Tips for Planning Your First Trip to Bali
Where To Go In Bali
The lure of Bali has won you over and you've booked your flight. You do a quick google search of, "where to go in Bali" to begin planning your trip and suddenly you're completely overwhelmed! Sound familiar?
When I started my research, I quickly realized Bali is larger than it looks, and most of the destinations are at least an hour’s drive from each other. So, if you plan to see a few areas, it makes the most sense to decide on them and book hotels in each location. Trying to do day trips, you’ll loose hours in transit and you won’t have enough time to properly see anywhere. I moved around a lot during my two week stay: starting in Ubud, then onto Seminyak & Canggu, Uluwatu, and ending in Sanur.
I took this trip with my best friend! We came to experience the culture, have some beach time, and immerse ourselves in all things Indonesian. We didn't come to surf, and we definitely didn't come to party. Our ideal evening consists of an amazing dinner, long walk, and a trip to an ice cream spot. So if that’s the kind of experience you want - then here’s my thoughts on the places I saw, what I’d recommend, and what I’d avoid.
I skipped visiting the islands because I wanted to experience the main areas first. But I have heard only lovely things about the beaches there if that is the type of escapes you’re seeking.
Ubud is why you travel to Bali. Right in the middle of the island, I consider it the beating heart of Bali and it was definitely my favorite spot. There’s something special about this region that you can’t articulate, you just need to experience it to understand it’s magic.
Ubud is relaxed, unpretentious, and chaotically beautiful. In the town center, the streets are lined with yoga studios, massage spas, and healthy restaurants serving everything gluten-free, raw, and vegan imaginable. Farther out, its lush jungle offers a chance to delve into nature - visiting rice terraces, exploring ancient temples, hiking volcanos, and walking through a forest full of wild monkeys. Cultural villages offer a look into traditional Balinese crafts like bone carving and silver making for those really looking to dig in.
Staying in the center of town, you’ll be within walking distance to nearly everything you want to do. Or you can retreat to the hills to one of the many luxury hotels offering some seclusion and be in the middle of nature. Just be aware, staying out there means walking around is not really possible. Since I loved Ubud so much, I would actually recommend doing both. I don’t think Ubud could be experienced from inside the walls of a resort, so a stay in town is important, but a luxury retreat in the rice terraces would certainly be worth experiencing also. This is not a place to party - it’s a place to meditate, contemplate, grow, explore, and learn.
I would recommend spending at least five nights in Ubud. The longer you have to spend here, the more it will impress you. This is where you'll fall in love with Bali.
Busy, built-up, and dirty - Seminyak is everything that’s wrong with traveling. This area was once likely a beautiful oasis, but has been mowed down to make way for chain hotels, beach clubs, and restaurants trying just a little too hard to be cool. The result is a generic, touristy beach city that lacks any of those feel-good Bali vibes. I arrived with a four night stay ahead of me and instantly wanted to leave.
The beach itself is littered with a most random assortment of trash: shoes, bottles, pens, dog skulls, and diapers. It was not only disturbing and slightly terrifying - but sad to see such a place place trashed. There’s no locals or yogis here - just a ton of young, rowdy, people on holiday. The silver lining was a few good meals, and a some cool (but expensive) shops. But, I had better food elsewhere, and who comes all the way to Bali to spend the day shopping?
I would never recommend to anyone to come here. Unless you don't really care about experiencing Bali and just want to drink, party, and spend your time at fancy beach clubs.
Just a bit North of Seminyak is the surfer-haven Canggu. This laid-back town is one of the least-developed areas I visited, making a motorbike essential, since the cool things to do are a little spread out and there’s no sidewalk on a majority of the roads.
Tucked away on the jungle-lined streets are some of Bali’s most incredible eating spots where you’ll find superfoods chopped, mixed, and cooked in ways you didn’t know they could be - and latte art so beautiful you’ll contemplate drinking your flat white at all. There isn’t much to do aside from surf, shop, and eat the rainbow, but one of the island’s most acclaimed yoga studios is Desa Seni in Canggu and they also offer eco-chic lodging. It’s a little more lively at night here than Ubud thanks to Old Man’s, La Laguna, and Finn’s Beach Club - the popular hangouts to come to watch the epic Bali sunset.
I would recommend coming here to those who want a beach-town experience in Bali, love healthy food, and want to do a bit of shopping. Getting to Seminyak is only about 20 minutes in a car, so if there’s something there you want to see or do in that area - a day trip is easy in this case.
I would recommend spending two nights in Canggu (assuming you're not there to surf)
Uluwatu is set high on the cliffy beaches that make up the southwest coast of Bali. You won’t need more than a bathing suit, sandals, and pair of jean shorts to survive your stay here.
This is a sleepy beach-hideaway at it’s finest and perhaps the definition of Bali chill. Days in Uluwatu pass either surfing or watching the surfers from one of the many warungs built into the cliffs. Snack on peanut butter jaffles, coconut smoothies, and pitaya bowls while you enjoy the sunshine and sand. The area restaurants are open-air; a collection of pillows and coffee tables under shady trees, or a few picnic-tables under a hut off the side of the road. The only thing you’ll find on the lovely beaches are Balinese women offering sunburnt travelers massages with fresh aloe. This area parties once a week - at Single Finn's on Sundays - so if you want a scene make sure you visit on a weekend.
I’d recommend Uluwatu to those truly looking to escape the world and RELAX, and of course - anyone who loves to surf. Stay at least three nights, or for as many as you want for some R&R.
Sanur, Bali’s east coast beach-town was the least descriptive. I didn't find it dirty and crowded like Seminyak, but it also was not anything special. The shops, restaurants, and cafes here were the least exciting and cool of anywhere I visited. This was the only place in Bali I actually had some meals that weren't amazing. The beaches are nicer than across the island in Seminyak, but not worth a trip in my opinion. Canggu offers the same things as Sanur, but with a much cooler vibe.
After exploring the town, I spent the rest of the time we had there just enjoying our villa at The Samata Hotel. Because of those factors, I would not recommend Sanur to anyone traveling to Bali.
My overall recommendation based on my experience to first time travelers who have about ten days - two weeks to spend on the mainland, is to stay a majority of your trip in Ubud. This is where you will experience and fall in love with the magic of Bali. Then head to Canguu and/or Uluwatu if you want to see more of the island, eat some great food, have some beach time, and just relax.
Things to Know Before You Go
While a lot of places do accept card, they charge a 3% fee to use them. So even if your card has no foreign transition fee, you’ll still be charged 3%. This adds up over the course of two weeks or so. So bring a lot of cash with you and exchange it as you need. Cash is the only way to pay for taxis and some restaurants and most warungs are cash only. I took out $300 to exchange and that lasted me the 10 days I was there.
Rent a Motor Bike
If you feel at all able to drive one, it will save you a lot of time and money. Hotels can call you taxis - but they are set prices that are way too expensive and will add up quick. You will also have to wait ten or so minutes every time for them to arrive. Uber is in some areas of Bali, but trying to actually GET one is a disaster. They are pretty unreliable and will often cancel the trip after you’ve already spent time waiting. Uber is a better option than taxis cost-wise but can be really frustrating. Taxis will overcharge you and in my experience were actually not that willing to bargain - since I imagine they know they can get other tourists to pay what they want. A motor bike will save you a lot of money over the span of your trip and give you freedom to do whatever, whenever.
My biggest take away from my two week trip was how little I actually needed to bring in retrospect. I could have made it with a carry on of yoga pants, bikinis, jean short shorts, and a sundress or two. Everywhere is so laid back, no one gets properly dressed or remotely fancy for anything other than nights at a beach club. (But even that crowd is mixed between people wearing beach cover ups and people wearing dresses.)
The only exception might be if you are staying a luxury resort like the Four Seasons or Ritz - perhaps things are different there, I can't say. But this is a place you can definitely pack light - you don’t need to worry about having different outfits, or stylish apparel, or multiple pairs of shoes. I wore my bikini, jean shorts, and the same pair of Havanans 90% of the time. The few days I did wash and dry my hair and put on proper clothing to go somewhere - I felt over-dressed.
Have An Open Mind
This is important everywhere you travel, but especially Bali. This place is real magic, but only if you’re open to experiencing it. You should come here to learn, not just take a holiday. Take yoga classes, visit the temples, the villages, learn about Hinduism, try food you wouldn’t usually eat. And more than anything - I beg you, don’t expect the comforts of home. Remember: you are in Southeast Asia. Things will be a bit confusing, you will be covered in sweat ALL DAY LONG, your feet will get filthy every day, sometimes it will stink of Durian. Adapt!
If you have any specific questions feel free to DM or email me!