With its wild surf, lush rice terraces and artistic traditions, the small volcanic island of Bali punches above its weight. Despite being Indonesia’s premier tourist destination, the Island of the Gods has also retained its rich culture and spirituality, shown in myriad temple ceremonies, elaborate festivals and classical dance performances. Read our Bali travel guide for everything you need to know before you go.
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A brief history of Bali
Bali was a more or less independent society of Buddhists and Hindus until the fourteenth century, when it was colonized by the Hindu Majapahits from neighbouring Java. Despite the subsequent Islamicization of nearly all her neighbours, Bali has remained firmly Hindu ever since.
In 1849, the Dutch started to take an interest in Bali, and by January 1909 had wrested control of the whole island. Following a short-lived Japanese occupation in World War II, and Indonesia’s subsequent declaration of independence in 1945, Bali became an autonomous province within the Republic in 1949. But tensions with Java are ongoing and there is concern about wealthy entrepreneurs from Jakarta (and the West) monopolizing the financial benefits from Bali’s considerable attractions. The Balinese fear they may lose control of their own homeland.
These tensions were horrifically highlighted when Muslim extremists from Java bombed Kuta’s two most popular nightclubs on 12 October in 2002, killing more than 200 people and sending Bali’s tourist-dependent economy into severe decline. A second attack, in October 2005, came just as the island was starting to recover. Reprisals and religious conflict did not ensue, however, due in part to Bali’s impressively equanimous Hindu leadership.
Tourist numbers have since recovered, and since 2010 a renewed interest in Bali travel has seen arrivals rise exponentially, fuelled by a boom in numbers from China, Russia and other Asian countries. Consequently, a construction frenzy has resulted in an urban sprawl and traffic congestion across southern Bali and around Ubud. But head north and west for fewer crowds and wilder beaches or slip into the cool of the mountains to escape the hordes and the heat. Travel to Bali has never been more rewarding, with an intoxicating mix of beautiful beaches, lush countryside, rich cultural heritage and independent shops.
Best time to visit Bali
The whole Indonesian archipelago is tropical, so the weather in Bali is blissfully warm year round. However, the year divides into a wet and dry season, though it’s often hard to tell the difference – increasingly so with the effects of climate change. Very roughly, November to April are the wet months (January and February the wettest) and May through to October is dry.
Visit Bali at the tail end of the rainy season and you’ll discover the jungle and rice paddies at their most lush, while rain showers are increasingly few and far between. Also, Nyepi, the Balinese New Year kicks off at the end of March or beginning of April, which is a great local experience but not a good day for travel around Bali because everything shuts down.
It is not a good idea to travel to Bali during peak season, between mid-June and mid-September, when prices soar and rooms can be fully booked for weeks on end. Christmas and New Year are also extremely busy and expensive, though there is no better time for raucous parties.
Ultimately, the best time to visit Bali depends on what you want from your trip. The ideal time for diving is between late April and early October, while June and July has the most consistent surf, though you can expect waves to be crowded. May is the perfect month to surf on the southern coast of Uluwatu, Seminyak and Canggu, though temperatures can nudge 30 degrees Celsius.
Wellness travellers may like to visit Ubud in April for the Bali Spirit Festival, the largest yoga, art and music festival in Asia, while culture-seekers descend on the island in their droves for the Bali Arts Festival from June through to mid-July. Though August is the busiest month on the island, there are beach parties and festivals galore, and you can escape the crowds by heading north or to the west coast.
Top things to do in Bali
Divers from across the world travel to Bali for its pristine underwater landscape. Among the island’s best diving sites are the famous Liberty wreck and Nusa Penida, whose limpid waters are home to manta rays and giant sunfish. Just off the coast, the tiny Gili islands offers dives for experienced divers, including walls, a pinnacle and the dramatic Tepekong Canyon.
One of the finest surfing destinations in Indonesia, Bali has an enormous variety of first-class waves and perfect breaks. The Bukit peninsula, just south of Kuta, tests intrepid surfers with its world-class breaks, most famously at Uluwatu and Padang Padang.
Bali is not short on elegant temples, with around 10,000 scattered across the tiny island. Some of the finest to visit include Uluwatu, Tanah Lot and Besakih.
If you’re travelling to Bali for adventure, there is nothing more exhilarating than a volcano hike. The most popular is scaling the smouldering rim of Gunung Batur, taking in otherworldly peaks and silver-turquoise crater lakes along the way, while the challenging Gunung Agung is only for the very fit.
The island comes alive with vibrant festivals and mystifying rituals throughout the year. Highlights include Galungun Bali, a 10-day celebration of the victory of good over evil, and Nyepi, the major purification ritual for islanders.
The lush countryside surrounding Ubud is ripe for exploration. Hire a bike to weave past emerald-green rice paddies and call by pretty villages where locals create artisan wares as they have for years.
Go white-water rafting on the Grade II–III rapids of the Ayung River, or slip down the calmer estuaries by kayak.
Catch a highly stylized classical dance performance, where every step is minutely orchestrated, and the merest wink of an eye or arch of an eyebrow has significance.
Hipster Canggu is lesser-developed than neighbouring Kuta and Seminyak, and its beaches have more of a wild beauty. Just inland, narrow lanes are lined with artisan shops and yoga studios, surrounded by rice fields dotted with luxe villas.
Laze on the beaches
Bali is synonymous with laid-back beach living, and some of the finest strands can be found wrapping around the tranquil island of Nusa Lembongan.
The east-coast towns of Amed and Padang Bai are lined with powdery beaches and, just off shore, some of the richest sea life around. Don a mask and delve underwater among colourful tropical fish and shimmering coral reefs.
Every October, Kuta is a riot of colour and music with colourful parades, surfing and skate-boarding competitions, and gigs by local bands.
Practice Yoga in Ubud
Ubud is home to one of Southeast Asia’s foremost yoga communities, with many devotees travelling to Bali for retreats and training. Over a dozen schools cluster in the area, with possibly hundreds of instructors on hand to impart their wisdom.
Places to visit in Bali
Bali’s major cultural destination is Ubud, where traditional dances are performed every night and the streets are brimming with organic cafés, craft shops, yoga studios and art galleries. There are myriad elegant Hindu temples to visit, particularly Uluwatu, Tanah Lot and Besakih, and excellent volcano hikes such as ascending Gunung Batur and Gunung Agung. Tradition is particularly important here and temple festivals happen almost daily.
Kuta, Legian and Seminyak
The party crowd who travel to Bali gather in the Kuta–Legian–Seminyak conurbation, 10km southwest of Denpasar. Bali’s biggest, brashest beach resort, a congested strip is crammed with hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs, though the beach itself is one of the finest on the island. A gentle curve of golden sand stretches for 8km, lashed by huge breakers – be wary of the strong undertow. But, mostly, everyone comes to shop and party, fuelled by a pumping nightlife that ranges from the trashy in Kuta to the chic in Seminyak and Petitenget.
Pura Tanah Lot temple
Dramatically marooned on a wave-lashed rock just off the coast of Kuta, Pura Tanah Lot is Bali’s most photographed sight. Framed by frothing white surf and glistening black sand, its elegant multi-tiered shrines have become Bali’s unofficial symbol. Hordes of visitors crowd the site every day, particularly around sunset. The temple is said to have been founded in the sixteenth century by the wandering Hindu priest Nirartha and is one of the most holy places on Bali. Only bona fide devotees are allowed to climb the rock-hewn stairway and enter the compounds.
The Besakih temple complex is the jewel in the crown of east Bali, hugging the slopes of Gunung Agung, the holiest and highest mountain on the island. Besakih is the most venerated site on Bali for Balinese Hindus, who believe that the gods occasionally descend to reside in the temple, during which times worshippers don their finery and bring them elaborate offerings. The complex is colossal, with 20 temples spread across three kilometres. On a clear day, with Agung towering dramatically behind, and with ceremonies in full swing, it’s beautiful.
Hooked around the eastern end of Amuk Bay, Candi Dasa a relaxed resort that appeals mostly to older visitors. While the main beach has suffered serious erosion in recent decades due to over-construction, small pockets of white sand remain. It’s a good base for snorkelling, diving and exploring the east. The pretty lagoon in the centre of Candidasa is a useful landmark.
The pace shifts down a few gears at Sanur, a sedate resort with a laid-back village vibe. A 5km-long sandy beach wraps around the town, though the sea is only properly swimmable at high tide. Enticing restaurants are peppered along the shore, and a 5km-long seafront esplanade stretches from the Inna Grand Bali Beach in the north to the Prama Sanur Beach Bali in the south.
With white-sand beaches and wild mangroves, the tiny island of Nusa Lembongan is an ideal escape from the bustle of the south. Four kilometres by three, this jungly speck is easily explored on foot or by bike. Its gentle pace draws backpackers, divers, snorkellers and surfers to its scenic shores.
Amed, Jemeluk and the Far East Coast
The stretch of coast in the far east of Bali, from Culik to Aas, is known as Amed, although this is just one village here. Accommodation is mushrooming along the 11km stretch of coastline, as people come here to enjoy the peace and quiet, the glorious clifftop views and black beaches, and stunning underwater attractions. Jemeluk, 6km from Culik, attracts divers and snorkellers to its offshore coral terrace, leading to a wall dropping to a depth of more than 40m. There’s a high density of fish, with sharks, wrasses and parrotfish in the outer parts.
Gunung Batur and Danau Batur
On a clear day, no scenery in Bali can match that of the Batur area. With its volcanic peaks and silver-turquoise crater lake, the scale and spectacle of this landscape are unrivalled, so much so that UNESCO listed it as a geopark in 2012. It was formed 30,000 years ago when the eruption of a gigantic volcano created a vast outer caldera that spans 13.5km. Rising from the floor of this huge crater is Gunung Batur (1717m), an active volcano with four minor peaks of its own and Danau Batur lake nestled beside it. Many people travel to Bali to scale the volcano at sunrise – an unforgettable experience.
Lovina meanders along 8km of black-sand beach, with an enjoyably mellow vibe. Outside of peak season, tourists leave the sun-soaked sliver and Lovina once again belongs to the locals. Snorkelling, diving and dolphin-watching are diversions, and the resort is also a decent base for exploring the north coast and the volcanic areas inland. Surrounded by rice fields, a series of villages are strung along the coast, from touristy Kalibukbuk to backpackers’ favourite Anturan.
Places to stay in Bali
This section of our Bali travel guide will help you to plan where to stay on the island.
You’ll find accommodation around all of the main beach resorts and cities in Bali. The lower end of Indonesia’s accommodation market is provided by homestays and hostels. Penginapan, or inns, are often simply spare bedrooms in the family home, and there’s often not much difference between these and losmen, pondok and wisma, which are also family-run operations.
Rooms vary from whitewashed concrete cubes to artful bamboo structures – some are even set in their own walled gardens. Hard beds and bolsters are the norm, and you may be provided with a light blanket. Most losmen rooms have fans and cold-water bathrooms, though some offer air-conditioning and hot water in select rooms.
Of the Kuta–Legian–Seminyak conurbation, the biggest concentration of inexpensive accommodation is in Kuta, along Poppies 1, Poppies 2 and Jl Benesari. Legian has good-value places with pools and air-conditioning, while Seminyak is pricier and nearby Canggu is expensive.
If you’re travelling to Bali on a budget, there are plenty of inexpensive homestays in Amed and Jemeluk; those inland rather than beachfront are cheaper. In the Bukit peninsula, real cheapies are not that easy to find, with most accommodation nudging the upper end of the budget category, or heading into mid-range and beyond.
Accommodation is at its most expensive, however, in Ubud. In Bali’s cultural capital, riverside bungalows crowd the central marketplace, while accommodation on the lanes around the Monkey Forest is both central and peaceful.
For those climbing Gunung Batur, there’s plenty of losmen, hotels and warung along the main road that hugs the crater rim. However the settlements are scruffy and suffer traffic noise, so you’re far better off staying in the lakeside villages.
Top image © Cocos.Bounty/Shutterstock