Surakarta is a city in Central Java about 2 hours away from its much more famous sister Yogyakarta.
Surakarta is also known as Solo for which there are several possible reasons, the most likely being the Javanese word for “free” or “independent“. In this list of things to do in Surakarta, I use the two names interchangeably.
And no, I don’t mean do these things solo, as in alone!
Most travelers visit Yogyakarta for 3-5 days and then rush through Central Java to Mt. Bromo missing out on many of the authentic Javanese places in between. That’s why I’ve included Surakarta in my 14-day Java Backpacking Itinerary!
Surakarta is such a charming town, home to Javanese arts, batik, shadow puppet shows, serabi pancakes, and ancient history.
Let’s take a look at some of the best things to do in Surakarta and suggestions for a day trip to waterfalls and Hindu Temples!
Very Short History of Surakarta (Solo)
Let’s start at the beginning. At least 100,000 years ago there was an ancestor of us, humans that we now call Solo Man. That’s right, the oldest known humans that lived in what is now Java, Indonesia are called after the river (and by extension the city) Solo.
Then we know little about what happened there until the Kingdom of Mataram was formed around Yogyakarta and Surakarta and reached its greatest territorial extent between 1613 to 1645.
In 1755, the Mataram Sultanate was divided into the Yogyakarta Sultanate and the Surakarta Sunanate. Notice that Surakarta was a Sunanate, with the head being a Sunan, short for Susuhunan which loosely translates to King of Kings.
You can visit the Royal Cemetery in Imogiri which is jointly used by both dynasties.
Fast forward to 1945 when the Surakarta Sunanate swore allegiance to the Indonesian Republic and was granted a special status.
Unfortunately, the communists were strong in the city, and due to the many troubles they created for the central government, Surakarta was stripped of the Daerah Istimewa status that Yogyakarta has to this day.
That’s why Surakarta is the Lost Sunanate.
Best Things to Do in Surakarta
The attractions in Solo vary from historical and religious to markets and arts. Let’s dive in!
1. Museum Purbakala Sangiran
Remember how I said that it all started with Solo Man? Yes, indeed it did and you can learn all about it and human evolution in the wonderful Museum Sangiran.
The museum is well designed, organized and covers everything from the beginning of time to the early humans. It’s one of the things to do in Surakarta that deserves the 40 min. drive to the outskirts.
If you don’t have a car/scooter, Bus S1 goes to within walking distance of the entrance.
2. Keraton Surakarta Hadiningat (Surakarta Palace)
Surakarta’s history can be wrapped up with a visit to the Keraton, the Sunan’s Palace.
Today, the Sunan, Pakubuwono XIII, doesn’t have any actual powers, although he’s still a very powerful figure and a strong symbol of the city. Thus, many politicians and dignitaries want to have him as an acquaintance.
The Surakarta Kraton stands as his official residence, although, unlike Yogyakarta’s Sultan, he doesn’t actually live there and the Palace is slowly deteriorating.
For a price of 25.000 IDR, you can enter the Keraton. You will be given a sarong to wrap around your waist and a guide will lead you through the grounds and provide some information, albeit mostly in Indonesian. My favorite room was the one with the portraits of all past monarchs and a brief history of the Sunanate.
The Keraton is my top thing to visit in Surakarta for history lovers.
3. Klewer Market
The Klewer Market is the largest textile market in Central Java! Can you believe it? It’s a historic building and accommodates over 2200 merchant stands and over 750 vendors who roam the markets inside and outside.
Pasar Klewer is one of the best places to buy batik. Forget about Malioboro or Semarang‘s Kampung Batik, Pasar Klewer has the biggest choice in Central Java and the most affordable prices.
4. Pasar Gede
It would be incredibly amiss if I didn’t include the Big Market, Pasar Gede, on the list of top things to do in Surakarta.
It is a very traditional market that many locals frequent and an awesome place to find delicious local food.
My tips for some local delicacies you should try:
- Nasi Pecel (rice with mixed vegetables and topped up with peanut sauce)
- Mie Goreng
- Mie Pentil (fried noodles)
- Lumpia (spring rolls)
- Es dawet
Es dawet seems to be the local favorite. It is sold by at least 5 different vendors inside the market and there are always massive crowds at each.
Es dawet is a dessert of at least 7-8 different ingredients – jellies, pieces of fruit, milk, ice, rice pudding, and other stuff I can’t name. It’s quite delicious actually.
A small bowl costs around 8.000 IDR (0.5$).
Es dawet is part of my full list of Indonesian desserts you should try on your holiday here!
5. Kampoeng Batik Laweyan
Talking of places to buy batik… May the champion of Batik markets enter, drumroll please, Kampung Batik Laweyan!
This is the oldest Batik Kampung in all of Indonesia!
Along Jalan Sidoluhur and the alleys next to it, there are dozens of batik industries and batik showrooms with traditional and modern nuances that are ready to pamper visitors.
You can even order a batik to your taste on the spot and have it ready before the end of the day!
6. Masjid Agung Keraton Surakarta
The Great Mosque of Surakarta was built in 1768 as both a Friday Prayer Mosque and for special occasions for the Royal Family.
It follows the traditional Javanese style with a beautiful tajuk roof and intricate ornamentations. The minaret follows the Indian style of architecture. The mosque offers a quiet and peaceful atmosphere. Don’t forget to check out the tombs in the backyard.
7. Triwindu Antique Market
Do you want to lose yourself in small alleys and try to find a treasure? Do you want to feel a little bit like Aladin, but in Indonesia?
Are you at all interested in Javanese artifacts, daggers (keris), puppets, statues, women kebayas, cups, plates, coins, drawers, home decoration, et cetera, et cetera… Then Triwindwu Antique Market is for you.
Think of it as an evolved flea market where the vendors are not too pushy, but you still need to haggle for a bargain. Or as an Instagram photoshoot spot, I won’t judge.
8. Ngarsopuro Night Market
This lively weekend night market should be the reason to visit Solo on Saturday rather than during the week if that’s possible.
You can find a wide selection of clothes, shoes, food, and many tasty Indonesian snacks. Hmm, I feel there’s a trend with these things to do in Surakarta – it’s a lot about food and batik! Get used, Central Java is famous for those two!
9. Javanese Theatre at Sriwedari Wayang Orang
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Surakarta, I strongly recommend you visit the theater. It’s located in Sriwedari Park, walking distance away from the night market.
There are shows every day, except on Sunday. The shows last about 2 hours and tell a different Javanese story or legend every day. There’s music accompanying the spectacle and a lot of action on the stage.
It’s smaller in scale than the famous Prambanan Ramayana Ballet but is a good and cheap substitute.
The shows are in the Javanese language, so chances are you won’t understand a lot. Worry not, I was able to deduce some of what was happening anyway and the performance is very entertaining to watch anyhow.
10. Fort Vastenburg
Fort Vastenburg was built by the Dutch colonial administration in 1745. Don’t mix it up with Fort Vredeburg in Yogyakarta.
Unfortunately, this fort is in disrepair as multiple parties are vying for control over the land it sits on. That’s why entrance is mostly forbidden and it doesn’t function as a museum. You can still go to the front doors and take a few pictures.
Sometimes, the fort is the setting for music festivals and performance events.
11. Sheikh Zayed Mosque Solo
Did you know you can go to Abu Dhabi without actually going to Abu Dhabi?
That’s right: the symbol of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, that cost more than half a billion dollars to build, has a copy in Surakarta (that cost ‘only’ 20 million)!
It is so bizarre to see such a marvelous mosque in this relatively small and not excessively rich city, but there it is!
The mosque is of course free to enter, although only open for congregational prayers for now.
12. Eat Serabi Pancake
If there’s one food item that’s most strongly associated with Solo, it’s the Serabi Pancake. A think pancake with rice flour and coconut milk, originating from the Notosuman area of Surakarta.
The original pancake is plain, although vendors have started offering toppings such as chocolate sprinkles and banana slices.
The most authentic place to eat Serabi Pancakes has to be Mrs. Lidya’s Serabi. Price: around 3.000 IDR (0.2$) per pancake.
Things to do in Surakarta on a Day Trip
The following attractions are about an hour away from Surakarta and you can easily combine them all together in an awesome day trip from Solo.
13. Candi Sukuh
Candi Sukuh is a Hindu Temple situated under Mount Lawu around 40 km. from Surakarta. It’s rather simple, unlike the grandeur and magnificent Prambanan (Hindu) and Borobodur (Buddhist) temples near Yogyakarta and Magelang respectively.
Some visitors find similarities between Candi Sukuh and the Mayan temples in Mexico or the Inca temples in Peru. I think it was the beginning of a bigger temple complex, but the collapse of the Majapahit Empire stopped the development.
Today, you can visit the temple and walk between the shrines. It’s a wonderful place for pictures.
14. Candi Cetho
About 10 km drive from Candi Sutuh is another old Hindu temple – Candi Cetho.
The two temples are very similar to one another having been built in roughly the same era and for the same purpose. If you’re not an ultra fan of ancient history, you might want to visit just one of them.
A fun thing to pay attention to in Candi Cetho is the number of phallic-shaped symbols spread around the temple. They symbolize the creation of man and the abundant fertility of the local land.
15. Candi Kethek
For an additional 5.000 IDR (0.33$) you can go behind Candi Cetho on a short 5 min hike to Candi Kethek, also known as the Monkey Temple.
I doubt there are any monkey gods lurking around, but regular monkeys… oh yeah, for sure.
It’s a small site, but if you’re already in the area – definitely do the small detour. While in the area, you should also visit the Serendeng Waterfall and Pamoksan Brawijaya.
16. Jumog Waterfall
Jumog Waterfall is well-kept, close to Surakarta, and during the rainy season a very refreshing place to visit. Who needs to go to Bali when Java offers such beautiful places off the beaten path?
17. Grojogan Sewu Waterfall
The reason I’ve put Sewu Waterfall last on this list of things to do in Surakarta is because of the rip-off ticket price for foreigners. Unfortunately, this is the reality in Indonesia – some attractions cost 20+ times more for international tourists than for locals. That’s how it is at Mount Bromo (although there’s a trick to visit it for free) and it’s even more ridiculous at Borobodur and Prambanan.
If you decide to swallow this bitter 10$ pill, you’ll be rewarded with a 1500-step climb to the waterfall, a refreshing sprinkle of water on your face, and exhilarating views. If you’re into saving money, just go to Jumog Waterfall.
Where to stay in Surakarta?
Surakarta is a relatively small city and wherever you stay, you won’t be too far from most of the places to visit. If you want a central location, I suggest you find a hotel around the Ngarsopuro Night Market area.
These are my suggestions for hotels based on your budget:
There are many OYO or RedDoorz hotels in Surakarta at affordable prices between 5 and 12$. Unfortunately, there are no hostels.
When I went to Solo, I stayed at the Istana Griya 1 Hotel. You can check it out and book here.
A good option for mid-budget travelers is the Ibis Styles Solo Hotel.
If you want to splurge a little and have a relaxing stay in an exquisite hotel, The Royal Surakarta Heritage Hotel is an awesome pick.
Did I cover all the things to do in Surakarta or what? I think I did. Let me know in the comments if you think I missed something important and I will add it!