As a predominantly Hindu country, Bali has an overwhelmingly spiritual atmosphere that can’t go unfelt and is overflowing with extraordinary religious and altogether ethereal sights. You genuinely could spend every minute of your trip temple-hopping – every corner of this magical island has a magical temple to go along with it, and likely more than one – but presuming you also want to spend a few days lounging on the beach or exploring the jungles, these are the ones you shouldn’t miss.
If you only visit one temple during your time in Bali, be sure to make it this one. Tirta Empul, also known as the Holy Water Temple, is tucked away in the jungled surrounds of Ubud and is of special significance to Hindus due to its holy water and link to the Galungan ceremony, which celebrates the victory of the god Indra over Mayadenawa. You can wander through the grounds taking in the atmosphere, then rent a sarong to take a dip in the waters yourself. Locals will say that if you believe in Karma, you must bow your head under each of the 11 spouts, saying a prayer at each one, to purify body, mind and spirit.
After you’ve taken a dip, take a walk around the tranquil Joeroan, or inner courtyard, where people come to pray – this makes a calming contrast from the busy pools beyond. Keep an eye out for the intricately carved Bhoma heads, a toothed wild boar-cum-human who protects the temples from malevolent evil – something you’ll see at most of the temples on this list.
Located on Bali’s south coast about 12 miles northwest of Seminyak and Kuta, Tanah Lot is well known for being a Hindu pilgrimage temple. Literally translating to ‘Land in the Sea’, the main temple, Pura Tanah Lot sits on an offshore rock which is not only a spiritual mecca but also one of the most revered sunsets on the island. The temple itself is dedicated to the Hindu god of the sea, Bhatara Segara, but multiple gods are worshipped there, and you’ll find as many locals there as you will tourists visiting.
The large complex starts to fill up as the sun descends towards the horizon, and people will find a comfy spot to sit and watch the sky magically change colour. To the right of the sea temple is a stunning rock arch, through which the sun peeks out just before it dips below the sea for the night – if you’re in just the right spot, you can catch it in a magical time-lapse.
Possibly the island’s most famous temple, Uluwatu is another seafront sight and is considered to be one of Bali’s six spiritual pillars. Sunsets here definitely rival those at Tanah Lot, but most flock here for a reason beyond the setting sun and spectacular temple walls. From its position on the edge of a cliff, Uluwatu Temple puts on an unbelievable show each night called the Kecak Fire Dance.
Alongside their monkey friends – Uluwatu is home to a troop of Macaques notorious for stealing your belongings then bartering them back for fruit – the Kecak dancers tell the story of the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic from India, which details the life of Rama in fire-blazing, masked glory. Yes, hundreds of tourists come to witness it every night, but it’s a spectacle all the same, and one you certainly shouldn’t miss out on witnessing.
Most well-known for its towering ‘Gateway to Heaven’, through which Mount Ayung’s volcanic summit peers through the clouds, Lempuyang Temple, also known more lengthily as Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang, is another one of Bali’s six spiritual pillars. There are actually seven temples on the mountain, but to get to the best views you’ll need to go all the way to the top, a knee-buckling 1,700 steps up into the clouds (or 2,400 if you choose not to get a moped ride to the second temple). This is a Hindu pilgrimage, but tourists can take it too if they’ve got the legs for it.
Aside from being respectful, it’s recommended that you try not to complain about your journey up – Balinese people believe that pilgrims who climb with a heavy heart won’t succeed in making it to the top. The hike will take about three hours in total, depending on your fitness level, but the views are more than worth their weight in sore knees and tired legs.
Vihara Dharma Giri
A scarcely-visited temple in the centre of Bali, Vihara Dharma Giri is home to one of Bali’s largest Buddha statues. Like many other spots on the island, you’re sure to find great views here, but nowhere else will they be combined with a chalky-white reclining Buddha statue – one of Bali’s only representations of this Buddhist treasure.
Surrounded by forests and jungles in the midst of the mountains, this serene temple is sure to bring you a level of tranquillity you might struggle to find elsewhere in Bali, between the whizzing motorbikes and fellow tourists.
Sangeh Monkey Forest
Though most people will make a beeline for the Monkey Forest in Ubud, if you’re looking for some off-the-beaten-track adventuring you’re much better off heading to Sangeh. In exchange for a 30-minute journey out of Ubud, you’ll be rewarded with a magical, mystical atmosphere you just can’t find when surrounded by tourists. The path into the sacred forest is lined by towering nutmeg trees, and inside you’ll be able to marvel at a majestic 17th-century temple which has been partially overtaken by the jungle surrounding it.
Roughly the same number of monkeys take up residence here as in Ubud, but they’re a friendlier bunch and less prone to stealing anything and everything you hold dear. The tranquil surrounds mean you’ll have the chance to observe them going about their daily lives in peace.
Last but certainly not least, Besakih is known as the ‘Mother Temple of Bali’ and is the most important spiritual site for Hindus across the island. This complex consists of a whopping 23 separate temples, all taking up a privileged position on the slopes of Mount Ayung, Bali’s biggest volcano. Merus, the spires, of each temple, sit on parallel ridges making for some incredible photos, especially if you can get the peak of Ayung in the background.
Beyond its undeniable aura of spirituality, this temple dates back to the 10th-century and is, therefore, one of the oldest examples of Balinese architecture on the island. There have been a few close calls in recent years – earthquakes and volcano eruptions have almost destroyed the complex on more than one occasion – but each time it has remained miraculously unscathed, and locals believe that the gods have gracefully spared the magnificent temple their worshippers so diligently built.
Want to know how to make the most of your time in Ubud? Check out my three-day Ubud guide here.