Bali is one of the most evocative and popular tourist islands in the entire Indonesian archipelago. A visit here awakens the senses. Upon your arrival, the intoxicating scent of frankincense and clove oil floats in the thick tropical air. Peanuts sizzle on roadside stalls, petal-strewn offerings smolder on busy sidewalks and traditional gamelan music echoes against the hum of mopeds. Despite the clamor and chaos of the main tourist areas, the island is rich in natural beauty, with attractions for all types of travelers. Surfers come for legendary swells, hikers can climb jungly volcanic peaks and misty waterfalls, and cyclists can roam lush landscapes bristling with rice terraces and traditional villages. The island’s rich art scene is another major plus, and if relaxation is your priority, shopping in Bali and spa treatments are fabulous – and affordable. Spirituality adds yet another layer to the allure of Bali, and seeing the magnificent Hindu temples and sacred ceremonies are the best things to do. Since the famous book and film Eat, Pray, Love brought to light Bali, the tourist crowds have undeniably swelled, but you can still discover old Bali if you stray from the beaten track.
1. Pura Tanah Lot
About 20 kilometers northwest of Kuta, Pura Tanah Lot (“Pura” means temple in Balinese) is one of the most emblematic temples of Bali thanks to its spectacular seaside setting on a rocky islet surrounded by breaking waves. For the Balinese people, it is one of the most sacred marine temples on the island. (The largest and most sacred Hindu temple in Bali is Pura Besakih, but recently local merchants have harassed visitors.) Every evening, crowds of tourists from Kuta, Legian and Sanur make their way through a labyrinth of alleys lined with souvenir sellers watching the sunset behind the temple. The Pura Tanah Lot was built in the early 16th century and is said to be inspired by the priest Nirartha, who asked local fishermen to build a temple here after passing the night on the rock outcrop.
Although foreigners cannot enter any of the temples, you can cross the main temple at low tide, and it’s fun to walk along the trails taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful surroundings. After seeing the different temples and shrines, you can relax in one of the cliff-top restaurants and cafes and even taste the famous Kopi luwak (civet cafe), while friendly animals doze on the tables of the cafe .
From Tanah Lot, you can walk along tropical landscaped trails to the magnificent Batu Bolong, another sea temple perched on a rocky outcrop with an eroded causeway connecting it to the shore. When visiting temples in Bali, be sure to dress respectfully and wear a sarong and belt.
2. Mount Batur
Every day in the dark of dawn in Bali, hundreds of visitors begin the trek from the summit of Mount Batur at 1700 meters to watch the sun rise above the lush mosaic of mountains shrouded in mist and the caldera well below. This sacred active volcano is found in Kintamani district in the highlands of central Bali, about an hour’s drive from Ubud, and hiking to the top to watch the sunrise has long adorned the list of the best things to do in Bali. Hiking along well-marked trails is relatively easy and usually takes about two to three hours. Guided hikes usually include a picnic breakfast, with steamed eggs from the active volcano. On clear days, the views are spectacular, spanning the entire Batur caldera; the surrounding mountain range; and the magnificent Lake Batur, the island’s main source of irrigation water.
3. Uluwatu Temple
Every day in the darkness of dawn in Bali, hundreds of visitors begin the trek from the summit of Mount Batur at 1,700 meters to watch the sun rise above the lush mosaic of mountains shrouded in mist and the caldera well below. This active sacred volcano is found in the Kintamani district in the highlands of central Bali, about an hour’s drive from Ubud, and hiking to the top to watch the sunrise has long adorned the list of the best things to do in Bali. Hiking along well-marked trails is relatively easy and usually takes about two to three hours. Guided hikes usually include a picnic breakfast, with steamed eggs from the active volcano. On clear days, the views are spectacular, covering the entire Batur caldera; the surrounding mountain range; and the magnificent Lake Batur, the island’s main source of irrigation water.
Sturdy hiking shoes are essential and diapers are recommended, as the temperature can be cool before sunrise. You can also syndicate a trip here with a visit to one of Bali’s most significant temples, Pura Ulun Danu Batur, on the northwest shore of the lake, and a therapeutic bath in hot springs in the beautiful village of Toya Bungkah on the shores of Lake Batur.
4. Ubud Monkey Forest
Just a 10-minute walk south of downtown Ubud, the Monkey Forest, also known as the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, is one of this tourist town’s main attractions and a must-see for animal lovers and photographers. Besides the entertaining troops of long-tailed gray macaques that make their home here, much of the appeal is the evocative setting of the jungle where the monkeys roam free. Paved paths lead through thick forests of giant banyan trees and nutmeg, where moss-covered statues and ancient temples rise through the dense foliage, imparting an almost mystical feel. The forest is envisioned to signify the harmonious coexistence between humans and animals. It also conserves rare plants and is used as a place of research on the behavior of macaques, in particular their social interaction.
On the southwest side of the forest is one of the three temples found in the forest, the Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal from the 14th century, where hundreds of monkeys swing through the trees and climb the walls. In the northwest of the forest, an ancient bathing temple, Pura Beji, nestles next to a cool stream and provides a beautiful backdrop for watching the monkey’s antics. When visiting the forest, make sure to secure your personal belongings and avoid direct eye contact with the animals (and smiling), as this can be interpreted as a sign of aggression. It is also a decent idea not to bring food to the part.
5. Ubud Art & Culture
Made famous by the book and film Eat, Pray, Love, Ubud is also the epicenter of Balinese art and culture. This is where the current Balinese art movement was born, with the royal palaces and nearby temples acting as the main patrons. Today, several excellent local museums and galleries rejoice its evolution and traditions. The contemplation of art is particularly enriching here, as many collections are housed in traditional Balinese buildings surrounded by serene tropical gardens.
For an overview of Balinese art, your first stops should be the Agung Rai Art Museum (ARMA) and the Neka Art Museum, which are a short walk from the Ubud Monkey Forest. Both cover traditional to contemporary works, including kris (ceremonial daggers), photography and classic wayang paintings (puppet figurines). Other interesting art galleries and museums in the Ubud region include the Maison Setia Darma of masks and puppets presenting ceremonial masks from Asia and elsewhere; Puri Lukisan Museum, covering a range of Balinese artistic styles; and the Don Antonio Blanco museum, in the former house and the artist’s studio.
If art shopping is more your style, don’t miss the Ubud art market. This labyrinth of stalls full of sculptures, sculptures, jewelry, sarongs, paintings and household items is one of the main tourist attractions in the city. Negotiation is essential, and a good rule of thumb is to counter with half the asking price and barter upwards from there, always with a smile. Opposite the market, the royal palace Puri Saren in Ubud is also worth a visit and hosts traditional Balinese dance performances in the evening.
If you are a budding artist or have children, one of the popular things to do here is to sign up for an art workshop in a local village, which may include traditional painting, making masks and jewelry making.
6. Tegallalang and Jatiluwih Rice Terraces in Bali
If you are a photographer looking to capture the magnificent emerald-colored rice fields of Bali, the Tegallalang or Jatiluwih rice terraces are a must-see. About a 30-minute drive north of Ubud, the Tegallalang rice terraces are one of the most famous areas for photographing these iconic landscapes and absorbing their timeless beauty. Be aware that locals are asking for donations along the most popular trail through the rice fields here, and many are asking for entrance and parking fees along the road. A relaxing way to enjoy the lush countryside is in one of the many restaurants and cafes overlooking the fields.
About a 90-minute drive from Ubud, the Jatiluwih rice terraces cover more than 600 hectares of rice fields along the hills of the Batukaru mountain range and tend to be less crowded than Tegallalang. You’ll also find fewer tourist touts here, so it’s easier to walk around and explore without being harassed. These two sites use the traditional water management cooperative called “subak”, an irrigation system recognized by UNESCO which dates back to the 9th century.
7. Waterbom Bali
Waterbom Bali is an action-packed water park in the heart of Kuta, with something for every associate of the family. Children can splash around in the pools; drift along the Lazy River; or zoom into one of the many twisted slides and rides, with names like Python, Green Viper and Super Bowl. Moms and dads can ease with a reflexology session, manicure or pedicure or fish spa therapy. Restaurants and cafes cater to a range of different diets, and the gardens are landscaped with tall shaded trees and beautiful tropical gardens, making it a refreshing respite from the heat on a hot tropical day.
8. Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
On a small island along the western shore of Lake Bratan, in the cool highlands of central Bali, the 17th-century Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is one of Bali’s most picturesque temple complexes. On the imposing bottom of Gunung Bratan, the thatched temples are reflected on the lake, and when the water level rises, they seem to float on its surface. Lake Bratan is one of Bali’s main foundations of irrigation and drinking water, and the temple complex is dedicated to Dewi Danu, goddess of the sea and lakes. An unusual feature is the Buddhist stupa to the left of the entrance to the first courtyard, with figures of Buddha meditating in the lotus position in niches on the square base. The stupa replicates the adoption of Buddhist beliefs by Balinese Hindus. This sacred Hindu temple complex is best seen in the soft morning light, before the tourist buses arrive, when the cool mist sometimes covers the lake and the mountains beyond. You can also rent a canoe and paddle on the lake to explore the meru (thatched shrines) at close range.
Not far from the temple complex, the Bali botanical garden (Kebun Raya Bali) is also worth a visit, with its beautiful bamboo forests, begonias, collection of orchids and medicinal plants. In its park, the Bali Treetop Adventure Park is fun for children, with zip lines, Tarzan swings and suspension bridges.
9. Seminyak Shopping
Bali is known for its flamboyant designers and fabulous shops, and you will find the best examples of Balinese design in the busy streets of Seminyak. Cutting-edge fashion designers, surf and swimwear, jewelry, furniture, and housewares are just a few of the items you can buy at chic boutiques and bustling market stalls. The best boutiques include Biasa, Magali Pascal and Bamboo Blonde, while Kody & Ko sells original and colorful art and household items. Sea Gypsy is a favorite for affordable jewelry, and Drifter Surf Shop & Cafe offers a collection of surf and skateboard equipment.
The two main shopping centers are Seminyak Square and Seminyak Village, but you will probably find better deals in the small shops lining the streets. If you’re really looking for a bargain, head to the Seminyak flea markets near Seminyak Square, where you’ll find crowded stalls with clothes, jewelry, sculptures, and handicrafts. Seminyak is also famous to some of Bali’s finest restaurants and art galleries.
10. Kuta Beach
Yes, there are crowded and persistent hawkers crisscrossing the beach, but this famous stretch of sand, with the nearby beaches of Legian and Seminyak just to the north, is always a fun day, especially if you are a beginner surfer or if you just want to soak up the scene. You can book surf lessons and rent surfboards, bodyboards, lounge chairs and umbrellas directly from vendors on the sand, and many cafes and restaurants line the beach. Beach vendors are easily deterred by a polite “no thank you”, but a slip of frozen coconut with juice served directly on your deckchair can be a blessing on a sultry day.