There’s an unspoken rule of thumb in Bali: Where there are iconic ancient Hindu temples and tropical panoramas, a deluge of tourists is sure to follow. But don’t let this deter you from exploring the Indonesian island’s largess of cultural treasures—sites like the cliffside Uluwatu Temple and the sacred pools of Tirta Empul maintain their enrapturing qualities no matter the visitor count. If you need a primer on Bali’s essential sights (with tips to side-step the madding crowd) along with a few hidden and up-and-coming gems, here is our “to-do” list to get you started.
On an island rife with natural beauty, Mount Batur (or “Gunung Batur”) and its serene surroundings might be the most dramatic destination of all. The 5,600-foot volcanic marvel contains Bali’s largest crater lake—a splendid cycling site—slopes ripe for hiking, and picturesque villages. The sunrise, as seen from the peak, is spectacular. Not for the faint of heart—or anyone who loathes early-morning wake-up calls—the ascent takes around two hours. But once you’ve reached the top, you might witness one of the most majestic mist-sheathed vistas you’ve ever seen.
Uluwatu Temple, in Bali’s extreme south in Pecatu Village, is a crucial ancient site that has protected Hindu islanders from evil spirits since 900 AD. Its location is the main draw for tourists: some 230 feet up on a precipitous cliff’s edge, with the powerful waves of Uluwatu Beach lapping at its base. The sunsets here are among Bali’s most sensational. As an add-on, the daily kecak dance performances (about $7), with chants, costumed performances, and rings of fire, make the setting even more enchanting.
Nyang Nyang Beach
In Bali, the words “south” and “secluded” are rarely uttered in the same sentence, but Nyang Nyang Beach, in Uluwatu, indeed fits the bill. White sands, greenery-lined cliffs, and the astonishing absence of crowds await—if you’re dedicated enough to find it. Who knows, you might get lucky and have the coast all to yourself. If you’ve lamented how overrun Bali’s main beaches have become nowadays, Nyang Nyang is the respite you’ve been looking for.
Ubud Monkey Forest
This tourist magnet might look like an open-air zoo attraction, but Ubud Monkey Forest is actually a holy site with a 600-plus band of long-tailed Balinese macaques in their natural habitat. As cantankerous as some of the monkeys can be—dangling jewelry, bags, and conspicuous food will invite aggressive sticky fingers—the primates are considered sacred by Balinese Hindus who come to pray in the complex’s three ancient temples.
Sukawati Art Market
Sukawati Art Market is a cheaper and quieter alternative to nearby Ubud Market and other popular locales in southern Bali. The traditional two-story shopping venue is known for its array of handcrafted artworks, from framed paintings of local farm life to large wooden sculptures of Hindu deities. Without the intimidating crowds, it’s an ideal place to flex your bargaining skills on vibrant patterned dresses and accessories, home goods, Hindu and Buddhist trinkets, and tote bags.
Batu Bolong Beach’s immediate northern neighbor shares a lot of attributes; among them, charcoal brown sand, stellar surf breaks, and bounteous eating and drinking options. But Echo Beach feels less developed—though a few unsightly construction sites suggest an aggressive catch-up—and the waves are bigger and better for surf enthusiasts. Locals and an increasing number of tourists are congregating here more, but you’ll still have ample breathing space to lay, gaze, meander, or dip your toes in the water.
Tanah Lot Temple
Tanah Lot is a popular and important 16th-century temple on Bali’s southwestern coast, and one of a few directional temples designated to protect the island from evil spirits. The three-acre site’s dramatic location—detached from the shore and atop a rock outcropping where giant waves thrash at its base—makes it a top spot for sunset views. The active sacred site attracts worshippers who spend time inside the temple—which tourists can’t access.
Batu Bolong Beach
Welcome to the ground zero of Bali surfing and Canggu’s most frequented beach. Batu Bolong has it all: great surf, chilled hangouts, a convenient location, family friendliness, and glorious sunsets. The stretch of brown-gray sand attracts a mix of boho-casual travelers, expats, and locals who prefer their beaches clean and relatively hawker-free. Be sure to grab a drink at Old Man’s, an attitude-free beer garden where surfers let down their ocean-wet hair
Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave)
Goa Gajah (or “Elephant Cave”), a 10-minute drive from central Ubud, is an ancient archaeological sanctuary with rock carvings of frightening faces that are said to ward off evil spirits. After passing through the “mouth” of a menacing demon and into a cave, you’ll see small temples and a worshipping area; upon exiting, there are courtyards and pathways leading to beautiful ancient pools, Buddhist and Hindu relics, gardens, and a waterfall. Like all active temples, a waist-covering sarong is required (you can borrow one onsite).
Banyu Wana Amertha Waterfall
Banyu Wana Amertha Waterfall, Northern Bali’s new natural attraction, is a little hard to get to; you’ll need to drive at least 90 minutes from Ubud and take a winding, 20-minute hike through a banana plantation. But once you’ve completed the journey, you’ll be rewarded handsomely with a lush forest hiding a quartet of grand waterfalls that are somehow not overrun by crowds. The main waterfall is the most spectacular—a verdant rock amphitheater with misty streams cascading down to a shallow pool.
Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park
Garuda Wisnu Kencana is an impressive, sprawling park in Jimbaran Bay. It contains the world’s third largest statue (396 feet from base to tip), depicting Lord Vishnu riding the legend bird-like creature Garuda. There are many other statuettes, restaurants, souvenir shops, traditional Balinese dance performances, and fantastic views over the island. The price entry is steep considering that the long-delayed park isn’t fully complete, and shuttle service will cost you extra.
Tegalang Rice Terrace
Tegalalang Rice Terrace, 20 minutes north of Ubud, is one of Bali’s most photogenic—and well-trodden—destinations. The UNESCO World Heritage Site contains wide, undulating layers of rice paddies, kept alive by an ancient, sophisticated irrigation system and farmers who tend the terraces just as previous generations have done for millennia. You can explore this area freely. Take a short stroll or navigate its entire length; descend to some of the lower slopes (if the farmers don’t mind) for a different vantage point; or grab a seat at an open-air cafe when you need a break.
Pura Lempuyang Luhur
Located far from the tourist hubbub of Ubud, Lempuyang Temple is a sacred seven-temple complex in eastern Bali that’s best known for the Gateway to Heaven that perfectly frames the formidable Mount Agung, the island’s tallest peak. This is one of the most majestic sights in Bali—come for sunrise for the best, uncrowded results—and it’s also a significant Hindu temple. Entrance requires a donation, a sarong (also available on loan), and a 40,000 rupiah ($3) round-trip jeep shuttle up the steep mountainside.
Tirta Empul (“Holy Spring”), an important sacred water temple for more than 1,000 years, contains a warren of shrines, gates, courtyards, and purification pools where Balinese Hindus “baptize” themselves underneath a succession of waterspouts. Equally popular with travelers, the temple commands a 15,000 rupiah ($1) entry fee and the wearing of a sarong.
Although Tirta Gangga ($2 entry), a former palace turned lavish water gardens, looks like it has existed for several centuries, it was actually conceived in 1946 by the royal Karangasem family. But its far-reaching east Bali location hasn’t stopped travelers from exploring its magical fountains, shrubs, sculptures, and flowers, or positioning themselves on the octagonal stepping stones and feeding the carp. There are also stone spring water pools—you can swim in one of them.
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