15 reasons why Semarang will surprise you
When I told my mum that I was headed to Semarang, Indonesia for a short getaway, she shot me a quizzical look. “Why?” she asked incredulously. It’s easy to dismiss this obscure Indonesian city as a sleepy town with nothing much to offer. I’ll admit that Semarang doesn't make much of a first impression, with its cramped airport and dusty roads.
But I gave Semarang a chance to win me over and I surprised myself with how much beauty I found in this undiscovered paradise. I tasted nostalgia in colonial retro cafes and let the wind whip my hair as I zip lined across a valley. I found friendship in the warmth of Semarang’s hospitable people and saw kindness in their gentle ways with animals.
It was one of the rare cities untouched by commercialisation, so everything here is catered to the locals, including the prices. I gave Semarang a chance and was charmed by her down-to-earth beauty. Check out our Semarang highlights video!
Here are 15 reasons why you need to visit Semarang at least once in your life.
1. You get to zip line across a valley
It’s hard to explain the combination of fear and awe that consumed me as I sailed across a valley, 2000 metres above sea level. All I remember from those brief 20 seconds is an intense sense of euphoria. My suspension rope turned around midway through my pseudo-flight, granting me a 360 degree view of the Bandungan valley beneath, in variegated shades of green.
I’ve been on a flying fox several times before but nothing beats the view and the vertiginous sensation on this one. The ride will set you back just SGD $2.36. The flying fox is one of several attractions at Umbol Sidomukti, a resort-style park sitting on the top of Mount Ungaran.
2. Put your sense of balance to the test
If you love heights and adventure, walking across a valley on the Umbol Sidomukti Marine Bridge will be right up your alley. The suspension bridge looks deceptively simple to clamber across but it takes both mental and physical strength to finish the course.
You can choose to cross the bridge walking upright if you have a good sense of balance. If you get tired halfway through, lie in the net like it’s a massive hammock and enjoy your panoramic view of the mountain vistas. All this at SGD $1.30. I kid you not.
3. Recharge in an infinity pool of spring water
This spring water pool perched on the edge of Umbol Sidomukti is said to have therapeutic and healing properties. But really, the shimmering emerald surface of the water was enough to lure us into the pool. Remember to pack your swimwear along for a languid afternoon soak in the sun, with a bit of fresh mountain air to accompany you.
These three attractions above are located at Umbol Sidomukti:
Entrance fee: SGD $0.80
Address: Sidomukti village district. Semarang District Bandungan, Central Java-Indonesia
4. Get spooked at Semarang's most haunted place
Lawang Sewu is popular with thrill-seekers hoping to catching a glimpse of the supernatural. The former Dutch railway office was converted into the Japanese military headquarters during the Second World War. Prisoners of War were tortured and killed in the basement of this building.
Locals believe that a pontianak resides in the basement of this building and headless ghosts roam its corridors. The most commonly sighted apparition is that of a Dutch lady who committed suicide in the building.
We didn’t have any creepy encounters in our brief visit but we were spooked enough by sudden drafts of cold air that made us shiver as we walked down the corridor. Spookiness aside, Lawang Sewu, which translates to “a thousand doors” is worth a visit simply because of its beautifully restored Dutch architecture.
Entrance Fee: SGD $1
Address: Jalan Soegiyopranoto, Indonesia
5. Touch the walls of ancient Hindu temples
Mount Ungaran is home to Gedong Songo, an ancient Hindu temple with nine different structures perched on the higher slopes of the picturesque mountain. The views alone are worth the trip up to these 8th century temples. Surrounded by clear skies and panoramic views of nearby volcanoes, Gedong Songo is history and scenery all rolled into one.
Entrance Fee: $5.35
Address: Desa Candi, Bandungan, Semarang, Indonesia
6. Ride a horse up Mount Ungaran
The journey up to Gedong Songo can be taken on horseback or by foot. I recommend trusting an equine friend to take you up the winding slopes for a fee of around SGD $10. We were impressed by how expertly and gently the local guides handled these horses as they led them all the way up from the foot of the mountain.
Aside from the novelty of interacting with these gentle beasts, riding on horseback is faster and gives you an elevated view of the scenery below. You also get a thigh workout - don’t be surprised if your thighs and rear start aching the next morning.
Horse-riding fee: SGD $9.64
Address: Desa Candi, Bandungan, Semarang, Indonesia
7. It’s the birthplace of Ayam Penyet
The chicken drumstick and thigh meat were smaller than the usual portions I’m used to, but the meat was impossibly succulent and tender. The chicken is served with crispy fried tahu and tempeh. I also recommend ordering fish, fried to a crisp with the same batter. The best part? Our meal set us back just SGD $2.50 for each item on the menu.
Address: Super Penyet, Jalan Gajah Mada, Semarang, Kota Semarang, Jawa Tengah 50133, Indonesia
8. Buy a Burberry jacket for SGD $45
We discovered an outlet store along Simpang Lima, Semarang’s town area, selling branded goods at a fraction of the cost. Our inner shopaholic Singaporeans couldn’t resist bagging a couple of steals. Our loot included SGD $4 H&M camisoles, SGD $44 Herschel backpacks, SGD $5 La Senza underwear and - wait for it - an authentic Burberry parka for SGD $45.
They also stock a full menswear section on the second level, with Lacoste, Fred Perry and Ralph Lauren goods. We’re guessing these are factory rejects or defect items that were manufactured in Indonesia. Regardless, we found no visible problems with our loot and left before we spent our entire allowance in one shop.
Address: De Kosmos Factory Outlet, Jalan Gajah Madah No. 95, Indonesia
9. Taste nostalgia at Toko Oen
Toko Oen is the grand dame of all restaurants in Semarang. Nothing much has changed in the 80 years it has stood since the Dutch colonial days. From its high ceilings and full-length glass windows, to its fusion Dutch-Chinese-Indonesian menu, Toko Oen stays true to its character.
Dining in Toko Oen is like being in a time warp. The minutes seem to pass slower as you watch the afternoon sunlight stream through, falling across the vintage wood furnishing and green floor tiles. We enjoyed the Cordon Bleu (SGD $8.57), with its succulent chicken thigh meat stuffed with rich melted cheese and ham.
We also liked the light texture of the Oen’s Symphony Ice Cream (SGD $3.48), which came with generous scoops of vanilla, chocolate, mocha, kopyar and rum raisin flavours.
Address: Jl. Pemuda 52, Semarang, Indonesia
10. See a slice of Chinese history in Java
The Sam Poo Kong Temple bears no allegiance to any religion but functions as a place of worship for Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims. It was built to honour Admiral Cheng Ho for his contributions to the community. The massive temple is painted a bright red and crowned with a triple-layered pagoda roof.
Walking into Sam Poo Kong felt like walking into China - surely a strange experience in a Javanese land. This place is a testament to the diversity and harmony of different ethnic cultures in Semarang.
Entrance Fee: SGD $1
Address: Jl. Simongan Raya 129, Semarang, Indonesia
11. Eat the best mee goreng you’ve had in your life
It goes without question that Indonesia is THE mother of all mee gorengs and nasi gorengs. When I bit into my first plate of Indonesian mee goreng at an unremarkable streetside eatery, my face was a picture of disbelief. How can a plate of mee goreng taste so… good?
It’s difficult for me to explain the umami taste of the sticky-sweet-salty noodles served up at almost every decent Semarang eatery. Just know that you haven’t tasted mee goreng until you’ve tasted it in Indonesia.
12. Try Semarang’s version of popiah
Lumpia is a Semarang specialty, brought to its shores by Chinese settlers. A thin pastry sheet is stuffed with bamboo shoots, egg, fresh vegetables and meat. It’s served either fresh or deep fried. Skip the fresh one for the fried version, which tastes less gamey.
Address: Lumpia Gang Lombok, Gang Lombok No. 11 Kranggan, Semarang Tengah, Semarang, Indonesia (Traditional)
Address: Lunpia Express, Jl Gajah Mada 142 AA, Semarang (Modern)
13. Take a boat ride along Rawa Pening lake
Rawa Pening is a sprawling lake lined by towering mountain landscapes. Aside from its obvious beauty and peace, the lake is popular with locals and tourists alike because it’s steeped in myth. Legend has it that the a little boy stuck a stick into the ground, challenging wicked villagers to retrieve it.
A giant snake by the name of Baruklinting pulled the stick out, leaving a gaping hole that started filling the village with water. What remains of the village is now Rawa Pening. Sunken village or not, a boat ride down Rawa Pening at sunset is a peaceful and calming experience.
14. Drink Kopi Luwak at Semarang’s best coffeehouse
Order a cup of the infamous civet cat coffee, which supposedly tastes better because it’s been processed by the digestive enzymes of the civet cat. Blue Lotus is Semarang’s best coffeehouse, so even if cat poop coffee turns you off, you can always order a cup of your regular latte.
Address: Jalan Jendral Ahmad Yani, Semarang, Kota Semarang, Jawa Tengah 50241, Indonesia
15. Live like a millionaire - because you are one
I know it’s a bit of a cheap thrill to call yourself a millionaire when you’re paying in rupiah, but my travel companions and I felt like absolute ballers being “millionaires” for a week. Transportation by taxi is cheap and reliable - an average ride spanning the distance from Changi Airport to Orchard Road set us back just SGD $2.
Our pasta meals at proper sit-down cafes cost SGD $4-5 while those at smaller roadside eateries cost us SGD $2-3. Consider hiring a driver to take you out to the mountainous areas of Bandungan and Amba Rawa, where you can enjoy scenic views from Umbol Sidomukti, Gedong Songo and Rawa Pening Lake. Our day trip there and back cost only SGD $50.
A Real Adventure Off the Beaten Track
Semarang surprised me in more ways than one with her quiet, unassuming charm. Indonesia’s Bali and Bintan are familiar locales for many travellers, but Semarang often turns up a blank slate. A total shame, given that her beauty is so apparent and so effortless.
I left Semarang thankful that I arrived completely clueless. It's the kind of destination that reminds you to get lost in the strangeness of a new place. Leave your city-bred expectations behind and let Semarang work her charm.
Getting to Semarang
In this series, brought to you by Changi Airport, The Smart Local team went off the beaten track to explore five undiscovered Indonesian cities. Stay tuned for our upcoming guides and videos to more of these hidden Indonesian gems as we suss out the best things to do and eat in each city.
Singapore Changi Airport connects you to Semarang via daily services operated by AirAsia Indonesia and twice-weekly services operated by SilkAir.
Visit changiairport.com/discoverindonesia for the latest special travel deals to discover the world next door.
Read more from our TheSmartLocal Discovers Indonesia Series!
- 15 reasons to visit Semarang at least once in your lifetime
- Surabaya - 10 Unforgettable Memories on the way to a Live Volcano
- 14 Reasons why Makassar is the best place you have never heard of
- Bandung - 10 Reasons to visit the Paris of Indonesia
- Medan - 16 reasons why Medan is one of Indonesia’s most underrated destinations
This post was made possible thanks to Changi Airport.