Make the most out of a short trip to paradise
In the past 30 years, Ubud has transformed itself from a sleepy little mountain town, beloved by yogis and hippies, into a nerve centre for Bali’s eco, wellness and sustainability industries. Today, perhaps with a little help from publishing phenomenon Eat, Pray, Love, and the subsequent Hollywood adaptation, it is one of the island’s key tourist stops. But arguably unlike Kuta, it has not been ravaged by its popularity, and it is still possible to find the spirit of “old Bali” if you try. Plus, for families, it has a little bit of everything, ancient culture, vibrant flora and fauna, international cuisine, and plenty of entertainment – and if you or the little ones get overwhelmed by it all – it’s very easy to get back to the hotel for an easy day by the pool.
Hip eatery Locavore uses ingredients sourced only from the isle and offers a seven-course tasting menu for gourmands, which has become hugely popular. Book well in advance!
Cafe Lotus, close to the vibrant Saraswati Temple, is arguably one of Ubud’s most stunning locations. Diners can sit on traditional bamboo mats and pick from a selection of Balinese favourites such as Sambal Udang (chilli prawns) and Bebek Betutu (slow-cooked duck).
Insta-addicts should head to The Elephant, which offers beautifully presented dishes, as well as incredible views out across Tjampuan Ridge.
For culinary adventurers, Sari Organik, which is tucked away in the paddy fields and only accessible by foot or moped, is a real treat. The family-run establishment has been at the forefront of Ubud’s ethical eating charge – food is locally sourced, from their on-site organic farm where possible. It’s tricky to find, but worth the effort.
Acolytes of the late Anthony Bourdain will know Naughty Nuri’s Warung and Grill, beloved by locals, it is becoming increasingly popular with tourists too so come early, and don’t arrive too hungry as there will likely be a wait for a table.
There’s plenty of accommodation in and around Ubud to suit every budget – from the rustic but tranquil Ubud Hidden Villa to the stylish Bisma Eight. But if you’re looking for something remarkable, look no further than the Four Seasons Sayan. It’s around 20 minutes from the centre of Ubud, but the distance means a chance to experience a completely different stay.
Sayan is Bali at its vintage best and is without a doubt the stuff of bucket-lists. A rooftop lotus pond, accessed by a wooden bridge, is the first of many show-stopping features that have seen this place repeatedly voted the number one resort hotel in the world. Descending the stairs to the main complex is exhilarating – jungle canopy seems to stretch off for hundreds of miles, while the wild rush of the River Ayung seems just metres away. There’s no doubt its perfect for couples but it is also hugely popular with families too. The spacious villas, with their own pools, sun decks, and gardens provide a perfect hideaway for romance, but also make for a great place for kids to run free. Exploring the resort as a family is a real joy – wander through paddy fields, stroll down to the waterfront, or simply play at the riverside infinity pool. Dining is easy with a range of meals to suit all tastes and the fussiest of eaters. There is a dedicated kids club area, and babysitting services are also available.
Hidden close to the paddy fields is a traditionally designed but state-of-the-art yoga pavilion, which offers meditation classes and aerial yoga. The adventurous can go river-rafting, the relaxed can head for the serene spa villas. Staff are attentive, helpful and service is excellent – they’ll help you book excursions too – but chances are you won’t want to leave the place.
A visit to the Monkey Forest is a must, particularly for families. This 12.5-hectare wonderland filled with enormous Banyan trees, statues, vines, dramatic bridges and hidden pathways, is justifiably a crowd pleaser. It can get busy, but it’s still possible to spend a nice, leisurely afternoon ambling through and interacting with the hundreds of Balinese Long-Tailed Macaques that call the place home. The inhabitants are friendly, curious, and prone to thievery if you’ve left sunglasses, hats or even bags within easy reach but if you’re prepared for their sticky fingers, it’s all very charming. Little ones will delight in the monkeys’ impish behaviour, and if your kids are older, then it’s a great way to talk about conservation and the impact of humans on animal environments.
Head to the Tirta Empul Temple, where many locals believe the water has healing and holy powers. A spring originates inside the grounds of the site and feeds dedicated “purification” pools and baths around it. During religious days, it’s possible to observe Bali’s Hindu community taking part in cleansing ceremonies at the site, which was first built more than 1,000 years ago. It’s also possible for visitors to sign up for a healing programme run by the local elders.
The Pura Saraswati, famous for its colourful dance performances and the vast lotus ponds at its front, is also worth a stop. Dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, the temple features ornate carvings and is illuminated at night. As with the nearby Ubud Palace, its commercialised – there is a Starbucks just next to it – but still retains a lot of its pre-mass tourism charm.
The great thing about Ubud’s cultural sights is that they are easily accessible, close to amenities, and used to having visitors, which makes the area ideal for parents and young children. If you need to make a mad dash back to the villa or hotel, it’s very easy to do so.
Take a hike. The Tjampuan Ridge Walk is accessible and beautiful. Go early and enjoy the kaleidoscope of colours as the greens of the paddies meet the dawn sky and the first bright rays of sun. If you’re feeling motivated, opt for the longer trek (around 10 kilometres) to the villages on the other side of the hill.
An electric bike tour offers something a little bit different (and easier than walking in the heat). EBikes Bali is a great option with tours that take in the wonderful Tegalalang Rice Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site to the north, the Tirta Empul Water Temple, or even longer trips to Sanur. These guys know how to go off the beaten path, so even if you’re visiting Ubud’s big sites, they’ll take you a different way.
Try a Balinese cookery class, where you’ll get the chance to source fresh local ingredients, work with some really talented chefs and hopefully learn a few dishes to impress friends and family when you’re back home. Ketut’s class is highly recommended, he’s passionate about food and about teaching, and makes the whole process fun. Be warned – expect you to get your hands dirty – this is more of a learn on the job approach than simply watching the pros at work.
Ubud is every yogi’s dream. There is an assortment of schools, sessions, and retreats to choose from, but you won’t go wrong with The Yoga House. Set in the owner’s home, class sizes are small, and the location – in the rice paddies with little between you and the natural world – is idyllic. There’s something for every skill level – with teacher training options too.
The Laughing Buddha Bar is a firm favourite and the CP Lounge are perennial favourites with visitors and locals alike. The former offers cocktails, tapas, and live music, including jazz and blues, while the latter is this place to dance until dawn (or at least till late). Both are excellent places to make new friends.
For something a little chicer, head to The Night Rooster, where you’ll find award-winning barman Raka Ambarawan crafting an exquisite collection of cocktails using seasonal and locally sourced elements. The bar snacks are equally imaginative.
For vintage Ubud, head downstairs at Murni’s Restaurant to a hidden bar that feels a little like walking into the past. A well-trialled cocktail list and excellent decor add to the intoxicating feeling of nostalgia. Expect to leave later than you planned.