What to do in Indonesia’s often overlooked cultural capital.

For the most part when people think of a holiday in Indonesia, their mind tends to jump straight to Bali and the surrounding islands. However, although these islands are beautiful, this archipelago has so much more to offer its visitors. The island of Java, which makes up 6 percent of the entire landmass of Indonesia, is often seen as a stepping stone that simply allows you to hop along to other destinations but you could easily spend your entire holiday on this island alone.

Java is the most populous island in Indonesia, with a staggering 141 million inhabitants, and is an interesting mix of very rural places, traditional villages untouched by tourism, and gigantic, bustling cities of international renown, such as Jakarta and Surabaya. Unlike most of Indonesia, in Java agriculture has largely retained its foothold in the island’s economic structure; thanks to the island’s 30 active volcanoes, the centre is made up of incredibly fertile lands. This also means that there is no end to the natural splendours to be seen here.

Java has a bit of everything to offer any discerning traveller, whatever type of holiday you’re looking for. The most popular way to see this island is to generally trace a route from west to east, starting at Jakarta and ending when you reach the port that takes you over to Bali. However, as you will find out, there is so much to see and do, that you may want to zig zag all over the place to encompass all of your desired destinations.

Culture

There is a lot of culture to be enjoyed throughout Java, however, the cultural centre is most definitely Yogyakarta: this is a city that is the soul of the Javanese arts, as well as being home to many defining historical and religious sites. The entire city is steeped in history, it stood as the centre of the ancient Mataram region in the 8th century, and, after a lull of several hundred years, it came to hold importance for subsequent Islamic rulers in the 16th century, the Dutch colonialists of the 1700s, as well as the British colonialists some hundred years later.

If you’re planning to take a historical trip of the city and its surrounding regions, you certainly will not be short of places to visit! The most famous spot is the Sultan’s Palace, or the Keraton: a palatial complex, over 200 years old, that still stands in the centre of the city. It is easy to spend a day or two in this sprawling complex, with its various pavilions, chambers, gardens, mosque, stables and a museum. Outside of the city, there are countless small temples, which make a great day or half day trip, including Borobudur and Prambanan, which evoke a sense of the powerful kingdoms, which once reigned supreme.

This city is also a hub for the arts: painters, dancers and singers all flock to the city to study and perform their talents. Wayang puppetry is perhaps the most traditional art form that can be seen, and there are shows throughout the city, including in the Keraton. Gamelan dances also make for an entertaining evening, and are sometimes combined with Wayang puppetry.

Beaches

If you’re a bit of a sun seeker, and enjoy stunning views, then you’re spoilt for choice for beaches in Java. In central Java you will find many beaches that hold sacred importance in local culture, as well as prove to be hotspots for visiting tourists. The stunning black beaches of Parangtritis have the backdrop of tall bluffs, and are the legendary home to the Queen of the South Seas. Although beautiful, the water is treacherous so you cannot swim here. If you want to swim, check out Ngrenehan; here you will find peace and quiet, delicious fresh seafood and also a new built Hindu temple.

Western Java plays host to masses of white sandy beaches, picturesque spots to spend an afternoon, or a few. These spots are far less frequented than the other, more Eastern islands and therefore it can feel as though you’re discovering things anew. Anyer beach is popular with Jakartans having a weekend away from the city and has stunning natural rock formations coupled with intriguing Dutch colonial architecture. Meanwhile Carita beach is the spot for marine life: snorkelling and scuba diving, as well as many water-sport options.

Natural Spaces

Thanks to the island’s many active and dormant volcanoes, as well as the expansive twelve national parks, there is no shortage of natural wonders to be explored, from towering waterfalls, to hot springs, to impressive craters and unique and flourishing flora and fauna. One of the top activities in Java is hiking, and there are plenty of places to do it. In terms of volcanoes, the most famous is Mount Bromo, and a trip to Java would not be complete without a visit to its peak; standing at 2,329 metres tall a sunrise spent up here makes for unbeatable views.

The national parks offer various opportunities for more relaxed wildlife watching, as well as active climbing and trekking. Meru Betiri National Park has a specific space for sea turtle conservation, whilst Alas Purwo National Park has great surfing and is home to peacocks and wild boars, amongst other animals, and Baluran National Park spreads over a jaw-dropping 50,000 hectares inside an eroded volcano cone, allowing for unique wildlife watching possibilities.

In western Java, the Halimaun-Salak National Park, encompasses a mountain range and is the home of gibbons, leopards and Javan eagles, to name but a few species. Take a day trip or stay the night in the Cikaniki research station accommodation, and enjoy tours of the park, including trekking through the jungle and visiting the expansive tea plantations. The Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park is the oldest national park in Indonesia and has within its 15,000 hectares a stunning waterfall, two volcanoes, and several rare species of primate, including leaf monkeys and Javanese gibbons.


Some more ideas

In the above article we hope to have whet your appetite a little, giving you a taste of what’s in store for people exploring this magnificent island, and the very varied activities on offer. Below are a few more specific spots that you would not want to miss when visiting this island.

  • If you find yourself in Jakarta and you want to do something completely different, visit the Kingdom of BGBJ. On the outskirts of Jakarta is southeast Asia’s biggest landfill site, spanning over 108 hectares. This expansive site has come to encompass several surrounding villages and has become home to local communities. Within these communities is a project, which aims to promote awareness of the conditions living here. The organisation can arrange day and overnight tours from Jakarta, and it really is well worth your while, a completely unique experience, eye-opening and fun. Check out their Facebook page for more details : https://www.facebook.com/thebgbj/
  • If you are staying in Jakarta don’t miss out on a taking a walk around the Sunda Kelapa Harbour, which is the city’s old trading seaport. This port still functions today; here you can view one of the only commercial sailing fleets left in the world, which makes for an intriguing experience, conjuring romantic images of a different era. In this area you can also take in Dutch colonial architecture, a prominent fish market as well as visit a maritime museum. In fact you can easily while away a whole day in this quaint district.
  • One of the most accessible volcanoes in Java, is Gunung Tangkuban Perahu, which sits just outside of Bandung, and offers visitors panoramic vistas of the surrounding countryside. It really is spectacular. Plus there is a little shopping alleyway with stalls selling various souvenirs, and little food stalls, so you can easily spend an afternoon or morning here.
  • For unique handicraft gifts, bought from the actual makers, check out the local communities that surround Yogyakarta. Here there are villages, which have women making earthenware pottery, jewellery, clothing and traditional puppets. Visiting these villages gives you a chance to see the wares being produced, as well as a chance to purchase and know that your money is going into the pocket of the maker. Visit the Balai Besar Kerajinandan dan Batik, to see the production process of the batik, a traditional cloth that is now UNESCO recognised as a cultural icon. A tour of the showrooms and workshops makes for a fascination experience.

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Lily Guy-Vogel
Lily, originally from London, and a former Medieval Literature student, has had the travel bug ever since she can remember, and has travelled extensively, never wishing to stay in one place for too long! She has written for a stream of publications and blogs on her way, often bringing a comedic edge to her work. She loves adventure and exploring new places, and is determined to set foot in every continent before choosing a home.