What to Do in Ubud, Bali (12 Sites and Activities Not to Miss)
I really loved my stay in Ubud when traveling in Indonesia. Although it has gotten a lot busier and more "commercial" since my first visit in 2010, it remains a magical place. You'll find young backpackers starting their journeys through Southeast Asia, older couples, people in their midlife crisis hoping to find something, etc. There is something for everybody in this beautiful piece of paradise. A month will go by in a heartbeat when you are in Bali.
When I first traveled to Indonesia and arrived at Kuta beach at night, I was disappointed. I'd had a great time in Java, a relaxed beautiful journey. Kuta during the evening was something different, an Asian "Ibiza-like" party place with lots of drunken tourists, bars and some thieving and scamming locals.
I wondered if that was Bali? Luckily all that changed when I went to Ubud and its surrounding areas. This culturally rich city can give you some of the best experiences Bali and Indonesia have to offer. You'll find an inspiring mixture of food, temples to visit, nature to admire and activities to do in a fairly small area.
12 Wonderful Things to Do in Ubud
- Monkey Forest and Monkey Temple
- Pura Taman Saraswati in Ubud
- Visit Goa Gajah in Bali
- Tegallalang Rice Terrace
- Do Yoga in Bali
- Ubud Palace
- Gunung Lebah Temple
- Try the Balinese Cuisine
- Gunung Kawi Temple
- Agung Rai Museum of Art
- Go For a Bike Ride
- Museum Puri Lukisan
1. Monkey Forest and Monkey Temple
The Bali Monkey Forest is very special in lots of ways. This is not just another tourist attraction but a spiritually important place for the local people and a prominent conservation center. So by visiting you’ll support many facets of the local area. The one big thing to remember though is not to feed the monkeys.
The Famous Balinese Monkey Temple(s)
There are three holy temples within the jungle area known as Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana. Today these are inhabited by a group of lively Balinese macaques. The complex has a feel of Indiana Jones to it and especially around the Pura Dalem Agung part where the entrance is decorated with Rangda figures eating children.
And all the while the monkeys are eyeing up new visitors, trying to work out whether they have any food or personal items worth grabbing. There are three entrances to the temple complex with the main one on Monkey Forest Road.
The sanctuary for the monkeys attracts researchers from all over the world and is popular with visitors. To avoid trouble with the monkeys, do read the tips before walking through the forest and temples. This includes not smiling at the monkeys as they view this as a sign of aggression.
Anyone bringing food into the complex tends to get mobbed by the macaques. You’ll also see areas that are sacred and are only accessible to local people worshipping at the temple.
The Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud
The forest is considered sacred too and is very atmospheric. This is a fascinating place to visit in Bali, as it manages to blend the local traditional aspects of spirituality with conservation and provides a source of income for locals through tourism. Just don’t provoke the macaques.
2. Pura Taman Saraswati in Ubud
Dewi Saraswati is the goddess of learning and the arts. The temple dedicated to her is in Ubud and the goddess has clearly influenced the city, which is rich in art and culture.
Just a few steps from Ubud Palace it is also known as the Lotus Palace. Walking into the temple is a bit surreal at first as you have to go between the Starbucks and the Lotus Café. There’s a special wall to distract evil spirits.
But continue down that small passage and you’ll see an exquisite lotus pond with a walkway. The water feeding it comes from the rice fields above Ubud and gives an air of tranquillity to the place. The walkway leads to the temple itself which is decorated with filigree work in vermillion red and gold, and typical of a Balinese Hindu design. The shrine itself is rarely open.
There are three platforms just below the stairs here and these are used to stage traditional dance shows at night. The Ramayana dance drama is magical in this setting and actually transforms the temple atmosphere at night. It is really atmospheric with traditional musical instruments, lighting and a red carpet on the stage.
With the temple building as a backdrop, there can be no better place to watch dance in Ubud. The temple was built by I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (1862–1978), a Balinese architect who has a portfolio of work across Bali. He lived for 116 years and is famed for being able to predict the precise moment of his death. Pura Taman Saraswati is a tranquil escape from Ubud’s traffic and a wonderful place to contemplate the culture and beauty of Bali.
3. Visit Goa Gajah in Bali
When you hear about Goa Gajah, it’s not surprising the first thing that comes to mind is a cave of elephants as that’s what the word means. But this famous site is actually one of the most prominent archaeological sites in Bali.
Location of Goa Gajah
Goa Gajah is around an hour from Ubud and six miles from the delightful village of Bedulu, and an hour spent here is well worth it.
History and Meditation
Goa Gajah dates from the 11th century and was built for meditation. When you first arrive the hassle from the souvenir shops may detract from this but it is still a lovely place to visit. When you get to the base of the site you’ll see a Wantilan meeting house and many stone carvings making it quite atmospheric.
The pool was found in 1954 and has seven Hindu angels acting as water spouts. It is always intriguing when visiting these places to think about what is still buried and is yet to be excavated, revealing its secrets of the past.
Buddhist and Shivaite
When you get to the caves you’ll see many different statues, some with 10th-century influences. The walls inside these caves are blackened thanks to locals lighting incense sticks as part of the meditation ceremonies. If you look closely, it is still possible to see the indentations where priests once sat. Interestingly the northern side of this place is Buddhist with the southern side being Shivaite.
Goa Gajah was built on a hillside and at the far end, there are rice fields and streams. These lead to the river Petanu. At the junction, the site was believed to be sacred and is where meditation took place. Even today it is very serene and is somewhere to sit and think awhile.
4. Tegallalang Rice Terrace
It is that bright green color interspersed with curved lines that is the most memorable sight in the Tegallalang Rice Terrace. This is one of Bali’s most famous attractions and an iconic way of life just an hour north of Ubud.
Colorful Tropical Balinese Scenery
At first glance, the Tegallalang Rice Terrace looks like a typical tropical scene with palm trees and the defined irrigation channels appearing like steps carved into the hillsides. But looking closer there is more to see here; Tegallalang is a busy place with workers tending crops and making a living from crafts.
Indonesian Rice Terrace Farmers
Walk along the terraces and you’ll encounter rice workers in the fields; depending on the time of year, they may be harvesting, cultivating, or planting the crops. There are people maintaining the irrigation channels, workers carrying crops in baskets, and farmers selling produce from the coconut trees.
This really is more than just a photo stop; it is a way of life and a fascinating insight into rural life in Bali. To visit this part of Bali you really have to take your time and stop to watch people going about their work in the rice fields.
Village of Pakudi Bali
Take time to try the coconut drink being offered by local farmers or buy a hat made from the palm leaves. Nearby the small village of Pakudi is full of traditional wood carvings which make excellent souvenirs. The local community are talented wood carvers and sell the decorative items to supplement their income.
Tegallalang Rice Terrace is stunningly beautiful and very atmospheric with its beautiful structure. But the real beauty of the terraces are within and are captured in encounters with the locals and just taking time to explore the area.
5. Do Yoga in Bali
When it comes to Ubud, Bali, things to do are so plentiful that you might not find an opportunity for downtime. After touring the palaces and shrines and temples, you may just need to take a moment to breathe.
There is no better setting for yoga than Ubud and there are skilled yoga instructors all over the town that can help you learn or perfect your positions.
6. Ubud Palace
Legends surround Ubud Palace and the area around it. Ubud dates back to the 8th century and the story of its origins is said to have been written on a palm leaf. The Royal Palace is one of the best-known buildings in Ubud and a fabulous place to explore. You’ll find it right on the Jalan Raya Ubud Road which is easy to locate.
Royal Palace Architecture
Ubud Palace or Puri Saren was built between 1800–1823 by Ida Tjokorda Putu Kandel and the complex has been maintained by his descendants. Even today members of the Ubud royal family live within this complex. It is renowned for its exquisite Balinese architecture and carvings but above all the evening dance performances.
During the day visitors can walk through the palace entrance to see the architecture and the Balinese carvings. There is a mixture of Balinese and European furnishings within the pavilions that make up the palace.
Close by, the market with its traditional stalls is another delight. You can wander around here looking at the food and other items on sale. And if it gets too hot, there’s a banyan tree in the grounds of Ubud Palace that is perfect to shelter from the sun.
Ubud Palace Dance
In the evening the dance performances are a colorful and dramatic display of Balinese traditions. You’ll enjoy watching the performers in the courtyard against the backdrop of the palace and you’ll admire their dexterity. Ubud Palace is just one of many historic buildings in the city and is one of the most famous places in Bali.
7. Gunung Lebah Temple
Gunung Lebah Temple is one of Ubud’s most iconic landmarks. Its position at the confluence of two tributaries of the River Wos and River Pormil is quite magical with the rushing water and the old temple on a hill.
There’s something very special about this place and it is a beautiful temple to visit. Perhaps this is because it is said to concentrate powerful energies from the earth at the Campuan River. It is easy to walk here from Ubud Market making it a great place to go in the early morning before the sun gets too hot.
It is believed that during the 8th century the holy man Rsi Markandya was spiritually attracted to this area by the river. Walking around here it is easy to see why. Rsi Markandya is credited for bringing Hinduism to Bali and he stayed in the area and meditated with his band of 4000 followers. This also marked the beginning of Ubud and the growth of this fascinating city.
Monkey Forest & Monkey Temple
Pura Taman Saraswati
Tegallalang Rice Terrace
Gunung Kawi Temple
Agung Rai Museum of Art
Museum Puri Lukisan
The temple itself is very peaceful and is a cluster of beautiful buildings with statues painted red and gold. Although the original temple was constructed in the 8th century the Hindu sage Danghyang Nirartha expanded the building 800 years later.
Gunung Lebah means small hill, reflecting the area of the building and the temple is also known locally as Campuan Temple because it is close to the gorge and river of the same name. When you visit this place it is very special because it marks the place where Ubud was actually founded and the energies concentrated in the area are significant.
8. Try the Balinese Cuisine
When in Bali, you have to eat Balinese food. Don’t neglect trying local fare, it’s part of the experience. If you are a little wary of trying new food, work your way up by starting with some more familiar dishes. At a loss of where to start? Ask the locals where they like to eat.
9. Gunung Kawi Temple
Gunung Kawi is one of Bali’s oldest monuments and one of the most intriguing. It lies at the bottom of a spectacular green valley lush in vegetation and with mesmerizing views across the rice terraces.
What is really stunning about Gunung Kawi temple apart from the lush scenery is that it is made up of 10 exquisite carvings of statues into the rock face itself. These candi or shrines are around 8 meters tall and are believed to each represent a member of the Balinese royal family from that period when the temple was built. There are lots of steps here too and a significant amount of climbing but the views across the rice terraces make up for it.
There’s another legend about Gunung Kawi temple and that is the story that the carvings were completed in a single night by Kebo Iwa by using his fingernails. And wandering through this temple gives a certain air of mystery and you can’t help thinking what things must have been like in the 11th century.
From history, it is believed the statues on the eastern side of Gunung Kawi are dedicated to Queen Mahendradatta, King Udayana, and their sons. Those on the western side of the temple are reputed to be dedicated to the concubines of Anak Wungsu who ruled Bali. Then again, there’s another theory that the entire complex was dedicated to Anak Wungsu and his concubines, wives and a minister.
Whatever story lies behind the building of this magnificent temple it remains a treasure in Bali’s cultural history and will no doubt leave you wondering what really went on here in the 11th century.
10. Agung Rai Museum of Art
One of the most impressive buildings in Ubud is the Agung Rai Museum of Art. This gallery and cultural center is in the Pengosekan district of Ubud and is full of art treasures. It was founded by Anak Agung Gede Rai, a Balinese art collector, and entrepreneur. The museum itself is beautifully laid out in two main buildings.
Agung Rai Museum of Art is the place to visit in Ubud to appreciate Balinese art, architecture, and culture. Thanks to the founder a lot of the treasures he collected are on display and give local people as well as visitors an insight into this rich cultural heritage. Some of the best known Balinese artists are represented here, including Affandi and Raden Salah.
Artists like Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet, and Adrian le Mayeur are also represented. Even the classic Kamasan style art and the Batuan paintings from local villages get a place in this wonderful gallery.
One of the best things about coming to the Agung Rai Museum of Art is the opportunity it gives visitors to learn about Balinese culture. There are wood carvings, indigenous fabrics, gamelan musical instruments and traditional dance displays here. There are interactive guided visits which is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t miss out on interesting facts and snippets of information.
Visitors can also taste Balinese cuisine here and relax in the lush tropical gardens outside. It is one of those places where you can easily find yourself spending more time than you planned because there is so much to see and experience. From time to time the museum has visiting exhibitions and displays which are worth checking out.
The best time to visit is late afternoon as you can see the displays, enjoy a Balinese meal and finish the day by watching a dance display.
11. Go for a Bike Ride
Biking is, by far, the best way to get around in Bali. There are even cycling tours! You can rent a single bike for a day and use it to get to some of Ubud’s farther-flung sites and back roads. On a bike is the best way to stay in touch with your surroundings, while getting where you need to go a little bit faster.
12. Museum Puri Lukisan
Ubud is the place to come to in Bali for arts and crafts. From workshops to galleries and market stalls you’ll be blown away by the quality and variety of artisan goods in the city. One of the best places to see the fabulous arts and crafts in Ubud is the Museum Puri Lukisan. It dates from the 1930s and was set up by Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet with Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati. It is the oldest art museum in Bali.
How Art Changed in Bali
One of the most important things about art in Ubud is that this is where modern artistic methods were formed. Artisans departed from painting religious and court items and looked for other subjects. So the exhibits here are of various forms and tell the story of how art changed in Bali. On entering the museum the displays are of early Ubud work. These include 16th-century cloth with wayang or puppetry forms.
Modern and Post War Exhibits
In the northern part of the Puri Lukisan Museum, you’ll find the more modern artistic displays including work by I Gusti Nyoman Lempad. His work called The Dream of Dharmawangsa is particularly detailed. Work dating from the 1930s includes expatriate artists inspired by the area as well. Postwar exhibits are in the western building at Puri Lukisan and are a delight to view. The museum has temporary exhibitions on art and these are generally displayed in the southern building.
Puri Lukisan also has a very interesting bookshop and a café to enjoy. For visitors to Ubud, some time spent in this museum is a must as it depicts the journey taken by artisans in Bali to modernize art.
What is your favorite thing to do in Ubud, Bali?
I hope you have some inspiration now on what to do in Ubud. I really enjoyed my time in Indonesia and Bali was one of the interesting places I visited.
© 2019 Sam Shepards