The region is host to not one, but two royal cities, and the magnificent ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Lesser known, yet also remarkably impressive and ancient sites can be found on the slopes of Gunung Lewu near Solo, clustered atop the Dieng Plateau and more still within reach of coastal Semarang.
If that is not enough, the Karimunjawa Islands—a string of jewel-like tropical islands—lay off the north coast. A generally decent selection of accommodation, good tourist infrastructure and tempting culinary traditions add to the central region’s position as the jewel in Java’s royal headgear.
Much of Central Java is well connected to Java’s east and west by an efficient train service, by far the best means of travel. Lamentably not everywhere a traveller may wish to explore in the province is on the rail line and for some destinations it is the road or nothing, at which time you’ll need a little patience and perseverance—allow a full day’s travel even if Google Maps suggests it may only take a few hours, and expect the unexpected.
Java’s wet season runs roughly late October to late February, but has been known to extend a month or more in either direction. During this time, road travel is fine on the major roads, but landslides do happen and there can be trip disruptions. Heavy rain can also cause delays on the rail network and rough seas can disrupt or cancel ferry services to Karimunjawa. If you’ve got a date with a long haul international flight, be sure to allow enough wiggle room to make sure you don’t miss it.
Costal areas can feel very hot during the day, but evening temperatures, particularly in the higher inland, can drop at night. If you are planning on visiting the highlands around Dieng and Gedung Songo near Semarang, bring protective cold weather gear—even in dry season. If your trip plans coincide with Ramadan book rail travel as far in advance as possible or consider changing your trip and pick another island in Indonesia. At this time the entire population of Java is on the move, and if you think the railways are congested, you should see the roads!
Day 1: Yogyakarta
Yogyakarta is the big fat diamond in Central Java’s crown with a profusion of sparkly enticements, not least the UNESCO World Heritage listed ancient Hindu-Buddhist sites of Borobudur and Prambanan. You’ll have no trouble finding decent accommodation here either, with a terrific selection for every budget, so get yourself settled with a bed for the night, then head out to see what all the fuss is about.
Assuming you’ve arrived earlier in the day, we’d start by exploring the old walled city of the Yogyakarta Sultanate, the cultural and mystical heart of Yogya—first with a visit to the Kraton (Sultan’s palace), then continuing to Taman Sari and Sumur Gumuling, a 500 metre walk away. Taman Sari literally “fragrant garden”, is popularly known as the “Water Castle” and in the past was a watery playground for Sultans and concubines. From Taman Sari an underground tunnel connects to a unique underground mosque, Sumur Gumuling. If you have extra time in Yogya, you could spend a day exploring the lanes and alleyways of this fascinating part of town, but we’ll head back in the evening regardless.
Jump in a taxi (or on a TransJogya bus) to Kota Gede which is popular for silver crafts, but was once the seat of the Islamic Mataram Kingdom with historical sights and architecture to discover. Stop for a bowl of bronkos at Warung Jawi before you wander, a Yogya speciality. When you’re done sightseeing, return to your hotel to freshen up or continue into the city centre to Jalan Malioboro, Yogya’s pumping main artery. This busy street is lined with souvenir shops by day and come evening turns in to a mile-long restaurant. This is “non-stop-Yogya” with crowds, street musicians, sellers and more. Pick a lesehan stall and sit down on a mat on the ground to enjoy Yogya’s famous dishes of gudeg and fried chicken.
If you’re still up for more fun, return to the walled city and at the southern square, the Alun-Alun Kidul, join in a mystical game of blind-man’s-bluff or a crazy peddle car convoy—mirth and merriment for any age.
Day 2: Yogyakarta: Borobudur and Prambanan
You’ll have to set your alarm early today, as the best time to see the eight-century marvel, Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, is at sparrow’s fart when you’ll avoid the heat and most of the crowds. Borobudur is a good hour’s travel from central Yogya, so there’s time to snooze on the way. Note that unless you book a special sunrise tour, the gates don’t open until the day has already started.
Once you’ve done with the sublime, you may care to go to the extreme and check out a nearby folly, locally know as Gereja Ayam or the Chicken Church. From Borobudur you could return to Yogya to recover from the early rise, and head to Prambanan around 15:00 in time to see the sunset, but if you are into temples, a host of smaller but no less significant temples surround Prambanan itself and it’s well worth spending a few hours exploring this less visited area.
If you are visiting during the dry season, make sure you catch the wonderful outdoor performance of the Ramayana ballet in the evening with Prambanan temple as the backdrop. If your travel time is a little more flexible, consider visiting Borobudur and Prambanan on separate days to avoid being “templed out”.
Day 3: Yogyakarta: Village bike: tour and Parangtritis Beach
Yogyakarta may seem like a busy traffic-clogged modern city, but a mere bike ride away you can experience Javanese village life, rice fields and traditional industries. Rent a bike and follow your nose or join a guided bike tour for a little more insight. Spend the afternoon at the beach at Parangtritis around one hour south of the city, although it’s unsafe to swim here, the scenery, sand dunes and sunset make it a worthwhile trip.
Spend your evening checking out the funky restaurants, cafes and bars around Jalan Prawirotaman, you may even catch some live music. For folks with time to spare add another day or two in Yogya, explore the contemporary art scene at the numerous galleries, peruse the antique shops or maybe learn how to make your own batik.
Day 4: Solo
Solo, Central Java’s other royal city, the heartland of refined Javanese culture is but an hour’s train ride from Yogyakarta, yet feels a world apart. Trains run regally between the two cities, but jump on the early Malioboro Ekspres at around 07:45 or if you’d like a sleep in, the Ranggajati just before 10:00 to make the most of the day. You won’t have the same wide choice of places to sleep as Yogya, but there's a bed for every budget.
Once settled, venture out to see the two royal houses Karaton Kasunanan Surakarta and Puro Mangkunegaran. Stop for some traditional fare in the antique-filled setting at Resto Pecel Solo, where you too will feel like royalty. Spend the afternoon getting another dose of culture checking out the exquisite collection at the Danar Hadi Batik Museum, the Kris Nusantara Museum or the exhibition of downright bizarre curiosities at Radya Pustaka Museum.
When you’ve had enough culture for the day, simply head into the back lanes to explore the city’s Chinatown or take a wander around the kampungs to see where the locals have been producing batik for centuries. In the evening continue to feed your cultured soul and see the Wayang Wong, classical Javanese dance at Taman Sriwedari, or feed your face at Galabo night market instead.
Day 5: Solo: Candi Cetho, Candi Kethek and Candi Sukuh
Head to the slopes of Gunung Lewu to discover Central Java’s most curious of antiquities: Candi Cetho, Candi Kethek and Candi Sukuh. These ancient temples may have you checking your GPS to see if you are actually in Centra America. When you return to Solo it may be difficult to choose from the wide selection of street food available, but don't worry—you have all night.
Day 6: Dieng Plateau
Remember how we mentioned that some places in Central Java required a little patience and perseverance to get to, well hold on to your bumpy seat as you travel to Dieng Plateau, first by bus to Wonosobo (4–5 hours), with a couple of connections to your final destination (1.5 hours), but don’t worry chips and (hopefully) cold beer await, although if there’s no beer we can almost guarantee the cold part. Rest well, as tomorrow you rise early to discover there’s more than chips and beer to make your journey worthwhile.
Day 7: Dieng Plateau: Bukit Sikunir, Dieng’s Temples, Kawah Sikidang and beyond.
Dieng’s enigmatic landscape with mist-swirled bubbling mud pools and hissing sulphuric vents peppered with Indonesia’s oldest existing temples is as dramatic as it is beautiful. Join the early morning crowds for a hike up Bukit Sikunir for an overview, then after breakfast spend the morning wandering around the temples and the otherworldly landscape of Kawah Sikidang. Head back to town to warm up, and maybe another plate of hot chips, before you jump on a motorbike for a spin further afield. There’s not a great deal to do in the evening in Dieng, so early to bed for another sunrise hike tomorrow.
Day 8: Sunrise Gunung Prau; Semarang
Gunung Prau is the highest peak in the area, and a straightforward two-hour hike will get you to the top, and another two down. That will get your heart pumping before another long bus ride as when you return, pack your bags and head to Semarang, the provincial capital on the north coast. You will need to backtrack to Wonosobo to connect to transport to Semarang (3–4 hours). Take a night off and unwind at Spiegel Bar & Bistro in the Kota Lama, the old city (we can recommend the mussels—and the cocktails).
Day 9: Semarang
Semarang has much to offer lovers of architecture, and pride of place is Lawang Sewu, once the head office for Java’s railways and now a museum. Lawang Sewu means 1,000 doors in Javanese and this historic building is said to be haunted—you can take a night tour too if you dare. The colonial city centre is fascinating to walk around, so spend the rest of the morning among the crumbling relics alongside newly renovated structures. Visit Gereja Blenduk, a historic domed church dating from 1753 or check out some contemporary art.
Fill the afternoon with Kampung Pelangi (Semarang’s “painted village”), temples, churches and mosques—there’s many to choose. If you visit 18th century Tay Kak Sie Temple in Chinatown try the lumpia Semarang, the local spring roll at nearby Lumpia Gang Lombok. If you don’t mind heading a little out of town, visit Sam Poo Kong Temple, dedicated to the 15th century Chinese Ming Dynasty Muslim Admiral, Cheng Ho (Zeng He) who is said to have stopped in port on his travels.
Day 10: Semarang: Candi Gedong Songo and Ambarawa
Hit the road for a day trip to Candi Gedong Songo, a group of temples that date from around the same time as those of the Dieng Plateau, yet the beautiful mountainous landscape is remarkably different. Train aficionados should not miss Ambarawa’s Railway Museum and if you time your trip for a Sunday, you may have the opportunity to ride the rails on an old train. These two sights are about 15 kilometres apart, so are easily combined. Back in Semarang, if you’ve timed your trip for Friday, Saturday or Sunday you’re in time for the night market at Pasar Semawis in Semarang’s Chinatown—you’ll be spoilt for choice come dinner time.
Day 11: Jepara
The small coastal town of Jepara is more widely known for furniture than as a tourist destination, but it is the gateway to Karimunjawa, an idyllic small archipelago off the north coast of Central Java. Jepara can be reached by public transport from Semarang, but if you have the budget, we’d make the most of the trip and hire a private driver to stop at Demak and Kudus along the way (although this may be possible with public transport connections too if you leave early enough).
Demak is the home of Mesjid Agung Demak, Java’s oldest mosque and it’s fascinating to visit this local pilgrimage site. Kudus has perhaps Java’s most interesting mosque, you’d swear you were visiting a Hindu temple, and it is well worth going out of the way for. Kudus is also famous locally for Kretek, the sweet smelling clove cigarettes, an aroma synonymous with Indonesia and it was here that this “healthy cure for asthma” (cough cough) was first invented. Visit the Museum Kretek Kudus to learn the story. While you’re in Kudus, stop for lunch at Rumah Makan Gasasa for their signature dish Garang Asem Ayam, chicken slow cooked with fragrant spices in banana leaves—you will thank us for introducing you to this ambrosia.
If you make it to Jepara by early afternoon, you’ll have time to visit the Museum RA Kartini. Dedicated to the town’s favourite daughter and Indonesian feminist hero, RA Kartini started the first school for girls in the country. While there’s still light wander around to the traditional port to see the colourful fishing boats, then climb to the ruins of the old VOC fort for a view of the town. For a seafood feast choose from the warungs at Pantai Kartini, (say hi to the giant cement turtle as you pass) and order pindang serani, Jepara’s delicious traditional sour fish soup.
Day 12: Karimunjawa
Ferries leave early to the Karimunjawa Islands, and if you are visiting on a weekend or holiday, make sure you purchase your ticket in advance. Once you arrive, take a deep breath of salty air ... and relax. Take a trip to one of the secluded white sand beaches and pull up a hammock for the day or jump in for a splash and a snorkel, or, if you’re feeling more energetic take a hike up the hill (but be sure to hire a guide, it’s easy to get lost).
You could also spend the day exploring the island by motorbike instead—perhaps stop at the mangroves for a walk along the boardwalks, it’s pricey for foreigners, but worth supporting (make sure you get an official ticket though). In the evening the village square turns into one gigantic fish barbecue—fresh and delicious, but avoid the tiddlers or there will be nothing to see when you snorkel next time.
Day 13: Karimunjawa
A leisurely day island hopping around the small archipelago is a good plan for the day, snorkelling or diving the underwater marine park. Your guesthouse can easily arrange a trip, but avoid the tours that include swimming with reef sharks in netted enclosures. You may be tired after your long day on the water, but there’s always time for a sunset selfie, right?
Day 14: Onwards
If you have a few more days up your sleeve, you may wish to add another day or three at Karimunjawa, to do, well to do not much. But if you have time commitments, return by ferry and from Jepara connect via bus or minbus to Surabaya (7–9 hours), backtrack to Semarang (3 hours) or Yogyakarta (4–7 hours) for onward travel.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.