The Indonesian island of Bali is home to stunning mountain panoramas, cascading emerald-green rice paddies, and blue water beaches that draw sun junkies from across the globe.
For many visitors, a Balinese holiday begins and ends in the cosmopolitan resort enclaves on the southern tip of the island — Kuta Beach, Legian, Seminyak, and up-and-coming Canggu — which offer sophisticated accommodation options, amazing cuisine, cutting edge retail, chic beach bars, and pumping nightspots.
Yet even here, despite the buzz, it’s not hard to connect with a more traditional Bali. At the heart of it all is a strong belief in family and friendships, and a rich culture that promotes harmony and respect. Hindu temples sit side by side with mosques and Christian churches; the island embraces everyone.
This Bali travel guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do round the southern tourist centres. Enjoy your visit.
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Bali for history lovers
Human habitation of Bali is thought to date back some 3,000 years.
The earliest written records indicate a complex relationship between the island and nearby Java. Balinese Hinduism evolved as Hindus fled Java under the threat of persecution, and today there are temples across Bali. You’ll see canang sari (traditional offerings in the form of small woven baskets filled with flowers, food, and a solitary incense stick) on footpaths outside shops, and in temples and shrines. They’re refreshed throughout the day. Each morning the streets are cleansed and new offerings appear.
Dutch colonialism played a key role in the history of the island from as early as the 1600s, right through to World War II. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the tourist boom began — and despite the tidal waves of visitors ever since (particularly from Australia), Bali has maintained its traditions and core identity.
Top cultural activities in Bali
Local culture is strongly influenced by mythology and religious beliefs, and expressed through art, music, and dance.
Festivals, marriages, and funerals are elaborate affairs that can continue for days. If you happen to witness one, it will be a highlight of your trip.
To gain a basic understanding of local culture, pay a visit to Museum Negeri Propinsi — also referred to simply as Bali Museum — in the capital Denpasar. Housed across several pavilions, the collection encompasses around 10,000 artefacts, and includes exquisite textiles, paintings, ancient sculptures, ceremonial clothing, and much more.
It’s also worth seeing a performance of traditional Barong dance, which basically portrays a duel between good and evil. Accompanied by an ensemble of singers and musicians (drums, gongs, and xylophones), dances are staged daily at various locations. Check with your hotel concierge for the closest option.
At less than an hour’s drive from Kuta, Uluwatu temple is a popular spot to see the Kecak dance — a combination of dance and drama, which, in contrast to the Barong, is accompanied only by male chanting. The temple’s clifftop location makes a perfect natural stage, and flaming torches and crashing waves help set the scene. The performance takes place daily at 6pm.
For a guided introduction to the island’s key cultural sites, chat to the team at Bali Golden Tour. They offer a great range of day tours, all of which are private, so you can adapt any of the itineraries depending on your interests. Some of the most popular sites to visit are the Ulun Danu Beratan lake temple, the Tirta Empul water temple, Tanah Lot (where ebbing tides allow you to visit the temple before it’s cut off again by the rising sea), and Mount Kawi (with its 11th century stone carvings). Ubud is another popular day tour destination and is home to the famous Monkey Forest.
Great places to eat in Bali
Whether it’s traditional fare served at a humble warung (a small family-run restaurant) or posh nosh dished up by one of Seminyak’s flashest eateries, the food in Bali never fails to impress.
Here’s a handful of recommendations for amazing places to eat, starting with a local institution. Situated in the heart of Kuta, Poppies has been in business since 1973 — and for good reason. The garden setting is a delight and the menu of Balinese specialities draws regular diners time and time again. Babi guling (spit roasted pork) — the island’s signature dish — is a must-try if it’s on the specials list. If not, you’ll just have to come back a second time!
For a seriously ‘wow’ culinary moment, book a table at Cuca in Jimbaran Bay. Towering coconut palms and hanging lanterns frame the gorgeous grounds, while the interior is a statement of Japanese-inspired elegance. The finest local ingredients are combined to create exquisitely presented Western-style dishes with a twist. This is undoubtedly one of the best dining experiences on the island.
La Lucciola is a name all Bali aficionados will be familiar with. And while other former beachfront legends have expanded and lost what made them great in the first place, this dining doyenne in Seminyak (with its trademark thatched roof) continues to do what it’s always done best: serve amazing Italian cuisine, sublime in its simplicity.
Tucked away in Seminyak’s Kayu Aya Square (behind The Oberoi hotel), Warung Nia smokes the best pork ribs in town. ‘Good evening!’ sings out owner Mufu as you walk through the door. Order a Balinese Rijsttafel (several small dishes served with rice) and let the lemongrass, lime, and smoky undertones take you to rib heaven. The satays are good too.
And finally, if you’re looking to escape your hotel’s breakfast buffet, make a break for Corner House (also located in Seminyak). With its industrial-chic fit-out, courtyard setting, and western-style menu, this is the perfect spot to get your smashed-avo-and-flat-white fix.
Places to shop in Bali
Sarongs make wonderful, and practical, souvenirs and gifts from your Balinese holiday, but true craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap.
There are the mass-produced ones you can buy on the beach for a song, or the beautiful handwoven pieces you can only purchase in batik galleries. Traditional batik is produced at around one metre a day, so it’s easy to understand the price difference. The wearable works of art on offer at Senada Batik Bali are really stunning.
While there’s an abundance of ‘same same’ wooden carvings available in stores across Kuta, plan a visit to Mas village (about six kilometres south of Ubud) to see the actual artists at work. It will add extra significance to any purchases you make, and who knows — a unique carving may come your way.
For mainstream label shopping (and glorious air-conditioning!), head to Kuta’s Beachwalk Shopping Centre. Many well-known fashion brands have stores here (H&M, Guess, and the list goes on) and you can refresh at the array of cafes and bars. Settle in at Sardinia for happy hour from 4 to 6pm.
Fashionistas should also check out Jalan Raya Seminyak. This shopping strip has been the backbone of Seminyak since the early days and continues to evolve. Buy on-trend fashion for the beach or bar, and accessorise to your heart’s content.
Ways to relax in Bali
Nothing says ‘I’m in Bali’ quite like a beach massage or haggling for souvenirs with the many hawkers plying their wares on the sand.
Bali’s beaches are super relaxed, come with sun lounges and umbrellas for hire, and generally have a pop up bar within easy reach. At the other end of the scale is schmick Finns Beach Club on Canggu’s Berawa surf beach. Order a cocktail from the swim-up bar, feast on a range of international cuisines, or simply relax on the beachfront as a DJ spins chilled tunes.
Nearby, Finns Recreation Club (formerly the Canggu Club) houses a water park, trampoline centre, ten pin bowling alley, and much more. You can buy day passes for either of the Finns venues, or combine time at both. Kids are well catered for and all activities are supervised.
If you’re after some me-time on a massage table, Bali has that covered with its wealth of day spas. Stylish Spring Spa’s Canggu salon (one of their four locations) was recently named best spa in Indonesia by the World Spa Awards.
After a hard day of sightseeing or sun worshipping, there’s nothing better than kicking back at sunset with a cool drink in hand. Head for popular La Plancha Beach Bar and Restaurant in Seminyak, where bean bags spill out onto the beach (think Ibiza’s Cafe del Mar and you have it in one!). Alternatively, make your way to cliff-hugging El Kabron, with its chic vibe, infinity pool, and killer cocktail list.
Where to stay in Bali
Mercure Bali Legian
Mercure Bali Legian is perfectly positioned for enjoying the beach, boutiques, and bars of Kuta and Legian. Trust me, you don’t get much closer to the action than this! There are seven room types on offer here, including the Deluxe King Rooms with plunge pools. They’re like staying in a private villa, but with all the convenience of hotel facilities.
Pullman Bali Legian Nirwana
Pullman Bali Legian Nirwana offers a deluxe stay right on Legian Beach. If one of the newly renovated Premium Deluxe Ocean View rooms is available, snap it up! Decorated in earthy tones and featuring a king size bed, these rooms guarantee an uninterrupted ocean view from the generously sized balcony.
The Oberoi Beach Resort Bali
The Oberoi Bali’s 60 luxury Lanai rooms and 14 sumptuous Villas sit among stunning gardens on a 500-metre stretch of beachfront in Seminyak. The hotel is traditional in style and prides itself on discrete and attentive service. It’s an oasis of calm that will cocoon you from the outside world.
The writer travelled as a guest of Mercure Bali Legian, Pullman Bali Legian Nirwana, and The Oberoi Beach Resort Bali.
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Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.