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The 5 best things to do in Java, Indonesia

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Bali gets most of the tourist attention when it comes to Indonesia, and it’s highly warranted – but if you’re searching for a taste of authentic Indonesian life without the ‘eat, pray, love’ subtext and the throngs of international partygoers, Java is for you. Defined by its 112 volcanoes, traditional arts and customs, its soulful spirit and frenetic cities, this huge island will both astonish and enchant you with its multifaceted appeal.

If you’re planning a trip to the world’s most populated island, read on for advice from our local experts on the best things to do in Java.

waterfall in the jungle

Catch the sunset at ancient Borobudur

Indonesia’s singular most visited attraction deserves its pedestal – Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and one of the most impressive examples of Indonesian-Buddhist architecture in existence. Built in the 8th century, it’s certainly a strong legacy of the Shailendra dynasty; in fact, UNESCO describes Borobudur’s design as ‘a harmonious marriage of stupas, temple and mountain [that makes it] a masterpiece of monumental arts’.

Borobudur’s main temple takes the form of a symmetrical stone stupa in three tiers, wrapped around a hill which acts as its centre. The bottom tier is a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces; the next level, a conical trunk with three circular platforms; and on top, a monumental bell-shaped stupa. From the air, the site resembles a tantric mandala, a symbol of the cosmos. 

Wandering around each terrace on the way to the top, visitors can admire the hundreds of decorative panels telling stories of the life of Buddha and the laws of karma. The upper levels, encircled with statues of Buddha and latticed stone stupas, are intended to represent the highest stage of reincarnation.

It’s particularly magical to visit Borobudur at sunrise or dusk (which is worth the extra cost). As the sky changes colour and casts silhouettes against the temple’s intricate stonework, it’s a peaceful time to reflect on the aesthetic and architectural mastery of this ancient site that brings so much pride to Indonesians.

ancient Indonesian monuments

Absorb the art, culture and spirit of Yogyakarta

The soulful city of Yogyakarta is Java’s art-steeped cultural centre – brimming with heritage buildings and monuments, traditional puppetry and dancing shows, pleasure gardens, batik stores and even a Sultan’s palace. Here is where so many of Java’s local and ancient customs combine to evoke an atmosphere of storied magic.

Called ‘Yogya’ or ‘Jogja’ for short, the city sits at the centre of the former ancient kingdom of Mataram, and wears its proud traditions on its sleeve. That said, it’s still a sprawling, busy city of 3.3 million inhabitants, so any whims for fast food and coffee shops, shopping or spa treatments can easily be satisfied when passing through.

Be sure to explore the Keraton (Sultan’s palace); a walled complex that is almost a town of its own – home to 25,000 people, bustling markets, a school, a magnificent throne hall, performance pavilions, mosques and splendid gardens awash with banyan trees. Yogya’s famed gamelan dance and puppetry performances occur at the pavilions regularly and shouldn’t be missed. Similarly, if you want to join a batik workshop (Java’s traditional fabric-printing technique), Yogya is the place; and you can shop for the authentic batik fabric at Beringharjo Traditional Market. 

For those who are more about nature, there’s plenty surrounding Yogya – nearby Gunung Merapi is the largest active volcano in the country and forms a hub for many nature-based activities such as caving, hiking or climbing. It might seem overwhelming to pack everything in – but a local Indonesia-based expert can help you plan the Yogyakarta itinerary of your dreams.

former colonial fortress now museum

Trek Mount Bromo, the active volcano

East Java is known for its glut of volcanic peaks, and though not the highest (that title belongs to Merapi) Bromo is the majestic volcano that entices the most visitors. In fact, five volcanoes sit within the borders of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, emerging in conical splendour from a vast, moon-like landscape of black sands. Walking or jeep trails either grant an unbeatable view of Bromo from its accompanying peaks, or lead directly along Bromo’s eerily smoking crater, offering a stunning view of the entire Tengger caldera, locally known as ‘the Sand Sea’.

Trekking to Mount Bromo at sunrise grants another level of visual beauty. As the sun lifts, the sky gradually illuminates and hikers are met with a surreal and quiet landscape emerging from a blanket of morning mist.

Bromo is small compared to so many of Java’s peaks, but it’s one of the most sacred and is truly worth a trip to the east of the country. The entire region of East Java is wild and wonderful, with swathes of lush jungle, waterfalls, and great surfing beaches. For another fascinating volcanic landscape, you can watch brave local miners dig for sulphur in nearby Ijen Crater. Ask your local expert if you’d like to fit this activity alongside a trip to Mount Bromo

volcano with clouds of smoke

Explore Prambanan Temple

Another site of superlatives, the ancient ruin of Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. Around 11 miles from Yogyakarta and dating back to the 10th century, the temple compound was built during the Shailendra reign, as was Borobudur; but this UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth a visit in its own right. Both archaeological sites are remarkable for their ornate carvings, Hindu and Buddhist symbolism (Java is now a mostly Muslim country), and as stellar examples of large-scale places of worship in Southeast Asia, built hundreds of years before Angkor Wat in Cambodia. 

Prambanan as a whole is dedicated to Hindu deities Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, and consists of some 244 temples and shrines all surrounding the central temple, which is the most striking. The temples are decorated with beautifully-carved stone reliefs which depict the Indonesian version of the Ramayana epic. In the main temple, superb statues of Shiva, Durga and Ganesha sit in various cells of its stunning interior. 

Though built around the same time, both Prambanan and Borobudur temples are believed to have been abandoned around the 14th or 15th centuries, as Javan life shifted east and Islam arrived in the country. Prambanan was half-swallowed by jungle and badly damaged by volcanic activity, earthquakes, erosion and thieves, before it was rediscovered in the 19th century; what you see today is the result of years of dedicated restoration work. 

Experience the buzz of Jakarta

Indonesia’s hectic capital offers somewhat of a sensory overload, but as the nation’s economic centre, it’s home to an enticing combination of Indonesian, Polynesian, Malay and Chinese cultures that make it a true Indonesian metropolis. Jakarta is fast-paced, congested and full of concrete, but if you have time to get under its hard facade, you’ll experience welcoming and warm-spirited locals, the country’s best museums, glitzy nightlife, and a food scene that’s incomparable. 

With an endless choice of warungs (local restaurants), street food on wheels and decent coffee shops to sip and munch away the day in, those who enjoy culinary distractions won’t be disappointed. Most visitors to Indonesia have tried the national rice dish, nasi goreng, but here in Jakarta is the chance to try the full span of the nation’s flavourful delicacies: delicious beef rendang and jackfruit curry; coconut rice with a side of fried tempeh; egg and sambal sauce wrapped in a banana leaf; or local fruits such as rambutan and mangosteen.

Jakarta’s infamous traffic is unavoidable, and sometimes you’ll be sandwiched between looming skyscrapers and throngs of commuters, but it’s possible to find some form of serenity at the city’s most intriguing sights. Visit the 132 m-tall National Monument, a symbol of Indonesian independence, and clusters of Dutch colonial-era buildings in the Old Town (Kota Tua). Explore the Wayang Museum, devoted to Indonesia’s heritage puppetry; admire the sailing ships at the city’s ancient harbour, Pelabuhan Sunda Kelapa; or look up to the dizzyingly-high dome of Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Indonesia.

Jakarta can be a rewarding addition to your tour of Java, but be sure to get some input from a locally-based guide before you go.

aerial view of Jakarta

Make it happen

These are Java’s top attractions, but on a tour planned by a local expert you could very well also stop at tea plantations, spice gardens, and villages slightly off the usual tourist route. Get in touch with one of our locally-based operators in Indonesia to really experience what Java has to offer.

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