My 10 Favorite Places in Bali
While traveling these many years I’ve discovered that a majority of people seem to have a rather negative view of Bali, Indonesia.
Australians and New Zealanders, in particular, think of Bali as a crazy vacation spot for wild party-ing surfers and bar-hopping youths. Indeed, a huge volume of such young Australians head to Bali each year to surf and drink themselves under the table. After all, Bali is so very close to Oz and comparatively extremely inexpensive.
Many North Americans and Europeans, on the other hand, seem to consider Bali as a grossly over-developed tourist trap full of upscale, all-inclusive resorts where visitors never step outside the resort grounds to experience the local culture. Certainly, those sorts of beach-side paradise resorts and package vacationers do exist on Bali island, particularly in the far south.
However, those are just two very small slices of Bali Island. Beyond the horribly over-developed, traffic-congested southern shores, Bali is full of stunning terraced rice fields, volcanoes & crater lakes, outdoor adventures, world-class artworks and intriguing Hindu culture.
So whenever I tell people that Bali is one of my favorite places on the planet, they want to know why. After I tell them all about Bali’s amazing culture, arts and pristine nature, they inevitably ask my recommendations on where to go and what to do at Island of Gods.
As a result, I’ve decided to write this post to tell more people unfamiliar with the real Bali where they can go to enjoy the wonderful Bali that I know and to escape the horrid tourist crowds and heathen bars of the vast Kuta-Legian-Seminyak sprawl in the south.
Following are my 10 favorite places in Bali, spots I try to visit every time I return to my favorite island on Earth.
A. Southern Bali
Most of Bali’s huge upscale luxury resorts and grossly over-developed tourist zones are located in southern Bali, not far from the international airport. The vast Kuta-Legian-Seminyak sprawl is particularly awful.
However, the south still has a few great spots that I really love visiting.
Sanur has always been my favorite place in southern Bali and, indeed, one of my ongoing favorite places on the whole island. Just 15 km / 45 minutes from the airport, Sanur is an ideal place to start and end a trip to Bali.
Sanur has always been a somewhat upscale area, as it was initially settled by Balinese high Hindu caste, artists and priests. A 5-km beach is backed by tasteful boutique resorts, all with stunning landscaped gardens, Balinese statues, stone walls and artworks. The entire 5-km beach stretch remains traffic free as no road runs along it. Just the sounds of the sea, wind and birds.
As a result of the original artists, musicians and religious figures, Sanur is full of traditional Balinese culture, including gamelan orchestras, fine dance troupes and loads of Balinese architecture. Sanur night market offers a huge variety of delicious Indonesian cuisines from Bali, Java, Sumatra and other areas.
I always try to stay at least one week in Sanur to enjoy the peaceful beaches, to feast on delicious market meals and to marvel at the gorgeous art, architecture, and gardens.
This post details my favorite guest house in Sanur
The extreme southern tip of Bali ends dramatically with tall vertical cliffs plunging into the wild sea. Arriving by airplane, you can clearly see Uluwatu cliffs soaring into the sky.
On top of those cliffs, perched on the very edge, is Pura Uluwatu – Uluwatu Temple. And hoards of monkeys.
Peering over the cliff edge, with the thundering Pacific Ocean far, far below, is a captivating experience.
Uluwatu makes an easy half day trip from Sanur (or other areas in southern Bali). The temple and cliffs are dramatic enough for me to try visiting every time I’m in Bali.
3. Nusa Dua Resorts & beaches
Nusa Dua is also located at the very southern tip of Bali. It was developed specifically as an ultra-high end luxury resort destination, far from the real Bali. It’s a place for vacationers who want simply to luxuriate in a tropical paradise, to de-strss and get away from the world.
Not surprisingly then, Nusa Dua consists of a dozen or so world-class resorts with extensive landscaped gardens, immaculately-clean powdery beaches, gourmet restaurants, serene spas and peaceful sitting spaces.
So when I feel like appreciating such luxurious surroundings and tanning on some of Bali’s very best beaches, I often head down to Nusa Dua for a day trip.
Incidentally, there’s also public access to Nusa Dua’s long, sweeping beaches and some stunning cliffs where sea water crashes & blows high into the air during certain tidal conditions.
B. Central Bali
Central Bali is dominated by several volcanoes, steeply terraced rice fields, lush forests, tiny traditional villages, important Hindu temples and amazing Balinese arts & culture. It’s an extremely diverse and beautiful area.
Any guidebook will quickly point out that Ubud is Bali’s cultural heart. Ubud is where most art galleries, museums, dance & gamelan troupes reside. If you want to find out what Balinese arts are all about, this is where you go.
I’m a sucker for traditional art & culture, so during my 1st trip to Bali back in 2000, I made a bee-line for Ubud. I stayed for two weeks, visiting every museum and gallery, studying various painting styles and famous artists’ works, attending gamelan/dance rehearsals and performances and getting caught up in religious ceremonies, cremation rites, festivals and daily Hindu customs. It was fascinating.
Unfortunately, since that time Ubud has become set squarely on the main tourist route. Traffic clogs the main roads, hordes of tourists crowd sidewalks, shops and restaurants in high season months. And touts are on the rampage.
As a result, I avoided Ubud for a full decade. But back in 2010 I re-discovered Ubud’s charms. I found out that down the side streets & alleys, off the main roads, Ubud life still rolls along in its traditional ways, pretty much tourist free. It’s peaceful, quiet and full of friendly, helpful charming locals.
5. Drive up over Mt. Batur
Over the years I’ve explored most of Bali by bicycle and motorbike. I probably haven’t driven every single road in Bali, but close to 90% I’d estimate. I’ve detailed my 5 Favorite Drives in Bali here.
Perhaps my very favorite drive is to head north out of Ubud on back roads, up to Mt. Batur crater rim at Kintamani and then down the other side to Bali’s far north coast near Singaraja.
The Ubud side roads climb steadily up the flanks of massive Mt. Batur volcano, passing through gorgeous terraced rice fields and a dozen or so tiny Balinese villages. The crater rim provides stunning views down into Batur Crater. And the road down to the north coast winds its way along razor-edged ridges before plummeting through pretty forests, past clove plantations and through more traditional villages.
The drive takes 2-3 hours by motorbike from Ubud.
6. Bedugul / Lake Bratan
Lake Bratan with Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (Temple) seemingly floating on its surface, is one of Bali’s most famous, most visited and most photographed sites. The 11-tiered, thatched pagoda certainly is quite striking, I must admit.
Nearby Bedugul town, on the southern edge of the crater, is a seedy little place, but with a couple specialties that make it worth visiting. You see, Bedugul sells locally-grown strawberries! And fresh strawberries are something very rare in SE Asia with its tropical climate.
Bedugul also serves up particularly delicious mutton and chicken sates.
As a result, I enjoy making a trip up there to drive through the large crater, visit Lake Bratan & temple and gorge myself on mutton sate and strawberries.
7. Crater Lakes Tamblingan & Buyan
Lake Bratan with Pura Ulun Danu Bratan Temple is one of Bali’s most famous sites. The large crater lake sits in the middle of massive Bratan crater, along with a few villages, extensive vegetable farms and even a golf course!
Nearby, on the northern crater edge, lie two much less known but stunning crater lakes: Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan. While visitors view Lake Bratan by strolling along its shores, views of these two lakes are from high up on the crater edge.
A narrow paved road runs along the crater edge, providing several viewpoints over the gorgeous lakes. A few local coffee shops and small restaurants serve drinks and meals on tables set out under big trees right on the edge of the crater drop off.
It’s a great place to visit for a half day trip and a coffee break or picnic.
C. More remote areas
Following are places out around the fringes of Bali that I especially love to visit.
Munduk is a tiny ridge-line village located on a razor-sharp ridge on the northern side of Bratan crater region. During the past decade, a number of small boutique resorts have sprung up in the village, catering to foreign visitors.
For some reason, French tourists are particularly clue-d in to Munduk. In fact, it was my French friend who turned me on to this great spot, after I’d already been visiting Bali for over a decade.
On her recommendation, I checked it out a few years ago and discovered yet another favorite spot in Bali. Views are superb. Walks to surrounding terraced rice fields, forests, villages and one of the island’s most massive Banyan trees provide strenuous exercise and adventure.
I now try to visit Munduk for a few days every time I return to Bali.
Incidentally, Munduk is located just down the mountain a bit from Lakes Tamblingan and Buyan.
Amed consists of a series of small curving coves separated by rocky headlands along the far northeastern coast of Bali island. Each bay holds a traditional fishing village. Locals live much like they always have, on the steep hillsides and in the small beach-side villages.
Since the mid 1980s some privately owned small boutique resorts have snuck into the bays & coves along Amed’s coast. Even today, with dozens of such resorts well-established, the region retains its traditional ways of life and feels nearly untouched by the discreet tourism that has infiltrated.
Amed is the best places in Bali for scuba diving and snorkeling, with year-round warm, calm seas and stunning reefs just off shore. It’s one of the best places in Bali to learn about/observe traditional ways of life, including Salt Making and Mackerel Fishing.
It’s also a fantastic place to unwind, escape from the world and simply chill out. Indeed, many expats living in Southern Bale head to Amed to do just that, whenever the have a chance.
Amed remains one of my favorite places in Bali. I taught scuba diving there three seasons and still love returning to visit the lovely boutique resorts and many friends I’ve made over the years.
I’ve written over a dozen posts about Amed, scuba diving in the region, and Amed’s traditional lifestyles here.
Negara is a small city located in far southwest Bali. Because it’s situated so close to neighboring Java island, many Javanese have relocated to the region. As a result, Negara is an interesting blend of Balinese Hindu and Javanese Muslim cultures.
The town itself isn’t particularly gorgeous, but it holds a few unique quirks, such as the Javanese horse & cart taxis and some delicious traditional Indonesian cakes.
It’s the countryside immediately surrounding town that holds the real attractions. Some of Bali’s most beautiful flat rice fields stretch to the sea, starting just south of town. Local villages fluctuate between Muslim inhabitants with their mosques and Hindu villages with their distinctive Balinese temples.
Wild beaches with amazing views of nearby Java flank the coast. Colorful Javanese fishing boats anchor in a winding river.
Inland from Negara are several important Hindu temples, traditional mountain villages and, amazingly, Bali’s only Christian villages, complete with Churches!
This all makes Negara a very intriguing and very off-the-beaten-track place.