SURABAYA IS INDONESIA’S second biggest city, the capital of East Java, and typically only sees tourists as they pass through on their way to Mount Bromo, Probolinggo, Bali, Yogyakarta, and Ijen.
I’ve spent the last 18 months living in Surabaya as an English teacher and have come up with several reasons why the city deserves more than a layover.
1. Hit Dolly
Reportedly named for the neighborhood’s first Dutch madam, Dolly is a busy red-light district with a constant stream of vehicle and foot traffic, soundtracked by the beat of dangdut (a pop mix of Arab and Hindu influences featuring guitars, synthesizers, tablas, and flutes) emanating from the bars that line its narrow lanes.
For a sweet local dive, step in any door; for upscale, try Dondong Pub & Karaoke on Jalan Dukuh Kupang Timur VIII.
Dolly is pretty contained — just a few streets away from Gang Dolly (Dolly Alley) is a nicely kept kampung of schools, homes, and mosques. If you’re staying somewhere centrally located, like the Shangri-La hotel, any pedestrian will be able to point you in the right direction.
2. Take the Heritage Tour at House of Sampoerna
House of Sampoerna is a free-entry museum that houses local art and historical exhibits on both Surabaya and the cigarette company that owns the facility. (A highlight is watching workers hand-roll kretek, or clove, cigarettes. Call first to check times — I was disappointed to have missed it on my first visit.)
The museum also organizes the Surabaya Heritage Track bus tour. Tickets cost IDR1,500 (about USD$0.20), and the bus was built to resemble the trams that once navigated Surabaya’s streets.
Check the website above for track destinations — themes changes monthly — and departure information.
3. Have high tea at the Majapahit
At Hotel Majapahit, 53,000 rupiah (~USD$6) pays for tea, sandwiches, and sweets served on a three-tiered platter. (I prefer to start with the top tier — dessert.)
High tea is served from noon to 6pm. A great followup is a walk through the hotel gardens — a series of grassy courtyards and fountains surrounded by date palms and massive hardwoods.
Ask the front desk for one of their historical information packets and try to picture what the hotel was like as a prison camp for Dutch women and children and barracks for the Japanese during World War II.
For non-hotel guests, IDR100,000 buys access to the outdoor pool, gym, and sauna from 8am till 10pm.
4. Eat cow’s nose
Rujak cingur is one of several Surabayan dishes sold by kaki lima (street vendors). It’s mixed vegetables with cow snout, smothered in a black shrimp paste and peanut sauce. Yum.
I’ve never been brave enough to give it a try, sticking instead to the snout-less rujak manis, a sweet fruit salad topped with peanut sauce and optional hot chile.
It’s also possible to try the other end of the cow in Surabaya — sop buntut, or oxtail soup, can be found in most restaurants and features ginger, garlic, carrots, and potatoes.
5. Hop an ojek
Around four million people live in Surabaya, and gridlock traffic is a way of life. This makes an ojek (motorcycle taxi) the quickest way to get around. It’s pretty fun to join the organized chaos and watch families of five go scooting between cars and becak on a single motorbike.
Ojek drivers usually find you — Ojek? Mau ke mana? (Ojek? Where do you want to go?) — but they’re typically located outside traditional markets, bus and train stations, ferry ports, and the occasional shopping mall.
You can also ask your hotel/hostel to arrange one for you. Prices are negotiable, but expect to pay around IDR25,000 (~USD$3) for a 20-minute ride.
6. Book a Martha Tilaar treatment
Martha Tilaar has created a cosmetic empire with over 1,000 products, including makeup, massage oils, and skin care. Day spas are located inside the Hotel Majapahit, at Jalan Raya Dukuh Kupang Barat No. 121, and at Jalan Diponegoro No. 17A.
My favorite treatment is the 90-minute “Facial Biokos” at the Majapahit. Cost: IDR225,000.
7. Attend a Persebaya game
Buy your tickets at the Gelora 10 Nopember Stadium Surabaya on Jalan Tambak Sari, and make sure to show up in green; the notoriously aggressive bonek may not take nicely to any other color.
8. Get mobbed at the Surabaya Zoo
An imposing statue of the city’s namesake stands at the entrance: a giant white crocodile circling an equally sizable white shark (suro means “shark” and boyo means “crocodile” in Javanese).
The zoo itself is a nice, shaded escape from the heat and noise of Surabaya, but the animals’ enclosures could be bigger, as well as cleaner.
Odds are you’ll attract more attention than the exhibits, though, with gangs of teenagers asking to take your picture.
9. Eat bak pao in the old city
Sold on street corners in Kya Kya, Surabaya’s Chinese district, bak pao are steamed buns filled with chicken, pork, chocolate, or sweet bean paste. Grab a couple and just walk — you’ll pass the district’s dilapidated Dutch buildings, Chinese temples, markets, and Ampel Mosque.
The area around the Arab Quarter, where the mosque is located, is very conservative. Learn from my mistake — if you want to enter the mosque, trousers and covered shoulders are required for men and women alike.
Ampel Mosque is where Sunan Ampel was buried in the late 1400s; he’s credited with bringing Islam to the island of Java, and his mosque is one of the city’s most sacred sites for Muslims.
10. Check out Kalimas Harbor
Giant handmade pinisi schooners line the dock at Kalimas Harbor.
The boats were traditionally constructed on the beaches of Sulawesi by the Konjo and Bugis people, but these days dwindling lumber sources have lured builders to Papua and Kalimantan.
The impressive vessels are filled to capacity with items that can’t be shipped in modern containers — live animals and flammable materials, for example — or items destined for remote ports that lie outside standard shipping routes.