Situated at the core of an ancient region known as Mataram, the first great Central kingdom on Java, sprawling Yogyakarta (pronounced ‘Jogjakarta’; often abbreviated to Yogya or Jogja) remains a bastion of refined Javanese culture. It is the cultural attractions that draw visitors here: the sombre stillness of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples; the sequestered courtyards of its 18th-century Islamic palaces; the traditional arts. Interest focuses on the twin court cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta (known as Solo), but the region is also home to spectacular rural landscapes and memorable sights set amongst the volcanic uplands like the Gunung Lawu mountains temples.
Ttravel tips for visiting Yogyakarta
From the 8th to the early 10th century, the fertile plains around Yogyakarta were ruled by a succession of Indianised kings – the builders of Borobudur, Prambanan, and dozens of other elaborate stone monuments. Around AD 900, these rulers suddenly shifted their capital to East Java, turning Central Java into a sleepy backwater. At the end of the 16th century, the area was revived by a new Islamic power based at Kota Gede, east of present-day Yogyakarta.
Today, Yogyakarta’s cultural attractions – ancient temples, palaces, batik, gamelan, dances and wayang puppet performances – whisk you back to a bygone era. Add in the growing popularity of nature-related activities here (caving, black-sand beaches, mountain climbing, hiking the highly-volatile Gunung Merapi volcano) and the city is now an essential stop in Java.
The Yogyakarta and Surakarta sultanates came into being in 1755 after a lengthy civil war. A Dutch-brokered peace treaty saw Mataram partitioned and two separate royal capitals established. These were later partitioned in turn, in part as a European tactic to further diminish their potential power. Surakarta is home to a secondary royal household, the Mangkunegaran, while Yogyakarta’s secondary court is the Pakualaman – and is worth tacking onto any trip here.
Best things to do in Yogyakarta and around
The glorious past of volcano-studded Central Java lives on today in the cultural capital of Yogyakarta, where historic palaces, pleasure gardens, mosques and local archaeology are amongst the best things to do.
#1 Keraton (Sultan’s Palace)
The Keraton (Sultan’s Palace) is a two-centuries-old palace complex that stands at the heart of the city. According to Javanese cosmological beliefs, the ruler is the ‘navel’ or central ‘spike’ of the universe, anchoring the temporal world and communicating with the mystical realm. In this scheme of things, the Keraton is both the capital of the kingdom and the hub of the cosmos.
The palace houses not only the sultan and his family, but also the dynastic regalia (pusaka), private meditation and ceremonial chambers, a magnificent throne hall, several audience and performance pavilions, a mosque, an immense royal garden, stables, barracks, an armaments foundry and two expansive parade grounds planted with sacred banyan trees – all laid out in a conceived complex of walled compounds, narrow lanes and massive gateways, and bounded by a fortified outer wall measuring 2km (1.5 miles) on every side.
#2 Taman Sari (Water Castle)
Behind the Keraton stand the ruins of the royal pleasure garden, Taman Sari (Water Castle). It was constructed over many years by Hamengkubuwono I, beginning in 1758 and then abruptly abandoned after his death. Dutch representatives to the sultan’s court marvelled at its large artificial lake, the ‘Water Castle’ mansion, underground passageways, meditation retreats and series of sunken bathing pools.
The ruins of the mansion occupy high ground at the northern end of the huge Taman Sari complex, overlooking a batik makers’ colony. The crumbling walls and a massive gate are all that remain of the building. A tunnel behind the castle leads to a complex of three restored bathing pools, Umbul Bindangun. The large central pool was designed for the use of queens, concubines and princesses, while the small southernmost pool was reserved for the sultan.
#3 Masjid Agung (Grand Mosque)
Jalan Malioboro is primarily a shopping district these days but it is also an area of historical and cultural interest. From at the northern town square (alun-alun), stroll up the street to the Masjid Agung (Grand Mosque). Built in 1773, you'll notice the two fenced-off banyan trees standing in the centre of the square. These symbolise the balance of opposing forces within the Javanese kingdom.
#4 Sonobudoyo Archaeology Museum
Opened in 1935 by the Java Institute, a cultural foundation of wealthy Javanese and Dutch art patrons, the Sonobudoyo Archaeology Museum houses important collections of prehistoric artefacts, Hindu-Buddhist bronzes, wayang puppets, dance costumes and traditional Javanese weapons.
#5 Benteng Budaya (Fort Vredeburg)
The old Dutch garrison, Benteng Budaya (Fort Vredeburg), is now a museum and cultural centre complete with exhibition and performance halls. Opposite, on the left, stands the State Guest House. It was first the Dutch resident’s mansion and, during the revolution, was also used as the presidential palace.
Further along on the right, past the fort, is the huge central market, Pasar Beringharjo, a rabbit warren of small stalls selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to batik, ‘antiques’ and hardware. Bargain hard here.
#6 Visit Borobudur
If you are in Yogyakarta, a visit to Borobudur is a must-do day trip. Borobudur is an ancient Buddhist temple located about an hour's drive from Yogyakarta. It is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 9th century, it features nine stacked platforms with over 2,500 intricate relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.
The temple's architecture and artwork showcase the rich culture and history of Indonesia. You can climb to the top of the temple to enjoy the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. It is recommended to visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds and to fully experience the serenity and spiritual significance of the temple.
#7 Visit Prambanan too
If you're visiting Borobudur, you might also want to visit Prambanan. This is a stunning Hindu temple complex, located about 17 kilometers northeast of Yogyakarta, that was built in the 9th century. The complex consists of over 200 temples, with the main temple being the impressive Shiva temple that stands at 47 meters tall.
You can explore the complex and marvel at the intricate carvings and stunning architecture. It's best to visit Prambanan early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat and crowds. There are also nightly performances of the Ramayana ballet that are not to be missed.
To get to Prambanan from Yogyakarta, you can take a taxi or hire a motorbike or bicycle.
Best areas to stay in Yogyakarta
Popular Yogyakarta has a huge selection of places to stay, including luxury hotels, high-rise hostels, plus scores of bungalows and guesthouses. Most visitors tend to base themselves in the city centre, along and around Jalan Malioboro, or to the south around Jalan Prawirotaman. Both are a short walk or becak ride to the major attractions.
Yogyakarta’s main shopping street, hectic Jalan Malioboro, runs north to south through the city centre. Along the road and the surrounding area, which locals refer to as the same name, there are scores of hotels and guesthouses, including some ritzy boutique spots.
South of the Keraton (Sultan’s Palace), the area around Jalan Prawirotaman has undergone a bit of a transformation in recent years. Now there are plenty of hotels and guesthouses here to pick from, all within a short ride of the city centre.
Best restaurants and bars
Yogyakarta is stuffed full of places to eat with scores of cheap, high-quality restaurants and a buzzing collection of street food vendors that pop up around Jalan Malioboro come dusk. Among the local dishes to try are amous ayam goreng (fried chicken in coconut milk) and nasi langgi (coconut rice with tempe, fermented soybeans). Yogyakarta also has a thriving nightlife scene with numerous live music venues, plus lots of places to see Javanese dance and wayang kulit puppet shows. Among the best places to eat in Yogyakarta are:
- Mediterranea Pizzas, mezze and large steaks are the order of the day at this French-run restaurant.
- The House of Raminten This traditional Indonesian restaurant serves sharing food like sekul pangkonan (fried chicken with tofu, tempeh, chillies and salad) alongside burgers and club sandwiches.
- Rosella Kitchen For an authentic Javanese experience, try the Dutch rijsttafel ('rice table'; lots of small tasting plates) at this joglo (traditional thatched hut) nestled amongst the rice fields.
How to get around
Whilst the major sights are all within walking distance, it's likely that you'll hire at least on becak (cycle-rickshaws) in Yogyakarta. Their persistent riders will try and make sure of that. Otherwise, it's taxis and buses here, which are both cheap and plentiful, but just as likely as a car to get stuck in the city's notorious traffic jams.
By becak (cycle-rickshaws)
There are hundreds of becak riders in Yogyakarta which can be helpful for navigating shorter journeys.
Cheap and reliable, public buses in Yogyakarta have a/c and cut right across the city. They can, however, get caught in traffic. Bus 1A goes from the airport to Jalan Malioboro.
Ride-hailing firms Go-jek and Grab both operate in Yogyakarta, offering cars and motorcycle taxis. Download the apps to book. Taxis like Bluebird are reasonably priced here and can be hailed in the street. Only use a cab with a meter.
How many days do you need in Yogyakarta?
Most visitors will need at least three or four days to do a Yogyakarta visit justice. Day one should be spent at Keraton (Sultan’s Palace) with the Taman Sari (Water Castle) later in the afternoon. Day two is good for visiting the Masjid Agung (Grand Mosque), seeing a puppet show, and then watching Jalan Malioboro whirl into life after dark.
On day three, head to Sonobudoyo Archaeology Museum before visiting Pasar Beringharjo, the huge central market, looking for batik and ‘antiques’. On day four Yogyakarta should be used as a base for the surrounding hills. Either rise early to see the Buddhist temple of Borobudur or head further afield to the Gunung Lawu mountains temples.
Best time to visit Yogyakarta
The best time to visit Yogyakarta is during the dry season (May to September). Warm, sunny weather makes it a pleasant time to explore both the city and the cooler surrounding hills. Peak tourist season is December and January, so book ahead for restaurants and hotels; the latter will be more expensive too. The wet season in Yogyakarta (November to April) has high humidity and plenty of rain, including flooding. However, it can be a slightly cheaper time to visit.
Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.
How to get here
With flights from Singapore and Malaysia as well as a host of destinations throughout Indonesia, it's easy to get to Yogyakarta. The city is also accessible from across Java by train and bus.
With flights from Bali, plus a host of other Indonesian cities, many travellers will fly into the new Yogyakarta International Airport which opened in 2022. Located 45km southwest of the city itself, it takes around 90 minutes to get to the city centre.
Trains arrive at Yogyakarta Train Station (known locally as Tugu Station) from across Java including Jakarta, Solo, Bandung, Surabaya and more.
There are two bus stations in Yogyakarta. Giwangan is southeast of the city centre and regularly receives buses from across Java, including from Jakarta, Bandung, Denpasar. Buses from Borobudur, however, will arrive at Jombor Bus Terminal in the north of the city.
Minibuses go to Yogyakarta from most major cities, including Solo, Surabaya, Malang and Semarang. They are similarly priced to the buses.