Cool Kuta: 15 reasons to love the controversial Sin City of Bali

Kuta is the place where everything started for the now world-famous island of Bali. Once a chilled village by the sea with only a few hippy travellers paying it a visit, things have changed dramatically over the years.

People claim it to be over-developed, clogged with traffic and packed with tourists, amongst them the drunk-twenty-four-hours-a-day “schoolies” crowd.

But nevertheless, there is a certain charm to be found in Kuta, with its laid-back surf culture still tucked away in the narrow streets that are dotted with simple bars and tattoo parlours and lead to an unbeatable golden beach.

With a new wave of cool venues popping up, it looks like Kuta’s experiencing a true renaissance. We’ve picked 15 places – both brand new and well-established – that make this controversial town special.

#1 Beachwalk shopping mall: endless fashion haunts and an A+ cinema

Beachwalk shopping mall Kuta

Java Dirt coffeeshop at Beachwalk mall Kuta

With its open-air gallerias, terraces overlooking the ocean, vertical gardens and smart navigation, Beachwalk is the one mall in Kuta with a human face.

It is also the only shopping centre that Bali expats would go to, not to accompany in-laws looking for souvenirs, but for their very own pleasure. If you’re a Bali expat yourself, be prepared to bump into your swimming coach or neighbour on the way to the Zara fitting rooms.

Yes, for those that have been living in Bali for years, the mass-market fashion stores are a weekend destination – sometimes just to rediscover what winter clothes look like. Maybe even throwing that wool coat on top of their sheer singlet for a second or two.

The best spot at Beachwalk, however, has nothing to do with the clothing. It’s the Premium Lounge at the cinema complex – where you can watch Transformers 10 whilst sinking into an armchair that unfolds into a flat bed similar to those in the First Class of an aeroplane – that really has our attention. Snuggling under the flannel blanket provided and grazing on snacks that waiters deliver in the darkness, for about $10, it doesn’t actually matter what’s on the screen. But as a note of warning: the rules of the local market apply and every film showing will feature superheroes, robots, aliens or all of the above. So you can forget about that indie/festival/underground movie you’ve been dying to see, there isn’t the slightest chance.

Another great place at Beachwalk is the food court on the third floor. It’s not your typical mix of fast food outlets, but rather a tasty selection of popular asian cuisines, from Perankan to Indian, with even a jamu (Indonesian healthy drinks) stall in between.

Steamed dumplings, Hainaneese chicken rice, fried flat noodles char kway teow, dhal stew, wonton soup, pho – you name it, they have it. The court is also styled as a village with colourful rustic huts; the full dining experience.

And we have some good news for the caffeine addicts – one of the island’s finest coffee shops can be found at Beachwalk, too. The little cafe called Java Dirt does a mean cappuccino and iced latte using local beans, all served at the terrace with serene ocean views. Get yourself a packet of fresh roasted beans and you’ll have your kitchen smelling like Indonesia’s finest brew in no time.

Beachwalk Mall
Jl. Pantai Kuta

#2 Mad Ink: one of the best tattoo salons in Kuta

Mad Ink tattoo salon Kuta

Kuta is the epicentre of the island’s tattoo culture. You only need to walk the narrow streets of Poppies Lane or Benisari and you’ll run out of fingers (and toes) counting the parlours. From little holes in the wall to big well-established haunts, there is something to suit any taste and budget.

If you’ve heard that getting inked in Bali is the craziest thing you can do, fear not – the island is home to few great tattoo artists, and it’s known for being clean and safe. You just have to know where to look.

One of the most popular tattoo salons in Kuta is Mad Ink Tattoo Parlour: the owner and resident artist David is in charge of the finest new designs. His studio was called one of the best by Magic Ink magazine, even despite its a tiny size.

So if you’re dying to memorise the name of your new girlfriend or draw a detailed map of Bali on your back, make an appointment well in advance. Here’s an interview with another great Indo tattoo artist to get you inspired.

Mad Ink Tattoo Parlour
Poppies Lane 2 (at Tunjung Bali Inn)
Tel. 0813 3746 1922

#3 TJ’s: Bali’s original Mexican restaurant

TJ's Mexican restaurant in Kuta

Before the Mexican boom hit the island, before all the hip places like Motel Mexicola and Laca Laca opened up, before their owners even visited Bali for the first time during their school holidays – there was TJ’s.

Established in 1984 (30 years ago, just imagine Kuta then!), this family-run bar and restaurant tucked away in the maze of Kuta’s narrow streets has always been an institution. Vivid colors, hearty burritos, enormous nachos and mean margaritas – this place might look down to earth, but with all those simple pleasures, it can take you to cloud 9.

An old time favourite of the ‘first wave’ expats, who these days rarely leave the premises of the posh Canggu Club. Except for every once in a while when they’re keen to shake all the gloss off and reminisce about their Bali 30 years ago, that’s when you’ll find them back at TJ’s.

Jl.Poppies I
Tel. 062-361 751 093

#4 Fat Chow: creative Asian cuisine & a fancy rooftop

Fat Chow cafe in Kuta

Fat Chow cafe in Kuta

One from the new scene of cool Kuta venues, Fat Chow is a darling: think hip interior mixing urban with vintage, some Asian kitsch details and those positive vibrations that bright young chefs are famous for.

Situated in the legendary Poppies II street, this bar/cafe faces a white wall covered with random vandalism, which makes it the perfect background for people watching. And it’s people watching at its finest; get ready to view some wild characters, the kind you can only find in Kuta.

So. People watching without being a fancy rooftop establishment – tick. Cold beers and mojitos – tick. What’s left? good food – tick, tick, tick!

The menu is all about creative Asian, so even your typical burger will be served with a twist; special smoky sauce and a cloud of puffy ‘worm’ rice noodles smothered in between the beef patty and the bun. The crispy pork belly and a hearty bowl of seafood pad thai are worth coming back for, too.

Fat Chow
Jl.Poppies 2, #7c
Tel.  +62 361 753516

#5 Nebula Room: bar with burgers meets fashion backdrop

Nebula Room cafe in Kuta

Another newbie on Poppies II, Nebula Room is a hotspot boasting a cool bar that attracts local celebrity bloggers looking for a fashion shoot backdrop. With killer burgers and a cozy rooftop that opens at 3pm everyday (with grass carpet and beanbags, no less), this is the perfect place for afternoon beer sipping.

Nebula is famous for its guest DJ parties, so check their Instagram for the latest updates. And as it’s right next door to Fat Chow, you can mosey between both of them!

Nebula Room
Jl.Poppies 2, #8
Tel. 062 361 764502

#6 Waterbom: most importantly, stacks of slides

Slide at Waterbom Kuta

Waterslide at Waterbom Kuta

Nobody enters Waterbom for the first time without a hint of surprise that a water park of this quality exists in Bali. A huge space covered in lush greens, smart infrastructure, a vast selection of snack outlets and, most importantly, stacks of slides. From easy and fun to extreme and heart-pounding, even the adults find themselves lining up in eager anticipation.

Some guts are needed to conquer that Climax thing, which is an absolutely vertical slide. The worst thing about it is the initial moments where you step into the lift-like cabin, let the slide attendant close the transparent lid like you are an Egyptian mummy on display at a museum, and wait 10 endless counts for the floor to open up, dropping you down at full speed like you’re nothing more than a trash bag.

People in the end of the line laugh and joke, forgetting that they are a step closer to their own hellish slide fate. Meanwhile, the attendant is keeping the crowd amused with fake counts and ludicrous questions, which makes everyone laugh except the person in the cabin.

A must try experience – just make sure you have a strong heart.

There are also lots of activities to share with the little ones; the river that takes you on a tour of the park while you relax in your inflatable donut; the splash zone with tiny slides and a giant water bucket turning upside down; and a few slides that can be done with a double mattress for double fun!

Check out our ‘Bali with kids’ guide for more on vacationing with the little ones.

Waterbom Bali
Jl.Kartika, Tuban

#7 Fancy brunches: oysters and bubbles at midday

Sunday brunch at Feast Sheraton hotel Kuta

If someone would have told us a few years ago that we’d be enjoying oysters and bubbles for lunch in Kuta, we’d have thought they were cluesless. But the New Kuta = new standards. These days, you can enjoy a proper brunch without travelling to the fancier areas of Bali.

Feast’s Sunday Market Brunch is a one-stop weekly occasion for any foodie: wander through the open-air market and stop at interactive cooking stations and displays to sample tantalising dishes like fine cheeses, gourmet sausages, king prawns, sushi, sashimi, suckling pig and organic chocolates. Feeling flat? A glass or two of rosè will help to liven things up. While parents are indulging, the little ones will be occupied, too – there is plenty of finger food, attentive staff to keep an eye on them and a play area to keep them busy, so the adults can actually chew properly. The brunch runs every Sunday from 12 noon to 3 pm and is priced at just Rp. 270.000 per adult and Rp. 135.000 for kids aged 4 – 12 years.

Another lavish brunch spot is Paradisus Restaurant at the Eden Hotel in Kuta. There are classics like Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict; Asian staples like dim sums; Balinese bestsellers like Bebek Betutu; not to mention juicy roasts, raw seafood and to-die-for desserts. Pick what you like most or sample it all – that’s what brunches were invented for! This particular brunch runs from 12pm – 3pm every Sunday. Price: Rp.195,000 nett per person, all you can eat.

Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort, Jalan Pantai Kuta
Tel. 0361 846 5555
 Jalan Kartika Plaza 42
Tel. 0361 300 2121 

#8 Kuta Square: all of your shopping done in 20 minutes

Shopping promenade at Kuta square

Kuta Is home to three huge shopping malls: BeachWalk, Discovery and the brand new Lippo, where you can find everything – perhaps even the kitchen sink. But if you want to avoid hours trawling through things you don’t need just to find a pair of boardshorts, opt for the more pleasant, condensed option of Kuta Square.

It’s quite literally a square, packed with all the main surf shops and sports brands with a few shoe stores and watch shops in between. Sitting in 3-storey houses that look almost colonial, you will find the Insight concept store, Surfer Girl, Billabong and many others, cheek to cheek. You can be done with all your shopping in 20 minutes, getting all the holiday essentials without being seduced into buying tons of other stuff that you didn’t plan (or budget) for.

But watch out, within Kuta Square there is an entrance to another mall that is part of the local Matahari chain. It might look like just a spacious souvenir shop from the street, but it will eventually reveal itself to be a 3-level, wallet sucking monster. It will suck you in with the blink of an eye and spit you out when the day is over. You’ve been warned.

#9 Feyloon: Chinese dining at its finest

Feyloon Chinese restaurant Kuta

Feyloon Chinese restaurant Kuta

From the outside, despite being wrapped in neon and huge in size, Feyloon doesn’t seem very popular. But as soon as you step inside, you’ll realise this is a false first impression. The enormous dining room in scarlet and gold colours, with chairs draped in ‘fancy’ fabric and beautified with bows, will more than likely be full to the brim.

This is a typical restaurant for traditional Chinese family gatherings: every round table can host up to 12 people and some of them are spinning, to save passing around the endless delivery of dishes.

Every day there are birthday celebrations of nonnas and little kids alike, with free flowing dim sums and some sophisticated dishes like giant carps with various stuffings.

To top it off, there’s a live performer on the stage (that’s decorated with golden bows, too) singing endless ballads and doing requests; his tight snow-white jeans and Stevie Wonder-style sunnies have become iconic to Feyloon regulars. If it sounds like it’s crowded and loud – it is. But it feels like Christmas every night and you will not feel hungry again for a week.

Jl.Raya Kuta, 8
Tel. 036 176 6308

#10 Twice Bar: a US biker bar in Bali

Navikula rock band at Twice bar Kuta

Twice bar interior Kuta

This is where the pulse of underground Kuta beats. Twice is a US biker bar inspired hotspot for indie rock shows, some of them being pretty hardcore; no-compromise inks and drinks that were designed to trash, not refresh.

All the mean boys and girls hang out here, slamming to the noise of local punk bands with names like Ugly Bastard and BattleField. The biggest crowd caller is local rock band, Superman Is Dead – a band that happens to include the club’s owners.

This is the perfect spot to submerge into the wild, rebellious and honest subculture of IndoRock, avoiding the trashy nightlife of big Kuta superclubs.

Twice Bar
Poppies II
Tel. 0361 750507

#11 Take Japanese Restaurant: the freshest fish in town

Take Japanese restaurant in Kuta

Take japanese restaurant Kuta

The oldest and best Japanese restaurant in Bali, Take is one of the rare attractions that can make an expat who has been based in Sanur or Canngu for years drive all the way to Kuta.

But this trip is more like flying to Kyoto than driving to Kuta. The old Japanese owner meets every guest with a deep bow while the staff shout traditional Japanese greetings at unrivalled levels of both volume and enthusiasm.

Before being seated at the pillows, you can look into the eyes of your dinner; having the freshest fish in town is the pride of the restaurant. Listen to the owner’s advice and order sashimi catch of the day and then follow it with a signature dish like Tiger Eye Roll. And sake! For the love of Omoikane, don’t forget about the sake. At the end of the day, you’ve come all the way to Kuta, you might as well enjoy yourself.

Jl Patih Jelantik
Tel. 0361 759745

#12 Alta Moda Fabrics: the Disneyland of clothing production

Alta Moda textile shop in Kuta

This is a Disneyland for all the Bali expats who are into clothing production – and as you might have noticed, that’s every second expat. Spend a year in Bali and you’re likely to catch the bug too. Before you know it you’ll be burning with desire to design a bikini line or create a kitsch collection of urban kimonos. Farrrshion!

In this case, head to Alta Moda, which is considered to be the best fabric store on the whole island: piles and piles of quality local and imported silk, printed cotton, lycra and costume wool will make your creativity burst.

Even if you’re just accompanying a friend who is looking for a plain white linen cutoff, you’ll most probably find yourself at the cashier paying for 2 meters of Moschino chiffon to make the beach dress of your dream and a piece of wild fuchsia lace to make a killer kebaya to attend your Balinese friend’s wedding next month. A very, very dangerous place – especially at the seasonal sale time when it’s practically impossible to keep sane. Again, you’ve been warned.

Alta Moda Fabrics
Istana Kuta Galleria Blok Entrance I, Jalan Patih Jelantik

#13 Kuta beach: look past the crowds and enjoy the legend

Kuta beach Bali

People will tell you it’s overcrowded and just way too “pop”, but in reality, the yellow-sanded beach of Kuta has never lost its appeal. Sure, it’s not your ‘paradise found’ type of shore, but this is a place with character.

Locals call it Nakal, Indo for naughty, and they aren’t wrong! Apart from hordes of local and foreign tourists, Pantai Kuta is home to notorious beach vendors selling giant Buddha heads, pearls, pirate-ship kites and even wooden bows. And of course, there are the infamous Kuta Cowboys – young and pretty Bali boys looking for a Western sugarmama. If you were planning a quiet day of sun-baking with a book, you’d better pretend you are deaf and asleep at the very same time.

But don’t forget you can have fun embracing all of the above: practice your basic Indonesian with the ice-cream seller, make your new flirty friend teach you the ABC of surfing and let that funny grandma earn $5 rubbing your feet. And when the sun starts sinking into the clouds, get yourself a beer and watch the change from day to night, counting the descending aeroplanes and watching the mood change. If nothing else, Kuta beach is a legend, worthy of a bit of time and plenty of respect.

Once you’re done at Kuta, you can find some less crowded beaches in other parts of the island.

 #14 The new toll road: an adventure all of its own

Mandara toll road Kuta

The end of construction on the ‘most beautiful road in Indonesia‘, as it was dubbed, was one of the main events of 2013. With the project costing $243.6 million, it probably wins the title of ‘the most expensive road in Indonesia’ too. Oh yes, the new Bali Mandara Toll Road was covered in rumours. Now that it’s finally open, the doubts have been left behind: it is indeed a stunning structure and the money seems well spent; the traffic on the island’s main highway has drastically reduced.

The road connects Ngurah Rai airport and Nusa Dua: a tolled causeway bridge with 34,000 concrete pillars (!) that stretches for 12.7 kilometres across the Gulf of Benoa. Best of all, it overlooks a shallow blue lagoon laced with seaweed plantations and mangroves.

As it’s a paid road (Rp 4.000 for bikes and Rp 10.000 for cars), locals don’t use it much, so you may even find you have the whole highway to yourself. This road is worth a ride even if you don’t need to travel from or to Nusa Dua – it’s an adventure all of its own.

#15 Nightlife: the box you have to tick

party crowd at Bounty club Kuta

Bounty club party crowd Kuta

You don’t need to dress up for a night out in Kuta: if you do it properly, your clothes will be trashed before it’s even midnight. Just like your dignity.

That’s what after-dark Kuta is famous for: sticky dancefloors, cheap questionable booze, pre and post parties in the convenience stores, pop karaoke bars, teenagers falling out of their clothes, drunk fights and shady men on the streets, flocks of vomiting schoolies. If reading all this gives you cramps, you’d better stay in Seminyak and party with class.

Otherwise, unleash your inner ‘Forever Young’, dance with transvestites, kiss a barman (or two), flash some extra skin, and don’t bother to get wasted elegantly – Kuta has seen it all and can handle your debauchery.

Kuta photos (Flickr Autostream)

Kuta Videos (YouTube Autostream)