16 places you should visit in Sri Lanka
In the 1300’s, Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as ‘the prettiest island of its size in all the world’. Today, nine centuries later, it seems the rest of the world is catching up.
Sri Lanka has been named by Lonely Planet as the number one country in the world to visit during 2019.
This diverse island offers natural and cultural wonders a plenty, many of which have been granted prestigious UNESCO world heritage site status.
Below are some of the wonderful places Sri Lanka has to explore:
Ancient City of Sigiriya:
Jutting 660 feet high out of surrounding green forest sits Sigiryia rock. Atop of this rock used to sit an ancient city which, as the story goes was built by King Kasyapa and used as his Palace and kingdom during his reign from 477-495 AD. Halfway through your hike to the top, you’ll find the Gateway to the Kingdom built in the shape of a lion, giving understanding to the site’s other commonly used name; ‘The Lion’s Rock’. You’ll also see around 700 Sinhala verses inscribed by visitors from the 5th through 13th centuries. Sigiriya is one of those places, that once you’ve been, will stay with you forever.
Why go? To challenge yourself with the hike, and reward yourself with incredible vistas from the top.
Dambulla rock caves:
Close to Sigiriya, the rock cave temple at Dambulla is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s Sri Lanka’s largest and best preserved cave complex with Buddhist murals covering more than 2000 square feet, and 157 statues of Buddha, one carved from living rock and measuring an impressive 14 metres. Well worth a visit for this alone.
Why go? To discover an intriguing cave complex and historical Buddhist murals and monuments.
Nestled into Sri Lanka’s hill country, and surrounded by green tea plantations and farmlands, Ella is an escape from Sri Lanka’s heat, and its sometimes hectic ways. The town itself is small and limited, but you don’t come here to shop or party; you come here to hike the surroundings such as Ella Rock, and then to relax and unwind with hearty home-cooked meals and some of the country’s freshly picked tea.
Why go? To enjoy the fresh countryside air or to challenge yourself with a hike up Ella Rock, one of Sri Lanka’s most famous hiking trails.
Take the train from Ella to Kandy (one of Sri Lanka’s most popular train routes) to discover a picturesque and unique city. Much of Kandy’s original charm has been preserved thanks to years of isolation - it was the last Sri Lankan city to be colonised; over the centuries many tried to invade with no success until the 1800’s. The result of such ardent protection means many surrounding ramparts remain - some converted into guesthouses, others left to grow wild and protect the natural landscapes. Inside them you’ll find the golden-roofed Dalada Maliga, home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha - much protected to this day. One of the highlights of the city's calendar is Esala Perahera (Esela Poya) where a replica tooth is paraded for ten nights by costumed dancers and drummers. The Peradeniya Gardens is also well worth a visit, opening originally for an ancient Sri Lankan Queen and now home to an impressive variety of trees, plants and flowers.
Why go? To discover a traditional city, Sri Lanka’s last to be colonised.
After years of civil war, Jaffna at the Northern tip of Sri Lanka, is today at peace once again and open to tourists. It is home to many of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, and at roughly 80 km from Southern India has been heavily influenced, and at some times ruled, by India. The city reflects this through its religion (predominantly Hindu) and culture. Walk into any of the local shopping streets or markets and you’ll find southern Indian dishes such as dosa and idli being served, the holy cow roaming the streets as it’s blessed by passers by, and Bollywood music ringing out. Though it is still off the main tourist trail, things are changing and Jaffna is slowly being discovered by travellers again.
Why go? To explore an area that is as of yet unexplored by most tourists, and to experience a the Tamil Sri Lankan culture.
With colonial buildings, pretty cottages and colourful flower gardens, Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as a ‘little Britain’. And given the landscaping, it’s clear to see why. Indeed, it was in the late 1800’s that the British brought tea to these hills, constructed many of its buildings and often whiled away a weekend drinking and relaxing in the cooler climates. Today some of the world’s best tea is still produced here; Ceylon tea is one of the most famous to be exported. You may also stumble across Sir Thomas Lipton’s tea estate, set up in Haputale in the 1890’s and continuing to operate from here today.
Why go? Cooler climates and plenty of fresh tea.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve:
Take a hike through Sinharaja Forest Reserve, discovering waterfalls and freshwater streams as you go. Keep an eye out for the floor and fauna, including a myriad of species endemic to the island.
Why go? To spot some of Sri Lanka’s endemic flora and fauna.
Avukana Buddha Statue:
Carved out of a large granite rock in 5th century AD, this imposing statue of Buddha stands around 40 feet high. It is worth incorporating this as stop-off on your way to other destinations.
Why go? It is widely considered as one of the finest carvings of Buddha in South East Asia.
A 2243 metre high mountain that is held holy to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Veddhas. This is a tough one to climb, but worth it for the views. Climb early to watch as the sunrise forms a perfect shadow of the peak itself on the rolling hills below - worth the early rise! Various tea houses on route serve sugary tea for an all important energy boost .
Insider tip: Carry warm clothing and an umbrella to protect you from the chilly winds at the top, while you wait for sunrise.
Holding status as the country’s capital for over 1000 years, Anuradhapura once housed many impressive temples and dagobas, parks and pools. Many of these are now in ruins, but make for a powerful sight. It’s the city in which the Sacred Bo Tree, believed to have sprung from a spring of the tree under which Buddha received his enlightenment, is planted and lives on today. Elsewhere, the Jetavanaramaya Dagoba enshrines part of a belt once tied by Buddha. A thirty minute drive out of Anuradhapura sits Mihintale, the Cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Why go? To learn the history and stories behind one of Sri Lanka’s most significant Buddhist areas.
Anuradhapura’s decline was Polonnaruwa’s gain, as the latter gained capital city status during the 11th - 13th centuries AD. A green and clean city today, Polonnaruwa is a pleasant place to visit.
Why go? To visit to the archeological park dotted with ancient temples, tombs and statues.
Proud of its natural harbour, Trincomalee shows it off well with beautiful beaches, whale watching trips and scuba diving excursions within season (April - September). Blue whale sightings are not uncommon here. Of course, as most Sri Lankan cities, Trincomalee is also home to many ancient sites, including the Koneswaram Temple.
Why go? To visit the north-east of the island and enjoy its stunning beaches, whale watching and scuba diving experiences.
Known as the ‘city of gems’, many a dazzling beauty has been discovered in Ratnapura including sapphires, rubies, amethysts and more. No trip to the city would be complete without a visit to one of the gem mines, where you can watch and understand the sifting and washing processes that take place.
Why go? Ratnapura itself is not the prettiest city, but its an interesting trip if you’re interested in seeing where Sri Lankan jewels come from, and how they’re mined.
Sri Lanka is better known for its beach water sports than inland water-sports. Enter the Kelani River in Kithulgala. With waters spilling into it from Adam’s Peak, river rafting on the Kelani River offers highs and lows (quite literally!) for beginners and experienced rafters alike. Borderlands are a recognised rafting company who offer overnight trips from Galle. They also offer other water-based activities such as canyoning and kayaking, amongst others.
Why go? To see another side to Sri Lanka, and to test your adventurous spirit.
Situated on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast, Galle is a fantastic city to spend a few days in before or after making a trip along the country’s famous south coast. Galle Fort is the centre; the fort was built in 1558 and is still very much in tact today. Inside it you’ll find many boutique stores, restaurants and bars - it seems to be becoming trendier by the day, but without loosing it's charm. This is the place to buy Sri Lankan gifts with a modern twist. Be sure to walk the ramparts as sun sets, you’ll have views out to see, and plenty of locals for company. It’s also worth stepping beyond the Fort walls to discover a vibrant Sri Lankan community as they trade.
- Read more in our Insider’s Guide to Galle.
Overlooked by many visitors to Sri Lanka, as they hop in and out of the country’s capital city enroute to ‘somewhere more interesting’. A big mistake, in our opinion. As capital cities go, Colombo is a gem. Discover Colombo with recommendations from an insider, or find out how to spend 24 hours in Colombo.
- Feature written by Katie Silcox, who has been visiting Sri Lanka regularly since 2011. In 2017 Katie lived on Sri Lanka’s south coast, researching and writing content to ‘The Sri Lanka Guides: Galle, South Coast, and beyond’.
Discover more of Sri Lanka:
- Complete Guide to Sri Lanka
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