjau. This is the most beautiful large volcanic lake in Sumatra. It is located 30 km west of Bukittinggi. The coastline is beautiful, but there is also a point where you can see it from above, in a fantastic panoramic view- the place is called Puncak Lawang, and is also a popular place for paragliding.
  • The Equator. This iconic geographical line is located only 55 km north of Bukittinggi (actually, only 28 km in straight line). Several roads cross the Equator and have markers, but the one located at the village of Bonjol is the most popular, featuring even a museum where you can get an “Equator Certificate”.
Mount Marapi
Mount Marapi

We left Bukittinggi back to Padang. But before that, we stayed there for 3 nights, visited everything in the city, described above, and used it as a “base camp” for visiting some of the points of interest around it- Pagaruyung Palace, the Minangkabau villages, Lake Singkarak, and Harau Valley. And we can confirm- Bukittingi should be on your bucket list and itinerary plan if you want to explore this part of the world.

Check some travel books about Bukittinggi and Sumatra:

    

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This is a guide to Bukittinggi, the cultural capital of the Minangkabau people, with things to do in the city and useful tips. This is a guide to Bukittinggi, the cultural capital of the Minangkabau people, with things to do in the city and useful tips.

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