Header image courtesy of Shenny Fierdha
Solo, also known as Surakarta, is a tranquil city in Central Java, 63 kilometres away from tourist hotspot Yogyakarta, or roughly an hour and a half away by car. It may not be as popular as Yogyakarta, but Solo, the hometown of the current Indonesia president Joko Widodo, has a lot to offer. It is a harmonious blend of history and culture reflected by its fascinating tourist attractions—from the grand sultanate palace of Keraton Kasunanan Surakarta Hadiningrat to the theatrical dance performance of Wayang Orang Sriwedari.
The city’s neighbouring regencies, such as Karanganyar and Sragen, also have their own places of interest. Immerse yourself in the majestic ancient Hindu temples of Candi Cetho, Candi Kethek, and Candi Sukuh in Karanganyar. Meanwhile, Sragen possesses a trove of prehistoric fossils and artefacts that you can see at Museum Purbakala Sangiran. Keep reading our backpacker’s guide to experiencing the best of Solo, a city dubbed as “The Spirit of Java.”
Situated in downtown Solo, this historical landmark was built in 1744 and has been home to many generations of the royal Pakubuwono family, a tradition that continues to this very day. Intricate Javanese carvings adorn the palace’s interior and exterior, giving it an ethnic touch. Keraton Kasunanan Surakarta Hadiningrat also houses valuable collections of indigenous weapons, antiques, statues, and gamelan, a multi-timbre ensemble of native musical instruments. Royal guards, called abdi dalem keraton, quietly stand by at several corners of the palace dressed in their traditional uniform.
There is one particular site within the sultanate complex that really catches the eye—a 30-metre-high tower, Menara Sanggabuwana. At a glance, it almost looks like a lighthouse with white brick walls and light blue windows. This four-storey tower is only accessible to the King and certain abdi dalem keraton personnel. Legend has it that all the kings of Keraton Kasunanan Surakarta Hadiningrat used the top floor to meditate and meet the mythological Queen of the Southern Sea, Nyi Roro Kidul.
Watching the elegant traditional dance performance of Wayang Orang Sriwedari is one thing you surely cannot miss during your trip to Solo. This play involves dozens of Javanese dancers all dressed up in wayang (Indonesian traditional shadow puppets) costumes to resemble the characters. The story for each performance is inspired by Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. Despite the dialogues among the characters being in Javanese, you do not need to understand the language to enjoy the show. You can catch the two-hour show every Monday to Saturday, at 8 pm, at Gedung Wayang Orang Sriwedari—a building especially dedicated to staging this wonderful dance, only 2.2 kilometres away from Keraton.
Antique collectors will surely find themselves in paradise when visiting Solo’s antique market Pasar Triwindu. It was established in 1939 and initially called Pasar Windujenar. In 2011, the name was changed to Triwindu and it has stuck ever since. Arrays of vintage goods—gramophones, colourful Javanese wooden masks, lanterns, and more—can be found at this two-storey market which opens at from 9 am to 5 pm every day. If you are not into collecting antiques, it is absolutely fine as you can simply wander around inside Pasar Triwindu and soak up the nostalgia.
These three ancient Hindu temples are located in Karanganyar regency, which is a roughly 90-minute drive away from Solo. They are among the highest temples in Indonesia as they nestle on the slope of Mount Lawu (3,265 metres above sea level). Both Candi Cetho and Candi Kethek sit at 1,500 metres above sea level while Candi Sukuh sits at 1,100 metres above sea level. They were all approximately built between the fifteenth and sixteenth century.
All three temples are believed to be sacred sites, meant to deliver people from their sins. This trio of temples shares the same architectural style, each shaped like a stepped pyramid. However, unlike the other two, Candi Sukuh possesses unique statues and sculptures resembling male and female’s genitals, representing fertility.
This prehistoric museum in Sragen regency is 17 kilometres away from Solo and takes 30 minutes to get to by car. It exhibits at least three thousand fossils of early human species, such as Pithecanthropus mojokertensis and Meganthropus palaeojavanicus, as well as ancient animal fossils and stone tools used for hunting.
To give the visitors an idea of what life was like millions of years ago, Museum Purbakala Sangiran showcases three-dimensional statues of those early humans and animals in their real-life poses; walking, hunting, and eating. So far, the museum, which was established in 1980, has found at least 13,800 fossils and the number keeps growing as new discoveries are made almost every year. In 1996, Sangiran was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its archaeological, biological, geological, and paleoanthropological contributions to helping us understand human evolution.
Solo has a lot of local delicacies you have to sample to complete your trip, such as serabi Solo, a sweet traditional rice flour pancake; gudeg ceker, which is rice and unripe jackfruit stew served with chicken feet and chilli relish; and nasi pecel, which is rice and blanched vegetables served with a fried egg and peanut sauce. You can easily find those dishes at humble kiosks or pushcarts on the city’s streets.
Solo is very reachable both by air and land. If you are travelling in a backpacker style, start your journey from Jakarta’s train station Stasiun Pasar Senen and catch a train to Solo. Stop at Stasiun Solo Balapan or Stasiun Solo Jebres. Then, simply rent a motorcycle or get online taxis to explore the city. There are plenty of cheap hotels throughout Solo that cost around IDR100,000 per night, suitable for backpackers or those travelling with a limited budget. However, breakfast is usually not included in the price.