Given it’s one of the world’s most famous resort islands, Bali seems an unlikely choice for those wanting to escape the crowds. And while it’s true that this is a very touristy destination – attracting nearly 10 million visitors per year – most people only head to the south of the island, leaving plenty of wonderful spots to explore elsewhere, blissfully free of the masses.
Chilled-out islands, beaches for surfers, divers and sun worshippers, a lush interior of idyllic landscapes in multiple shades of green, and the chance to have genuine and engaging cultural encounters like in the Bali of old are all awaiting anyone willing to get off the beaten track a little.
Ubud – the nucleus of Bali’s thriving arts, culinary and yoga scenes – is certainly not to be missed, but its popularity means its appeal can wear thin. Fortunately the immediate surrounds are stunning, featuring emerald green rice fields, rolling hills and volcanoes. And there’s nowhere better to appreciate it all than Sideman, just a 45-minute drive away.
The last few years have seen more and more travellers trickle in for a laid-back stay among fruit trees and sublime views here, including the dramatic vista of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest peak. Not only is Sideman a great base for climbing the towering volcano, but there are easier day walks heading off along trails through the verdant surrounds.
Where to stay
There’s a great choice of accommodation to suit all budgets: charming Pondok Wisata Lihat Sawah maximises the views; stylish Samanvaya is where you go to pamper yourself. All places can offer hiking advice and arrange guides, too.
If you like Sideman, check out Munduk
Another relaxed town that’s attracting those seeking some solitude among nature, Munduk offers mountain hiking in forests scented by spice plantations. Its waterfalls are another big attraction – the perfect spot to cool off with a swim.
Despite Nusa Lembongnan’s reputation as the place to head to escape from the mainland, it can get busy there too (especially during high season). The neighbouring island of Nusa Penida, however, is perfect for slowing it down another notch. Despite its large local population, Penida has really only just begun catering to tourists and it’s definitely emerging as one of Bali’s new hot spots, attracting a breed of traveller looking for an ultra chilled island to explore and hang out on.
It’s also famous for diving and one of the best places in the world to see sunfish, as well as manta rays. Rent a motorbike (it’s a large island) to explore its temples, isolated beaches and waterfalls. Alternately, Penida Tours can arrange excellent thematic local tours that include seaweed farming, beach camping and even black magic.
Where to stay
For backpackers, Jero Rawa is a perfect option; Ring Sameton Inn is the more plush choice. Don’t miss the dragon fruit daiquiris and seafood BBQs at beachside Penida Colada.
If you like Nusa Penida, check out Nusa Ceningan
The other island that makes up part of this chain off Bali’s east coast is Nusa Ceningan – the perfect compromise between resorty Lembongan and low-key Penida. It’s connected to Nusa Lembongan by the Love Bridge (opened in early 2017 to replace a previous one that collapsed in 2016) so it’s a good base to explore all three islands, and has its own small but thriving backpacker scene.
Hectic, noisy Denpasar is worth a look for those keen to lap up a bit of local flavour. As the island’s capital, it has a classic Indonesian feel you won’t get elsewhere in Bali, and the food here is amazing: Depot Cak Asmo and Café Teduh are two local favourites. Pasar Badung, the largest food market on the island, was devastated by fire in early 2016 but is recovering and still warrants a visit for its range of tropical fruits and spices.
Denpasar also has arguably the best sightseeing in Bali. For a definitive overview of Balinese culture and history, head to the well-curated Museum Negeri Propinsi Bali, or the epic Bajra Sandhi Monument in the middle of Denpasar’s main park, which you can climb for great views.
Where to stay
The Nakula Familiar Inn has an old-school guesthouse feel and is a good place to overnight.
If you like Denpasar, check out Singaraja
Despite being only 10km from the popular beachside town of Lovina, Bali’s second largest town, Singaraja, in the far north, has a truly authentic Indonesian feel. There’s little tourist infrastructure but, like Denpasar, it has some wonderful museums, temples and restaurants, and it’s a great spot to meet locals.
Home to one of Bali’s most beautiful palaces, the majestic Taman Tirta Gangga, Tirta Gannga may attract its fair share of visitors during the day, but evenings bring a tranquility far removed from touristy Bali. Beyond the palace, the main lure is the bucolic countryside with some wonderful hikes to pretty rice fields, local villages and holy temples.
Mountain-bike tours offered by Bung Bung Adventure Biking are a highly recommended way to explore the area with a local, and they can arrange hiking guides too.
Where to stay
Pondok Lembah Dukah is a simple but excellent hilltop guesthouse with rooms opening to beautiful natural views, otherwise live like royalty at Tirta Ayu Hotel, located within the palace grounds.
If you like Tirta Gangga, check out Gunung Batukau
Similarly popular with day-trippers, the Gunung Batukau region is far from being a secret, but given its relative isolation from Bali’s main towns, its surrounding countryside is a great spot to tune out from the tourist trail. It is best known for the World Heritage-listed rice fields at Jatiluwih and the divine Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Batukau.
The remoteness of the far northwestern corner of Bali tempts travellers looking to get as far away from Kuta as possible. And while it may disappoint if you’ve come this far in search of the ‘real’ Bali only to discover Pemuturan’s penchant for five star resorts, you can rest assured its laid-back demeanour definitely exudes a distinct old-school Bali feel (plus there’s plenty of affordable guesthouses too).
On the doorstep of Bali’s only national park, Taman Nasional Bali Barat, the area attracts not only divers and snorkellers (headed to Bali’s most famous coral reefs at Pulau Menjangan), but also those here to simply unwind along its pretty little beach with a sandy cove.
Where to stay
The great mix of accommodation runs from budget boutique Kubuku Ecolodge to beachside resorts such as Taman Selini Beach Bungalows.
If you like Pemuteran, check out Padangbai
Sleepy Padangbai is one of Bali’s best known diving towns. It has great diving directly offshore and is also a fabulous base from which to tackle Bali’s entire east/north dive sites.