An alun-alun (town square) is an important part of a kraton (palace), and Kraton Surakarta Hadiningrat has two of them nestled at its northern and southern ends.
Due to its spacious lawns and huge banyan trees, the alun-alun is like a great entrance welcoming visitors to Kraton Surakarta. It is basically an attraction unto itself.
Some say Sultan Hamengkubuwono I copied the design when he built the alun-alun in Yogyakarta after deciding to split from Surakarta and build a new kraton, the Kraton Yogyakarta Hadiningrat.
Surakarta's alun alun utara (northern town square) is arguably more interesting than the southern alun-alun due to its close proximity to Kraton Surakarta Museum and Pasar Klewer (Klewer Market). But aside from these two popular destinations, there is an assortment of interesting sites nearby to visit.
Pasar Batu Mulia
After entering the huge entrance gate at Gladag on Jl. Slamet Riyadi, you will be greeted by three gates adorned a PB X (Pakubuwono X) inscription and some dense banyan trees.
Keep on walking clockwise and the first thing you will discover is Pasar Batu Mulia (Precious Stones Market), consisting of tens of stalls neatly lined up in a giant open-air pavilion.
Other than precious gems such as batu akik (agate gemstone), diamond and pearl necklaces, prayer beads and sorcerer's stone, you will also find merchants selling pieces of wood or gnarled tree roots at expensive prices due their supposedly magical powers.
Balai Agung Kerajinan Wayang Kulit Kraton
At the left side of Pasar Batu Mulia, you will find the next interesting site.
As the name suggests, Balai Agung Kerajinan Wayang Kulit Kraton (Great Hall of Kraton's Shadow Puppet Crafts) is a place where shadow puppets are created from buffalo skins. Visitors can sit and observe this process, free of charge.
The wayang kulit (leather puppets) characters are made using detailed engravings according to their characters. For the kings' character, for example, the artisan will use elaborate carving patterns called lereng and parang, while a simpler pattern called kawung is reserved for Punakawan characters.
Usually a small wayang character, such as Puntadewa and Janaka, can be made in five to seven days, while bigger ones such as raksasa (giant) and gunungan (mountains) will take from one week to two weeks to complete.
Presently, Balai Agung receives orders of wayang kulit for performances as well as souvenirs, with prices starting at Rp 300,000 (US$25.55) and reaching Rp 3.5 million depending on the size and customization.
Continue your journey on foot and you will find Pusat Kacamata.
Pusat Kacamata (Eye Glasses Center) conveniently offers a wide variety of eye glasses; from minus and plus eyeglasses to eyeglasses with ultraviolet sun ray protection. Even trendy ones are available.
Right beside Pusat Kacamata is a souvenir shop called Pasar Cinderamata.
All kinds of souvenirs from Surakarta can be found here, making it a great place to shop before heading back home.
Items like wayang puppets made of wood and cardboard, which are cheaper than the leather wayang kulit puppets, are plentiful at this market.
You will also find merchants selling various types of keris (short dagger), which can be used as house decoration or as a Javanese wedding attribute.
Continue on and enter the Kraton Surakarta area where you can begin a tour from a place called Pagelaran Sasonosumewo, which is basically a huge pavilion with Bangsal Pangrawit in the center that was used for royal ceremonies during the reign of Pakubuwono X.
A chair where the king used to sit and a big cannon named Kyai Pontjoworo can also be found here.
Mesjid Agung Surakarta
This Great Mosque of Surakarta, at the western part of Alun-alun Utara, will be your next stop.
Built in 1768 under the order of King Pakubuwono III, it is one of the city's oldest mosques.
Well-preserved and fully-functional, Mesjid Agung Surakarta features four saka guru (main pillar) and 12 saka rawa (additional pillar), as well as three doors at the northern side, three doors at the southern side and one door right in the center of the building. The mosque also has a 25-meter tall azan (call to prayer) tower built by Pakubuwono X in 1929.
Taman Buku (Book Garden) will be your last stop before leaving the alun-alun utara, heading back through the entrance.
Filled with racks of new and old books, this place is a haven for book collectors thanks to its rich collections of ancient books in the Javanese and Dutch languages.
Prices depend on the books you want to buy, as well as your interactions with the seller, so don’t forget to smile a lost as you bargain.