The first thing we noticed upon arrival was the way Bali smelled: the air, fresh and tropical, perfumed with a wonderfully sweet, nutty aroma we couldn’t quite pinpoint. For lack of better words, Bali was pure magic.
Nestled into the Southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesian islands, Bali is an incredible destination for travelers looking for a peaceful getaway, a cultural expedition, or activity-focused trip.
Everything about Bali – the landscape, the air, the people and culture – is nothing shy of incredibly beautiful. Turns out that addicting smell that follows you around Bali is the frangipani flower, the small, yellow and white tropical blooms that grow all over the island and are used in daily offerings to the Hindu gods.
There is so much to do and see and experience in Bali that our first trip – only 5 days long – was simply not enough. While a relatively small island that’s pretty easy to get around in, heavy traffic permeates the island and the lack of many east-west roads make it difficult to pack too much into one day.
So, our Bali travel guide focuses on the six most popular regions of the small tropical island, and the best things to do and see within that region to help you make the most of your trip.
Ubud is Bali’s bustling cultural center, and is quite unique among the more coastal and rural areas of Bali. Ubud is located is the island’s uplands, a crowded and vibrant city surrounded by lush rainforest and rice paddies near the center of the island. Largely renowned as a hub of arts and crafts, it’s also where you’ll find some of the best dining, places to stay, and attractions.
It’s definitely an absolute must-visit, and plan for at least 2-3 days or more to explore all the area has to offer. The uplands can get very hot during midday, making some temple visits and hikes a bit uncomfortable and sweaty, and it can get much cooler at night as well, sometimes warranting a light sweater.
- Walk around the market: Ubud Market is a labyrinth of stone streets in the heart of the city, lined with local vendors selling everything from jewelry and clothes to trinkets and souvenirs. Even if you’re not interested in touristy goods, it’s worth walking around in for a bit to get a taste of local life and to experience the energy of Ubud.
- Eat local cuisine: Ubud is home to some of the best dining on Bali. There is a plethora of cheap, mid-range, and gourmet restaurants to choose from, in addition to coffee houses, bars, and small eateries.
- Visit a 9th century temple: Goa Gajah, or the Elephant Caves, is a spiritual temple complex featuring centuries-old structures, a koi pond, and stone carvings.
- Explore the Tegallalang Rice Terraces: just outside of Ubud lies the famous, picture-perfect rice paddies beautifully sculpted in undulating waves into the hilly rainforest.
- Take a bike tour through local villages: multiple tour operators in the area offer half-day or full-day bike tours to explore the area up close. Some take you through the bamboo forest, local villages, and smaller temples.
Discover more: Top Things to Do in Ubud: Bali’s Thriving Cultural Center.
Nusa Dua is located on the costal east end of South Kuta, the most popular southern end of the island. Home to many of Bali’s bigger resorts, it’s often regarded as a touristy area – but don’t discount it yet. It’s an often underrated area with lots to do and see.
If an all-inclusive is your thing, you’ll find amazing resort options with great pools, swim-up bars, nightlife, and excellent spas. But there’s also a lot of local exploration to be had, with many great restaurants, warungs, and beaches to enjoy, and it makes a great base from which to explore other parts of the island.
Top things to do in Nusa Dua:
- Water sports: Nusa Dua is one of the best spots to go tubing, parasailing, jet skiing, boating, etc. Walk out onto Geger Beach, which runs along the major resort strip, and you’ll come across beach huts every mile or so with any number of water activities to try.
- Relax at the public beaches: the region is lesser-known for its beaches, which makes it a great spot for travelers looking to avoid the crowds. Try Nusa Dua Beach, Mengiat Beach, or Sanur Beach for great swimming and relaxing.
- Take a cooking class: what better way to enjoy the taste of Bali even once you return home? Take a cooking class! Some of the best include Bumbu Bali or Anika, which offer group classes, hands-on instruction, and even transport from your resort or hotel.
- Eat/drink: beyond the resort restaurants and bars, Nusa Dua’s main strips are vibrant at night with plenty of options for food and cocktails. Some places to try in the area include The Tree, Bumbu Bali (the cooking school also has an excellent restaurant), or Sari Agung.
Kuta and Seminyak is a hugely popular area for travelers, and it’s well-known as crowded and relentlessly festive. Yet the area features tons of hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques and designer shopping malls (including many major surf brand outlets, like Billabong), and renowned spas worth visiting. It’s location on the western coast means it’s close to a large swath of beautiful beaches and allows easy access to many top attractions and other parts of the island – including Jimbaran Bay and Uluwatu.
But with anything good comes the bad – Kuta/Seminyak’s popularity equals super congested streets and a constant onslaught of rowdy travelers and all-night revelers.
Top Things to Do in Kuta/Seminyak:
- Go to the beach: there are a lot of awesome beaches to choose from in the Kuta/Seminyak area or just south. Kuta Beach is popular for those staying immediately in the area – while often quite busy, it’s known for dramatic sunsets. Dreamland Beach is another great spot with slightly fewer beachgoers to relax for a day.
- Scuba dive and/or snorkel: there are multiple dive schools and tour operators in Kuta, and Padang Bai’s Blue Lagoon dive site is just a one and a half hour drive from the town, offering calm, sea life-filled waters for beginners and experienced divers alike.
- Shopping: you’ll come across many boutiques while walking around Kuta, or strip malls of clothing and souvenir stores to shop local goods. Also, Seminyak Square is a more open-air type market with local vendor booths.
- Go dancing: if Kuta’s known for one thing, it’s the party scene, so take a night to hit the nightclubs and bars for a good time.
- Treat yourself: Kuta is home to many luxury spas, and while more higher-end, their services, like the rest of the island, are still very affordable. Treat yourself to a 2 hour Balinese massage and a mani/pedi!
Uluwatu/West South Kuta
The western coast of South Kuta is home to one of the most famous Hindu temples in Bali – Uluwatu. Beyond the temple, the are is full of awesome beaches, rocky sea cliffs, and small towns with beachy vibes and great food. Getting there, if you’re not staying in the region, is part of the experience, as you’ll drive through small towns full of local activity.
Top Things to Do in Uluwatu:
- Visit Uluwatu Temple: Uluwatu, or “the temple on the cliff,” is a must-visit Hindu temple set atop massive sea cliffs. It’s a worthwhile temple visit, though likely to be crowded, but take a walk along the cliffs for excellent ocean views and stay for the amazing sunsets. You can also witness a traditional Kecak Fire Dance for a small fee at the small amphitheater within the complex.
- Go surfing: Suluban Beach is often referred to as Surfers Heaven. In order to get to the beach you must walk down multiple flights of stairs hidden between surf shacks and restaurants nestled into the seaside cliffs. Once down the stairs, there’s a small opening between rocky outcroppings leading surfers out to the world-class surf.
- Hang out at the beach: Suluban Beach also has a small strip of sandy beach to lounge on or take a dip in the water if you’re not a surfer. But for better swimming, visit Padang Padang Beach to hang out for a day, buy a sarong from a beach vendor, and sip coconuts or Bintang’s while relaxing.
- Enjoy a Jimbaran Bay sunset dinner on the beach: Jimbaran Bay is just a half hour north of the Uluwatu area, and is famous for its amazing beachfront seafood dinners, luxury hotels, and nightlife. Try any one of the oceanside restaurants on the main strip and grab a table right on the sand, pick out your lobster or fish, and eat to your heart’s content.
Tulamben is located in the much less-traveled and rural region of east Bali. About 3 hours east of Ubud, the area is mostly comprised of rural villages, scenic landscapes of farms and rainforest, and countryside temples. It’s far location from Ubud, Kuta, and other regions of the island combined with Bali’s unforgiving traffic makes it mostly too far away for a day trip. But while fewer and far between, there are still plenty of nice resorts, hotels, and restaurants, mostly along the coasts, offering the ultimate in relaxation and escape. For travelers looking for a quieter, slower-paced, local experience, east Bali is worth visiting.
Top Things to Do in Tulamben:
- Scuba diving: Tulamben is known for it’s world-class diving, including the famous USS Liberty shipwreck dive site. The wreckage of the World War II cargo ship lies just 30 meters offshore, and is now covered in coral and brimming with life, creating an exciting and interesting underwater world to explore. There’s also the Tulamben Reef, great for beginners, and the Tulamben Wall for more experienced divers.
- Visit Pura Lempuyang: this large directional temple complex is of great significance to the Balinese people, and very few tourists visit it, unlike many of the other temples around the island. It’s set atop a mountain, and getting there means trekking for about 2 hours to the summit, but the amazing views and spiritual atmosphere are worth it. Be aware that on cloudy days the views from the mountain aren’t as good.
- Boating: Tulamben and nearby Amed are excellent places to go on a boating trip. Some hotels and local fisherman will take you out on a tour of the water from a traditional jukung, a small wooden outrigger canoe.
Similar to east Bali, west Bali is even more off-the-beaten track. Comprised mostly of protected environmental preserve, west Bali is the least populated region of the island and a passed-over area for tourists. But, for travelers who want a more remote, adventurous experience, west Bali may be just the place.
Top Things to Do in West Bali
- Explore West Bali National Park: the remote park, comprised of the westernmost tip of the island, is great for adventure travelers looking to hike, explore the rainforest, and bird watch. Permits and guides are obligatory within the wild park.
- Scuba dive at Menjangan Island: a small island off the coast of West Bali National Park, Menjangan Island’s calm northern waters and coral reef make for excellent diving and snorkeling to explore the vibrant marine life.
- Surf at Medewi Beach: in addition to being a great surf spot, Medewi Beach offers a glimpse into traditional life in an old Balinese fishing village.
Continue Reading: A Culinary Travelogue: What to Eat in Bali