Indonesia might induce a bit of analysis paralysis in even the most experienced traveler—after all, the archipelago has over 17,000 islands—but the beginning Indonesia traveler can get the most out of their visit by limiting their trip to the two neighboring islands of Java and Bali.
Java is one of the most densely populated islands in Southeast Asia, and its long heritage of indigenous Javanese culture makes the place a must-see for any traveler visiting the region. Our itinerary's Java leg will include stays in Jakarta (Indonesia's bustling, engorged capital) and Yogyakarta (a center for Javanese culture) before jetting over to Bali just over the Bali Strait.
However, before undertaking any trip to Indonesia, you should review the following travel basics:
- Indonesia travel information: Learn all about Indonesia's visa requirements, currency, and safety guidelines for foreign travelers.
- Money and money changers in Bali: Learn about the local currency, how to change dollars and pounds to the Indonesian rupiah (IDR), and where to have your foreign currency exchanged while on the island of Bali.
- Drug laws in Bali and the rest of Indonesia: Drug possession and trafficking in Bali and the rest of Indonesia can get you in deep trouble so it's wise to understand the laws.
Day 1: Jakarta's Historical Sites
On your first day, you'll fly into the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Nicknamed the "Big Durian,” this sprawling megalopolis covers over 290 square miles in the western part of Java. Once you've checked into your hotel, either in Central Jakarta or in North Jakarta—budget travelers will love the cheap and plentiful budget hotels in Jakarta—your tour of the "Big Durian" can begin.
Jakarta's reputation as a polluted, traffic-choked city has, unfortunately, preceded it, but nobody should miss the chance to tour this unique city. Jakarta is an interesting study in Indonesia's modern history, as it used to be the center of the Dutch colonial presence in the "East Indies,” as Indonesia was called at the time, and entered the postwar years under the sway of the charismatic but ultimately doomed President Sukarno. The Dutch colonizers and the strongman that replaced them shaped Jakarta's most popular landmarks.
Visitors should start with a visit to Fatahillah Square in the north of the city, the crumbling former Dutch colonial capital. The vast square used to be a venue for public executions, while the former statehouse behind it is now a museum dedicated to Indonesia's colonial history.
Next, move south to Central Jakarta, and you travel in time from the 19th to the 20th century, where Indonesia's first president Sukarno solidified his place in Indonesia's history with several notable buildings.
The Monas (short for "national monument" in Indonesian) towers over Central Jakarta, the navel of a plaza that is itself surrounded by government buildings and the Presidential Palace. Book a tour to the very top of the Monas to get a bird's eye view of Central Jakarta. Then, just a short distance away, you can visit Istiqlal Mosque—the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia, whose size is very appropriate for the biggest Islamic nation in the region.
Make a retail detour to Jalan Surabaya Antique Market, where you can look over a treasure trove of Indonesian antiques, old shadow puppets, salvaged ship parts, used luggage, and vinyl LPs, before finishing off your day with a visit to a Padang restaurant, where you can try a vast range of Indonesian dishes served on little plates, along with all the rice you can eat.
Day 2: Bandung
Head to just a little south of the city of Jakarta is the city of Bandung, another Dutch-immigrant-created town nestled among mountains along a river basin. You should be able to drive or take a bus between the two fairly quickly, but we recommend departing early on your second day to make the most of the daylight hours.
Bandung is highly influenced by Dutch visitors who had hoped to make the city the new capital of the nation. This immediately inspired an influx of residents when it was first established, which eventually resulted in the creation of the sprawling city full of fine dining, European-inspired custom boutiques, and arts and cultural spots visitors enjoy today.
Once you arrive in Bandung, you can head over to Tangkuban Perahu, a volcano just north of the city (pictured above). Although the last time this volcano erupted was in 2013, the volcano is still considered active and you should check before planning a visit to this beautiful location.
After the volcano, you’ll not want to miss checking out some of the many, many tea plantations in and around the city of Bandung, most of which have existed and been in use since the Dutch immigrants first tried to claim power over the region.
You’ll then want to make it back into the city before nightfall to check into your hotel—we recommend the Dusun Bambu’s Room Facilities—and grab a bite to eat at any number of great restaurants in the area—ask your hotel concierge or consult TripAdvisor’s list of “Best Places to Eat in Bandung” to plan your dinner or simply wander around until something suits your tastes.
Day 3: Bandung
Whether or not you decide to stay at the Dusun Bambu Family Leisure Park, you’ll want to make your way there to start off your second day in Bandung to fully immerse yourself in Sudanese culture in a fun and environmentally friendly eco-tourism spot.
Here, you’ll be able to dine in a birdcage-inspired restaurant held aloft on stilts or in any number of great Sudanese establishments. Fun for the whole family includes rowing around on the waterfront, riding horses, petting rabbits, or playing on the uniquely designed kid’s playground.
You can easily spend the whole day at Dusun Bambu, but we recommend moving on to explore another great cultural venue: Saung Angklung Udjo, a one-stop workshop that teaches children of all ages about the music and culture of Indonesia. Here, you can experience a live concert, or even learn to play one of the traditional instruments taught at this unique center for art and culture.
Once you’ve finished with Saung Angklung Udjo, we recommend getting another great meal from one of Bandung’s many great restaurants before heading back to the hotel and calling it an early night—you’ll need to be awake quite early for another day of travel on day four of your trek.
Day 4: Borobudur & Prambanan
Early in the morning, board a bus or a hired car to take you to the massive Buddhist mandala known as Borobudur, more than an hour's drive from Yogyakarta. The walkways leading up to the top levels are decorated with 2,672 relief panels that tell stories of the Buddha's life and traditional Buddhist parables.
After you return from Borobudur, spend the noontime hours chasing the shade and pursuing retail therapy in Yogyakarta: buying silver at Kota Gede or watch batik being made in many workshops across the city, prior to buying your favorite swatches.
Not far from Yogyakarta's city borders, you can visit Candi Prambanan, an ancient Hindu temple complex that keeps coming back from the dead—several earthquakes have shaken the temple apart, but the local government keeps putting the pieces back together.
After exploring the temple grounds, book a seat to watch the Ramayana dance performance at Prambanan, performed on an open-air stage in front of the majestically-lit Prambanan temples.
Day 5: Yogyakarta's Kraton
First things first: You'll want to visit the very center of Yogyakarta, the Kraton, an expansive palace compound that is the home of Indonesia's only ruling Sultan, Hamengkubuwono IX.
Yogyakarta's social, cultural, and spiritual life revolves around the Sultan and his palace: Daily Javanese entertainments take place at the palace's Bangsal Sri Manganti pavilion, and the massive Alun-Alun Utara field north of the main residential area of the palace hosts the yearly Pasar Malam (night market) that accompanies the Sekaten, a week-long celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birth.
Exploring the Kraton will take about two hours to complete; afterward, you can explore the museums and tourist attractions around the Kraton, which are all accessible via becak (Yogyakarta's rickshaws) from the palace gates.
Start with a lunch of gudeg at Sentra Gudeg Wijilan, a clump of eateries located east of Alun-Alun Utara along Jalan Wijilan. Gudeg is Yogyakarta's signature dish: a jackfruit-based savory preparation served hot with rice, crispy beef skin, and hard-boiled egg.
Afterward, explore the other attractions nearby: the Museum Kereta, which collects the Sultan's 23 ornate carriages; the Taman Sari, a former swimming, and bathing complex built for the Sultan's use; and Masjid Gede Kauman, Yogyakarta's Westminster Abbey equivalent, immediately across the Alun-Alun Utara.
Day 5: South Bali
Fly in early from Yogyakarta to Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport (compare prices on flights from Adisucipto Airport in Yogyakarta to Ngurah Rai in Bali) to get a head start on the Bali leg of our Indonesia itinerary.
For your first night, stay in South Bali, the tourist epicenter of the island. You have plenty of accommodations to choose from in these parts.
There's plenty to do within an hour's drive of your South Bali resort, but for your first day, we suggest you hit the following spots:
- Visit the world's biggest statue of Vishnu (as yet unfinished) at the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park.
- Go shopping at one of South Bali's many shopping centers.
- Drive all the way to Pura Luhur Uluwatu and watch the area's Kecak and fire dance.
- On the way back from Uluwatu, stop by Jimbaran, Bali to dine right on the beach.
Day 6: Central Bali
Early in the morning, take the hour-and-a-half drive up from South Bali to Ubud in Central Bali, where Bali's magnificent culture lives a charmed life. As you arrive, make sure you have your accommodations lined up.
In the daytime, check out the many art galleries & museums in Ubud, and see why Ubud's reputation as an art and culture hub is so richly deserved. The Museum Puri Lukisan presents modern 20th-century artwork produced by native Balinese while the Blanco Renaissance Museum showcases artwork created by an expatriate artist whose creative juices ran wild as he settled into Ubud.
Before 12-noon strikes, queue up at the Warung Ibu Oka to secure a table early; this open-air restaurant serves babi guling, or Balinese roast pig, for an extremely small number of diners every day. The restaurant is only open for lunch and closes as soon as the last pig is chopped up and served.
From Warung Ibu Oka, walk down Jalan Monkey Forest to do an afternoon tour of Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest at the very end of the road, at the bottom of the slope. The forest and temples within will take about an hour or two to see in full.
Afterward, trudge back up to the Ubud town center to watch a traditional dance performance at Ubud Palace; the performances in town re-enact classic Hindu legends, performed by dancers in colorful, traditional costumes.
Day 7: Taking it Easy in Ubud
After the excitement of the past few days, it's now time to take it easy—and where better to kick back than infamously laid-back Ubud?
Ubud's many spas and meditation centers perform all types of Eastern and Western wellness techniques, from massage to reiki healing to acupuncture to herbal medicine.
Your last day in Ubud is also a great time to sample Ubud's shopping scene: Beginning from the Ubud Art Market across the street from the royal palace (pictured above), you can explore the many boutiques, shops, and stalls radiating from the center of Ubud to the periphery. Jalan Monkey Forest, in particular, has plenty of interesting upscale shopping finds.
Day 8: Tanjung Benoa
For your return engagement to South Bali, go to the eastern part and stay in Tanjung Benoa, the aquasports center of the island. The beach off Tanjung Benoa is no good for surfing, but it's encouraged a more laid-back tourist scene compared to more hectic Kuta on the other side of the island. Spend the morning learning a new aquasport, then tuck in at one of the restaurants in Tanjung Benoa before enjoying a spa break at the Thalasso Bali Spa.
In the evening, catch the Devdan performance at the Bali Nusa Dua Theatre, to see Indonesia's rich dance heritage condensed into a single, spectacular two-hour show: An excellent way to end your long week in Indonesia.