Ubud: Inside Bali’s cultural epicenter

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.

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.

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.

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