Located just off the southern coast of India, the teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka is festooned with diversity. This balmy paradise boasts myriad charms, encompassing everything from ancient UNESCO World Heritage Sites and wildlife-rich national parks to luscious country landscapes and idyllic golden-sand beaches. Whether you’re elephant-spotting, heading out on a tea trail or surfing wild waves, we’ve rounded up 11 of the best ways to experience Sri Lanka’s kaleidoscope of colour, beauty and culture from country to coast.
Sightsee Colombo’s characterful sights
Colombo has transformed from simply being the gateway to the rest of Sri Lanka into an interesting, characterful destination in its own right. The country’s capital offers a contrast of Colonial architecture, verdant gardens and thriving street markets mixed with trendy bars and fine dining (for lovers of seafood, the chilli crab at Ministry of Crab in the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct cannot be missed). Visit the Pettah Floating Market, the bright white President’s House, Seema Malaka Temple, the Old General Post Office (that once served as a lighthouse) and the capital’s old Colonial centre to truly experience Colombo’s rich history, which has never been more prevalent.
Explore Polonnaruwa as the sun sets
Rent a couple of bicycles and discover the treasures of the medieval capital and second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa. Its centuries-old archaeological ruins include the Vatadage, which has four entrances each guarded by a beautiful stone Buddha; the imposing Rankot Vihara stupa, that sits tall at 54 metres; and the fabulously preserved, upright and reclining Gal Vihara Buddhas. Go just before the sun starts to set and you’ll get to witness the marvellous ruins against the backdrop of a sunset glow.
Climb to the top of Sigiriya’s Lion Rock
The spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sigiriya Rock Fortress is perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s most extraordinary and well-known sights – and it’s little wonder why. Beautifully rising 200 metres above the jungle, the spellbinding ‘Lion Rock’ boasts world-renowned frescoes, water gardens, ancient graffiti along The Mirror Wall and, most impressive of all, the ruins of an ancient civilisation at the summit. The spectacular views are, of course, just the cherry on the cake; if you visit early and avoid the crowds, you’re likely to have these incredible sprawling vistas all to yourself.
Spot wildlife in Minneriya National Park
Between Habarana and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province is Minneriya National Park, an expansive sanctuary that’s home to all manner of wildlife – from the red-lipped lizard and graceful gray heron to, of course, the much-loved elephant. The perfect way to embrace this park’s natural beauty and wilderness is to make tracks in a Jeep, on a thrilling game drive right to the park’s focal point – the ancient rainwater reservoir. You’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see elephants bathing and grazing in their natural habitat, alongside water buffalo and flocks of iridescent endemic birds, from cormorants to painted storks.
Admire ancient art at Dambulla Cave Temple
Witnessing the artistic talent of ancient times has never been easier done than at Dambulla Cave Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the first century BC and is known locally as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. This sacred pilgrimage site sits atop a 160-metre granite rock and is a magical treasure trove of Buddhist sculptures and intricate, delicate paintings. On the climb up, you’ll come face-to-face with a magnificent gold Buddha statue, as well as plenty of monkeys. Be warned: these cheeky terrors aren’t afraid to steal your snacks right out of your hands!
Find peace amid Sri Lankan hills in Kandy
Kandy is a vibrant city brimming with culture, and sitting beautifully amid the verdant Sri Lankan hills. When you aren’t visiting one of Buddhism’s most cherished shrines, the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, and experiencing its mesmerising beauty alongside a spiritual ceremony, take a walk around the peaceful lake – the city’s centrepiece – or head to the hills for a different vantage point of the city. Nearby, visit Luckgrove Spice Garden in Matale to learn everything about spices – from the most efficient for healing aches and pains to the most flavourful for cooking Sri Lankan curries. While you’re in the area, stop at the Lakruka woodcraft workshop to marvel at the impressive talents of the local community.
Board a train from Kandy and Ella to Nuwara Eliya
Nothing encapsulates the scenic diversity of Sri Lanka quite like a rail journey; this incredibly picturesque ride will have you thinking you’re looking through rose-tinted glasses. The cool climate and misty heights of the Hill Country offer welcome respite from the sweltering coast, and throughout your journey you’ll witness the famous, piercing green tea fields, alongside cascading waterfalls and plenty of wildlife. Once in Nuwara Eliya, head to a tea plantation and factory (Blue Field Tea Factory is a gem) to discover how the Ceylon tea of ‘Little England’ is made.
Ascend Adam’s Peak during pilgrimage season
The soaring summit of Sri Lanka’s most sacred mountain, Adam’s Peak, rises above the luscious Hill Country, and is best to climb during the pilgrimage season – from Poya day in December until May. For the most extraordinary views, majestic sunrises and a glimpse of the mountain’s shadow, begin your ascent at nighttime, reaching the summit and its giant footprint-like hollow for dawn (be warned, however, that this climb isn’t for the faint of heart – although rewarding, there are over 5,000 steps to get through). Both enchantingly and mysteriously, a large number of butterflies flock here to die each year, affording Adam’s Peak the nickname ‘Butterfly Mountain’.
Unwind on the beaches of Beruwala and Bentota
The palm-fringed golden sands of Beruwala’s ‘Golden Mile’ make the perfect place to wind down after days of active exploration. Alongside being a major area for indulgent Ayurvedic treatments, it’s an ideal place to enjoy an array of watersports, such as snorkelling, diving and windsurfing. A little further on from the shores of Beruwala is Bentota Beach, which is nicknamed ‘Paradise Island’ thanks to its even softer and more glistening sands – not to mention its glimmering lagoon. Sit back, crack open a coconut here and allow yourself to relax as you watch the sunset. It’s paradise found here – you can take our word for it.
Explore an ancient fort in Galle
Famed for its 16th-century fort, the UNESCO World Heritage jewel of Galle is a pretty place to explore on foot. From its abundance of Dutch-Colonial buildings, charming narrow streets and ancient churches to its contrasting bohemian boutiques and stylish cafés and bars, Galle is a creative hub that remains under the radar for many tourists. En route, pay a visit to the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, which rescues and protects the island’s large turtle population; as well as a hatchery run by volunteers, you’ll see rescued Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles here. Back on the road, keep a look out for the toddy tappers high up in the palms, too!
Catch the waves in surf haven, Mirissa
Mirissa Beach sits peacefully on Sri Lanka’s south-west coast and is one of the country’s surfing hotspots. A picturesque crescent with beautiful clear waters, this palm-fringed bay is a haven for both beginners and intermediates to catch a break in the waves. It’s also one of the best places to forget about modern trappings; you can expect humble guesthouses, beach shacks and simple restaurants alongside a laid-back vibe. From November to April, you may also get a chance to spot whales and dolphins in the depths of the warm Indian Ocean, and if you travel a little further afield to Koggala near Weligama, you’ll witness Sri Lanka’s symbolic sight of stilt fishermen, perched above the water and waiting for their catch of the day.