Surabaya Old City – The Swanky City

Submitted by mumunmumun on 31 January 2013   •  Destination

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It’s pretty safe to say that many of the old cities in Indonesia are abandoned. Whether it’s port cities or not, the remains are usually found deteriorated. It really is a shame since many of the old buildings are really beautiful having more curves, decorative details, and sometimes unnecessary shapes which aspire to aesthetics rather than function. Part of the Surabaya old city is just that.

Surabaya old city

This used to be an old ‘disco’

Seeping ‘Semut’ street alleys

I had a few hours to kill before I hopped on House of Sampoerna’s (HoS) free heritage tour, so I decided to see what the trail would not cover. After a fun time haggling for a 2-hour tour ending in IDR 40,000, my ‘becak’ driver took me to one of the centers of the old city on that fine hot day. I roamed myself around the section across the ‘Jembatan Merah’ or red bridge where the roads were smaller and less busy. My driver told me that many outer town-ers love to see the old town, but not the part that I had requested considering the area is mainly used for business storage. But when it comes to old towns, there’s definitely something to see, as I assured myself. Coming close to areas with even narrower roads, I decided to hop off his ‘becak’ to then wander the area by foot. I waltzed through the alleys of Semut road. What is better than walking when you need to waste a little time?

Apparently, many have visited this area; many photographers too.

Surabaya old city

Translate: Please! If you take a picture here, donate for the cleaning. Thank you 

Personally speaking compared to the more recent urban structures, the beauty of old cities years after their prime days are that they deteriorate in style. I might not know the difference between an art deco building and a colonial design, but I appreciate the meticulous effort put in to these aged establishments. Although some have lost its roof, changed colors due to weathering, covered in moss or plants, and are hidden behind trucks, banners and the bustling activities, the area still manages to have that elegant feeling. Albeit I’m no professional photographer, I have a hunch that the old city might be a photographer’s playground with so many interesting corners contrasting the ignorant current business with past degraded backdrops.I’m a fan of this past art as a commoner and having said that, anyone can enjoy the old town as much as I did if only they looked a little closer.

Surabaya old city

Surabaya old city

Besides the decaying old city and the heritage trail, there are still so many of the old preserved buildings that you can enjoy by just walking around the area. You can also tell which buildings are old by the remaining original Dutch writings on them. Some were really interesting like the owl sculptured building.

House of Sampoerna Heritage Tour

Following the walk around the old town was my trip on the House of Sampoerna heritage tour. This tour is awesome, especially if you enjoy history and architecture. Honestly, it had me at ‘air-conditioned bus’. This tram-style bus drove us around town to see some of Surabaya’s preserved buildings. The guide took us through the history of each building leaving us to our imagination of how things were back then. Ah… I daydream of me in knee length dresses, little decorative hats, and pearl necklace, amongst gentlemen in suits. But then again, as an Indonesian I might have been one of the slaves back then 😛

House of Sampoerna

Of all the cities that I’ve been to, Surabaya has the most preserved buildings though it’s one of the most modern and industrial cities in Indonesia. It probably was abundant to begin with, but seems like the local government came to their senses to utilize the space they already have rather than building new cubical sky rises. I have to admit, the use of old buildings brings a lot of charm to the city. Also, you don’t hurt your neck in search of the top, no flares from the endless glass facade that leaves your eyes in blotches, and you can take time to observe the details of each building. Surabaya’s old city is a like a gigantic free museum for your amusement.

Surabaya old city

It took me (eventually joined by Vira) about 2 days just to roam around the old city to enjoy of what was left by the Dutch, which probably only covered the main areas. I haven’t even begun to tear through the alleys and other dispersed areas of the city.  Walking around Surabaya gave me a different impression of a metropolitan city compared to high rise Jakarta that I’m accustomed to. If I could put a word for the city, I would say it is a swanky city indeed.

Surabaya old city charm


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4 Comments on "Surabaya Old City – The Swanky City"

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Tim Hannigan
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6 years 4 months ago

Ah! Great to see Old Surabaya getting some love! A very nice article, Mumun. And I’m pleased you enjoyed wandering in that area. You could spend many, many days exploring those alleyways, and it is indeed a photographers’ paradise!

Dian Hasan
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6 years 3 months ago
Dear Mumun & Vira, I’m a sucker for old buildings – heritage architecture, so this blog post was especially sweet!! Enjoyed it immensely!! I also wanted to give you both a big SHOUT OUT!!! BRAVO & KUDOS for helping spread the word on Indonesia’s intoxicating beauty and allure!!! I always call it “the world’s least known country of its size!” I dream of being able to see as much of Indonesia as you both have, I’ve only seen a fraction. Last year my son and I traveled up & down Sumatra, starting from Bukit Lawang – Orang Utan Territory –… Read more »
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