Ubud: Inside Bali's cultural epicenter

Theodora Sutcliffe, CNNUpdated 14th February 2018
(CNN) — The jewel of Indonesia, Bali has a reputation for its clifftop hotels and clear surf. But farther inland, the mystical temples and iconic rice paddies of Ubud provide a completely different travel experience.
Bali's cultural capital since the 1930s, this highland town is a must-stop on any Indonesia itinerary.
Ubud's winning combo of food, arts, wellness and traditional Balinese culture continues to draw travelers, from backpackers to sybarites and group tourists.
Here's how to experience this alluring destination at its best.

Feed your face

One of Bali's best restaurants, Locavore crafts its dishes from locally sourced ingredients.
One of Bali's best restaurants, Locavore crafts its dishes from locally sourced ingredients.
For a small town, Ubud boasts an impressive culinary scene and fine dining is spectacular value.
Star New York pastry chef Will Goldfarb upped sticks for Bali in 2009, and his Room 4 Dessert sweets and cocktail bar serves up magical, textured confections, both individually and as part of a nine-course dessert degustation menu.
Dinner at Locavore, recognized as Indonesia's best restaurant on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, means a feast of over 20 dishes, creatively and intelligently crafted from local ingredients.
In the magical garden setting of Mozaic, Michelin-trained chef Chris Salans fuses modern European concepts and techniques with indigenous flavors.
On a bit of a budget? Head to Hujan Locale, the Ubud outpost of celebrity chef Will Meyrick, for big, bold Indonesian flavors with a pan-Asian spin.
Set in its own rice field, Manisan, headlined by Indonesian culinary star William Wongso, offers largely faithful interpretations of dishes from across the archipelago.
Just outside Penestanan, a leafy district marketed as an artists' village, Moksa draws raw food fans with dishes and juices sourced from its own garden and nearby organic farms. It's one of many raw and/or vegan eateries that makes Ubud such a mecca not only for vegetarians but also those following other alternative diets.
Balinese classics like ayam betutu -- smoky, spicy chicken -- or babi guling -- roast suckling pig -- make up the breakfast of champions here.
Head to Ubud Market before 8 a.m. for authentic local dishes, or try Ibu Oka by the royal palace for succulent roast pork with crispy skin.
And finally, every May, Ubud hosts the annual Ubud Food Festival, a three-day extravaganza of lunches, dinners, tastings, talks and classes focused on food, glorious food.
Room 4 Dessert, Jalan Sanggingan, Ubud, Bali; +62 812 3666 2806
Locavore, Jl. Dewisita No.10, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 977 733
Mozaic, Jl. Raya Sanggingan, Kedewatan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 975 768
Hujan Local, Jl. Sri Wedari No.5, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 849 3092
Manisan, Jl. Hanoman, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 846 8933
Moksa, Puskesmas Ubud II, Bali; +62 361 479 2479
Ibu Oka, Jalan Tegal Sari No. 2, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 976345

Take in some art

Entrance to the Blanco Museum.
Entrance to the Blanco Museum.
Blanco Musem
Russian-born German painter Walter Spies arrived in Ubud in 1927. By importing friends and introducing Western artistic techniques such as perspective to Bali, he helped establish the village's reputation as an artistic and creative idyll. By the late 1930s, Ubud's forward-thinking royal family were actively developing the town as an arts and culture destination.
Today, Ubud is awash in art galleries, the overwhelming majority of them churning out mass-produced art -- yet the lush gorges and green hills still inspire Indonesian and expat artists.
ARMA, Puri Lukisan and NEKA museums all boast extensive, quality collections of Balinese art. With contemporary Indonesian pieces as well as works by Spies and Dutch-born Indonesian painter Arie Smit, NEKA is probably the most important.
The frames may dominate the art, but the sheer scale of the Blanco Museum, the exuberant circular home of Philippines-born artist Antonio Blanco, Bali's answer to Salvador Dali, still impresses.
Threads of Life is a fantastic commercial gallery that showcases Indonesia's rich textile tradition as well as helping save endangered dying and weaving techniques.
Gaya Ceramic offers spectacular ceramics as well as an artist-in-residence program. Ewa Gallery sells tribal art from the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea; Taksu showcases contemporary photography with a focus on travel.
Ubud is also a spectacular place to learn traditional Balinese arts, be they silversmithing, woodcarving, offerings or more.
Pondok Pekak delivers affordable classes in Balinese arts and crafts for both children and adults; learn silver-smithing at Chez Monique or Studio Perak.
ARMA, Jalan Raya Pengosekan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 976 659
Puri Lukisan, Jl. Raya Ubud, Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali; +62 361 971159
NEKA, Jalan Raya Sanggingan Campuhan, Kedewatan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 975074
Blanco Museum, Jl. Raya Penestanan No.8, Sayan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 975502
Threads of Life, Jl. Kajeng No.24, Ubud, Gianyar, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 972187
Gaya Ceramic, Jl. Raya Sayan No.105, Sayan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 976220
Taksu, Jl. Cok Rai Pudak, Banjar Teges Kawan Yangloni, Peliatan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 970688
Pondok Pekak, Jl. Monkey Forest, Sebelah Timur Lapangan Ubud, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 976194
Chez Monique, Jl. Hanoman No.36, Ubud, Bali; +62 813 3845 4677
Studio Perak, Jl. Hanoman, Padangtegal, Ubud, Bali;+62 361 974244

Relax and recharge

Four Seasons Resort's bamboo yoga pavilion.
Four Seasons Resort's bamboo yoga pavilion.
Christian Horan
Strolling through the streets of Ubud, travelers are bombarded with ads for everything from sacred geometry to colonic irrigation, from ice-cream infused with crystal essences to ozone therapy and Tibetan singing bowl sessions.
Yet there's more to health and wellness in Ubud than goddess ceremonies and fad diets imported from California or blessing rituals dubiously appropriated from Balinese culture.
Set in its own manicured rice field besides a rushing river, the sinuous new bamboo yoga bale at the Four Seasons Resort at Sayan is undoubtedly the best location for yoga in Ubud.
An up-to-the-second range of classes runs from AntiGravity aerial yoga to laughter yoga and hot stone yoga, as well as power yoga, yin and hatha. A genius post-lunch class combines savasana in a hammock with tutored meditation for the perfect "afternoon nap."
The beautiful spa, with pavilions surrounded by ponds, serves up international treatments with a distinctively Balinese edge.
More affordably, Ubud veteran Yoga Barn offers a range of daily classes in yoga, meditation and alternative therapies, as well as a spa.
The spa at the historic Tjampuhan Hotel is a wonderland of hot and cool spring pools set amid exuberant sculpted grottoes in the river gorge.
Cantika Zest in Penestenan delivers treatments based exclusively on fresh ingredients: In their new workshop guests will be able to pick their own ingredients from the garden and mix their own facials.
Spa Bali is a contemporary day spa that blends fresh ingredients and Balinese techniques with urban touches like gel nails.
Four Seasons Resort at Sayan, Jl. Raya Sayan, Ubud, Sayan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 977577
Yoga Barn, Jl. Raya Pengosekan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 971236
Tjampuhan Hotel, Jl. Raya Campuan, Sayan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 975368
Cantika Zest, Jl. Penestanan Kelod, Singakerta, Ubud; +62 851 0094 4425
Spa Bali, Jl. Raya Pengosekan, Ubud, Bali; +62 361 970897

Out and about

The Bali Bird Walk is a fantastic way to see the rice paddies up close and to learn more about the birds that frequent them.
The Bali Bird Walk is a fantastic way to see the rice paddies up close and to learn more about the birds that frequent them.
The rich and vibrant culture of Balinese Hinduism is on full display in Ubud, while a walk along Campuhan Ridge or through the rice-fields reveals the complexity of the island's UNESCO-listed subak terrace system.
The Bali Bird Walk, a gentle three-hour amble through the rice-fields, is a great way to learn about local birds, nature and the culture that has shaped the landscape.
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, an Indiana Jones wonderland of dangling creepers, mossy statues, teetering bridges and scores of monkeys, is Ubud's number one tourist draw.
Set right in the heart of town, it's an atmospheric attraction that can be explored in minutes -- just don't feed the monkeys, as they can bite and may carry rabies.
In Tampak Siring, a little to the north of Ubud proper, less-visited Gunung Kawi is home to 11th-century rock-cut temples: Go early morning or late afternoon to avoid the tour buses at the serene water temple, Tirta Empul, nearby.
From elaborate cremations to Barong dances -- the island's answer to south China's lion dance -- Hindu ceremonies are a major tourist draw.
It's worth taking time to experience one of Ubud's many traditional Balinese dance performances. The temple of Saraswati, goddess of the arts, is an atmospheric spot to watch the kecak, a riotous performance led by a bare-chested, beat-boxing male choir.