Any time I step foot in Solo, I cannot help feeling excited and, at the same time, very peaceful. The slow rhythm of the city, as well as the warm and friendly nature of the people, makes me feel wholeheartedly welcome, and a world away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta.
While it is renowned for its rich Javanese culture, Solo is not all about batik, luscious delicacies or even its celebrated abundance of well-preserved historic destinations. The home city of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, offers plenty of surprises.
On my first day in Solo, which is also known as Surakarta, I check into a hotel in the Timuran area, within Banjarsari Sub-District, a perfect downtown starting point for exploring the rest of the city. Banjarsari is packed with a wide variety of hotels, ranging from budget to five-star.
Even for first-time visitors, it is relatively easy to explore the city and even without help from a guide. You can take a doubledecker tourist bus called Bus Werkudara, which is available from nine in the morning every Saturday and Sunday, departing from Dinas Perhubungan (Bureau of Transportation) in the Manahan area. At each stop, travellers are given time to explore and take pictures.
Our first stop is De Tjolomadoe in the Karanganyar District, a former colonial-era sugar factory, built in 1861. After renovation, the building is now an appealing museum, and cultural and convention centre, displaying giant old machines used to process sugar cane, and also a small bazaar. If you’re tired from walking around the museum, you can just sip a good coffee while relaxing in the pleasant café.
Only 15 minutes from De Tjolomadoe, The Heritage Palace, in Kartasura, Sukoharjo District, is another former sugar factory with a very different ambience, courtesy of its wonderful neoclassicalstyle buildings and a wealth of entertainment offerings. Dating back to 1892, The Heritage Palace was launched in June last year, after being refurbished in order to house a series of attractions, including the 3D Trick Art Museum, where visitors can take dozens of fantastic selfies (for example, facing into the jaws of a dinosaur or appearing to surf a giant wave), a transportation museum, a vintage car collection, Omah Kwalik (an upsidedown house), Garden Retro Paradise (a beautiful garden adorned with statues), the Convention Hall, and Kids Town & Food Street.
As the sun starts to set and the palate needs to be pleased, a culinary centre called New Galabo (Gladak Langen Bogan Solo) is the ideal place to be. Open from five in the evening till five in the morning, the New Galabo offers a range of Solo’s traditional dishes. Most of the famous establishments in Solo have branches here, so you do not need to set aside the time to visit each famous restaurant in turn – unless you really want to, of course.
For starters, try Solo’s special hot drink, wedang dongo, which comprises ginger syrup with bright sticky rice flour shaped into balls, roasted peanuts and sugar palm fruit (kolang-kaling). I recommend following this with sego liwet (a rice dish cooked in coconut milk, chicken broth and spices, served with shredded chicken and other side dishes).
After pampering your taste buds, you can burn the calories by walking approximately 1.2km to the Ngarsopuro Night Market. Located on Jalan Diponegoro, within the Banjarsari Sub- District, the night market is a treasure trove of various kinds of local craftwork and unique knick-knacks for souvenirs, such as key chains, decorated lamps, clothes and textiles. If you still have room, it’s also an opportunity to try some traditional street snacks. On Saturday and Sunday nights only, the night market is open until around 11pm, and also provides free Wi-Fi and live music.
If you think the night is still too young for you to return to your hotel, take a stroll down Jalan Gatot Subroto, better known as Gatsu. Along a 500m stretch, on both sides of the road, there are continuous attractive murals decorating all the shops’ rolling doors and folding gates, featuring renowned public figures and aspects of pop culture. The road has been popular with visitors since lighting was set up to make it a highly Instagrammable destination. Also exciting to visit at night is Taman Pelangi Park, part of Taru Jurug Zoo, where hundreds of glorious light installations in the shape of flowers, trees and animals glow marvellously in the darkness.
Solo’s more traditional attractions are not to be missed. The 18th century royal residence Keraton Kasunananand Museum Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat reveal some of the stories and heritage tourist attractions, including Grojogan Sewu Waterfall, Bale Kambang Park, Bukit Sekipan Hill, Sukuh Temple, Cetho Temple, Kemuning Tea Plantation and much more.
There is also an attractive combination of natural beauty, heritage and a sense of creativity at Umbul Ponggok, in Ponggok Village, Klaten District, around 25km from Solo. Built in 1920, the spring pond used as a water reservoir during the Dutch era is now a swimming pool replenished by the surrounding natural springs. You can rent an underwater camera and pose for a picture perched on a sunken motorcycle or Vespa, or on a submerged bench, while surrounded by a school of colourful fish. Another unmissable Instagram moment!
Combining the buzz of a modern city and the rich culture of its past, Solo never stops providing something special and in-the-now to keep visitors coming back. This month, the city is hosting the Solo Great Sale, which continues throughout February in all malls, to ensure travellers and locals alike can satisfy their every retail whim. February also brings the month-long Imlek Festival, enlivening the metropolis with cultural shows, bazaars and thousands of lanterns installed in Pasar Gede to create a wonderful nightly spectacle.
Finally, to commemorate Solo’s 274th anniversary, the city celebrates with the Jenang Festival on February 17. Jenang (its namesake is a glutinous rice porridge served with brown sugar and coconut milk) is made in red and white to represent the Indonesian national flag and symbolises cultural, spiritual and traditional values, in support of family welfare. A carnival is also held along Jalan Slamet Riyadi to Balai Kota (City Hall) on February 17. The event will include the enactment of an epic drama called Adeging Kutha Sala, about the founding of Solo, with performing arts, colourfully costumed dancers and traditional music. Prepare your camera and your enthusiasm!
With such an abundance of intriguing tourist attractions, and a busy events calendar, Solo is a destination that is difficult to describe. It’s a satisfying mix of old and new, brimming with vibrant urban culture, culinary gems and delightful distractions, with a new surprise around every corner. My advice? Get on a plane and experience it.