Getting to Yogyakarta
Coming from Denpasar, Bali, we flew into the Yogyakarta regional airport. The airport is an hour’s drive from the main downtown area, so contact your accommodation to arrange for pickup when you land. There’s also a railway connecting most main cities between Yogyakarta and Jakarta. We took the train out of town, and it took about eight hours to get to Jakarta.
We stayed four nights at a hostel called Ostic House, and we cannot recommend them enough. They offer beautiful dorm rooms for cheap. They’re very clean, the beds are pretty big, and you have plenty of room in the dorms.
The downstairs hangout area is super welcoming with bean bag chairs, a big couch, a long family dining table, a zen outdoor patio, and even a TV for those football games you just can’t miss. The walls are happily decorated with colorful murals and positive vibes, only to be out-shined by the smiling faces of the amazing staff. They even make you an authentic Javanese breakfast every morning - not just toasted white bread!
Things to do in Yogyakarta
If Jakarta is the commercial, corporate city of Indonesia, think of Yogyakarta as the cultural, artsy sibling. The city’s main area is called the sultan’s palace, where you can find a couple of fun things to fill your day with.
We spent a whole afternoon wandering around the Malioboro market. You can find anything from street meats and local vegetables to cheap Louis Vuitons and colorful t-shirts. Grab a snack at one of the sidewalk stalls, or work your way through the maze of textiles for an adventure among the merchants. On your way back, stop at the Alun-Alun park to have your hand with fate. They say that if you can walk straight between the two banyan trees with your eyes closed, you will have good luck and prosperity in the future.
The Water Temple
The Water Temple is a magnificent playground to stroll around among soft hues of pinks and blues. Just try not to get swindled into a tour once you get there - many of the “guides” have fake badges and are not authentic staff of the temple.
The King built the temple for his children and wives to cool off in, but make sure you go through the building to the back to see the King’s private pool. He made it to enjoy with one of his wives when he was really feeling the heat ;)
The Underground Mosque
The Underground Mosque is another unmissable attraction of Yogyakarta. Keep walking through the charming alleyways after the Water Temple - you may have to ask for directions, the entrance is not so obvious.
Descend down to the dark passageway and enter the lower level of the mosque. Climb any of the four stairways up to the landing for an epic shot in the middle of the mosque. Depending on the time of day, you may have to wait in line for a solo pic.
Surrounding the city, you’ll find the awe-inspiring cultural experiences that draw people to Yogyakarta: Prahmbanan and Borobudur… and the Chicken Church, kind of.. There are a couple options for organizing your trip to go see these places.
If you’ve looked up Borobudur online, you’ve probably seen photos of the pink morning sun rising over the hazy stoopas. Keep in mind that it takes almost two hours to get to Borobudur, so if you want to see it at sunrise, you’ll be leaving around 4am. Prambanan is also about 2 hours from downtown Yogyakarta. Being that both places are so far away, riding a scooter might be a bit uncomfortable, and arguably a bit unsafe.
Our hostel organized a private car rental for us. We split the cost for a driver between 5 people. We had 12 hours to adventure the surroundings of Yogyakarta, which ended up being just the right amount of time to see Borobudur for sunrise, the Chicken Church on the way out, and Prambahnan for a late lunch. By the end of it all, 12 hours was more than enough. We could’ve spent more time at either Borobudur or Prambahnan, so if you’re keen on digging deep into the Hindu and Buddhist cultures in either location, it may be worth spending a full day at each.
Sunrise at Borobudur
The Hill is where you’ll go to watch the sunrise if you buy the ticket bundle. It only takes 5-10 minutes to climb up to the platform, but it is pretty steep. At the top, you’ll find a handful of other tourists patiently awaiting the sunrise. It’s likely that the fog will be too dense to see the actual sun, but the lighting softly illuminates the clouds rolling around the hills, making for a stunning landscape.
The temple is actually pretty far away, so make sure to bring a strong zoom lens if you want to capture it. There are also some set-ups for cute pictures along the edge of the platform. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of room at the top for you yogis to get your vinyasa on.
On your way down from The Hill, you can opt for a stop at the Chicken Church - a church shaped like a chicken, believe it or not. The hike up there is short but steep, making for a stellar view from the very top of the chicken. Take note of the anti-drug images on the inside of the chicken’s head.
Included with your entry ticket is a free breakfast! Go to outdoor patio at the back of the church for a cone of delicious fried potatoes. The flakey bites are perfect for a post-sunrise snack.
Stupas of Borobudur
The grounds of Borobudur are pretty big, so you have the option to rent some bicycles or take a little tram to the base of the temple. Otherwise, it’s a short 5-10 minute walk from the entrance.
There will be plenty of guides offering to walk you through each level of the temple for a reasonable price. Lucky for us, a couple of local students offered us a free tour to practice speaking English. Even without guides, be sure to wander around a few of the lower levels to appreciate the ancient stonework along each tier.
The grounds of Prahmbanan are like an Indonesian amusement park with a beautiful Hindu temple section. There are tons of activities to fill your afternoon with if you’re all templed-out. Have your hand at the archery station, or take a horse ride through one of the sandy rinks.
Otherwise, you could spent plenty of time getting lost among the crumbling rock piles around Prambanan temple. Hop up the steps into the cold dark rooms to contemplate life, or just gaze up towards the peaks in the sky.
Digs in Yogya
SS (Special Sambal) - for the most authentic Javanese experience of your life, sit at one of the low tables and get your fingers dirty with family-style dining - the first order of rice is free!
Yam Yam - classically delicious Thai food with a pretty open-air dining area - number one restaurant on TripAdvisor!
Move On Gelato - just some really great gelato with a cool mural on the wall.
If you do go to Jakarta
Head up to Kota, the old Dutch quarter, for some beautiful streets and lunch spots! The colonial architecture will give you a glimpse into the past of what Jakarta used to look like.
The picturesque square is the perfect place to hop on a neon bicycle and glide around. We had lunch at Cafe Batavia, seated next to the big shuttered windows with a beautiful view of the square. It’s a great place to enjoy both local Javanese cuisine and homey western options while taking in the bustling scene below.