Sandalwood incense scents the humid air as we cycle under curving arcs of bamboo decorations interwoven with frangipani and palm leaf.
The 12-foot-tall flowered decorations wave like flags at every street corner of every village we pedal through.
Villagers are heading to their local temples. Women in rainbow-hued skirts and white lace blouses gracefully balance baskets of fruit and flower offerings on their heads. Men, resplendent in loose white tunics, ride by on scooters.
We’re a bit off the tourist track, bicycling from our hotel, the Soori Bali, on Bali’s southwest coast. And we feel so lucky we happen to be visiting Bali during the lavish Galungan festival.
If you hesitate to visit Bali because you think it’s become too touristy, hesitate no further.
The “island of the Gods” is still very special. We discovered many fun things to do in Bali on our six-week visit.
Fun things to do in Bali
Bali and its friendly people have fascinated visitors ever since European artists first made this once-remote tropical island world-famous in the 1930’s.
What to do in Bali today?
Sporty types come for its epic surfing and scuba-diving.
Luxury devotees are lured by its five-star resorts and awesome spas – can you say “indulgence”?
The Kuta Beach area, shunned by many as over-crowded and noisy, is sought out by others for its miles-long beach and throbbing nightlife.
Yoga fans find mantra heaven gazing out over Bali’s terraced rice paddies.
And then there’s Bali’s traditional village life, art, dance and festivals.
The island’s unique culture valuing balance, beauty and harmony is a chief attraction.
When we return to Bali (and we will!), it’s the Balinese culture that will lure us back. (Oh, and we can’t lie, the fabulous luxury resorts too are a huge draw too…)
Ready now to explore in detail 15 of the best things to do in Bali?
1) Experience a Bali festival
Let’s start with one of our favorite experiences – enjoying the Galungan festival.
Galungan is one of the most important religious Bali ceremonies for Balinese Hindus. It celebrates the triumph of good (Dharma) over evil (Adharma). Spirits of ancestors are believed to return to earth to visit their former homes, and people say prayers, make offerings and perform rituals to welcome them back.
The 10-day celebration takes place every 210 days according to the Balinese pawukon calendar, so there may sometimes be two festivals in one solar year. On the 10th day, Kuningan, the spirits are believed to rise back to heaven.
Preparations before Galungan traditionally include slaughtering pigs for communal feasts.
It’s a big holiday for families (schools are closed and employees are supposed to get time off). When we bicycled through the secluded village during Galungan, children were everywhere. Bells tinkled. And everyone greeted us with face-splitting smiles and a cheerful “Good morning!”
If you visit during the Galungan festival, soak it all up!
2) Enjoy the Bali culture
Don’t worry, though, if your visit doesn’t coincide with one of Bali’s festivals.
Beautiful Balinese traditions – infused by beliefs that spirits inhabit the sacred mountains, trees, animals and all living things – are embedded in daily life.
You encounter temples everywhere. They dot the landscape, gracing every village and family compound, with many more shrines to boot.
In tiny hand-made palm baskets, offerings of plumeria blossoms, rice and burning incense (sometimes even a cigarette or two to keep the spirits extra happy) – sprinkled and blessed with holy water – are placed in front of every temple, dwelling and shop each morning.
3) Get thee to Ubud
Located inland in lush rainforest, Ubud is Bali’s cultural heart.
Remember Eat Pray Love? Publicized by the romantic flick starring Julia Roberts, Ubud town now buzzes with activity.
Locals zip by on scooters along Ubud’s narrow, winding cobblestone streets.
International visitors throng its designer boutiques, open-air craft markets, antique shops and art galleries. They gawk too at the host of yoga, meditation and healing arts options on offer, and like us, stop in at little coffee shops, funky warungs (modest eateries) and charming garden restaurants serving up exquisite Indonesian delicacies.
But as “discovered” as it is, Ubud is still the best place to experience how the Balinese way of life is beautifully expressed in dance and music, in stone carvings and paintings, and in temple feasts and festive ceremonies.
You can’t visit Bali and not spend time in Ubud. It’s one of the best places to go in Bali – perhaps even the best!
4) Watch Balinese dance
Our first evening in Ubud, we happened upon a dance performance that was about to begin at the Ubud Palace.
We quickly bought tickets and sat down.
Under a starlit sky, two young women performed the classic “Legong” dance, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra’s xylophone rhythms.
Wearing gold bodices and elaborate flower-adorned headdresses, they fluttered their fingers, darted their black-rimmed eyes back and forth, and gracefully contorted their bodies, all in perfect stylized sync.
Then a whole cast of actors in glittering costumes and ogre masks, including girls dressed as golden deer, enacted the Hindu “Ramayana” love epic.
We were so enthralled that over the next few evenings, we took in several other performances during our stay in Ubud – including the “Barong” lion dance and the “Kecak” (performed at a different venue), where 100 men chanted in a trance-like state and a fire-walker in a horse costume danced barefoot on blazing coconut husks.
Many hotels in Bali also offer Bali dance performances – but the shows in Ubud somehow seem more authentic.
5) Monkey around in the Ubud Monkey Forest
One of the other top things to do in Ubud is to visit Ubud’s Monkey Forest sanctuary. Here, in a protected forest reserve on the edge of town, over 550 macaque monkeys scamper about three 11th-century holy temples.
The tiny almost-hairless babies suckling from their mothers are especially adorable!
We heard lots of laughter as monkeys jumped up on people who had brought them bananas. (Good idea? Maybe not…) Shutters clicked continuously as people snapped photos of the long-tailed felons.
6) Visit some of the best beaches in Bali
What about Bali’s beaches?
Nusa Dua beaches:
Some of the best beaches in Bali for swimming are found on the Bukit peninsula in the Nusa Dua area. A planned five-star resort community, Nusa Dua boasts long stretches of white sand beaches, with clear calm water where you can swim.
Many luxury resorts like the St. Regis, Westin and Melia have beach chairs and umbrellas set up on the beach or on the manicured lawns in front of their resort. There are also private private beach clubs for smaller boutique hotels like Kayumanis Nusa Dua.
While the Nusa Dua beaches aren’t private, these resorts are pretty exclusive. Hotel chairs and umbrellas are only for hotel guests.
However, Geger Beach in Nusa Dua is public (it’s next to the St. Regis Bali Resort). You can rent sunbeds there for the day. A handful of local restaurants will also deliver food and drinks to you under your umbrella.
Other Bali beaches:
Of course, there are also beaches in other popular Bali resort areas like Seminyak and Kuta.
In truth, though, these were too crowded or littered for our tastes – the beaches weren’t the reason we visited Bali anyway. (But we did like retreating to a couple of luxurious home-away-from-home villas in Seminyak – the WiFi was super fast and it was great to catch up on emails!)
7) Explore the abandoned airplanes in Bali
Okay, so this is definitely one for the list of unique things to do in Bali.
For some strange reason, the island has a few abandoned airplanes lying around. And as weird as it may seem, they make for interesting (definitely odd) tourist attractions in Bali.
The most popular airplane lies abandoned in a field on the Bukit Peninsula, near Pandawa Beach on Bali’s south coast. No one knows how this Boeing 737 got there.
Here’s the Google map showing its location. (It’s on private property, but you can climb up on some containers abutting one side of the field for an aerial view.)
8) Go for a bike ride
Bicycling in Bali on the roads can be a bit hair-raising. The roads weren’t built for both cars and bicycles, and there are few dedicated cycling paths.
But there’s still some great pedaling to be had!
Biking the rice fields:
Spending half a day two-wheeling through the rice paddies around Ubud is popular.
Several companies offer Ubud bike tours, like this easy downhill bike tour from the slopes of Kintamani volcano through the famous rice terraces and on into Ubud.
This best-selling bike tour combines the rice fields with exploring Bali’s rural countryside and the traditional village of Penglipuran.
Cycling Nusa Dua:
A lovely stone beachfront path in Nusa Dua is also perfect for bicycling (you share with pedestrians). As we cycled along, Nusa Dua reminded us a little of a fancy Hawaii resort area – only more exotic with its stone statues of Garuda sun birds and Hindu gods guarding beach resort entrances.
At sunset, we reached a public park with huge Ramayana stone statues, where locals and tourists alike were strolling and jogging.
The bicyle-and-pedestrian path has recently been extended. It now stretches from Nusa Dua Beach up to the Tanjung Benoa peninsula – passing the Melia Bali and Club Med Bali.
If you’re staying in Nusa Dua, your hotel can help arrange bikes for you; some hotels even offer free bike rentals for a couple of hours.
Map of Nusa Dua:
Here’s a map so you can easily zoom in on the Nusa Dua and Tanjung Benoa areas.
9) Go surfing in Bali (or learn how to surf)
Surfing is legendary in Bali; the peak surfing season is May to September.
Some of the top surfing spots on the island are found on the Bukit peninsula on Bali’s southern coast. It was surfers who first discovered this beautiful, arid, teardrop-shaped piece of land (Bukit to its friends).
For big fast surfing waves, head to Uluwatu Beach right under the cliff-hanging Uluwatu Temple, one of Bali’s oldest temples.
Kuta Beach is good for both beginners and experts. Many surf schools offer lessons, and you can rent boards if you didn’t bring your own. Kuta’s waves are good to surf from March to November.
10) Eat great food in Ubud
Want to bite into some really good food? The food scene is terrific in Ubud, which is home to some of the best restaurants in Bali.
You’ll be spoiled for choice. Think everything from garden cafés and juice bars to smart hotel restaurants. The gamut of cuisines ranges from French to Mexican to Indonesian (of course!).
If you like your food healthy, many places to eat in Ubud dish up wholesome plates, including vegan, vegetarian and raw food options.
11) Visit an art gallery or museum
Balinese art is beautiful and quite special. Growing rice on the island traditionally allowed the Balinese plenty of spare time, so painting became part of daily life.
Ubud art galleries:
Ubud, as the cultural hot spot, is the place to browse and buy Balinese paintings. Ubud art galleries are chock-full of Balinese artworks – original oils and acrylics lean in thick stacks against gallery walls.
We were sorely tempted by an enormous impressionist-style oil painting. But while it could have been rolled in a tube for transport, we don’t have a wall in our house large enough to display it!
Out in the countryside, simple artist-owned stalls sell original art works in a wide range of styles – paintings, drawings, sculpture, wood carvings, even intricately painted eggs and masks hand-carved from bamboo – much of it good and cheaper than in Ubud’s galleries (some original works go for as little as $100 USD).
Neka Art Museum:
Keen on the art, we also spent many enjoyable hours at the Neka Art Museum, just a short distance from the center of Ubud. It houses more than 400 Indonesian works of art in a cluster of colonial buildings.
The history of Balinese art is laid out here, from traditional “Wayang-style” paintings (based on old-time shadow puppet plays) onward.
Some later styles were inspired by Bali-mad European artists like Walter Spies and Adrien LeMayeur – lured to Bali in the 1900s by the beauty of Bali and its people.
The museum’s collection of ceremonial knives and kris daggers and swords is also interesting.
12) Party at a beach club in Seminyak
We confess – we’re not too much into partying. But we did have fun watching the sun set and noshing on appies at the Potato Head Beach Club. Definitely a scene! (The club attracts international DJs and celebs.)
Several beach clubs in Seminyak offer good times, ocean views, swimming pools and killer cocktails. You can easily while the day away at one of these – lounging on a sunbed, swimming, eating, drinking and listening to cool tunes.
Seminyak beach clubs get the most ink. But other fun clubs for spending the day by the beach can also be found in Uluwatu, Jimbaran and Legian.
13) Stroll through the Tegalalang rice fields
One of the most visited tourist attractions in Ubud is the Tegalalang rice terrace – a series of rice fields spreading out on tiered terraces, about a 20 minute drive north of Ubud.
These rice paddies are lush, green and gorgous! Perfect for an early morning stroll and to snap some Insta-worthy photos.
The Jatiluwih rice terraces in Tabanan, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are also stunning, but a little harder to get to.
14) Savor dinner at a Jimbaran seafood restaurant
The long white-sand beach at Jimbaran Bay is the place to head for a seafood dinner at sunset.
A string of at least 30 restaurants have wooden tables and chairs set out in the sand on the beach. Pick one, plonk yourself down and munch on delicious grilled prawns, calamari, snapper and other just-caught seafood – with your toes in the sand, of course. You can order lobster too, but that will set you back a few more Indonesian rupiahs than other items.
Don’t fuss too much over which Jimbaran Beach restaurant is better than the other – they all cost roughly the same and have similar menus. Just be sure to get there at sunset! The sunset views are really quite magical.
15) Indulge in a Balinese massage
Balinese massage uses a combination of thumb and fist pressure, long kneading strokes and gentle stretching to create waves of relaxation. Massage costs are far less than in North America, and many spas top the pleasure meter with luxurious add-ons.
Take the spa at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan (near Ubud) – one of the best spas in Ubud – where we crossed lotus ponds to reach a private indoor/outdoor spa villa for our couples treatment.
After our feet were gently cleaned and perfumed, we were rubbed with a warm poppy and rose oil scrub. Then we luxuriated in an outdoor bath strewn with rose petals, while served a soothing rose elixir. A deliciously skilful massage followed. Talk about 150 minutes of bliss!
And after biking through the Galungan-festive villages from the Soori Bali, we were ready for ur “Balinese Beauty Ritual” in the hotel’s candlelit, black marble spa.
First came the massage. Next we were slathered with a body mask of ginger, cinnamon and rice, then wrapped up like mummies and pampered with facials.
Our skin felt so soft afterward that we acted like honeymooners who couldn’t stop touching each other.
So, do be sure to book a treatment at a Bali spa. Better still, book two! The spas in Bali are quite decadent.
Still for us, it was the festivals that really captured our hearts (and the welcoming spirit of the Balinese). There always seemed to be something to celebrate with a merry feast or the banging of cymbals during a noisy parade or procession.
The festivals truly are one of the most special things to see in Bali.
One day walking to Sayan village near Ubud, we stumbled across preparations for an evening temple festival.
Men huddled in groups over charcoal fires in the ground, chattering away as they grilled bamboo skewers wrapped with shredded pork, ginger and coconut. They invited us to share some – delicious! Women weaved palm leaf baskets for offerings, which they pinned in shape with bamboo slivers and filled with flower petals.
It was all so peaceful, so happy, so serene that we were hard-pressed to tear ourselves away and return to our own lives.
Where to stay in Bali?
Ahhh, there are so many gorgeous places… We’ve personally stayed at and reviewed many Bali hotels and resorts.
More Asia travel inspiration!
Check out these posts of ours.
Photos 2, 7 to 13, 16, 17, 22, 24, 28 to 30, and 37 to 39 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase