Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central Java
The Buddhist temple of Borobudur is recognized not only as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also the largest Buddhist structure on earth. Towering stone stupas stretch into the skies, and Indonesia’s breathtaking natural backdrop of volcanoes and lush landscapes lends an even more impressive air to this remarkable sight.
After Borobudur, the 9th-century Prambanan temple complex is Yogyakarta’s most prized site. Like Borobudur, it’s been recognized with UNESCO World Heritage status. The Prambanan Archaeological Park is home to over 500 temples. Some 240 make up the Prambanan group; others fall into other groups, including Sewu Temple and Lumbung Temple.
Rice-field landscapes studded with volcanoes make Central Java’s Magelang region a gorgeous spot for a hike or even a bike ride. However, most travelers head here for one reason alone; Borobudur, the 8th-century temple crafted from two million blocks of stone that’s Indonesia’s single most famous sight.
A couple of miles (3.5 kilometers) from the UNESCO World Heritage–listed temple of Borobudur, the charming Mendut Temple (Candi Mendut) features an attached working Buddhist monastery. Built in the early 9th century, the temple and the village that houses it are the starting point for the annual Waisak (Buddha day) celebrations.
A true lost world, Jomblang Cave is a collapsed sinkhole that’s part of a cave system that runs through Gunung Kidul, outside Yogyakarta. Visitors are lowered around 165 feet (50 meters) on a rope and then hike down a tunnel to the Grubug Cave, which is flooded with rays of sunlight. Some claim the sunken forest is prehistoric.
The lush grounds of Taman Sari, occasionally known as the Water Castle, are a fraction of what they once were when this opulent water palace occupied swaths of downtown Yogyakarta. However, well-kept gardens, reflecting pools, striking architecture, and a maze of subterranean passageways—including an underground mosque—still impress.
Known as the “erotic temple,” 15th-century Candi Sukuh stands on the slopes of Mt. Lawu, its entrance marked by a large lingam (phallus) and yoni (vulva). The pyramid structure of the temple, not to mention the erotic carvings, make this very different from other Javan temples, and some think it harks back to pre-Hindu, animist beliefs.
The heartland of Java—and a longtime rival to neighboring Yogyakarta—the city of Surakarta is overwhelmingly known as Solo. Conservative and formal, this is the place to head for ancient Javanese arts such as batik cloth, wayang shadow puppets, and courtly dance, as well as authentic Indonesian urban culture.
Probably Indonesia’s most spectacular live performance, the Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan takes place at an open-air theater or on an indoor stage near the Prambanan temples outside Yogyakarta. A cast of over 200 dancers and musicians perform episodes from the Hindu Ramayana epic with a traditional gamelan gong-and-drum orchestra.
Set in between Borobudur and Mendut Temple, Pawon Temple (Candi Pawon) is a small temple with a pyramidal roof, similar in style to Mendut Temple. Some believe it was the resting place of the Sailendra king Indra; others argue that it served as a ritual gate to Borobudur. Reliefs suggest it was devoted to Kubera, the god of wealth.
More Things to Do in Central Java
Often thought of as part of the Prambanan temple complex, the nearby Plaosan temple complex (Candi Plaosan) was built around the same time and in a similar style. The site is divided into two: Plaosan Lor (Plaosan North) has a pair of restored temples plus over 100 small shrines and stupas, while Plaosan Kidul (Plaosan South) is smaller and less restored.
Once the capital of the mighty Mataram kingdom, whose descendants founded Yogyakarta, Kota Gede is today a charmingly historic suburb of Yogyakarta. Besides attractions such as the royal cemetery, ancient mosques, and traditional wooden houses, it’s home to a wealth of silversmiths, as well as the Monggo Belgian chocolate factory.
Set on a hill with views over the Prambanan temples, Ratu Boko Temple was not actually a temple but a palace. Most likely the main court of the Mataram dynasty, the vast 8th-century complex includes bathing pools, meditation caves, an elaborate gateway, various halls, and a cremation platform. While ruined, it’s a great sunset spot.
One of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, Mt. Merapi’s name literally means “mountain of red fire.” The mountain, which looms over Borobudur, occupies a sacred place in the hearts and minds of many Javanese. When it’s not closed or partially closed due to volcanic activity, Merapi also makes for a spectacular volcano hike or climb.
Restored in 2005 after landslides destroyed it and rebuilt a second time in 2018, hillside Selogriyo Temple (Candi Selogriyo) is an atmospheric and rarely visited Hindu temple dating back to the 9th century. The rice-field views are especially scenic, while the water from its fountain is said to heal disease and impart eternal youth.
One of the temples that make up the Prambanan UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sewu Temple (Candi Sewu) dates back to the 8th century AD. Its name, which means “thousand temples,” refers to the 249 shrines that make up this Buddhist temple complex. Its grand scale makes it second only to Borobudur in religious and historical significance.
One of Indonesia’s many optical illusion museums, the De Mata Trick Eye Museum is selfie heaven. Pose for trick shots in a range of settings. Levitate, star on a book cover, or appear amidst travel scenes from Indonesia and beyond. Alternatively, enjoy surreal simulations such as walking over lava or holding back a rampaging velociraptor.
One of over 500 temples in Prambanan Archaeological Park near Yogyakarta, Bubrah Temple (Candi Bubrah) dates to the ninth century. Its name means “destroyed,” but the restored structure reopened in 2017 and now stands 67 feet (20.5 meters) high. Bubrah Temple forms part of a Buddhist mandala group with Lumbung Temple and Sewu Temple.
More than 500 temples adorn Prambanan Archaeological Park near Yogyakarta. Lumbung Temple (Candi Lumbung), a Buddhist temple complex, comprises one larger 9th-century temple with 16 surrounding smaller temples. It forms part of a group with Bubrah Temple and the substantial Sewu Temple complex.
Just outside Yogyakarta, the Imogiri Kings Cemetery (Pajimatan Girirejo Imogiri) is the final resting place of the rulers of the Muslim kingdoms of Mataram, Yogyakarta, and Surakarta. Also called the Imogiri Royal Cemetery, the 17th-century site is well worth the effort involved in visiting—including dressing up in Javanese court costume.
De Arca Museum is a waxwork museum with a difference: Rather than using wax, the characters are crafted from fiberglass. Around 100 different statues span the gamut from Indonesian heroes to celebrities such as David Beckham, Brad Pitt, and Queen Elizabeth II. Some likenesses are more convincing than others.
Around two hours’ drive from Yogyakarta, Sadranan Beach is one of the stars of Gunung Kidul’s coastline. Here you can swim, catch some rays, canoe, snorkel, or enjoy a stand-up paddleboarding session amid golden sands, clear waters, simple restaurants, and some of the best coral in this part of Java. You can also camp overnight.
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