Experiencing the Cultural Capital of Java: The Best Things to do in Yogyakarta

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While so many visitors to Indonesia don’t get beyond Bali, the thing I loved the most about our 3+ weeks in Indonesia was experiencing the diversity of the islands.  Each region has its own culture, religion and way of life and yet these islands that have only relatively recently been united as one country, are proudly Indonesian.  We were visiting right before the Independence celebrations in August and everywhere was decorated in red and white flags.

Before coming to Java, we had a magical time visiting the island of Flores and taking a boat trip through Komodo National Park to Lombok.

We felt we couldn’t come to Indonesia without visiting Indonesia’s most populous island, which is in fact one of the world’s most densely populated islands with 140 million people.  Java might be best known for Indonesia’s capital and power house, Jakarta, but it is Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java that draws the most visitors.  Still ruled by it’s sultan, Jogja as it is more commonly called, has always been a centre for music and the arts.

Jogja has a very different feel to Bali.  The dominant religion is Islam and most visitors are more interested in the culture of the area, than its beaches or nightlife.

Most visitors are drawn to Jogja to experience its two most famous monuments, the Buddhist Borobudur and the Hindu Prambanan.  But there are so many more things to do in Yogyakarta itself, as well as in the surrounding countryside.  Most visitors base themselves in Jogja and take daytrips to Borobudur and Prambanan, but we stayed a night at Borobudur (1 hour outside of the city) which allowed us to experience village life.  I would suggest 4 days for visiting Yogya; you could do it in 3 days if timing is tight or you could spend longer if you wish to explore more of the sights outside of the city.

The Best Things to do in Yogyakarta

Borobudur

You have likely seen photos of this magnificent Buddhist monument rising out of the jungles and rice fields of rural Java.  The 72 Buddhist statutes set within latticed stupas are the most recognized picture of Borobudor, which is Indonesia’s most popular tourist attraction.  The best time to visit Borobudur is at sunrise for that golden hour.

Borobudur is up there with the likes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, but it only takes a couple of hours to experience.  Little is known about its early history except that it was constructed between 750 and 850 AD.  As Buddhism declined just after its completion, it was abandoned and not found until 1815.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that restoration work began and the whole monument was taken apart, stabilized and put back together.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts visitors from all over Indonesia, as well as the world.

If you want to see it at sunrise, you will have to get up early (5 am if you are staying in Borobudur, earlier if you are coming from Jogja) and pay for it (450,000 IDR or $35 USD per person, no discount for children).  A better alternative is to get to the main entrance when it opens at 6 am and pay the standard 367,500 IDR or $25 USD (children are 215,000 IDR or $15 USD). You will miss the actual sunrise, but still have time to enjoy the golden hour.  This is much more affordable for families since the sunrise ticket does not offer a child rate.

Borobudur Village Tour

The landscape around Borobudur is beautiful with its traditional rice-growing villages surrounded by volcanic peaks.  It is a great place to spend a night or two, or add a village tour to your Borobudur trip if coming from Jogja.  The most common is a 3-hour tour where you visit three surrounding villages.  You can do this by car, bicycle or andong (horse and carriage).

We first visited Karang, a village that specialized in making tofu.  This small-scale production happens without any modern technology in workshops beside villager’s homes.  Next was Nglipoh, a village known for its ceramics.  Here we had a chance to work the potter wheel and make a creation, with some help from the friendly villagers.  Our last stop was a batik workshop where we learned all about the process of making batik and toured through the gardens where we learned how the dyes are produced from different trees.  In between each of the stops, we saw the different crops that were being grown in the region (papaya, tobacco, eggplants) and enjoyed seeing local village life.  We paid 500,000 IDR for our tour in a car for our family of 5.

Prambanan

Prambanan represents the Hindu cultural period of Java and is another monument that has been beautifully restored.  Prambanan can be experienced any time of day, but a popular time is at sunset, where you can also combine your visit with the nightly Ramayana Ballet.  Built between the 8th-10th century AD, there are a series of temples to explore. 

Since we were travelling on a budget, we made the difficult decision to skip Prambanan.  Ticket prices are the same as Borobudur, making it a $100 USD visit plus transport for our family.  A great option is to cycle independently or through a group tour from Jogja to Prambanan (17 km) through the countryside.

Kraton Palace and Taman Sari (Water Palace)

The Kraton is the cultural and  political centre of the city and home to the sultan who still rules.  Most visitors will want to see the Kraton palace, experience the daily performances in the morning and visit the grand water palace, Taman Sari.  But as you wander, you can also get a glimpse into the lives of the 25,000 people that live within the Kraton compound.

Plan your visit for a morning before it gets too hot and so that you can enjoy the performances that occur in the morning.  A great way to set the mood and get there is in a heritage rickshaw (becak).

The innermost compound that is open to visitors was opened in the 1700s and shows traditional Javanese architecture.  As you enter, you will be able to experience the morning performances of gamelan, puppetry, dance or poetry (they rotate throughout the week).  We were there on a puppetry day and while the puppets were interesting to watch, it was the accompanying gamelan orchestra that I enjoyed the most with its trance-like music.

The Golden Pavilion with its marble floor is in the centre and there are a number of surrounding buildings housing the museum’s collections of artifacts.  There isn’t great English signage but it is still enjoyable to wander through.  Tickets for the Kraton are a very reasonable 15,000 IDR/person including children.

Walk for 10 minutes to the Sultan’s water palace and avoid being lured into the batik galleries by the touts that hang out outside the Kraton.  Taman Sari, was once a park with pools and waterways for the Sultan and his family.  It is beautiful in all its crumbling glory.  One of the most interesting areas is the underground mosque, which is a bit difficult to find.  You can hire a guide to show you around.  Tickets for Taman Sari are separate and are 15,000 IDR/person.

Batik Course

Batik originated in Java in the 12th century and is an important cultural art that denoted the social status of the royal courts. Wax is drawn onto the cloth in elaborate designs and drawings before it is repetitively dyed.

When we heard about the wonderful courses run by Via Via, we had a hard time choosing which one to do.  Our kids love hands on activities when we travel and we chose the batik course, which was the perfect way to get creative while learning about this art form.  Don’t think this course is targeted at just children; the course is in fact tailored to adults, but they were able to assist the kids with simpler designs.

The course starts at 9 am and depending on the complexity of the piece you choose, you won’t finish until 1-3pm.  The course is held in the home of Suzy in the centre of Jogja.  After a brief introduction, we got right into picking our design that had already been drawn onto the cloth.  Using hot wax in the canting (pen-like instrument) you trace the areas that you don’t want to be coloured.  It was such an enjoyable day for the adults and kids alike. The course costs 200,00o IDR/person.  Via Via offers many other courses and tours: cooking, massage, Bahasa language, silver jewelry making, walking tours and more.

Ride a Becak

These quaint rickshaws, called becaks, cruise the streets of Jogja and it won’t take long for you to be approached at tourist hotspots for a ride.  In addition to being a convenient way to get around, they are one of the things you have to do in Jogja, for the experience. The becaks in Jogja come in two forms: the traditional bicycle becaks often driven by old men and the moto becaks driven by younger men.  While the motos will get you where you want to go much quicker, for short trips, the bicycle becaks provide an enjoyable ride along quiet side streets.getting around Yogya

Becaks can only fit 2 adults, so our family of 5 required two.  Negotiate the destination and price before you get in and be prepared to do some light negotiating.  We paid 30,000-40,000/becak for short rides around town (eg. From Prawirotaman to the Kraton).

Roam the Markets

We try to visit the markets in every destination we visit because it gives you a great glimpse of local life.  The largest market in Jogja is Pasar Beringharjo, near the Kraton.  We didn’t have time for this but did walk through the small Pasar Pagi near Prawirotaman.  You can also visit the bird market, Pasar Pasty.  It is popular in Java to keep exotic birds in cages as pets and the market is where they are bought and sold.Yogya market

Walk Malioboro

Jalan Malioboro in the Sosrowijayan area of the city is the place for Indonesians to be, come evening.  The street buzzes with activity as make shift restaurants set up along the sidewalk and modern shopping malls converge with more traditional shops.  It is worth a walk down this popular street to get a sense of Indonesian way of life.

Our bellies had been sore for most of our time in Indonesia so we weren’t chancing anything with the streetfood.  However, Malioboro is a popular place to try out local favourites and we did see some brave foreigners sitting down at the local stalls.Malioboro street food

Enjoy the Traveller Vibe on Prawirotaman

Tourism is much smaller scaled in Jogja than Bali, where tourists overrun locals in popular neighborhoods.  We visited Jogja in peak tourist season and still we often recognized the same tourists throughout the day.  Travelers congregate around Prawirotaman where there are a number of tour companies, restaurants and shops that cater almost exclusively to foreigners.  This is a great area to get your Western food fix and plan your Jogja sightseeing.Prawirotaman

Where to Stay in Yogyakarta

Jogja Village Inn – we loved our stay at this small boutique hotel with its Javanese features, lush pool and garden area and friendly staff. You can read our full review here, but we can confirm that the stellar Tripadvisor reviews are well deserved.  Rooms start at $45 USD.

Jogja has a number of good value hotels – check Booking.com for the latest prices.

Lotus 2 Homestay, Borobudur – if you want to spend a night or two out in the peaceful village at Borobudur, this makes a great budget choice.  Rooms are large with nice Javanese designs and overlook the rice fields.  Rooms are priced from $20-35 USD.

Shankara, Borobudur – if you are looking for something a bit more up-market in Borobudur, this hotel is a great choice.  Nice rooms and a great pool.

Getting Around

The tourist areas of Jogya are spread out and while you can walk between the various neighborhoods, side walk areas are often blocked and you end up walking on the road a lot.  That is fine for short distances, but since we had kids with us, we often chose to take a taxi or becak.

Some taxis are metered and some are not.  Metered taxis will have a minimum charge of 30,000 IDR if they are called, which should get you anywhere in the city.  If getting into a unmetered taxi, negotiate hard before you get in.

Riding around Jogya in a becak is not only a fun experience, but a great way to get around.  There are becak drivers everywhere as they are used by locals and tourists alike.  Expect to pay 30,000-50,000 to get around town.  As always negotiate the price before you hop on.  The traditional bicycle ones are often driven by friendly, scrawny old men who have been at this their whole lives.   While the bicycles go much slower, they often take quiet back streets, making it a very peaceful way to get around.  Conversely, the motorbike becaks get you there much quicker with a tad less character.  Both will only accommodate 2 people or 3 with a child.  Our family of 5 required 2 becaks to go anywhere.

You can also get a motorbike taxi, called an ojek if you are travelling solo or as a couple.  You can hail them using the Grab app.

Yogyakarta with KidsBorobudur with kids

Jogja makes a great destination for families and our hotel was full of travelling families from Europe.

  • Take care to prevent mosquito bites – malaria risk is low, but dengue is a more serious problem.
  • There is good Western food options for kids that prefer that.
  • It can get very hot in the middle of the day, plan to be out in the morning and late afternoon.
  • Choose a hotel with a pool where you can relax in the hot afternoon. Jogja Village Inn was the perfect oasis to return to.
  • The courses through Via Via are a great hands on activity for kids.
  • Like many parts of Asia, there isn’t a consistent sidewalk and you will have to walk on the side of the street at times.  For younger children, a carrier is a much better option than a stroller.

Getting There and Away

Most travellers will arrive in Jogyakarta by plane.  The airport is fairly small and not that modern.  The most convenient way to get into the city is by taxi.  In the baggage area, there are many people trying to get you to do a pre-paid taxi with them.  Their prices will start out very high so bargain hard.  Do not pay more than 90,000 IDR to get into the city centre, which is only 9 km away.  We ended up purchasing our pre-paid taxi from the booth outside where you get your bags, where we didn’t have to negotiate to get a reasonable price.  You can also just grab a metered taxi to the city, which should be 60-70,000 IDR.

Where to Eat in Jogya

I don’t know if we just had bad luck, but we struggled to find good food in Jogya.  Sure, there are lots of places serving decent Western food, especially in the Prawirotaman neighborhood, but we had trouble finding good Indonesian food.  It didn’t help that we are vegetarian and that we had already been in Indonesia 3 weeks and had constantly suffered from stomach issues, so we were hesitant to eat streetfood and eat at local warungs.  We often found portion sizes really small, even by Indo standards.

Via Via serves up lots of Western food, along side some Indonesian classics.  They also have an on site bakery with yummy sweets.

One place we did love was Tempo del Gelato, which serves up home-made, all natural, delicious gelato.  They are massive cones and you can pick two of their exotic or more standard flavours.  Our picks: bright pink dragon fruit and lemongrass.Tempo del Gelato

On our last night we found a great local place in Prawirotaman, called Warung Heru. Prices were very reasonable and it was good authentic Javanese cooking.

Tips for Yogyakarta

  • Dress conservatively – most people in Jogya are Muslim.  You will hear the early morning call to prayer (bring ear plugs if you are a light sleeper).
  • Agree on prices up front and don’t be scared to negotiate
  • Be prepared to spend money to see the main sites.
  • Allocate at least 3 days to the city
  • Protect yourself from mozzie bites
  • Drink filtererd water, but try to avoid plastic (a lot of tourist cafes and restaurants will allow you to fill your bottle)

Our Verdict

The longer we spent in Jogja, the more we liked it and we could have definitely stayed longer than our 4 days there.  While the major sites of Borobudur and Prambanan draw visitors to Jogja, the city offers so much more.  I would have loved to have done some of the other courses and the neighborhood walking tours, if we had more time.  The Javanese culture is incredibly rich and Jogja is at the centre of it.

We would love to explore more Indonesia off-the-beaten-path destinations like Sulawesi, Palau and Raja Ampat.

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