Semarang, the thriving capital of Central Java, offers a showcase of Indonesia's past and present. This well-situated coastal city of 1.5 million has long attracted explorers and fortune seekers from far and wide, including the renowned Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), who first arrived to its shores in 1405. Today, Semarang remains one of the country's main trading centres, bustling with modern industrial estates, lively markets, and a busy harbour. At the same time, Semarang's past is well preserved with city records dating back to the 15th century and the numerous Dutch colonial buildings that still stand throughout the city. The rich culture of Java is brought to life in Semarang's many temples, museums and cultural centres featuring puppet shows and other traditional performances.
Semarang is also to a large ethnic Chinese population, with Chinese temples dotting the landscape and Chinese cuisine adding more flavour to the diverse and tasty food offerings found in the city's markets and restaurants.
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Though Semarang has mostly urban delights with markets, shops and colonial architecture to explore, its position between the coast and the mountains offers up some scenic sights as well. The Tanjung Mas international harbour along the north is a place that, though past its prime as a marine centre, still inspires romantic notions of travel with the frequent comings and goings of merchant ships and cruise liners. All around the busy port area are Dutch colonial buildings dating back to the 17th century. Along Jalan Letjen Suprapto 32 is the striking Gereja Blenduk, the oldest church in Semarang built in 1753. To the south are the Bukit Sari hills, offering great views over the city and Mount Ungaran, with tea and jasmine plantations and caves to explore.
A popular site for photo taking is Tugu Muda, a monument to commemorate a World War II battle between Indonesian defenders and Japanese soldiers. Behind it is the stunning Lawang Sewu building, which once served as a railway company headquarters in Dutch colonial times. Those seeking an escape from the hectic streets can easily escape at Taman Budaya Raden Saleh, a large garden in the city centre. The park is also host to a number of festivals throughout the year, including the Ruwatan Traditional Ceremony each May. Mangkang Zoo in West Semarang features orang-utans, many exotic birds, snakes and deer.
Semarang has a huge casual dining scene with hawker stalls throughout the city offering a great range of inexpensive and tasty Indonesian fare, and Javanese specialties. Local dishes to try include Bandeng, a pressure-cooked milkfish, Lumpia Semarang (bamboo shoot stuffed spring rolls), Gudeg (sweet and sour vegetables Javanese style) and Wingko Babat (flame-broiled sticky rice with coconut), available at many street stalls. The best place to see the freshest varieties of local food is Simpang Lima, the big town square, especially along the popular shopping street Jalan Pandaranan. Another place to go for a cheap meal is Semanwis, only open weekend evenings, for Semarang cuisine.
Baked goods lovers flock to Dyriana Bakery & Cafe, also along Jalan Pandaranan, an air-conditioned place with banana bread, cakes and coffees, where you can watch the mouth-watering products being prepared. The longstanding Toko Oen restaurant on Jalan Pemuda is a favourite for steak, fried rice and sweet desserts.
For a special evening out, try Pesta Keboen, at Jalan Veteran 29, serving a mix of Indonesian and Dutch cuisine in a beautifully restored Dutch colonial house. A more trendy option is Sisingamaraja Site, or 'S2' restaurant, on Jalan Sisingamaraja, serving Japanese, Peranakan and Western meals.
Semarang nightlife is far more subdued than the youthful clubbing scene in Jakarta, but there are a few good places to enjoy an evening out. Nori Japanese Kitchen Lounge near Graha Candi Golf complex serves sake and features live music on weekends. E-Plaza is a fine place to enjoy a round or two of pool and a meal before hitting the cinema. The Simpang Lima area has a sprinkling of bars and cafes to try for an informal night out. The On-On Pub in Hotel Candi Baru on Jalan Rinjani is a popular watering hole for the city's expatriate residents, while just outside is a more trendy hangout, the Black Canyon Coffee Bar. While only open until 9pm, the Blue Lotus Coffeehouse on Jalan Ahmad Yani serves up fresh Indonesian coffee varieties and its famed cheesecake in addition to Western meals.
Shopping in Semarang centres around its large and bustling markets including Pasar Johar, where a colourful array of batiks, hand-crafted items and antiques are sold. The town square Simpang Lima is another hot market shopping spot for food and local souvenirs. Stop into Ming La Vogue, the city's oldest antique store on Jalan Pemuda, to browse its fascinating range of traditional art items.
Semawis Night Market in Chinatown is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, featuring local fresh food and souvenirs. Those seeking to restore or boost their health should visit one of the city's herbal medicine museums with a large range of herbal products for sale and information on these healing techniques that have been used since ancient times. Nyonya Meneer on Jalan Raya Kali Gawe and Jago on Jalan Setia Budi are the two main museums. Semarang also has some modern shopping malls where one can find cosmetics, fashion items, shoes and name brand products. The more popular shopping centres are Sri Ratu, Matahari Plaza and the DP Mall.
Semarang has a number of places where traditional Javanese dance and drama shows may be enjoyed, including Wayang Orang Ngesti Pandowo on Jalan Pemuda, where a weekly Javanese themed performance is held. There are regular cultural and art shows at Tawangmas PRPP, as well as boats, water bikes and a small train to keep the kids entertained. The TBRS Amusement Park also has frequent wayang (traditional stick puppet) shows in addition to its rides and games for children.
Other great spots for kids and adults alike are Catfish Park (Taman Lele) with a playground and animal shows, as well as cultural performances. Marina Beach in North Semarang also has a playground, as well as a swimming pool and water sports facilities. Kartini Beach is a popular spot for families to frolic on the sands. Another swimming pool for keeping cool on hot days is at Ngaliyan Tirta Indah, which also has sports facilities and flower gardens. Just outside the city is Sodong, a lovely plantation with a fishing pond and swimming pool.
By Air: Semarang has an international airport as well as regular bus, train and ferry services linking it to other destinations in Indonesia. Semarang's Achmad Yani International Airport has daily flights to and from Jakarta and other cities across Indonesia, as well as service to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
By Sea: There is ferry service connecting Semarang to three ports on Borneo's Kalimantan, the Sampit, Kumai and Pontianak ports.
By Road: There is daily bus service to and from Jakarta as well as Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Pekalongan and Cirebon, with a choice of air-conditioned or economy buses. Luxury 'VIP' buses and mini-bus services are available at many agencies around the city. Another comfortable option is the Joglosemar executive-class tourist bus service that links Yogyakarta, Solo and Semarang.
By Train: There is train service between Semarang and Jakarta on the Argo Murial Bromo Anggrek express line, which departs from the Tawang station twice daily. A Jakarta-Surabaya route with the Sembrani service makes a stop at Semarang. It takes about six hours to reach Jakarta. Economy class services may be taken from the Poncol train station, for a 7.5 hour trip to Jakarta. Executive class trains also connect Semarang with Bandung and Surabaya. One of the most scenic Semarang train routes is the service to Pekalongan, which offers great views across the Java Sea along the coastline.