14 of the best things to do in Sri Lanka

Climb a sacred mountain. Lounge on a deserted beach. And enjoy a cuppa on a picture-perfect plantation. All this and more awaits in Sri Lanka, the most serendipitous of islands…

Team Wanderlust
03 February 2023
Tea country in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

1. Climb Sigiriya

Lion Rock Fortress, Sigiriya (Shutterstock)

One of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this rock-top fortress dates back to the fifth century AD. The atmosphere is more spiritual than militant: in its time, it has acted as a royal palace and a Buddhist monastery.

While descending the ancient rock, visitors can see some of the finest examples of South-Asian apsara painting, widely known as the Sigiriya ladies. These erotic creations are just a small fragment of what was once thought to be a 150m long/40m high area of original paintings.

Sigiriya is also regarded as one of the most important urban planning projects of the first millennium, and is home to some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. Look out too for the mirror wall, a masonry wall that was so well-polished that the king could see his reflection in it. Top tip: go early, so avoiding the heat of the day and the crowds.

2. Get up close to wild elephants in a National Park

Elephant in the wilds of Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

You’ll see elephants everywhere you go in Sri Lanka: working on a tea plantation, running wild in national parks, and leading the Esala Perahera parade in Kandy in all their bejewelled and sequined glory.

Udawalawe National Park offers you one of your best chances of seeing elephants roaming free. Created to protect the watershed of the enormous Udawalawe Reservoir, this park is home to around 400 pachyderms and has extensive stretches of grassland as well as scrub jungle and riverine forest. It is one of the best places to go birdwatching in Sri Lanka too.

Gal Oya National Park receives fewer visitors than many of the other parks and also offers a unique experience. Here, the elephants commonly swim across Senanayake Samudra lake – Sri Lanka’s largest body of water – and you can take a boat safari to see them.

And to see the world’s largest congregation of Asian elephants visit Kadulla or Minneriya NP in the dry season (June/July to September) when what is known as “the Gathering” takes place as hundreds of the pachyderms cluster around water.

3. Explore ancient wonders in Anuradhapura

Jetavanarama stupa in Anuradhapura (Shutterstock)

Sri Lanka’s original royal capital is easily explored by tuk-tuk or bicycle, as you flit between 1,500-year-old ruins and grand dagobas that still attract Buddhist pilgrims by the thousands.

Among the giant stupas is Jetavanarama – built in the 3rd century and was once the third tallest building in the entire world (the first two were Egyptian pyramids).

Thuparamaya Stupa is another noteworthy Buddhist temple in Anuradhapura, considered the earliest Dagoba to be built on the island.

4. Visit a tea empire in Nuwara Eliya

Picking tea leaves in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

At the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea industry, this charming throwback to the country’s colonial years is rich with the heritage of home-county England. Tour neatly-terraced tea estates, watch pickers at work, and buy your own samples to take home.

Tea lovers will want to visit the Hill Country’s Haputale Mountains, where Sir Thomas Lipton launched his tea empire. To see where it all began, organise transport to Lipton’s Seat – Mr Lipton’s favourite spot to sit and watch over his enormous estate.

It is possible (and maybe a bit more comfortable) to take a car up, but an open air tuk-tuk ride is much more fun. Head out early before the afternoon fog cloaks the surrounding mountains, clouding the awe-inspiring views.

5. Ride the rails to Ella

Crossing Nine Arch Bridge (Shutterstock)

Instantly recognisable, this Hill Country rail route is arguably the most beautiful in Sri Lanka. Take the iconic 3-4 hour train from Nuwara Eliya and pass through tea country with your feet dangling from the carriage doorways (health and safety has not made it here yet).

After crossing the Nine Arch Bridge, most people end their journey in Ella to access the bridge viewpoints on foot.

6. Relax on the beaches of Arugam Bay

Sunrise in Arugam Bay (Shutterstock)

The beach at Arugam Bay, on Sri Lanka’s dry south-east coast, is the stuff of Bounty ads are made of: sugar-soft sands, coconut palms and utter solitude but for the whoops and whooshes of the surfers riding the point.

Before the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the bay was rapidly becoming one of the world’s top surf destinations. For the time being, you’ll have the double curve of beach and its coconut palm-covered point more or less to yourself, bar a few savvy sun-seekers.

7. Spot leopards in Sri Lanka’s National Parks

Lounging leopard in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

Sri Lanka’s alpha predator is protected in a number of national parks, but is most easily sighted in Yala National Park, on the island’s southern coast, where you can cool off in the ocean after a day on safari.

Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s number one leopard sanctuary. The big cats are thriving here in territories of little more than a kilometre each – “the highest density in the world” – making seeing one almost a certainty.

For those hoping to see a close-up leopard make its way down the tree and casually saunter through clearing to the cover of the bushes, then Yala National Park is undoubtedly the place to be.

For finding leopards without the crowds, head to Wilpattu in Sri Lanka’s northwest instead.

As the country’s largest national parks, Wilpattu offers one of your best chances to see a leopard in the wild. There’s no guarantee, and safaris start at the crack of dawn, but it’s worth the try.

Plus, the consolation of spying any of the park’s water buffalo elephants and sloth bears is just as tempting.

8. Discover untouched islands

Sri Lankan fishing boat (Shutterstock)

Intrepid travellers looking to get off-the-beaten-track should head to the handful of islands trailing off Sri Lanka’s northernmost tip. The biggest of these is sleepy Neduntivu (also called ‘Neduntheevu’, and named Delft by the Dutch), home to approximately 4,500 people and herds of wild horses.

The crossing is short but rough, and once you arrive on the islands you won’t find much there, with the exception of a few hotels and guesthouses. But the pace of life is slow and the locals are friendly.

Once you’ve ticked off the Dutch fort built from coral and the giant baobab tree, rumoured to be over 1,000 years old, there is nothing left to do except relax.

9. Have a close encounter with whales

Whale off Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

Sri Lanka’s southern tip nudges the depths of the continental shelf. It’s an area favoured by blue whales and nowhere else does the world’s biggest creature swim so close to land, so reliably.

Dondra Head is your jumping off point. From January to April, blue whales pass here on their route from the Bay of Bengal to the western Indian Ocean. They fill their bellies on the krill and squid that thrive in these waters, enriched by the outfall of Sri Lanka’s 103 rivers.

10. Take time to explore the city of Kandy

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy (Shutterstock)

The last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka, and a popular getaway for colonial administrators looking to escape the heat, Kandy is a pretty place – tucked beside a lake in the country’s central highlands.

Make sure you visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is housed in Kandy’s teeming temple complex. Wars have been fought over this relic, believed to have belonged to Buddha himself. Join the devout to add your own petal offerings and light votive candles.

If your visit coincides with the spectacular Esala Perahera Festival – a late-June, early-July celebration paying homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic – make sure you get a good seat. The lively parade means that restaurants and shops along the route sell tickets, so book your spot early.

11. Succumb to Galle’s Colonial charms

The lighthouse at Galle Forte (Shutterstock)

Built by the Dutch in 1663, the walled city of Galle, on the country’s southernmost top and surrounded by ocean on three sides, is a must on any visit to Sri Lanka.

Inside the fort, you’ll find Dutch Colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, museums and lots of quirky boutique cafés and restaurants. Outside, you’ll be laying your eyes on some of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka.

Don’t forget to drop by nearby Koggala to see the famous stilt fisherman.Spotting them perched in the ocean on their frames – made from sticks and twine – is one of the most iconic and extraordinary sights in the country.

12. Tour the extraordinary temples of Colombo

A man praying in the Gangaramaya Temple (Shutterstock)

Some of the most beautiful and important temples in Sri Lanka are hidden amongst the bustling, chaotic streets of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Colourful and eccentric, they are well worth seeking out.

Gangaramaya Temple is a striking Buddhist temple next to the Lake Beira, giving it a calm and serene ambience. Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Temple is one of the oldest and most ornate Hindu temples in the city. And Koneswaram Temple, perched atop a rocky promontory, surrounded by the sea, is a technicolour treat.

13. Experience true Tamil culture in Jaffna

Bathers in the Keerimalai Hot Springs, near Jaffna (Shutterstock)

Long off the tourist trail, the city of Jaffna, in Sri Lanka’s formerly troubled Tamil north, is finally coming into its own.

Its ancient fort is a delight to explore and far less crowded than Galle. Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu temple is a hive of devout worshippers and the markets are colourful, lively and the perfect introduction to local life in the north.

Uncrowded beaches and islands are but a short hop away, too, as is Keerimalai Hot Springs, a popular bathing spot for curing all that ails you.

14. Seafood and eat it, wherever you go!

Marinated mackerel fish with spices (Shutterstock)

Sri Lankan food is not dissimilar to that served in India to the north. But with the sea never far away, the emphasis is on seafood, always fresh and delicious, caught that very day.

Jaffna Crab Curry is regarded as the best in the world, especially when sampled at the source where chefs take their time to grind the coconut, making the paste toasty and rich. In the south, seek out Squid Curry, cooked quickly in coconut cream and lime juice.

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