Top 12 Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

Top 12 Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

By Candice SongUpdated Sep. 24, 2021

Sri Lanka, this teardrop-shaped island country, is an ideal holiday destination where a rich cultural heritage shines through its many sights. There you can find beautiful beaches, forest-clad hills, and expansive national parks – nature is never far away.

First-time visitors to Sri Lanka on a 7-day trip cannot miss the major cities of Colombo, Kandy, and the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya and the Dambulla Cave Temple.

Travelers with a few more days can easily visit cities, such as Nuwara Eliya, Ella, and Yala Park where you can find lustrous tea gardens, extensive plains, unbeatable mountain views, waterfalls, and mischievous animals. Bentota, Trincomalee, and Arugam Bay are good choices for those seeking rest and relaxation. For a glimpse of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, Galle is the best.

Visitors to Sri Lanka will find themselves spoilt for choice. To make things easier, we have compiled a list of the country’s top 12 highlights.

Quick Facts

  • The “Cultural Triangle” is an area spanning the best places for exploring Sri Lanka’s history and culture, taking in Kandy, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa.
  • For incredible views, it is hard to beat Nuwara Eliya and Ella.
  • For those wanting to go off the beaten track, Jaffna is the best choice.
  • For untouched beaches, head to Bentota.
  • Spot the largest sea mammal, the blue whale, off the coasts of Trincomalee and Mirissa.
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1. Kandy: A Sacred City of Sri Lankan Buddhism

Recommended visiting time: 2–4 days

Kandy is considered one of Sri Lanka’s most fascinating cities, rich in culture and history. As the former capital of the country’s ancient kings, it has a wealth of historical and colonial architecture. It is also a picturesque city with brightly colored houses dotting the forested hills. In the city center, majestic buildings border sparkling lakes.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is one of the most important shrines of Sri Lanka. This temple is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world and exhibits some beautiful Kandyan architecture that dates back to the 16th century.

Located close to the temple, inside the royal palace complex, the International Buddhist Museum provides a complete knowledge base and showcase of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.

One of the greatest attractions is Kandy Lake. Visitors are recommended to take a walking tour around the lake, which dominates the heavenly location with its cascading beauty.

Udawattakele Forest Reserve is the perfect spot for those seeking walking/hiking and adventure. This is a historic forest reserve and can be found nestled close to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

2. Colombo: The Commercial Heart of Sri Lanka

Recommended visiting time: 1–2 days

Colombo is the largest city, once known as the “garden city of the East.” Despite its rapid expansion, it retains many boulevards and landscaped gardens.

The commercial center of Sri Lanka seamlessly mixes modern malls and skyscrapers with beautiful colonial buildings.

The city’s main attractions can easily be seen in one day if you make an early start. The Gangaramaya Temple is one of the most venerable temples in Colombo, decorated with wonderful brass work, stone carvings, and other Buddhist arts.

The other must-see attraction in the city is Galle Face Green, a vast urban park with a lively selection of food and merchandise stalls. A stone’s throw from Colombo Harbor, it is the perfect place for a promenade with views out toward the Indian Ocean.

3. Galle: A Magnificent Fort City

Recommended visiting time: 1–3 days

Galler Galle is a great place to enjoy a few days of sunshine and sauntering. Amidst the historic sites and cultural landmarks, you will find atmospheric cafes, trendy boutiques, and quaint art galleries.

The highlight is the 17th-century Galle Fort, which lies on a peninsula jutting out into the ocean. Particularly spectacular at sunset, the fort is a living monument; its interior houses souvenir stands and cozy bars.

There are plenty of large hotel chains in the area, but the best base from which to explore Galle, the fort, and the beaches is one of the many boutique hotels. Our favorite include Amangalla, Taru Villas, and Galle Fort Hotel.

4. Nuwara Eliya: “Little England” with a Blend of Tea Culture

Recommended visiting time: 2–3 days

Train to Nuwara Eliya Nuwara Eliya lies in the scenic hill country, with beautiful gardens, colonial-era architecture, and a mild climate. It is known as “Little England,” as this is the place where the British colonizers built their holiday homes in typical Victorian style. This small town is a great place to spend a few days enjoying the unique scenery and escape the sweltering heat.

There are a lot of things to do in the town, such as a relaxing boat ride on Gregory Lake, a fresh nature walk in Victoria Park, or a visit to the “Pink Post Office,” which was built in 1894.

Well worth a day trip, Horton Plains National Park is situated about 30 km (20 miles) from Nuwara Eliya. There you will find an abundance of hiking trails, including the famous trail to the World’s End, a massive cliff at the end of a plateau.

A visit to a tea factory is a must in this tea capital of Sri Lanka. Highly recommended is the Pedro Tea Factory (built in 1815). Witness the entire tea-production process, from the leaf to the cup.

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5. Ella: A Beautiful Hill County

Recommended visiting time: 1–3 days

Ella is a popular Hill Country village about 1,000 meters above sea level. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is a sight in itself. The destination is a lovely spot for relaxing in cafes, but it is also the perfect starting point for many Sri Lankan Hill Country adventures.

Most visitors to Ella come for the hiking trails, the most well-known being the hikes to Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. Both destinations will give you spectacular views of the Sri Lankan countryside.

If you want a little more adventure, hike up to the Diyaluma Falls and witness the epic views and natural infinity pools. During the summer months when the water levels have dropped, you can enjoy a refreshing swim in the falls’ various natural pools, including those right on the edge of the main waterfall.

6. Anuradhapura: The Oldest Capital of Sri Lanka

Recommended visiting time: 1–2 days

Sri Lanka is famous for the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Almost all travel itineraries include a visit to the old capital, but Anuradhapura also has a “new town” on the outskirts of the ancient city.

The ancient city of Anuradhapura was first inhabited around 900 BC and was a major center of Sri Lankan civilization. The fascinating ancient ruins include the sacred Bodhi tree, eight major palaces, monasteries, and monuments.

The city itself has a laidback vibe, with a couple of local markets to check out. The Archaeology Museum is well worth a visit for its interesting collection of local artifacts.

The ancient Sri Lankans’ architectural skills, culture, and prosperity as typified in Anuradhapura is best explored by bike. As you ride along the streets, byways, and green lawns, you will get a picture of what this city would have been like during its glory days.

7. Dambulla: The Sacred Buddhist Site

Recommended visiting time: 1–2 days

Located in the center of Sri Lanka, the humble town of Dambulla is a treasure trove of historical monuments that are definitely worth a visit.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site the Dambulla Cave Temple Complex is the largest and best-preserved of its kind in Sri Lanka. The five major caves are decorated with over 150 stunning Buddha statues, as well as imposing cave paintings and murals, making the complex one of the must-see Dambulla tourist destinations.

Another interesting place to visit is the bustling agricultural market in the center of town, the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre. It is the largest wholesale market for fruit and vegetables in Sri Lanka. There you will find many kinds of local products that are distributed all over the island.

Only 50 minutes by car from Dambulla, the Minneriya National Park makes for a fascinating day trip. Jeep safaris offer a thrilling ride through the dense forest opening up near a watering hole where herds of wild elephants gather to cool down and drink.

8. Sigiriya: The Eighth Wonder of the World

Recommended visiting time: 1–3 days

Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya Ancient Rock Fortress of Sigiriya

The ancient citadel once sat at the top of the rock, and remnants of a glorious past are still visible today. The buildings’ foundations, spread over 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres), remain intact, as do the terraces, pools, and gardens. The view is breathtaking and is fully worth the climb.

For an even more special experience of Sigiriya, take a hot air balloon ride (trips run from November through April). If you make it on a clear, sunny day, then the views of the sun rising up over the jungle canopies are truly incredible!

Only about an hour’s drive from Sigiriya is Polonnaruwa, the capital of the Indian Chola Dynasty after Anuradhapura. It consists of a lot of temples and religious buildings. The most popular places to see in Polonnaruwa include Parakrama Samudra, Gal Vihara, and the Thivanka Image House.

9. Trincomalee: A Great Natural Harbor for Marine Life

Recommended visiting time: 2–4 days

Located on a peninsula, Trincomalee’s spectacular natural harbor and glorious bays have long made it a tourist hot spot.

Dutch Bay is popular with the locals on the weekends. This means, that during the weekdays the beach is almost empty and the perfect place to cool off after visiting the colonial-era Fort Fredrick, the temples, or the Maritime Museum, all of which paint an enchanting picture of Trincomalee’s 2,500-year-long history.

Additionally, Trincomalee is recognized as one of the best vantage points by oceanographers for whale and dolphin watching. March, April, August, and September are the best months during which to spot whales. From May through August, while the whales are away, the dolphins visit the bay.

10. Jaffna: Sri Lanka’s Hidden Treasures

Recommended visiting time: 2–3 days

Jaffna is the northern-most city of Sri Lanka. Home to the majority of the Tamil population, this area is still largely un-modernized and recovering after nearly three decades of civil war. Jaffna is full of ornamented Kovils (Hindu temples) and ancient Buddhist temples. The destruction left by the war is still evident, but travelers will see how the community is bouncing back and rebuilding.

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil and Kadurugoda Temple in Kandarodai are the most important temples in Jaffna.

Nainativu is a small but interesting island off the coast of Jaffna Peninsula, you can take a ferry to this island from Jaffna. Nainativu is home to the Naga People, a living ancient culture of snake worshippers. The main Kovil in Nainativu is extremely colorful and a delight for photographers.

11. Bentota: A Beautiful Resort Town

Recommended visiting time: 2–3 days

Bentota is a laid-back coastal town on Sri Lanka’s south coast. It’s a holiday-maker’s paradise, embodying everything you imagine Sri Lanka to be.

Travelers who love adventure can experience a variety of water activities there, such as jet-skiing, diving, wakeboarding, windsurfing, mono-skiing, banana boat rides, river safaris, and canyoning.

You also can skip the line and visit the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project. It’s an animal protection venture that helps support the conservation of endemic sea turtles. You can see the adorable turtles up close and learn about local efforts to protect them.

12. Negombo: Best Place for a Short Stop

Recommended visiting time: 1–2 days

Negombo is a charming beach town in Sri Lanka, just one hour’s drive from the capital city Colombo. Due to its proximity to the international airport, many travelers will choose to stay there on arrival, relax, and acclimatize before heading off to explore Sri Lanka. Although mainly a transit destination, Negombo offers some beautiful architecture and a charming ambiance that is worth discovering.

The town’s heritage is still visible throughout, including the remains of a 17th century Dutch fort that lines the waterfront, the pastel-colored Portuguese Catholic St Mary’s Church, and the impressive Angurukaramulla Temple.

Negombo is also home to a lush large lagoon framed by mangroves, coconut groves, and paddy fields. It is an important fishing town that feeds the Negombo fish market, one of Sri Lanka’s largest.

Negombo Beach is another highlight; stroll along the shore, barter in the artisan souvenir shops, and relax on the golden sands. Come evening, enjoy the spectacular sunsets and discover the myriad beachfront restaurants and live music bars.

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