I don’t think we’ve met anyone in Asia who hasn’t been or isn’t planning to go to Bali. It took only a couple of years for this small Indonesian island to become a top tourist attraction for vacationers from the North America, Australia, Europe and the rest of Asia.
From the tourist meccas of Seminyak and Ubud to the less explored north and east coast of the island, Bali is full of treasures on and off the beaten track.
I would bet half my backpack (literally half of my possessions right now) that no travelers visit Bali without at least one trip to Seminyak. The southeastern city is packed with unbelievable hotels, sunset bars, backpacker hostels, and enough shopping to leave you broke before you know it. You’ll find people from all over the world in this little corner of the island.
From here, it’s and easy ride to Ubud and the Gili Islands, both of which can be easily booked through your accommodation. Grab some sundowners on the beach at Potato Head and party into the night with fellow backpackers at La Favela. Take a surf lesson from the Bali Cowboys or take a day trip up to the Tanah Lot temple. No matter your schedule, you’re in for a good time.
What you WON’T find in Seminyak is almost any trace of authentic Indonesian culture and ways of life. While there are locals everywhere and they’re typically incredibly friendly and helpful, they are very much there as a part of the enormous tourism industry the island relies on. If you want to get to know the real Bali, you’re going to have to catch a moped out of Seminyak.
BUT, before you leave, here are few places we definitely recommend you check out:
La Favela: a backpacker favorite, two story bar/club that gets going around 11 p.m. each night. Make sure you take another place up on happy hour first, drinks here are $$.
Potato Head: we won’t be the first or last person to tell you to go to this amazing restaurant/bar. Just do it.
Mamasan: absolutely delicious Asian-fusion food
Shopping in the town center
Late night massages on your way home from dinner (or ear candling if you’re into that kind of thing *side-eye at MJ*)
Sundowners on the beach at The W Hotel’s Woo Bar or La Plancha
Catch a ferry up to the Gili Islands. We didn’t get to, but everyone we’ve met who’s done it would do it again. The three islands are very different, so do some research before you pick your location!
Ubud is the tourism industry’s answer to authentic Bali, and that’s not a bad thing. The city itself is packed with delicious restaurants, a wide range of shopping, and hole in the wall places to stay. It’s very walkable and a little less intimidating than Seminyak at night. It’s also conveniently close to places like the unbelievable Tegalalang Rice Terrace, which comes with a convenient walking path.
You will immediately feel the difference going from Seminyak to Ubud in the sense that there is some real Indonesian culture here. The presence and popularity of the rice terraces, the typical food on the streets, and the surrounding areas all speak to the real Bali.
Ubud is also a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the rest of the island. Unlike Seminyak, Ubud is relatively central, making it easier to reach far off attractions like the Mount Batur sunrise hike (get up, it’s worth it) or the instagram-famous Pura Lempuyang temple.
Take our and everyone else’s recommendation and visit Ubud while in Bali. Take a yoga class, a cooking class, or just get more in touch with your inner zen if that’s your thing. You’re in for a treat.
Singaraja & Northern Bali
NOW we’re talking authentic Bali. If you commit to zig-zagging your way to Bali’s northern coast you will encounter the kind of beauty and culture that put the island on the map in the first place.
Rural villages, enormous open air markets, jungle paths that are only accessibly by moped, and the constant need for Google translate await you. Here, hostels and hotels are fewer and far between, but a popular way to stay and enjoy this quieter side of the island is to rent a villa.
This may sound extravagant. That’s because it is. However, if you can get a big group together it’s easy to make this stay both possible and worth it. We did this and it was some of the most relaxing time we’ve had on the road thus far.
Ask one of the local staff (almost every villa will have staff that come to help you out) to take you on a tour of the early morning market. Take a drive across the northern coast or dive into the jungle in search of hidden rice Terrances or Bali’s famous waterfalls.
Visiting northern Bali is an extremely different adventure than southern Bali. It’s unorganized and almost entirely DIY but it’s also worth it. If you’re interested in getting to know and experience authentic Bali culture and way of life, you’ve got to head north.
Exploring Bali’s East Coast
If you’ve got a car or moped, exploring Bali’s east coast is a must. The countryside and roads are dotted with unexplored rice terraces, local villages, and unbelievable temples. MJ and I took this drive after we descended from our sunrise hike up Mt. Batur and spent the whole day getting lost on this side of the island.
Our favorite highlights of this day, other than the unnamed treasures we passed throughout the day were the Pura Lempuyang temple and the Tirtagangga Water Palace (bring a swimsuit!).
Diving in Bali
We chose of dive in Komodo National Park instead of Bali and wished we could’ve done both. Though we didn’t get to explore them, here are some dive highlights of Bali we recommend you check out if you’re looking to dive there:
USS Liberty Wreck
Catch a quick flight to Flores to dive in Komodo National Park, it was unbelievable!
Getting Around Bali
I feel obligated to say a few things about navigating Bali because it truly is a different beast than most places and somehow everyone leaves that out. I’ll keep it simple.
Driving a car in Bali:
DO NOT rent a car in Bali with intention of exploring the whole island unless you are a VERY competent manual driver.
The whole island is incredibly hilly and mountainous, it will take a LONG time to get from one place to another.
Streets and roads are designed for mopeds, not cars, and it is near impossible that you will return your car in perfect condition. Take photos before you leave with your rental.
Keep an eye on that gas tank, as you head north or east they will be fewer and farther between.
Don’t even think about trying to find places like hidden waterfalls with a car, there’s no where to park and no, you won’t be able to get it back up that hill.
Renting a moped in Bali:
*Note that we didn’t do this, this is what we’ve heard/observed*
If you’ve never ridden moped before, this may not be the place to learn. It is crowded, especially in southern Bali, and you do not have right of way, cars do, because they're bigger.
ALWAYS wear a helmet. We met a girl whose helmet saved her life but didn't spare her a trip to the hospital.
Locals know what they’re doing better than you, follow their lead.
Have an International drivers license. If you’re pulled over without one you WILL be fined.
Ask a local at your hostel/hotel about what to do if you’re stopped by the police on the road. They will advise how best to deal with an altercation without getting into more trouble, or paying more, than you need to.
Negotiate the rate before you go anywhere if there’s no meter.
Bluebird taxis are the best as a rule, try and avoid the others.
If there’s a meter (there are in all the Bluebird cabs), make them run it and MAKE SURE THEY DON’T TURN IT OFF.