Sri Lanka might just be the next Bali. This South Asian paradise is still unknown to many travellers, but we reckon it won’t stay that way for long. With gorgeous beaches, beautiful ancient temples and jungles filled with wildlife, it definitely deserves a place on your bucket list. Oh, and did we mention the food? Start packing your bags because it’s time to plan your next epic adventure with our guide to the best places to visit in Sri Lanka…
There’s no better place to start your big adventure than Sri Lanka’s capital city. Colombo is rich in history, as for centuries, it was a major outpost for trade between Asia and Europe. Today, the capital is a vibrant, bustling city and one of the best places to indulge in food in Sri Lanka.
You might think that Sri Lankan cuisine is just like Indian food, but as soon as you start eating, you’ll notice the differences. As you might expect from an island, seafood is always on the menu here, with fish curry being a particular favourite. Egg hoppers — bowl-shaped pancakes with a spicy egg slipped inside — are the ultimate breakfast treat in Colombo, while kottu roti, a yummy blend of finely chopped flatbread, chicken and veggies, is the perfect street food to fuel your city exploration.
While you’re in Colombo, don’t miss out on visiting the National Museum. It’s a great starting point to learn about Sri Lanka’s history before you set off to see it all for yourself.
Okay, Colombo is fun, but it’s a big city. Most visitors to Sri Lanka want nature, and that means a trip to Ella. You can get to this lush green village quite easily on either the Colombo or Kandy to Ella train. Don’t sleep on the train! You’ll pass over the Nine Arch Bridge, a death-defying railway bridge that runs through the heart of the green landscape. You might not want to look down because it’s an awfully long way to the forest floor! The views from this bridge are really some of the best things to see in Sri Lanka.
Once you’re in Ella, it’s time to explore. This is a hiker’s paradise, with the highlight being Ella Rock. Reaching the top of this massive red rock will take about four hours, but for the epic views of the surrounding countryside, it’s well worth it. No wonder this sleepy village has become known as one of the top main attractions in Sri Lanka.
Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and some even call it the 8th Wonder of the World. It’s also known as Lion Rock or the Mount of Remembrance, but whatever you call it, you’re in for a treat. Bring your hiking boots and get there early because scaling this massive rock formation is pretty much impossible in the heat of the Sri Lankan sun. If you set off first thing in the morning, you’ll spend about an hour to reach the top, and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the green surroundings.
On top of Sigiriya, you’ll find the remains of an ancient rock fortress. While nobody lives up here today, it remains one of the most important historical sites in the entire country. In fact, Sigiriya has become a symbol of Sri Lanka itself, so no trip to the island nation would be complete without a visit.
This is our pick for one of the best things to see in Sri Lanka, mostly for the views. Hiking up Pidurangala Rock gives you perfect views of Sigiriya, so make sure you’re wearing your favourite hiking gear — you’re going to want to pose!
It’ll take you about 30 to 45 minutes to get to the top, depending on your fitness levels. Again, it’s best to avoid the heat of the midday sun. We reckon it’s best to go up first thing in the morning. Early mornings in this part of Sri Lanka are often foggy, and the sight of Lion Rock rising up out of the forest mist is one you’ll never forget.
How about a city that’s just as sweet as it sounds? Kandy is home to some of our favourite sightseeing places in Sri Lanka, including the Big Buddha, the Temple of the Tooth and Kandy Lake.
This is an excellent place to visit if you’re curious about Buddhism, the religion of choice for the vast majority of Sri Lankans. The Big Buddha is a dazzling white statue that can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. At night, it really lights up, which makes it seem even more striking. The city is also home to one of the country’s most sacred temples, the Temple of the Tooth. Inside is the tooth of the Buddha, an incredibly important relic. In fact, for centuries, people believed that whoever held the tooth had the divine right to rule Sri Lanka, so many wars were fought over it.
For something a lot less sacred, take a stroll around the shores of Kandy Lake. There’s a charming pavilion here that was once used as a bathhouse for the king’s concubines. Luckily, those days are long gone! Today, it’s just a popular sightseeing spot where you can immerse yourself in Sri Lankan culture.
In fact, we’d rank the entire city of Galle as one of the best things to see in Sri Lanka. UNESCO agrees, having named this old spice trading port a World Heritage Site. Centuries ago, Europeans came here to establish valuable trading routes, and today, the Dutch Fort Galle is a fascinating slice of old colonial life.
To experience one of the best sunsets in Sri Lanka, we recommend you go for a walk around the fort early in the evening. Don’t miss the picturesque Galle Lighthouse either, a striking white building surrounded by palms. There are a number of other old colonial buildings in Galle, relics from the days when Dutch traders established their port here. The Dutch Reformed Church is one of the most interesting buildings in town and a rather unusual sight in this very Buddhist country. There’s also the unique, tranquil Japanese Peace Pagoda, built by Japanese Buddhist monks. It’s a remarkably poignant sight, especially when you consider that Sri Lanka was in the midst of a brutal civil war during its construction. This is a Buddhist shrine, so if you’re going to visit, be sure to dress appropriately with shoulders and legs covered.
If you’re a sports fan, you might also want to stop by the Galle International Cricket Stadium. It’s said that the Sri Lankan national cricket team always has good luck when they play here, so if you’re in town for a match, join in the fun! Sri Lanka is a cricket-mad nation, and there’s nothing quite like the good vibes of a victory party.
For some travellers, no trip is complete without a dip in the sea. If you’re one of them, then add Unawatuna to your list of things to see in Sri Lanka.
This beach resort is hands down the best spot on the island for watersports. Snorkelling, scuba diving and surfing are all popular activities here, as well as good old-fashioned swimming, of course! The warm waters here teem with sea life, coral reefs, brightly coloured fish and more. The highlight here? The sea turtles. If you want to swim alongside these remarkable creatures, it’s best to get up early in the morning. That’s when they’re at their most active, and you can enjoy the best possible views of them up close and personal.
As well as all that, Unawatuna is one of the best areas to visit in Sri Lanka if you like a bit of a party. This laid-back beach town has an old-school backpackers’ vibe, with plenty of bars and clubs where you can meet fellow travellers from around the world. Don’t panic — it’s not as hectic as the islands of Thailand, but if you’re up for a few cocktails and a game of pool, you’ll find plenty of options here.
Yes, it’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site! Anuradhapura was officially founded in the year 437 BC, but archaeologists believe people have lived here for far longer — almost 3,000 years, in fact. That makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Asia, and it’s a fascinating site where ancient civilisations seem to come to life.
If you have even a passing interest in history or culture, be sure to add Anuradhapura to your list of things to see in Sri Lanka. The city became famous as a monastic retreat and is home to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, also known as the Tree of Awakening. This was grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi Tree in India. It is said that Buddha was meditating underneath its branches when he achieved enlightenment. Around it, you’ll find temples and statues of Buddha.
This is also a great place to visit if you’d like to lose yourself in nature. Follow the trails that run through the park around Anuradhapura, and you’ll see wild peacocks strutting and monkeys playing.
Dambulla Rock Cave
Are you scared of the dark? Well, don’t worry because the Dambulla cave temple isn’t your bog-standard damp and dreary cave. Instead, it’s the largest temple complex in Sri Lanka, with some of its statues and paintings dating back 800 years. There are five main rooms, and each contains a Buddha in a different position. In front of the complex is an enormous golden Buddha watching over the temples below.
This has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, and it is still a deeply holy place today. If you want to add it to your itinerary of things to see in Sri Lanka, remember to dress respectfully! You don’t need to cover your hair in a Buddhist temple, but you will need to keep your shoulders covered, as well as your knees. You’ll want to wear comfortable shoes, too. That’s not out of respect but out of practicality — there’s a very steep walk to get to the temple complex, which is set in a sheer rock face. It will only take you 10 minutes, but you’ll be sweating up a storm by the time you reach the entrance.
Yala National Park
One of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is to see the wildlife. While many Asian countries have seen their native species become severely endangered or even extinct, there are still plenty of great spots to see animals in Sri Lanka. We think the best area of all is Yala National Park, where you can’t throw a stone without hitting an elephant — not that we recommend you start throwing stones at elephants! Those guys can get angry!
As well as elephants, Yala is home to sambars, sloth bears, jackals, deer, peacocks, crocodiles and the world’s largest concentration of leopards. In the dry season, between February and July, you’re more likely to see these majestic creatures out in the open. Go for a safari drive if you want an expert guide to help you spot some animals.
Yala was originally founded in 1900 when Sri Lanka was still a British colony. Back then, it was a hunting ground for the rich, but it is a very different place today, where conservation is king and visitors are taught to respect the local wildlife.
You might have noticed a theme here: a lot of the best areas to visit in Sri Lanka are connected to Buddhism. That’s because the religion is deeply intertwined with the island’s history and culture, to the point that it’s impossible to separate the two.
Here’s another example: Adam’s Peak, home to a sacred rock formation that is said to be the footprint of the Buddha. There are 5,200 steps up to the top, so only the most determined travellers make it up there — but what a view! If you’re up for the challenge, bring plenty of water, as it’s a long, arduous journey. We reckon it’s well worth it, though, as you’ll have crystal clear views across the stunning green Sri Lankan countryside.
To make your trek more enjoyable, Adam’s Peak is also known as the Mountain of the Butterflies. You’ll see dozens of colourful insects as you climb, and these aren’t the wimpy little butterflies you find in Europe — they’re huge, spectacularly bright creatures that are a true feast for the eyes.
There are plenty of waterfalls around Sri Lanka, but if you only have time to visit one, make it Ravana. You’ll pass this stunning cascade if you’re driving to Ella, as it’s just off the main road. In fact, if you’re visiting the island in the dry season, you might not even notice it — when there’s no rain, the water slows to a trickle. However, come in the wet season, and you’ll find a spectacular, gushing waterfall that demands you to stop, get out of the car and take a few photos. In the summer months, you can go for a dip in the refreshing waters.
Let’s be honest: we’ve only just scratched the surface of the best things to see in Sri Lanka. This island nation has it all — intriguing history, beautiful monuments, spectacular natural surroundings and world-class cuisine. To see it for yourself, join us on this epic tour across Sri Lanka. We’ll spend 12 days exploring everything from sun-kissed beaches to leafy green tea plantations, so you’ll get a real feeling for Sri Lanka. Are you ready for an Asian holiday unlike any other?
P.S. We also recommend you read our guide on the best places to visit in India!