As one of Indonesia’s largest cities and the home of the country’s navy, Surabaya is a colossal port peppered with cranes, corporate buildings and crowded spaces. Against the calm of rural East Java, it is pandemonium writ large. But while Surabaya has all the trappings of a modern city, it has quixotic little corners of interest. Its historic Arab quarter harbours a labyrinthine warren of lanes and a historic mosque that’s a place of pilgrimage. Surabaya also has one of Indonesia’s biggest Chinatowns and a roster of impressive, though disintegrating, Dutch buildings.
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Our top picks for Surabaya
Hotel Majapahit Surabaya
This superb colonial hotel built in 1910 is head and shoulders above the competition in terms of class and atmosphere. It’s all very tasteful indeed, with colonnaded courtyards, fountains and verdant greenery and also very competitively priced – the rooms lack nothing in terms of facilities. Staff are extremely helpful and well trained, and the Sarkies Chinese restaurant is one of the best in the city. Nonsmoking.
House of Sampoerna
Just northwest of Jembatan Merah is the city’s best-presented attraction, the House of Sampoerna which is the home of one of Indonesia’s most famous kretek cigarette manufacturers. Whatever you think about the tobacco industry, this factory and museum makes a fascinating place to visit. The building itself is a wonderful 19th-century Dutch structure, originally an orphanage but later converted into a theatre (indeed Charlie Chaplin once dropped by). The former lobby now forms the museum and is something of a shrine to the Sampoerna empire, with exhibits on the use of cloves and the history of kretek in Indonesia alongside uniforms and drums of the Sampoerna marching band and other quirky company curios.
Even though much of Surabaya's historical centre is literally falling to pieces, the old city easily wins the 'Most Attractive Neighbourhood' prize. With crumbling Dutch architecture, strong Chinese influences and an Arab quarter, it's also the most interesting and idiosyncratic.
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