Sri Lanka is a small but fascinating country. We can get overwhelmed by the number of attractions Ceylon has to offer. What should you see in Sri Lanka, what to do there? Here are my recommendations!
I often get news from readers who go to Sri Lanka that my blog is a mine of information about this country. It makes me happy because I have been writing about it for almost four years now. And I don’t stop!
When planning a visit to a new country we don’t quite know what we can see there. We search for information and inspiration online. We wonder what to put in our itinerary and whether we’ll have enough time to see what we planned.
But here I am to help you! 😀 As you remember, I have been to Sri Lanka many times, privately and for work. Here is the only list of ALL attractions in Sri Lanka with anti-attraction, which means places I strongly advise against visiting.
The order of the mentioned attractions is random, but I put a star next to the most exciting places – in my opinion.
1. Sigiriya* – a must see in Sri Lanka!
Sigiriya is a massive volcanic rock in the middle of the flat terrain. On its top King Kassyapa had his palace in 5th century CE. At the foot of Sigiriya Rock was in the jungle with gardens and pools. Not only the size of the palace complex is impressive but also advanced hydrological solutions (pumps, fountains, air conditioning). Here you will find famous paintings of concubines. Personally, I think this is one of the most interesting places in Sri Lanka.
Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s second-oldest city after Anuradhapura. It is younger, and therefore smaller and much better preserved comparing to the ruins in Anu. The closeness of Sigiriya, Dambulla and the elephants in Minneriya National Park make it a popular choice for tourists to explore. If you wonder which ruins to choose – Polo or Anu – then I would recommend Polonnaruwa.
Two thousand years ago King Valagamba was hiding in the caves of Dambulla when Indian Tamils occupied his kingdom. After winning Anuradhapura back, he turned his hideout into a Buddhist temple. We will find here hundreds of Buddha statues and images painted on the walls and ceilings.
This place for nearly 1500 years was the capital of the Sinhala state. Here Buddhism was adopted, and the twig of the Bodhi Tree was brought from India, under which the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. Today, this place attracts both the Buddhists and the masses of tourists who want to understand better the history of Sri Lanka.
There are not many cities in Sri Lanka, but Kandy is the most interesting of them. It is the cultural capital of the country, full of colonial history mixed with Sri Lankan chaos. Here we find the Temple of the Tooth Relic, where monks keep Buddha’s tooth. It is also a gateway to the Hill Country, from where you can make day trips in the area.
6. Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya
Gardens in Peradeniya are a special place. On 147 acres we find over 4,000 species of various plants. The British founded the gardens in 1843, and today it is a favourite place of visits for locals and tourists. I suggest you avoid this site on weekends due to its popularity. 😉
7. Adam’s Peak
Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada for locals is a single mountain rising in the eastern part of the Hill Country. At the top, where according to beliefs Buddha had left a print of his foot, is a temple. Every year hundreds of pilgrims come here to pray. During high season tourists climb Adam’s Peak to watch spectacular sunrises. Watch out, ascending and descending can be exhausting!
It is the best preserved colonial city from Dutch period in this part of Asia and one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan government restored the whole fort. It is full of lovely cafes and restaurants now. Great place to spend a day!
If we have more than two weeks, it is worth to visit the far north of Sri Lanka. You can see the beautiful Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil – a gilded Hindu temple devoted to Murugan, the god of war. For those who have not been to India before, it will be a foretaste of that country and culture.
Ella and its surroundings are the Tea Country in a nutshell. We will find here tea factories and plantations, easy and moderate hiking trails perfect for watching the sunrise and admiring mountainside surroundings. Moreover, easily accessible waterfalls, temples and delicious food. And a large selection of accommodation at low prices!
11. Pettah District in Colombo
One city and so many faces. Colombo maybe is not a fascinating metropolis, but in one day you can see the most important places in the city. First of all, I recommend the chaotic Sri Lankan Pettah district and Fort full of colonial buildings, which is located just next to Pettah.
The tropical sandy beaches of Ceylon and warm waters of the Indian Ocean are perfect for relaxing! Besides, the climate of the country makes it possible to rest by the ocean at any time of the year (just choose the right place). There are plenty of beaches in Sri Lanka to recommend – peaceful places, partying, leisure, swimming, surfing and other water sports, as well as marine life. Everyone will find here an ideal location for themselves!
In Sri Lanka, hiking trails are found mainly in mountainous areas. In the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and Knuckles Range, the Horton Plains National Park, Ella and Haputale. Although the choice is not large, it is still worth to hike to at least one of these available routes, because the views can be incredible! You can admire the sunrise, tea plantations, mountains with precipices, jungle. Nature is by far the best attraction in Sri Lanka!
In Sri Lanka, we will see those best-known Sri Lankan animals in the wild. There are places where you can see whole families and even herds of hundreds of individuals at one time. If you are lucky, you will even observe rare male tuskers! Elephants are gorgeous and watching them free in their natural habitat when they tear twigs out of the trees or bathe in the lake is a pleasant experience.
15. Safari* – a must do in Sri Lanka!
Armed with a camera, let’s go on safari in one of the many amazing national parks on the island. I recommend the national parks with the largest number of animal species, such as Yala National Park or Wilpattu. You can spend an exciting day there, from sunrise to sunset. In the bush, search for families of elephants, crocodiles, colourful birds, sloth bears, and – most wanted – leopards.
Watching the animals during the safari is exciting, but I would also recommend taking a closer look at the Sri Lankan birds. There are as many as 80 IBA – Important Bird Areas. Sri Lanka has over 400 species of birds (half of them migrate) and 26 species are endemic, that is, we will not find them anywhere else in the world. It is full of different species of eagles, pelicans and flamingos, hornbills, birds-of-paradise, storks, herons and others.
17. Whales and dolphins
Blue whales and sperm whales are the species of whales that migrate off the coast of Sri Lanka. In the winter months, you can meet them south of the island and in the summer – on the east. In addition to the largest marine mammals in the world, you can also spot dolphins in the waters of the Indian Ocean.
On the coast, we find many places where turtles hatch. Relaxing on the beach, we can see them near the shore when they catch air over the water and then dive for food. Turtles in the wild we can also see while diving or snorkelling.
19. Diving and snorkelling
Although Sri Lanka is surrounded by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, it is unfortunately not a diving paradise. However, I can recommend such places as the coral reef in the Pigeon Island National Park or shipwrecks in Unawatuna area.
In the Hill Country, we will see spectacular waterfalls every step of the way. There are over 300 falls in the whole island, and 50 of them are at least 10 meters high. The highest waterfall is Bambarakanda, and it is 263 m high! You have to get a little dirty to reach the highest or the most beautiful waterfalls, but I think it is worth it. And you can even bathe in some of them!
21. Train ride through the Hill Country*
The Kandy to Ella railroad glides between the mountains covered with tea plantations. It is one of the ten most beautiful railway tracks in the world! On the way, we see the hills covered with tea plantations, magnificent waterfalls and rural life. However, not only the landscapes but also the specificity of train travel in Sri Lanka has its charm. That just needs to be tried!
22. Tuk-tuk ride*
It is impossible to be in Sri Lanka and not ride a tuk-tuk. It’s great fun, and on the busier roads, the adrenaline can squirt through our ears! As a last resort I recommend closing your eyes and trusting the driver – he knows what he does. You can also ask the driver to find a quiet road and try to drive the vehicle yourself. It’s so much fun! 😀
If you ever wanted to try surfing, then in Sri Lanka you can do it in two places – Welligama and Dickwella (November-May) and Arugam Bay (June-October). I especially recommend A’Bay, which is one of the top spots in the world when it comes to surfing! There are places of varying difficulty – from beginner to advanced. The main beach in Arugam is also suitable for swimming!
Sri Lanka is worth a visit just for the food itself! The most popular dish is rice with different types of curry, such as dhal (lentils), but also potatoes, beans, pumpkin or even cashew nuts. Besides, you have to try roti, all kinds of snacks, tropical fruit, curd (yoghurt made from buffalo milk), and fresh seafood on the coast. Do not forget about drinks – fruit juices, tea and arrack – alcohol made from fermented coconut palm flowers.
25. Tea* – a must try in Sri Lanka!
Sri Lanka is famous for its delicious tea. It is the fourth largest tea producer in the world and continues to compete with Kenya as the most significant exporter in the world. Being in Sri Lanka, you just have to see the tea plantations and watch the whole process of making this drink in the tea factory – I warn you that in the factories you can smell a very intense aroma of processed tea, personally one of my favourite scents in Sri Lanka! I also recommend taking part in tea tasting.
Ayurvedic medicine is already several thousand years old and comes from India. It is particularly prevalent in Sri Lanka. Ayurvedic massages and oil baths are found practically in every area. It’s the perfect way to relax, especially after an exhausting tour of the island!
I know that souvenirs are an attraction the same as in any other country in the world, but in Sri Lanka, it’s tough to resist the temptation of shopping madness. You can bring home spices, natural cosmetics, colourful Indian-style clothes, wooden figurines and jewellery. And above all – delicious tea!
28. Hindu festivals
I recommend visiting Hindu temples during festivals like the Festival of Light – Deepavali or Nallur Kovil Festival that lasts up to a month. Often we can see various religious rituals, such as offerings flowers and fruits. However, observing a dancing shaman in a trance was the most impressive event for me. He was a medium between the world of living and dead! Yes, I have seen it. That was one of the most amazing moments I have experienced in Sri Lanka!
29. Local Dances
If there is no festival during your visit to Sri Lanka, you can still watch the Kandian dances at a specially prepared performance. Although this is a very touristy attraction, it is worth seeing dancers in colourful exotic costumes (such as those depicted in the Rupees notes) moving to the beat of Sri Lankan drums.
30. Kandy Esala Parahera
I have mixed feelings about this festival. It is the most significant Buddhist procession, and it takes place at the turn of July and August. You can see dozens of dancers and fire eaters, which is a spectacular event, and therefore I recommend to take part in the festival. On the other hand, however, elephants are used in the procession. These animals work in the temples, which means they live in captivity. And because of this – I do not recommend this march. But the final decision is yours.
BONUS: What I DO NOT recommend in Sri Lanka?
First of all, I advise against visiting Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The idea of the orphanage is to help elephants that would not survive in the wild – they are wounded, orphaned, or lived in captivity. But I can’t say they orphanage is helping them. Elephants are kept here in entirely unnatural conditions (boxes!). Also, the place is very touristy. To make matters worse, in 2012 it came to light that animals that were physically healthy were resold from the orphanage again into captivity…
Another ‘attractions’ I do not recommend are turtle hatcheries. Another zoo, where they keep the turtles in small cement pools. Too little for their needs. These pools do not even resemble their natural environment. I would probably have the different opinion if they made a little effort and built them large aquariums similar to the bottom of the ocean. Turtle hatcheries are a sad sight, and I find no excuse for keeping these poor reptiles under such conditions.
Many people also ask me where I can find fishers on stilts. For example, in Welligama near Unawatuna, if you… pay. Fishermen simply make more money from posing for pictures than fishing. The cost of taking photographs depends on the time of the day (at sunset the price is higher), but you may expect around 1000 rupees. It’s not a real Sri Lanka anymore.