- Yogyakarta — the heritage city of Java and a semi-autonomous sultanate, in Yogyakarta Special Region
- Solo (Surakarta) — a bustling city that has retained its authentic traditional Javanese nature
- Semarang — the capital of Central Java province, an ancient seaport with preserved colonial legacies
- Jepara — the furniture manufacturing capital of Indonesia; hundreds of workshops working mostly in teak
- Wonosobo — sleepy small city and regency, gateway to the enchanting Dieng Plateau with its volcano, temple, and nature
- Kudus — a small city of great importance to the Muslims of Java, a blend of Java and Muslim
- Magelang — the nearest large town to Borobudur with a splendid history from the Mataram period
- Purwokerto — the gateway to Baturaden Park (12 kilometers from the peak of Mt Slamet) and the mighty Mt Slamet
- Tegal — a lively north coast town with a strong colonial past
- Kebumen — a small city of great tourist attractions
- Borobudur — the world's largest Buddhist monument
- Dieng Plateau — volcanic highland plateau with the oldest temples in Indonesia
- Karimunjawa — a marine park of 27 islands, well off the beaten track
- Mount Merapi — a perennially active and spectacular volcano
- Parangtritis — a beach to the south of Yogyakarta
- Prambanan — a collection of awe-inspiring Hindu temples
- Gunung Kidul - beautiful beaches, in Yogyakarta Special Region
Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is the official language of education and business. The majority of Central Java's population also speak Javanese, a related but mutually unintelligible language. In the southwest of the region, near the boundary with West Java, Sundanese is also spoken. English and sometimes other European languages are widely understood in the major tourist areas.
The busiest airports in the region are Yogyakarta's Adisucipto Airport (JOG IATA), Semarang's Achmad Yani Airport (SRG IATA), and Solo's Adi Sumarmo Airport (SOC IATA). They are well connected with domestic flights to Jakarta, Surabaya, and Denpasar (Bali) among others. In addition, the airports all have international connections to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, with Yogyakarta and Semarang also linking to Singapore Changi Airport.
Purwokerto, Yogyakarta, Solo and Semarang are well connected to other cities by rail , providing classes for all budgets. Cities and towns in Central Java often have more than one station, a legacy of the many private railway lines of the colonial era.
The region is well served by trains with two main lines, one along the north coast linking Solo, Semarang and Tegal, with stops in between. The southern line links Solo and Yogyakarta with Purwokerto and small towns on the south coast. Both lines continue through to Jakarta in the west and Surabaya in the east.
The trains are comfortable and run to schedule.
Buses are widespread, servicing cities, towns and to a lesser extent, rural areas.
The region's road network is in poor condition, and travelers off the beaten track will need some patience and flexibility. Progress has been made in expanding the network of toll highways, mostly along the north coast road. Most inter-city roads are still two lane affairs of variable quality, often packed with buses and trucks.
Even by Indonesian standards, driving in Central Java will scare most visitors and self-drive is unlikely to be enjoyable.
Having said that, car is a convenient way to cover some of the large distances in the region. Hiring a car with a driver can be cost-effective if you are in a group, and allow more flexibility to get off the beaten track.
For one of the ubiquitous Toyota Avanzas (or similar size compact MPV) expect to pay in the region of Rp650,000 (in town) or Rp900,000 per day (out of town) per day, all-in i.e. driver's fee, all parking and toll costs, petrol, and food and accommodation for the driver. This will carry five people, without large amounts of luggage. For the larger Toyota Innova (or equivalent) budget another Rp100,000 per day.
There are taxi services in all cities and large towns. In general the standard is satisfactory. Metres are fitted and will mostly be used. Most will be happy to take a longer job, either on the meter or by agreed price, and wait for you while you do some sight-seeing or go shopping.
Taxis are licensed for a defined area, which may be quite large and cover some of the hinterland outside the town or city where they are based. It might be an option for a day of out-of-town sightseeing.
Taxis are normally happy to take fares to neighbouring towns or cities, sometimes with a defined surcharge if it is a longish distance. They will usually not be able to operate in that city though, when they arrive, so will need to drop you at your specified destination and then head straight out of town again.
Some taxi companies in the region have fleets of the compact MPVs rather than sedans, which are useful if travelling in a bigger group, or you just want more leg room.
Motorcycle taxis are common all over Central Java. Where ojeks really come into their own when travelling through the province is to get to some out of the way rural places that maybe a car cannot make it to: a hidden temple or beach, or some such. A lot of Java's ugliest development takes place by the side of the major roads - driving along can be a dispiriting experience of unfinished concrete draped with tatty advertising banners. But head off the road, even just one kilometre, and you could be in a tranquil, green haven of rice terraces and clay-tiled villages. Consider using an ojek to make the break.
The taxi and ojek industries have been rocked by the rise in smartphone apps allowing ride-hailing. Uber, Go-jek and Grab operate in many cities and large towns in Central Java.
It is worth getting an Indonesian SIM card with data to allow you to use them. Also consider learning enough Indonesian or Javanese to talk to the driver who will normally call you straight after accepting the job, to confirm your location.
Becak (BAY-cha') are pedicabs used for travelling short distances in places such as residential areas and around traditional markets. The driver sits behind the passenger and turns the pedals. They are found in all towns and cities in Central Java. Becak are the most expensive means of transit, but are good value for money considering the human effort that goes in to it. Good communication skills are vital to prevent getting overcharged. Agree the cost beforehand, and haggle for the best price.
The region is best known for its two A-list UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Borobudur is an ancient Buddhist stupa and temple complex dating from the 9th century, and is the single most visited attraction in Indonesia. That brings with it some issues and the site can be over-run. Visitors keen to really enjoy the undoubted magnificence of Borobudur should consider staying the night in the area and visiting early the following morning before the hordes of day-trippers arrive. there is a growing choice of accommodation in Borobudur village itself, and sunrise entrance packages to the candi are available.
No less impressive is the Hindu temple complex at Prambanan dating from the same period. The huge, imposing candi rise 40 to 50 metres in height and make for a truly awe-inspiring spectacle. Prambanan was tragically damaged by a major earthquake in May 2006 but the site is open again as restoration work continues.
The nearby Queen Boko Palace was an 8th century giant and complete Javanese palace and now stones that once support its structures, still standing in its former glory. It has magnificent views down over Prambanan.
Both Borobudur and Prambanan are easily combined with a visit to the ancient city of Yogyakarta, and these three destinations account for the vast majority of visitor arrivals in the region. Yogyakarta is the undoubted cultural capital of Java with a wonderful palace (kraton) and many historical attractions.
Perhaps more for aficionados of steam, but there is a good collection of steam locomotives in Central Java. The best collection is in the railway museum in Ambarawa just south of Semarang, which are run from time to time. There are also some in at the forestry museum in Cepu, remnants of the teak logging industry. The sugar cane factories also used to use them. On high days and holidays, a steam locomotive runs up and down the main street in Solo.
The Dieng Plateau is a little off the beaten path. This volcanic highland plateau north of Wonosobo is home to the oldest standing structures in Indonesia (Hindu temples dating from the 8th century). But it is the scenery that draws most visitors here. Spectacular conical volcanoes, steaming sulphurous pools and eerie mountain lakes make for an almost other-worldly landscape, not to mention the severe environmental damage being done by intensive agriculture.
Getting out into nature
Let's be realistic, Central Java is one of the most densely populated parts of the planet. Pretty much everything you see in Central Java will have been touched by the hand of humankind. The most you can hope for will be getting out to somewhere green, away from the unfinished concrete and bright yet fading paint jobs of the towns.
Heading up a mountain is one way to see some nature, and Central Java offers some spectacular options. There are five volcanoes in the province in the high category, which means over 3,000m altitude and 1,000m prominence above the surrounding landscape. These are Slamet, Sumbing, Sindoro, Merbabu and Lawu (shared with East Java). Merapi and Unggaran are medium, being between 2,000m and 3,000m in altitude and with over 1,000m of prominence. Mount Muria on the north coast is in a lower category, having an altitude between 1,000m and 2,000m and more than 1,000m of prominence. Mount Prau near the Dieng Plateau, and Mount Telomoyo, and outlier of the Merbabu massif are also interesting and make exciting hikes.
With plenty of mountains and plenty of rain, there are bound to be plenty of waterfalls. Within striking distance of Semarang alone you can choose from the mighty Curug Sewu, Curug Lawe and Curug Semirang. Many more remain to be discovered. Just ask around for the nearest curug (CHOO-roog).
Batik, Indonesia's national fabric is synonymous with the culture of Java itself. Batik making in Java is an ancient tradition that has been passed down through generations. A wax-resist dying technique is used, in which melted wax is applied to the fabric using a canting (CHANT-ing), a tiny metal cup with a spout. It is held like a stylus and used to cover the predrawn pattern lines. It needs painstaking precision as the patterns can be extremely complex. This method is called batik tulis, meaning written batik. When dyed, the areas covered in wax will not take the dye. The wax is later removed by washing. This process needs to be repeated many times to build up a multi-coloured cloth. Batik patterns are rich in meaning, such as the Sidomukti pattern that symbolizes prosperity and happiness and is worn during weddings. Some patterns used to signify social status and hierarchy such as parang which used to be exclusive to the nobility. The traditional method is now threatened by mass-printed batik. In 2009, UNESCO designated Indonesian batik as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". The declaration is aimed at helping to save traditional batiking. Batik is produced across Java but Central Java is often considered its home. There is a dizzying variety of styles to choose from. Each town has its special motifs and colourways, from the rich red browns of Solo and Jogja, to the Chinese and European influence of Lasem on the north coast, and the unusual black, cream and indigo colours of the batik from Bakaran near Pati. Solo boast the districts of Kampung Kauman and Laweyan, home to traditional batik merchants, and three of Indonesia's biggest batik manufacturers, Danar Hadi, Batik Keris and Batik Semar all based there.
Batik if, of course, the pre-eminent cloth of Java, and there will be opportunities to buy wherever you turn. But batik is not the only cloth being made in the region.
In Klaten, between Yogyakarta and Solo, the striped cotton cloth known as lurik is still being woven, in traditional narrow bands, often on back looms. You will most frequently see it, mostly blue or black, being used by market traders to strap their baskets to their backs. You will also see Javanese men in traditional dress wear it with broader stripes in the surjan jackets.
Around Jepara, especially the village of Troso, there are weavers using jacquard looms and also making cloths using the ikat process.
There is an increasing amount of dyeing being done with natural rather than chemical dyes. On the coast you might find batik dyed in the soft browns and greens derived from mangrove leaves.
One lurik producer working in traditional and modern colours is:
- Lurik Yojo, Jogja, ☎ . Traditional back-loomed lurik cloth and hand-drawn batik in natural colours.
Coffee and tea
There is a lot of excellent coffee grown in Central Java, both arabica and robusta. The area around Temanggung is particularly noted as a coffee growing area, but it will be found growing wherever the altitude is high enough.
Traditionally, the preference has been for a very dark roast, with beans ground superfine to a powder. This has sometimes made it difficult to differentiate between styles, but things are changing. Small producer groups are starting up, preparing different levels of roast and grind, and packing airtight to preserve freshness. Look out for suppliers working with local farmers on just about any volcano you go to. One brand to look out for is:
- 1 Kopi Petruk (Petruk Coffee), Deles Indah RT27/009, Sidorejo, Kemalang, Klaten (From growers on the eastern slopes of Mount Merapi), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. From the Lintas Merapi community group. Arabica beans and ready-ground, identified by the preparation process, roasting date, depth of roast, altitude of the plantation, and the farmers' group who grew it. Available in the delicatessen attached to the Mediterranea restaurant in Jogja. Rp65,000 for 250g beans.
You may be offered the fabled kopi luwak, from beans pre-digested by palm civets, while you are in the region. It is almost impossible to validate whether what you are being offered has been processed by truly wild civets, or even by any civet at all. Be aware that kopi luwak is also produced from caged civets in unnatural and unhealthy conditions. Please think twice before buying.
Tea is less widespread but there are a number of plantations across the province, on the slopes of Mount Lawu, Mount Slamet and the Dieng Plateau. It should be possible to buy loose-leaf tea from any of them. Tea from the Tambi plantation near the Dieng Plateau comes in attractive boxes decorated with wayang figures.
Indonesia is drowning in garbage. Innovative craftspeople are using some of it to make attractive and useful items - wallets, bags, jewellery, for example. They are using car tyres, old mobile phones, discarded clothes, plastic shopping bags, used oil drums, and so on. Sometimes the producers are local communities who have received training, and all of the proceeds go back into the local community.
Magelang has some crafters working with cow and buffalo horn. Items start from small simple bowls and spoons, through larger rice scoops and hair pins, up to extravagant statuettes for the coffee table. The sellers and stalls around the Borobudur complex of candi always have a good selection, but you'll need to haggle as though your life depended on it.
If you have a very generous luggage allowance you may like to pick up a Buddha or other statuette carved from the volcanic stone of Merapi. The villages of Muntilan and Mungkid on the road between Magelang and Jogja are the places to look. At the very least, buy a proper Javanese cowék (CHOH-weh'), the flat stone used for grinding spices.
Look out for the distinctive oleh-oleh from each part of the region:
- Bakpia (bah'-PEE-yah) — the small, sweet pastry filled with mung bean paste from the Pathok district of Jogja
- Lumpia Semarang (LUMP-ee-ya) - Semarang's largish spring roll, heavy on the bamboo shoots
- Bandeng Presto — in the other hand you'll be clutching a bag of these pressure-cooked milkfish, as you board the bus out of Semarang
- Wingko Babat — if you had a spare hand, you'd have a box of this grilled coconut and sticky rice cake
- Jenang — palm sugar and coconut milk fudge from Kudus
The food of Central Java is renowned for its sweetness, and the dish of gudeg (GOO-duhg) made from jackfruit, is particularly sweet. Yogyakarta is renowned for its ayam goreng (fried chicken) and klepon (KLUH-pon), green rice-flour balls with palm sugar filling. Surakarta's (Solo) specialities include nasi liwet (rice with coconut milk, unripe papaya, garlic and shallots, served with chicken or egg) and serabi (coconut milk pancakes topped with chocolate, banana or jackfruit). Some insist that in a country of interesting cuisine, the best hails from Central Java. That may or may not be the case, but several wonderful dishes originate from this region. These include:
- Gudeg — coconut-infused stew of young jackfruit, chicken and hardboiled eggs with a subtle sweet and savoury taste. Vendors all seem to have their own secret recipes, but the flavour base usually includes bay leaf, coriander, candlenut, onion, garlic, galangal, ginger, palm sugar, and unusually, teak tree leaves. This is a Yogyakarta speciality. Best tried in Yogyakarta but you will find it elsewhere
- Lumpia Semarang — spring rolls could almost be the national dish of Indonesia, and the Semarang variety is one of the very best. Fillings vary but always include bamboo shoots. The dipping sauce might be sweet soy with chopped fresh chillies (kecap manis pake cabe potong), spicy sambal or a sweet garlic, tomato and chilli blend
- Nasi Bogana — this convenient dish has almost fastfood status across Indonesia these days, but it originated from Tegal on the northern coast of this region. White rice accompanied by a whole host of other possibilities is tightly wrapped in a banana leaf packet. It can then be heated by steaming at any time inside the packet - hence the convenient fast food tag. Accompanying dishes could be chicken curry, tempe (fermented soya beans), tofu, egg, dendeng (spicy beef jerky), chicken livers...... the list goes on. Most likely is a combination of them all. If you are travelling on a budget, keep an eye out for Nasi Bogana street hawkers in any city or town
- Opor ayam — chicken cooked in coconut milk, usually eaten with ketupat (compressed rice cake). Eaten all year round, but also eaten as the celebratory meal at the end of the fasting month. Kind of a Javanese Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey. Having to eat it for days on end during that holiday period can result in an opor-dose
- Pecel — said to originate in East Java but found widely in Central Java, this is a dish of steamed vegetables in peanut sauce. Though superficially similar to the ubiquitous gado-gado there are key differences. Pecel has only steamed beansprouts, spinach, cabbage and green beans. None of the boiled egg, potatoes, beancurd or pressed rice cake that gado-gado has. Pecel sauce has a good dollop of palm sugar, making it a bit sweeter and glossy red compared to the pale brown of gado-gado sauce. The key flavouring in pecel sauce is kencur, an aromatic rhizome related to ginger.
- Pindang Serani — this fiery, sour fish soup from the north coast may or may not take its name from the Christian (nasrani) Portuguese adventurers who made their way along the north coast early in the 16th century, leaving behind a fort on the coast at the foot of Mount Muria. All the spicy astringency will clear away the gloopy sweetness of too much gudeg
- Soto Kudus — the nationwide family of soupy rice is represented in Central Java by the buffalo- or chicken-based, warmly-spiced version in Kudus, and further to the west on the north coast, the popular sauto which is soto pimped with fermented soybean paste, tauco, to give it umami depth
- Thiwul (TEE-wool) — in the Gunung Kidul region to the southeast of Jogja life has been desperately bleak on the poor, dry soils of the limestone hills. Poverty has driven the people to adapt cassava to be eaten in place of scarce and expensive rice. The cassava is chopped and treated to create a granular, savoury 'grain'. Not eaten widely now as living standards have improved, it can still be found, and makes a tasty alternative to rice.
The angkringan is a popular type of eating stall in Central Java, named after the shoulder pole traditionally used to carry the baskets containing the food. They often serve tiny parcels of rice and a savoury side, wrapped in a banana or waxed paper packet. Due to the small portion, they are known as nasi kucing or sego kucing in Javanese meaning cat rice: just enough for a cat to eat.
Nasi pincuk is a small portion of rice with a small portion of dishes arranged on a banana leaf. It is relatively cheap, but you need maybe two or three to fill up. Usually served by an old lady with a basket on her back.
Being a predominantly Islamic region, alcohol can be a little difficult to find outside the few licensed hotels and restaurants. Supermarkets and mini-markets may have a discreet supply of beer, but rarely will it be chilled. Wine, when available, will be eye-wateringly expensive.
A kind of local alcohol, ciu, is made and you may sometimes be offered it. Drink it at your own risk.
Besides socialising, another reason to drink is to stay hydrated. One of the pleasantest ways to do that in Central Java is with fresh, young coconut water degan (DUH-gan). Look for the pile of used coconut husks by the side of the road. The top will be chopped off a whole one, and a straw stuck in. That's all that's needed. You may be offered sugar syrup or some other flavouring, or ice. Up to you. The bonus is the jellyish flesh you get to scrape out with a spoon. In a restaurant they will do all for you, and tip it into a glass.
With both a well-developed tourism industry and business and industry sectors, there are plenty of sleeping options in the region, from the simplest of backpacker dorms, through plain, cheap business hotels, charming boutique hotels, to the most extravagent five-star luxury.
If you have only one or two days to visit, choose Jogja as your hub, because of the number of sightseeing options.
- Road safety is your major concern — it is recommended to take a local driver. Wear your seat belt and, if possible, avoid long night drives.
- This is an active volcanic and seismic region — there was a major earthquake south of Jogja in 2006 and Mount Merapi to the north of Jogja erupted in 2010. Take heed of official instructions. Even if it is not on alert, climbing a volcano often requires a permit from the national park authorities and they will know of any local risks.
- Risk of violent crime is low — but there is always the chance of petty pilfering and pickpocketing. Keep an eye on your belongings.
- West Java — despite being on the island of Java, it has a separate Sundanese culture.
- East Java — for more national parks and volcanic scenery.
- Kalimantan — flights from Semarang allow you to hop across the Java Sea, in search of the orangutan of Tanjung Puting National Park, or on to Kuching through Pontianak
- Bali — direct flights from Semarang and Jogja