Yogyakarta is nestled right in the heart of Java and is steeped in the rich culture and tradition that has been sidelined by modernity in some of the island's larger metropolises. That doesn't mean traffic jams, shopping malls and internet obsessions have left Yogyakarta unscathed, however concerted efforts by the local government, educators and the residents themselves have so far managed to spare Javanese tradition from falling under the bullet-train of progress.
Before we dive into a history lesson, let's clear up one point of confusion — Yogyakarta (the official spelling), Jogjakarta, Yogya and Jogja are all the same place. There's two different variants on the spelling and the locals also like to shorten the name. We're going with Yogya.
Back before the word Yogyakarta was even spelled at all, the area was home to Hindu, Buddhist and Animist dynasties during the 8th to 10th centuries. Gradually, the religious makeup of the area changed with the expansion of Islam across the island. The Mataram Islam dynasty was the dominant force in the area from the late 16th century to early 18th century.
The Yogyakarta sultanate was established in 1755 by the forced split of the powerful dynasty by Dutch colonisers. The first sultan of Yogyakarta was Hamengkubuwono I, whose family built the city's palace, known at the Kraton. His legacy continues, with his descendant Hamengkubuwono X now acting as both the sultan and democratically elected governor of the city.
Dutch colonialists also left their mark architecturally on the city. The Bank Indonesia building at the end of Jalan Malioboro is one of the prime examples of the European influence on building styles and there are many public offices especially built in a Javanese-Dutch style. However, Yogya was also the site of legendary backlash against Dutch rule. Yogyakarta Prince Diponegoro waged a holy war against the colonialists from 1825-1830 and the city also acted as an administrative centre for the Indonesian independence battle after World War II when the Dutch had reoccupied Jakarta. The sultan locked himself in his palace during this time and allowed rebels to use it as a base. Yogya declared itself part of the Republic of Indonesia once independence was won and was given special region status.
Yogya's inter-religious and royal history still shapes the city and its surrounds to this very day. Javanese culture, manners and beliefs still prevail strongly, but among it all, a modern vibrant society has cropped up, especially in the city's north which is teeming with university students dressed in the most on-trend clothes imaginable. Home to some of Indonesia's largest university campuses, Yogya is renowned domestically as a student city and has a hip undercurrent that mingles with its characteristically Javanese temperament.
Overall, however, this region is far more conservative than Bali or the bright lights of Jakarta. Despite being home to some of Indonesia's greatest Hindu and Buddhist temples, the vast majority of Yogya residents nowadays are Muslim, so visitors should show respect for the local culture and make their own travels easier by dressing modestly.
For centuries, settlers have long praised the fertile volcanic soils around Yogyakarta, but these lush fields are the product of risk. Even today, an active volcano still looms on the horizon near the city. Mount Merapi has erupted regularly since 1548, and most recently threatened residents in April 2006. Shortly after, in an unrelated event, Yogyakarta was shaken by a devastating 6.3-magnitude earthquake on May 27. Nearly 6,000 people were killed with tens of thousands more injured and 135,000 buildings destroyed. The city centre was spared extensive damage, but in outlying areas evidence of the quake is visible even four years later and many individuals and small businesses are still trying to fully recover. The tourism industry bounced back strongly and has aided the city's economic recovery.
Yogyakarta has many rewards for the traveller, which is why it remains the most popular destination on Java island for international visitors. It's home to some of the friendliest people on the planet who are eager to share their culture with visitors — and there's a whole lot of culture to be had. This city is still at the centre of production of handicrafts and traditional textiles and has Javanese dance, theatre and shadow puppet (wayang kulit) performances on nearly every day and night of the week.
Yogya is also the perfect base to explore the absolutely stunning UNESCO-listed temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, which are not far from town. The vibrant countryside along the way, filled with rice paddies, sometimes almost looks too lush and green to be real.
The heart of the town is straightforward to navigate and many key destinations are within walking distance of one another. If the heat is too much, there is never a shortage of cheap transport options, including the becak (pedicabs) that are a distinctive part of the Yogya streetscape.
Yogyakarta has two well-serviced main accommodation strips. Sosrowijayan is located off the main street of Jalan Malioboro to the north, close the main Tugu train station. Jalan Malioboro runs from the station down to the Sultan's palace and is a good point of reference for orientating yourself in the city. South of the palace lies Jalan Prawirotaman, the second accommodation hub which is home to more midpriced beds. Both of these areas offer a great range of options for eating and drinking, as well as essential services such as internet and travel agents. Most of the main sights in the town centre lie in the area between these two hubs.
Besides checking out the temple complexes, which are a must-see, one of the best things to do in Yogyakarta is to simply soak up the atmosphere. The kampungs, or local neighbourhoods, are intriguing to wander around. Close to the Kraton, puppet workshops and batik galleries are tucked along narrow laneways, while further south in Kota Gede, silversmiths practice their craft by the street side or in workshops behind houses. Yogya also has a higher-than-average population of genuinely talented street musicians, so you never know when you might run into an impromptu concert. There's also plenty of good shopping options for those in the market for souvenirs.
Government Tourist Information Office, Jl Malioboro No. 16, T: (0274) 566 000
The Central Post Office is located at the corner of Jl Senopati and Jl A Yani and is open during regular business hours.
ATM machines are available around the city. Be sure to cover the keypad when typing your pin and be on the lookout for machines that have been tampered with.
For English-speaking medical assistance, try Bethesda Private Hospital, Jl Jenderal Sudirman No. 70, T: (0274) 586 688.
By Adam Poskitt