Header image courtesy of Aditya Permana Putra
The provincial capital of Central Java, Semarang, has always been a very captivating destination in Java Island. It has modern sides of a metropolis and old, yet charming, sides that show its dynamic past. Many places of interest are right in the heart of the city—the iconic landmark Lawang Sewu that boasts Dutch colonial architecture, famous Chinese temple Klenteng Sam Poo Kong that serves both as a house of worship and a tourist attraction, and more. Meanwhile, the city’s outskirts offer a cultural experience. For instance, Semarang regency has a complex of ancient Hindu temples called Candi Gedong Songo.
Compared to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, Semarang is relatively cheaper and therefore backpacker-friendly. Check out our backpacker’s guide to exploring Semarang, a city with so many rivers and canals that it is dubbed as ‘Venice van Java’.
Lawang Sewu—which literally means ‘a thousand doors’ as it has 928 doors in total—is a large complex of historical art deco buildings built by the Dutch colonial rulers from 1904 to 1907. There are five big buildings on the site and some of them are three storeys high, while some others are merely one to two storeys. Lawang Sewu was initially an office for Dutch train company Nederlands-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS) from 1907 to 1942. Throughout the years, Lawang Sewu has served different purposes including as a Japanese transportation office Riyuku Sokyoku (1942 to 1945) during the Japanese occupation in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Today, Lawang Sewu is under the management of Indonesian railway company PT KAI and has been declared as a cultural heritage site. PT KAI has turned Lawang Sewu into a museum dedicated to telling the history of the country’s trains and railways. Vintage ticket cabinets, maps showing the old train routes across Java island, and other memorabilia are proudly on display.
This oldest Chinese temple complex in Semarang was built in 1724, covering an area as wide as one thousand metres square. Its thick Chinese atmosphere makes you feel as if you were in China. There are four temples within the complex, namely Dewa Bumi, Juru Mudi, Kyai Jangkar, and Sam Poo Tay Dijen. The last one is also known as Klenteng Sam Poo Kong and the biggest temple among the four. All these temples are painted bright red and decorated with Chinese ornaments. Arrays of red round lanterns are neatly hung on the ceiling, while Chinese calligraphy adorn the sturdy pillars.
A 10.7-metres-high bronze statue of the great Admiral Cheng Ho stands right in the middle of the complex. Cheng Ho was a legendary Muslim Chinese sailor who was sent by the Ming Dynasty to sail the world and establish peaceful relationships with other countries in 1405. Semarang was one of many places Cheng Ho and his fleet had visited during the years of their voyage. As the dynasty’s peace ambassador, he was very tolerant of other beliefs. In line with the admiral’s capacity for religious tolerance, Klenteng Sam Poo Kong is open to all visitors regardless of their religion.
Pecinan, or Chinatown in English, is concrete evidence of how Chinese culture is well embraced in Semarang. There are temples and food kiosks in every corner of this Chinatown located in Central Semarang district. One of the most visited areas in the Chinatown is the night food market Pasar Semawis. Rows of food stalls and pushcarts selling various dishes line along the narrow alley of Gang Warung (Warung Alley). With dozens of options to choose from, simply deciding what to eat will not be that simple.
If you love taking out-of-the-ordinary selfies with unique three-dimensional (3D) backgrounds, then this place is for you. Old City 3D Trick Art Museum provides 108 3D photo backdrops so artistic that they can trick your eyes. One backdrop shows a rickety wooden suspension bridge hanging over a waterfall—perfect for a photograph of you trying to get across the bridge with a terrified expression on your face. You can have your pictures conveniently taken by the museum’s friendly staff, who are always willing to help.
It takes about an hour, or 37 kilometres, to get to Candi Gedong Songo from downtown Semarang. This complex of Hindu temples lies 1,200 metres above sea level, right on the slope of Mount Ungaran. The temples were built in the seventh to ninth century by King Putera Sanjaya during the ancient Mataram Kingdom era.
In Javanese, ‘gedong’ means a house or building while ‘songo’ means nine. Therefore, Gedong Songo means nine temples. However, there are only five temples that have been found, and each is located on top of different hills within the complex. The distance from one temple to another varies, but you can reach everything by foot. Alternatively, you can get on a horse and pay IDR 25,000 to IDR 100,000, depending on your body weight and the total distance that the horse has to cover.
Semarang is a culinary paradise that offers various kinds of addictive food. Deep-fried spring rolls filled with bamboo shoots and chicken meat—lumpia Semarang, and fried tofu served with rice cakes and prawn crackers smothered with special peanut sauce—Tahu gimbal, are some of the city’s must-try dishes. These affordable delicacies—starting from IDR 10,000—are available almost everywhere in Semarang.
To get there, you can catch a train from Stasiun Pasar Senen or Stasiun Gambir in Jakarta and stop at Stasiun Semarang Tawang or Stasiun Semarang Poncol. You can also get a direct flight from Jakarta to Semarang. If you want to wander around Semarang, but are reluctant to spend much money on conventional taxis, just rent a motorcycle for IDR 75,000 per 24 hours.
During your vacation to Semarang, you can stay at Griya Kasturi Syariah in West Semarang district for IDR 75,000 per night. Another option is Wisma Purba Danarta in Gajahmungkur district that costs IDR 90,000 per night.