This post was last updated on July 10th, 2020 at 09:17 am
Semarang, located in the north of Central Java, with 1.5 million inhabitants, is one of the larger and busier cities in Indonesia. On the other hand, it is not a well-known attraction of Java, as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta are. You hardly see Westerners there.
Therefore, if you are in the city, chances are that people are staring at you. Pictures were even taken of us by a local photographer. Later we saw them on Instagram 😀.
The lack of hordes of tourists in Semarang does not mean that there is nothing to do. Admittedly, the city itself is not too special. Still, especially in the area, there are several cool places to visit.
We’ve been to Semarang several times, and in this mini-guide, we help you with planning your trip through this metropolis.
We start with eight fun things you can do there and then give tips on transport and accommodation. Finally, we would like to mention a tropical paradise where you can continue your journey.
1. Kampung Pelangi: The rainbow village in Semarang
The main reason why we recommend you to go to Semarang, and why we went there ourselves before flying to Bali, was to visit Kampung Pelangi. This is a new emerging district in Indonesia and highly recommended for a colorful and cheerful walk!
Kampung Pelangi, a slum becomes an Instagram hotspot
Suppose you want to make a slum attractive to give the locals opportunities by attracting tourists to their area. Where do you start? The Indonesian people thought it was a good idea to change the image of a slum into something positive and cheerful by using lots of colors and graffiti images. This metamorphosis turned out to be a real success! Across the country, especially in cities on the island of Java, there are several Kampung Pelangi’s that are becoming increasingly popular among local tourists and backpackers. The name Kampung Pelangi has also been well selected, which stands for the rainbow district or “rainbow village”.
How can you visit the Kampung Pelangi in Semarang?
If you visit the Kampung Pelangi it is best to take a taxi or Uber to get here. You then walk through a colorful gate into the district. No admission fee was required when we visited the neighborhood, but we’re not sure if it has changed over the past few months. If you walk through the neighborhood you will see all kinds of houses and shops with various graffiti images of, for example, Mario Kart characters on the walls and roofs. There’s also a bombardment in the colors pink, yellow, green, blue, and purple. At the same time, the poverty and the fact that it was originally a slum is still visible: here and there semi-bald and skinny chickens are walking around, some huts are falling apart, and the houses are small and built on top of each other.
Spend some money to help them out
On the way through the neighborhood, you can take many photos to capture this unique place and you will also encounter locals who sell some food or drinks for a small price. It is very polite to support them in this way and make them earn some money. Indonesian tourists who visit such a neighborhood support their own people in this way and as frequent travelers, we think it is a nice way to contribute to overcoming the poverty that prevails within this community.
You will also notice during your hike that people are curious about you and want to chat with you. After our walk through the neighborhood, we even met a group of men who wanted to be photographed and asked if we wanted to sign a guestbook because they appreciated our visit so much. It was quite a funny and enjoyable experience! All in all, it’s a good way to spend a free morning/afternoon in a cheerful environment.
TIP – You can also find a kampung on Kei Kecil island in the Moluccas.
2. Visit Simpang Lima
Simpang Lima is the place to be when you are in Semarang. This is the heart of the city with shopping malls, countless eateries, and a green square where children can drive around in the evening in lightly decorated pedal cars or bicycles.
If you are looking for some life in the city, then you really have no better option in Semarang.
We advise you to visit the gigantic Simpang Lima Food Court and eat something at one of the many stalls. There is a good chance that you will often be stared at since Westerners are pretty much considered an attraction.
Outside of Simpang Lima, you can also take a look in Chinatown. You will find all kinds of Chinese temples, markets, and sometimes even locals who sing karaoke.
3. Refresh yourself at one of the waterfalls
About an hour’s drive from the center, you’ll see the beautiful Curug Lawe Benowo Waterfall, in short, the Lawe Waterfall. This is also the entrance to the other waterfall. You have to walk for about an hour through the wild jungle and eventually you end up at the waterfall.
Nice to cool down and also an ideal place if you want to escape the city bustle. In any case, outside the weekends you will not easily meet other people there.
Another waterfall that is close to Semarang is the Semirang Waterfall. Here, too, short trekking through the rainforest is required before reaching the waterfall that is located on a remote hill.
4. View a piece of Dutch history at Lawang Sewu
Lawang Sewu is an old train station with an impressive history. Lawang Sewu was designed and built by the Dutch in 1904 in the Dutch Colonial period and was finally ready for use in 1919. The building was originally a train station for the first Dutch Indian railway company in Indonesia. However, the train station has never been in use for a long time. During the Second World War, in 1942, it was taken over by the Japanese who used it as a prison and torture room. Many Indonesians were horribly killed in the basements of Lawang Sewu.
Today Lawang Sewu is a popular tourist attraction. You can see the entire building and there are guided tours of Lawang Sewu’s cellars. The story goes that it is still haunted in the cellars.
Lawang Sewu means ‘a thousand doors’ in Javanese. Indonesians also see Lawang Sewu as a haunted house because of the many mysterious ghost stories.
There are stories from tourists who visited this place that heard and saw ghosts. In addition, the horror film Kuntilanak was filmed here in 2007, in which – little surprisingly – a ghost appears. So maybe this building is not as boring as you might think at first 😉.
5. Hike to the top of Mount Ungaran and Mount Andong
Gunung Ungaran, a stratovolcano that you can climb in 4 hours, is about an hour’s drive from the center. Besides hiking to the more than 2,000-meter high summit, you will also find ancient Hindu temples there. The highest of these is located at an altitude of 1,308 meters.
A little further south is another mountain, Gunung Andong. The highest point is 1,731 meters. It is nice to bring a tent and wake up in the morning with the sunrise and the sea of clouds in front of you. The climb is relatively easy and you will be at the top in about 2 hours.
6. Visit the impressive Gedong Songo temple complex
An hour south of Semarang city lies the relatively unknown temple complex of Gedong Songo. On top of a number of green wooded and foggy hilltops, you will find several Hindu temples. The earlier you get there in the morning, the better. It is still cool, the light is good for photos and you have the temples almost entirely to yourself. From Ungaran it is about an hour’s drive to Gedung Songo. The small Hindu temples are spread over a fairly steep mountainside.
You can take a tough walk of a few kilometers by walking from temple to temple. It is also possible to do this by horse. During the hike, stop regularly to enjoy the beautiful panoramas. In clear weather, you can see from left to right the volcanoes Lawu, Merbabu, Merapi, Sumbing, Sindoro, and Dieng, while standing on the flanks of Ungaran yourself!
In addition to the temples, you have truly magnificent views of the green valley and the low-hanging clouds. You hardly see tourists, this is a hidden gem that few people know about. Therefore, it is an extra magical place to be.
7. Drink a Belgian beer in the Sakapatat Beer Garden
Sure, there is plenty of Bintang in Indonesia. You know, the local beer brand. But if you fancy a tasty Belgian specialty beer, the Sakapatat Beer Garden is a great place to go.
Besides that you can drink delicious beers, the setting is very atmospheric. You can also eat well here. The menu includes items such as french fries with chicken or a tender steak.
8. Enjoy delicious coffee at the Makabana Creative Space
Co-working spaces; nowadays they shoot out of the ground like mushrooms. In Semarang, there is the atmospheric Makabana Creative Space & Coffee. It’s a coffee bar and a work spot in one.
So, whether you just want to drink a (delicious) coffee or do some work, at Makabana you are in the right place for both. You will encounter all kinds of (young) entrepreneurs there. It’s great when you need a chat or if you like to meet people who do something like you. Like working online, traveling around, or whatever.
9. Stroll through ancient Chinese times at Avalokitesvara Pagoda
If you have ever seen a pagoda in a Chinese film and imagined what it would look like in real life, then you must visit the Avalokitesvara Pagoda.
This pagoda is located in Ungaran, which you can reach with a 30-minute drive from Semarang. This pagoda is a Buddhist temple, so the choice of clothes you wear must be considered before visiting this pagoda. Shoulders should be covered and long pants should be worn rather than shorts.
Come in the morning, around eight o’clock before it is crowded with other tourists. The quiet atmosphere provides a quiet space for those of you who visit to pray.
In addition, it will be easier for you to choose Instagramable spots to take good photos. The light in the morning in this place can also add to the beauty of your photos.
With bright and artful colors, this place can be an interesting photo object. In addition, in front of the pagoda, there is also a large tree with lots of red ornaments decorating it, giving it a distinctive oriental impression.
10. Visit the night market in Semarang
Semarang has several shopping centers and has a large night market where you can try different types of food. Pay attention to what you order: we thought we ordered satay skewers which turned out to be chicken intestines and chicken hearts on a stick. A special experience, but you’ll probably understand that we couldn’t finish it all after we tried a bite or two… Nevertheless, there are plenty of tasty things available that will taste amazing.
Transport in Semarang
There are regular taxis in the city, although we advise you to download the Go-Jek and Grab apps. You can book a car or scooter taxi in the app and you no longer have to negotiate the price. In the same app, you enter your starting point and destination and then you immediately see the amount you have have to pay.
Places to stay in Semarang
Don’t expect a wide range of hostels in Semarang. The city is simply too unknown to backpackers. There is no shortage of hotels, however, and you don’t have to worry about the price because they are very affordable.
Anyway, we would choose to stay in the aforementioned Simpang Lima. We stayed here several times in the Louis Kienne Pandanaran. The rooms are huge with windows everywhere, so the views are fantastic as well. And the great room is not the only thing, because on the roof you can find a gym and an infinity pool, both with an amazing view.
Furthermore, you can find the most budget options in Chinatown. And if you like shopping, the area around Paragon City Mall is also recommended. A great place to stay near the Paragon City Mall is Hotel Chanti, a very clean and luxurious hotel. Very nice beds and a nice pool to cool off. Besides Paragon City, it is also relatively close to the port and close to the airport. They have a very extensive breakfast and we would definitely go there again on our next trip.
TIP – If you want to take a look at all accommodations you can check out Booking.com.
Continue your journey to Karimunjawa
Semarang is the ideal city to use as a base for the tropical paradise of Karimunjawa. An island with white sandy beaches where you can snorkel & go island hopping.
From Semarang, you have several options to travel to Karimunjawa. The easiest is by plane. Currently, Wings Air offers several (cheap) flights per week. This flight takes only half an hour. Another option is to travel to the port of Jepara (2 hours) and take the ferry or speed boat (2.5 hours) there. Around the harbor, there are some guesthouses where you can stay. Previously there were also speed boats going there from Semarang, but they no longer sail.