Photo: Worth exploring.


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Semarang, Central Java’s provincial capital, doesn’t feature on many travellers itineraries except perhaps as a transport hub to whizz past on the way to the jungles of Kalimantan or the idyllic Karimunjawa archipelago, and although it may not have the draw of the province’s royal cities of Yogyakarta or Solo, we think it’s a charming, underrated destination and fans of architecture and history should really consider adding a couple of days here—Semarang will surprise you.

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Clinging to the north coast, the city is home to over 1.6 million yet it feels more like a big town than one of Indonesia’s largest cities (except when you’re stuck in traffic heading out to the bus station, or trying to cross the road).

Lawang Sewu at night. Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Lawang Sewu at night. Photo: Sally Arnold

Semarang’s early history is sketchy, believed to have been an important harbour during the Mataram Kingdom (eighth to tenth century) and visited by Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho on his expeditions to Southeast Asia during the early 15th century—Sam Poo Kong Temple is dedicated to this adventurous seafarer. In the early days of trade throughout the archipelago, the city had important ties with Melaka in present day Malaysia and by the early 1700s Semarang was a major administrative and trading port for the Dutch. Chinese traders and immigrants were influential in the growth of the city, and today the Chinese are more visible than in many other Indonesian cities.

Within the town’s centre, Semarang’s most interesting sights focus on colonial architecture and major restorations in recent years have influenced a surge in (mostly local) tourism. The cities’s landmark, and most popular tourist destination is enigmatic Lawang Sewu, a former administrative building for the Dutch Railways (Semarang was the locale of Indonesia’s first train station), believed by locals to be haunted.

Take a day trip to Candi Gedong Songo. Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Take a day trip to Candi Gedong Songo. Photo: Sally Arnold

A wander around Kota Lama, the old Dutch city centre is a delight. Here you can visit copper-domed church, Gereja Blenduk dating from 1753, along with a host of other historic buildings, some restored and renovated, others crumbling into their foundations. The fascinating area has made a pitch for UNESCO World Heritage status.

From here it’s a half-hour walk or short taxi ride to Tanjung Emas, the city’s historic harbour, worth an explore if you have the time. Semarang’s Kampung Arab and nearby Chinatown seduce with rabbit-warren markets and incense perfumed temples as well as delicious food to sample. Don’t miss Pasar Semawis night market in Chinatown if you’re in Semarang over the weekend.

Simple seafood at Simpang Lima. Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Simple seafood at Simpang Lima. Photo: Sally Arnold

The city is renowned for Jamu production, Indonesia’s traditional tonics, and a couple of private museums showcase the industry. Unfortunately Museum Nyonya Meneer, the most well known, is closed perhaps indefinitely, so don’t waste your time going there (as we did). Other museums include the Museum of Central Java Ranggawarsita, a terrific collection of artefacts housed in an appalling dilapidated state and in total contrast, Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery in a beautifully restored building.

Mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples along with historic churches are testament to the city’s multiculturalism, and of course there’s plenty of the modern-day places of worship—shopping malls. Flashy Paragon Mall on Jalan Pemuda was the flavour of the month at the time of our research.

Comfortable lodgings can be found! Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Comfortable lodgings can be found! Photo: Sally Arnold

For a bit of colour head to the flower market south of Lawang Sewu where the small village behind, known as “Kampung Pelangi” (Rainbow Village) has brightened up the area with a flamboyant paint job. On Saturday Night’s catch a cultural show at Taman Budaya Raden Saleh—ask at the Tourist Information Centre for what’s on.

Well worth a day trip out of town are some of Java’s oldest antiquities, the Hindu temple complex at Candi Gedong Songo combine with a trip to Ambarawa to the Indonesian Railway Museum where you may get a chance to ride the rails.

Enjoy a bit of local colour at Kampung Pelangi. Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Enjoy a bit of local colour at Kampung Pelangi. Photo: Sally Arnold

If you’re heading to Jepara to catch a boat to Karimunjawa, stop by Java’s oldest mosque in Demak.

Semarang is predominantly a trade and commercial city and as a result sees mostly business travellers, with plentiful business-style hotels across budgets, many offering very competitive rates—this is a good town for a bit of a splurge.

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The city centre is situated around a triangle of wide boulevards: Jalan Pemuda, Jalan Gajah Mada and Jalan Pandanaran. At the corner of Jalan Gajah Mada and Jalan Pandanaran, a city square, Simpang Lima (literarily five-way intersection), is surrounded by loads of shops and eateries making it a popular spot for locals to visit during their down time.

How about a steam train ride by a pretty lake. Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

How about a steam train ride by a pretty lake. Photo: Sally Arnold

At the intersection of Jalan Pandanaran and Jalan Pemuda, a large roundabout harbours the torch-like Tugu Muda monument, ringed by colonial administrative buildings, including Lawang Sewu and a military museum. To the South of town hills surrounding the city offer leafy views, eventually leading up to Guung Ungaran, then further south and west to Central Java’s acne infection of peaks.

Be aware that the low-laying northern part of town along the coastal plane is prone to flooding, even at the hint of rain. This is especially noticeable around Kota Lama and Tanjung Mas, the port area—don’t head out in your best (non-waterproof) shoes.

Semarang is not a particularly pedestrian friendly city, but offers a reasonable public bus system, and ojeks and taxis are plentiful and inexpensive.

The city is a major transport hub with international and domestic flight connections, intercity train network and harbour.

Stormy weather at Tanjung Emas. Photo taken in or around Semarang, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Stormy weather at Tanjung Emas. Photo: Sally Arnold

The Tourist Information Centre is located on Jalan Pemuda about 300 metres north of Lawang Sewu and is open 24 hours (you may have to knock). The main post office is on Jalan Pemuda near Kota Lama.

Hospitals include:
Semarang Medical Centre Rumak Sakit Telogorejo: Jalan K.H. Achmad Dahlan, Semarang; T: (0248) 446 000;
Rumah Sakit Colombia Asia: 143 Jalan Siliwangi, Semarang; T: (0247) 629 999;
Rumah Sakit St. Elisabeth: 1 Jalan Kawi Raya, Candisari, Semarang; T: (0248) 310 076;

Tourist Information Centre: 147 Jalan Pemuda, Semarang; T: (0243) 515 451


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Semarang.
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 Read up on where to eat on Semarang.
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