Contrary to what many travelers think, the best place to experience Indonesian culture is not Bali. In my opinion, if you really want to know what Indonesia is really like, you need to visit the city of Yogyakarta.
This bustling city on the island of Java encapsulates everything that Indonesian culture is all about. It’s modern, yet traditional; busy, yet relaxed. Yogyakarta has the same Hindu-derived arts and culture that tourists flock to Bali for. But it also has a strong spiritual heart, by way of Islam, which the majority of the country practices. And when it comes to Indonesian tourist attractions, Yogyakarta has one of the best: the iconic Borobudur Temple.
Travelers can visit Bali all they want. But if you’re looking to understand Indonesian culture, then you need to include a visit to Yogyakarta in your Indonesian itinerary, and experience all the things to do in Yogyakarta.
This post was updated on February 25, 2020.
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Getting to know Indonesian culture
Indonesian culture is complex and diverse. This archipelago of over 17,000 islands has around 300 different ethnic groups.
The largest ethnic group are the Javanese, located on the island of Java, who make up 40% of the population. But there are also the Sundanese (from West Java), the Batak (from North Sumatra), the Minangkabau (from West Sumatra), and the Buginese (from Sulawesi and Kalimantan). The Balinese make up less than 2 percent of the population.
While Java is not the largest island in Indonesia, it is certainly the most populous. Many of the Indonesian tourist attractions are located on this island. And Indonesians from other islands come to Java to study and work. As a result, the island is a microcosm of the many cultures and ethnic groups that pass through its shores.
In south-central Java, Yogyakarta holds a unique spot in Indonesian culture and politics. It’s the only region that is still governed by a sultan. And its rich cultural history and thriving traditional arts makes it a popular place for academics and art lovers to come and study. The book, Brief History of Indonesia, covers some of Yogyakarta’s relevance in Indonesian history.
Getting to Yogyakarta
From Jakarta (Indonesia’s capital city) or Denpasar (which is the main airport in Bali), flights to Yogyakarta run everyday. Air Asia has several non-stop flights that are about an hour in duration. Other airlines also have flights flying to Yogyakarta from Jakarta or Denpasar. But besides Air Asia, the only other airline I have flown is Garuda, so I can’t vouch for the service or quality of those other airlines.
Another option, if you’re coming from Jakarta, is to take a train to Yogyakarta. From Gambir station, a train will cost roughly $28-35 (Executive Class). The trains have air-conditioning, and serve food on board, although the journey will be around 7 hours.
We have not yet tried driving from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, though it’s certainly possible. If you’re going with a tour company that is taking you to see Indonesian tourist attractions, they can help you arrange the best way to get to Yogyakarta.
Where to stay and getting around
Once in Yogyakarta, there are plenty of good neighborhoods to stay with family-friendly accommodations. We stayed in the Danunegaran neighborhood in southern Yogyakarta, near Jalan Tirtodipuran and Jalan Prawirotaman. These two streets are popular among tourists, and are lined with restaurants and tour companies. They’re pretty close to many of the things to do in Yogyakarta, which is why this area is so popular among travelers.
Another place to stay is northern Yogyakarta. Many of the universities are located in this part of town, as well as some higher end shopping malls. Some of the newer things to do in Yogyakarta are also located in this area.
In terms of getting around Yogyakarta, families have several options. We prefer using GOJEK, which is a ride sharing app, much like Uber or Lyft. We also use a similar app called Grab. There are taxis that you can hail at the train station or at the airport. And there are also TransYogyakarta buses, although we have not taken them yet.
Going beyond the Indonesian tourist attractions
As visitors to Indonesia, it’s easy to just hit up the Indonesian tourist attractions and call it a day. Even in Yogyakarta, most visitors will only spend a few days in the city to visit the tourist sites.
But if you really want to get a better understanding of Indonesian culture, you need to go beyond the tourist activities. Spend a little longer in Yogyakarta, and try things that you won’t readily find in a guide book or on Instagram.
Ideas for things to do in Yogyakarta with kids
We spent a month in Yogyakarta, and to be honest, we wish we could have spent more. There were just so many things to do in Yogyakarta. And we didn’t get a chance to do them all!
Of the things that we did get to do (and thankfully, there were plenty), we were quite surprised to find that many of them were extremely kid friendly. Indonesians love children, so most places you visit will be welcoming of kids, no matter what age.
Here are twenty of our favorite things to do in Yogyakarta with kids, that will help you gain some insight into Indonesian culture.
Climb the Borobudur Temple
The Borobudur Temple is a massive Buddhist temple structure that is located about two hours outside of Yogyakarta. It’s one of the most well-known Indonesian tourist attractions, primarily because of its sunrise views, but also because it’s the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
In a predominantly Muslim country, it may seem odd that people here would hold such a reverence to this temple structure. But the Borobudur temple is a real source of pride for Indonesians, and one that even Indonesians will come in flocks to visit.
In a way, the temple is a reminder of Indonesia’s glorious past, prior to the Dutch occupation, when Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms ruled the islands. Indonesian culture is full of mythology, and the Borobudur temple is just a part of the country’s mythological past.
We didn’t get to visit the Borobudur temple this time around, but we have visited there many times in the past. Buses are available to take visitors to Borobudur temple, but for families, the best option is to hire a private car. Families can book a car and driver through travel companies like Via Via or Losari Tours. A 5-hour car and driver hire will cost roughly Rp 400,000 for up to 5 people. Entrance to the temple will be $25 (USD) for kids and adults over 10 years old, and $15 (USD) for kids between the ages of 3 and 10.
Marvel at the ruins of Prambanan
Another important part of Indonesian culture and history is the Prambanan Temple complex. Unlike Borobudur, these temples are Hindu rather than Buddhist, but they still hold a similarly high level of reverence among Indonesians. We didn’t get a chance to visit Prambanan during this recent visit to Yogyakarta. However, we’ve visited the temple in the past, and were so impressed by the beauty!
Built in the mid-9th century, these temples harken back to the glories of Java’s empirical past. Today, visitors can walk around the temple grounds, and look inside many of the temples. And in the evenings, Prambanan becomes the backdrop to dance performances of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana.
Tickets to Prambanan are $25 (USD) for kids and adults over the age of 10, and $15 for kids between 3 and 10. You can bundle a ticket with Borobudur for $45 (USD) for kids and adults over 10 years old, and $27 (USD) for kids between 3 and 10. For the Ramayana Ballet, tickets range from Rp. 125,000-400,000 per person (roughly $9-28), and will need to be reserved separately and ahead of time.
Experience royal history at the Keraton
Yogyakarta is proud of its historical and royal past. You can see it quite clearly if you visit the Keraton (the royal palace), located in the center of Yogyakarta. A visit to the Keraton is a must for things to do in Yogyakarta, because you observe so much of Javanese culture there.
The sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, still lives at the palace, and also serves as the governor of the Yogyakarta region. His section of the palace is off limits to the public. But there is still much of the Keraton that is open to visitors, including rooms with historical artifacts.
Each day, from 10am to 12pm, there are cultural demonstrations that visitors can enjoy. Music performances are on Mondays and Tuesdays, wayang golek (wood puppets) performances are on Wednesdays, and traditional poetry recitings are on Thursdays. Wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances are on Saturdays, and traditional dancing is on Sundays.
Entrance to the Keraton is Rp. 7,000 per person (roughly $.50). And there is a separate fee of Rp. 2,000 (roughly $.15) for use of a camera.
Learn Indonesian history at Taman Sari
Besides the Keraton, another royal building worth visiting is Taman Sari. Built in the 18th century, Taman Sari was built as a pleasure palace for the sultan of Yogyakarta at the time. The buildings, also known as the Water Castle, have two pools that the sultan and his many wives and concubines would bathe in.
A visit to Taman Sari will provide a glimpse of what life for the Javanese royalty was like at the time. In many ways, it was a very stratified and inegalitarian society, with the sultan occupying a god-like position at the top. Fortunately, Indonesia has progressed much since then, especially when it comes to women’s rights.
Entrance to Taman Sari is Rp. 15,000 (roughly $1) per person. If planning a visit, hire a guide, as they will be helpful in providing meaning and explanation to the architecture, as well as insight to the palace’s history. We didn’t get to go to Taman Sari during this visit to Yogyakarta, but we did during our last visit back in 2015. We hired a guide to take us around the palace, and we learned so much from him!
Learn about Indonesian culture and history at Sonobudoyo Museum
Speaking of learning about Indonesian culture, located near the Kerton is the Sonobudoyo Museum. It’s a great place to see artifacts from Indonesia’s past, including batiks, gamelan instruments, prehistoric tools, and even royal weapons!
The museum also has two complete Javanese gamelan sets (traditional Indonesian percussion instruments) on display. As someone who has spent over a decade learning and playing traditional Javanese gamelan music, I was over the moon. They even let me play a few notes on one of the instruments!
The museum is open everyday of the week from 8:00 am to 3:30 pm. On Fridays, the museum closes at 2:00 pm. Admission to the museum is Rp. 10,000 (roughly $.70) per person.
Watch a wayang performance
Every night, except for Sunday nights, the Sonobudoyo Museum puts on a wayang kulit performance from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Wayang kulit are shadow puppets made from leather (kulit means skin in Indonesian). The stories performed at the Sonobudoyo Museum are episodes from either the Hindu epic, Ramayana, or sometimes from the Mahabarata.
Wayang kulit came to Indonesia by way of India, around the time that Hinduism came to the islands. Although Hinduism (and Buddhism) eventually became usurped by Islam in Indonesia, the wayang kulit traditions and stories remained.
In the past, wayang kulit performances would often last all night, with the gamelan orchestra accompanying the puppeteer, known as the dalang. An Indonesian professor of mine told me that during the Nationalism movement in Indonesia, when the country was trying to gain its independence from the Dutch, wayang kulit performances were often used as a way to spread nationalist messages!
Tickets to the wayang kulit performances at Sonobudoyo Museum are Rp. 20,000 (roughly $1.40). The setup is such that you can sit on either side of the screen. So you can watch the shadows on the screen. Or you can watch the dalang and the gamelan at work, which is equally as exciting.
Experience contemporary Indonesian culture at Alun-Alun Kidul
One of our favorite things to do in Yogyakarta is to ride a bicycle-car at Alun-Alun Kidul. This is an activity that you will most likely not find in your typical list of Indonesian tourist attractions. But for families visiting Yogyakarta, it’s truly something you can’t miss!
The bicycle-cars are old VW beetles and vans that have been gutted and fitted with benches and bicycles inside. The outside is decorated with different colored lights, and there are usually speakers blaring pop music as well. A ride around Alun-Alun Kidul will cost between Rp. 40,000-50,000 (roughly $3-4). These bicycle-cars are only available at night, starting after sunset.
There are also other activities to do at Alun-Alun Kidul at night, including games for kids. This is a popular spot for locals to hang out at night. And every time we go, it’s packed with people, including families. Food stalls, known as warungs, line the streets, and vendors will sell toys for kids throughout the grassy area. Alun-Alun Kidul is a great place to catch a glimpse of how local families hang out together.
Expand your mind at Taman Pintar
We love visiting science museums, and we were pleasantly surprised when we visited Taman Pintar. It was a fun museum for the kids to experience. Besides science exhibits, there are also exhibits for kids to learn about Indonesian culture and history.
Located close to the Keraton and Sonobudoyo Museum, Taman Pintar is large complex of several buildings dedicated to kids. The exhibits are interactive and kid-friendly. And even though the condition of some of the exhibits seemed a bit old, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.
Admission to Taman Pintar is only Rp. 20,000 (roughly $1.40 USD) for adults, and Rp. 12,000 (roughly $.80) for kids. Tickets for the planetarium or learning activities are additional to the standard entrance fee.
Hang out on Jalan Malioboro
Also near the Keraton is Jalan Malioboro. It’s a popular street for travelers to hang out primarily because it’s near many of the things to do in Yogyakarta. It’s very close to Yogyakarta’s central train station.
The street is lined with shops selling batik clothes and souvenirs. Many of the things for sale are priced higher than usual, but if you’re hard pressed for time, this is a great option for souvenir shopping.
Jalan Malioboro will occasionally have street performances showcasing traditional Indonesian culture from Java or the other islands. During one of our visits to Jalan Malioboro, we saw a small street parade comprising of drummers and percussionists from the island of Lombok, near Bali.
Spend an afternoon at the mall
The malls in Indonesia are more than just a place for buying things, they’re also a place for socializing and hanging out. Indonesian malls can have restaurants, movie theaters, play areas, hotels, and even waterparks!
There are several malls in Yogyakarta, scattered throughout the city. They’re great places to hang out if you’re looking for a low key, yet cool (thank goodness for air-conditioning!), way to spend an afternoon.
Malioboro Mall on Jalan Malioboro is conveniently located in central Yogyakarta. But you can also head north to the more upscale Hartono Mall.
Shop for goods representing Indonesian culture at Pasar Beringharjo
If you’re looking for more affordable souvenirs and local goods, head to Pasar Beringharjo, also located on Jalan Malioboro. This public market sells clothes, batiks, textiles, bags, and traditional clothes. I bought a traditional Javanese dance costume here!
Local markets are always a great way to see how locals go about their lives, and Pasar Beringharjo is no exception. The market has a large selection of batik, Indonesia’s traditional wax print cloths.This is where you should go if you want to buy batik.
Ride an andong
One of the fun things in Yogyakarta that we enjoyed doing was riding one of the horse-drawn carts, called andong. You can find andongs along Jalan Malioboro, and will cost around Rp. 50,000-80,000 ($4-6 USD) for a ride, depending on the distance.
The andong drivers are dressed in traditional Javanese attire. So, it’s a fun way to imagine what life might have been like for Javanese during the colonial era, before the advent of cars.
Take a becak around town
For the more adventurous travelers, a unique way to get around Yogyakarta is by riding a becak. These are the bicycle rickshaws that you can find all around the city.
A ride on a becak will depend on the distance. Expect to pay between Rp. 20,000-50,000 ($3-4 USD). We love piling all four of us into a becak and riding through the streets of Yogyakarta at night.
Stroll through a kampung
During our time in Yogyakarta, we stayed in an Airbnb right on the edge of Kampung Danunegaran. In Indonesian, kampung means village, and in Yogyakarta, this can be loosely translated as neighborhood.
In between the main streets of Yogyakarta are little alleyways, called gangs, that wind through the kampungs. The alleys are hardly wider than the width of two motorbikes. But we loved walking along the gangs rather than along the main roads.
Again, it was like catching a glimpse of contemporary Indonesian culture. Passing by homes with families, and children biking along the gang, we felt like we were part of a neighborhood, rather than just tourists.
Sample Indonesian culture through food at the warungs
Another great way to experience Indonesian culture is through food. Yogyakarta has plenty of restaurants serving cuisine from all over the country. But we also enjoy frequenting warungs, food stalls and small family-run restaurants.
In Indonesia, a popular dish is satay, which is grilled meat on a stick. Ikan bakar (roasted fish) is also popular. Mie bakso (noodles with meatballs) and nasi goreng (fried rice) are also popular dishes. For a meatless option, try gudeg, which is a curry dish made from jackfruit.
Try your hand at fishing
Although Yogyakarta doesn’t have any lakes or beaches nearby, fishing is a fun activity that local families like to do. There are several fishing ponds around the city where you can catch your own fish and even have them grilled or fried for you.
Our favorite place to fish in Yogyakarta is Ledok Gebang, a fishing pond and restaurant located in northern Yogyakarta. The place has a big pond with covered bamboo platforms all around the perimeter where you can fish for the afternoon.
Fishing pole rental and bait (live and pellet) are only Rp. 3,000 ($.21 USD) each. The cost for the place to cook the fish is Rp. 95,000 (about $7 USD), and you can also order side dishes and drinks.
We spent an afternoon at Ledok Gebang and caught two fish. Along with gear rental, food, and drinks, the whole afternoon only cost us Rp. 168,000 (roughly $12)! A lot of families in Yogyakarta like to do this on the weekend, as it’s a good way to socialize in a relaxed environment.
Embrace the selfie obsession in modern Indonesian culture at De Mata
You may not know this, but Indonesian culture is obsessed with selfies. Even before Instagram, Indonesians love posing for pictures.
These days, there are places all throughout Indonesia and Asia dedicated to taking unique selfies. During our time in Yogyakarta, we visited one such place, De Mata Trick Eye Museum, to see what the fuss is all about.
Boy, is it intense! De Mata actually has several different themed sections for taking pictures, with each section costing Rp. 30,000-50,000 (roughly $2-4 USD) to enter, depending on the day of the week. We chose one section that had different fantastical settings, and also a section with everything upside down.
Splash and play at JogjaBay
We celebrated our son’s birthday while we were in Yogyakarta. And as a special treat, we spent a day at JogjaBay Pirates Adventure Waterpark, a waterpark in northern Yogyakarta.
JogjaBay has waterslides, both for young kids and teens and grown-ups. There is a lazy river that circumnavigated the whole park. And there is also a large wave pool, which our family really enjoyed.
Admission to JogjaBay is Rp. 90,000-100,000 (roughly $7 USD) per person, depending on the day of the week. Locker rental is an additional cost. There is also food available to purchase at the waterpark.
Since Indonesia is a Muslim country, for women planning to swim, it’s wise to wear a shirt and pants over your bathing suit for modesty reasons. Full body cover-ups are available for sale at the gift shop.
Take a batik course to learn about traditional Indonesian culture
Another one of our favorite things to do in Yogyakarta is to take a batik course. Batik is such an integral part of Indonesian culture. And although the art form didn’t originate from Indonesia, the country has refined the process so much that Indonesian batik has its own unique and distinctive look.
The process of making batik involves drawing complex wax designs and patterns on fabric, dyeing the fabric, and then boiling the fabric to release the wax. Traditional Javanese batik are double-dyed, with an additional step of adding wax to some of the dyed parts, so that the designs are two-toned.
We took a batik course from Batik Seno, located near Jalan Tirtodipuran, and also from the Museum Batik in central Yogyakarta. A three-hour lesson at Batik Seno costs Rp. 300,000 (roughly $21 USD) per person, while a three-hour lesson with multiple colors of dye at the Museum Batik costs Rp. 125,000 (roughly $9 USD) per person.
Both places are good, but we enjoyed the Batik Seno lessons a bit more, as the ladies there have been making batik for thirty years.
Take an Indonesian language course
If you’re planning on spending a good chunk of time in Yogyakarta, then the best way to experience and learn about Indonesian culture is to take a language class. During our time in Yogyakarta, we took Indonesian language classes at Wisma Bahasa, a language school based in Yogyakarta.
Having access to an Indonesian teacher is so valuable, as they can provide you with so much insight into the culture. And learning more than just the standard Indonesian phrases for travelers can get you a long way to making connections with Indonesians.
Wisma Bahasa is open five days a week, but you’ll need to contact them to set up lessons. Enrollment fee is Rp. 300,000 (roughly $21 USD) per person. Private lessons for one person costs Rp. 300,000 per lesson. But the per person cost will decrease if you have two or more people in your class.
So many things to do in Yogyakarta to truly experience Indonesian culture
There is so much for families to discover in Yogyakarta. Families who go to Bali just to see the Indonesian tourist attractions are certainly missing out!
We loved our time in Yogyakarta, and wished we could have stayed longer. We really felt like we had a chance to get to know Indonesian culture a lot better during our time there.
Have you visited Yogyakarta before? What did you think about it?
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