Ancient customs, a rich artistic heritage, and warm hospitality converge in the symbolic heart of the island, centered on Ubud.
Ever since German artist Walter Spies took up residence in 1927, which marked the beginning of his 11-year stint documenting Balinese art and culture, Ubud has drawn creative types from overseas who seek inspiration from the local traditions and the beauty of central Bali’s bucolic landscapes. While the town can get especially busy on weekends (and during peak season) with throngs of day-trippers from the south, a respite from the crowds is never far away. The scenic countryside here consists of gently sloping hills and picturesque rice paddies, which offer great walking and cycling trails. Take a tour and discover the smaller villages around central Ubud that still contain groups of artisan families—an exciting way to see Balinese art in the making. Ubud is also the ideal place to watch Balinese dancing. The legong and kecak are performed nightly in and around the Ubud area, including at the Puri Saren Agung (Ubud Palace) in central Ubud. History buffs who make the effort to venture beyond Goa Gajah, the popular ninth-century sanctuary whose name translates to “Elephant Cave,” will be rewarded with near-empty ancient sites. Heading east from Ubud, several points of interest await en route
to the UNESCO-inscribed water temple of Pura Tirta Empul in the Tampaksiring valley. Yeh Pulu is a lesser-known spot that’s hidden among paddy fields, with an impressive limestone relief some 25 meters long and two meters high that depicts daily life in 14th- and 15th-century Bali. Just a short drive north from Yeh Pulu, in Pejeng village, the temple of Penataran Sasih houses the largest single-cast bronze kettle drum in the world—a 2,000-yearold artifact that is closely related to the elaborate drums created by the Dong Son culture in northern Vietnam. Not to be missed is Tampaksiring’s Gunung Kawi temple, whose monumental shrines in niches measuring seven meters high are hewn from a lush, steep-sided ravine carved out by the sacred Pakerisan River. Historians have dated the complex to 1080 AD, when local monarch Anak Wungsu commissioned the temple as a series of funerary monuments dedicated to his father, Udayana. An essential part of Ubud’s allure is the leisurely pace of life that seems to permeate daily activity. For visitors looking to relax, there are a number of spas in the area that provide traditional healing and well-being treatments. In fact, Ubud derives its name from the Balinese word ubad, meaning “medicine”—a nod to the many local medicinal plants and herbs now widely used internationally—and a pampering day at their source promises a special treat. Many of the products used during these therapies are made from the natural ingredients found in indigenous plants, herbs, and flowers. For the more active traveler, Ubud also offers a range of outwardbound pursuits, such as a day spent white-water rafting on the Ayung River. For wildlife lovers, must-sees include the Bali Bird Park and Reptile Park in southern Ubud, the Bali Zoo, and the Elephant Safari Park farther to the north. Nestled amid the thick forests of Taro, about a 30-minute drive from town, the latter maintains an idyllic environment for its residents. The 27 rescued Sumatran elephants that call the park home—along with the herd’s four Bali-born babies—are doted upon by their handlers, not to mention by Australian owner Nigel Mason, who has grown the property from a few rice fields 20 years ago into a verdant resort complete with a 27-room safari-style lodge. Guests who are sleeping over can partake in a night safari, with pachyderm pick-up from your lodge followed by a 30-minute jungle trek and a dinner under the stars. Day-trippers can also enjoy elephant rides, along with feeding sessions and a visit to the well-curated discovery center. And if you have time to visit only one of Bali’s museums, make it the Agung Rai Museum of Art. Comprising a trio of tile-roofed buildings on the outskirts of Ubud, the property is enveloped by lush, landscaped gardens, best viewed from the open-air café that doubles as a theater for Balinese classical dance and music. Inside, the art on display presents a remarkable survey of Balinese and Javanese works from past and living masters, alongside pieces by foreign artists who have lived on the island.
The countryside near Ubud is known for its rice terraces, such as those of Tegallalang.
A purifying dip in the water temple of Pura Tirta Empul.
Family-friendly animal encounters at the Bali Zoo.