You know how when there’s a destination you love and keep returning to — or, you know, just laid over in the airport once — people always seem to be asking you to give advice to to their random friend, cousin or dentist about it? And so you throw together an email of your favorite spots, and save it to send out anytime someone hits you up for tips? I’m going to be honest, this post is basically a gussied-up version of that email.
Bali is an insanely popular travel destination, so it’s no surprise that I’m asked about recommendations for it often. That said, let me make it clear from the jump — I have barely gone off the beaten path in Bali, and wouldn’t dream of declaring myself a local expert (though I’d love to be!). This is not even attempting to be comprehensive, or eye-opening. These are just places and things I happened to end up at and be drawn to.
So throw on a sarong and some bangles and consider this a Basic Bitch Bali starter pack, if you will.
Here’s the scoop on me and Bali. I’ve logged four and a half weeks there over the course of three different trips, and have spent time in Canggu, Seminyak, Legian, Kuta, Uluwatu, Ubud, Nusa Dua, and Sanur.
At the end of this post, I’ll share my thoughts on where to stay and how to break up a trip. But first, a few of my favorite Bali things…
Uluwatu’s Ocean Views
Spoiler alert: I’m tragically obsessed with Uluwatu. I went spontaneously and so did all of three minutes of research before my arrival, but I ended up stumbling on a lot of gems. Uluwatu Temple is an obligatory stop, as is Suluban Cave and any of the big surf beaches. Mostly, just cruise around, enjoy the wide-open spaces and the endless cliff-top ocean vistas, and soak up the relaxed surfer vibes.
For food and drinks, head to Single Fin on a Wednesday or Sunday for a laid-back scene, and grab gorgeous smoothie bowls and other healthy fare at Bukit Café. Other spots worth a mention are Beetroot Cafe, Cashew Tree, Coco and Poke, or Nalu Bowl.
Canggu wouldn’t be Canggu without its seemingly endless array of Instagram-filtered, carefully curated hipster cafes. I adored the food — and yoga and massages — at Chillhouse, which doubles as a co-working space, so don’t be afraid to post up there with a laptop (it’s also my choice for where to stay in Canggu.) On that note, while I didn’t get to try it, Dojo Bali co-working space and cafe is high on my list for my next trip.
Betelnut gets a lot of buzz when it comes to Canggu cafes and is, in my opinion, more than worth the hype. I was also a big fan of Nalu Bowl, which has a bunch of locations. In The Raw and Avocado Café are also worth a mention. Basically, prepare to bathe in various versions of blended acai and pitaya.
Bali is famous for pampering and as a girl who can get down with some spa action, I was in heaven for it. In Thailand we are spoiled by dirt cheap, great-quality-but-zero-atmosphere massage spots, so I was really looking for a bit of sparkle when I went to Seminyak in search of an indulgent day of manicures and pedicures.
I found it at Spring Spa, which felt straight out of tropical Los Angeles. I’ll be back — and since Seminyak seems to be bursting with spas that blend Southeast Asian prices with slick Bali design and high quality services, this is a category I can’t wait to explore further.
Tabanan’s Tanah Lot Sunsets
Literally, this is the most photographed temple in Bali. And I have to admit, at first I was super underwhelmed with it. It was so touristy we essentially had to walk through a mall to get there, it was super crowded, and I was disappointed (but understanding) when I realized only Balinese people can actually enter the temple itself.
Then sunset happened. Total mic drop.
Okay, it’s worth an evening’s adventure.
South Bali’s Restaurant Scene
I’ve actually explored tragically little of Bali’s crazy array of restaurant. (My first two trips I stayed half the time in all-inclusives, and my latest trip, I stayed at a hotel and then went to a retreat that both included a lot of meals.)
But what I’ve seen of the scene? Hold me!
I’m very into the fact that South Bali has true international dining options — Motel Mexicola in Seminyak, for example, serves up delicious Mexican food with a backdrop straight out of a major metropolis. I think I started dreaming of becoming a Bali expat the second I walked through the door (Koh Tao’s lack of reliable Mexican food cut me real deep, over the years.)
Also great? Milk and Madu — they have incredible lava stone pizza, not to mention a bitchin’ brunch menu, fresh healthy options, and a gorgeous garden in which to enjoy it.
And let’s face it — you can’t go to Canggu without having at least a drink at La Laguna. This gypsy-inspired beach club on the border of Berawa and Batu Belig is like something out of a fairy tale.
I can’t wait to come back for their infamous Sunday Market someday!
Finally, while I’m not really a Kuta kinda girl, the breakfast buffet at Feast in Kuta still stands out as one of my favorite hotel breakfast events ever — it’s definitely on my list of places to return to, to see if it’s as good as I’ve hyped it up to be in my memory.
Ubud’s Back-To-Nature Adventures
So, Ubud Monkey Forest and the rice terraces in Ubud are just kind of two of those places you like, have to go to. I mean, I know there are people who are super proud of themselves for going to Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower but I am not about that life.
With the Monkey Forest, it’s worth getting there first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds, and with the rice terraces, it’s definitely worth doing a bit of research to figure out where you want to go (as you can imagine, there are a few!) Bring small change to both — you’ll be hit up to buy monkey food (and you’ll probably need it if you want that iconic shot of them on your shoulder) and pay lots and lots of random admission charges to cross bridges and whatnot at the terraces (just pay up and don’t let it ruin the experience.)
I really enjoyed both places but they weren’t what really made Ubud for me. Actually, on my last visit I found downtown Ubud pretty overwhelming — so many tour groups and buses crammed into one little space didn’t really give off that zen atmosphere people flock to Ubud to find.
Luckily, I do know where to find that zen — The Alaya, right in central Ubud, is a total peaceful escape and one of my favorite hotels ever. And it just so happens to be right around the corner from Yoga Barn, one of the practice’s true meccas, and Zen Spa, a cute, affordable little place to spend an afternoon surrounded by frangipanis.
Finally, if you’re looking for a little action, check out the area’s white water rafting opportunities. I went rafting on the Ayung River, which is just about twenty minutes outside Ubud and super chill. While it wasn’t terribly adventurous, it was stunning, and I loved floating through such a beautiful slice of the jungle.
Next time I’d like to try a trip to the Telaga Waja, which is a bit further away but is meant to have a little bit wilder rapids.
Canngu and Seminyak Nightlife
I’ll start by admitting I’ve never been out in Kuta, which is definitely one of Bali’s nightlife hubs, as far as I understand.
I have, however, logged a fair number of after-dark hours in Canggu, where I stuck to a fairly reliable routine of drinks and dancing at Old Man’s, followed by after-hours drinks at Sandbar, which is less a sandbar and more a slippery, wet, cliff bar perched precariously on some ocean-edge rocks. Basically a super safe place people for drunk people to congregate in the wee hours! Deus and Pretty Poison are also a lot of fun.
Canggu nightlife reminds me of a slightly hipper and buzzier version of Koh Tao nightlife of old, before things tamed down significantly — you could definitely spend the night barefoot at those two locations and I don’t think anyone would bat an eye.
Seminyak nightlife is a bit more polished and urban, providing a nice contrast. The venues are a little more sophisticated and everyone is still a little more dressed up, but it’s still not the big trashy megaclubs of Kuta. I love La Favela for a late night dance party, but during the day head to Potato Head or Finn’s for a Vegas-like day club with a tropical twist.
So, Where To Stay?
The short version: Canggu and Uluwatu are my favorites, Seminyak and Ubud are runners up.
The long version: Canggu is the hipster spot in Bali, home to beautiful yogis, enterprising digital nomads, and sexy surfers, so it will come as no surprise that I love being there and creeping on/aspiring to be all those types of people. It’s like the Brooklyn of Bali. Seminyak is buzzier and a bit more developed and polished, but still hip — think Lower Manhattan. Legian and Kuta are meh — I had a great time when I stayed in Kuta thanks to a plush hotel booked on points, but I wouldn’t rush back. It’s the Midtown of Bali, full of fast food restaurants and tourists, in this case of the Australian variety.
Nusa Dua is fine if you want to post up in an international chain hotel or a gargantuan resort, but don’t expect to fall in love with the magic of Bali over there. Sanur I’ve never stayed overnight in but I’ve been to several times to catch boats to and from other islands and one time to jetski. It’s pretty family-oriented and bland and I wouldn’t purposely go back.
Uluwatu, I absolutely adore. It’s like a vacation from a vacation — dramatic cliffs, big waves, dreamy views, a little more rural but still with that “it” factor.
Ubud has its moments but it’s been a bit loved to death — on my last trip I was overwhelmed by the number of tourists and unimpressed with the market and the congested downtown area. I think the magic here is in getting out a bit, where you have some room to explore and breath.
In my dream life, I’d have a villa in Canggu and a weekend bungalow in Uluwatu, and occasionally escape to Ubud for a yoga class amid the rice terraces. Ideally, I’d split a trip among those three spots (perhaps swapping Canggu for Seminyak if that’s more your scene.)
I’ve had a few friends who are beach snobs go to Bali and leave unimpressed — it’s true that much of the coastline here is rocky and has darker sand, or is like a million stairs away from you (in the case of the Bukit Peninsula). If you are looking for pristine white sand beaches and crystal blue waters with easy access I’d head over to Gili Trawangan, Nusa Penida or Nusa Lembongan, which are a short boat ride away and I’ve spent extensive time on.
And… Where to Next?
Okay, fellow Bali lovers! I shared my favorites, I can’t wait to hear yours. I know I’ve only scratched the surface of what this gorgeous island has to offer. You all never cease to amaze me with your travel advice, so go ahead and wow me — I’ll compile all comments into a guide for my next trip.
Love and Miss You, Bali…