The capital city of Central Java, Semarang, is not as popular as Bali or Yogyakarta. However, it retains its own rustic colonial charm. Being a compact and quiet city, Semarang is all about winding down, strolling and enjoying traditional delicacies. My weekend trip to this charming city was nothing short of enjoyable — so many things but so little time!
Travel back in time at the Old Town District
As I stepped out from Semarang Tawang Train Station (I took a comfortable 5-hour train from Jakarta), I immediately felt transported back in time. The station itself is the nostalgic icon of the Old Town district. It was so comforting to see the blend of colonial and modern buildings in every corner of the city. While the rest of Semarang grows taller with shopping centres and modern skyscrapers, this part of the city seems like it never moves beyond the 18th century. Take your time to stroll around the area and soak in the nostalgic ambience. Late afternoon is probably the best time to avoid the scorching sun.
My first stop of the day was the Praoe Lajar Cigarette Factory, 5 minutes away from the lake. The oldest cigarette factory in town is still in operation. You won’t be able to find this brand in the local supermarkets because Praoe Lajar caters towards the fishermen in the coastal towns nearby, and thus the nickname, fisherman cigarettes.
Another iconic building in Semarang is Blenduk Protestant Church, which is also located within the district. Blenduk, in Javanese, means bulging, referring to the church’s dome. The Dutch-style church is more than 250 years old but is still well-maintained to host Sunday services for worshippers.
Not only rich with story and heritage, but every nook and cranny of the Old Town district is also an Insta-worthy photo spot. If the weather is too hot and humid for you, take shelter at Spiegel Bar & Bistro, just across the church, and enjoy a scoop of gelato.
Learn more about Javanese Batik
Semarang is also known for its batik and kebaya production. You can find a little bit of Chinese influence in Semarang batik, thanks to the Chinese Peranakan community. No rules in painting the batik patterns. The batik and kebaya are generally more colourful and has more flower and animal patterns.
So, I embarked on a journey to search for a few batik and kebaya. I first tried my luck at Kampung Batik (Batik Village) located around 10 minutes away from the Old Town district. Well, it can’t get more authentic than this, right?
Kampung Batik turned out to be a pleasant surprise! The neighbourhood consists of rows of batik shops both big and small run by the residents. Besides the wide selection of batik of various models and patterns, most shops also offer batik-making classes for beginners. I would have signed up for the workshop if not for the time constraint. Hopefully the next time I’m back here! For now, I am content with taking photos of the colourful batik-inspired graffiti throughout the village.
As I spent more time exploring the village, I had a chance to converse with a few shop owners. They proudly shared with me the story about how the kampung was born. It was, in fact, the villagers’ initiative to establish the village without any help from the government.
Try a local delicacy: Tahu Gimbal
My grumbling stomach called for a break from walking. I had done a brief research on local delicacies prior to the trip, and that’s exactly what I was eyeing for. Top of my bucket list: tahu gimbal – a mix of fried tofu, chopped raw cabbage, rice cake, bean sprouts, egg, and gimbal (fried prawn dough). Finding it was easy peasy. There’s one at the roadside near my accommodation for the night, Louis Kienne Pandanaran, and yes, it was so good!
Comfy hotel right at the heart of the city
Staying at one of the tallest buildings in Semarang was truly magical. Louis Kienne Pandanaran’s rooftop offers a gorgeous 360-degree view of the city’s skyline. You can even catch the sunset over the “infinity” pool!
Not your typical chicken rice!
A good day has to start with a good breakfast, and so I decided to start my day by eating Semarang’s version of nasi ayam (chicken rice). Each meal comes with quail eggs, vegetables (chayote), tempe and chicken and costs around SGD1. Soon enough, I found myself getting a second round!
Is Lawang Sewu really haunted?
After getting my tummy filled, I went to Lawang Sewu, meaning a thousand doors in Javanese. Upon entering the majestic building, I began to understand where the nickname came from — this place had lots of doors! Lawang Sewu used to be the headquarter for The Dutch East Indies Railway Company. Now it serves as a train museum displaying many railways artefacts from the colonial era.
While Semarang is typically hot and humid, strolling around the building was surprisingly pleasant. The colonial architecture makes good ventilation to cool the building down despite the intense tropical heat. But that’s not the reason behind Lawang Sewu’s popularity.
Legend says this building is haunted. TV shows and horror movies have boosted Lawang Sewu’s popularity in the country. Well, too bad I was there in the afternoon. Any brave souls who want to prove the rumour wrong?
The most famous after-school snack in town: Lekker Paimo
For lunch, I headed to the legendary Lekker Paimo, located in front of Loyola School. Lekker is essentially Semarang’s pancake, and every single local friend of mine raves about this place, so I had no reason not to try this. To call this humble pushcart famous doesn’t capture the intensity of the queue. On a good day, you will queue about 30-45 minutes. On a bad day, get ready to queue for at least 2 hours. With the price ranging from SGD0.2 to SGD3 (depending on the toppings), the lekker is made a la minute.
My order of two sweet and one savoury lekkers came piping hot after 45 minutes. However, it was worth the wait! Crispy on the outside while warm and gooey on the inside — I could understand why this thin pancake had tons of followers!
Semarang has treated me kindly. The relaxed atmosphere, friendly people and tasty local dishes give Semarang its own colour. While most tourists flock to Bali and Yogyakarta, I will pick Semarang all over again. Its charm has won me over!
If you are adventurous, fly to Jakarta and take a train to Semarang. Otherwise, there are direct flights to Semarang every week.
– Not to worry about transportation here. Grab and Go-jek make it easier and safer for tourists to explore the city.
– Please be careful when crossing the roads in Semarang. Traffic may not be crowded but there are very few pedestrian crossings. Even if there are, most vehicles will act as if the crossings don’t exist.