Savoring Semarang: A Travel Guide

Once overshadowed by the royal cities of Solo and Yogyakarta, the capital of Indonesia’s Central Java province has emerged as a destination in its own right.

Lawang Sewu, a Semarang landmark, at dusk. (Photo: James Louie)

Not so long ago, both foreign and Indonesian travelers had little reason to visit Semarang, unless it was on business. No longer. Central Java’s largest city and provincial capital is finally coming into its own, with an increasingly sophisticated dining scene that complements the area’s rich culinary tradition, a growing clutch of boutique hotels, and a greater appreciation for its architectural heritage. Here, we’ve put together an insider’s guide for a future Semarang sojourn.

 

What to See and Do

Semarang’s turnaround in recent years is best exemplified by the transformation of Kota Lama, the once-derelict Old Town. Now a vibrant neighborhood frequented by locals and out-of-towners alike, its popularity has accelerated the restoration of the area’s decaying Dutch-colonial buildings. One of these hosts the Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery, which spotlights Indonesian creative talent through a roster of changing exhibitions. Nearby, the 18th-century Blenduk Church marks the center of the former European settlement. In pre-pandemic times it was possible to walk in and admire its impressive baroque organ, but it’s not known when the landmark will reopen to non-congregational visitors. That said, there are more than a few ways to linger in Kota Lama, whether it’s hopping between the district’s myriad cafés and eateries, browsing the antiques stalls at Klitikan Market, or people-watching from the shaded benches of Srigunting Park.

Left to right: A stained-glass window in Lawang Sewu; Blenduk Church. (Photos: James Louie)

Outside the Old Town, an unmissable sightseeing spot is Lawang Sewu, whose name means “Thousand Doors” in the Javanese language. Built at the dawn of the 20th century during a golden age for Semarang, the former headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company now functions as a museum; look out for the stained-glass windows above the main building’s grand staircase. Another place worth seeing? The magnificent temple of Sam Poo Kong, which commemorates the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He. Its main sanctuary was constructed around a long-lost cave where the explorer was said to have prayed during a visit in 1405. Anyone wishing to delve deeper into Semarang’s patchwork of older neighborhoods can develop a tailormade itinerary with local travel operator Bersukaria Tour; its co-founder Yogi Fajri has an encyclopedic knowledge of the city and its history.

Also read: Restoring the Old Town of Semarang

Two more heritage sites can be tackled in a half-day excursion beyond the city limits. Less than 90 minutes’ drive to the south of town, the ancient Hindu temples of Gedong Songo are believed to be even older than Borobudur, as they date as far back as the eighth century. The partially restored structures enjoy a dramatic hillside setting, with vistas stretching out to dormant volcano Merbabu and the more distant cones of Sumbing and Sindoro. From Gedong Songo, train enthusiasts will want to take a detour to nearby Ambarawa for the Indonesian Railway Museum, where a collection of vintage locomotives and carriages are on display in an oversize station built to service a key Dutch-era garrison.

 

Grilled milkfish, satay, and blue rice with empal at Javara Culture Semarang. (Photo: James Louie)

Where to Eat and Drink

Hungry visitors to Semarang’s Old Town have a wealth of restaurants to choose from. Arguably the most famous of these is Spiegel Bar & Bistro, which occupies a handsome Spanish colonial–inspired structure on the main street. Spiegel’s globe-trotting menu ranges from bakmi noodles with a Japanese twist to roasted bone marrow and house-cured salmon carpaccio. Whatever you pick, wash down your meal with a cocktail or refreshing summer cooler. A few steps away, Javara Culture Semarang specializes in Indonesian fare made with organic local ingredients: think boneless grilled milkfish dressed in sweet spice paste and chopped bird’s-eye chilies, or butterfly pea–flower rice with shredded empal (pressed beef). One of the newer additions to the scene is Marabunta Resto & Bar, whose interior features cast-iron pillars and a skylight-studded timber ceiling salvaged from the ruined Dutch-era theater next door. Two highlights are the tuna gohu salad and salmon in a Balinese curry-like sauce.

For something truly classic, head to Toko Oen on Jalan Pemuda. Inside its time-capsule dining room, which first opened in 1936, patrons are served a mix of Dutch and Indonesian comfort food. Must-tries here include bitterballen, bistik lidah (braised beef tongue), and creamy huzarensla salad. Toko Oen also runs Oud En Nieuw, an ice-cream parlor on the edge of the Old Town; expect old-school flavors like rum raisin as well as a few innovative creations. Up the hill in the well-to-do neighborhood of Candi, the Tambora branch of Pelangi Eatery serves up cakes inspired by traditional snacks like klepon (palm sugar–filled sticky rice balls) and nastar (pineapple tarts). The attached store comes stocked with edible souvenirs like boxes of Pelangi’s sought-after cheese chiffon cake and proll tape, which gets its slightly boozy flavor from fermented cassava. And if it’s craft cocktails you’re after, make a beeline for Wishbone, one of two Indonesian venues that cracked the top 100 rankings of Asia’s 50 Best Bars. You’ll find it above Bowery, a sophisticated brasserie near the major traffic roundabout known as Simpang Lima.

Left to right: Bistro fare at Spiegel; the upper floor at the same venue. (Photos: James Louie)

No visit to Semarang is complete without trying the street food, especially the city’s famous jumbo-sized lumpia – spring rolls stuffed with bamboo shoot, prawn, fried egg, and shredded chicken. Lunpia Semarang Gang Lombok in Chinatown has been making its legendary snacks for more than a century; visitors also line up to buy freshly made spring rolls at Loenpia Mbak Lien in an alleyway off Jalan Pemuda. Up the avenue and just across the river from the Old Town, the flagship location of Nasi Goreng Babat Pak Karmin (2 Jl. Pemuda) draws a steady stream of patrons for its delicious beef-tripe fried rice. Another Semarang specialty is tahu petis, or fried tofu with an indulgent filling of sweet-savory shrimp paste. Instead of the more well-known places in and around Simpang Lima, local residents swear by a food cart just past Bank BTPN (713 Jl. MT. Haryono) in the district of Peterongan; it operates from late afternoon well into the night.

 

11–12, the rooftop bar at Artotel Gajahmada Semarang. (Courtesy of Artotel Group)

Where to Stay

While Semarang is home to several international chain hotels, it’s the smaller lodgings that have the most character. Those seeking out a private pad in the heart of the Old Town should book Spiegel Home Studio (US$71 per night), a cozy, high-ceilinged 180-square-meter apartment with the feel of a European townhouse. Within walking distance of Simpang Lima, Artotel Gajahmada Semarang (doubles from US$41) offers sleek boutique lodgings designed by prominent Indonesian architect Andra Matin, the same man behind Bali’s Colosseum-like Potato Head Beach Club. Creativity is front and center: Yogyakarta-based painter Eko Nugroho contributed the murals in the all-day restaurant, while the 80 rooms are adorned with works by emerging local artists. The hotel also features a gallery space and rooftop bar whose alfresco terrace affords 360-degree views of the city.

Share this Article