By Kathryn Romeyn
Sep 20, 2021
AS MAGICAL DESTINATIONS GO, Bali is definitely up there. Many of you have been to the Island of Gods, but it’s always helpful to have a convenient overview of even our favorite places. So we’ve put together this Bali travel guide. It’s by no means comprehensive, especially in the hotels department (for more, see our Indonesia destination section here), but it’ll get your wanderlust piqued and provide all kinds of inspo for your planning.
What is it we’re dreaming of? There are the awe-inspiring temples in the tens of thousands—literally—and near-daily ceremonies: vivid, multi-sensory and loud, accompanied by chanting and clanging gamelan. Add to that endless beaches trimmed in aquamarine surf, pulsing with relentlessly curling waves topped with dancing surfers. Then of course there are the verdant rice paddies terraced so immaculately they’ve become iconic. Plus saturated emerald jungles alive with monkeys and waterfalls. Dreamy, highly Instagrammable private villas and hotels are everywhere (often quite affordable), fulfilling major #goals. And don’t forget canang sari, the prolific flower-laden offerings blessed and placed seemingly everywhere daily. This travel guide will help you forget about the logistics and leave you free to admire the soul of Bali.
Bali has an energy about it that acts as a siren song to woo-woo wellness practitioners, design buffs and carousing Gen Z-ers in equal numbers, along with stoked surfers, spiritual pilgrims, digital nomads, yogis, beach lovers, plus plenty of celebrities and influencers to boot. The near-constant rush hour on streets swarming with locals on motorbikes and air-conditioned cars filled with travelers does nothing to dispel the magic.
Whereas the majority of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, the Balinese are deeply devoted to Hinduism. There is an innate reverence for nature that is impossible for travelers not to feel. Expect to spend more time outside and in fresh air than you thought was ever possible. Blue skies, sea breezes, and coconut palms dominate the environment, with plenty of color added by frangipani blooms and bougainvillea.
The most fulfilling and thrilling Bali holidays include a few locations, so don’t stress about picking just one vibe or scene—it’s best to combine a few, two if you’re short on time. There’s no sense in rushing through temple tours and tastes, yoga sessions, shopping, and Balinese massages. For certain things in Bali, it’s best to hire a local travel or spiritual guide; but for most of your time, just relax, enjoy island time and the locals who are overwhelmingly generous, sweet, and genuine. All factors considered, it’s nearly impossible not to leave Bali feeling far better—happier, healthier, and definitely tanner—than when you landed.
WITA (Indonesia Central Time Zone) GMT + 8:00
Best Time to Go
Bali is busiest during the summer months and festive season, while low season falls over the rainy months of November to March. Because Bali, unlike the rest of Indonesia, is predominantly Hindu, Ramadan does not affect tourism much. The biggest holiday of the year is Nyepi, which involves fantastical parades of men and boys hauling ogoh-ogoh (huge handmade demon dolls) the night before a 24-hour silent day, on which even the airport falls quiet and planes don’t take off or land, and the use of electricity and vehicles is forbidden. For that period, tourists must stay on the grounds of their accommodations, but if you travel to Bali then it’s a beautiful opportunity to experience the culture of as well as a one-night guide to epic stargazing. Surfers will find the best waves on the west coast of Bali from May to October, at which point the winds shift and it improves on the eastern side.
Things to Know
The Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) is the local currency and it takes a lot of them to equal one U.S. dollar—around 14,000 give or take (check the current exchange rate here). Locals almost all speak Bahasa Indonesia, while many also speak Balinese.
A few simple phrases that the Balinese people will give you lots of credit for attempting:
Good morning: Selamat pagi
Balinese greeting (always paired with prayer hands): Om swastiastu
Thank you: Terima kasih
You’re welcome: Sama-sama
Where is the toilet: Di mana toilet?
Tourist or foreigner: Bule (pronounced bulay)
The country code is +62, and the capital city, Denpasar, is home to the island’s sole international airport.
How to Get Around
Bali does not really have a public transit system (there are some buses, but not reliable or advised). Instead, the ubiquitous motorbikes that flood every street—and sometimes sidewalk—are the primary mode of transportation. If the idea of riding one stresses you out, there are plentiful taxis for hire. There are also abundant private cars with gracious Balinese drivers who will happily be on call to ferry you around Bali, many will double as a casual travel guide. Rental cars are available, too.
Where to Stay
Upon arrival at this John Heah—designed resort—with its dramatic bridge leading to a giant rice bowl of a lotus pond that hovers like a spaceship above the treetops and Ayung River—it’s obvious you’re somewhere special. Their standalone villas (each with a private pool) and suites have slept the Obamas and Julia Roberts, while the Sacred River Spa has also hosted the former POTUS for a chakra-grounding treatment involving a Balinese smoke ceremony (consider also booking a truly divine Sacred Nap in a silk hammock at the bamboo yoga shala). River rafting, cycling and other adventurous cultural tours are on offer, but the resort environment—with its pools, flavorful food, and entertainment—is so alluring it’s tempting to just relax, too.
Address: Jl. Raya Sayan, Sayan, Ubud
Phone: +62 361 977 577
As resort concepts go, Capella Ubud is truly one-of-a-kind, and out of the ordinary, too. Hidden in the Ubud-adjacent town of Keliki, its 22 one-bedroom tented and batik-draped retreats, hand-painted Mads Lange restaurant, and even saltwater pool all float over the jungle floor—not one tree was cut as the whimsical Bill Bensley creations were constructed. There is much to do at the 19th-century Dutch camp–themed property, and around it, but save a night for a nose-to-tail culinary trip at Api Jiwa, followed by vintage Balinese black and white movies, storytelling, and marshmallows around the fire. This magical luxury retreat took the top spot in 2020’s World’s Best Awards.
Address: Jl. Raya Dalem, Keliki, Tegallalang
Phone: +62 361 209 1888
An artisanal theme pervades this brick-clad Brutalist boutique hotel that manages to be a quiet respite in the heart of lively Seminyak, from its colorful terrazzo to in-room textiles and woven baskets. Together, it all acts as an aesthetic travel guide to the rich traditions of craft in Indonesia and Bali through a Midcentury-esque lens. Tear yourself away from the long turquoise pool to hit the beach, just a few minutes away, or some of the hundreds of shops and restaurants within walking distance.
Address: J. Petitenget No.51B, Seminyak
Phone: +62 361 302 9999
This airy modern beachfront resort occupies prime real estate in Canggu, easy walking—or scooting—distance to all the town’s hot spots. That said, those opting for the surfside residences or 12 tony three-bedroom COMO Penthouses (each with their own private butler and rooftop pool revealed by a dramatic arching cutaway) might be less tempted to stray. Hopeful surfers should book lessons with the consummate professionals at Tropicsurf onsite, while the wellness minded have their choice of Pilates, yoga, a Jungle Sports studio, and comprehensive spa.
Address: Jl. Pantai Batu Mejan, Canggu
Phone: +62 361 620 2228
If paradisiacal views are what you crave, Uluwatu Surf Villas has you covered. The legendary surfers’ resort perched above those famously large waves (there’s a set of private steps down) offers traditionally Balinese-designed thatched-roof cliff-front villas as well as a collection of newer architectural masterpieces, each one with its own unique tropical modern vibe. The mesmerizing vistas continue at Mana restaurant—serving locally sourced specialties from the sea and land with craft cocktails and juices—and its infinity pool, not to mention the yoga shala, Morning Light, where daily classes are set to the sounds of waves crashing and the jungle chirping.
Address: Jl. Pantai Suluban Jl. Raya Uluwatu Pecatu, Pecatu
Phone: +62 817 555 421
Courtesy of Bambu Indah Resort (2)
Earth-friendly to its core, from the striking sustainable bamboo architecture to the permaculture farm–to-table food, this eco-luxury resort that tumbles artfully down to natural swimming pools by the river is home to enlightening experiences and design. See the Riverbend, with its curvaceous copper roof and bedroom bisected by a stream, and the bamboo elevator that descends into a vertical tunnel of earth. It’s a wonderland of creativity, where there’s not only daily yoga but also trash walks, in which guests hike through surrounding rice fields, jungle and villages spearing rubbish and learning about the community and culture.
Address: Jl. Baung, Sayan, Ubud
Phone: +62 361 977 922
Breathtaking is one way to describe the bird’s-eye view of Mandapa, which looks like a fairytale scene combining river, jungle, rice terraces, and temples. The lush, intimate resort’s extensive and thoughtful programming—adventurous, spiritual, cultural, and indulgent—immerses guests in all aspects of what makes Bali so unique. Beyond the offsite fun, four dining experiences, a dreamy spa and yoga classes are great reasons to venture beyond the plush suites and private pool villas.
Address: Jl. Raya Kedewatan, Ubud
Phone: +62 361 479 2777
Where to Eat
With a name meaning “tribe” in Bahasa Indonesia, Kaum is a concept born of its culinary team’s deep exploration of Indonesia’s super diverse archipelago and its tribes’ cooking and catching methods (fishing and spear hunting to name a few adventures). You’ll walk through the infamous Potato Head Beach Club and upstairs to find this lush oasis of handcrafted design and storied food, meant to be shared family style. A sampling of fiery sambals is a great way to start feasting on rich regional dishes made of specialty ingredients sourced as locally as possible—one mission of Kaum is to support and promote Balinese communities practicing time-honored skills.
Address: Jl. Petitenget No.51B, Seminyak
Phone: +62 361 473 7979
Courtesy of Zest (3)
It’s not too extreme an exaggeration to call Ubud a mecca for vegans, and this plant-, root- and shoot-slinging destination is like the high temple in the lush jungle. The chic, plant-powered restaurant appropriately hugs a living frangipani tree and offers up colorful, organic fare from jackfruit steaks to pizzas and cassava fettuccini alongside a lively community and creative, island-grown cocktails and tonics.
Address: Jl. Penestanan Kelod No.8, Ubud
Phone: +62 823 4006 5048
Courtesy of Hujan Locale (2)
Casually elegant and tucked away like a well-kept secret amid Ubud’s busy streets, this eatery is a perfect blend of warung (a basic Indonesian cafe or small restaurant) and fine dining restaurant. Sit near one of many open windows for views of a classic Balinese neighborhood while sipping vibrant cocktails (think Carrot Mai Tais and Butterfly Pea Martinis). The intricate plates represent a highbrow take on a stunning survey of Indonesian specialties from across dozens of islands, with chef Will Meyrick describing on the menu how and where he discovered each.
Address: Jl. Sri Wedari No.5, Ubud
Phone: +62 813 3972 0306
Intimate dinners at Sokasi—the curvaceous bamboo pavilion perched above the rushing Ayung River at the Four Seasons in Sayan—are all about preserving the island’s time-intensive culinary heritage. Arrive early for a peek at the pig roasting over a coconut wood fire before tucking into rich, forgotten recipes featuring flavors like wild ginger and klengis (an extract from hand-making coconut oil). The smoky duck roasted in an underground clay oven is outstanding, but it’s chef’s colorful narration throughout that makes this more of a cultural performance than a meal. Reservation required.
Address: Jl. Raya Sayan, Sayan, Kec. Ubud
Phone: +62 361 977 577
Tapas in Indonesia sounds random, but dreamed up and prepared with quality produce and products sourced from the archipelago by chef Kevin Cherkas (whose CV includes several Michelin three-star restaurants), it’s flawless. The nine-course tasting menu is a favorite at this vegetarian-friendly fine-dining spot. And though its ingredients evoke Indonesia, the plates are all over the map: sticky eggplant sushi, BBQ octopus, Turkish meatballs, moussaka, and crispy fried chicken.
Address: Jl. Yoga Perkanthi, Jimbaran
Phone: +62 812 3687 0486
Authenticity is everything at this restaurant and cooking school skirted by bucolic rice fields, with a wide-angle view of the sacred Mount Agung, not a power line in sight. The Balinese food served in open air is the result of traditional cooking methods—wood-fired stoves of mud brick—and incredibly local ingredients, either grown onsite or from the closest market. The cooking classes are not kitchen-bound, but encompass hands-on experiences such as planting rice or fishing in a junking canoe, while cultural adventures offered include biking to royal swimming gardens and spending a day in the life of a Balinese lady.
Address: Jl. Gelumpang, Karangasem
Phone: +62 822 3690 9215
Lucky Fish Lounge
There’s not much to Lucky Fish, set up nightly on the sand at Bingin Beach—and that’s the beauty of it. Snag a basic table with plastic chairs before sunset (make sure to check the tide, since plenty of diners have ended up wet when it’s high) for a more intimate version of Jimbaran’s famous seafood grill. You’ll select your supper from coolers of just-caught red snapper, mahi mahi, tuna, squid, clams, and prawns, which are weighed, grilled to perfection, and doled out with spicy sambal sauces, rice and sautéed water spinach. Don’t forget a large Bintang beer!
Address: Jl. Pantai Bingin, Pecatu
Phone: +62 852 3786 6888
Things to Do
Balinese cuisine is so much more than the nasi goreng (fried rice) on every warung menu, and there’s no better way to learn the signature flavors and stories behind them than a cooking class. Lessons aren’t hard to find, but Jala Cooking Academy at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay offers exceptional experiences led by affable chef Kristya Yudha, who takes students through Jimbaran’s famed fish market before teaching them to cook Balinese specialties or menus of Javanese, Sumatran, or Sulawesian dishes.
Address: Jala Cooking Academy at Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay
Phone: +62 361 701 010
Ride a bike through rice fields
There’s no question the iconic status of Tegallalang, the flawless and highly photogenic rice terraces curving around hillsides and irrigated by the subak system, which has UNESCO status. As good as that hot spot is, the more intimate way to experience the ubiquitous emerald paddies is by bicycle, which many Ubud hotels, tour and travel companies offer led by a local guide from Bali.
Bali’s reputation as a surf destination is well earned, thanks to its rich assortment of not only professional-grade waves (see the aquamarine behemoths rolling in like corduroy in Keramas and Uluwatu, where Kelly Slater surfs) but also beginner-level breaks like Baby Padang at Padang Padang Beach and Batu Bolong in Canggu. There are fantastic surf camps and instructors across the island.
Visit Hindu temples
The transcendent charm of Bali is rooted in its tens of thousands of Hindu temples, and hiring a guide to help you travel to many will be worth it for the impressively ornate architecture and mystical ambience. Some of the most iconic on the island are Pura Tirta Empul (pura means “temple”), where you can bathe and bless yourself in holy spring waters spouting from carved stone; Pura Besakih, the largest and holiest of them all; and Pura Luhur Uluwatu, the clifftop sea temple where each sunset draws tourists for flashy yet authentic kecak (fire) dances.
The jewel-toned Indian Ocean encircling Bali isn’t the only place to splash around in crystalline water—there is a surprising number of thundering waterfalls hidden away off narrow roads and down seemingly endless steps. Thick in the jungle, adventure seekers can trek to falls with names like Sekumpul, Tegenungan, and Nungnung to cool off and take the requisite photos. You probably won’t be the only one there, so you needn’t hire a guide to help you travel to most, though if you do they’ll bring not just company but also lots of good intel on Bali.
Take a yoga class (or a dozen) at The Yoga Barn
Ubud is associated with all things spiritual, healthy (read: plant-based), and high vibe, and its multitude of yoga studios and movement centers are evidence. Practitioners can find more than 100 classes per week at The Yoga Barn, an epicenter of yin, vinyasa, hatha and kundalini, plus meditation, sound healing and ecstatic dance. Radiantly Alive is another popular source for DIY wellness retreaters.
Address: Jl. Hanoman, Pengosekan, Ubud
Phone: +62 361 971 236
Book massages, body treatments and healers
As known as Bali is for yoga and Hindu temples, it’s equally famous for its own brand of strong, slick, coconut oil-y massage, available for as little as eight bucks an hour literally everywhere. Folks travel from around the world to see the enigmatic healers (like Mandapa resort’s intuitive blind healing guide, Ibu Ketut Mursi) that also bolster the reputation of Bali as a wellness destination, and melt away stress with flower-laden baths and over-the-top treatments at both locally owned spas and wellbeing-focused luxury resorts like Amankila, Six Senses Uluwatu, The Mulia, and COMO Shambhala Estate.
The founders of this celebrated ceramic design studio are an Italian expat couple, but their ultra-skilled team of some 100 craftsmen and -women are overwhelmingly Balinese. It’s impossible to leave the showroom—on the same road as top Sayan hotels—empty handed, thanks to its proliferation of glamorous handmade dishes and decor, uniquely textured and coated expertly in sumptuous glazes. Try your own hand at their Ceramic Arts Center.
Address: Jl. Raya Sayan No.105, Sayan
Phone: +62 361 976 220
Balinese weaving and intricate textiles are displayed, rightfully, as art in this vast, open-air temple to artisanship in the heart of Ubud. Hand-woven and -dyed wall hangings and other crafts in the traditions of ikat and batik demonstrate the impressive range of indigo, and everything is consciously and sustainably produced.
Address: Jl. Monkey Forest, Ubud
Phone: +62 361 975 622
While you needn’t travel to Bali to shop for John Hardy fine jewelry—which draws inspiration from the island’s rich silversmithing heritage and is a guide to its natural landscapes and symbolism—the serene setting of the new Seminyak boutique and gallery only enhances the internationally available products. There, the iconic artisanal pieces, handcrafted on Bali in reclaimed silver with ethically sourced gems, are sold alongside a variety of Balinese artisan goods, and shoppers can also peruse exhibits of upcoming artists, sample Indonesia’s traditional elixir jamu, and dine on revolving dishes devised with popular restaurant Locavore.
Address: Jl. Raya Petitenget, Kerobokan Kelod, Kuta Utara
Phone: +62 361 9344 244
This petite shop packs a major punch with tightly curated and oftentimes collaborative goods made by Balinese artisans, think place mats, eye-catching brass cutlery and a plant-dyed shibori clothing collection. Beautiful gifts—for yourself and also loved ones back home—include signature Canaan candles, artisanal fans from Yogyakarta, and Cisco & the Sun’s wabi sabi–inspired ceramics, from the design-minded couple behind Canggu’s arty hotel The Slow.
Address: Jl. Drupadi 1 No.11B, Seminyak
Ethereal, elegant, and earthy womenswear can be found at this Canggu boutique—there are a handful of Magali Pascal resort shops on the island, too—of this Parisian-bred, Bali-dwelling designer. The eponymous label began on Bali in 2005 and marries an effortless French sensibility with a cool-girl palette ideal for island holidays.
Address: Pantai Batu Bolong No.84A, Canggu
Phone: +62 813 3763 2491
You don’t need to be a pro in the waves to embark on a spree at this beloved surf shop and deliciously healthy cafe on the road to Uluwatu. A reclaimed joglo house holds dozens of slick, technicolor surfboards—finely crafted by sought after shapers—along with Drifter’s own brand of art-emblazoned tees, international bikini collections, original artwork, boho jewelry, ocean-themed books and far more. In season, watch for gallery openings, film screenings and live music nights.
Address: Jl. Labuan Sait No.52, Pecatu
Phone: +62 817 557 111
Neighborhoods to Know
This is Bali’s most known beach ‘hood, and without a doubt its busiest. There are literally countless places to shop, eat, and drink along its vibrant, crowded streets, not to mention hundreds of deluxe villas and many luxury hotels. Partying isn’t contained to after-dark hours—beach clubs like Potato Head and Ku De Ta are popular at all times of day and night.
Think of Canggu as the newer Seminyak—super hip and, in recent years, where a burst of development has occurred, bringing this seaside beach town plenty of cool little boutiques. Any Bali travel guide that doesn’t mention Canguu us woefully out of date. Loads of eateries and bars helmed by chefs from around the world bring not only international flavors but aesthetics. There’s quite a significant nightlife scene, too, with DJs spinning in at least a few places each night.
Ever since Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love” (the mature woman’s Bali travel guide, perhaps?) threw Ubud into the spotlight, it’s become almost every tourist’s definition of Bali. That’s ironic considering the island is known for its beaches, and this busy, sprawling town full of yoga studios, vegan cafes, shops, spas, and markets is a 30-minute motorbike ride from the nearest stretch of sand. Still, it’s probably the most popular stop in Bali, a great jumping-off point for temple visits, hikes (Mt. Batur is lovely at sunrise), visits with healers, coffee (kopi) tastings, and a serious dose of culture.
If you surf you’ve already heard of Uluwatu, but if you don’t the name probably doesn’t ring any bells. Besides its epic waves, the southwestern-most tip of Bali is famed for Pura Uluwatu, the clifftop Hindu temple where monkeys cause mischief as sarong-clad visitors take in panoramic sunsets. Uluwatu and its neighboring surf towns of Padang Padang and Bingin are lower key than Canggu, with more dramatically beautiful beaches (most of which require a decent number of steps to access) and a laid back but luscious restaurant and cafe scene.
Over the last couple decades, many luxury hotels and resorts — from the St. Regis to the new Apurva Kempinski — have sprung up in this town on the eastern part of the southern tip of Bali known as the Bukit Peninsula. There are long stretches of lovely beaches that don’t require walking down cliff fronts, and some good surfing on offshore breaks, too.
This tiny island off the southeastern coast is technically part of Bali (along with the even teenier Nusa Ceningan and much larger but less developed Nusa Penida), but is about 20 years behind developmentally, which means it’s a bit closer to the storied Bali of yore. Still, there are already plenty of Instagrammable hotels and eateries here, so if you’re keen for some scuba diving, snorkeling, or more surf, it makes for a fun few-day spinoff (the fast boat from Sanur or Serangan takes about 30 minutes).
Situated just above the equator, Bali doesn’t experience four seasons in the same way we do. Instead there are just two: rainy and dry. When it rains it really pours, but there can also be beautiful days during that humid period, November to March. April to October tends to be far drier and equally hot, though nights can feel quite cool. Daytime temperatures hover in the 20s Celsius (high 70s and 80s Fahrenheit) year round. (And don’t pay attention to your iPhone’s Weather app, it predicts rain almost daily in Bali and quite often wrong.)