A visit to Java, more than any other island in the archipelago, allows travellers to see and understand what makes Indonesia the country that it is. It’s the beating heart of the nation from multiple perspectives- culturally, economically, religiously and politically. Java contains 56% of Indonesia’s population, which is an impressive statistic considering there are more than 17,000 islands! In total, more than 140 million people call the island home.
Despite the density of its population, Java remains a place where wild, untapped natural beauty reigns and there is a fascinating million year history that has led to the Java of modern day Indonesia. Java is a destination that most definitely rewards those who are willing to go the extra distance to experience something extraordinary.
If all roads lead to Rome, the same could be said of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. With more than 24 million people living in the city proper and its surrounding areas (collectively known as Jabodetabek), it’s the second largest city on the planet. “Bustling” is an understatement. Most who find themselves in Jakarta haven’t gone there for the city itself but, rather, as a stopping point before heading onward elsewhere in the country. Jakarta isn’t completely without merit as a tourism destination, though.
One of the city’s icons is Monas National Monument and the nearby National History Museum. These are great places to visit if you’re interested in topping up on a bit of historical context before starting your adventure in Indonesia.
On the eastern side of the city is Taman Mini Indonesia Indah which is an interesting place to visit to learn about Indonesian culture. The traditional architecture, exhibits, and cable-car affording sweeping views of the surrounding area make it more than worthwhile.
The Istiqlal Mosque and The Catholic Cathedral are two of the most notable religious sites in Jakarta. The former is the largest mosque in Indonesia- which is saying something considering that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Representative of the unusual level of tolerance and religious freedom in the country, the Catholic Cathedral is located just across the street and is almost equally impressive in terms of stature.
The Old Town, also known as Old Batavia is a historical gem that, despite its fallow state, is undeniably charming. A stroll through its scenic colonial alleys and around the various museums in the area is the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Jakarta.
After Jakarta, the next biggest attraction in West Java is Bandung. With nearly seven million inhabitants, it’s not exactly a small town, either. When the Dutch first arrived here they adoringly referred to it as the “Paris of Java” due to its charming European feel and art-deco architecture.
Nowadays, Bandung is a popular place for Javan weekend travellers and is well-known as a famous university town in Indonesia. Surrounded by the lush Parahyangan Mountains, volcanos and tea plantations, Bandung is blessed with unusually pleasant scenery for such a large city.
Popular daytrips from Bandung include Tangkuban Perahu, an impressively imposing volcano and the scenic, other-worldly, crater lakes of Kawah Putih and Patenggang.
With those with enough time, Ujong Kulon National Park is one of Java’s best kept secrets. Tucked away in the extreme southern tip of West Java, the national park is not only home to some of Indonesia’s most pristine and primordial rainforests, it’s also home to what is widely considered to be the rarest large mammal on earth- the Javan rhinoceros.
Brought to the brink of extinction, only a handful of these majestic one-horned creatures remain in the world, and Ujong Kulon is the only place to see them. Although actual sightings of the rhinos are rare, sightings of their footprints and signs of their presence are common. To be in the natural habitat of one of earth’s most precious animals is an experience that more than justifies the relative difficulty of getting to the area.
Also known as Yogyakarta Special Region, Central Java is best known for its A-list UNESCO World heritage sites, although the capital city of the region, Yogyakarta, is one of Indonesia’s most charming destinations in its own right.
Jogja, as it is often called, boasts the top attractions of Prambanan, an ornate Hindu temple, Keraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat, an 18th century palace that once housed the Sultan of Java, and the beautiful water temple of Taman Sari.
The biggest draw to Central Java, indeed one of the biggest draws to Indonesia itself, is Borobudur Temple. The temple is so impressive that it is often referred to as the “Angkor Wat of Indonesia.” The comparison isn’t totally unfair. Among historical heritage sites in Southeast Asia, Borobudur surely sits alongside Angkor Wat in terms of size and intrigue. Located on an elevated area surrounded by two volcanos, the imposing structure is not only gorgeous, but the scenery is, too. At only 40km from Jogja, it’s also relatively easy to visit.
Central Java is home to Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, which translates, quite simply, as “Mountain of Fire”. It has erupted an incredible 68 times since the mid-15th century. It is possible to climb with a qualified guide, although precautions must be made to ensure that safety isn’t a concern. The activity of the mountain is monitored daily and access to trails change on a whim.
If Volcanos are your thing, East Java is the place to be. It’s home to two of Indonesia’s most famous and picturesque volcanos, although this title is up for debate.
Of these, Mount Bromo reigns supreme in terms of reputation. Standing alone on a vast plain, known as the “sea of sand”, the vistas of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park afforded atop Bromo are unrivalled. The other-worldly are best viewed at sunrise.
Lesser known but no less spectacular is Ijen, a complex of strato-volcanos on the eastern edge of Java that offers travellers a truly unique volcanic experience in a country overflowing with them. Deep within the caldera’s interior, the ignition of escaping molten sulphur causes blue flames to emerge from the volcanic floor. If this wasn’t spectacular enough, within a few short meters of this blue-fire is the highest acid lake in the world. The combination of the vivid green acid lake, the vibrant blue flames, yellow sulphur and Martian-like surroundings combine to create one of the most surreal settings on the planet.
The largest volcano in the East Java is Semeru, which means “Abode of the Gods”- a name derived from an ancient Hindu legend. If the name seems over-the-top, wait until you see it in person. The volcano seems to rise out of nowhere, reaching straight up into the heavens. It’s no wonder that, when ancient people first saw the mountain, divine legends were inspired by it.
Semeru, the largest volcano in East Java at 3,600m, is part of the same complex of volcanos as Ijen. Ambitious hikers with enough fortitude to make it to its peak are treated to one of the most spectacular vistas in all of Indonesia. High above clouds that would otherwise obscure the view, the vantage point allows you to see the tips of Ijen and the other smaller volcanos in the area laid out like islands in a sea of sulphurous clouds.
How to get there:
By Plane: Java is the seventh largest island in the world and boasts 7 international airports. Most visitors will arrive at Jakarta International Airport (Soekarno-Hatta). The next most common entry point is Yogyakarta Adisucipto International Airport, and then Bandung International Airport (Husein Sastranegara) and Surabaya Juanda International Airport.
Options for transport onward are numerous and easy to find- although don’t expect efficiency. Java is well known for the spectacular sights it provides to travellers by train- the route from Jakarta to Yogjakarta is known to be especially scenic.