What it is:
Also known as the “Island of the Gods,” Bali is an automatic pen-in on the bucket lists of travellers from around the world- and for good reason. With grumbling volcanoes, gorgeous beaches, crystal-clear water, a mystical culture rooted in ancient Hindu traditions (the only of its kind in the region) and famous surfing waves, Bali is the poster-child of tourism in Indonesia.
Most people go to Bali for the beaches and end up discovering that there’s more to it than they imagined. The beaches are only one thread in a deeply woven fabric of attributes that comprise the entirety of the Bali experience.
Bali and its attractions are best understood in terms of their relation to cardinal directions: north, south, east, west and central Bali.
Most people arrive and stay in Southern Bali. Unfortunately, most first impressions of Bali’s beaches are of Kuta Beach due to its proximity to the bulk of south Bali’s accommodation and nightlife. While Kuta Beach is a good place to learn how to surf due to its consistent yet forgiving waves, for a beach experience that will be more in line with your expectations, you’ll want to hop in a taxi or motorbike to discover some of South Bali’s hidden gems.
Balangan Beach is closest to the main tourist centre of Kuta, yet approaching Balangan Beach makes you feel as though you are entering a hidden paradise. The beach is surrounded by high cliffs on every side and the crowds don’t seem to make it here. Padang Padang Beach is one of the more famous, but still relatively uncrowded, beaches in southern Bali. Made famous by the book “Eat, Pray, Love” here you’ll find clear waters and an other-worldly landscape of monolithic rock formations, particularly during low tide. The beach is also well-known for its unique wave breaks, making it a mecca for surfers.
Just south of Padang Padang is the incredible Uluwatu Sea Temple. Nestled on the side of a massive cliff, this is the perfect place to go for unrivalled birds-eye views of the Indian Ocean at sunset. The temple complex alone is worth a visit, while the cultural performance that takes place every evening as the sun is setting makes the area extra special.
Pandawa Beach was once considered to be a secret beach that only locals and well-informed expats knew about but in recent years, a path has literally been blasted through the limestone cliffs and a well-paved road now provides easy access for all. The beach here is large and the waves are unusually calm, making it a great place to go with kids. The quirky array of statues that have been carved into the cliffs along the access road make for an interesting distraction, if you need one.
Further afield, the Sea Temple at Tannah Lot sits on a tiny island that’s only accessible during low-tide. Tannah Lot is not only popular with tourists looking to capture some if its rugged beauty, but it’s also an important pilgrimage site for Balinese people. What few people realize about Tannah Lot, though, is that there are actually some rather pleasant beaches within easy walking distance of the temple itself.
Perhaps the most beautiful and least-visited beaches in southern Bali are those not technically on Bali itself. Just off the coast of Sanur, which also happens to have a lovely beach- which is especially nice for sunrise- are the islands of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida. Not only is the water crystal clear here but the residents of these islands are of an entirely different culture than mainland Balinese- making it an interesting cultural excursion as well.
Despite its relative proximity to the tourist centres of south Bali, East Bali is rarely visited despite having some amazing attractions. It’s the perfect place to go if you want to enjoy a quainter atmosphere.
Amed is considered one of the better places in Bali for diving and snorkelling due to the abundance of shipwrecks and corals. The dark sandy beaches, while different, are also picturesque. Next up is Candidasa, which is considered one of the most romantic areas in Bali. In addition to having really charming beaches of its own, there are also a few offshore islands worth visiting such as Goat Island and White Sandy, one of the area’s best-kept secrets.
Padangbai is the main launching point for people heading to the island of Lombok, but is often overlooked as a destination in its own right. On the eastern part of Padangbai’s coast there are areas perfect for swimming, sunbathing and snorkelling and not far off is Silayukti Temple, which is well-known as a place for meditation- although you need permission from locals to do so.
Outside of the beaches and perched on the southwestern side of Mount Agung, one of the tallest volcanos in Bali, is Besaikih Village. Within the village is the Besakih Temple Complex, which is considered to be the most important temple in Bali. With a combination of scenic surroundings, fascinating architecture and an abundance of pious worshippers, the area is one of Bali’s most photogenic destinations.
Ababi is a rather unassuming village that, if not for Tirta Gangga, would hardly attract anyone. Also known as the Water Palace, the stunning architecture and its clever use of water make this one of the most fascinating temples in Bali.
Under appreciated and little-visited, North Bali is one of the island’s most beautiful and peaceful areas. Aside from being decidedly greener and more tropical than other areas of the island, it’s also one of the most pristine- both physically and culturally.
Most who head to the north find themselves heading to Lovina. The famous black sand beaches and coral reefs here are some of the island’s best, while the laid back vibe sets visitors at ease. Lovina is also well-known for its large population of dolphins, which are best seen during sunrise boat trips.
Once the capital of Bali during colonial times, Singaraja is a requisite stopping point for those travelling in the north. The wide boulevards and colonial architecture makes for a unique experience on the island.
10km east of Singaraja is Pura Meduwe Karang. This is the most impressive temple in the north of Bali and it’s unusual, often macabre stone carvings, make it a visual sceptical that’s worth visiting.
The least populated and least visited area of Bali is in the west. Roughly speaking, Bali is a circular island. West Bali is like a protruding extension of that circle, reaching to within a few kilometres of Java- making it the easiest access point for ferries bridging the gap. Much of the area is dominated by West Bali National Park, which is mostly uninhabited. The northern end of this “extension” is known for its calm waters and excellent diving and snorkelling. The southern end is much more rugged and is well-known among surfers to have some of the wildest waves on the island.
One of the main draws of west Bali is Menjangan Island. Known for its rugged beauty, the island is the perfect place to go for treks into pristine forest. It’s also a world-renowned diving and snorkelling area.
Much of the southern coast is fringed with black-sand beaches and remote fishing villages. The best-known of these is Medewi Beach. In addition to being a famous surf destination, it’s also known for its laid-back atmosphere and for the charming village there.
On the north side, Pemuteran is the most well-known beach. It’s one of the only areas in West Bali that is somewhat well-developed, and there are a range of activities to partake in there, such as snorkelling, diving, and hiking.
Far and away, the biggest attraction in central Bali is Ubud. Considered by travellers and locals alike to be the cultural centre of Bali, it’s the place to go if you want to discover the magic of traditional Balinese culture and be exposed to the incredible artistry that makes it so special. In addition to being home to a few legitimately worthwhile destinations of its own such as Ubud Monkey Forest and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace, Ubud is also home to an almost endless array of smaller local temples. These are almost constantly full of traditionally dressed locals, either practicing Balinese dance or worshipping. In addition to being one of Bali’s most photogenic destinations, Ubud is also well-known for its laid-back and artistic atmosphere. The streets here are easily walkable and contain some of the island’s most charming restaurants and cafes.
The central mountain range of Bali contains some of the island’s best scenery, as well as some of its most important temples. Loosely known as Bedugal, the area centres around three picturesque crater lakes: Bratan, Buyan and Tamblingan. Bratan Lake is home to what may be Bali’s most photographed temples, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. The architecture and sweeping views of the lake and surrounding mountains are one of Bali’s most iconic images.
Along the roads between destinations, no visit to Bedugal would be complete without a stop at the roadside viewpoint overlooking what is known as the Twin Lakes, that is Buyan and Tamblingan, but viewed from above.
Further north there is the charming mountain village of Munduk, which allows visitors the perfect opportunity to witness a slice of local life. Not far from the village is Munduk Waterfall, located about 1,500m above sea-level and surrounded by lush tropical foliage.
How to get there:
By Plane: Arrivals to Bali by air come in through Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport. Better known as Denpasar International Airport, it’s located about 13km of Denpasar itself. To get to the centre of town or to Kuta it takes between fifteen and twenty minutes, depending on traffic.
By Train: Despite there not being any train tracks in Bali, many companies do offer combination transport packages to Bali. It’s particularly common to take scenic train rides through Java on the way to Bali- a time consuming way to do it, but one that allows you to see a side of Indonesia that is usually hidden.
By Boat: Visitors to Bali by boat come from either Java or Lombok with ferries or speedboats. The latter departs from Ketapang and arrives in Gilimanuk, in west Bali. Onward transport by bus is generally needed from there. From Lombok, ferries depart from Lembar Harbour, in southwest Lombok, and arrive in Padang Bai, in the east of Bali.