We spent a good amount of time traveling in Bali before we moved there. We simply fell in love with Bali. Eric spent a lot of time talking about how much we “f*cking loved Bali.” After living in Bali, Indonesia, though, we saw more about how the sausage is made. The seedy underbelly. We realized we knew more about how to visit Bali than the typical Bali holidays brochure will show. I wanted to start at the most basic: Is Bali worth visiting? What is Bali like? Is Bali a good place to vacation?
In this post, we share some of our top Bali travel tips. This includes some information about Bali accommodations and the best places to go in Bali, including some recommended Bali beaches. But, importantly, we want to do more than share tips on the best places to see in Bali. We want to help travelers to decide whether to visit Bali at all. These are some of the dirty secrets about Bali tourism.
What is Bali? What Does the Word “Bali” Mean?
I actually wrote the initial draft of this post a long time ago. Then, I published it. We left Bali. We returned to Bali. Since that time I continue to be asked questions about this “Is Bali Worth The Trip” post? I thought it was time to update this travel blog post. After all of this time, though, we still need to start with identifying what Bali means.
You say the word Bali and it connotes images of a tropical paradise, no matter how you slice it. Verdant, green hills with terraced rice paddies, rustic villages with chickens crossing the road, gorgeous, white sand beaches lined with palm trees. It’s a place to “go bamboo.” I mean, Bali is a tropical island, how bad could it be? There is just something about the word, but, honestly, I am not sure why.
I know why I called Ubud home for the better part of two years. It is, generally, an easy place to live. It is not too expensive, there are a wide variety of western conveniences, we could motorbike around easily, and it can be pretty beautiful. I fell in love with our Bali villa and our view. Once you spend a good amount of time someplace, though, you learn more than the typical tourist. You start to answer the question: Is Bali a good place to visit?
What to Expect From a Bali Beach?
I think people dream about a beachfront hotel in Bali on one of the best beaches in Bali. I don’t know, though, why people flock to Bali as a tourist destination, particularly as a Bali beach destination. I often wonder is Bali worth the trip at all if what a traveler is looking for is a beach experience. I’ll explain why.
Those images of a tropical paradise that are reactionary when one hears the word Bali might be how the island once was. Perhaps it still is a tropical paradise, in certain pockets of Bali, ones that are often hard to find. But there are certain things about the island, and how it has changed over the years, that entirely irk me. And, after hearing from a few fellow travel bloggers about how they were utterly disappointed with the island as a Bali beach destination, I spent some time considering why that is.
I understand I am the Goldilocks of the beaches, but I only had one enjoyable swim in the water in Bali. Many of the beaches are nice to look at, with palm trees, cliffs, and Balinese temples overlooking the water. In my opinion, though, there are much nicer beaches elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Bali Places to Visit – The Beaches
So, what are the best beaches to visit in Bali? Avoid Kuta and anything near Denpensar. Even Seminyak and Legian are overcrowded, particularly at sunset, but they have their moments. Avoid most of these beaches during the Bali rainy season (see below for an explanation).
Some of the nicer beaches to visit in Bali include Canggu, some of the beaches in the Bukit, and some of the more desolate beaches in the north and west. Canggu is like the Ubud of the beach, a hippy Bali beach destination with yoga and vegetarian food. To this day it is not overrun with development. That said, it is getting that way as the urban beach sprawl from Seminyak creeps north.
The Bukit is the nubbin at the bottom of Bali. Nusa Dua is on the east side and has some of the nicest beaches for swimming and for families. It is, however, a little isolated from the “real” Bali. The west side of the Bukit is also nice and offers great Bali beach views. But, the beaches can be rocky and difficult to get to.
Is Sanur worth visiting? Sanur is a more accessible beach, but you have to try swimming at the exact right time of the day, high tide. Otherwise, the beach is shallow and rocky, like many of the beaches in Bali.
I wonder whether Bali is worth the trip as a beach destination when I never really found a beach that I love on the island? The southern beaches, like Kuta, Seminyak, and even Canggu contain large waves, more appropriate for surfers, not for swimming. Those waves can knock you straight off your feet, and knock the wind right out of you.
The beaches themselves continue to suffer from severe trash problems throughout the year. It’s worst in the rainy season when the rain washes the trash from the rest of the island into the ocean, and the tidal flow keeps it on the shore. Amed in the north is nicer, but even there the beaches suffer low tide, rocky beaches, and from similar trash issues, despite its remote location.
The Bali Wet Season and the Bali Beaches
One more thing before leaving the topic of the Bali beaches: when is the best season to visit Bali? Avoid the Bali rainy season. The rainy season starts, like clockwork, in early November and continues through March. The Bali wet season is problematic for travelers for a few reasons. When traveling to Ubud, and other areas in the center of the island, the wet season can be miserable. It can rain, hard, for days on end. There is massive flooding. Mold is a problem, even after a few days. Even our passports grew mold on them. It’s just yuck.
There is one more reason why the wet season is not the best time to travel to Bali. The beaches. Bali does not have a waste management solution. Recycling continues to be rare. Much of the trash is burned. Plastic is a big problem. During the rainy season, the rain drives all of the plastic and garbage from the center of the island out into the water. The currents then bring all of that plastic back up onto the beach. Daily. Bali beachfront hotels try to clean it and contain it, but it is hard. This problem is the biggest challenge for travelers to Bali during the rainy season, particularly in the southwestern beaches, like Kuta, Seminyak, and Canngu. The picture above is one I took during the rainy season in Kuta. Piles like this existed every few meters as far as the eye could see.
Read more about the Bali Rainy Season
Bali Sightseeing and Tourism Run Amok
This is where I start to get a little more critical of the most popular Bali tourist places. Remember, we lived in Bali for 18 months so we saw a lot more than the average Bali tourist. I promise that after this I will get to our advice on Bali must see attractions. But, this is the controversial part.
Heading into towns like Ubud, Legian, Sanur, or god forbid, Kuta (the arm pit of Bali), it is hard to see what is so amazing about the island. Circle K convenience stores rule, along with tourist-focused restaurants, tour operators, signs for elephant rides, and trips to the local safari. Everyone is trying to sell something.
The touts are unbelievable. You cannot walk 5 feet in most of the most popular places to visit in Bali without hearing a call for “taxi” or “transport.” In Sanur, walking down the street is a full-contact sport, as you avoid the broken sidewalks, motorbikes, and touts. One of the benefits of renting a motorbike in Ubud is to avoid these catcalls while walking the main roads. Just walking while carrying my helmet seemed to keep them at a distance. When I ignored a seller once in Legian, he reached out and grabbed me by the arm. Eric was not thrilled.
Even at the old international airport (which was easily one of the shoddiest international airports in the region, until the new terminal opened around 2013), touts tried calling me into a restaurant, souvenir shop, and massage parlor. I have never been to an airport and been beckoned into a restaurant.
It is not merely the touts that annoy. The numbers of tourists (and expats in Bali) exploded in such a way that there is a drain on resources and infrastructure. Issues like water supply, cleanliness, and waste removal, are not managed. Roads are too narrow to handle the numerous giant tour buses that make their way around the island each day. The authenticity of the island and some of the top Bali destinations has long gone.
Why Bali is Definitely Worth a Visit
If the Bali beaches are not the best, and the most popular Bali tourist attractions are overrun, then what makes Bali a destination worth visiting. What Bali offers, that is different in my opinion from so many other tropical beach destinations, is Balinese Hinduism. Daily offerings, ceremonies, incense, holy water, traditional dress. The experience of visiting a Bali temple is unlike anything else in Southeast Asia.
The best temples in Bali, though, must be visited with respect to the locals, of course. Even without thinking about temples to visit in Bali, you can experience Balinese Hinduism everywhere. Both women and men continue to dress in their classic temple clothing on a regular basis, not just for the tourists. Wherever you stay, chances are there will be shrines, daily offerings, ceremonies, and men playing music on the gamelan.
Although I am hesitant to tell people the best temples to visit in Bali because I am afraid they will lose their magic, my favorite is Tampak Siring, about 45 minutes north of Ubud. One of the worst temples to visit is Purah Tanah Lot, even though it is one of the most popular temples in Bali. Tourists destroyed the location years ago.
So, when asked what is Bali really like, I don’t focus on the Bali beaches. Instead, what I remember most about living in Bali were the people we met and learning about a culture and a tradition so different from my own. Is Bali nice? We still have fond memories of many of the people we met there and continue to keep in touch with them.
What To Do In Bali – Bali Attractions
There are ways to travel to Bali to get the most out of the visit, even if you only have two weeks in Bali. Some of the most popular Bali points of interest have nothing to do with the Bali beaches. There are some beautiful waterfalls to visit in Bali, particularly if you want to load up your Instagram to make your friends jealous. But, when looking at a company like Viator, to see their top Bali attractions, it can be overwhelming. There are over 2000 things to do in Bali Indonesia listed on Viator, which we recommend using to plan your holiday and confirm your activities before arriving in Bali. Which of these best things to do in Bali would I actually recommend?
For some high-flying Bali adventures, there are helicopter tours over the Bali temples or hot air balloon rides over Ubud. I’ve never done either of these in Bali, but they sound pretty cool ways to see the island. Or, fly high on the now famous, and Instagram friendly, Bali swing. For something a little more down to earth, embrace your inner Instagrammer and go on a tour to see the Bali waterfalls. For nature lovers, visit the Kintamani volcano or hike Mount Batur at sunrise. Take advantage of the surfing beaches and take a Bali surf lesson. For food lovers (like us) try a Bali Food Safari in Seminyak or a Balinese Food Heritage Tour in Ubud. Or, just get a massage. One of the things I miss most about living in Bali was our weekly massage and body treatments!
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The Best Places to Stay in Bali
I feel like most of this Bali travel guide has focused on the negative aspects of Bali, to avoid a Bali disappointment. Some of the best places to visit in Bali are really the hotels. There are some incredible hotel experiences in Bali, many of which offer great value for what they offer. It’s one “upside” to the recent development.
Most of the best places to stay in Bali are beach or beach-area resorts. They are the type of places where you can rest and relax for a week, for sipping tropical drinks poolside. Maybe you can book one or two excursions out. There are also some nicer hotels in Ubud as well. Here are our recommendations for where to stay in Bali, organized by beach area or town. Outside of these main areas, it’s more likely you will find local, cheaper hotels, or family-owned homestays.
Recommended Places to Stay in Bali
Nusa Dua – Nusa Dua is the best area to stay in Bali for nice beaches. It’s great for families and for couples. It’s a little distant from the “real” Bali, as it is in a large gated resort community.
Uluwatu – Uluwatu temple is on a cliff overlooking the water on the west side of the Bukit. There are several resorts that are not on the beach, but in the hills that are lovely retreats. They often can arrange day trips, or offer free shuttles to get down to the beach.
Seminyak and Legian – Seminyak and Legian can get quite busy but are better than Kuta. Here it’s important to choose a hotel with a nice pool area to get away from the beach crowds. Seminyak also has some of the best dining options in the area.
Ubud – It’s hard for me to recommend places to stay in Ubud because we lived there and only did a few hotel stays (many of which I would not recommend). But, there are some newer hotels just on the outskirts of town that are nice.
FAQs – How to Plan Your Bali Holidays
After all of the time we spent in the Bali area, these are some of the most commonly asked questions we receive about how to experience the best of Bali. Or, how to avoid the worst of Bali.
- Is Bali safe to travel? Like any tourist destination, you have to be on your guard. Watch for pickpockets in the most popular Bai tourist spots. There have been terrorist attacks in the past, but that does not make Bali any less safe than other destinations. There are a few things to watch for, especially when visiting the Bali top attractions. Be careful in Kuta, particularly for pickpockets. But, at some of the most popular clubs watch for people spiking drinks or selling “fake” alcohol. If renting a motorbike during your stay in Bali, watch carrying bags across your chest. In the past, people will yank at the bag and pull you off the bike. These are the most unusual issues that tourists should be aware of.
- Is Bali expensive? Is Bali cheap? Bali is not as cheap as it used to be. Of course, the best areas in Bali are going to be pricier than the off-the-beaten-path Bali destinations. It is possible to still find homestays for as little as $25-40 a night. This is getting rarer. It is possible to still find a meal for a few dollars, but it is more likely a meal will cost between $5-10 a person. Being a Muslim country, beer is not as cheap as in other Southeast Asian countries.
- Where is Bali? Bali is a Hindu island in the middle of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. You can fly to Bali from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur in less than three hours. Bangkok is a little father.
- Is Bali a tropical island? Yes, most definitely. Warm and humid, palm trees, and not far from the equator!
- When is the best time to visit Bali? As discussed above, avoid the rainy season, from late October until March. July and August have better weather, but it might not be the best time to go to Bali because it is Australian winter so it is Bali high season. The best month to visit Bali is probably one of the months in the shoulder season, including May, June, and September. Is Bali a nice place to visit? It can be, just avoid the rain!
Have you been to Bali? Love it or Hate it? Is Bali still worth visiting?
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Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.