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There’s much to love about Yogyakarta, or Jogja as the locals call it.

Photography courtesy of PT Taman Wisata Candi and Yogyakarta Marriott Hotel

Long regarded as a centre for Javanese arts and culture, Yogyakarta was once home to mighty Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, powerful Islamic sultanates, as well as British and Dutch colonists – all of whom have left their mark in some way or another.

Today, the city is a thriving tourist destination, one where you can walk through the tranquil hallways of an 18th-century royal palace, then emerge into a shopping street lined with horse-drawn carriages and motor-powered rickshaws.

It is this eclectic blend of old and new that gives the place its charm, and makes it a must-visit for culture and history buffs. Here are the top things you can see, do and experience in Yogyakarta:

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1 ) Catch the sunrise at a 1000-year-old Buddhist temple  

Undoubtedly Yogyakarta’s most popular attraction, Borobudur Temple is located some 40 kilometres north of the city. Built during the Buddhist-Sailendra dynasty between the 8th and 9th centuries, it is widely considered one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites.

The temple’s sunrise tour starts at 4 a.m., and it is one worth waking up early for. During the peak season, you’ll have to brave the chill morning air, alongside hundreds of eager tourists, to make your way up the pyramid-like structure armed only with torchlights.

As the temple sits on an elevated area surrounded by jungle and mountains, fog is common in the morning. Those with lady luck on their side will, however, be treated to a view like no other. The sun, rising from between the twin peaks of Mount Merbabu and Mount Merapi in the horizon, forms a stunning V-shape before it emerges in an orange blaze of glory.

In the light of day, visitors will see that the temple comprises nine stacked platforms, topped by a large central dome. The first six levels, which are square-shaped, feature thousands of bas reliefs carved into stone. Some are decorative, while others depict the story of Buddha, his disciples and other mythological figures.

The top three levels, which are circular in shape, have small perforated stupas – 72 in total – each housing a statue of Buddha within. In total, there are over 2,600 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues within the complex.

The temple still holds significance among Buddhists today. On the festival of Wesak to commemorate the birth of Buddha, pilgrims begin their walk from Mendut and Pawon – two smaller temples in the area – before ending their journey at Borobudur.

2) Watch a Hindu Epic – ballet style 

Night brings us to the Ramayana Ballet show, held in an amphitheatre against a backdrop of the majestic Hindu temple complex, Prambanan. Built around the same time as Borobudur, the complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of over 200 temples, both large and small. The three main ones are dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, and also carry engraved reliefs of the Hindu epic poem Ramayana, on which the ballet is based.

The tale tells of Prince Rama and his quest to save his wife, Sita, from the clutches of the demon king Ravana. Along the way, Rama is aided by a host of characters, including his brother Lakshmana and the monkey god Hanuman.

While the story’s origins are Indian, the show itself features the Javanese dance, a classic art form that has expressive and graceful yet controlled movements. This is played to perfection by a 200-strong troupe of dancers decked out in dazzling, elaborate costumes, accompanied by traditional Gamelan instruments.

3) Ride in a jeep on the slopes of an active volcano 

Mount Merapi in 2014
By Crisco 1492 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
All seems tranquil on the slopes of Mount Merapi, an active volcano that last erupted in 2010, but as you travel by open-top jeep on bumpy, dusty roads along the trail, guides are quick to point out remnants of the devastation: partially destroyed homes overgrown with vegetation, and patches of scorched earth where grass no longer grows.

The Merapi Lava tour takes visitors to several key spots, including a small local museum called Sisa Hartaku (literally, ‘the remains of my belongings’), where one will find eerie displays of household items, some partially melted and covered in a thick layer of volcanic ash, as well as a wall clock stopped at the precise moment of the 2010 eruption.

Also on the tour is the Alien Stone, a giant rock with human-like features that was dislodged from the volcano in the last eruption. Further down the trail is the Kaliadem underground bunker, originally built in 2005 as an emergency shelter for villagers. Now abandoned, it makes a good vantage point for views of the volcano’s peak, if weather permits.

4) Shop and eat like a local 

Malioboro Street, Yogyakarta
By Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Even within the city limits, there’s plenty to see and do in Yogyakarta. Shopaholics can head to Malioboro Street, a popular shopping haunt located in the old part of town. Try your hand at traditional batik painting at one of the many shops lining the kilometre-long street, or stop by Beringharjo Market, a traditional market that has everything from Javanese herbs and antiques to souvenirs, clothing and cheap shoes.

At night, food stalls aplenty offer delicious delicacies and local cuisine. Some items to look out for are gudeg, a Yogyakartan specialty of stewed unripe jackfruit, as well as bakpiah, a sweet baked pastry stuffed with fillings such as mung bean, chocolate and cheese.

The best way to soak in the sights is on foot, but one can also hop on one of the many horse-drawn carriages in the vicinity, or opt to see the sights via becak, open-top motor-powered rickshaws.

5) Walk through Yogyakarta’s royal past

Those keen to dive into Yogyakarta’s more recent past should visit the Kraton, a 19th-century palace that stands today as a bastion for Javanese arts and culture. It is the official seat and residence of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, the last of its kind in Indonesia that still rules under a Special Administrative Region status. Parts of the building designated as a museum are open to the public on weekday mornings, where visitors can view priceless artefacts belonging to the royal family and watch cultural performances.

Close by is Taman Sari, an 18th-century royal garden chateau. In its glory days, the garden boasted a large artificial lake, numerous functional and ceremonial buildings, hidden passageways and underground catacombs used as bunkers during the war.

Pay a visit to the well-preserved Umbul Pasiraman central complex, where palace women would go to bathe in beautifully decorated pools, as well as the Sumur Gumuling underground mosque, which features multiple staircases leading up to an open central platform where the imam (religious leader) would give sermons. A guide is recommended as it is easy to get lost traversing the massive complex.

6) Indulge in comfort 

Return to a restful night’s sleep at Yogyakarta Marriott Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel with unique Javanese touches. Equipped with everything under one roof, from spacious, comfy rooms and various dining options to spa and gym facilities, it makes for an excellent base for travellers exploring the city’s tourist destinations and cultural attractions. Its connectivity to the largest shopping and entertainment precinct in Central Java makes it convenient to shop for souvenirs, gifts and other essentials, giving visitors an opportunity to sample the modern side of Yogyakarta city.

Yogyakarta Fast Facts:

  • Also known as Djogja, Jogja, Yogya or Ngayogyakarta.
  • It the only region in Indonesia still governed by a monarchy, through its Special Administrative Region status.
  • Before Jakarta, Yogyakarta was the capital of Indonesia, from 1946 to 1949.
  • There are over 100 universities in the city, earning it the nickname ‘City of Scholars’.