Bali is a big island with a long history of tourism and beaches that range from frenetic to lazy. Generally speaking, for the tropical idyll of powder-fine sands and calm seas you are probably on the wrong island (the Gilis might be more what you're looking for), but for surfing, diving, dining, dolphin spotting and enjoying coastal village culture, Bali is your place. The most popular and accessible beaches are those closer to Denpasar airport, at the bottom of the island.
The birthplace of tourism in Bali, Kuta started out as primarily a surf spot. Still a popular destination for surfers – especially from Australia – the beach now draws an international crowd of all permutations. There's little observable "authentic" Balinese culture this close to the airport, but there's still a small-town charm in the area's narrow winding lanes, urban rice paddies, ramshackle shophouses and moped traffic jams. On this side of the island, the beaches are best from April to October when the monsoon is directed out to sea, rather than blowing debris up on shore.
The atmosphere on the beach changes depending on where you are along its five-plus kilometer span. It starts off crowded in the south, where Kuta's main shops, restaurants, bars and clubs are, and gets more peaceful the farther north you go. For affordable Bali accommodation Kuta is the best location – especially for younger independent travelers seeking to party with like-minded souls.
Legian and Seminyak farther north are quieter. The beach bars of Seminyak, including Ku De Ta and Potatohead, are often part of the main reason people visit, with swimming and surfing secondary. Kuta's beaches face the sunset, and one of the most popular times to visit is at the end of the day.
Balangan beach is another highly rated Bali beach in Kuta, and great for swimming at high tide, though at low tide it turns into rock pools. Accessible via a cliff staircase, Balangan offers a collection of backpacker to mid-range beach bungalows, and a cluster of local cafés selling cheap noodle dishes and exceptional surfing conditions. The sand here is excellent for building castles, so bring your pails and shovels!
Down on the "blob" of land at the bottom of Bali is Nusa Dua with its clean sand, reef-protected waters and posh hotels. Between the private beaches of the St Regis Bali Resort and the Grand Hyatt Bali you'll find calm, turquoise waters protected by offshore coral, with palm trees, golden sand and five-star amenities not far away. Nusa Dua North and Nusa Dua South are both highly swimmable, though an increasing amount of coastline is being taken up by five-star beach resorts. Further down the coast is Geger Beach, which is freely accessible to the public, with gentle surf, a handful of restaurants, and sun-loungers and water sports equipment for rent.
On the far eastern side of Bali, Amed is one of a handful of villages and bays along a volcanic coastline. It's far quieter here than it is in Kuta, though during high season – from June to August – foreign visitor numbers spike. The sands of Amed and its neighboring villages range from black to grey, its beaches are lined with the outrigger canoes of local fishermen and the waters are popular with free-divers, snorkelers, scuba divers and stand-up paddlers. It's not recommended for surfing, but it is a good paunch point for hiking and trekking around Mount Agung. Nearby Padang Bai is a popular departure point for travelers headed to the Gili Islands, off the coast of Lombok.
On the western side of the island, the isolated beaches of Negara offer a completely different Bali experience than those of the south. Medewi Beach is the most visited destination – a picturesque coastal village – or rather, series of villages of which Medewi is just one – that remains relatively undeveloped despite its popularity as a surf spot. The main activity here is surfing, but you can also swim, stroll the boulder-strewn coastline, do yoga and explore the villages. Along the coast towards Kuta, Balian shares a similar laidback vibe – a predominantly surfing spot with chilled-out beaches, rice fields, temples, yoga centers and a sleepy village lifestyle to enjoy. Its gentle breaks make it a great place to take surfing lessons.
On the northern coastline of Bali the region of Lovina – in particular Kalibukbuk – is popular with European visitors for its black sands, dolphin watching and calm seas. There are reefs to snorkel, hot volcanic springs (and associated spas), hiking trails and waterfalls in the nearby jungles. From Lovina, many travel onwards to the old capital of Singaraja 20 minutes away. Singaraja isn't a beachy destination, but it does have a harbor, some old colonial Dutch buildings, tree-lined avenues, temples and museums that are worth a look.
This is just some of what this tropical island has to offer, but remember – Bali is a place that rewards the type of unplanned excursions the often turn into great adventures. Don’t over-plan things, and you’ll have a great time.