Photo: History everywhere.


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The thumping metropolis of Surabaya, East Java’s provincial capital, has for centuries functioned as an important trading port in Asia at one time rivalling Shanghai and Hong Kong. Today it remains a major trade and transport hub and significant industrial city, second only in size to Jakarta.

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As with its larger cousin, Surabaya is often little more than a transit point for foreign travellers on their way to other destinations, but for those willing to explore, a number of fascinating sights can be discovered both in the city centre and within easy reach, and despite it being somewhat gritty and frenzied, the atmosphere of this progressive urban centre is rapidly changing and compares favourably to the capital.

Big city with plenty of old world charm. Photo taken in or around Surabaya, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Big city with plenty of old world charm. Photo: Sally Arnold

Surabaya sits on Java’s northeastern coast just over 100 kilometres by road west of Probolinggo, and around 300 kilometres east of Semarang. Malang lays 90 kilometres to the south and the Madura Strait divides the city from Madura, its island neighbour to the north. The Suramadu Bridge Indonesia’s longest at 5438 metres, connects Surabaya to Madura.

Legend tells that Surabaya’s name is a mash up of the local words for shark (sura) and crocodile (baya) and the tale recounts a fight between a giant white shark and a giant white crocodile as they battled for supremacy. This is sometimes interpreted as the Majahpahit King, Raden Wijaya’s thwarting of Kublai Khan’s Mogul invasion in 1293, the date selected as the official establishment of the town. Statues of fighting sharks and crocodiles can be seen throughout the city and on the official seal.

Picking up some snacks for the road at Pasar Genteng Baru. Photo taken in or around Surabaya, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Picking up some snacks for the road at Pasar Genteng Baru. Photo: Sally Arnold

Sharks and crocodiles however, were not the only ones who thought Surabaya was worth fighting for. It was here in late 1945 that the fledgling nation’s struggle for independence came to a head with the Battle of Surabaya. At the end of the Japanese occupation, as Dutch POWs were released from internment camps, the Dutch tri-colour was raised on the Oranje Hotel (now Hotel Majapahit) ignoring the fact that Indonesia had declared a republic. This incensed local youth, who subsequently scaled the flagpole and tore the bottom blue section from the flag, leaving the remaining “merah putih” the red and white of the new Indonesian standard.

Riots and violence ensued and occupying British troops moved in. The campaign developed into a three week conflict with over 10,000 Indonesians killed. While the British “won” the battle, the war was eventually to be won by Indonesians as it focused international attention on the fact that these citizens were willing to die for independence. The date of 10 November is now celebrated as “Heroes’ Day”, an Indonesian holiday and Surabaya is nationally known as the “City of Heroes”.

Only took us half an hour to find an ATM in here. Photo taken in or around Surabaya, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Only took us half an hour to find an ATM in here. Photo: Stuart McDonald

In more recent politics, popular mayor Tri Rismaharini is controversially known for closing Surabaya’s brothels in 2014—notorious as the largest in Southeast Asia—and internationally condemned for her governments mismanagement and maltreatment of animals of the infamous Surabaya Zoo, but conversely is praised for her economic and environmental policies. She was named as one of Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” in 2015.

More recently, in May 2018, Surabaya was tragically the site of a barbaric triple suicide bombing, which targeted churches and a police station. At least 25 people, including the bombers (which included two children under then age of ten) were killed.

At Rujak Cingur Joko Dolog—it tastes better than it looks. Photo taken in or around Surabaya, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

At Rujak Cingur Joko Dolog—it tastes better than it looks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

As with many of Java’s cities developed by the Dutch, a legacy of colonial architecture remains and along with a fascinating Arab quarter and sprawling Chinatown the cosmopolitan inner city makes for an interesting wander. Checkout the House of Sampoerna cigarette museum, the Monumen Kapal Selam (Submarine Monument) and Chinese-style Zheng He Mosque or the atmospheric old Dutch graveyard. Hidden away in the city centre a large Buddhist sculpture, Joko Dolog, sits in quiet repose beneath banyan trees and is worth a look while you savour the nearby culinary delights. Hit the glitzy malls or the not-so-glitzy local markets—the madhouse of Pasar Paben in the north of the city or smack in the centre, Pasar Genteng Baru.

For lovers of culture and history, a day trip to Trowulan, a significant Majapahit archaeological site 60 kilometres southwest of Surabaya is definitely worth making time for. Thirty-six kilometres south of Surabaya near the end of the Gempol Toll Road is the site of an environmental disaster known as the Sidoarjo (or Lapindo) Mud Volcano, with mud erupting and flooding the area since 2006, believed to be the result of a blowout of a natural gas well.

Well worth the day trip. Photo taken in or around Surabaya, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Well worth the day trip. Photo: Sally Arnold

Surabaya’s accommodation choices are predominated by larger and mostly faceless chains and business hotels, but charming historic hotels and guesthouses punctuate the bland and backpackers are catered for with a growing smattering of dorm-style digs. Food choices span the range from International fine dining to fast and tasty street food, and the competition for the best of the local specialties is high.

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Orientation Surabaya is an international and domestic transport hub, with the major Tanjung Perak Harbour to the north and Juanda International Airport to the southeast. The two main train stations connecting to the rest of Java are Gubeng in the centre of town and Pasar Turi to the northwest. The transit bus terminal, Joyoboya, just south of the zoo connects to the main terminal for intercity buses, Purabaya, a further eight kilometres to the south.

The very helpful Tourist Information Centre is located at the Balai Pemuda. Pick up a map or brochure or ask for advice on everything from activities to transport. At the time of research they were offering free shopping and eating bus tours Tuesdays and Saturdays, contact them for details.

A great city to explore! Photo taken in or around Surabaya, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

A great city to explore! Photo: Stuart McDonald

Being a major city, ATMs are not difficult to find and police stations are located throughout town. Hospitals favoured by ex-pats include the public facility, RSUD Dr. Soetomo and private hospitals, Rumah Sakit Darmo and RKZ also known as the Catholic Hospital.

RKZ: 51 Jalan Raya Diponegoro, Surabaya; T: (0315) 677 562; RSUD Dr. Soetomo: 6–8 Jalan Mayjen Prof. Dr. Moestopo, Surabaya; T: (0315) 501 078; Rumah Sakit Darmo: 90 Jalan Raya Darmo, Surabaya; T: (0315) 676 253; Tourist Information Centre: Balai Pemuda, 15 Jalan Gubernur Suryo, Surabaya; T: (0315) 340 444; Open Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Surabaya.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Surabaya.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Surabaya.
 Read up on how to get to Surabaya.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Surabaya? Please read this.
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