The Indonesian province of Bali wields a magic out of all proportion to its acreage. For such a small landmass (it's only slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island), Bali's shores, plains and volcanic peaks hide thousands of temples, miles of trekking and biking trails, and innumerable selfie-worthy views.
While Bali's natural wonders certainly rank among Southeast Asia's best, it's the island's unique Balinese culture that seals the deal for many tourists. The locals' quiet but devout Hinduism expresses itself in amazing art, vibrant performances of puppetry and dance, and regular festivals held at temples that preserve the island's millennia-old ways of life in stone.
And yet the heartland — where much of that magic manifests — is avoided by most tourists to Bali, who stay around South Bali for its beaches, nightlife and shopping. They might make a stopover at the cultural hotspot of Ubud, true – but what of East Bali's diving and volcano trekking trails? What of North Bali's unspoiled beaches?
There's more to Bali than just the beaches in the south or Ubud's cultural treasures. Read on to check out all of Bali's regions — and do take note of what you've been missing!
South Bali: Start Here, but Don't Stop
Like a goblet, the island of Bali tapers and suddenly widens at its lowest extremity. The majority of Bali's tourist infrastructure can be found here and around its southernmost district, which covers most places not more than twenty minutes' drive from the Ngurah Rai International Airport straddling the goblet's neck.
You'll find Bali's most tourist-friendly beaches around here, where the towns of Seminyak, Kuta, Legian, Jimbaran, Tanjung Benoa and Nusa Dua stand.
South Bali's west coast, in particular, is beach resort central: walk north up the main beach drag of Jalan Pantai Kuta and you'll have Kuta Beach to your left and the island's most happening lineup of hotels, shopping malls and restaurants to your right.
The east coast — where you'll find Tanjung Benoa and Nusa Dua — is a little more sedate, as the waters on this part of the island are unsuitable for surfers. Tanjung Benoa is Bali's go-to place for watersports, while Nusa Dua takes care of well-heeled tourists in five-star resorts located in their very own high-end, walled-off tourist enclave.
Surfing, Sunning and Partying on South Bali's Beaches
For good or for ill, South Bali's beaches are what most people think about when you mention “Bali” - the surf schools along Kuta Beach; the beach resorts on both coasts; and the family travelers (disproportionately Australian) shoulder-to-shoulder with the backpackers, both parties contributing to the packed and party-like atmosphere of the district.
To be fair, the local beaches make South Bali a great foundation for 24-hour fun.
Start at Kuta Beach, where the broad strip of sand facing the Indian Ocean allows plenty of room for surfers, sunbathers, and the ever-present (and ever-pesky) touts and vendors. Bali's most popular surfing schools can be found along this stretch.
Kuta Beach bookends the stereotypical Bali beach getaway, with restaurants, shopping malls, and hotels along the rectangle of Jalan Pantai Kuta, Jalan Legian and Jalan Melasti within walking distance. Kuta Square, Beachwalk and other major South Bali shopping centers can be found in this area.
Jimbaran hosts yet another classic Bali experience, that of the romantic al fresco dinner on the beach. In good weather, a cool breeze blows from the sea, making the penjor (Balinese bamboo banners) wave in the wind.
Tanjung Benoa Beach is no good for surfers, so watersports like helmet diving and kiteboarding have stepped in to fill the gap. Join in on the water-borne fun, or simply sun yourself on the beach here (tamer, less overrun with tourists).
East Bali: In the Shadow of Bali's Holiest Mountain
The eastern coast of Bali counts as a pleasant break from the rampant party scene in the island's south: most of the tourist trails in East Bali are pleasantly spared from huge crowds, with the possible exception of the "Mother Temple" Pura Besakih on the slopes of Gunung Agung.
The coast-hugging Jalan Prof. Dr. Ida Bagus Mantra highway leads visitors from South Bali down a two-hour road trip leading to East Bali's many treasures waiting at the end: rainforests, ricefields, mountains and upland plains, volcanic-sand beaches, rich diving spots, and ornate temples, all within a few hours' drive from one another.
East Bali's geography is remarkable for its mountainous terrain: the holy Mount (Gunung) Agung dominates the skyline, and a number of mountains stand guard over the eastern coast.
Candidasa is the main jump-off point for tourists to East Bali. The city leverages its great views of Mount Agung, great beaches and direct access to the sea to become East Bali's tourist central. The rest of the district is easy to explore from this point, through towns located along East Bali's south-facing coast.
Klungkung is the capital of the eponymous regency and jump-off point for visitors heading to Pura Besakih (Bali's most important temple) on the slopes of Gunung Agung. As a former royal capital, Klungkung is graced with a number of worthy tourist destinations, including the Kertha Gosa courthouse in the ruins of the old royal palace (Taman Gili).
The settlement of Padangbai serves as the main seaport bridging Bali and the island of Lombok, which is about a five-hour ferry ride away. Ferries to the Gili Islands also depart from here. A number of diving operators serve tourists wishing to dive into the waters off Padangbai.
Amlapura is the capital of Karangasem regency and is notable for the Puri Agung Karangasem, the former royal palace, and the Tirta Gangga water palace. Amlapura stands on the road that proceeds to East Bali's northern coast. The road runs past the towns of Amed and Tulamben, both known for their excellent dive spots.
Diving & Snorkeling Around East Bali's Beaches
The black, volcanic sand beaches around East Bali are quieter and wilder than those in the overpopulated south, but it's the dive sites that have real drawing power: sandy slopes, wrecks, drop-offs, volcanic outcrops, and coral ridges brimming with sea life are all easily accessible from Candidasa on the south coast or Amed in the north.
Whether you're a wreck diver, underwater photographer, or a novice just getting their flippers wet, a few days in East Bali will get you everything you need.
Starting with the area's most in-demand diving destination — the wreck of the USAT Liberty in the waters off Tulamben — divers can venture out to the relatively easy waters around Amed and Padangbai, or test themselves around more challenging areas like Gili Tepekong and Gili Biaha.
You don't even have to get wet to see under the sea around Bali — the Odyssey tourist submarine cruises around East Bali's Labuan Amuk, allowing guests to explore the area's rich undersea life while staying dry as a bone.
There are no fixed seasons for diving in Bali, although the rainy season from December to March may affect visibility in some areas, particularly the north coast. Rough seas brought by monsoon winds affect diving conditions in Padangbai and Candidasa.
Ubud & Central Bali: Shrine to Balinese Culture
Think of Ubud as the "anti-Kuta": Ubud's elevated, inland location in Central Bali puts it far out of reach of hard-partying surfer dudes, while its heritage as a town for artists attracts visitors seeking to experience Bali's rich culture first-hand.
It's probably the lush, green countryside, carpeted with rice fields and sectioned by numerous rivers, that leads to Ubud's more relaxed vibe. The modern world is catching up to Ubud, no doubt: there's a Starbucks down the street from the Royal Palace, after all. But Ubud hasn't surrendered completely, and the town's temples, art museums, traditional performances, and quiet bed-and-breakfasts continue to march to the beat of a different gamelan.
Ubud appeals to travelers with a more transcendental bent, and the area's attractions oblige with a proliferation of art galleries, cultural performances, religious retreats, and art-related shopping. These seekers have only increased with the release of "Eat, Pray, Love" (both the book and the movie); amazingly, Ubud has managed to keep up with demand without becoming too commercialized. (That's your guide's opinion, though many old-timers might disagree.)
Central Bali's Inland Cultural Attractions
Unlike Bali's other regions, inland Central Bali has no beaches to speak of, excepting a few very scenic crater lakes.
No matter, you can find the area's best around Ubud, particularly in an area roughly defined by three roads - Jalan Raya Ubud at the north and most uphill end of a tall rectangle whose sides are defined by Jalan Monkey Forest (on the west side) and Jalan Hanoman (on the east side).
Ubud's town center can be found at the intersection of Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Raya Ubud, where you'll find the royal palace, famous restaurant Warung Ibu Oka, the Ubud art market, and the tourist center.
Walk for about fifteen minutes south down Jalan Monkey Forest, and you'll find yourself in the street's namesake, the Sacred Monkey Forest in the village of Padangtegal. The Forest's sacred structures and the surrounding forest shelter a boisterous community of macaques. If you continue walking down Jalan Monkey Forest, it curves east until it intersects with Jalan Hanoman, forming the lower extreme of the rectangle.
Walk west from the town center down Jalan Raya Ubud, and you'll come across Ubud's top art museums like the Museum Puri Lukisan and the Blanco Renaissance Museum; and the Tjampuhan River.
Ubud's central location makes it an ideal jump-off point to reach Bali's wilder areas north and east. Not far from Ubud, you'll find the mysterious carved Goa Gajah cave. Venture an hour's drive north, and you'll find your way to Kintamani, home to the active volcano Mount Batur and some of Bali's best scenery.
You'll also find budget hotels and homestays in Ubud.
North Bali: Quirky & Scenic Former Capital
The regency of Buleleng in Bali's extreme north used to be the colonial bulwark on the island, centered in the city of Singaraja. All the action has since migrated to Kuta, but the flight of surfers has done North Bali no harm; today, visitors seeking escape from the madness in the South find peace on the peaceful black volcanic sands of Lovina Beach.
The three-hour drive from South Bali traces a route that climbs up the highlands past the district of Bedugul, home to three volcanic crater lakes including the one that features the gorgeous water temple Ulun Danu Bratan.
Bedugul and its lakes lie on the massive mountain range that separates Buleleng from the rest of Bali, isolating the island's north and allowing it to develop a culture separate from, though still related to, the rest of Bali.
You'll see this first-hand in the capital Singaraja, where the echoes of Dutch rule still ring most strongly from its old European-style houses and avenues; its warren-like Arab village where goods traded hands in the old colonial days; and the garishly-colored Ling Gwang Kiong Chinese temple near the harbor.
That doesn't mean indigenous cultural experiences are lost from Singaraja, far from it — you can visit the Gedong Kirtya Museum that preserves and displays palm-leaf script; Jagaraga District's gamelan-producing workshops; the Puri Agung Buleleng (Royal Palace), home to the royal family of the north; and (just outside the city) the Pura Meduwe Karang, a Balinese temple festooned with fantastic carvings that include a European riding on a flower-encrusted bicycle!
North Bali's Lovina Beach: Black Sand & Dolphins
The North's biggest draw lies west of Singaraja, a seven-mile stretch of coastline stringing together several fishing villages and beaches. Lovina Beach would be gorgeous enough on its own, a pristine shore with plenty of black sand and little of the choking over-development that characterizes Kuta far down south.
While you can snorkel and sun yourself here to your heart's content with nary a tout to disturb your peace, the best way to enjoy Lovina Beach takes place a little further out. Arrange a boating excursion to the waters off Lovina Beach at sunrise, and you'll find the area's most famous residents, dolphins cavorting in the waters and feeding off the local fish.
A dolphin statue off the village of Kalibukuk immortalizes these Lovina Beach celebrities. Kalibukuk also hosts the beach's better-known alfresco barbecues, bars and restaurants.
West Bali: The Island's Last True Wilderness
The westernmost point of Bali tends to be treated as a stopover by many tourists, who pass through the ferry town of Gilimanuk to or from the city of Banyuwangi on eastern Java, a short ferry ride away. And yet there's much to see if you stop at certain points along the highway that connects Gilimanuk to the south.
The West Bali National Park covers some 190,000 acres of unspoiled jungle immediately to the east of Gilimanuk. The landscape here — completely wild, almost uninhabited — represents the last true wilderness on the island, with tropical forests and some quite pristine beaches along the northern coast. Visitors can choose to hit the trekking trails that range through the undergrowth or take a short boat ride to Menjangan Island for some of the best diving and snorkeling to be found throughout Bali.
Stopping by the villages lining the highway, you'll encounter places like Pura Rambut Siwi (Rambut Siwi Temple), a beautiful Balinese temple that overlooks the sea and rice paddy fields; the villages of Blimbingsari and Palasari, rare Balinese Christian communities that began as places for exile; Medewi Beach, the West's hottest surfing spot; and Negara, a local capital and site for regular buffalo racing events — worth a look if only for the colorfully-decorated carts.
West Bali's Medewi Beach: Surf's Up on the South Coast
Each of West Bali's two different coasts has something different to offer. The beaches on the north coast — mostly centered around Menjangan Island and the town of Pemuteran — cater to snorkelers and divers, who come for the northern coast's milder currents and more varied undersea wildlife.
The beaches on the southern coast — most particularly Medewi Beach east of Negara — are far less time, but offer a challenge to the Bali surfing crowd. Surfers grin and bear the arduous commute from Kuta to arrive in Medewi first thing in the morning, catching the area's generous left-hand wave that takes all comers all year round.
Medewi is rarely crowded, a huge relief for surfers escaping the chaos of south Bali. The locals are less jaded of tourists as a result, with local diversions and accommodations tending towards the rustic and cheap.