Nearly 800 kilometres east of Jakarta, Surabaya is a bustling port city that played a key role in Indonesia’s maritime trade and its independence movement. That legacy lives on today in Surabaya’s mix of Dutch colonial architecture, celebratory monuments and its melting pot of neighbourhoods, from Chinatown to the Arab Quarter. While it’s not on the typical tourist trail, there is much to reward visitors – starting with these top attractions that cover Surabaya’s history, culture, street-food favourites and surrounding scenery.
1. House of Sampoerna in Old Town
The historic heart of Surabaya is the Old Town area, centred around Rajawali Street and Jembatan Merah. This charming neighbourhood is rife with Dutch colonial buildings ranging from well-preserved to more weathered. Among these landmarks is the House of Sampoerna, a factory and museum dedicated to the eponymous brand of Indonesian kretek, or clove, cigarettes. The 19th-century building houses exhibits on the company that include assorted artefacts, and you’ll also learn about the role of cloves in Surabaya’s history. Visit on a weekday for a chance to view production on the factory floor, where workers nimbly hand-roll cigarettes at a rate of more than 325 per hour. The museum also has a café and offers an excellent free bus tour of the heritage area.
2. Hotel Majapahit Surabaya
Surabaya’s answer to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel dates back to 1910 (when it was originally known as Oranje Hotel) and features similar alabaster-white colonnades, terracotta roof tiles, manicured gardens and Art Deco interiors. The hotels even have a shared pedigree – both were founded by members of the Sarkies family of hoteliers. Behind Hotel Majapahit’s elegant exterior is a long and sometimes volatile history. During World War II, it was taken over by Japanese forces and used as their East Java headquarters. In 1945, Indonesian revolutionaries protested the Dutch flag flying over the hotel by tearing off its blue stripe, which created the red-and-white national flag used today. Join a hotel tour to hear all about the Majapahit’s storied past, or enjoy the ambience during afternoon high tea in the lobby lounge.
3. Surabaya Submarine Monument
Perched on the banks of the Kalimas River in the central Genteng district is the Surabaya Submarine Monument, known locally as Monkasel (an abbreviation of Monumen Kapal Selama). The star of this popular attraction is a decommissioned Cold War-era Soviet sub, a KRI Pasopati 410 made in Vladivostock in 1952 and used by the Indonesian navy in the 1960s. The sub’s missions included Operation Trikora, which liberated West Papua from Dutch control in 1962. Visitors are welcome to climb inside the craft, which remains largely unchanged from its days in service. Squeeze through hatches and cramped corridors to tour the crew quarters, officers’ lounge, control room and torpedo bays – you can even peek through the periscope.
4. Genteng Night Market
By day, this market in Surabaya’s central district is the go-to place for electronics. But as the sun goes down, it transforms into a street food festival where you can sample a variety of local delicacies. Come hungry and wander among the stalls to choose from snacks such as satay klopo (coconut-coated skewers of chicken or beef) or full meals like mie bakso (meatball and noodle soup). Try local twists on Indonesian classics like rujak, a tropical fruit salad with a sweet and spicy dressing – Surabaya’s version, rujak cingur, includes vegetables and beef muzzle. Keep an eye out for any vendor selling rawon, the city’s signature dish. This soup of slow-braised beef gets its distinct flavour and dark colour from the fermented buah kluwek nut, which is combined with lime, ginger, lemongrass and chilli.
5. Ria Kenjeran Beach
This beach is just a half-hour drive from the city centre, making it a popular weekend destination for locals. Ria Kenjeran may be more of a waterfront attraction than a tropical beach getaway, with family-friendly entertainment on offer such as a water park with rides, but it still offers picturesque ocean views, particularly at sunset. One of the best viewpoints is at Sanggar Agung, a Chinese temple featuring huge dragon statues that majestically frame the seascape beyond. Nearby is another impressive Chinese landmark, the colourful, three-tiered Tian Ti pagoda, which stands alone in a peaceful park that provides an additional respite from Surabaya’s urban buzz.