Bali: The Ultimate A to Z Guide
In this series of city guides, we highlight the top spots in each destination, from the most iconic landmarks to the least-known hidden gems, with a sprinkling of survival tips from A to Z.
There’s a reason why Bali seems to attract soul-searching travellers, and about-to-be-newlyweds planning a destination wedding. The Balinese culture, which stands out from all other isles and cities in Indonesia, is deeply rooted in spirituality. It is a tropical escape that thrives with natural spectacles—from its quintessential rice paddies and copious beaches to its sprawling jungle and volcanic mountains—which co-exist with ancient religious landmarks. Yet, this is an island that will take you by surprise as well, using human ingenuity to breathe new life into old spaces and concepts, whether it’s a Gothic nightclub or revamped airplane restaurant. We’ve rounded up the top destinations and activities that you can’t miss while in Bali.
The Ubud Monkey Forest is a staple for any sightseer. Residing in the village of Padangtegal, this nature preserve is home to nearly 900 Balinese long tailed monkeys (or macaques). They roam freely, so be sure to keep your possessions close, theft-proof and away from these playfully curious primates.
Black sand beaches
Get your camera ready. From Keramas Beach to Jasri Beach, Bali is chock-full of black volcanic sand beaches—the work of the island’s surrounding active volcanoes. Incidentally, they tend to be less crowded than regular sunbathing spots too, so you’ll have plenty of space to prance around your emo paradise.
Como Shambahala Estate
A picturesque haven for the stress-prone, Como Shambahala Estate is a luxury wellness resort, located against the backdrop of Ubud’s lush forests and paddy fields. It offers three, five, and seven-day spa programmes that serve to rejuvenate your mind, body and soul. There’s even an in-house Ayurvedic doctor, dietician and personal assistant who will be at your beck and call 24/7.
Dolphin-watching at Lovina Beach
If you’re looking for a beach to hit, opt for Lovina Beach. Besides being a stellar spot for snorkelling and diving, it’s home to a few dolphins as well. You just might catch sight of not just one, but a school of these perky oceanic creatures, frollicking along the north coast.
Walk through the gaping mouth of a demon at Goa Gajah, otherwise known as Elephant Cave. Constructed in the 9th century, the historic sanctuary once served as a school. Inside are statues of six women (originally seven) holding pots that flow with drinkable water. They call it the fountain of youth, and you’re free to take a sip.
Performed typically by men, the Kecak fire dance originated in the 1930s in Bali, and incorporates a choir of as many as 100 performers. Lasting between 60 and 90 minutes, the Hindu display tells the story of Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic about Prince Rama rescuing his wife from an army of monkeys. Most entrancing is the choreography that sees the actors dancing with fire like they’re immune to the flames.
A subterranean labyrinth that was once a functioning house, Goa Gala-Gala is an escape into an oft-forgotten past where advanced technology came in the form of a shovel and chisel. Although this was built in the 1960s, it evokes the primitive appeal of prehistoric times.
Hotels with a twist
Treat yourself to the almost-underwater resort experience at Udang House, where wooden water villas (erstwhile Javanese bridal houses) are equipped with glass floors. You’ll be able to look at aquatic creatures in their natural habitat, as if in a luxury submarine. Panchoran Retreat’s lodgings, made entirely out of bamboo, are located in the middle of a jungle, offering an exotic getaway that brings you closer to nature. The Elephant Safari Park Lodge is another thrilling location that lets you sleep opposite an enclosure of 30 free-roaming Sumatran elephants.
Inside an airplane restaurant
Rather than walk through rusty, old abandoned airplanes, why not visit one in the middle of a rice field that’s been revamped and upcycled into an upscale restaurant? Keramas Aero Park, a 40-minute drive from Ubud, features a Boeing 737-400, in which you’re bathed in funky, blue light and served by waiters dressed as flight attendants.
Jump from market to market
Make your first pit stop at Denpasar’s Badung Market for a taste of the largest garage sale by the beach, before dialling it down at the Kuta Night Market for a bit of street nosh. The Frog Market in Tabanan is a treasure trove of vintage garments, while the Ubud Traditional Art Market is self-explanatorily—a stomping ground for the creative and cultured.
While it’s garnered quite a bit of controversy, kopi luwak remains a delicacy that every traveller should get a taste of. To the uninitiated, it’s a traditional Balinese coffee made from coffee beans that have been eaten and excreted by Asian palm civets. Supposed the most expensive and best-tasting coffee in the world, be sure to get your cup from an ethical brewer.
Largest temple in Bali
Besakih Temple, situated on the highest mountain in Bali, Mount Agung, is the island’s largest Hindu temple with structures that date as far back as 2,000 years ago. As the most sacred complex in Bali, it’s no surprise it plays host to over 70 religious ceremonies annually.
Mirror Lounge & Club
More than a nightclub, the Mirror Lounge and Club is styled like a Gothic cathedral, providing a regal backdrop that blends elegance with decadence. Complete with technicolour stained glass windows and the highest of ceilings—perfectly in line with the theme of raising roofs, it is a destination for elevated partying.
An off-shore island to visit for a day or two, Nusa Lembongan is virtually traffic-free (villagers often pile on top of each other in single motorcycles), and is home to seaweed farms, hidden beaches, and the Devil’s Tear, a majestic cliff on which colossal waves tower over you and break on the edge of the rocky outlook.
Open-air shopping mall
Beachwalk Kuta is not your average retail building, but a mall that’s constructed to appear more like a resort with thatched roofs. Its cluster of “mega huts” reside around each other creating an undulating outline with pockets of greenery (inspired by the contours of paddy fields), while inside the open-air mall offers local designer labels and global favourites such as Pull & Bear and Topshop.
Pop by an abandoned theme park
Abandoned for about two decades after an incident that left a bunch of crocodiles out in the wild, Taman Festival Bali used to be a thriving theme park that hosted the world’s first inverted roller coaster and Bali’s largest swimming pool. Now, the graffiti-filled spot is a ghost town, yet still hauntingly beautiful in its decrepitude.
What better way to tour the backcountry of Bali, the rough jungles and creeks, than on a dirt buggy or quad bike? Be prepared to splash through muddy terrain, bump along meandering trails, and zip down little hills though. This rough-and-tumble activity isn’t for the faint of heart.
Room 4 Dessert
For those with a sweet tooth, Room 4 Dessert is akin to setting foot into Willy Wonka’s exclusive chocolate factory. Opened by Will Goldfarb in Ubud in 2014, this all-dessert establishment (first launched in New York) serves art on plates, made from locally sourced ingredients. Tuck into its nine-course tasting menu, and indulge in a medley of classic treats and offbeat concoctions that include toasted gelato and marshmallows, or chocolate toblerone, soursop and Balinese meringue.
Silent New Year
Nyepi, the Day of Silence, is the Balinese New Year’s day, where instead of fireworks and drunken partying, the locals celebrate by being still and reflective. It starts with a raucous parade with giant papier-mâché idols and fiery performances on the eve of Nyepi, before the entire island comes to a halt the day after. There’s no electricity, no work, no travelling during this time of rebirth and spiritual cleansing, making for an unorthodox experience for a traveller stuck indoors.
Tegallalang Rice Terrace
These mind-bogglingly gorgeous, lush paddy fields, located to the north of Ubud, still use a style of rice farming from the 8th century known as Subak, a complex and efficient water irrigation system. Besides the greenery, you could hop on a bicycle tour and swing by the Gunung Kawi Sebatu Temple and Made Ada Museum.
Underwater garden temple
Beneath the emerald waters of Pemuteran Bay are more than pebbles and fish. Built to facilitate the growth of corals and conserve marine life, statues and shrines that look like treasures from a sunken ship have been placed in these waters, creating an otherworldly underwater garden. Spearheaded by the Pemuteran Bio-Rock Project in 2000, these artificial biorock structures (there are more than 60) use small doses of electrical current to protect and restore the corals that have been destroyed in the past by destructive fishing.
Why climb a mountain when you could scale a volcano—an active one, no less? Mount Batur is one of two mountains in Bali that are active volcanoes, promising an epic view of the sunrise, clusters of clouds wafting beneath you, and a dip at the hot springs. If you’re looking for a challenge, mosey over to Mount Agung, the highest volcano in the area that takes four hours to ascend.
One of the most over-the-top water parks in Asia (and the world), Waterbom Bali is known for its array of adrenaline-pumping rides, such as the somewhat psychedelic slide, Boomerang, but its most famed must-try is the Climax. Here, you’ll enter a transparent tube and face a countdown, before plummeting five storeys down through a trap door beneath your feet, lasting seven seconds.
X-treme water sports
What’s the point of travelling to Bali, if you’re not going to get into the water and sign up for extreme activities that you can’t do back home? We recommend trying your hand at flyboarding at Nusa Dua, canyoning in Ubud, kitesurfing in Sanur, or the ultimate challenge, cave diving with sharks.
Relive the story of Eat, Pray, Love at the plethora of yoga retreats in Bali. The Chillhouse Canggu is among the most popular spots to get your meditation fix, with a few specialty classes that incorporate surfing into the traditional yoga practice. Offering a more Zen experience is Bagus Jati Retreat, situated in the forest with tranquil views, where you’ll get to fully disconnect from the city life.
Zoom down a natural water slide
Hitch a ride from Singaraja, a port town in Bali, to the village of Sambangan to reach the Aling-Aling Waterfall, a natural precipice that has transformed over time to become something of a waterslide. And yes, the 35m rock formation is absolutely safe to get on.