Having spent my entire life in an Indonesian city, I can tell you that the posh, fast-paced life in a city can suck the soul out of the people in it since they’re all chasing the next big thing, doing things to get them the most “hits” on social media, and where random acts of kindness often come with conditions or even an act of crime attached to them. However, the same cannot be said for Semarang.
Over a weekend in April, I got to know Semarang for what it is, found its true soul, and somehow headed home with airport customs insistently saying that I must be a Semarang native. If you want to experience Semarang like a local, here are the five things you should definitely do.
1. Take a Sunday morning stroll around Simpang Lima
Every Sunday, the government of Semarang closes off the roads heading into Simpang Lima for a car-free day and locals flock onto the streets to do everything they can do without using their cars. There were children learning to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time (watch out for them – I got hit by a kid and the scar on my ankle wouldn’t fade for a month), inline skaters, skateboarders practicing some moves, old men and women gathered for power walks, product launches, balloon sellers and drink stalls, people walking their pets (from dogs to lizards), to students protesting something. Car free days are where people meet up with each other and don’t be surprised at strangers saying hello to you. Local communities also meet up and promote their causes during this car-free days so if you want to, let them stop you and talk to you about their causes.
What’s so beautiful in a car-free day in Semarang is that no one hassles you or pushes you to do anything for or buy anything from them. Some food sellers may walk up to you and offer what they have to sell, but most just stand where they are. Another thing about car-free days in Semarang is that by 9 AM, the roads open again so it’s best to have an early start.
Simpang Lima Semarang | Jl. Jendral Ahmad Yani, Semarang Selatan, Kota Semarang, Jawa Tengah | Car-free day: Sunday, 6-9 AM
2. Visit a mall
I’m usually the last person you’ll find at a mall while traveling, but I truly recommend for you to visit a mall in Semarang. I visited Plaza Simpang Lima that weekend and it was filled with a lot of young people trying to find a new cell phone, looking for a sale, hanging out with friends, or even going on a date. The funny thing that I found there was that some shopkeepers actually leave their store to pray without so much as locking the door or even stationing someone else to make sure no one steals from their store. It was crazy to walk into a store, try to ask someone about a product and finding no one to be there. Salespeople were also quite creative. There was this one shop where its employees danced to a techno tune while shouting the brand’s name. It was an interesting experience and definitely gave me an insight to what business life is like for locals.
Plaza Simpang Lima | Jalan Ahmad Yani no. 1, Semarang | Open 10 AM-10 PM
3. Experience diversity at Sam Poo Kong Temple
One of the labels you can’t detach from Semarang is “nationalistic.” Cultural and religious diversity is thoroughly embraced in Semarang and everyone is welcomed everywhere regardless of their background as long as they show respect. I found the most prevalent example of this at Sam Poo Kong Temple. Built by Admiral Cheng Ho who was a Chinese-Moslem, this place serves as an important place for Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, and Moslems alike. As I walked in to the temple complex, I found people of different religions with various religious attires sitting around the complex, admiring the temple, or taking pictures there. The three main temples in Sam Poo Kong remained forbidden to people who weren’t praying there and everyone there actually respected the temple’s boundaries. You can also have your fortune told here by making a certain amount of donations to the temple and following the tradition solemnly.
It’s the most touristy thing you’ll see on this list and if you don’t plan on praying, there’s not much to see on the temple. But Sam Poo Kong is the silent witness to how the people in Semarang embrace diversity so well and you have to visit this temple to understand how much they do.
Sam Poo Kong Temple | Jl. Simongan Raya no. 29, Semarang | Entrance IDR5.000, fortune-telling IDR25.000 | Open 6 AM-11 PM
4. Have dinner at Taman Brumbungan
I was asking my local friends in Semarang for their dining recommendations and one of them (Michelle) told me to check out Taman Brumbungan. It turned out that it was a park converted into street food haven at night. Unlike its more famous twin, Semawis Market, Taman Brumbungan is the locals’ best-kept secret since it is located in the middle of a housing complex. Here, there were about ten stalls selling noodles, lumpia, soto, rice with chicken and plenty more street delicacies.
From the impromptu googling I did, the one stall that locals really recommend is Soto Neon, which got its name from being the first street food stall ever to use neon lights instead of oil lamps in Taman Brumbungan. It was really crowded on Saturday night and you’re going to be sharing your table with locals – meaning plenty more opportunities to chat with locals. Service is fast-paced here and you have to try their nasi soto which has a fantastic sweet broth and tender chicken strips in it. The servers here do their thing while blasting keroncong music at full volume and are quite keen to have small talk with you while cutting up chicken and stirring broth.
Soto Neon – Taman Brumbungan | Jl. Brumbungan Pringgading I no. 27A, Semarang | Open 4.30-11.30 PM | Nasi soto: IDR15.000
5. Explore the flea market at Old Town
I stumbled upon a flea market and concert at Semarang’s Old Town (Kota Lama) by accident. Next to Immanuel Church (the oldest church in Semarang), there was a stage set up with vibrant lights and I walked over there out of curiosity. Turns out, there was Javanese music concert being held there with TV cameras recording the entire thing. Locals were seated at the park next to the church to watch a vocalist wrapped in a tight red dress sing some Javanese tunes with her band.
Behind the crowd watching the concert, there was a makeshift market filled with artists selling the wall arts they made out of recycled material. There were also older men dressed in a colonial-era military uniform renting out bikes with sidecars for people to use as photo props with “pay as you like” being their answer for much it cost to rent one.
Next to the stage, on the far right side of the church, there were stalls filled with various kinds of antiques being sold. The sellers were friendly and don’t mind you asking them questions or taking photos without buying anything. I learned from them that this flea market/art festival is a daily affair in Semarang and there might be several new antiques on the shelves every now and then.
As someone who loves watching people, talking to strangers, and things with history attached to them, the evening I spent at the flea market was my happiest in Semarang. If you have as much fascination for people and antiques as I do, you have to make time to visit this flea market and spend an hour or two here.
Pasar Klitikan Semarang – Gereja Immanuel – Taman Sri Gunting | Jl. Letjen Soeprapto no. 32, Semarang
After spending a weekend at Semarang, I was already taken in by the city enough to say that it is my favorite in Indonesia. It’s a city that strolls – not runs – and everywhere you go, it’s not too hard to find a stranger smiling at you in the most sincere way. In Semarang, a “hello” can turn into an hour-long conversation which you can walk away from without missing your wallet or being hassled to buy a product. Everyone is doing their own thing and enjoying so much of their lives that their enjoyment is contagious. Semarang is filled with the things I love about the world: good people, good food, laidback vibes, and respect for diversity.
If you’re heading to Semarang anytime soon, come with an open mind and open heart. Be prepared to talk to strangers and take time to enjoy the slow life here. That’s how I fell in love with Semarang and that’s how I think you’ll do too.
ps: just because Semarang is a laidback town and most people are nice there, make sure to still use your head and be street-smart. Don’t accept random things from strangers, watch your belongings, and – since Semarang is a sleepy town – avoid walking alone at night since most business would have already closed by 9-10 PM. Stay safe and be present in Semarang!