Here’s why you should visit Yogyakarta today

Coffee artisans are giving a fresh look to the city’s café culture

Ive arrived after an eight-hour train ride from Jakarta across the central Javanese rice fields, where I was bowled over by views so stunning I almost missed re-boarding the train after stepping out to photograph them. But in Yogyakarta, dense rain clouds loom overhead and commuters move sluggishly toward the exit. Though I am more than ready for Jogja — as everyone calls it — as darkness draws in over the tattered billboards and unkempt streetscapes around Tugu station, the city isn’t about to surrender its secrets so easily.

Two serendipitous events had brought me here: a travel conference in Singapore, where a representative of Gaia Cosmo Hotel served up a potent Americano, and a night in front of Netflix where I’d been enchanted by Ada Apa dengan Cinta? 2 (What’s Up with Love? 2), a soft-focus romance by director Riri Riza, which became one of Indonesia’s biggest box-office smashes in 2016. Both the hotel and film have their provenance in Jogja, and the movie visits some of the city’s most cinegenic, well-concealed cafés as it tells the slow-burning tale of two ex-lovers unexpectedly reunited on a weekend away.

Pepeng brews coffee at Klinik Kopi
Pepeng brews coffee at Klinik Kopi

This relatively small city with its own distinctive culture feels an appropriate location for the chance encounter portrayed in the film. The creative community here has always coalesced around not one artform, but many. Witness the ceramic studios lining the route to the magnificent 9th-century Buddhist temple, Borobudur; or the batik screen-printers, lesehan (woven mat) café owners and ornate andong (horse-drawn carriages) crowding by a silver lion sculpture on Jalan Malioboro. At the Kraton, or sultan’s palace, classical dancers stage nighttime performances based on Hinduism’s sacred texts (the Ramayana and Mahabharata) alongside wayang puppeteers, amid elegant halls decked with the woodwork of local carvers.

Designs from the country’s biggest and best-known arts college, Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) Yogyakarta, are on view around the city; gamelan musicians energetically slap their percussive instruments beside the brightly daubed street art that surrounds the sports arena. Painters depicting local scenes sit in a row near the Tugu monument. Batik workshops grace the backstreets of Kampung Rotowijayan, as scarlet flags flutter in the rainy season breeze for local luminary Megawati Soekarnoputri’s party, PDI-P, in the run-up to this year’s general election.

Mezzanine café in the north part of Yogyakarta
Mezzanine café in the north part of Yogyakarta

Likewise, the city’s new appeal centers around cafés and hotels, where the craft of younger artisans finds its fullest, most charming expression: undeniably hip, yet unmistakably Jogja. Such cultural fusion stretches well into the outskirts of the city. Here, boutique chain Artotel has set up its central Java base on a street lined with coffee shops, where craftsmen modestly hawk intricate bamboo wares — whistles, keyrings, miniature cars — for a steal. At Lana Gallery, one of the few dedicated contemporary art outlets, you’ll find remarkable work from ISI alumni including the animal-obsessed Karte Wardaya, who was a finalist at the ASEAN Art Awards.

A light-hearted scene in Ada Apa dengan Cinta? 2 sees Cinta (Dian Sastrowardoyo) and Rangga (Nicholas Saputra) stopping for a late-night coffee at Klinik Kopi, receiving a lecture from the owner on coffee processing and ordering a manually made Bu Nur arabica from western Sumatra. The café, a tiny backstreet cabin almost hidden by overgrown foliage, is so discreet that it takes some effort to locate it. But on arriving, you’ll find it almost exactly as portrayed in the movie. Pepeng, Klinik’s co-owner who’s now one of Indonesia’s most famous baristas, blends his coffee-geek persona with a jolly, informal welcome (“You can’t go up there, that’s my house!” he tells me when I try to climb the stairs).

Iqbal, the barista at Awor Gallery & Coffee

Visitors are given numbered cards, as if in a doctor’s clinic (hence the name), and enter one group at a time to chat about their coffee preference before having it poured through a V60 filter and served. While the backroom stocks merchandise and evocative photos of coffee-growing locations, visitors sip their java outside in the tiled front garden. The Bu Nur, incidentally, is one of the purest-tasting coffees I’ve ever had, and testifies to Pepeng’s theory that real coffee requires no milk or sugar.

Epic Coffee
Epic Coffee

I ask Pepeng whether he’s had more customers since the film became successful. “Oh, many, many!” he gushes. “Before, some customers just came for the coffee. After the movie, all [kinds of] people came, and sometimes they didn’t know about the coffee.”

Klinik Kopi is less a café than a clandestine club where secrets are unearthed, stories are told and lessons are learned. Its avowed mission is to help farmers enjoy better living conditions by sharing knowledge about their coffee, and its uniqueness seems all but guaranteed — there are no plans to open another outlet, as Pepeng and co-owner Sigit want to devote their attention to customer service. “Some baristas don’t know how to explain coffee to their customers, because they never go to the farmer,” Pepeng says. “They just buy online — ‘This is from Gayo in northern Sumatra.’ But where is Gayo? ‘I don’t know…’”

Another key scene in Ada Apa takes place at Sellie Coffee, a classy old-school café that serves up grainy tubruk (dense, sweet) brews from western Indonesia. Across its cream-colored walls marked with chevron indents, paintings take their cue from Cubist, Abstract Expressionist and Impressionist styles. The brown and white décor is simple and homey, with a swirling floor design that instills a sense of vibrancy and motion.

But while Klinik Kopi is all about interaction, coffee drinkers here are left to themselves, at tables for two, in a gallery-like setting that lends itself to intimate conversations. It makes perfect sense that this venue was chosen as the backdrop for Cinta’s emotive monologue on the fallout of her relationship with Rangga (seriously, this movie is worth a night in). Everything about Sellie — from the arrangement of the tables, to its modest size, to its prevailing calm — feels specifically designed to host encounters of the most personal kind.

A pour-over, a barista-approved method of coffee-making
A pour-over, a barista-approved method of coffee-making

Yogyakarta might not be a coffee-growing center — it’s more a conduit for fine blends than a production area like Bali — but attention to detail is a hallmark of every specialty coffee shop here. There are design spaces with gardens, such as Eastern Kopi TM, which dazzle with colorful artworks. Mezzanine and Epic Coffee are set in a giant, mural-laden greenhouse and a barn respectively. At Awor Gallery & Coffee, the staff serve single-origin brews to perfection — in a glass, on an indented wooden tray, of course — and cheerily converse with customers as soft jazz wafts through the industrial-chic space filled with photographs (awor means “together” in Javanese). The more opulent Nox Coffee Boutique comes laden with quirky artworks, and leaves its patrons to scroll through Facebook or chat over a chocolatey café Valrhona.

Interior of Nox Coffee
Interior of Nox Coffee

Then again, there’s Filosofi Kopi, another café with a cinematic history — its roots can be traced back to a short-story collection by renowned singer and author Dewi “Dee” Lestari. The moving film Filosofi Kopi (2015), based on the book and directed by Angga Dwimas Sasongko, follows two coffee entrepreneurs with difficult pasts — mercurial Ben (Chicco Jerikho) and even-tempered Jody (Rio Dewanto) — as they struggle to make their labor-of-love café a success. In the 2017 sequel, Ben and Jody meet investor Tarra (Luna Maya) and, convincing her to expand their empire, head to Jogja, where they take inspiration from local specialty kopi joss (charcoal coffee) and set up shop in a quiet neighborhood in the suburbs.

A café Valrhona at Nox Coffee
A café Valrhona at Nox Coffee

In the real world, while the original Filosofi Kopi in Melawai, South Jakarta, is a hipster’s dream with exposed brickwork, blue metal chairs and wraparound illustrations, the Jogja outlet feels far more down-to-earth. This sprawling space is propped up by wooden pillars and beams, and dominated by a hefty old chandelier, below which the house cat cozies up to unsuspecting guests. It feels entirely of a piece with its host city, where gustatory pleasures are rarely gilded or glamorized, but lie off the beaten track to be sought out by connoisseurs.   

Kopi joss itself has its roots in another under-the-radar café, Angkringan Lik Man, which is where Jogja’s coffee story began in the 1950s when an angkringan (informal food stall) vendor named Mbah Pairo started selling a particularly distinctive brew. His tradition continues today on Jalan Wongsodirjan, where his grandson pours jet-black coffee from a metal jug into a glass before infusing it with chunks of red-hot charcoal that spit sparks in the air (“joss” refers to the sound that results when the charcoal is plunged into the drink). The acidity-neutralized drink is then served with sego kucing — sticky rice with grilled tempeh (soybean cake), tofu, satay and other snacks. This unmissable authentic Yogyakarta experience, enjoyed in the company of welcoming locals on a roadside bench, sets you back only IDR17,000 (P63).

Kopi joss at Angkringan Lik Man 
Kopi joss at Angkringan Lik Man

By way of contrast, on my final morning in Jogja, at the seriously chic Gaia Cosmo Hotel’s Inspira Roasters, I cradle a much-needed pick-me-up: a fruity, medium-bodied Aceh Gayo. The city’s only in-house café within a hotel is an immaculate space conceived by general manager Ivan Andries, who first became obsessed with coffee while studying at hospitality college in Sydney, before serving his apprenticeship at cafés
in Australia.

On my way to Tugu for the train ride back to Jakarta, I find street art clustered around the underpasses and side roads encircling the station, where one particularly striking design proclaims, “Welcome to Yogyakarta: City of Tolerance”. The nickname neatly sums up the warm, hospitable vibe of a city in which cultural assimilation is a way of life. And in this country where coffee is less a drink and more a religion, Jogja might well be the high church. I’d say it more than deserves a shot.

Where to stay in Jakarta and Jogja

Jogja’s real-life Filosofi Kopi
Jogja’s real-life Filosofi Kopi
  • Aryaduta Jakarta. Before making your way to Yogkayarta, spend the night at this lovably old-school, supremely comfortable hotel with wonderful customer service, just three minutes’ drive from Gambir station. The hotel is also a short stroll from the world’s third-largest public plaza, Merdeka Square, with its towering centerpiece, Monas, the nation’s independence monument. 44–48 Jln Prajurit KKO Usman dan Harun, Jakarta; aryaduta.com/aryaduta-jakarta-in-jakarta
  • Artotel Yogyakarta. An exhibition of emerging painters (which refreshes monthly) hangs in the year-old Artotel’s lobby by a huge, oblong futon filled with bright cushions; opposite stands a brass slide that spirals down from the second floor. On the upper floors, local artists’ work fills the guestrooms, corridors and Roca restaurant in a depiction of cerita rakyat (folklore), embodying the harmony of modernity and locality. Outside Roca (which stands for Restaurant of Contemporary Art), baristas mix the city’s best cocktails (around IDR82,000, or P304), while a cheerful soft drinks menu invites you to order a cola and “Enjoy!!! Obesity”. 14 Jln Kaliurang Km5.6, Kabupaten Sleman, Yogyakarta; artotelindonesia.com/yogyakarta 
  • Gaia Cosmo Hotel. Soft furnishings and elegantly chiseled contours are defining traits of this classy, eco-conscious 179-room boutique hotel that’s inspired by Japanese minimalism. But what really stands out are the eccentric modern interpretations of classical Javanese art and the Inspira Roasters café, which roasts beans from across the Indonesian archipelago, from Papua in the far east to Sidikalang in Sumatra. If you don’t have time for the meticulous brewing process, order a kopi susu (coffee with milk) to go. 16 Jln Ipda Tut Harsono, Yogyakarta; gaiacosmo.com

How to get to Yogyakarta

The Taksaka train
The Taksaka train

Fly into Jakarta from Manila on Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com). In the Indonesian capital, pre-order your return ticket on the scenic Taksaka train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta at tiket.com/kereta-api (choose the “Eksekutif” carriage for adjustable seating with plentiful leg room, air-conditioning and trolley service). Keep the email confirmation and print it out using the machines at Jakarta’s Gambir railway station (you’ll receive a paper ticket in return).

There are two daily Taksaka services to Yogyakarta, but the best time to depart is at 8.30am — you’ll travel in daylight through the wide-open valleys, terraced paddy fields and villages of central Java’s agricultural heartland. The train makes four stops on the way — at Cirebon, Purwokerto, Kebumen and Kutoarjo — and the restaurant car is an excellent place to befriend locals. Take the 8.00am train from Yogyakarta back to Jakarta for the same journey in reverse.

This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Jonathan Evans

Photographed by

Muhammad Fadli

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