Peppered with mystical Hindu temples, writhed in volcano smoke, scented with incense and Javanese coffee beans, and blanketed in emerald rice paddies: Bali is one of the best islands in Indonesia, the fabled Isle of the Gods. And topping all that off are legendary surf swells, powered by the pumping undercurrents of the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, the shore waters here are forever churning out barrels and peaks that’ll have even the Kelly Slaters among us coming back for more.
From the buzzy party towns of Kuta and Seminyak to the bamboo-built shacks above the turquoise tubes of Bingin and Uluwatu, this 41-stop guide goes a-hunting for Bali’s hidden gems. Bali bike tours around Ubud and eco cafés meet yoga retreats with the sunrise. Jaunts to paradise isles mingle with hikes up hulking mountain peaks. Follow the tips below and dull moments are bound to be in short supply…
Calling all beginners! Kuta is one of the best surf spots in the world if you’re looking to get your water feet. First off, it’s a beach break, which means the waves tumble onto soft sand. Second, it runs for several miles down the southwest coast of the island, so you can almost always find a little spot to call your own for the afternoon. And there are surf schools like Odyssey Surf School and board rentals aplenty, some of which even pop up right on the beachfront of Kuta Beach itself.
Surfing ‘Ulus’, as it’s known to the regulars, is a rite of passage for any serious shortboarder in Bali. Located in Uluwatu and consisting of five separate peaks, it ranges from the out-in-ocean Temples to the zippy Racetrack that breaks over low rocks. The most famous section is the legendary Outside Corner, which offers clean, flat wave surfaces that can be ripped to your heart’s content. Of course, with a pros-only policy, you might prefer to just grab a cold one and watch others work some magic from the nearby cliff top bars. That’s cool too!
A few clicks north of Uluwatu’s iconic reef is the small sandy inlet of Padang Padang. It’s got two separate breaks in its roster: Baby Padang and Padang Padang proper. The first is something simple for beginners and intermediates, offering a softly breaking ride that’s created by the mixing of sand and reef just beyond the shore. The latter is a gnarly blue tube that’s sculpted in the ilk of the Banzai Pipeline. It crashes right in from the open ocean straight onto jagged corals – experts only. Make sure not to get the two mixed up!
If your idea of a perfect start to the day is a few rips on the Indian Ocean waves between morning yoga poses and afternoon acai bowls, Canggu might be precisely what you’ve been searching for. Easily one of the hippest corners of the Isle of the Gods, it’s fringed with beaches that host several small surf breaks. But beyond the salt spray, there are also boho bars and health retreats to keep you busy. In fact, Canggu is one of the best cities for digital nomads and the perfect destination for solo travelers, which means fair-trade coffee abound. And there’s likely to be loads of laptop warriors keeping the cafés full.
A 90-minute hydrofoil ferry from Padangbai is all it takes to trade Bali for the Gilis, a chain of paradise isles that speckle the waters nearer to Lombok. The first port of call for most boats is the largest of the three: Gili Trawangan. Set aside more time than you think you need for your trip here, because chances are you won’t want to leave. The whole place is ringed by a beachfront of perfect sugar sand. The sea is a glinting azure color. And the nightlife? Well, let’s just say the local free divers and surfers love to let loose with reggae after a long day on (or under) the waves!
Bali’s big bro is the island of Lombok. You can hardly miss it on account of the hulking tops of Mount Rinjani. That’s a 3,726-meter-high volcano that’s actually the second tallest in all of Indo. Those backpacking southeast Asia make the trip across to Lombok specifically to hit up its summit. Be warned: it’s not a walk in the park. For starters, it takes at least two days to complete and there are climbing sections up scree ridges and volcanic chutes. The rewards are stunning views over to the Isle of the Gods, across the Bali Sea, and down to flooded craters far beyond the clouds.
Most people know Padangbai as a stepping stone to the white-sand isles of the Gilis. But you don’t have to come here looking for a boat ride over the ocean. The town warrants at least a couple of days, especially for its interesting fishing heritage. However, it’s the beaches that are the true hidden gems. Postcard-perfect Blue Lagoon Beach is to the north, framed by fluted outcrops of rock. Bias Tugel Beach magnetizes large swells to the south. Beyond those are deserted black-sand stretches where coconut palms stoop over wild, white-capping waves.
Descend the high cliffs into Binging Beach and you’ll be faced with a stunning dash of Balinese beachfront. The Impossibles reefs on the south end meet a neatly curling reef break right in front to cater to those with the board in tow. Most choose to surf the latter, which means things can get a little busy at sunset and prime tide times. However, Bingin ain’t just for the wave hunters. There are bamboo-built bars where cold Bintang is the order of choice. And there’s always room to lay the towel and soak up the rays under the speckling of boulders on the sand.
Start the day fresh with platters of hand-cut mango and avocado, vitamin-giving berries, chia seeds, and locally-roasted coffee. Or, fuel up at brunch with hangover-beating bouts of vegan bacon and poached eggs. That’s what’s on offer from Beach Bowl Bali, a stylish, friendly café sat just meters from the entrance to Kuta Beach. You might want to grab one of the hand-picked coconuts from the fridge to go, too. They’re ice cold.
You’ll need to venture far out to the northeastern edge of Lake Batur under the shadow of Bali’s ash-spouting volcanos to find the ancient peoples of Trunyan. A small village that’s tucked beneath sinewy mountain ridges, it’s a fascinating place just to look at. However, it’s the curious funerary traditions that’ll get you thinking. Instead of burying their dead, the tribes here leave them exposed to the sun and elements in simple bamboo canopies.
Choose to disappear into the jungles and rising hills that shroud the southern surf beaches and you’ll soon be lost in the jungle-clad interior of Bali. It’s there, just under an hour’s drive from Kuta, that you’ll discover the arty town of Ubud. The place is filled with coffee shops, vegan eateries, and art galleries (it’s a major painting and crafts center). And there are some uber-relaxing retreats to enjoy nearby, with infinity pools that poke out over cascading rice paddies.
It’s no secret that most folk will make a beeline straight from the airport terminals in Denpasar for the surf-washed beaches of Kuta and the Bukit Peninsula. The result is that the northern shores of the island remain a little less in the spotlight. Cue Lovina. A chilled and handsome resort that’s far away from the well-known waves; it’s a spot for bamboo bungalows on the sand. A backdrop of pristine jungles and resident dolphin pods (Lovina is considered the place to go dolphin spotting in Bali) only adds to the draw.
Dropping down humid valleys like a waterfall of emerald and agate in the midst of the Balinese highlands, the Tegalalang Rice Terraces are one of the undisputed wonders of the Isle of the Gods. They are best accessed from the artsy town of Ubud, which is about 20 minutes to the south. As soon as you arrive, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping vistas sprouting rice shoots that color the whole scene. There are walking paths and rope swings dotted around the area so you can explore and take those compulsory Instagram shots to your heart’s content.
Hot springs? But it’s 77 degrees out! Well, why not put your trust in the learned ones of the Brahmavihara Arama Buddhist tradition who have been bathing in the Air Panas Banjar hot springs for centuries? You’ll find them tucked into the verdant jungles southeast of Bubunan. The hot aqua gurgles from a series of carved dragon spouts into enclosed pools that glow green and blue beneath the canopies. There’s also an adjoining spa touting Balinese body scrubs and full-body massages.
Part bar, part club, part skate park, Pretty Poison channels Lords of Dogtown vibes down between the rice paddies of Canggu. When the sun dips and the surfboards are stowed for the evening, folk flock here to glug cold beers and cocktails while skaters take to the in-house concrete bowl. There are regular skate offs, skate festivals, and DJ sets to get stuck into, so you’ll want to check the calendar before you roll on in.
Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest is the sort of place where you’d half expect to see Indiana Jones running away from a rolling boulder. Vines crawl up a trio of ancient Hindu shrines amid tall trees that swing with, you guessed it, monkeys! In total, there are several hundred crab-eating macaques free roaming around the jungles. You’ll see them scrambling over the carved effigies of Hindu gods, splashing in gurgling rivers, and being rather cheeky on the main paths.
Forget all the fancy hipster eats of Canggu for a moment because there’s a taste of something more traditional on offer up in Ubud. You’ll find it on the terraces of little Dewa Warung. Following the classic model of Indonesian taverns (known as warung), it’s little more than a steamy kitchen and a couple of tables, plus the ubiquitous Bintang fridge, of course. Veggies will love the skewers of tempeh in peanut satay and the gado gado salad mixes.
Whoever said that Bali was all about surfing and sunbathing? Head inland to the jungles and a whole other array of adventure pursuits await. Those with a penchant for roaring rivers could make for the channels of the Ayung. It weaves through the forested hills of Bangli and Gianyar regencies, gurgling into whitewater rapids and swinging left and right for more than 68 kilometers. Oodles of outfitters offer Bali rafting trips down its length that are suited to all sorts, from beginners to veterans of the sport.
Thatched-roof cottages, Balinese rowhouses, and adobe-built craft workshops will greet you in Tenganan. It’s one of the age-old Aga Villages, which are thought to have existed long before the island converted to Hinduism around the first century AD. Here, the ancient traditions continue on in the ritual of the Perang Pandan. It’s a savage war dance that takes place once a year on the main village square. If you’re lucky enough to be around then, you can come to watch folk beat each other with spiky pandanus branches while gamelan music echoes violently through the jungles.
If money’s no object, or if you’re making Bali a part of your honeymoon, the sleek kitchen at Mejekawi, in equally sleek Seminyak, is certainly worth a look in. Under the auspices of the famous beach cocktail bar, Ku De Ta, this one offers up a degustation menu of ceviche, suckling pig (a local delicacy), and smoked-salmon starters, all in a glitzy open-front setting mere metres from the sands.
Cafe Organic Bali is everything you’d expect of a favourite Canggu brunch spot. The menu is all oatmeal apple pies, free-range eggs on sourdough, crispy cauliflower wings touched with Teriyaki – you get the idea. In terms of locale, you’ll be sat in an airy interior a quick drive from the surf peaks of Batu Bolong.
If your Bali dream consists of glowing beachfronts, stooping coconut palms, and infinity pools that seem to merge seamlessly with a turquoise ocean, then Nusa Dua could be the spot you’re after. It fringes the eastern edge of the Bukit Peninsula, where the land spikes out with two headlands crowned by their own Hindu shrines. Between them are dashes of gorgeous sand that are backed by some of the island’s most luxurious hotels, all offering tropical R&R just meters from the waves.
Batik is the age-old art of creating patterned fabrics using dots of wax to seal off portions of cloth before adding in the dyes and colorings. There’s arguably nowhere on the isle better known for the craft than the village of Tohpati. A mere seven miles outside of bustling Kuta, you can easily come to see local weavers hard at work, producing elaborate geometrics and designs on sheets and coverings galore.
As more and more boarders hit the coves and reefs of Bukit each year, there’s a temptation to look a little further afield than usual for your Balinese surf. That’s where Balian Beach comes in. It’s only recently been discovered and remains firmly off the beaten track on account of its rugged black-sand appearance. However, the waves lick into steep wedges that crash both left and right around a river mouth. Behind them is the beginnings of a chilled-out surf village, with a few cafes and hostel camps up its sleeve.
You’ll need to navigate a long and winding jungle path to find what’s arguably the most secluded of the world-class breaks on the Bukit Peninsula: Green Bowl Beach. Arcing around a series of high cliffs, the waves here are punchy in the extreme. They crash in straight off the ocean trenches and can suffer from strong rips. That makes it an upper-intermediate to expert playground, especially when the water curls up all glassy and rolls into neat tubes for some adrenaline-pumping rides.
If Bali’s the land of surf, the neighboring isle of Java is surely the land of the coffee bean. Yep, Javanese brews are famed the whole world over for their robust flavor and full-bodied character. Thankfully, there are some excellent places to sip your way through (too much) caffeine in the Isle of the Gods. Dewi Coffee is a chart topper. It does tasting trays of their home-grown beans overlooking the tumbling rice fields near Ubud. Oh, and you can even add in a cup of the iconic kopi luwak (made from beans that have been – ahem – passed by Asian civets) for a couple of dollars extra.
You’ll need to navigate through the misty jungles and ridges of the Buleleng Regency to find the amazing Sekumpul Waterfall. In all, it’s made up of several roaring cascades. They tumble over cliffs dressed in green vines and topped by gnarled banyan trees. Approaching from the bottom, you push through plumes of water spray before you get those all-important photo spots. Even the trek in is something to write home about: think walks through rice paddies, durian plantations, and remote Balinese hamlets.
Culture vultures heading for the Isle of the Gods will want to be sure they hit up the legendary Kecak Fire Dance of Uluwatu Temple. It’s now one of Bali’s unmissable performances, but has a history that goes back all the way to the 1930s when dramatized renditions of the Hindu Ramayana became popular. You’ll join hundreds of other visitors in a stunning cliff top theatre overlooking the wild waves below. Then, costumed dance troupes take to the stage, chanting and gyrating until fire illuminates the whole place. It’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry!
Just a short taxi ride from Ubud, the Goa Gajah shrine unfolds with its moss-caked ceremonial pools and gaping cave temples. It’s a mysterious place that’s thought to date from between the 9th and 11th centuries. There’s a fusion of Hindu, Buddhist, and local folkloric iconography scrawled throughout, with pagodas and ancient bathing spots mixing together between the surrounding rice paddies.
Whoever says that Bali is overrated needs to take one look at Mount Agung and think again. At a cloud-breaking 3,031 meters above sea level, Mount Agung is the tallest peak in Bali. Climbing the hulking stratovolcano has become something of a rite of passage for adventurers in these parts. There’s even a chance you could plan to summit before sunrise, to watch the dawn break across the Bali Sea and the rugged isle of Lombok to the east. (Be warned that recent eruptions of Mount Agung have caused delays and cancellations to trekking expeditions.)
Boats leave for Nusa Penida from Sanur Harbor all throughout the morning. The trip takes only 30 minutes in total and the rewards are many. Yep, this small fragment of Bali is awash with high cliffs topped by jungle scrub. There are gold-flecked beaches enfolded by rock-ribbed headlands (some look more Greek than Indonesian!). And you’ll find all manner of amazing photo spots dotting the walkways that thread the isle together.
Calling all bubble blowers: Bali isn’t considered a dive mecca for nothing. In fact, there are awesome sites to don the scuba tanks all around the island. None get the same press as Manta Point, though. Located just off a jutting headland by Nusa Penida, it’s a soft slope in the ocean floor that’s home to a menagerie of corals and reef fish. The special guests are giant manta rays, which tend to turn up for grazing between March and June.
Concealed below walls of rock just south of Jimbaran, the narrow sliver of golden sand that exists at Tegal Wangi Beach is surely among the best-kept secrets of the Bukit Peninsula. It’s compact, with just a short stretch of shoreline that’s speckled with craggy boulders. A few luxury spas crown the headlands here for those in search of manmade luxury. However, there are also natural ‘Jacuzzi’ baths to be found in the rock pools. They fizz and gurgle with sun-warmed saltwater whenever the tide is out.
There’s hardly a temple in Bali – nay, all of Southeast Asia – as breathtaking as Tanah Lot. It’s perched on a craggy stack of rock surrounded by the white-capping waves of the Indian Ocean. You’ll find it jutting into the water a little along the coast from Canggu. The complex is divided into two. There’s the onshore portion, where smaller shrines to demigods can be visited when the tide is up (making the main temple inaccessible). Then there’s the offshore part of the site, which looks positively otherworldly when the sunset glows orange, yellow, and ochre across its pagodas.
Forget the pulsing sky bars of Kuta, Old Man’s is where the in-the-know crowd go for rambunctious nights by the waves in Bali. It’s sat on the shores of cool Canggu, topped with bamboo coverings and oozing a sort of chic, surf-shack vibe. In the day, things are lazy and easy going, with coffee and food served on open-air terraces right by the ocean. In the night, the DJs start spinning and the sunset ushers in a hedonistic bout of late-night shindiggery.
Sandwiched between the rising peaks of north Bali and the sloshing blue swells of the east coast, the Taman Ujung Water Palace is another cultural jewel of the Isle of the Gods. It was once a kingly retreat, used by the chiefs of the Karangasem regency in the early 1900s. Inside, you can discover grand court rooms lofted over mirror-like ponds. There are elevated walkways and pagodas that sit serenely on the H20. What’s more, the whole lot is laced together by a curious mix of eastern and western architecture.
Make the surf pilgrimage west from Kuta to the less-talked-about spot at Medewi. Crashing in diagonally from the ocean, this one laps a black-sand beach far from the buzz of the big surf camps and barrels. The upshot? It’s rarely uber crowded. And that’s not the only plus, because Medewi is the Balinese left hander to end all Balinese left handers. So, if you’re a goofy-stance surfer or just want to learn the art of switching your nose against the grain, this one should definitely be on your list.
Mende Hill (Bukit Mende) arches like the backbone of a sleeping Komodo dragon through the hinterlands of the Kintamani region. That slopes down the smoke-belching caldera of Gunung Batur on the wild northern edge of Bali, which makes it a particularly dramatic corner of the isle. For those willing to hit the trails, there are views that are all but guaranteed to take your breath away (if the arduous trek doesn’t first, that is). Look to start your ramble in the small village of Subaya, some three hours’ drive out of Kuta.
They call Sambangan the Secret Garden. It’s easy to see why. Like a long-lost Shangri-La, the spot hides in the forgotten jungles on the northern side of Bali. In total, it holds four roaring waterfalls, which cascade through boughs of Flamboyant trees and bayans, pluming clouds of mist into the humid air. The best way to see the area is on the hiking trail that connects the falls. Just be sure to bring swimming gear along; there are loads of pools for cooling off as you walk.
One of the more curious traditions that’s still in practice in the rural fields of the Jembrana Regency is water buffalo racing. It’s exactly what it says on the tin: buffalos are harnessed, decorated in jangling trinkets and gold-rimmed horns for good luck, and then yoked together, all before they go head to head on muddy tracks through Balinese farms. The showdown season typically lasts from November to July, but dates for individual heats will change year to year.
The name Denpasar means just one thing to most travelers: Bali’s largest airport. But the capital of the island is much more than just terminals and runways. It’s a buzzing, throbbing mass of urban energy, steeped in local traditions and speckled with enthralling Hindu sites. Take the amazing temple at Pura Agung Jagatnatha and its grand two-spire gateway. Or, look to the Taman Budaya, where you can learn all about classic Balinese building styles. The town is also home to the royal palaces of Bali and the main Bali Museum.