With its unique Hindu culture, dramatic tropical landscapes and long tradition of delightful hospitality, Bali is one of the most exciting places for activities on the planet.
Whether you like to surf, practice yoga, trek on volcanoes, dive pristine reefs or go white-water rafting, Bali offers all sorts of dynamic and fascinating experiences. On the “island of the gods,” you’ll find an opportunity for relaxation and pampering, too – it's not all about adventure and adrenaline.
To get you started, here's our pick of the best things to do on a trip to Bali.
Grab a surfboard and catch the Bali pipeline
Bali is celebrated as one of the top spots for surfing on the planet. While the island is legendary for world-class waves such as Uluwatu, Padang Padang (“the Balinese Pipeline”) and the aptly named Impossibles, countless other spots are perfect for intermediate surfers or beginners.
Canggu and Kuta Beach are the best hubs on the island for novice surfers. Canggu has plenty of board rental stands and surf schools offering lessons; check out Echo Beach for relatively mellow waves where you can find your feet. More board rental places and surf schools can be found along Kuta Beach, and the waves here are – under normal circumstances – even more chilled for learning.
However, a lot of beginners find out the hard way that high tide at Kuta brings steep, heavy shore-breakers that are often challenging even for experienced surfers. Aim to have your lessons close to low tide and save the tougher waves for later in your surfing career.
If you'd rather escape the crowds, Medewi in West Bali is one of Bali’s least-known waves. The point itself is covered in boulders, so it’s best for intermediate or experienced surfers, but you'll find 10km (6.2mi) of sandy-bottom beach breaks on either side of Medewi that rarely see another surfer.
Raft the white waters of the Ayung Valley
Jungle rivers cascade down from the volcanic highlands in the center of Bali, carving great ravines that are one of the most unexpected features of Bali’s geography. The southern hills are quite densely populated with these rivers, and rafting is often the best way to experience still-unspoiled jungle canyons.
Bali’s rivers may not offer the world’s most challenging rapids, but what you lose in adrenaline, you gain in the sheer pleasure of seeing the Ubud area from a totally unexpected angle. It’s hard to believe that such pristine forest valleys can exist just a stone’s throw from bustling Ubud town.
Mason Adventures is one of the most reputable rafting companies and runs the longest rafting trips along the Ayung Valley, clocking in at 12km (7.5mi). You can combine an Ayung Valley rafting trip with a 30km (18.5mi) mountain bike tour that runs almost entirely downhill.
Go on “safari” in Bali’s wild west
It's different in West Bali. Away from the crowds, you can watch in awe as critically endangered Bali starlings flit overhead while wild ebony leaf monkeys loop through the canopy and giant monitor lizards flick their tongues to taste the air. Herds of Menjangan deer even come right up to the beach bungalows – they’re famous for coming to cool their heels in the shallows.
You can only visit West Bali National Park with a guide, but even if you’re traveling independently outside the reserve, it’s impossible to shake the impression that West Bali has something fundamentally “wild” about it. To catch the mood, try trekking in the surprisingly arid hills of the cactus country or along the vineyard-filled north coast, or watch macaques run free at the many temples in the area.
Just east of the national park boundary, The Menjangan is the most unexpectedly wild resort on the entire island. Even if you’re not staying here, you can rent cycles and book guided walks and horse-riding and birdwatching tours.
Align your chakras and live the yogi dream
Yoga has been practiced on the Hindu island of Bali for over 1000 years, but the boom years for commercial yoga began in the early years of this century. Ubud in particular has made a name for itself as Southeast Asia's yoga capital.
Yoga Barn, which began with one humble yoga shall (practice space) in 2007, has grown to become a fixture on the Ubud scene, with seven studios running a whopping 130 classes a week. There’s a restaurant, a cafe, a yoga store and even accommodations for students who come here for teacher training or specialist courses.
More low-key, offering only 60 classes a week, Radiantly Alive has become a firm favorite with local yogis in the know. It’s located on a quiet alleyway in the old town and is popular with students who enjoy a more intimate, communal atmosphere. Radiantly Alive also has a yoga studio in Canggu.
Dive Bali’s tropical waters surrounded by splendor
Lying at the center of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia boasts some of the richest marine habitats on the planet, and Bali has its share of top diving and snorkeling spots. The entire north coast, which is spared the waves of the south, is a watery wonderland for diving and snorkeling aficionados. The island of Nusa Lembongan is a good place to start; Bali Hai runs diving day trips to “Manta Alley” and other local sites, as well as full PADI certification courses.
Menjangan Island off Bali’s northwest tip also offers world-class diving without the crowds. You'll see the entire spectrum of reef fish alongside turtles, reef sharks and, if you’re lucky, dolphins and whale sharks. The Menjangan rents kayaks and can arrange guided diving and snorkeling trips to the island.
Chill out at a private Bali beach club
Bali is famed for its beaches, and the island has a surprising number of wild, often deserted strands alongside busy “town beaches” such as Kuta, Seminyak and Canggu. If you tire of the crowded sand, a day at a private beach club can be an unforgettable experience.
Potato Head in Seminyak has become a Balinese icon. Much more than just a beach club, this lively spot has two infinity pools, a music venue and several landmark restaurants, including Ijen, Bali’s first zero-waste restaurant. Along the beach from Potato Head, Mrs Sippy boasts Bali’s biggest saltwater pool and brands itself as a Mediterranean-inspired oasis.
Over at Canggu, Finns Beach Club has become a Bali institution, with five bars (including two sunken pool bars), three restaurants and a live music space, all spread across a beautifully designed property between two pools and the ocean.
If you’re in Sanur, check out Byrdhouse Beach Club, a vibrant extension to the lovely Segara Village Hotel, run by the same local family since the 1950s. Byrdhouse features a 25m-long infinity pool, spacious beachfront lawns, quality dining spaces and what is probably the best Jacuzzi cocktail bar you’ll ever find.
Pamper yourself in a holistic Bali spa
Whether you choose to bliss out with an après-surf massage on the beach or have a marathon all-day pampering session in a five-star spa, Bali takes vacation relaxation to the next level. Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan and Fivelements Retreat near Ubud are open to non-guests and rank among the best spa and wellness retreats on the planet.
The Sacred River Spa at the Four Seasons has it all: spa treatments, traditional healers and chakra ceremonies in spellbinding surroundings overlooking the Ayung Valley. Fivelements specializes in holistic treatments inspired by Balinese traditions, with a focus on plant-based cuisine, sacred arts and romantic day experiences that are perfect for couples. Both spots also offer yoga and other wellness packages.
Glo Spa Bali is also highly recommended for its massages and beauty treatments, which attract plenty of repeat visitors. If you’re traveling on a budget, head to one of the Yes Spa Bali establishments in Kuta or Legian, where you can enjoy excellent traditional Balinese massages for less than US$8.
Walk with pink buffaloes on a paddy field tour
Water buffalo have become increasingly rare in Bali since mechanized farm tools took the place of plows, but you can still spot a few of Bali's rare pink buffalo hard at work in the fields, particularly in West Bali. Join a half-day guided paddy walk with pink buffaloes near Pekutatan for fascinating insights into the role that these magnificent creatures play in the rice-growing cycle, and the complex rituals behind rice farming on the island.
Climb up Batur volcano at sunrise
The 1717m (5633ft) summit of the Batur volcano is perhaps the best place to take in the sunrise on an island that Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru called the “morning of the world.” From the crater rim, the view takes in Mt. Agung – the island’s highest peak and the spiritual abode of the gods in Balinese culture – and Mt. Rinjani on distant Lombok.
You’ll have to set your alarm incredibly early to witness the splendor. Most tours start with a hotel pickup between 1am and 2am so hikers can complete the 3.5km (2.2mi) trek and be up at the summit by sunrise.
Photograph Asia’s most colorful traditional fishing fleet
The fleet of selerek (traditional Balinese fishing boats) at Perancak inlet are one of the most astounding – and least known – sights on the entire island. Looking like day-glow Viking longboats with curiously decorated crow’s nests (many shaped like chariots) and longtail engines spiking out from their vibrantly colorful hulls, these boats will astound any visitor who takes the trouble to reach this unspoiled corner of West Bali.
Stroll across the emerald expanses of Jatiluwih Paddies
Lying just 15km (9.3mi) north of Ubud, the pretty rice terraces of Tegallalang are a prime tourist destination. But with each passing year, more development comes to Tegallalang, and at sunset especially, it’s hard to soak up the beauty of the valley with all the noise from honking tour buses.
For a better introduction to the great paddy landscapes that cover less-visited parts of Bali, head for the immense Jatiluwih terraces, around 40km (25 miles) northwest. This idyllic stretch of countryside is perfect for wandering alone, but consider hiring a local guide if you want to understand the intricacies of the 1000-year-old subak irrigation system, which is inscribed on Unesco’s cultural heritage list.