So, you’re planning a Bali trip and it’s come down to Ubud or Uluwatu. We won’t lie – it’s not going to be an easy decision to make. Both of those spots are up there with the most amazing places on the Isle of the Gods. They both pull in thousands of visitors each year with the promise of stunning vistas and sublime nature. However, they’re each very different…
Ubud is the jungle town of south-central Bali. Tucked into the lush volcanic valleys some 14 miles inland from the popular south coast resorts of Kuta and Seminyak, it’s cut off from the bustle of the beaches, and has a reputation as an art colony that’s steeped in mythical Hindu heritage. Uluwatu also comes capped with one of the island’s mystical Hindu shrines, but doubles as a wave-smashed surfer hotspot (some say one of the best in the world) and a place to witness those blazing Balinese sunsets.
This guide will run through the ins and outs of both destinations. The aim? To make it easier for you to decide which one should figure on your Bali itinerary this year. It’s got info on everything from the hotels to the activities, the beaches to the jungles. Let’s go…
Ubud or Uluwatu – location
Let’s start with the most basic of things: Location. To visit Ubud or Uluwatu, you’re going to need to know where they are. What’s more, that makes quite a big difference on the Isle of the Gods, because being close to the sea means beaches and being inland means jungles and mountains. In fact, that’s precisely the difference between these two destinations…
Ubud is sat up in the hills of the Gianyar regency. That’s about 14 miles inland from the south shoreline resorts that start with Kuta, and about 29 miles from the airport if you take the wigging roadways north to the town. The setting is pretty stunning stuff – notice how the jungles thicken and the terrain becomes hillier in the approach to Ubud. It’s green and verdant up in these parts.
Uluwatu is in the opposite direction to Ubud, south of Denpasar Airport. Just 11 miles from the terminals, it’s easier to get to (the trip takes about 35 minutes instead of an hour), but traffic in this part of Bali can be a nightmare! Uluwatu itself spreads along the south-westernmost corner of the Bukit Peninsula (the southern bottom of Bali). It starts with the pearly beaches of Nyang Nyang and ends with the famous surf breaks of Ulu’s, passing dramatic cliffs and wave-smashed bays as it goes.
Ubud or Uluwatu? The vibe is different…
The difference in location paves the way for a very different vibe in these two towns. Ubud has long been considered the hippy, artsy escape of south Bali. After being founded by a Javanese priest in the 8th century, the area drew international painters and poets like Walter Spies and Han Snel in the 1900s. The result is somewhere wrapped up in ancient Hindu traditions but also famed for its modern creative edge. That inspires a laid-back, bohemian feel, with an edge of New Age thinking and a touch of luxury about it.
Uluwatu is known mainly for three things: Surf, sunsets, and temples. The Uluwatu Temple remains one of the top draws of the Bukit Peninsula, mainly for the enthralling Kecak Fire Dance performances. But that’s largely attended by day trippers (or evening trippers, to be more precise). The people who actually come to stay in Uluwatu will be the beach bums and the wave hunters. And there’s an atmosphere to match – think early mornings on the swell followed by chilled days with cold Bintang beers at the cliff bars.
Ubud or Uluwatu – activities
The truth is you’ll be doing very different things in Ubud and Uluwatu. People head up to the rainforests of Ubud to hike the green foothills (the Campuhan Ridge Walk is our favorite of the lot) and wander the lush Tegallalang Rice Terraces that cascades through the valleys a little to the north of the town. Others come to settle in the Balinese spas and shop in the enthralling ancient Hindu market bazaar, where kopi luwak coffee and batik fabrics abound.
Uluwatu is much more about enjoying the coastline. The sands of Nyang Nyang Beach and Padang Padang are up there with the most Instagrammable in the Isle of the Gods (for better or for worse). They have sugary sand with a golden hue and sloshing turquoise waters, not to mention hidden coves and rock pools that are perfect for a touch of tropical coasteering. Surfing is also a major draw in Uluwatu, but the break is an expert left-hander that’s really only for advanced surfers who can handle sectiony barrels over jagged reef.
Ubud or Uluwatu – main attractions
Both Ubud and Uluwatu have their own mainstay attractions. In Ubud, the Monkey Forest (known locally as the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana) is usually the first thing on the itinerary. It’s a large, protected area of 25 acres, packed with the half-ruined remains of 1,000-year-old Hindu shrines to Shiva the Destroyer and other deities. The reason for the name? The whole place has been colonized by long-tailed macaques. They’re fun to watch but keep an eye on the valuables!
Uluwatu’s main draw has to be the Uluwatu Temple. It’s probably the most famous temple in the whole of Bali, which is saying something because Bali isn’t short on temples! Perched dramatically on precipitous cliffs above the roaring Indian Ocean, it has stunning views and its very own colony of long-tailed macaques (can’t escape em’, ay?). The temple hosts the iconic Kecak Dance that depicts stories from the Hindu Ramayana each evening – that’s a must for culture buffs.
Ubud or Uluwatu – hotels
Bali’s got no shortage of fantastic hotels and both of these hotspots have some top-quality options up their sleeve. Ubud excels when it comes to eco hotels and spa hotels. Some of the finest we’ve seen reside in the jungles just outside of the town center. They have pools tucked between rice paddies and palm groves, with on-site massage parlors and breakfast rooms engulfed by nature. If that sounds like your sort of thing, check out:
- The Runik Ubud ($$) – A lovely family-owned hotel on the west side of Ubud that has just a handful of rooms that open onto views of the rice paddies.
- Ubud Nyuh Bali Resort & Spa ($$$) – This is just the sort of deluxe resort that Ubud is all about. The curved pools are set deep in the jungles and there are hidden gardens for your morning yoga practice.
The top hotels in Uluwatu are the ones with sweeping sea views and gorgeous infinity pools that seem to merge with the Indian Ocean. But there’s also a cohort of more rustic, surf-shack bungalow resorts that we love to drop by whenever we’re around. They swap the feel of a big hotel chain for something more tropical and authentically Southeast Asian. Examples of awesome Uluwatu stays are:
- Six Senses Uluwatu ($$$) – A five-star resort that’s luxury from start to finish. Some of the top suites have private swimming pools and the whole place has a jaw-dropping location atop the Ulu cliffs.
- Le Cliff Bali ($$) – Fling open the doors of your cliffside shack to see the waves rolling in and the sun rising across the Indian Ocean. This boho-chic pad has lovely cabanas with half-outdoor bathrooms near the surf.
Ubud or Uluwatu – dining
Let’s put it this way – you won’t go hungry in either Ubud or Uluwatu.
Up between the narrow alleys of little Ubud, we love going in search of classic Indonesian warung (local taverns that serve cheap, traditional Balinese food). Among them, Siboghana Warung – which is totally vegan and homemade – and the homey Puspa’s Warung are two we’ll always go back to. Oh, you’ll also probably notice there’s a big push towards meat-free and healthy cooking in Ubud. The perfect detox location.
Uluwatu prefers to up the style on the eating front. There are authentic Indo cookhouses back from the beach and around the main roads, but most people come here to eat in uber-cool establishments like Balique and the Dugong Restaurant, which offer fusion foods with a twist of Asian spice and a touch of European pizzazz. There’s also no shortage of casual beach bars – check out the likes of Single Fin and El Kabron (more on those below).
Ubud or Uluwatu – nightlife
Ubud lives up to its rep as an artsy destination by keeping the nightlife scene pretty chilled. There are bars in the town, but they’re more relaxed affairs than you get in, say, Kuta and Legian further south. The ones we love include No Más Bar, a sort of noir, Gothic mashup where the cocktail menu beats most establishments on the island, and the Laughing Buddha Bar, for relaxed beers and snacks.
Uluwatu, on the other hand, has some seriously epic venues that’d we’d say every nightlife lover should have on their list. The crème-de-la-crème is surely Single Fin Bali. It’s a legendary café-club-bar with panoramic deck spaces overlooking the surf breaks. The golden hour gets super busy there, so try to get in early. Alternatively, you can venture to Six Senses or stylish El Kabron, which also both have sunset views that are 100% unforgettable.
So, where should I go? Ubud or Uluwatu?
The short answer? Ideally both. The fact is that these two places are just so different that it’s hard to pick one over the other.
Each will reveal a very unique side of Bali. In Ubud, you’ll delve into the rich and mystical Hindu religiosity of the island, get to shop in authentic bazaars, taste Balinese coffee and chocolate, hit the spa, and wander the rice paddies. In Uluwatu, it’s all about the temple and the coastline. After you’ve witnessed the amazing Kecak Fire Dance, you’ll be into a holiday of soaking up the rays on beaches like Padang Padang and surfing some challenging breaks.
That said, if you’re looking to visit Bali mainly for the surf and the shoreline, you could do a lot worse than a trip based in Uluwatu alone. The town offers access to some of the gnarliest Indian Ocean waves out there, along with lovely beaches like Bingin Beach and Dreamland to the north and south. It’s also got some wonderful coastal hotels that boast arguably the best sunset locations going.
Ubud is more suited to culture buffs and families. We say that because it has oodles of old Hindu sites, even-more-ancient Buddhist temples, and the more real Indonesian restaurant scene. Intrepid travelers looking to get out and onto the trails of Mount Agung and Batur will also prefer Ubud as it’s in the wilder part of the island on the way to the untrodden north.