Top 12 Things to Do in Sri Lanka

Top 12 Things to Do in Sri Lanka

By Candice SongUpdated Jun. 16, 2021

Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka stands as the world"s fourth-largest producer of tea. It"s referred to as the Island of Spice and Gems.

Sri Lanka has an abundance of beautiful miraculous spots, wildlife, and historic and cultural attractions, each of which is more picture-perfect than the last. They range from soulful Buddhist monasteries and temples, such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, to exotic and impeccable spots, such as Delft Island, that are rarely explored.

There are so many wonderful things to do in Sri Lanka, making it well suited to all kinds of travelers. If you’re traveling to Sri Lanka for the first time, we recommend visiting for about 10 days. On a 10-day journey, you can experience UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, spot wildlife in the national parks, and enjoy your time along the charming coastline and in the lush tea plantations.

Here, we"ve compiled a list of the top 12 things to do and see during your Sri Lanka vacation.

Highlights

  • Experience the most scenic train ride in the world — pass through the tea plantations and endless mountains or travel along the coast.
  • Travel across the safari destinations in search of the country’s own "Big Five": elephants, leopards, sloth bears, blue whales, and sperm whales.
  • Discover the secrets of the Cultural Triangle — it"s the home of ancient Sinhalese royalty and is filled with ancient ruins and restored temples.
  • Have an insight into Sri Lanka"s tea-making history by visiting the old tea factories and exploring the process behind Ceylon tea.
  • Choose a trekking trail that displays the best of Sri Lanka"s diverse natural beauty — Adam"s Peak and Horton Plains are the most popular options.

1. Explore Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle

Recommended visiting time: 1 or 2 days at each location

Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is an area crossing several cities in the center of the country and includes six out of eight of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The places that you mustn’t miss are the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, and the sacred city of Kandy.

The ancient capital of Anuradhapura is still a sacred Buddhist religious center with well-preserved ruins of temples and religious centers. The city is also home to one of the largest and most sacred Bodhi trees in Sri Lanka.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa include Bhramanic constructions from the Cholas civilization as well as the garden city that was constructed on the site in the 12th century. After the destruction of Anuradhapura in the 1st century, Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka.

The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, was King Kassapa"s palace from the 5th century AD, a marvel that baffles even modern-day architects. The top is reachable by stairs built on the side of the mountain and features the Lion Rock and the remains of the palace and fortress.

The sacred city of Kandy was home to the Sinhalese kings from 1592 to 1815. The most popular attraction is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is the most important Buddhist shrine in the world, housing one of the real teeth of the Buddha.

Perfect for: those who love history and culture

Tip: If you don"t have time to see all of these incredible places, the ones you can"t miss are the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya and Kandy.

2. Taste the Colonial Past in Galle and Colombo

Recommended visiting time: 1 day at each location

Between 1640 and 1796, a Dutch governorate partially governed Sri Lanka. While there are not many Dutch colonial structures left due to the many wars, there are some excellent examples in Colombo and the southern city of Galle. Both cities make for ideal getaways for history and architecture buffs.

In Colombo, there are three worthwhile Dutch colonial-style buildings left inside and very close to Colombo Fort, which are the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, the Colombo Dutch Museum, and Wolvendaal Church. You can visit all three in one day.

Galle Galle

Perfect for: history and architecture lovers

Tip: In both cities, all the colonial-era buildings are located in the same small area making it easy to see all of the most beautiful buildings during a quick tour in one day.

3. Search for Wild Leopards

Recommended visiting time: 1–2 days

The Sri Lankan leopard is known as the Ceylon leopard and is an endangered subspecies that’s native to the island. If you want to see these beautiful apex predators, here are the best places:

Yala National Park is the second-largest national park in Sri Lanka and the only wild jungle park in Asia. Yala National Park is home to 44 varieties of mammal and over 200 species of birds. This part of the country has the greatest concentration of leopards, elephants, and spotted deer. Additionally, it also has the highest population density of leopards in the world.

Wilpattu National Park is the oldest and largest national park in Sri Lanka. Due to the vast area the park covers, with dense forests in many parts, you can"t expect to see wildlife constantly. Compared with Yala National Park, there are fewer tourists and you also have the chance to see leopards there.

Perfect for: people who love wildlife and the outdoors

Tip: The best time to see leopards is from May to early September, which is the dry season. The drought clears some of the brush making it easier to spot wildlife. From October to December, you’re more likely to spot deer, crocodiles, and birds.

4. Experience a Sri Lankan Festival

Recommended visiting time: 1–2 days

As home to the world"s four major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity), Sri Lanka is an island with 25 public holidays each year. Experiencing a festival in Sri Lanka offers the perfect chance to witness and be a part of this beautiful country"s culture and traditions.

Vesak Poya (starting on May 7, 2020) is known as the festival of lights. It is celebrated on the day of the full moon in May. This 2-day festival commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. The most important part of the celebration is to light paper lanterns and display colored lanterns outside every Buddhist home, shop, and temple. Colombo at night is a riot of colors.

Kandy Esala Perahera (starting on June 25, 2020) is the most spectacular and prominent festival in Sri Lanka and is the climax of 10 days and nights of celebrations during the month of Esala. This great procession honors the sacred tooth relic in Kandy and starts in late June. With a Perahera procession every day for a week, it"s an unbeatable experience for travelers.

Perfect for: travelers in general

Tip: People come from all over to celebrate so expect the area to be packed.

5. Go Trekking in Ella

Recommended visiting time: 1 day

Ella is a mountain town in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, located about 1,000 meters above sea level. Most visitors to Ella go there for the hiking trails, with the most well-known being the hikes to Little Adam"s Peak and Ella Rock.

Both hiking destinations will give you beautiful sprawling views of the Sri Lankan countryside.

There are about 400 waterfalls on the island around Ella and you can visit Ravana Ella, Bambaragama Falls, Dunhinda Falls, and Diyaluma Falls. Only a short walk from Ella is the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge – also called the Bridge in the Sky – which is a viaduct bridge in Sri Lanka. It is one of the best examples of colonial-era railway construction in the country.

Perfect for: outdoor adventurers

Tip: It’s best to do the treks early in the morning as it is common for the rain to pour down in the afternoon.

6. Visit Tea Plantations

Recommended visiting time: 1 day

The central region of the country hides some of the most scenic tea plantations. As you travel into the hills, feast your eyes on the dark green foliage, which is beautifully laid out across the misty mountains. 

In Nuwara Eliya, the Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Factory, Blue Field Tea Factory, and Pedro Tea Factory are great choices. Usually, visiting one of them is enough.

There, you can embark on educational tours through the fields to see the tea leaves being picked and how the tea is made as well as the chance to experience a cup of delicious Ceylon tea. It"s fascinating to see a tea factory in action.

Perfect for: travelers in general

Tip: The climate in the highlands is changeable and can be quite damp and rainy so pack a fleece and a lightweight waterproof jacket just in case.

7. Watch Whales and Dolphins in Mirissa

Recommended visiting time: 1 day

Dolphins in Mirissa Dolphins in Mirissa

Dolphins and whales can be seen from boats off the coast of the south and southeast shores of Sri Lanka. The types of whales that can be seen in these waters are blue whales, humpback whales, and orcas. Very infrequently you might come across a dugong.

Perfect for: nature lovers

Tips: The whale watching season starts in November and continues until the end of April. During the rest of the year, the waters will be too rough because of the monsoon. The sea is calm in the morning and rough in the afternoon. The whale watching tours start very early in the morning at about 6am.

8. Spend Time with Elephants

Recommended visiting time: 1 day

Sri Lanka offers a tremendous amount of wildlife and biodiversity for its size, and the opportunity to observe elephants in their natural habitat is not to be missed!

Udawalawe National Park is known as the best place in Asia for observing elephants in the wild, with about 400 of them calling it home. It also hosts Elephant Transit Home, where abandoned or orphaned elephant calves are cared for and treated before being released back into the wild. You can frequently witness a herd of females moving or bathing together in the wild.

If you want to frolic with the elephants and see hundreds of majestic elephants in one place, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is the place to go. It is there that orphaned and injured elephants of the wild are taken and raised by caring humans. To get up close and personal with them, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage even allows visitors to bottle-feed the small orphans who are desperate for some human affection.

Perfect for: travelers in general

Tip: When taking photos of the animals, make use of the zoom function on your camera or phone and keep your distance. Turn the flash off and stay as quiet as possible.

9. Hit the Beach

Recommended visiting time: 1 to 3 days depending on your interests

One of the most essential Sri Lankan experiences is to spend some time lazing on an idyllic, tranquil beach. Here is a brief overview of the country"s coastal regions followed by our pick of the best beaches in Sri Lanka.

Bentota is one of the finest stretches of sand on the west coast. This beach runs south from the magnificent Bentota lagoon and is lined with a string of alluring hotels. Bentota is also Sri Lanka"s water sports hub — kayaking and jet skiing are easy to arrange.

Arugam Bay is a popular destination with independent travelers drawn by the charms of its beautiful, palm-fringed beach. Surfers originally put the village on the map by visiting it to ride what is widely thought to be some of the best waves in Sri Lanka.

Unawatuna Beach is known for its crescent of golden sand and its sheltered position in a bay that makes it perfect for swimming. There are sunbeds to rent, exotic fruit sellers, and plenty of small restaurants and boutiques just a short walk away.

10. Experience the Most Scenic Train Journeys

Recommended visiting time: about 4 hours

The train routes in Sri Lanka are some of the most beautiful in the world. Travelers dream of taking the train to the hill country, through old pine forests and foggy tea estates, or along the coastline. Don’t miss these unforgettable rail journeys that will leave you breathless and wanting more.

The train journey from Kandy to Ella through the Sri Lankan tea country not only offers you countless breathtaking sights but is an unforgettable experience as you breathe in the cold fresh air that comes in through the windows and see the endless rolling hills of tea plantations and lush forests. The Demodara Nine Arch Bridge close to Ella Railway Station is as picturesque as bridges get.

The train from Colombo to Galle travels through the city, right along the coast, and then into the countryside close to the sea.

11. Wander Through Local Markets

Recommended visiting time: 1–3 hours for each one, depending on your interests

One of the joys of traveling is visiting some local markets. There is nothing better than shopping for the ingredients necessary for a family meal with a local. Markets hold the secrets of the culture, filled with all the little bits and pieces that hold communities together.

A good market is a local flea market in Colombo, which mainly sells quality arts and crafts and organic fresh produce. The flagship store opens every day and the large-scale market with lots of vendors is open on Saturday mornings in the racecourse parking lot.

Negombo Fish Market is especially memorable since it’s right on the beach. Fishermen sell fresh fish as well as dried fish that they lay on huge nets to dry in the sun.

Perfect for: travelers in general

Tip: Negombo Fish Market can get pretty chaotic on weekday mornings while it’s almost empty at the weekends.

12. Try Surfing

Recommended visiting time: half a day

Sri Lanka is one of the most reliable surfing destinations in the Indian Ocean and it is possible to surf all year round. If you"re a beginner, don"t worry — we"ve picked three of Sri Lanka"s best surf beaches for you:

Arugam Bay has a beautiful moon-shaped bay and it is the most traveler-friendly and surfer-friendly zone in the region. It’s easy for beginners to get a good start there, with an endless supply of right-hand, sand-bottom points and beaches.

Hikkaduwa Beach is an idyllic, largely unspoiled and palm-bordered stretch of beach. The town"s rich surf history, beautiful beaches, and consistent waves make it a must-do for all surfers in Sri Lanka.

Mirissa Beach boasts some of the most turquoise and crystal clear waters you can get, which are framed by green palms and lush grasses. The area is also famous for its whale watching.

Perfect for: people who love the outdoors

Tip: The best time to surf at the above places is from October to April.

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