Medan – History, diversity, and surprises in Sumatra’s biggest city

A place of gleaming resort hotels and souvenir shops for tourists it is NOT. But the city of Medan, capital of North Sumatra, is steeped in history with truly interesting places to see for those who do their homework and take the time to explore.

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WITH A COSMOPOLITAN population of more than 2.3 million, Medan competes with Bandung for the title of Indonesia’s third largest city (after Jakarta and Surabaya).

It is a bustling commercial center and regional economic powerhouse. It’s big, boisterous, cluttered, crowded, noisy, heavily trafficked, and often gritty and untidy.

And it is notable for the religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity of its people.

Medan is the gateway to some of Indonesia’s most interesting natural destinations. But first you should explore Medan itself. You will be missing out if you don’t.

Here are some of the reasons why –

The inner courtyard of the Tjong A Fie Mansion in Medan,

The inner courtyard of the Tjong A Fie Mansion in Medan. Pic Tjong A Fie Institute.

The remarkable story of the Tjong A Fie Mansion

This 35-room, 2-story mansion was once a family residence and one wing of it still is – but the rest of the house is a magnificent and lovingly maintained museum celebrating the life of a famous Medan benefactor from more than a century ago.

The Tjong a Fie Mansion is registered as an historical landmark and cultural heritage building. In 2014 Trip Advisor listed it as one of the Top 10 places to visit in all Indonesia

The stories of the mansion, its origins, and the remarkable man for whom it’s named are fascinating.

Born into a poor family in 1860 in the southern coastal Chinese Province of Guandong, Tjong A Fie left school early to work in his family’s shop.

He migrated to Medan to join an older brother in 1878 and through hard work, energy, and ability the brothers built a business empire in plantations, mining, banks, real estate, and railways.

Tjong A Fie became Medan’s richest man. He was awarded high honours back in China and made leader of the Medan Chinese community.

He also achieved great respect within the wider local community for his generosity and philanthropy across all ethnic groups and religions. He funded the building of schools, hospitals, temples, churches, mosques and more in Sumatra, Malaysia, and China.

Tjong-A-Fie-Mansion-ornate-laquered table
Familiy Familiy Shrine Tjong a Fie Mansionrine Tjong a Fie Mansion

Medan and North Sumatra’s immigrant benefactor Tjong A Fie (TOP) and (RIGHT) a beautiful laquered table setting and the family shrine. In the video, then US Ambassador Robert O Blake talks about and shows why the US Ambassadors’ Fund contributed to the renovation and preservation of the Mansion. 

Tjong built his mansion over five years from 1895 with a mix of Indonesian, Chinese and European design influences. It has been referred to as an ‘historical jewel’.

But he is on record as saying, “Success and glory consist not in what I’ve gotten but in what I’ve given.”

The Mansion opened to the public in 2009 and underwent a major restoration in 2013, funded in part by a substantial grant through the US Embassy in Jakarta from the USA Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

It’s open to the public from 9am until 5pm daily (except Chinese New Year) and the entry fee of Rp35,000 (AUD$3.50).  The admission includes  an English or Indonesian speaking docent to guide you through the premises and relate its stories. You can learn more at

Istana Maimoon – the palace of the Sultan of Deli

The Medan Palace of the Hereditary Sultan of Deli – the main all and throne room are open to visitors.

The Malayu Sultanate of Deli came into being with colonial Dutch help in 1630 as a breakaway from the neighboring sultanates of Aceh and Siak.

In 1887 the 9th Sultan of Deli, Mahmud Al-Rashid, engaged an Italian architect to design this majestic building as his court.

The complex covers 2,770 sq m, has some 30 rooms. Its design combines Indian, Islamic, Malay, Italian, Spanish, and Middle Eastern architectural influences. Amazingly, this unlikely mixture works!

The present 14th Sultan, Mahmud Lamanjiji Perkasa Alum, succeeded to the title in 2005 after his father, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indonesian Army, died in a military plane crash.

The new Sultan was a just a month short of his 7th birthday!

The Sultan and his family still live in the palace, and it is the venue for special events like the weddings of princes or princesses and ceremonial observances.

When not in use the main hall, throne room and grounds are open for public viewing (you need to check opening hours).

Ornate throne room in Sultan of Deli Palace – Pic 

Throne room Sultan's Palace Medan

There is limited on-site information at the Palace, so you will need an informed guide.

There are stalls selling artifacts and crafts and for a small fee a costume hire service will dress you in traditional clothing to be photographed in the splendid surroundings.

Fostering Sultanates a colonial strategy

The Dutch fostered the traditional Sultanates during the colonial era to help them maintain administrative control, but the remaining Sultans were largely stripped of power and property after Indonesian Independence.

Officially (and apart from a special exception for the Sultan of Yogyakarta) royalty is no longer recognized in Indonesia.

However, royal lines and aristocratic elites have persisted and have played a political role. Hereditary sultans are still recognized and widely respected by sections of their local populations, particularly in Java, Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, and Maluku.

Masjid Raya – Medan’s magnificent multi-sided Grand Mosque

Drone view of Grand Mosque Medan

A drone’s eye view of the landmark Great Mosque in Medan – Pic

Indonesia, as home to the world’s largest Muslim population, has many spectacular mosques. The Grand (or Great) Masjid (Mosque) Al-Mashun of Medan is one of them.

It is located about 250 meters from the Sultan’s Palace and was built by the 9th Sultan from 1906 to 1909 (after he completed his nearby Royal Court).

A Dutch company with tobacco plantations reliant on concessions from the Sultan, and Chinese businessman, banker and plantation owner Tjong A Fie helped fund the project.

Building materials imported from Europe

The budget was said to bee a million Dutch guilders, a small fortune at the time.

The octagonal building is in Moorish style with materials imported from Europe, including marble from Italy. Walls and ceilings are decorated with beautiful and intricate Islamic art.

Visitors are welcome, but you need to avoid prayer times and to dress appropriately. That’s long pants for men and modest dress and hair coverings for women. Footwear must be left at the entrance.

Shri Mariamman Temple – place of worship for the Tamils

This small Hindu temple is one of many examples of the diversity of cultures and religions in Medan

It was built in 1884 by members of the Tamil community, originally from south India. Their descendants live in an area known as Kampung Madras – Medan’s Little India.


Medan’s Shri Mariamman Temple can seem a little ordinary from the outside. But when you pass through the exterior wall it’s a different story. Pics


Decorative fascia Shri_Mariamman temple
Interior Shri_Mariamman temple Medan

The temple is noted for colourful frescoes, ornate carvings and reliefs and statues of Hindu Gods. It highlights Medan’s ethnic, religious, and social diversity.

located close to the bustling business centre, it is an island of peace and tranquillity. Visitors are welcome between 8am and 12pm and from 4pm to 6pm.The temple is closed on Saturdays.

Maha Vihara Maitreya Cemara Asri Buddhist temple

You might well think you have been transported to China or Tibet when you first view this huge Buddhist temple and monastery in the Medan suburbs.

It is relatively recent and is yet another iconic symbol of Medan’s multi-cultural heritage and of Indonesian religious tolerance.

The temple is located on 4.5 hectares of land in a predominantly residential area in North Medan. The project began in 1991, but the complex was only inaugurated in 2008.

Scuilpted koi pond Maha Vihara Maitreya Temple, Medan

Tranquil koi and decorative in the sculpted koi pond at Maha Vihara Maitreya Temple, Medan (Pic and (BELOW) the entrance to the massive complex.

It is a place of worship for members of Medan’s large Indonesian-born Chinese community and is considered a place of ‘peace and tranquility’ with a koi pond and bird park.

Its multiple halls can each accommodate up to 2,500 people.

There are massive and smaller Buddha statues (yes, it is possible to pat a tummy for luck), ornate carvings and reliefs, a vegetarian restaurant, a coffee shop, a children’s playground, and a souvenir shop.

Maha Vihara Maitreya is one of several Buddhist temples popular with visitors to Medan.

Another is the small but ornate Vihara Guning Timur (East Mountain Monastery), a joint Taoist and Buddhist place of worship dating from the 1960s.

It is in Jalan Hang Tuah only about 500 meters from the Shri Mariamman Hindu Temple..

Graha St. Maria Annai Velangkanni – it’s a church

We all know what a Christian church should look like, right?

Prepare for a very different mind picture after you visit this unique and beautiful Marian Catholic place of worship.

Especially if you are a believer in bringing faiths, traditions, and peoples together.

Graha St. Maria Annai Velangkann, Medan
Interior Graha St. Maria Annai Velangkann, Medan

The striking and unusual Graha St. Maria Annai Velangkann, Catholic Church in Medan from the outside and the inside. Pics

It doesn’t look like a church at all. The architectural style is described as Indo-Mogul, which means that from the outside it looks more like a Tibetan Buddhist pagoda or an Indian Hindu temple than a church – with a few elements of China’s Forbidden City thrown in.

Inside it is very much a church. Two long, curving external stairways provide access to the second floor, where church services are conducted. A chapel is located on the ground floor.

The interiors are beautifully decorated with statues, frescoes, and murals. Verses from the scriptures are displayed in in four languages – English, Indonesian, Tamil and Chinese.

The church is recent. Indian Jesuit missionary Father James Barataputra built it with donations from all over the world. It opened in 2005.

The church is named in Tamil and dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health, a Saint who appeared as an apparition of Mother Mary and is said to have performed miracles in India in the 17th Century. It is becoming an Asian pilgrimage site.

State Museum of North Sumatra (Museum Gedung Arca)

If history and culture is your thing, then this ethnographic and historical museum should be high on your list.

Its worth visiting just to see the spectacular main building with its high, steeply pitched roof and striking entry, echoing the architectural styles of Sumatra’s distinctive ethnic groups. 

State Museum of North Sumatra

The excellent State Museum of North Sumatra – locals call it the ‘Statue Building’ for its design and intricate wall sculptures. Pic

The essence of its unusual look is captured in the museum’s original and local name – Gedung Arca literally means ‘statue building’.

The museum complex occupies more than a hectare. It was built in 1954 and inaugurated as a state museum in 1982.

Two floors of exhibits provide insights into the tribes of Sumatra and their traditions, lifestyles, and crafts.

Objects and relics range from geological samples and prehistory fossils to traditional clothing, artifacts and ornaments, and traditional weapons, medicines, tools, and musical instruments. There are even carved coffins and headstones.

Historical and social themes

Dioramas and mini exhibitions tell the history the emergence of modern North Sumatra and its regions.

Look for the exhibits depicting the Dutch colonial period, struggles for independence and the story of Sisingamaraja X11, the last King-priest of the Batak people.

The king led a resistance movement and waged guerrilla war against the Dutch for 30 years before dying in battle in 1907 along with his daughter and two sons.

The Indonesian Government declared him a National Hero in 1961 and used his portrait on the old 1,000 rupiah note.

The period of the Japanese occupation during World War 11 also receives attention.

The museum has computer screens to allow you to search and navigate exhibition areas and themes.

You will need time to do justice to this extensive display. Your take-away will be a deeper and wider knowledge of rich cultural traditions and customs and an understanding of early North Sumatran civilizations, and the subsequent Hindu, Buddhist, and Dutch colonial eras.

The museum is open from 8am to 4pm Tuesday to Thursday and 8am to 3.30pm Friday to Sunday.

Rahmat International Wildlife Museum & Gallery

Spectacular display at Rahmat International Wildlife Museum Medan

Spectacular displays are a  feature of the Rahmat  Wildlife Museuam in Medan

Spectacular displays have made this private wildlife/natural history museum into one of Medan’s major attractions for locals and visitors, including regular groups of school students.

It houses a collection of more than 2,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and fish and other marine life from Indonesia and around the world. It is claimed as a first for Southeast Asia.

Specimens are displayed, mainly in open dioramas and free-standing exhibits, or suspended in space. Popular exhibits include a ‘night safari’ area of exhibits and sounds in semi-darkness, and an insect wall.

Businessman and hunter Dr H Rahmat Shah opened the museum in a smaller form in 1999 and expanded it to its present 3,000 sq m in 2007.  A further renovation was completed in 2013.

Cats of  the World display at Rahmat International Wildlife Museum, Medan. Pic

People who are strongly against the hunting and exploitation of wildlife are critical of Dr Rhamat Shah and the museum. If you share this viewpoint, it is probably not for you.

The founder professes to being a conservationist and nature lover who believes in the concept of ‘conservation by utilization’.

Exhibits from zoo deaths, legal hunting

He maintains his exhibits come from legal hunting, zoo deaths and donations – and that exhibits like his (though perhaps not as well presented) can be seen in public natural history museums around the world.

Dr Shah has drawn extra fire by devoting an area of an upper floor to a collection of hunting awards and memorabilia reflecting his globe-trotting travels, his enthusiasm for movie stars and celebrities, and his passions for boxing and soccer football.

Regardless, it’s likely you will find this gallery interesting and very well presented. Not at all what you would expect to find in North Sumatra! 

It’s open from 9am until 7pm daily except Mondays. Admission for foreigners is about Rp150,000 (US$11).

For a little extra you can have a studio quality photo taken by a professional photographer or you can snap away with your own camera or smart phone. There’s a cafe on the premises.


The attraction described in this article illustrate the diversity of cultures and religions and provide a glimpse of the history of this interesting city.

In particular, they are examples of how different religious and ethnic groups co-exist with respect and harmony in Indonesia, contrary to misinformation about Muslim dominance that circulates in many Western countries.

Don’t worry if museums and places of worship are not your thing – there is much more to see and do in Medan and the surrounding region. Check out the regional attractions covered in related articles to learn more (links below)

If possible you need to be allocating a minimum of two weeks in and around Medan to do North Sumatra justice. 

The mix of ethnic groups has made Medan one of Indonesia’s famous food cities. If you are any kind of gastronome, your next read should be my article Medan for Foodies – great tastes and where to find them.

For more abvout places to visit in North Sumatra click on these articles:

North Sumatra – an introduction to a region of special places

Seeing rare orangutans in the wild and up close at Bukit Lawang

The amazing story of Lake Toba – Sumatra’s great natural wonder

Introducing the fascinating Batak people of North Sumatra and Lake Toba

Take it easy in BERASTAGI  – then take the slow road to Toba

Special places and fascinating experiences at magnificent Lake Toba