Explore Bali: A Comprehensive Guide to the Island of the Gods
Novelist Anaïs Nin once said of Bali that it is where “life, religion, and art all converge.” As richly diverse as it is stunningly beautiful, Bali is famed for its pristine beaches, vivid green rice terraces, towering volcanoes, and the many Hindu temples, or puras, that dot the countryside. Whether you’re lazing on the black sands of supercool Echo Beach or scouting for long-tailed macaques in the Ubud Monkey Forest, Bali offers something for travelers of every persuasion.
The westernmost region the volcanic Sunda Islands of Indonesia, Bali stands out as both a cultural mecca, a religious experience, and a nature-lover’s dream. Bali invites you to take a deep dive both literally, into the coral reefs off the eastern coast, and metaphorically, in the exploration of oneself through traditional practices of yoga and meditation. In the so-called “Island of the Gods”, visitors will find that the old deities of nature and spirituality have collided with the new divinities of modern culture to create a fascinating community that is unlike anyother.
Read on for our best tips, tricks, and in-depth guidance for a trip to Bali. Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out out out our full list of destination guides.
Fast Facts: Bali
Weather & Temperature in Bali - When to travel to Bali?
With average temperatures of 75°- 90° F, the climate on the islands is pleasantly warm all year long. However, to avoid the rainy season it’s optimal to travel between May and October.
Peak Seasons in Bali
Late summer (July & August), as well as major holidays (Christmas, Easter, Spring Break)
Times to Avoid Traveling to Bali
November-March is the rainy season in Bali. Although the weather is generally temperate, it’s best to plan around this time if you’re put off by the drizzle.
Major Festivals in Bali
Bali Arts Festival (mid-June to mid-July): Traditional dances and live performances are the hallmark of this Denpasar-based festival. One of the most impressive events is the opening parade in front of the Bajra Sandhi monument.
Bali Kite Festival (mid-July): At this unique festival on the Padang coast, it’s go big or go home. Hand-crafted kites in all shapes and sizes dominate the skies in a colorful spectacle that shouldn’t be missed.
Sanur Village Festival (mid-August): Normally slow-moving Sanur is bustling with life during this varied festival, where one can experience local food stalls, yoga classes, and fashion shows all in the same week.
Bali Spirit Festival (March): Trendy Ubud plays host to this yoga, meditation, and wellness festival, perfect for those who come to Bali seeking a more spiritual experience. Live music and food stalls round out this festival’s rota of events.
Check out our best cheap travel deals to Bali:
Bali Trip Starting Point: Denpasar
A start in Denpasar, home to the Ngurah Rai International Airport, is an inevitability for most visitors. From Denpasar you can easily access popular south-coast holiday resorts in Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak for your fix of white sand beaches and big waves perfect for surfing.
Bali Holidays - Follow Up With A Stop In:
Ubud in Bali
Largely considered the cultural center of the island, Ubud exemplifies Bali’s old-world-meets-new-world vibe. Although its roots are steeped in tradition, Ubud has embraced its newfound status as a hub for so-called “digital nomads,” a new class of remote employees that use their workplace flexibility to travel the world. Amongst the local puras and food vendors hawking traditional satay skewers, you may spot such nomads taking a mid-afternoon break for an iced coffee or letting off steam with a custom cocktail at The Laughing Buddha. If you have time, be sure to venture outside the city center to catch a glimpse of the famous Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave.
If your vision of Bali is spotless beaches, snorkeling, and sunbathing, Nusa Dua is a must. Best known as the resort center of the island, it is a great choice for those looking for a more relaxed trip with all the amenities. However, don’t be fooled by Nusa Dua’s tourist-y rep. Local attractions like the Water Blow, a natural blow hole, and the eerie disembodied sculpture of Garuda Wisnu Kencana make Nusa Dua a worthy stop on any visitor’s itinerary.
Island Hopping From Bali
With a whopping 17,508 islands to its name, Indonesia was built for the island-hopping voyager. From Bali you can easily access the Gili Islands, Lombok, and Nusa Lembongan, all of which are only a few hours speedboat ride from each other
“Gili” simply means “small” in Sasak (the native language of the Sasak of Lombok). These three miniature islands live up to their name, with the largest, Gili Trawangan, topping out at a max population of 800. Each island has its own distinguishing features: visit Gili Trawangan for a dive near the sunken ship off aptly-named Wrecked Point, explore coral reefs in a glass-bottomed kayak from the Gili Air Lagoon Resort, and connect with local fauna at the Gili Meno Sea Turtle Sanctuary.
The big brother to the Gili Islands, Lombok lies directly to the east. A trip to Lombok is an experience in technicolor. Climb to the peak of the imposing Mount Rinjani to get a glimpse of the ultra-blue Crater Lake, spend an afternoon lounging on the coral sands of Pink Beach, and round out your visit with an excursion to the twin ivory waterfalls of Tiu Teja.
Dwarfed by its neighbor, Nusa Penida, and nestled between Bali and Lombok, Nusa Lembongan can be easy to overlook. Not so for surfers, who flock to this pocket-sized paradise to catch some of the best waves in the Sunda Islands. However, non-surfers should not be swayed from visiting Nusa Lembongan. Take a paddle boat trip through the overgrown Mangrove Forest and swing by the local seaweed farm for a unique look at marine agriculture.
Bali draws vacationers seeking exercise for both mind and body. Organized tours exist for all kinds of travelers, and offer local expertise at generally low prices. Those with a thirst for local knowledge may want to check out day trips to far-flung temples or smaller villages in the island’s interior. Thrill-seekers can sign on for treks up Mount Agung or canyoning in hidden waterfalls. If you prefer adventures of the gastronomic variety, try out a nighttime street food tour. Those planning to participate in several guided tours may want to book accomodation at one of the many resorts on the island (from no-frills service to 5-star amenities), as larger hotels will be able to assist you in planning your itinerary.
If you are partial to arranging your own excursions, you may want to stay in a villa or a local bed & breakfast. You can find simple accomodations (a private room in a villa or hostel) from as little as $10 per night, and luxury homes starting from around $100 per night. If you’re looking to explore the island on your own, check out our top recommendations below.
Planning Logistics: How Much Time Do You Need For Your Bali Holidays?
With 5,780 square kilometers to explore, it can be hard to squeeze all of Bali into a short trip. If you are stopping in Bali on a larger tour of the Sunda Islands, or if you are planning to spend most of your time on the beach, a week should suffice. However, if you plan to seek out more off-the-beaten-path areas and still have time for some lazy days along the coast, you should allow at least three weeks to see all that Bali has to offer.
Keep in mind the time difference when travelling, as jet lag may impact your ability to jump right into a cycling tour or a boat excursion on your first day. Bali time is 12 hours ahead of EST, so it is advisable to give yourself a day or two to acclimatize.
Bali Sights: What Do You Need To See In Bali?
Bali's Gunung Agung Volcano
This active volcano in the east of the island is visible from almost any point. At 3,142 meters, it is the tallest mountain in Bali and is considered a sacred spot. According to legend, the spirits of Balinese ancestors and the Hindu deity Shiva reside on this impressive peak. Imbued with such significance, the mountain plays an essential role in Balinese religious life.
Pura Besaikh in Bali
The largest of the Hindu temples of Bali, Pura Besaikh, can be found on the southwestern slope of the Gunung Agung Volcano. This pura consists of 23 temples scattered throughout the hills and is host to more than seventy festivals per year.
Ubud in Bali
Bali’s cultural center as well as a major activity hub, old-meets-new Ubud has an art scene that is pulsing with life. Puri Lukisan, Bali's oldest art museum, has an impressive selection of multi-generational Balinese paintings and wood carvings. After a tour of the museum, wander through the Pasar Seni Ubud art market, where you can find unique textiles, jewelry, and colorful trinkets. For a glimpse of large-scale art, visit the ornate Puri Saren Agung, or The Ubud Palace, former home of Ubud’s royal family and a stunning example of traditional Balinese architecture.
Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave)
Near Ubud lies the Goa Gajah, or the Elephant Cave, which is estimated to have been built around the 9th century. Passing through the unnerving carved outer facade, one can find statues of both Hindu and Buddhist deities within the complex. The most notable of these is a statue of Ganesha, the well-known Hindu divinity with the head of an elephant and four arms. Statues of the “Divine Trinity” (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) can also be found within the complex.
Bali's Gitgit Waterfall
Located between Singaraja and Denpasar in a verdant jungle oasis, Gitgit is the highest waterfall in Bali. Just a short hike from an easily-accessible road, the pools at the base of the falls are perfect for a quick dip on a stifling day. Couples beware: Balinese lore claims that couples who enter the water together are destined to break up.
Sea Temple Pura Tanah Lot
About 20 kilometers from Kuta, perched on a small rock off the southwest coast of Bali, lies the sea temple Pura Tanah Lot. For the best experience, walk up to the temple at low tide and watch as it glows in the red light of the spectacular Bali sunset. It is important to note that the path to the temple is inaccessible at high tide, and the temple itself cannot be entered by anyone other than Balinese locals.
Bali's Sekumpul Waterfall
To the south, the Sekumpul waterfall is a breathtaking spectacle. Strolling past lush rice paddies, you will enter into a dense jungle and ultimately ascend more than 300 steep steps to reach the falls. The sight of the rushing water against a deep green backdrop more than compensates for the heady climb.
Gunung Batur in Bali
The area surrounding the smaller of the island’s active volcanoes, Gunung Batur, is a choice destination for a trek into the island’s interior. For unparalleled summit views of the sunrise over Bali, arrive in Toya Bungkah by dawn to start your climb with a local guide.
Singaraja in Bali
Singaraja is the second largest city in Bali and the center of activity in the north. Traces of its past as a colonial port can be found in the Old Dutch warehouses that still line the water. Stop in at the colorful Gedong Kirtya, the old colonial library, notable for the thousands of lontar (palm leaf manuscripts) housed in its walls.
Taman Nasional Bali Barat
Experience practically untouched nature at Taman Nasional Bali Barat, a vibrant national park in the northwestern extreme of the island. Book a guided tour for a chance to spot a herd of wild Banteng cattle or the ultra-rare Bali myna bird.
Beaches for Surfing in Bali
For dazzling white sand and strong waves ideal for surfing, head south to the beaches of Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak. With plenty of bars and restaurants along the coast, and upscale resorts a stone’s throw away, these beaches tend to attract a more sociable crowd.
- Kuta: Kuta, on the west coast, is a famous beach with plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars. The beach is also a favorite hotspot among surfers of various skill levels
- Uluwatu: Surfing enthusiasts will love their time at Uluwatu Beach, known for its mighty waves. Make sure to visit the 11th century Uluwatu Temple, which lies close to the beach.
- Seminyak: Seminyak Beach, in the south, is a gray sandy beach stretching for two miles. You will find tons of restaurants and boutique-style shops along the beach. The beach also provides good surfing conditions
Snorkeling and Diving in Bali
Dark volcanic sands set eastern Amed Beach, Jemeluk Beach and Lipah Beach apart from the rest. They are among the best beaches for snorkeling and diving on the island and are a better bet for a bit of peace and quiet away from the regular crowds.
- Amed Beach
- Jemeluk Beach
- Lipah Beach
Party & Nature at Balis' Beaches
The coastal strip of Lovina in the north of Bali is the happy medium for partygoers and nature enthusiasts. The black sand beaches offer coral reefs for exploration as well as a string of beach bars.
Getting Around Bali - Bus, Car, Motorbike
Getting around in Southeast Asian countries can be a challenge to the uninitiated Westerner. If you plan to rely on public transportation for the duration of your stay, it may be worth the cash to get an initial taxi to your accommodations so you can at least navigate the bus system without the burden of luggage.
Bali by car
Rental cars offer the highest level of independence and are ideal for those planning to map out their own tour of the island. Be warned: in Bali, the cars are for the most part uninsured and you will be expected to pay for any damage to the vehicle. Additionally, a valid international driver’s license is required to rent and drive cars on the island.
A sense of adventure, steely nerves, and a wealth of driving experience are perhaps more important than anything else when it comes to driving in Bali. Left hand traffic can be tricky for Americans to navigate. That, coupled with a general disregard for traffic rules and road damage from flooding, makes driving in Bali an exercise in patience and quick reflexes.
If you still want the independence of a rental car but aren’t confident about driving, there is the option to book a rental car with a driver. The drivers are not only familiar with driving customs but also know their way around the island, making them an invaluable resource for first-time visitors. The cheapest services will come to about $60 per day.
Bali by bus
The are no trains in Bali, but there are several bus lines that can transport you to different parts of the island.
Express buses do long-distance nonstop services between cities on the island. These overland trips in fully air-conditioned buses must be booked in advance at their respective terminals.
Tourist buses run between all the major attractions in Bali. You must buy the tickets at least one day in advance. Parema is the largest provider of private shuttle and tourist buses and will pick up vacationers for a surcharge at their hotel.
For short distances, it is worth it to take a spin on the “Bemo”. These low-cost minibuses have fixed routes within the cities and have a maximum travel radius of 30 kilometers. This is best for days when you have a flexible schedule, as posted arrival and departure times usually do not reflect the bus’ unpredictable nature. Tickets are paid on board, directly to the driver.
A note on the Bemo: while time-consuming and often uncomfortable, a ride on the Bemo is a unique and undeniably Balinese experience. The bus usually only gets going when all the seats are occupied, and from there there are no fixed stops, just people getting on and off as they please. If you’re looking for contact with the local Balinese, you can’t get much closer than jostling shoulder-to-shoulder on a bus packed to the limit.
Bali by motorbike or scooter
All the warnings about renting a car in Bali go double for motorbikes. A fun way to travel the island, and a popular one at that, they also leave you more exposed to the dangers of the road. If you do plan to rent a motorbike or scooter, be sure to wear a solid helmet and practice defensive driving.
Bali by motorhome
Tours by motorhome are best suited for those looking to travel to more remote regions of Bali, where roundtrip transport is difficult. Consider beforehand what kind of areas you’re looking to see and how important amenities are to you. If you have a multi-stop tour in several remote areas planned, a motorhome may be the right choice for you.
by Grace Henes