Updated: June 7, 2017
Where Should I Stay in Bali?
Bali is truly paradise, with rice-terraces cascading down verdant volcanic slopes, flaming sunsets dripping over powdery-white sands, and a unique and omnipresent culture that dominates the island and its people despite continual tourist onslaught. The island is, of course, appreciated by some 3-4 million Indonesian and foreign tourists each year, almost doubling the population at times. Some savour the surf, shopping and clubbing in Kuta, while, in contrast, others relish spiritual and cultural pursuits in Ubud. More come for rafting, water-sports and scuba-diving for a fraction of the cost of Europe and Australia, but some prefer exploring mountainous landscapes and millennium-old temples.
Bali is compact, so it is possible to day-trip to just about anywhere on the island from your base. But traffic south of (and including) Ubud can be appalling, and most roads north of Ubud are mountainous. So, to avoid too much unnecessary travel, choose your base carefully (see below) and don’t be tempted to move between bases more than once every 4 or 5 days.
Public transport in tourist areas is often non-existent and always crowded, but shuttle buses are plentiful and comfortable. It is also easy to find taxis (except in Ubud) and charter a car with driver for only US$40 per day. (Hideous traffic, absent road signs and narrow potholed roads are just three excellent reasons why you should never hire a car and drive yourself.)
The Best Places To Stay in Bali
Best Place in Bali for Honeymoon: Jimbaran
Most resorts in Nusa Dua cater particularly well for romantic holidays, with packaged deals for newly-weds and ‘honeymoon suites’, but your hotel may also be inundated with noisy families. Considerably more tranquil and romantic is Jimbaran, where hotels don’t really cater for children and parts of the elongated, curved and sandy bay are empty and ideal for sunbathing and strolling. Each afternoon the beach becomes packed with tables and chairs as seaside cafés offer romantic candlelight dinners at sunset, with fresh seafood, as well as fireworks, wandering musicians and traditional dances.
Best place for sightseeing & outdoor activities: Ubud
With its vast range of places to stay and eat and surprisingly vibrant live music scene, Ubud is a perfect base for exploring the delights of central Bali. It’s easy to charter a car with a driver to visit on day-trips extraordinary sights nearby, such as the cliff sculptures at Gunung Kawi; more distant and less-visited areas, like the UNESCO-listed rice-terraces at Jatiluwih; and man-made attractions, such as the Bali Zoo. Minibus transfers to organised rafting, hiking and mountain-biking tours are shorter from Ubud and, therefore, rates should be cheaper, but Ubud is not, obviously, that convenient for surfing or snorkelling/diving. (A fuller description about Ubud itself is below.)
Best Place for Nightlife: Seminyak
Some visit Bali just for Kuta’s nightlife. Among typically sleazy options are multi-storey nightclubs along Jalan Legian street with international DJs and numerous sports bars, each fiercely competing with ‘cocktail specials’, ‘free BBQ’ and ‘girls drink for free’. A quick taxi ride to the north, Seminyak offers a more sophisticated blend of live jazz, soul and R&B in intimate settings, while further north again in Canggu the décor and prices in clubs are comparable to those in Europe, but patrons would need their own transport or a chartered car or taxi on standby.
Best Place for Good Food and Restaurants: Seminyak
Kuta offers the widest choice and lowest prices, and places in Canggu can be pretentious and remote, so Seminyak wins this award. The twisted lanes are packed with alluring cafés and bistros offering cuisines from just about every country on earth – even Indonesia! Some directly face the sea, so early diners or pre-dinner drinkers can relish the sublime sunsets. Also, cafés perched on the beach scatter beanbags across the sand each afternoon for guests to enjoy the sunset, cocktails and, later, live music.
Best Nearby Island: Nusa Lembongan
Nusa Lembongan is more genuine and boasts more attractions than any of the three Gili Islands (off the coast of neighbouring Lombok). Lembongan has minimal shopping and even less nightlife, but that’s part of the attraction for many. There is (almost) no four-wheeled vehicles, so it’s perfect for exploring the eerie mangroves, remote beaches and quaint villages on foot, by motorbike or on a bicycle (although the interior is hilly). Boats from Sanur only take 30-45 minutes, and hotels in all ranges are available in Jungutbatu village and the crescent-shaped Mushroom Bay, which is best for swimming and snorkelling.
Best Village in Bali: Padangbai
Often ignored by those rushing to/from the Gili Islands by speedboat or hopping on/off the ferry to Lombok, Padangbai is delightfully unpretentious, with a genuine village vibe. Facing a postcard-perfect arched bay and hemmed in by hills, it is spared the unrelenting hotel construction found elsewhere on the island. So, the cluster of streets is based around the school, market and temples, rather than bars, clubs and bistros. A wonderful base from which to explore the east coast, Padangbai also boasts a 1000-year-old clifftop temple and Crusoe-esque beach called Blue Lagoon.
Best Place for a Spiritual Visit: Ubud
There is no argument that for anything ‘spiritual’, Ubud is the place. Whether for meditation, yoga, ‘spiritual healing’ or even traditional medical therapies, some tourists stay nowhere else on Bali – and never leave! The lofty village of Penestanan (part of Ubud) is dotted with yoga shalas (studios) offering casual drop-in or private classes, and even training courses, while some resorts nestled in the jungle nearby offer one- or two-week ‘rejuvenation’ packages. In town, numerous cafés cater for the health-conscious with organic food and drinks made from locally-grown products.
Best Place for First Timers: Sanur
Kuta, and its extensions of Tuban, Legian and Seminyak, can seem overwhelming for some first-time visitors. Especially during holiday seasons, the roads are clogged with traffic and lanes choked with tourists. The crowds and noise, as well as the hawkers and heat, can be crushing at times, resulting in some first-timers vowing never to return. But, of course, Kuta is not remotely representative of Bali. So, to enjoy the best of Bali, without the worst of Bali, stay in Padangbai, a picturesque village ideal for exploring the less-touristy east coast; or, if you crave sand and sea, base yourself in Sanur, a far quieter resort region with limited nightclubs, surf and shopping and, therefore, less crowds, traffic and noise.
Best Place for Families: Nusa Dua
With children in tow, finding the right base is absolutely essential. With younger ones, the options are best at the gated complex of Nusa Dua. The dozen or so upmarket resorts are all family-friendly, each with a children’s pool (often with water slides) and kid’s club offering engaging activities all day, as well as extensive children’s menus in the restaurants and child-minding services. All resorts also feature massive gardens and almost all face an exquisite beach with calm waters, while Nusa Dua itself is clean, quiet and devoid of crowds and traffic. Just north, the resort region of Tanjung Benoa is a more affordable version of Nusa Dua, and is probably more appealing to teenagers because of its extensive range of inexpensive water sports.
Best Beach in Bali: Pasir Putih
Arguably Bali’s best beach is still remarkably undeveloped. Only 6km past Candidasa along the east coast, Pasir Putih (which unimaginatively means ‘White Sands’) has no hotels and only a handful of laidback cafés on the bleached-white sand – and hopefully it stays that way. The sea is calm, and the curved bay is flanked by rocky outcrops, which offer snorkelling and shade, and backed by coconut groves. And, amazingly, half of the beach is still used as a fishing village. This slice of heaven is at the end of a scenic, flat 1.5km-long lane from the main road.
Most Unusual Place: Toya Bungkah
The village of Toya Bungkah – located inside the crater of Bali’s most active volcano, Mount Batur – boasts three places for wallowing in hot springs and cool-water pools. The best is unquestionably the Seminyak-style resort of Toya Devasya. For just US$12 a day, visitors can revel in the hot baths, splash about the Olympic-sized swimming pool, or laze on lounge chairs by the pool bar. With a restaurant and villas, the setting alongside the azure crater lake under a towering volcano is goose-bumpy.
Most Underrated: Candikuning
Halfway between Kuta and Lovina, Candikuning is nestled alongside the mighty crater lake of Mount Bratan. With some of Bali’s best attractions, it is worth staying a few days, if only for the cooler weather (which is often chilly at night). Must-sees include the (1) extensive botanical gardens, one of only four in Indonesia; (2) Bedugul lakeside recreational area, almost completely patronised by Indonesian tourists, with boat trips across the lake and water sports; (3) exquisite Pura Ulun Bratan temple facing the lapping waters; and (4) bustling produce market, specialising in strawberries and corn.
The Best Towns in Bali for Tourists
The main tourist areas across Bali (including the Gili Islands) are all different, with delightfully dissimilar locations and range of facilities. It is vital to choose a suitable base according to your interests (eg yoga or surfing?), age/family (eg backpackers or with kids?), budget (eg resorts or homestays?) and length of stay (eg three days or three months?).
Many come to Bali for the surf, sunsets, shopping and clubbing, and see no need to venture any further than Kuta. However, with its ceaseless traffic, endless crowds, and relentless noise people either love or loathe Kuta, but the range of places to part with your cash is extraordinary and it is close to the airport. Within walking distance, Tuban (also called Southern Kuta) also offers a number of sizeable and family-friendly resorts. The beach disappears or becomes unappealingly grey, but Tuban does retain a likeable village vibe, with fishing boats on the sand and many shops/cafés catering to locals.
Within a short stroll of Kuta’s malls and clubs, but with far more space and serenity, Legian is the next beach north of Kuta. The lanes are less claustrophobic, beachfront resorts face the sand rather than a busy road, and the sunsets are just as legendary. Further north again is the more sophisticated Seminyak, where restaurants become bistros and shops are called boutiques. The beach becomes greyer and the roads less packed with places to shop, eat and drink, but snatches of rice-fields can still be seen among the rampant villa constructions.
Without waves (and, therefore, surfers), and with limited nightclubs and malls, Sanur is a popular and sedate alternative to Kuta. Only a short taxi trip from the airport and malls and nightclubs of Kuta, Sanur faces a long stretch of beach. There are no sunsets, but the lovely seaside promenade lined with cafés, bars and souvenir stalls is ideal for strolling and cycling. Sanur is also the jumping off point for speedboats to Nusa Lembongan island.
4) Nusa Dua
This unique gated complex of 4- and 5-star resorts was designed to avoid the hedonistic chaos of Kuta. So, the streets are clean and wide, and traffic and hawkers are non-existent. Each resort boasts substantial gardens and numerous swimming pools, and most (but not all) face a glorious curved beach. Facilities are ideal for couples, and every resort also caters splendidly for families, with a children’s pool, kids’ club and so on. While each resort has many shops, bars and cafés, most are not within walking distance of other places to shop, eat and drink, but a free hourly shuttle-bus links all resorts to the delightful outdoor Bali Collection mall. Note: some newer resorts are not actually in Nusa Dua, and while they do face a gorgeous beach, they are not within walking distance of anything.
5) Tanjung Benoa
Based along the peninsular ‘thumb’ in southern Bali, and now more accessible via the tollway, this is a more affordable alternative to Nusa Dua. With numerous resorts facing another lengthy stretch of white sand, Tanjung Benoa is also the island’s centre for water-sports, with jet-skiing, parasailing and so on available for a fraction of the cost expected in Europe or Australia. Many resorts cater well for families, and the village at the top of the peninsula with its market, mosque and temples is worth exploring.
Close enough to the airport to see (but rarely hear) planes careering along the runway, Jimbaran is comparatively undeveloped and surprisingly under-visited. The long, curved bay is captivating, with white sands and calm waters, and even a few waves for beginner surfers in the south. There are fewer places to stay, eat, drink and shop, but parts of the beach can be empty. And from about 4pm every day tables and chairs spill out onto sections of the bay with cafés offering superb seafood meals under candle light at sunset.
Bali’s spiritual and cultural heartland is an overgrown but intensely likeable collection of villages in central Bali. Many come for the yoga retreats and art museums, for the cooler climes, or just to escape the comparative chaos of Kuta. But Ubud also offers numerous temples, markets and traditional dances, and is an ideal base for day-trips by chartered car to extraordinary places like the sacred temples and springs at Tirta Empul; the crater lake of Bratan mountain; and the Elephant Safari Park. Outdoor activities such as rafting, hiking and mountain-biking are nearby and easy to arrange.
This 10km-long stretch of seaside villages is as far from Kuta as possible while still offering a decent range of hotels and restaurants. And, in contrast, there is negligible nightlife and minimal shopping, which perfectly suits many visitors. Lovina is ideal for anyone wanting a perfect beachside holiday, with glorious sunsets, sea-breezes and sea-views, as well as dolphin tours, but without perfect beaches, which are grey, scruffy and unsuitable for swimming. Many stay here longer than anticipated and return because of the infectious village vibe, dramatic mountainous backdrop and nearby sights, such as the Banjar hot springs and Bali’s second city, Singaraja.
9) East Coast of Bali
This region is progressively popular as it becomes increasingly accessible. Often bypassed by those flitting by speedboat to/from the Gili Islands, or by ferry to/from Lombok, Padangbai is a charming village alongside a perfect bay that has been spared from development by surrounding hills. Nearby, Candidasa is a beach resort without much of a beach (which eroded decades ago). But the idyllic setting and competitively-priced rooms and meals, caused by a dearth of tourists, attracts many, particularly middle-aged couples. Further east, Amed is a series of fishing villages with almost no beaches and only a handful of resorts, but it is infinitely quieter than the southern resort regions and the snorkelling/diving is world-class. Getting there and travelling around, however, can be problematic.
10) Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Penida
Just 30-45 minutes by speedboat from Sanur, Lembongan island is more accessible, authentic and stimulating than the three more-renowned Gili Islands. Most stay in Jungutbatu, an agreeable village with an extended beach lined with seaweed harvests and fishing boats; or at Mushroom Bay, a curved white-sand cove, ideal for snorkelling and swimming. Other upmarket places are at Sunset Beach and Dream Beach, both very appealing but with terrifying surf and currents, while more down-to-earth accommodation can be found at Mangrove Beach. Additional attractions include vehicle-free roads, perfect for walking, cycling and motor-biking; ghostly mangroves to the east; and several empty and photogenic beaches.
Far larger but considerably less developed, Nusa Penida is perhaps reminiscent of mainland Bali from the 1970s. Accommodation choices are limited and transport is problematic, but it does boast enchanting villages, a remarkable cave-temple, and probably the most perfect beach imaginable at Crystal Bay.
11) Gili Islands
Many understandably add a side-trip to these three idyllic droplets of turquoise waters and bleached-white sands off the coast of neighbouring Lombok island. Each is small enough to walk around in under two hours, and there are no vehicles or even motorbikes. Gili Trawangan is justifiably labelled the ‘party island’, with sections of the east coast reminiscent of Kuta, so choose your hotel carefully. Closest to the Lombok mainland, Gili Air has a more authentic village vibe, while on the quietest islet, Gili Meno, there is little to do but just snorkel and snooze. But remember: with minibus transfers and the boat trip, as well as inevitable waiting around, travelling from Bali to Gili T can take 4-5 hours one-way, so don’t be tempted to just ‘pop over’ to the Gilis for 1-2 nights. Stay longer and visit each island.