Photo: Big city with a village feel.

Introduction

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Central Java’s royal city of Solo (Surakarta) has long cultivated its reputation as the heartland of refined Javanese culture, home to princes and poets, sacred and mystical dances performed by elegant beauties, and shadowy tales of the wayan kulit reflecting the heavens and more terrestrial affairs.


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Born of epic power struggles, this quintessential Javanese town is often eclipsed by its more prominent rival, Yogyakarta, but the charms of this unhurried traditional centre prevail. A wander in any backstreet kampung is as fascinating and revealing of the essence of Solo as stepping into the courtly royal palaces, or indeed the glitzy malls. Tradition and culture hold fast in conservative Solo in some extent to the extremes, leading rise to a bad (and not undeserved) reputation for propagating zealots and radicals. Despite all this, Solo remains safe for visitors and the overwhelming majority of locals are very welcoming towards foreigners.

You should expect plenty of this in and around Solo. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

You should expect plenty of this in and around Solo. Photo: Sally Arnold

Geographically Solo is close to the heartland of Java (although the true geographical centre is closer to the Dieng Plateau), residing on the western bank of the Bengawan Solo, Java’s longest river made famous by a popular Indonesia song, shadowed by Gunung Lawu to the east and Gunung Merbabu and Gunung Merapi to the west. Yogyakarta is 65 kilometres to Solo’s southwest, about one hour by train, and Semerang lies 100 kilometres to the north.

Until the early 1740s, Solo was merely a small insignificant village until it was chosen by the king of the then waning Islamic Mataram kingdom, as a more auspicious place for his court, which was packed up and literally lugged in a procession from nearby Kartasura which had been badly damaged in 1742.

No shortage of tradition. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

No shortage of tradition. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Despite the move, Mataram suffered continued setbacks and following the treaty of Giyanti in 1755, the kingdom was divided into two separate sultanates, one in Solo (the Sultanate of Surakarta Hadiningrat, led by Pakubuwana III) and the other in Yogyakarta (the Sultanate of Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat led by Pakubuwana II’s half brother who took the title Hamengkubuwono I). The infighting wasn’t over though and after another two years of squabbling the two sultanates were each split again, with a portion of Solo being hived off to Mas Said (Pakubuwana III’s cousin), who then established his own royal house, Puro Mangkunegaran. Meanwhile down in Yogyakarta, Pakualam I got a slice. The end result of this four-way divvying up was a situation where there were now four sultanates where there had previously been one kingdom—and the days of Mataram were finished.

Why all this detail? Don’t be surprised during your exploration of Solo to often be told (without asking) about how Solo is the real deal and that Yogyakarta is the lesser of, well, everything and this is why Solo has two kratons.

Getting out into the countryside is worth the effort. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Getting out into the countryside is worth the effort. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Perhaps not so different from its tumultuous past, in more recent history Solo has fallen into chaos. In the 1960s, Solo was considered to be a communist stronghold and many “disappeared” here after tensions rose around Indonesia following Soekarno’s overthrow. With the downfall of his successor, Suharto, in 1998 the city again erupted with violent rioting. Perhaps due to its conservative outlook, extremist terrorist groups find Solo fertile ground and was notably the place where the leader responsible for the Bali and Jakarta bombings was killed in a police raid in 2009. Today things have settled somewhat and watchdog groups keep a keen eye on curbing developing radicalism. Indonesia’s current President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) (2018) hails from Solo and was formerly the mayor.

Although Solo has the trappings of a modern city, it retains the ambience of a sleepy village with broad tree-lined avenues and vibrant local markets. For travellers, this slow-paced life is not a bad thing at all and with a less developed tourist industry (and indeed fewer tourists) than neighbouring Yogyakarta, Solo feels just that tiniest bit more true to its cultural roots (sorry Yogya, we still love you). Everything that is synonymous with Central Java, from batik to wayang puppets and sticky sweet food, is available in Solo—it’s just served at a more leisurely pace.

Needs a steady hand. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Needs a steady hand. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Soak up the cultural highlights at the two royal palaces, Karaton Kasunanan Surakarta and Puro Mangkunegaran then hit the museums where you can see some exquisite examples of Solo’s batik at the Danar Hadi Batik Museum, find out who wins in a crazy goat fight (among outer customary oddities) at Radya Pustaka Museum and learn about the mystical secrets of Indonesia’s traditional weapons at the Kris Museum.

For traditional dance performances, head to Taman Sriwedari nightly at 20:00 for the Wayang Wong. Different shows are staged each evening, full of colourful costumes and haunting gamelan accompaniment but unless you are an aficionado of classical Javanese dance, they can be long, slow and confusing, however it’s not seen as an affront to come and go, just perhaps don’t sit in the VIP seats directly in the front row (as we did). Performances usually last around two hours and cost 10,000 rupiah for VIP seats and less for the inconspicuous ones down the back.

Wandering the Batik village. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Wandering the Batik village. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Wander the narrow lanes of batik villages like Kampung Kauman in the centre of the city or Kampung Laweyan to the west, where in both you’ll find traditional artisans producing the batik for which Solo is famous. Hunt for a bargain at the Pasar Triwinduon on Jalan Diponegoro, an Aladdin’s cave of antiques or more correctly, “antiques”. Open daily: 08:00–17:00. To check out where the locals shop you can always hit the malls, or more traditionally, wander through the labyrinth-like Pasar Gede and Pasar Gede Barat which dates from the days of Dutch colonialism. The buildings were designed by Dutch architect Thomas Karsten who also had a hand in the Puro Mangkunegaran. To the east of the city centre you can see the ruins of Benteng Vastenburg, an 18th century Dutch Fort. This entire area is best explored on foot.

Out of town, a day trip the 15th century temples Candi Cetho, Candi Kethek and Candi Sukuh perched on the mist swirled slopes of Gunung Lewu is well worth the visit. You would be forgiven for thinking you’ve suddenly being teletransported to Centra America, or at least start believing some of the alien stories when you encounter the extraordinary stepped pyramid-shaped structures here. If the weather is in your favour, you can hike between the two and also to a nearby waterfall.

Enigmatic Candi Sukuh. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Enigmatic Candi Sukuh. Photo: Stuart McDonald

And if you’re really keen, it’s possible to climb Gunung Lewu (3,265 metres). One route starts from Candi Cetho, and from here the climb takes five to seven hours to the summit, with five possible camping posts along the way. Tent and equipment hire and arrangements for a guide can be made from small stalls near the entrance to the temple (Entry fee: 15,000 rupiah; guide: 500,000 rupiah). For alternative Gunung Lewu routes see Gunungbagging. A couple of nearby accommodation options offer the opportunity to consider spending more time in this beautiful area.

Although we didn’t get the chance to visit, around 20 kilometres north of Solo is the Sangiran museum and archeological site, where Java Man (Homo erectus erectus) was discovered. For those looking for a quieter place to base themselves, the famous Borobudur and Prambanan temples, although closer to Yogyakarta, are also accessible from Solo by car.

Floating here at night is pretty magical. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Floating here at night is pretty magical. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Solo offers a broad range of accommodation, with charming traditional styled guesthouse and more upmarket options as well as the ubiquitous bland chain hotels. The city centre is the best location if you wish to walk to most of Solo’s places of interest. The town enjoys a cornucopia of choices when it come to excellent street food and along the roadways, piping hot delights are served up off wood stoves, smoking charcoal grills and ladled out of bubbling pots. You’ll find all sorts of traditional drinks too, including a number of fresh milk stalls. Some restaurants serve alcohol, however the bar scene is usually accompanied by karaoke and is no great shakes, but despite the rumours or what you may read elsewhere, even in this rather conservative town you can still enjoy a cold beer without too much effort.




Orientation
Solo city centre is relatively small and most of the main attractions are within walking distance from one another. Jalan Brigjen Slamet Riyadi is the main street and runs in a northwest direction from near the Karaton connecting to Yogyakarta and Semerang. Along this road and the surrounding streets you’ll find places to stay and abundant eating choices as well as many ATMs. The street becomes a car free day on Sundays, but if you want to enjoy the spectacle, you’ll have to get up early as its back to normal by 09:00.

Ikan Goreng Cianjur: Loved the various sambals here. Photo taken in or around Solo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Ikan Goreng Cianjur: Loved the various sambals here. Photo: Sally Arnold

The Tourist Information Centre is on Jalan Brigjen Slamet Riyadi, to the south of Taman Sriwedari. Friendly staff speak English and have a few interesting brochures and maps but don’t offer much other information.

Solo is well connected by road, rail and air to the rest of Java. Tirtonadi Bus Terminal, is located north of the city centre beyond Balapan Train Station, conveniently an elevated walkway connects the two. Adi Soemarmo Airport (SOC) is northwest of the city.

The main post office is on Jalan Jend. Sudirman near the Dutch fort.

Rumah Sakit Dr Oen Surakarta to the north of town, and Rumah Sakit Dr Oen Solo Baru to the south are the most popular health providers for local expatriates.

Rumah Sakit Dr Oen Solo Baru: Perumahan Solo Baru, Solo; T: (0271) 620 220; http://www.droensolobaru.com
Rumah Sakit Dr Oen Surakarta: 55 Jalan Brigjend Katamso, Solo; T: (0271) 643 139; http://www.droenska.com
Surakarta Tourism Office: 275 Jalan Brigjen Slamet Riyadi, Solo; T: (0271) 711 435; http://www.solocity.travel Open Mo–Sa: 08:00–16:00, Su: 10:00–14:00

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