Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

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Despite its small land mass, Sri Lanka boasts a wide range of places to visit, from dense rainforests to hills covered with tea plantations, from white sandy beaches to colourful, cultural cities.

The places to visit in Sri Lanka are varied, many and, oh so beautiful. As you travel the length and breadth of this beautiful island, you will find a favourite beach to call your own, meditate in a 2000-year-old temple, try to keep count of the little dishes that come with your rice and curry, stroll past colonial gems in Colombo and then hit some epic surf. Sri Lanka is spectacular, it’s affordable and it’s still mostly uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.

Best Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

15. Colombo

The capital is an excellent start – or finish – to your Sri Lankan adventures. No longer just the sprawling city you have to endure on your way to the southern beaches, Colombo has become a worthy destination in its own right. The legacies of colonial Colombo’s garden roots are still very much intact along its often shady boulevards, landmark colonial architecture and lively markets. Colombo’s cosmopolitan side supports ever-more stylish eateries, galleries and museums. Surprises abound in its old quarters where you can find great local food and discover a characterful shop or tiny, convivial café. Colombo is rapidly emerging as a must-see stop in Sri Lanka.

14. Jaffna

Re-emerging as a bastion of Hindu tradition, art and creative culture, Jaffna is an intriguing, unimposing and most untouristed place that’s a thoroughly rewarding place to invest a few days discovering Sri Lankan Tamil culture. Here, everything seems different, especially the language: the rapid-fire staccato of spoken Tamil is a real change from singsong Sinhala. So too the cuisine: singularly spiced and, in season, complemented by legendary mangoes. And perhaps even the light: it has a distinctive quality, reflected as deep garden greens in Jaffna’s suburbs. Revel in the uniqueness of Jaffna, including the towering, ornate Hindu temples. And don’t miss Jaffna’s isolated islands and their end-of-the-earth appeal.

13. Dambulla

More or less at the heart of the Cultural Triangle, Dambulla is famous for its beautifully painted cave temples which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The temple complex is made up of a series of five caves that offer a picture-perfect snapshot of Sinhalese Buddhist art at its finest. The dimly-lit grottoes are filled with statues of the Buddha in various sizes and mudras, while the walls and ceilings are decorated with some of the finest murals in the country. Despite its slightly commercial air, Dambulla remains an important holy place and should not be missed.

12. Mirissa

The languid village of Mirissa is worth a visit for its lovely beach and relaxing atmosphere, since it has mercifully escaped much of the development that has overrun the other beach towns on the South Coast. Busy resorts are conspicuous by their absence; instead tiny shacks and modest guesthouses line the stretch of sand, which is backed by a dense swathe of palm trees. In the evening, restaurant tables spill out onto the beach and diners can enjoy their meals while looking out to sea. Giragala or Parrot Rock at the beach’s eastern end boasts great views on sunset.

Mirissa’s popularity has grown in recent years as it has become one of Sri Lanka’s leading whale watching destinations. In addition, both the western and the eastern ends of the beach are good for surfing as well as for other watersports such as snorkelling and sport fishing. Inland, the town offers some pretty jungle walks.

11. Polonnaruwa

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, the well-preserved ruins of Polonnaruwa are often considered the highlight of the Cultural Triangle. The garden-city of Polonnaruwa had its heyday in the late 12th century under King Parakramabah, after the plundering of Sri Lanka’s first capital, Anuradhapura. It’s the sense of the ancient everyday that makes this ruined city irresistible: its complex irrigation systems and sublime architecture, from giant stupas and carved Buddhas to lotus ponds and libraries. Explore by bicycle; the crumbling grandeur of this medieval metropolis is captivating. Catch sight of the ruins at sunrise and sunset, where the rosy rays of light bathe the complex in a romantic glow.

10. Yala National Park

Situated in the southeastern part of Sri Lanka, the expansive Yala National Park is one of the most visited national parks on the island largely due to its accessibility and leopard population. Home to around 35 leopards, Yala is said to be one of the best places in the world to observe and photograph these felines. Punctuated by rocky outcrops, the park’s sprawling landscape varies from thorny scrub forests and open grasslands to dense jungles and coastal lagoons. The park boasts a great variety of fauna, which includes elephants, spotted deer, civets and crocodiles. The birdlife here is also very diverse, with migrants swelling the ranks of the resident population in winter. Yala is also home to a number of cultural attractions, notable among which are the historic sites of Situpahuwa and Magul Maha Vihara.

9. Kandy

Hidden away amid precipitous green hills at the heart of the island, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city and undisputed cultural capital of the island. It is home to the Temple of the Tooth, the country’s most important religious shrine, and the Esala Perahera, its most exuberant festival. As the last independent bastion of the Sinhalese, the city preserves its own unique customs and culture which live on today in the city’s unique music, dance and architecture. The city maintains a somewhat aristocratic air, with its graceful Kandyan and colonial buildings, scenic highland setting and pleasantly temperate climate, while the twisted topography of the surrounding hills and the lake at its centre ensures that the city hasn’t overwhelmed its scenic setting.

8. Horton Plains & World’s End

Horton Plains is a beautiful, silent, strange world, lorded over by two of Sri Lanka’s highest mountains, Kirigalpotta (2395m) and Totapola (2359m). In fact, the famous ‘plains’ are actually a plateau soaring 2000m above the surrounding countryside, coming to a sudden halt at World’s End, where the landscape plunges dramatically to the forested lowlands. You’ll need to wrap up warm for the dawn hike across these bleak moorlands – however, it’s one of the most enjoyable walks in the country. And then, suddenly, out of the mist comes the end of the world and a view over what seems like half of Sri Lanka.

7. Arugam Bay

Easygoing Arugam Bay is by far the most engaging of the east coast’s resorts. A-Bay, as it’s often known, has long been popular with the surfing fraternity, who come here to ride what are generally acknowledged to be the best waves in Sri Lanka. Arugam Bay offers much to tempt even those who are not keen to ride the waves. With its laid-back atmosphere and rustic beachside huts, the village is a haven for holidaymakers on the East Coast. It’s also a good launching pad from which to explore the gorgeous surrounding countryside and its varied attractions, from the elephant-rich Lahugala National Park and the little-visited Yala East National Park to the atmospheric forest hermitage at Kudimbigala.

6. Hill Country Tea Plantations

It wasn’t really all that long ago that Sri Lanka’s Hill Country was largely a wild and ragged sweep of jungle-clad mountains, but then along came the British who felt the need for a nice cup of tea. So they chopped down all the jungle and turned the Hill Country into one giant tea estate. And you know what? The result is mighty pretty! Sri Lankan tea is now famous across the world, and visiting a tea estate and see how the world’s favourite cuppa is produced is absolutely fascinating.

A great introduction to the endless rolling green fields of the Hill Country’s tea plantations is riding the train from Ella to Haputale. In just a few hours you’ll see dozens of plantations and their emerald-green carpets of plants. Amid it all you’ll see sari-clad pluckers toiling under the sun, busily meeting their quotas for the day. It’s an experience not to be missed.

5. Adam’s Peak

Poking up from the southwestern edge of the Hill Country, the soaring summit of Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) is simultaneously one of Sri Lanka’s most striking natural landmarks and one of its most celebrated places of pilgrimage – a miniature Matterhorn which stands head and shoulders above the surrounding hills, giving a wonderful impression of sheer altitude. The mountain has sparked the imagination for centuries and been a focus for pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. Over the years, pilgrims have trudged by candlelight up Adam’s Peak to stand in the footprints of Buddha, breathe the air where Adam first set foot on earth and see the place where butterflies go to die. Today, tourists join the throngs of local pilgrims and, as you stand in the predawn light atop the perfect pinnacle of rock and watch the sun crawl above waves of mountains, the sense of magic remains as bewitching as it must have been for Adam himself.

4. Galle Fort

Nowhere in Sri Lanka bears better witness to its rich colonial heritage than Galle Fort. Man and nature have joined forces here to produce an architectural work of art. The Dutch built the streets and buildings, the Sri Lankans added the colour and style, and then nature got busy covering it in a gentle layer of tropical vegetation, humidity and salty air. The result is an enchanting old town that is home to dozens of art galleries, quirky shops, boutique cafes and guesthouses, plus some splendid hotels. For tourists it’s, without doubt, the number one urban attraction in the country.

3. Uda Walawe National Park

Uda Walawe has developed into one of Sri Lanka’s most popular national parks mainly thanks to its large and easily spotted population of elephants – it’s the best place in the island to see pachyderms in the wild. This huge chunk of savannah grassland centred on the Uda Walawe reservoir is the closest Sri Lanka gets to East Africa. There are herds of buffalo, sambar deer, crocodiles, masses of birds, and tons of elephants. In fact, Uda Walawe is equal to, or even better than, many of the famous East African national parks. According to the 2011 census there are about 600 elephants in the park in herds of up to 50.

2. Anuradhapura

The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. Here bits of Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious heritage sprawl across 3 sq km containing a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas, soaring brick towers, ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. In the centre is one of the world’s oldest trees, the more than 2000-year-old Sri Maha Bodhi. Today, several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples; frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the ambience at Polonnaruwa. Biking through Anuradhapura is a thrilling experience.

1. Sigiriya Rock

The shortest-lived but the most extraordinary of all Sri Lanka’s medieval capitals, Sigiriya was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982 and is the country’s most memorable single attraction – a remarkable archaeological site made unforgettable by its dramatic setting. Near-vertical walls soar to a flat summit containing the ruins of an ancient civilisation, with carvings and frescoes as well as spellbinding vistas across forests. Sigiriya (Lion Rock) is named after the huge lion paws that mark the site of the old palace gateway. The surrounding landscape – lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and quiet shrines – only adds to Sigiriya’s appeal. The climb to the top is a wearying but worthy experience.

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