Bali occupies a spot in my top 3 favorite places in the world. Why, you may ask? Well, there’s so much to love about Bali – the people, the beaches, the surf, the outdoors, the food, and so much more! I took 2 months off of work last year, and I spent half of that time in Bali. I have lots to tell you, and tons of recommendations for things you should do. Let’s get right into it!
Best time to visit
Bali’s dry season corresponds with the northern hemisphere’s warm months (April-October). If you want a lot more sun and beach time, go during this time. Beware though, this is peak tourist season and it’s winter in Australia which means tons of drunk Aussies. This time of the year is also said to have better waves for surfing. I went in mid-December, till mid-January. This is in the middle of Bali’s rainy season and we did have a fair amount of rainfall while I was there. However, surfing was a lot of fun and we had good conditions to hit the water almost every day. Another plus is that this is not typically the peak tourist season, so things are cheaper and relatively less crowded.
Bali runs mostly on cash, although given the amount of tourism, a lot of places do accept credit cards especially in the major tourist spots like Kuta or Seminyak (both of which you should avoid entirely). I’d recommend finding an ATM as soon as you land in Bali, right at the airport. Withdraw the equivalent of about USD 300 (which, at the time of writing is about 4,200,000 IDR) and you should be good to go. There are a decent number of ATMs in most places that tourists typically go to so you’ll be fine for the most part. Just make sure you have enough loose cash when venturing out of those areas.
There is essentially no public transit Bali worth writing home about. I mostly used taxis to go longer distances and then rented a scooter at each place to go around that area. If you’re a westerner visiting Asia for the first time, then beware that traffic is a lot more chaotic than what you’re probably used to. Scooters are everywhere, there are roadside vendors basically right by the road, lanes aren’t really a concept and generally things on the road move much slower. It’ll take you some time to get comfortable driving in such conditions, but once you get past the initial discomfort, it’s actually kind of liberating! If you’re there primarily to surf, you can also rent a scooter with a rack for your board. Taxis are pretty affordable, and a great way to move from one part of the island to another. You could do that on a scooter, but it’ll get pretty uncomfortable if you have to drive over 2 hours in the heat.
Gas stations: Once you leave the main touristy areas, you’ll notice that there isn’t a gas station in sight. You’ll be forgiven for missing them, but gas stations are in fact everywhere. They just look a bit different than your neighborhood Chevron. Behold, a typical gas station in Bali:
Yes, those are vodka bottles containing gasoline. The way this works is that you pay the person at this gas station, and they will empty one bottle (or as many as you want) of gasoline into your scooter. Not quite the level of safety you’d expect in a western country but hey, welcome to Bali :).
Driving permits: Most tourists drive around without any permit whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean you should too. Get an International Driver’s Permit before coming, or get a temporary Balinese driver’s license once you’re in Bali. I’d recommend the former, since apparently only one police station in Denpasar issues Balinese licenses for tourists.
Safety: Having grown up in Asia, I like to think of traffic as a school of fish. If you stay with the flow, you’ll mostly be safe. Lanes are less of a thing in most south/south-east Asian countries so don’t try to stress out about other drivers not respecting lanes. Always wear a helmet, and make sure to either leave it locked securely under the seat of your scooter, or take it with you. I had a helmet stolen once while I was there.
Etiquette: Honking is cool, and doesn’t have the same aggressive connotation it has in most western countries. It just means “hey, heads up”. I usually give a gentle honk before passing someone in front of me whenever I’m driving in that part of the world.
Culture, Getting Around and Food
Religion: Islam is the primary religion in Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia is the country with the largest muslim population. Bali is one of the many islands that make up this country and interestingly, Hinduism is the primary religion in Bali. If you’re wondering why that is the case, find yourself a couch and read this very thorough Wikipedia article about Hinduism in Indonesia.
Language: Balinese and Indonesian are the two main languages spoken on the island. In most touristy places, locals speak English as well. Unless you know Balinese, you won’t be able to read any signs, so download Google Translate on your phone.
Getting around: Google Maps is usually reliable and worked well for me as I made my way around the island. There are some signs in English, but there aren’t really many signs on the roads to begin with, so I’d recommend getting an international data plan and downloading Google Maps (if you don’t have it already).
Food: I would highly recommend eating as much freshly caught fish as you can. It’s delicious, and tastes even better when paired with Bintang (Bali’s favorite beer). I’ll recommend actual spots in my itinerary below.
Other stuff: If you’re visiting Bali during the rainy season, buy a poncho over there. It’ll cost the equivalent of about 5-10 USD, and is very useful if you’re driving a scooter in the rain. Mosquitoes are a thing, so make sure your bed has a net around it. That said, malaria is not a thing to worry about in that part of the world, according to the CDC.
ALRIGHT! You’re all set with Bali 101. Let’s get to an itinerary!
This itinerary is a bit more biased towards people who want to surf. If that’s not your goal, simply reduce the time in Uluwatu, and increase the time in Ubud and northern parts of Bali. I’ll make a note at the bottom about other places you can visit if you’d like to modify this itinerary.
Uluwatu (Days 1-7)
Where to stay:
- I stayed at Padang Padang Surf Camp because my goal from the trip was to surf as much as possible. It’s fantastic – they provide equipment, lessons, breakfast, transportation to and from beaches, the whole shebang. They have a nice pool to chill at after a long morning surf session. They will also arrange massages for you to calm those shoulders after all the paddling. If you want to surf on your trip, I would recommend staying here.
- Anantara Uluwatu Bali Resort: This is more upscale than a surf camp, and accordingly costs more. This is located on the western coastline, which means that you’ll be treated to incredible sunsets every night.
- Suarga Padang Padang Resort: Just down the beach from Anantara. Same idea. They have a nice bar that looks right over the sea, which is open to everyone (not just people staying there).
- Surfing, lots of it. If you’re not an expert, I would highly recommended staying with a surf camp. Otherwise, either rent a car with a rack, or a scooter with a rack attached to the side to carry your board. Padang Padang Beach on the west side, Green Bowl beach on the south side, and Nusa Dua beach on the east side are all great. As always, check conditions before heading over. May the waves be with you!
- Freshly cooked fish by the sea: Walk down to Bingin Beach and you’ll see a few spots that offer freshly caught fish. The way it works is that you look over their catch, pick a fish that you like, have a seat, crack open a beer, and wait for fish to be served with a side of rice and lemon. Fantastic experience, best done at sunset time.
- Uluwatu Temple: Perched right at the edge of a cliff on the western tip of Uluwatu. Nice half-day excursion.
Bars and Restaurants:
- Buddha Soul: Best freshly made fish that I have ever had in my life. I ate there more often than acceptable over a one-month period.
- Bukit Cafe: Next door to Buddha Soul. I’d recommend checking out their desserts.
- OM Burger: If I could have my way, I’d rename this to OMG Burger, mostly because I absolutely loved eating there. Don’t expect an America style burger with piles of cheese, meat and more meat. Their burgers are a bit more interesting, and healthier.
- Cashew Tree: For some bizarre reason, this place is most exciting on Thursdays. So, go there on Thursday. Drinks are great, and they usually have live music on that day.
- Single Fin: Fantastic 3-storied venue right on the edge of a cliff. Their big nights are Wednesdays and Sundays. If you want to splurge a bit, get a table – costs less than half of what you would pay in Manhattan, but the view is pretty rad.
Canggu (Days 8-9)
Canggu is where Silicon Valley residents head to for a “working remotely” kind of trip. It’s hip, cool and less obnoxiously touristy as compared to areas like Kuta. If you’re going there from Uluwatu, it’s a 2-3 hour journey that is best undertaken in an air-conditioned taxi.
Where to stay:
I would recommend staying at a hostel, anywhere around Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong (that is the name of a street). The easiest way to get around over here is a scooter so get one, but make sure to not drive when drunk :). I stayed at the Canggu Beach Hostel, which was a bit farther from the main streets than I would have liked, but it was still just a 15 minute ride on the scooter at most.
- Surf at Batu Bolong beach. Although, if you’re coming from Uluwatu, perhaps you’d want to try something different.
- Beach Clubs: Think pool by the beach, beer in your hand, bar inside the pool. If that sounds like something you’d like (who wouldn’t?!), then head over to Finns Beach Club. It’s a fantastic place to spend the afternoon, and get a tan. Potato Head Beach Club is another great spot just down the beach from Finns. You can’t go wrong with either. Note that beach clubs tend to have a higher level of security, and are clearly designed for tourists willing to spend a little. You likely won’t be able to take water bottles inside – of course you can buy bottles of water once you have entered.
- Just drive around! There are lots of rice fields around Canggu, and it’s very liberating to just grab a scooter and drive around until you find something cool. Fantastic morning activity, especially after a little breakfast.
Bars and Restaurants:
- Pretty Poison Bar and Skate Bowl: This is a bar/club with a skate bowl in the back yard. I remember heading over here at 10PM, and watching skateboarders do tricks while sipping on a cold beer. A very interesting experience, but also a strong start to a big night.
- Old Man’s Restaurant: Located right at Batu Bolong Beach. Great place to grab food and sip a beer after a dip in the sea.
- Echo Beach Bar: Same deal as Old Man’s, just up the beach. Pick your spot!
Ubud (Days 10-13)
Ubud is right in the middle of Bali. It’s very different from any of the coastal areas in terms of what it has to offer. It’s a good base to stay at while you explore the northern parts of Bali. Again, I would highly recommend renting a scooter here to help you move around.
Where to Stay:
I stayed at the Puji Bungalow hostel, which was great. It has a pool that serves as a great way to meet other guests and socialize. Any hostel/AirBnB in the area around Jl. Raya Ubud (the main street) should be fine.
- Day trip to Mt. Batur: Mt. Batur is an active volcano that offers absolutely epic views at sunrise. Not only that, the whole area around the mountain has naturally heated hot water springs. I would recommend doing this as a day trip from Ubud. You can do this in two ways – either sign up for a tour to hike up Mt. Batur for the sunrise (your place of stay will very likely offer bookings), or drive yourself up during the day to get to hot springs in the afternoon. Or, do both :).
- Day trip to see rice fields and temples: Get yourself a scooter, fill her up, and drive up from Ubud towards the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. Once there, you can park on the road side and hike around. The rice fields go up and down the hills pretty much as far as the eye can see. It’s truly a beautiful sight. Spend a couple of hours here, and then continue driving over to Pura Lahur Batukaru, a Hindu temple that was built in the 11th century. Spend some time exploring it, and then head back down to Ubud. This trip will likely take you about 6-7 hours in total, plus some time for food along the way. I’d recommend packing some food, and also keeping a poncho to keep you dry if it rains. Pro-tip: Make sure your helmet has a visor – it makes a lot of difference when you’re driving through pouring rain.
- Monkey Forest: Temple complex in Ubud that is crawling with monkeys. Go if you like monkeys and are cool with feeding them.
- Ubud’s Art Market: Walk through little alleys that offer local art and handicrafts. If you’ve seen “Eat, Pray, Love”, this is the market that Julia Roberts’s character walks through. Pro-tip: Take your camera if you like photographing colorful markets like me, because you won’t be disappointed.
Bars and Restaurants:
- Umah Pizza: I ate here at least twice. Generally good pizza.
- Mingle Bar and Cafe: They have a second floor balcony situation that was pretty nice. It overlooks a street that is full of shops and offers nice people-watching while you drink some cold beer.
- CP Lounge: This place offered an entire line of 12 rainbow-colored shots for a handful of dollars. They have pool tables, nice outdoor seating, a dance floor, and a generally fun vibe. Great spot for a night out.
- Bamboo Bar and Restaurant: Offers live music, usually featuring a local band, great beer and late night food.
Gili Islands (Days 14-15)
The Gili Islands are a group of 3 islands located a two-hour boat-ride away from Bali. One of these islands (Gili Trawangan) is a bit of a party island. The other two are more laid-back. Unlike Bali, and like most of Indonesia, the Gili Islands are primarily muslim in terms of religion. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of a very religious indigenous population that doesn’t drink alcohol, and a bunch of tourists doing pretty much the opposite, all on the same little island.
Where to stay:
If you’re there to party, stay in a hostel near the east coast of Gili T. All of them are roughly similar, but they fill up well in advance for any big holiday. If you’re looking for something more low-key, stay on the west coast of Gili T, or on the two other islands.
- Go for a run: Gili Trawangan, also known as Gili T, is the biggest of the 3 islands, but it’s just about 4 miles in circumference. This is a great for running and is especially fun around sunset time. A couple of spots along this route have weights and benches right on the beach. One spot around the south-east side of the island has hammocks that hang just inches above the water. They are very Instagrammable.
- Party on Gili T: The eastern side of this island is where the party is – there is a strip of bars located on this side, along the beach. The way it works is that people float from one bar to another, often carrying drinks outside as they walk along the beach. I was there for New Years at the beginning of 2017, and it was a wild, wild night.
- Go diving: You’ll find diving schools on all three islands. Pick one, and head down into the water!
I’d recommend just walking up and down the eastern strip of bars on Gili T and going into any bar that seems cool on the evening you’re there on. You’ll likely end up rolling from one spot to the other, as opposed to just sitting in one place. I’d say, just grab a drink and roll with the flow!
Bali has so much to offer that it’s hard to summarize it all in one post, or even a whole series of posts. My recommendations are more tailored towards someone traveling on a budget, and wanting to experience the outdoors. If surfing isn’t your top priority, then I’d say reduce your stay in Uluwatu. Go diving in Amed on the east coast of Bali. Tulamben on the North-Eastern coast of Bali is also a fantastic diving spot. If you want to see another beautiful island, carve out a few days to spend on the island of Nusa Lembongan, off the south east coast of Bali. If you prefer more mainstream touristy areas, then stay in Kuta or Seminyak. Just beware of pickpockets, and keep your scooter locked when parking in those areas.
I hope this post helped you find cool things to do during your time in Bali – have a fun and safe trip!