The world’s friendliest people, delicious food, and a unique and vibrant culture, set in the foothills of one of the world’s most beautiful islands. Add the stunning greenery of the rice paddies and the majestic Mount Agung as a backdrop, and it’s easy to see what makes Ubud worth visiting, especially if you’re planning a few days in Bali.
Ubud has long been regarded as the spiritual healing center of Bali, in fact the word “ubud” means medicine in native Balinese. Made popular in the self-discovery movie Eat Pray Love, Bali now receives over three million tourists a year, many on sabbaticals to join spiritual retreats, attend meditation classes, or study at the feet of a master yogi.
Over the next few minutes, we’ll highlight some of the unique features that we think make Ubud worth visiting, drawn from our extensive knowledge, and deep love, of Bali’s very own cultural paradise.
1. The Gates of Heaven
Less than 2 hours from Ubud are the “Gates of Heaven”, possibly the most famous view in the whole of Bali, and certainly one of the top three ‘must sees’. Known officially as Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang, the Lempuyang Temple is one of the island’s ‘six sanctuaries of the world’ – the holiest temples in Bali, said to provide the island with spiritual balance. Entrance is by donation ($3 to $5 is customary) and all visitors – men and women – should wear a sarong.
As you’d expect, there’s an almost unending line of tourists waiting to get ‘that’ shot: framed in front of the split candi bentar gates, against the backdrop of the spectacular Mount Agung. So it pays to get there either very early, before sunrise, or at the end of the day for a great sunset photo. Unfortunately, everybody else knows this, so tourists arrive earlier and earlier.
One way to beat the crowds is to forego the organized tours and hire a private car and driver for the day, which will cost you about $45. Alternatively, you can rent a motorbike or scooter and make the trip at your own pace. Scooters start at only $4 per day, and the road trip is two hours from Ubud.
If all you’re after is the Insta-moment then your work is done, but Lempuyang is only the first in a series of seven temples. To see them all you’ll need to climb a trail with 1,700 steps, and the up/down trip takes about three hours. Some find the trek a bit too much, but we figure if you’ve made the trip then you should at least give it a try.
(Fun fact: For the Balinese Hindus, the ascent of the 1,700 steps is as much a spiritual journey as it is physical, and there’s a local belief that “pilgrims with a heavy heart” will never make it to the top. So if one of your friends decides to give it a miss, perhaps they have something to hide….)
2. The Sacred Monkey Forest
If you’ve never been to Ubud before, and even if you have, a visit to Bali’s famous Monkey Forest is always one of the best days out. Officially known as Mandala Suci Wenara Wana, the sacred Monkey Forest is one of the region’s most-visited attractions and a prime reason why Ubud is worth visiting. Nobody knows exactly how many long-tailed macaques roam freely through the forest sanctuary, but the last count was well over a thousand.
For an entry fee of roughly $3 (which goes directly to the upkeep of the sanctuary), you can spend an entire day walking around the sanctuary’s three temples, including the macabre-sounding ‘Great Temple of Death’. That’s not intended as a warning — the monkeys are mostly harmless. But almost every tourist ignores the advice and carries snacks or food into the forest with them. Monkeys have a great sense of smell, and they’re not shy about going through your pockets for a potential free meal. If they don’t get their way, you could end up with a few scratches.
The ‘Great Monkey Hustle’
We’re convinced that the macaques have a great scam going with the Temple guards. What happens is this: one of the monkeys will steal a non-edible item, like your sunglasses or a mobile phone, then go and sit with it on a nearby wall. There they’ll wait until a guard offers them a tasty treat in exchange. If they don’t like the treat, they’ll throw it to the ground as a sign of disapproval. Eventually, they’re offered an “acceptable” treat and agree to swap it for the stolen item, which the Temple guard will return to you in exchange for a “voluntary” tip. You get your phone back, the guard gets some beer money, and the monkey gets a treat. It might sound like a win-win, but we still think it’s one big con, with the macaques orchestrating the whole thing. Don’t believe us? Watch the mischievous monkeys in action on this YouTube video.
3. The Rice Terraces
Bali’s history is all based around the rice terraces, which have been providing the Balinese with a staple diet for centuries. The Balinese goddess of rice, called Dewi Sri, is also the goddess of fertility, which shows just how important rice is to Balinese religious culture. It also explains why there are so many shrines to her dotted around the terraces.
Rice farming has been an important source of food since the 11th Century and uses a complex system of irrigation and watering known as subak. More than just a remarkable feat of engineering, subak is an ancient culture that relies on the community working together for a good harvest.
Perhaps the most famous rice fields are at Tegalang, and as they’re less than 20 minutes from Ubud, this is where the majority of tourists go to get their photos. But we’re going to suggest a different location that’s just as scenic, and far, far less crowded.
The Jatiluwih Rice Terraces cover some 1,500 acres of iron-rich soil, known as yellow latosol, which is ideal for growing red rice that’s packed with healthy antioxidants. Located in Bali’s highlands, the rice fields (or ‘paddies’) follow the hillside topography of the Batukaru mountain range, which includes Mount Batukaru: Bali’s second-tallest (extinct) volcano. The name ‘Jatiluwih’ is derived from the words jaton and luwih, meaning “charm” and “good”, and locals will tell you that’s because Jatiluwih is a village that has a lot of goodness, just like a lucky charm!
4. Mount Batur
If you’re happy to make an early start — and early means 3 am! — then a hike to the top of Mount Batur (“Gunung Batur”) should definitely be on your bucket list. Batur is an active volcano about 40 km (25 miles) north of Ubud, and it’s home to the gods of Bali. You’ll need to book a tour, which start from around $55 per person, which gets you an unexpectedly thrilling 4WD trip through some stunning scenery, although you’ll likely only see shadows and silhouettes at that early hour.
After that, you can choose to hike for the rest of the way, which should definitely be your first choice if you’re reasonably fit. Climbing a mountain in the dark is probably something you’ll do only once, and as the guides know where all the hidden obstacles are, it’s perfectly safe (unless the volcano erupts, but the last time this happened was in the year 2000, so another eruption isn’t expected any time soon).
Your efforts will be rewarded by a unique vista of a stunning, misty-morning sunrise the likes of which can only happen in Bali. There are some other great places in Bali to watch the sunrise, but looking out over the cloud-covered volcanic lake whilst the sun comes up over Mount Abang is one of the most real and life-affirming moments we’ve ever experienced. It’s an amazing way to start your day, and we can’t stress how much you need to experience it for yourself!
5. The Food
Since the influx of ex-pats who have made Ubud their home, the area has become a paradise for vegetarians, vegans, and raw food eaters. But that’s not the real taste of Bali. For that, you’ll need to visit one of the countless warungs, or family-owned restaurants, that are on every street corner. Or you can find a local Padang rumah makan (eating house). At either venue, you can enjoy a plate of freshly caught fish or chicken, served with a boiled egg and stir-fried tempeh (fermented soya beans) and, of course, rice. The same dish would cost you upwards of $10 from one of the newer ‘eateries’, but the local places will charge you less than $2!
Of course, there are more substantial meals available, prepared using traditional methods. If you really want to ‘pig out’, then may we recommend babi guling (which is roast suckling pig – see what we did there?) This delicious dish is available from a lot of restaurants, but we really recommend Warung Ibu Oka. Made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain, Ibu Oka is a “shanty café” tucked away in a spot opposite the Royal Palace. It’s only open four hours a day, and the menu is roast pig stuffed with herbs; and nothing else! The limited menu hasn’t stopped Ibu Oka from becoming an Ubud institution, drawing as many locals as it does tourists.
For more tantalising treats, check out our guide to some of the great food available in Bali and throughout Indonesia.
6. Balinese Dance
For many people, the first thing that springs to mind when we mention traditional dance is…”yawn!” We won’t pretend that watching a Balinese dance performance isn’t one of the most touristy things to do in Ubud because…well, it is. But rather than being tacky and dull, a traditional Balinese dance performance is entertaining, memorable, and an education.
In Bali, literally everybody dances. In fact, it’s hard to find a day when there isn’t a ceremonial dance happening somewhere in Ubud. And that’s because dance, to the Balinese, is as natural as walking. In fact, Balinese children literally learn to dance before they can walk, with hand and arm movements taught as soon as a child shows the ability for basic coordination.
There’s a rich history behind every dance step, which can be traced back to at least the 15th Century, known as the Balinese Kingdom era. Rather than dancing for dancing’s sake, the participants are there to re-enact a story that highlights a particular Hindu belief or moral tradition. A lot of the stories are dramatic interpretations of traditional Hindu tales, playing out a mythical battle between Rangda, an evil witch, and Barong, a brave lion or fearsome dragon who represents good.
But it’s not just the epic stories that are acted out: the Balinese have a dance for almost everything. The baris is a warrior dance, featuring martial-arts style moves performed by both men and women. Another common example is the pendet, which uses simple dance movements and is usually performed before making a temple offering. Janger is an easy dance performed whilst seated, which features a lot of swaying and arm movements — and now you know which dance Balinese babies are taught from such an early age!
There’s even a special monkey dance, known as the kecak which is performed in front of the Royal Palace (entry is free) in the heart of Ubud. It starts with a large circle of bare-chested men chattering like monkeys (“chaka chaka chaka”) while the featured male/female duo act out an ancient legend in the center. Although it’s an old, mythical story, the dance itself is quite modern and uses movements that are considered too ‘impure’ for religious ceremonial dance. The dance was reportedly developed by a European choreographer, although most locals ‘forget’ to mention that — after all, it’s probably just a rumor.
7. The People
We mentioned this right at the top of the article, but it’s worth repeating: the people you’ll meet in Ubud are some of the nicest, kindest, and most genuine in the world. Every time one of us visits Ubud (and we visit a lot!), we always make new friends, along with an invite to their home for a cup of tea. Tea drinking in Bali is not a big, ceremonial affair; but as the saying goes: “a cup of good tea will bring a good story.” And the people of Ubud have plenty of great stories!
The Balinese people smile. A lot. And that’s all down to their philosophy of life: rather than complaining about what they don’t have, the Bali people are always grateful to God for the gift of life, which is theirs to be cherished. Social harmony is the cornerstone of Ubud life, because it makes a society work properly. Unlike life in a modern metropolis, the Balinese make time to stop and talk to each other. They have a genuine interest in the welfare of others, and so when a Ubudian stops you in the street and asks “how are you?”, they really want to know.
The Bali way is to always look for the good; the beauty within. And, the more time you spend in Ubud, the more you’ll begin to see that inner beauty yourself. Perhaps that’s why so many people come to Ubud for a holiday, and end up spending the rest of their lives there. It’s not a perfect lifestyle, but it’s damn close.
How many days do you need in Ubud?
You can spend weeks in Ubud just visiting the various health retreats and wellness spas, but most people find that 3 to 4 days is enough take in the main sights and drink in the culture. Ubud is also expensive, so a lot of people “do” Ubud, then relocate to a cheaper part of Bali.
What should I wear in Ubud?
In Ubud, the dress code is all about modesty and respect. Walking around shirtless is considered extremely disrespectful, and a loose-fitting top or summer dress is much better for the heat anyway. Pack a sarong, if you have one, for temple visits, and sturdy walking shoes are essential for treks and excursions.
What is Ubud Bali known for?
Ubud is known as the cultural and spiritual center of Bali, and increasingly the same for all of Indonesia. It’s a uniquely beautiful place that attracts a lot of ‘new age hippies’, who come to Ubud for a spiritual cleanse. The ‘must see’ sights include the Gates of Heaven, the rice terraces and the Sacred Monkey Forest, which are all reasons that make Ubud worth visiting.