Yogyakarta was my first introduction to Indonesia. It’s a place with streets that feel small and cozy like a village, yet it stretches out incredibly far. It’s not an unknown destination, as many tourists choose to stay here for a trip to the Borobudur and Prambanan temples. Of course, I also did this, but I also enjoyed Jogja itself (the city’s nickname) very much. It was a pleasant surprise with some interesting things to offer. It may not be overflowing with tourist attractions, but it’s really the culture that draws you here. This is the heart of “the soul of Java”. In this blog post, I will share 7 great things to do in Yogyakarta.

1. Learn about Jogja’s sultans in the Kraton

Did you know that Yogyakarta is a monarchy with its own sultan? Although the sultan now holds a similar position to the governors of other provinces, the city (and the district of the same name) has a special status. This is where Javanese culture was born, with the Sultans as its patrons. Since the late 18th century, the sultans have resided in the Kraton (or Keraton), the royal palace. This complex is filled with symbolism related to the Javanese cosmos. Take its location, for example—it sits in a straight line from Mount Merapi to the Indian Ocean. This means that the spirits of the mountain and the goddess of the sea are in direct contact with the Kraton. The Alun-Alun Utara (open field on the north side of the palace) is even filled with sand from the coast.

When talking to locals about the Kraton, they almost always recommend the performances. There is gamelan (an orchestra playing bronze instruments such as drums and gongs), wayang kulit (shadow puppetry), and traditional dances. The performances take place between 10:00 AM and noon. In the evening, it might be interesting to check out Alun-Alun Kidul, the south square of the Kraton, which has made a name for itself because of the neon-lit car collection.

Kraton entrance fee: 15,000 IDR, closes around 2:00 PM, closed all day on Mondays.

2. Relax like a Sultan at Taman Sari

In addition to the Kraton, there is also a second palace in Yogyakarta: Taman Sari, the water palace. The sultans built it as a bathing complex for relaxing and meditating. Two top places to visit here are Umbul Pasiraman and Sumur Gumuling. The former is the large central pool with a tower from which the sultans used to “hunt” for women. According to old stories, the sultan would throw a rose into the pool, and whoever caught it would become his wife for the night. Sumur Gumuling is a mosque beneath the water palace with beautiful Escher-like stairs. Unfortunately, the mosque has been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I could only walk through the tunnel during my visit (2023). Maybe it will re-open someday.

Taman Sari entrance fee: 15,000 IDR, open every day. Don’t fall for it if someone on the street says it’s closed.

3. Go street art hunting

Yogyakarta is a city of artists, and they’re not only focused on galleries. You’ll also come across a lot of street art. Anagard is Jogja’s top talent. He is known for his colorful works that blend humans and animals together. But there is, of course, much more to see. Set aside an afternoon and use my map to plan your street art hunt.

4. Have some Gudeg and Kopi Joss

With its own culture come unique dishes. In Jogja, everything revolves around “gudeg.” It’s a dish made with unripe jackfruit stewed in palm sugar and coconut milk, served with “krecek” sambal and boiled duck egg. If you don’t eat meat, you can order the dish without krecek (=cow skin). Great areas to try it are Jalan Wijilan or Jalan Malioboro with many gudeg restaurants.

In addition to gudeg, it’s also fun to try Kopi Joss. It is prepared as a regular coffee with a lump of burning charcoal plunged into it. Usually, you leave it in for about a minute and then remove it. It was invented in the 1960s by Pak Man (translation: Mr. Man) in an attempt to solve his stomach issues. It worked, so he started offering the drink to his customers. Kopi Joss is often found at Angkringans, simple street stalls with snacks and drinks. You see them all over Java.

Want to taste more of Indonesian cuisine? Take a look at this cooking class with a market visit.

Gudeg and Kopi Joss are definitely top things to do, I mean eat, in Yogyakarta.

5. Check out Jalan Malioboro

Lively Jalan Malioboro is consistently at the top of every blog post of Yogyakarta’s things to do. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan. Let me start with the positive: it has spacious sidewalks, there is street food, and you’ll find beautiful historical buildings like Vredeburg Fort, Bank Indonesia, and Central Post Office on the south side. However, I didn’t feel a connection. It is a shopping street and I am not a shopper. There were also a couple of men hanging around and approaching every international tourist with the question, “Where are you from?” When we said we are from the Netherlands they tried to stir up a conversation by telling about the Dutch words they knew. It all seems spontaneous, but in the end, the goal is to take you to a gallery or shop owned by a friend.

Anyway, my experience is not your experience. So, go there and see what you think.

6. Enter Nirvana at the Borobudur Temple

Let’s move on to the reasons why people plan a trip to Yogyakarta in the first place. Let’s start with the Borobudur Temple, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. The structure consists of nine levels that symbolize the Buddhist universe. The first three levels revolve around desires and negative impulses, and in the middle level, humans have these desires under control. Only then the journey can continue to the upper-rounded levels of enlightenment, Nirvana. This level consists of 72 bell-shaped stupas circling around a large central stupa.

Practical things to know

There are two types of entrance tickets, a regular ticket for the temple park and a Climb Up ticket. The system works with time slots, with a guided group going up every half hour. Arrive shortly after opening because it quickly gets crowded and you might have to wait. The tour takes 1 hour and at the top, you get 15 minutes of free time to take photos. At the start of the tour, everyone is given a pair of “upanat” (sandals) to prevent damage to the stones. Dress respectfully and bring a hat as the sun can be brutal at the top. Finally, don’t go on Mondays because then you can only access the outer circle of the temple park.

Seeing the sunrise at Borobudur was (during my visit in 2023) only possible from Setumbu Hill. The Borobudur is a tiny dot on the horizon from this hill, though the green landscape at dawn must be gorgeous. To get to the Borobudur Temple, you can book a tour or take the public bus from Yogyakarta. You can go for the direct Damri bus from Jogja train station or take a bus to Jombor bus station first and change there.

Entrance fee: around 680,000 IDR (45 USD) for a combination ticket for Borobudur and Prambanan, valid for 2 days. The exact price varies daily due to the link to USD.

7. Explore the majestic Prambanan Temple Complex

The Prambanan Temple is often mentioned in the same breath as Borobudur. However, the experience is different since this is a Hindu complex with six temples standing. There used to be more than 200 temples here. Three of the temples are dedicated to the main gods: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. The temples have reliefs on the outer walls that show the love story of Ramayana. In short, it’s about a prince searching for his abducted princess. If you visit Bali after Java, you will hear a lot more about it. Inside the temples, you’ll also find statues of the respective gods. Turn on the flashlight on your phone because it’s dark inside.

To get to the Prambanan temple you can go on a tour or hop on bus 1A from Jalan Malioboro. The bus goes directly to the temple, and the journey takes 45 minutes and costs 3000 IDR. We took a tour with local guide Tini, a lovely lady with a ton of knowledge about Prambanan, Borobudur, and Yogyakarta in general. Recommended! Just like the Borobudur is the Prambanan closed on Mondays as well.

Where to eat & drink coffee in Yogyakarta

To grab a bite I would suggest going to “backpacker street” Jalan Prawirotaman. We especially liked these restaurants: Viavia Jogja, Black Forest and Warung Heru. For coffee, I recommend Sapulu Coffee, Kopi Pak Pos and Ngokow Coffee Roastery. These places are not at Prawirotaman, so combine this with other activities in the city.

Where to stay in Yogyakarta

We stayed at the fantastic Ceria Hotel, a restored Art Deco building near the Kraton. It has beautiful rooms, a good location, and a nice atmosphere. The owner often walks around the tables during breakfast for a chat. He told us that he had a hotel in Bali, but it completely stopped during the pandemic, so he moved to Yogyakarta. You can check out the hotel and other accommodations here.

To get From the airport to Yogyakarta

Finally, here are a few tips for the journey from Yogyakarta International Airport (YIA) to the city. We took a Grab taxi, but the ride was very long due to traffic and narrow roads. We underestimated how far the airport is from the city (almost 50 km). The better option, in my opinion, is the train, which only takes 40 minutes and costs 20,000 IDR per person. The only downside is that the train runs once an hour, and tickets sell out quickly. Buy a ticket online in advance.

Would you like to visit Yogyakarta and which things to do would you look forward to?

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