Often overshadowed by its bigger neighbour Yogyakarta, Solo has the same deep connection to the fascinating culture and history of Central Java, but also offers up its own charms. Quieter and more traditional than its rival, the city still manages to attract a significant number of foreign and domestic tourists thanks to its palaces, cuisine, arts and beautiful surrounds.
Until 1744, Solo, also known as Surakarta, was just a small village. However, that year it was chosen by the then king of the Islamic Mataram kingdom, Pakubuwono II, as a more auspicious place for his court, which was packed up and literally lugged in a procession from nearby Kartasura after conflicts with Dutch and Chinese.
Despite the move, the kingdom suffered continued setbacks and was divided and further weakened by the Dutch into two separate sultanates, one in Yogyakarta and one in Solo. It then became the scene of a major showdown.Â A plucky dissident and son of an exile from the kingdom, Raden Mas Said, led a rebellion against Pakubowono III.Â He was defeated once, but then dissent rose again due to anger with the concession of land by the sultan to the Dutch colonialists and Raden Mas Said fought back more powerfully, almost succeeding in taking Yogyakarta. However, Raden Mas Said eventually surrendered to Pakubowono III and was given a land concession by the sultan. He was able to establish his own royal house, Puro Mangkunegaran, in Surakarta.
The city is still home to the two palaces and descendants of the royal families.
The days of royal clashes are long gone, however. Solo today has the modern trappings of malls and lots of motorcycles, but it still manages to retain its sleepy village ambiance, even in the heart of the city.Â Known for being the least Westernised city in Central Java, tradition and culture holds fast.Â
Locals are still more likely to shop at markets, like the giant Pasar Gede which dates from the days of Dutch colonialism, instead of supermarkets, and along the roadways, piping hot street food is served up off wood stoves, smoking charcoal grills and ladled out of bubbling pots.Â Unlike in some of Java's other cities, where the cool kids flock to Western fast food chains, the busiest place in the evening in Solo is the Galabo food stall area, when young and old alike slurp up hot bowls of mie ayam (chicken noodles), bakso (meatball soup) and more, chatting while stooped on shaky plastic stools.
Perhaps not so different from its tumultuous history, in recent years, Solo has developed a bit of a bad reputation for chaos.Â Solo was the location of some of the most violent riots during the 1998 unrest which led to the resignation of President Suharto. The Malaysian leader of a Southeast Asian terrorist splinter group responsible for the Bali and Jakarta bombings, Noordin M Top, was also killed in a police raid on a farmhouse on the outskirts of the city in September 2009.Â Religious watchdog groups reported in early 2010 that some mosques in Solo's surrounding villages were propagating Islamic extremism. Despite all this, Solo remains safe for visitors and the overwhelming majority of locals are very welcoming towards foreigners.Â Law enforcement authorities and the local government have also been making efforts to try and clear the city of its association with extremism and to further boost tourism.
However, Solo is more conservative than some other Indonesian cities, so it's best to dress modestly out of respect.
For travellers, Solo is slower-paced than bustling Yogya, which is not a bad thing at all.Â The two royal palaces are also perhaps even grander than those in Yogyakarta.Â Everything that is synonymous with Central Java, from batik to wayang puppets and sticky sweet food, is available in Solo â€” it's just served at a more leisurely pace.
For those looking for a quieter place to base themselves, the famous Borobudur and Prambanan temples, although closer to Yogyakarta, are still accessible from Solo by car.Â Solo also offers up its own enchanting Hindu temples on the dramatic slopes of Mount Lawu, only 40 kilometres from town. The 15th century Candi Cetho and Candi Sukuh are well worth the visit, and because they are less popular for high school field trips, you can enjoy the tranquility without being swamped with requests for free English conversation classes.
The Solo city centre is relatively small and most of the main attractions are within walking distance from one another, as long as you can deal with the heat.Â Bicycles are also available for rent from many guesthouses and hotels. Accommodation is scattered along the main street, Jl Brigjen Slamet Riyadi, and in smaller side streets.Â Further west, near the prominent Grand Solo Mall, is a second cluster of more upmarket hotels and restaurants. The Karaton is to the south of Slamet Riyadi, while Puro Mangkunegaran is just one block north of the main street.Â Art-filled Jalan Diponegoro leads up to the Puro and is also home to the antiques market and several good eating options.
The palaces are well worth seeing, as is the batik museum, but beyond that, perhaps the best activity you can do in Solo is to wander the streets and soak up the atmosphere. Peek into batik and puppet workshops and learn about local culture, sit down for a meal on a street corner, arrange to see a traditional dance or music performance and peruse the many traditional markets, especially the enchanting antiques bazaar Pasar Triwindu.
Branches of nearly all the major Indonesian banks are located along Jalan Brigjen Slamet Riyadi, and all have ATM facilities. There are also many ATMs and free WiFi internet at Grand Solo Mall, also on Jalan Brigjen Slamet Riyadi.
The tourist information office is located Jalan Brigjen Slamet Riyadi No. 275, T: (0271) 711 435.Â The office seems to keep odd hours and is sometimes closed by the early afternoon.
Dr Oen Solo Baru Hospital (Kabupaten Sukoharjo, T: (0271) 620 220) is the most popular health provider for local expatriates.