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Top 10 things to do in Sri Lanka
Described by science fiction visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke as ‘the best place in the world from which to view the universe”, Sri Lanka, the island hanging like a tear-drop from the southern tip of India, is most celebrated for its spellbinding beaches, lush rainforests, cool highlands, and fabled tea plantations. Factor in colonial buildings, conserved temples, and no less than eight UNESCO-listed sites, and it’s easy to see why this Indian Ocean nation is so spellbinding. Here’s the 10 most incredible experiences that Sri Lanka has to offer.
Visit the UNESCO-listed hill capital and cultural centre of Kandy
What: Located in the heart of the island, Kandy is the Sri Lanka’s second city and its undisputed cultural capital (Colombo often gets overlooked in favour of this fabulous place laid out around a lovely man-made lake). Most make a beeline for the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) built by the Kandyan Kings between 1687 and 1707 to house and honour the country’s most important religious relic - a tooth belonging to the Buddha. While not on public display (it’s completely hidden from view, resting on a solid gold lotus flower encased in a gold jewelled casket that sits on a throne), you may visit the heavily-guarded room to join thousands of white-clad pilgrims who make their way here daily bearing lotus blossoms and frangipani for puja (ceremonial offerings and prayers). Alternatively, if you’re visiting during the Kandy Esala Perahera you’ll get to see the relic casket paraded through the city’s streets atop a male elephant (this colourful and elegant 10-day event takes place in July or August).
Don’t miss: A steep climb up to the gleaming white Big Buddha overlooking Kandy offers some of the best views across the city. Also factor in a stroll around the incredible Royal Botanical Gardens, a visit to at least two museums (the World Buddhist Museum and the Ceylon Tea Museum are both superb), and a trip to the one-hour traditional dance and music showcase at the Kandyan Art Association Hall & Cultural Centre (daily performances start at 5:30pm).
Spend a night (or day) hiking to the soaring summit of Adam’s Peak
What: There are fewer places in the world more famous for their history of ancient pilgrimages than the Hill Country’s 7,359-feet-high Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada as it’s known locally). Most who are desperate to climb this iconic, conical, and most sacred of landmarks visit during pilgrimage season (beginning on poya day in December and running until the Vesak festival in May), but it’s still possible to climb the 6,000 crumbling stone steps outside of these months. The quickest way to the summit takes around four hours (less if you’re super-fit) and tends to mostly be tackled after midnight to ensure reaching the peak in time for sunrise. Along the way, you can expect to encounter an interesting mix of folk: pilgrims, tourists, chanting devotees, and spiritual souls looking for inner peace. There’s also a decent amount of wildlife here, most famously a very large amount of butterflies that flock there to die in a rather mysterious migration pattern that has given the mountain yet another nickname of Samanalakande (meaning Butterfly Mountain).
Don’t miss: The mountain’s star attraction is Sacred Footprint - the mysterious footprint-shaped indentation near the summit that measures 1.8-metres-long. Uniquely, it’s a symbol revered by different religions, all with contrasting verdicts on its origin. Buddhists believe the footprint is that of Buddha himself, Hindus think it belongs to Shiva, and Christians and Muslims claim it as the footprint of Adam - the man who first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven.
Head to the hills of Sri Lanka’s seriously stunning Tea Country
What: Given that Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of tea (and its second-largest exporter), a caffeine-charged cuppa here is the real deal. Categorised as high-grown tea, mid-grown tea, or low-grown tea, most of it comes from Hill Country - the fairytale-like region in the southern heartlands that’s filled with mist-shrouded mountains, lush rolling hills, gushing waterfalls, and emerald-coloured tea plantations stretching out as far as the eye can see. Easily accessed by train or by plane (the ultra-modern Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport is only a 90-minute drive away), there’s a slew of tea estates to explore - many of which offer personalised tours and ad-hoc tea tastings. Some of the best places to learn about what happens to the cured leaves of the camelia sinensis shrub prior to you mixing it with milk and sugar include Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, Amba Estate, and Dambethenne - the factory built by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1890 (it is one of four estates purchased by the fabled Scottish tea pioneer).
Don’t miss: Often referred to as ‘Little England’, Nuwara Eliya (meaning City of Lights) is the too-quaint community famous for its temperate climate, pretty English-style bungalows, and rather splendid 18-hole golf course. At an altitude of 6,128-feet, this is the country’s most important tea hub (big-name producers Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Estate, Blue Field Tea Centre, and Pedro Tea Factory are all based in this Victorian-era little town).
Spend time at the Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla Cave Temples
What: Around nine miles north-east of Dambulla, the UNESCO-listed Sigiriya Rock (also called Lion Rock) is the 660-feet-high pleasure palace and fortress built 1,600 years ago by King Kasyapa - the short-serving ruler who buried his father alive in a wall before acquiring the throne. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s most dramatic sight (locals call it the Eighth Wonder of the World), it astounds with an extensive network of landscaped water gardens, lily-covered moats, and fountains - all of which are worth photographing before climbing the 1,200 steps to the summit. Most standout is the Mirror Wall for its graffiti by intrepid tourists of yesteryear, and the Sigiriya Frescoes for its ancient paintings of Kasyapa's harem. Only 30 minutes away is the equally striking UNESCO-listed Dambulla Cave Temples - the sacred pilgrimage site with five separate shrine-like caves filled with 157 Buddha statues and murals. Dating back to the 1st century BC, the rock complex towers 160 metres over the plains (the climb from the base takes around 30 minutes).
Don’t miss: The second and largest of Dambulla’s great cave temples is the magnificent Maharaja lena (Cave of the Great Kings). Here you’ll find 16 standing and 40 seated Buddhas as well as statues of Saman, Vishnu, King Vattagaman, King Nissanka Malla, and two deities Natha and Maitreya who are both regarded as future Buddhas in Buddhist eschatology. There’s also a spring that drips sacred water continuously into the cave from the eastern end.
Discover breathtaking beaches dotted along Sri Lanka's coastline
What: Surrounded on all sides by the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has plenty of gorgeous beaches for those who like the sunny-side of life. Some of the best include Nilaveli Beach for its white sand, palm trees, and abandoned rustic fishing boats, Arugam Bay for its Zen-like vibe and excellent surfing conditions (waves rise to a height of up to ten metres), and Mirissa Beach for its superb whale and dolphin watching. There’s also Bentota Beach for its clean fine sand, crystalline shallow waters, and year-round watersports (snorkelling, sailing, jet skiing, windsurfing, kayaking), and Unawatuna Beach for its magical sunsets, pastel-coloured houses, and unique handicraft shops. Another sun-kissed gem is Hikkaduwa Beach, the hippy hangout turned buzzy resort that has had a top-to-toe makeover since being hit by a tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004. Here you’ll find plenty of things to do: cooling off in the sea, flopping out on the idyllic sands, and checking out the cool club scene (the beach parties and festivals here are among the best in all of Sri Lanka).
Don’t miss: Infinite sea views are guaranteed at Saman Villas Bentota, a five-star boutique gem atop its own rocky promontory facing northwards to Bentota Beach and southwards to Induruwa Beach. There’s 27 ocean-facing suites with contemporary tropical décor, spacious lounge areas, and all mod cons, an excellent restaurant for global and Sri Lankan cuisine, an Art Deco-styled infinity pool, and a temple-like spa for aromatherapy treatments and therapies.
Plunge into the deep on a diving or snorkelling excursion
What: Sri Lanka has no shortage of deep-sea surprises; spectacular coral reefs, colourful fish, and some 200 wrecks that make for hauntingly stunning dive sites. Most eager divers and snorkellers make their way to Trincomalee for its shallow sand banks, crystalline waters, and the historical wreck of HMS Hermes - the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier that has was almost unknown until recently (it was finally possible to dive her at the end of the civil war between 1983 and 2009). Equally worth a visit is Unawatuna for its two great diving schools at the western and eastern ends of the beach (both offer PADI courses, introductory dives, and deep dives) as well as its eight wrecks - the most famous of which is SS Rangoon that lies at a depth of 30 metres. There’s also Kalpitiya for its incredible Bar Reef filled with tropical fish, reef sharks, whales, dolphins, manta rays, and more, and Kirinda for its Little Basses and Great Basses reefs, rich marine life (porpoises, tuna, angelfish, groupers, giant maori wrasses, snappers, rays), and historical lighthouse that withstood the force of the 2004 tsunami with only minimal damage.
Don’t miss: There’s little more exciting to divers than spotting a black-tip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) swimming gracefully over shallow reefs and sandy flats. Named for its pointed snout and black-tipped fins, these near-harmless and endangered creatures average five feet in length and weigh up to 30 pounds. They are also one of only a few types of sharks that can leap above the surface, rotate a few times, and splash down on their backs.
Head to the famous whale watching spots during migration
What: Little compares to witnessing a blue whale swirling and splashing its way through the waves in the small three-mile stretch of ocean between Mirissa and Dondra off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. As one of the best places in the world to see these majestic 30-metre-long creatures, the whale-watching here is nothing short of spectacular - especially during migration between November and April (peak viewing is in December and January). But it’s not just the blues feeding on blooms of plankton that command your attention; you’ll also see sperm, fin, minke, humpbacks, and brydes and alongside pods of spinner and spotted dolphins - the ocean’s great acrobats. As you’d expect, there’s plenty of tour companies operating these waters, most of which will give you a 99 per cent guarantee of seeing these creatures just metres from your boat (if you don’t, you can head out another day free-of-charge). If you’re travelling independently, be sure to select a Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society-approved boat with an experienced skipper.
Don’t miss: Standing at the southernmost point of Sri Lanka, the 54-metre-high Dondra Head Lighthouse is the country’s tallest lighthouse - and one of the tallest in South East Asia. Built in 1889, this white brick tower is positioned at a crucial point on the Maritime route. There’s 96 steps to reach the top of the lighthouse, but wannabe climbers will need permission from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority who currently operate and maintain this octagonal all-white structure.
Hop aboard a train for an eye-opening journey through Sri Lanka
What: Dating back to 1864 when the island was under British colonial rule, Sri Lanka's government-run railway system offers some of the world’s most epic routes through the country’s lush rainforests, dramatic valleys, soaring mountain ranges, charming cities, and glorious shores. There are three main lines: the recently-renovated route from the South from Colombo (through Aluthgama and Hikkaduwa to Galle and Matara), East from Colombo to the Hill Country (running past Kandy, Nanu Oya, and Ella to Badulla), and North from Colombo (through Anuradhapura to Mannar and also to Jaffna). Tickets come in three categories: First Class (a choice of coaches, sleeping berths, or observation saloons with large windows), Second Class (padded seats, toilet facilities, and fans), and Third Class (hard seats, crammed conditions, and tickets that cannot be reserved in advance). Sri Lanka’s train system really is all about the journey, so it’s impossible to get anywhere quickly (factor in a full-day or night to travel the shortest of distances).
Don’t miss: For the ultimate in olde-worlde luxury train travel, the 75-year old Viceroy Special is Sri Lanka’s only passenger steam train. Operating as a private train on all of the island’s railway lines, it has two air-conditioned saloons with period décor, 64 plush reclining seats with adjustable tables, modern toilets, and Wi-Fi access. There’s also a restaurant carriage complete with Edwardian ribbed fans, teak-trimmed wood panelling, and a fully-stocked bar.
Hike one of two nature trails in Sinharaja Forest Reserve
What: Covering 189-square-kilometres of primary and modified forest, the Sinharaja Rain Forest was declared a World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1989. Ranging in altitude from 300-metres to 1,170-metres, it’s bounded by some of the country’s most famous rivers: the Koskulana Ganga in the north, and the Gin Ganga in the south. As you’d expect, it’s teeming with wildlife: nearly 500 out of the island’s indigenous plants, 17 of its native bird species, and eight of its endemic mammals call this place home (including giant squirrel, dusky-stripped jungle squirrel, badger mongoose, endemic purple-faced leaf monkey, and torque macaque). Due to the sheer density of the forest, access is only on foot - and always accompanied by a ranger or guide. December through April is the best time to due to lesser rainfall and the presence of migrating birds. It’s also the best time for hikers to hit one of the two enlightening nature trails leading to the peaks of Moulawella or Sinhagala (both begin at the Kudawa Conservation Centre).
Don’t miss: The 8.5-kilometre Sinhagala Nature Trail to Sinhagala Peak takes between five and seven hours (the view from the summit is the most rewarding bit and well worth the strenuous climb) while the gentler 2.4-kilometre Mulawella Nature Trail to Mulawella Peak takes around one to two hours. Hikers should note that both trails are heavily infected with leaches so it’s essential to wear anti-leech socks made from tightly-woven fabric (also carry a good leech repellent).
Get up-close with wildlife on a guided tour of the national parks
What: For a relatively small nation, Sri Lanka packs a huge amount of wildlife into its national parks. And while large populations of elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and primates tend to steal the show, there’s also plenty of wonderful birdlife. The seven-night Sri Lanka Wildlife Tour has all bases covered; stops in Sigiriya Rock Fortress and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic along with 4x4 jeep safari adventures in some of the country’s most revered wildlife hotspots. Highlights include Yala National Park for its five separate “blocks”, adjoining parks, and one of the world's highest densities of leopard, and Horton Plains Nature Reserve for its rich moorlands dotted with forests that roll down to the precipice of World’s End. Equally enchanting is Minneriya National Park for its diverse habitats (wetlands, dry tropical forest, grasslands), and Udawalawe National Park for its game-spotting. The tour includes hotel flights, accommodation with breakfast and dinner, all transport, park entrances, and the services of an English-speaking guide.
Don’t miss: The two-night Sri Lanka Leopard Safari includes a stay at an eco-friendly campsite either in Yala or in Wilpattu National Park. Both offer spacious tent accommodation with king-size beds, two daily game drives, and a slew of optional activities such as photography lessons, cooking classes, stargazing, and wildlife walks. Your stay here is on an all-inclusive basis and includes freshly-prepared Sri Lankan food at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks.