The First-Timer’s Trip Guide to Yogya, Indonesia
I knew nothing about Yogyakarta before this trip.
All I knew was that this was the base of Borobudur and that the name Yogyakarta was often spelled and pronounced Jogjakarta (or Yogya and Jogja for short). This was it. I didn’t even know Prambanan existed until I started researching for this trip.
But one thing I’ve learned about travel is that the places you don’t know much about are often the most rewarding. And a lot has to do with expectations.
If you don’t know much about the city, knowing its cultural significance becomes interesting. If you don’t expect anything from a local dish, its taste may surprise you. If you enter the castle without knowing why it is full of water pools and a watch tower, then you enter this situation with an open mind.
Then the magic of travel happens.
It’s no wonder that the only place I knew nothing about was Yogyakarta’s most memorable experience for me. Instead, there was everything else I didn’t expect.
If Jakarta is the political and financial capital of Java, then Yogyakarta is its cultural soul. It is home to Indonesia’s most important archaeological sites – Borobudur and Prambanan – and is the only province in the country that is still ruled by a sultan.
But you don’t need to visit something as beautiful as Borobudur to see how the city has traditional Javanese architecture and culture. Just walk along Jalan Malioboro and you will see what I mean. There are many shops on either side of the street selling batik, the Indonesian art of decorated and dyed fabrics. Continue on and you’ll find more at Pasar Beringharjo, and the best examples at various art centers and workshops around the city.
If you are in Yogyakarta on a Saturday, you can visit the Kraton to experience wayang kulit, a traditional shadow puppet show accompanied by a musical band known as gamelan. If you want something on a grander scale, you might want to be interested in the Ramayana band, a visual representation of the epic Ramayana saga. It is performed in various places throughout the city, although it cannot be more spectacular than Prambanan.
Spend a few days here and you will feel that Yogyakarta protects its traditions and culture. In many ways, he is like a guardian of ancient Javanese culture.
GOOD TIME TO VISIT
Like its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia has two seasons – wet and dry. The summer season is usually from April to October, so this is the best time to go. However, I read that it is still possible to visit Yogyakarta during the rainy season as most of the rain falls in the evening.
APRIL-OCTOBER: As mentioned, it is the summer season in Yogyakarta and is usually considered the best time to visit. June to September are the driest months. The temperature is the same throughout the year, so it is best to visit this time if you can.
NOVEMBER-MAR: It is the rainy season in Yogyakarta. The wettest and wettest is from December to March, and in each of these months it rains at least 15 days.
Yogyakarta is located in the south of Central Java. We came from Bandung so we took an 8 hour overnight train to Yogyakarta but there are many ways to get there depending on where you are.
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For the purpose of this guide, I will explain how to get to Yogyakarta from the main tourist attractions of Jakarta, Bandung and Bali.
BY AIR: Many airlines, including Lion Air and AirAsia, offer direct flights from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. The flight takes more than an hour. If you would like to book a private transfer from the airport to your hotel, you can do so through Bookaway.
BY TRAIN: If you are taking your time, taking the train is a good alternative. Personally, we prefer trains to flights. Themes are better and cheaper. The train journey from Jakarta to Yogyakarta takes about 8 hours, so if you like, you can take the overnight train. Tickets can be booked at tiket.com, where we previously booked train journeys from Jakarta to Bandung and from Bandung to Yogyakarta.
BY BUS: The third option is to travel by bus, which takes slightly longer than traveling by train, around 9 hours. Bus tickets can be booked through Bookaway.
BY AIR: There seems to be only one airline that offers direct flights from Bandung to Yogyakarta, and that is Lion Air. The flight takes more than an hour. If you would like to book a private transfer from the airport to your hotel, you can do so through Bookaway.
BY TRAIN: As mentioned, this is how we arrived in Yogyakarta. We traveled by night train which took about 8 hours and got us to Yogyakarta at 3:30 in the morning, in time to catch the sunrise from Barede Hill. Tickets can be reserved at ticket.com.
BY AIR: Several airlines offer direct flights from Bali to Yogyakarta, including AirAsia and Lion Air. The flight takes about an hour and a half. If you would like to book a private transfer from the airport to your hotel, you can do so through Bookaway.
I only covered travel options to Yogyakarta from Jakarta, Bandung and Bali, but if you are coming from elsewhere you can check Bookaway for available routes.
BEST PLACE TO STAY
We’ve only been to Yogyakarta once so I’m not familiar with the different neighborhoods, but one thing is clear, Jalan Malioboro is one of the best places to stay, especially if it’s your first time in the city. It is the center of Yogyakarta’s world and offers close proximity to shops, restaurants, transportation hubs and the city’s main tourist attractions such as Yogyakarta Palace and Taman Sari Water Palace.
However, most people who travel to Yogyakarta do so to visit the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. If you’ve been to Yogyakarta, you know that Borobudur is about two hours northwest of the city, while Prambanan is about an hour east. Depending on your priorities, you may want to stay elsewhere, so I’ve listed other places below to give you more options.
PLACES TO VISIT
- Borobudur Temple
Together with Prambanan, Borobudur is the most awe-inspiring sight in the region and perhaps the main reason why people visit Yogyakarta. It’s the world’s biggest Buddhist temple, standing 113 feet tall and consisting of nine stacked platforms topped by a central dome. Circling this central dome are 72 bell-shaped stupas, each containing a seated Buddha statue.
Borobudur isn’t actually in Yogyakarta. It’s in Magelang, about two hours north of Yogyakarta, so people staying in the city usually visit on a guided day tour or private car charter. We did the latter. We arrived by train at 3:30AM and spent the next ten hours visiting Barede Hill, Borobudur, Bukit Rhema, and Prambanan before being dropped off at our hotel. You can book a 10-hr chauffeured private car charter with Klook or Get Your Guide.
Admission to Borobudur is USD 25 but you can get a discount if you purchase a combined ticket. We got a Borodubur-Prambanan pass for USD 40. You can buy it at the gate or in advance through borobudurpark.com.
If you’d rather go on a guided tour, then you’ll find plenty of options on Klook and Get Your Guide. There are tours for Borobudur only, for Borobudur and Prambanan combined, for sunrise, for sunset, etc.
Borobudur, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hours / Admission: USD 25
- Prambanan Temple
Like Borobudur, Prambanan is one of the most visited sites in Yogyakarta. But unlike Borobudur which is a Buddhist temple consisting of one massive structure, Prambanan is a Hindu temple complex comprised of hundreds of individual temples. Most are still in ruin due to earthquakes but the largest and most important temples have been fully restored. I enjoyed Borobudur but I found Prambanan to be more visually impressive.
Prambanan is located about an hour east of Yogyakarta. Like Borobudur, most people visit Prambanan on a guided day tour or private car charter. We went on a 10-hr private car charter which you can book through Klook or Get Your Guide.
Like Borobudur, entrance to Prambanan is USD 25 but you can get a discount if you purchase a combined ticket at the gate or in advance through borobudurpark.com. We got a Borodubur-Prambanan combined ticket for USD 40.
If you’d rather go on a guided tour, then you’ll find plenty of options on Klook and Get Your Guide.
Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hours / Admission: USD 25
- Ratu Boko
I was planning on visiting Ratu Boko on our private car charter but we were “templed out” after Borobudur and Prambanan so we decided to skip it. Ratu Boko is perhaps the third most important archaeological site in Yogyakarta. Unlike the previous two, it isn’t a religious site but the remains of a palace. It’s named after a legendary king from Javanese folklore though it’s unclear as to who’s palace it actually was.
Ratu Boko is located about three kilometers south of Prambanan so you can easily visit both on the same trip. Like Borobudur and Prambanan, admission to Ratu Boko is USD 25 but you can get a discount if you purchase a combined ticket at the gate or in advance through borobudurpark.com. You can either get a Ratu Boko-Borobudur or Ratu Boko-Prambanan pass for USD 40. It doesn’t look like they offer a combined pass for all three.
If archaeological sites are your thing, then there are a few other ruins around Prambanan and Ratu Boko that you may want to explore as well.
Ratu Boko, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs / Admission: USD 25
Photo by Sad Agus via Shutterstock
- Taman Sari Water Castle
This is one of the most interesting attractions in Yogyakarta, not just for the space itself but for what it was used for. I visited without a guide so I didn’t know this at the time, but Taman Sari Water Castle was the sultan’s holiday retreat home, a place where his concubines would show off their best assets in the hopes of becoming one of his wives.
I’ve read a few variations to the story, but the gist is that women would bathe in the pool while the Sultan observed them from his tower. If anyone caught his eye, then she’d be taken away and vetted to see if she were worthy of joining the royal court as his new wife. Sounds inappropriate by today’s standards but perfectly normal and acceptable at the time.
Taman Sari Water Castle is located about a kilometer south of the Kraton or Yogyakarta Palace. You can visit on your own or go on a guided tour.
Taman Sari Water Castle, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Suggested Length of Visit: 1-2 hours / Admission: IDR 15,000
- Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat (Yogyakarta Palace)
I didn’t know this, but Yogyakarta is the only remaining Indonesian city still ruled by a monarchy. The Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat is Yogyakarta’s royal palace and the seat of power of its reigning sultan. The word kraton, in Javanese, means “royal palace”.
It was cool to learn that this was a functioning palace but I didn’t find the place itself to be all that interesting. It consisted mainly of a large courtyard with several pavilions, none of which you could walk on. The most interesting part for me was the museum housing royal artifacts (pictured below).
Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1 hour / Admission: IDR 15,000
- Ullen Sentalu Museum
I wanted to visit this museum but it’s located about 25 km north of the city so I didn’t have time. Ullen Sentalu Museum houses a wide array of Javanese paintings, batik, photographs, and relics, and has often been called one of the best museums in Yogyakarta. If you’d like to learn more about Javanese culture, then this is a good place to go.
If you look at my itinerary map below, you’ll see that Ullen Sentalu Museum is somewhere between Borobudur and Prambanan. If you get a private car charter, then it may be possible to stop at the museum between temple visits.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs / Admission: IDR 100,000
- Bukit Rhema (Chicken Church)
This was one of the strangest and most amusing places I visited on our trip. Located about 4 km west of Borobudur, it’s a non-denominational prayer house set deep in the Indonesian jungle. Built in the 1990s, it was constructed in the shape of a dove but onlookers thought it looked more like a chicken so they started calling it “chicken church”, and the name stuck. Due to financial difficulties, the church was never finished so it stands mostly as a tourist curiosity today.
If you visit Borobudur on a private car charter, then you may want to make a quick detour to this place. Unlike Borobudur or Prambanan, you’re allowed to fly drones here.