Bali, Indonesia Travel Guide
- Legendary tropical getaway with thriving ancient Hindu culture
- From food to lodging, most of the island is a budget traveler's dream
- Beaches ranges from boozy party destinations to almost undiscovered escapes
- Towns to suit all types of travelers -- the young, old, spiritually inclined, and everyone in between
- Amazing landscapes include stunning rice terraces and towering volcanoes
- Stunning sunsets from seaside temples like Tanah Lot and Uluwatu
- Major surf destination with breaks for every skill level
- Chance to sample cheap local food, like at the 24-hour market in Denpasar
- Almost round-the-clock party scene in Kuta
- Getting around the island by car service or taxi is cheap
- The island is a case study in overdevelopment
- Traffic is abysmal across much of Bali's south
- Pollution is having a major impact on the island's beaches
- Mount Agung can put a kink in travel plans -- was erupting as of late 2017
What It's Like
Oh, Bali. It's so blessed, and -- sometimes -- can seem so equally cursed. To say that this island is a singular place is an understatement. There are sacred mountain temples and sacred mountains -- which are actually volcanoes prone to destructive eruptions every few decades. There are the sunrises from Mount Batur and sunsets at Tanah Lot. There are the miles upon miles of palm-lined beaches and stunning cliffside seascapes. And along with all of that natural, wicked beauty comes tourists -- lots and lots and lots of tourists. So many, in fact, that certain parts of the island seem to almost audibly groan under their weight -- or maybe that's just the sound of traffic. In any case, Bali has been enchanting travelers for some time now, and whether you walk away loving it or hating it, you can't deny that there's something special to be found here. You might just have to look a little harder than you expect.
While there is no official account, Hinduism landed on Bali sometime around the fifth century B.C., and its grip on the Balinese people hasn't abated since. Today, over 80 percent of the population is Hindu, and there are small shrines, big shrines, oceanside temples, mountaintop temples, riverside temples, and all manner of gods and goddesses etched into the surfaces of buildings across the island. It's a living testament to ancient traditions and is especially visible during March or April, when Bali celebrates its holiest holidays: Nyepi, Galungan, and Kuningan. Nyepi is a day of silence during which the entire island shuts down. Guests aren't allowed to leave their hotels and even the airport is closed as the Balinese celebrate purification and sacrifice to ring in their new year. If you're not there during these times, simply look up a gamelan performance or a kecak dance ceremony in the major towns (particularly around Ubud).
While culture runs deep in Bali, the truth is that many tourists aren't keenly interested in history or rituals. They're here to party, sunbathe, relax, and take in pretty tropical vistas. Australians have been in the know for some time now and have essentially turned corners of this island into their booze-fueled playgrounds. Retirement-age Scandinavian and northern European crowds tend to come for longer stretches of time to escape the cold winters back home. And that's to say nothing of the packs of travelers who drop in to brush up on their yoga or seek other forms of quote-unquote spiritual enlightenment.
So what part of Bali is right for you? That depends. Those who want to embrace Bali's hedonistic side should make a beeline for Kuta, where all-night bars and nightclubs draw the beer-and-shot set (after they've already likely had their fill of those same beers and shots on the beach). Up the coast from Kuta, Seminyak is a bit more refined, with swanky villa properties, boutiques, nightclubs, and posh beach clubs. It's also where most of the LGBTQ-friendly bars can be found. North of there, Canggu has earned a reputation as the Brooklyn of Bali. On the other side of the isthmus, through the crowded streets of Denpasar -- the island's capital -- is Sanur, which is the sleepy counterpoint to the Kuta and Seminyak's indulgent offerings. From Sanur, you can catch fast boats to amazing snorkeling and beaches on Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan.
The area bounded by Kuta, Canggu, and Sanur -- including Denpasar -- is an insanely crowded piece of real estate. Hotels sprout from almost every corner and traffic is a beast. It's a bit calmer to the south, on the Nusa Dua Peninsula. There, you'll find dramatic seaside cliffs and plenty of beaches that still feel undiscovered. Surfers are also in luck in Nusa Dua, as breaks along its shores can be legendary.
It's not all beaches and indulgence, though, as Bali is still very much home to a thriving and living culture. Uluwatu and Tanah Lot might be among the most famous temples in Southeast Asia, with their dramatic seaside positions, iconic sunsets, and eminently photographable settings. But they can be crowded, and access to the temples themselves are generally restricted to Hindus. Ubud is ringed by equally stunning temples, including Pura Tirta Empul, where locals and tourists alike can take a sari-clad dip in the sacred pools. Farther north is Pura Besakih, which is the mother temple of Bali and its most sacred. It sits along Mount Agung, an active volcano that was erupting once again as of late 2017.
Travelers who like to get off of the beaten path can head to the north and west, where the terraced tea fields of Jatiluwih provide a calmer counterpoint to the crowded and touristy terrace of Tegalalang in the east. You'll find far less crowded jungles and beaches here, and it's likely your best bet to discover something like what Bali once was. Hurry up, though -- it's only a matter of time before everyone else finds these parts of the island too.
Where to Stay
One of the best things about Bali is that it has somewhere to suit any travelers' mood -- or moods. If you're here to party, head to Kuta, though don't expect a good night's sleep, as the bars and nightclubs in this part of the island stay open late. For something a bit more refined, head up the coast to Seminyak, where upscale boutiques and luxury villa properties rub shoulders with some of Southeast Asia's most famous beach clubs. About 40 minutes east of these two towns, on the other side of the isthmus that links Bali proper with the Nusa Dua Peninsula, is Sanur, which is a sleepy beachside town that's best for travelers who prefer a lower-key getaway.
If you're looking to get away from it all, opt for some of the southern areas of the Nusa Dua Peninsula, while those seeking big luxury properties should head to the development on the peninsula's east. Inclined to mingle with packs of aspiring yogis? Then Ubud -- in the south-central hills of Bali -- is your go-to destination. Travelers who don't mind being off the beaten path have plenty of real estate to explore in the north of the island, where most tourists rarely go. Lovina, in particular, is becoming something of a destination and is famous for dolphin watching. Even so, it's retained its casual, low-key vibe -- for now, at least.