Ubud has long been regarded as the quintessential Balinese town and its fame has spread even further with images of Julia Roberts peddling through the rice fields in Eat, Pray, Love. Whether a seasoned Bali goer or a first-timer, the artistic and cultural heart of Bali has a lot to offer any visitor.
Lovely quiet lanes of cafes and shops are dotted throughout the town and the Royal Palaces are an architectural dream.There is definitely a slower pace of life in this hill town.
Although the Monkey Forest Road and other main streets are usually packed with tourists, you can still find tranquility and a hint of quieter times by just taking small excursions into the smaller streets.
Highlights include eating traditional Babi Guling (whole roast pig) at Warung Ibu Oka, early morning strolls through Monkey Forest before the buses arrive, the Royal Palace & Rijsstafel, and traditional Balinese dancing at Café Lotus.
2. Kuta – Canggu
The Kuta to Canggu stretch is popular with tourists wanting to enjoy the nightlife and shopping that this part of Bali has on offer. But packed with restaurants offering every type of cuisine, clubs spilling with bodies, endless shops and round the clock traffic, this part of Bali is not for everyone. It is a great place if you are looking for a party atmosphere, a bit of surfing, beach lounging and a variety of people from all over the globe.
If you are looking for the ‘real’ Bali, this is definitely not the location for you.
If it’s a shopping haven you’re seeking, there is a variety of Indonesian designers in the ‘fashion district’ of Seminyak. Niluh Djelantik is a local designer producing gorgeous handmade shoes and if you have time you can even have a customised pair made to order.
There are also plenty of award winning and international restaurants through this stretch such as Sarong, which dishes up continuously excellent Pan Asian food and has been named amongst the Top Ten Restaurants of South East Asia by the Miele Guide.
Kuta has become more geared towards international chains whilst Canggu has a laid-back surfer vibe with The Deus’ Temple of Enthusiasm being the centre of all things hip on this part of the island.
3. Bukit & Nusa Dua
The Southern bulge of Bali consists of Nusa Dua to the side and Bukit on the bottom. This is the home of rolling turquoise seas and white sand beaches snaking around the dramatic cliffs. There are plenty of stunning beaches to sun yourself on like Padang-Padang and Balangan.
Uluwatu has been one of the world’s most famous surfing spots since the 1970’s, drawing surfers in from around the world. Bingin’s ‘Impossibles’ is another perfect break, to name just two of the endless opportunities for surfers who aren’t afraid of big swell.
The cliffs that look down on these waves are beautiful and wild. They are home to some of the most expensive land in the world with prices per square foot often topping Tokyo. This has led to a change in the landscape over the past few years, with some illustrious neighbours moving in next to the surf shacks and warung’s (local restaurants) that scatter the region.
Huge developments sit next to quiet surf and fishing spots creating a strange mix. Dreamland is currently the biggest development – a complex of hotels, gold courses and entertainment centres, posed next to the sleepy surf shack of Bingin in this quiet cove. Nusa Dua is also home to many hotels and resorts but possesses some beautiful calm azure hued swimming spots.
The best thing to do in these parts is explore. You’re sure to find deserted beaches, Five Star Beach Clubs, resorts and simple shacks serving seafood. In other words, something for everyone.
4. The East Coast
The East Coast of Bali is generally quieter than the West. Even Sanur, the original tourist destination of Bali, has not seen the explosion of development that has hit the other side. Sanur is still a big tourist draw card with older, more spacious resorts, a long white beach and a lagoon that is great for swimming.
Head up the coast and you will reach Candidasa, a sleepy town stretched along the coast of the Lombok Strait that serves up the perfect enclave for tourists. The Tirta Gangga Water Palace, built in 1948 by the King of the Karangasem Regency, is well worth a visit and is home to sacred water of the Balinese Hindus’.
The textile market is also nearby in Semarapura, a chaotic and colourful place to buy intricately embroidered pieces unique to this region. Head further inland to the stunning Sideman to discover beautiful tiles and pottery.
Up along the coast you will hit the coastal towns of Ahmed and Tulamben. Both are famous for wonderful scuba diving and snorkelling with vivid coral gardens and a great shipwreck dive. The black volcanic sands of this region give a dramatic backdrop to the tropical fish that fill the reefs in an underwater fantasy.
5. Menjangan & the North
Tourists often neglect the northern part of Bali, but for beach enthusiasts and those who love life below the surface this area is a dream. The beaches between Lovina and the Bali Barat National Park are great for diving, snorkelling and spotting turtles and dolphins.
Pemuteran is a lovely fishing town where swimming with turtles is still possible. Head into the national park and you will be greeted with glass clear waters teeming with tropical fish, mingling together like a flamboyant Mardi Gras parade. Walk off the beach or take a boat to Menjangan Island and experience some superb diving.
In the national park itself it is possible to take treks and discover the last refuge for many species that were once prevalent in Bali. Spanning 50,000 hectares, this is home to wild deer and the last few black monkeys left in the wild.
There are four major volcanoes in Bali, the most famous being the towering Mount Agung. Volcanoes are revered on the island and are very much a part of this dramatic landscape, here and throughout Indonesia. Bratan in the north contains three conical lakes and peaks with the highest being Mount Bakataru. These are often mistaken for the volcanoes on the east coast of Java, but they are in fact on the island of Bali.
Mount Batur is an active volcano that is situated near to Ubud. It is commonly viewed from the town of Kintamani that overlooks the peak and lake. People come to enjoy the view and the cool breeze felt on the way up and down the hill. You can also team your volcano trip with a visit to a coffee plantation to taste various local beans.
Despite these geographical masterpieces, it is Mount Agung that really dominates Bali. Being the highest point on the island, the top of the mountain rises through the clouds, leaving even the most well travelled visitor feeling impressed.
The Balinese believe it is a replica of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe according to Hinduism. It is consequently a deeply sacred and worshipped placed.
It last erupted in 1964 and is still active, but like the other active volcanoes in Bali it has been dormant for a while.
For the adventurous at heart (and the relatively fit), it is possible to climb Mount Agung and rise through the cloud line, finding a view of the entire island and across to Mount Rinjani on Lombok. For the slightly less sporty, a climb up Batukaru is a little less strenuous but still very pleasing on the eye.
7. Mother & Directional Temples
On the slopes of Mount Agung lies the most sacred temple in Bali – Pura Bekasih. Known as the mother temple, it towers over six levels and reaches almost 1000 metres towards the sky. It is the holiest temple in Bali and contains twenty-three separate temples within the complex. Although the exact origins of the temple are not recorded, it does date back to prehistoric times, with the pyramid stones being 2000 years old.
The entrance, sets of imposing gateways, is like stepping back through time, and you cannot help but be enchanted by the mystical air that shrouds the whole temple. Nowadays, there are a few too many tour guide touts swarming the area, but you can still visit unhindered if you politely go about your business.
The Directional Temples of Bali are scattered across various parts of the island to protect against evil forces. The most picturesque and worth visiting are Uluwatu that sits in the south perched majestically above the crashing waves, and Bedugal that straddles a serene and picturesque lake.
Like most attractions in Bali, it is worth arriving in the early morning to avoid the crowds and feel the calm.
8. Jatiluwih rice terraces
The quintessential image of Bali is green rice terraces cascading through lush landscapes, easily accessible if you escape the main tourist areas and explore the island. However this image of Bali and the ancient irrigation subak system have come under increasing threat in the past decade. So much so that the incredible terraces of the Jatiluwih Terraces in Tabanan were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
This was not only to protect the beautiful landscape but also the unique and ancient subak irrigation system intrinsic to Bali’s Tirta Hana Karana philosophy.
This is from Balinese Hinduism and purveys all beliefs on the island to balance the universe between nature and the seen and unseen worlds.
This area is breathtakingly beautiful – rural rice field landscape at its best. Still relatively quiet from tour buses and floods of people, it is untouched and serene. You can stay nearby in Bali’s only real rainforest in the Batukaru region.
9. Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Penida
These two islands float off the south of Bali like two green droplets in the surrounding deep blue sea. Nusa Penida is largely underdeveloped and only has one resort, a bird sanctuary and a national park for endangered species. Crystal Bay holds the real wonder. During the migration season from June/July to November it is possible to swim with Mola Mola (Sunfish) and Manta Rays, a once in a lifetime must do.
Nusa Lembongan on the other hand, has become a very popular destination with day-trippers and people looking to escape for a few days. This little island is still a sleepy space of seaweed farmers and village life. It is a wonderful place to unwind, relax and snorkel, sunbathe and soak. Although more hotels are springing up, it is still relatively quiet and there are no shops, cars or nightclubs to speak of. Zoom over the little suspension bridge to the even smaller island of Nusa Ceningan and discover the last secret beaches and quiet villages that exist here.
10. The interior regions
Another little visited part of Bali are the interior regions of Batukaru Rainforest, Munduk, and the regions around the east coast such as Sideman. These areas are full of rich fauna and flora, typical Balinese villages and a way of life that is still relatively untouched by the big tourist machine that is taking over other parts of the island. These are areas of great verdant landscapes and a traditional way of life and beliefs.
Batukaru Rainforest is the only real rainforest on the island and is a dense and mysterious place full of birds, deer, luwak, monkeys and plants such as vanilla and cacao; perfect for picking and eating on the trek up Mount Batukaru.
Munduk lies over the other volcanoes on the way to the north of the island as you pass through Bedugal. This is another wonderful area of forest and waterfalls, the most famous being Gitgit, but there are plenty of hidden valleys full of wonderful pools and falls.
Sideman is also like stepping back in time in Bali; a place where time stands still and life slows down. This is a wonderful landscape full of tradition and artisans immersed in these wonderful rolling hills.
The beauty of Bali is not very far away, you just have to escape out of the main areas and explore this enchanted island for yourself.