Indonesia’s serene and exotic beaches of white sand, black sand and even pink sand are a big part of its appeal as a vacation destination. But don’t make the mistake of going all the way there without also exploring inside the shoreline. Otherwise, you'll miss a big part of the what the country has to offer.
On the island of Java, rich history mixes with fine art and local culture and customs in the town of Yogyakarta. It’s said to be Java’s cultural hub and the perfect destination to learn about Indonesia’s people and customs. From batik to ballet and ancient temples to the Sultan’s Palace, there’s a lot to experience and explore.
Plus, Yogyakarta (pronounced jog-jakarta, and also called Yogya or Jogja) is easy to get to. You can book a flight from the U.S. to Jakarta, Java’s capital, and then continue on with a one-hour direct flight to Jogja.
Once you arrive, it’s easy to fill your time. Here are the highlights to get you started in Jogja.
One uniquely Indonesian experience is seeing the traditional batik technique and creation in person. The word “batik” refers to the process of creating intricately decorated, hand-waxed and dyed cotton textiles, as well as the final product itself. The entire process is as ancient as it is time-consuming and involves many steps that require equal amounts of skill and patience.
There are workshops available if you want to learn the process yourself, or if you’d rather skip the labor and go straight to buying, you’ll find many showrooms around town where you can purchase a batik to bring home. Since batiks are dyed, authentic pieces will be double-sided, having the same pattern and hues on the back and front.
Another top attraction in Jogja is Javanese performance art. The Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan is a captivating show based on a Hindu epic. The set design and a supporting orchestra guide the story as performers in ornate costumes tell the narrative using only movement and dance. The backdrop of the 9th-century Prambanan temple with its three towering spires makes the ballet even more special.
Shadow puppet plays, known locally as wayang kulit, also have a long history in Indonesian culture. These shows, too, are typically based on Hindu epics. Don’t expect Sesame Street-style puppets. Javanese puppets are flat, crafted from leather and have hinged appendices. To create them, the artist carves and chisels intricate designs into leather and then adeptly applies paint. Performances include an accompanying Javanese gamelan orchestra and can go on for hours (sometimes up to 9 hours!). The Sonobudoyo Heritage Museum hosts a performance nearly every night, but caps it around 2 hours.
The beautiful temples around Jogja will make you feel as though you stepped into a National Geographic photo essay. The Prambanan Temple Compounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple complex. Not only does Prambanan hold great religious and historical significance, but the architecture and skillfully carved stone and chiseled statues make this masterpiece a must-visit site. The complex is 11 miles outside of Jogja, easily reachable via bus or taxi. Click the image above to find flights to Indonesia.
Likewise, the Borobudur Temple Compounds, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an incredible Buddhist complex from the 9th century. The base is roughly pyramid shaped, and the entire structure ascends 115 feet high. There are 72 stupas at the top and 504 statues of Buddha within the complex. Borobudur is about 25 miles outside of Jogja and can be accessed via bus or minibus.
Back within Jogja, the Sultan’s Palace sits at the center of the city. Lined with marbled floors and stained-glass windows, the palace was built in the 18th century and is still used for political and official functions. Included in the entrance ticket is a Javanese performance, which rotates among dance, gamelan, puppetry and poetry readings. Nearby is Taman Sari (Water Castle), the sultan’s former royal garden and pools, also built in the 18th century.
Another interesting piece of local history is the Fort Vredeburg Museum, a former Dutch colonial fortress that opened as a museum in 1992. The museum’s exhibits contain dioramas, photographs, paintings and historical items that document Indonesia’s history and struggle for independence from the Dutch.
To see all these highlights, you’ll likely need at least a few days in Jogja. Then when you’re ready to continue on, beaches, jungles, volcanoes and so much more await you in the rest of Indonesia’s islands.