31 amazing things to do in Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean
Stunning, friendly, and full of adventure: Sri Lanka really is a bite-sized Utopia!
Here are the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, plus our travel guide & top tips
The teardrop isle. The pearl of the Indian Ocean. Serendib. Eelam.
Whichever name you know Sri Lanka by, there’s definitely one thing we can all agree on: this bite-sized Utopia has boomed onto the travel scene in a big way over the last couple of years - and it’s definitely here to stay.
Sri Lanka is one of our favourite countries - and part of that appeal lies in just how much it has to offer, on such little territory. For a country roughly the same size as Ireland, this small little island nation boasts endless things to do, including white beaches and pumping surf, lush tropical jungle and misty mountain towns, ancient World Heritage sites where elephants and leopards still roam, and enchanting train rides through rolling tea plantations.
Then, there’s the friendliest locals imaginable, a vibrant cultural heritage, plus curry, spice and all things nice, and.. well, you get the drift.
In fact, after two separate trips there, we’re utterly convinced that there’ll never be enough time to discover all of the treasure Sri Lanka has up its sleeve - at least, not without a little help!
That’s why we’ve put together our guide for the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, divided into adventure, cultural, natural, and foodie experiences, to help you discover this beautiful island for yourself. From rope swings at Dalawella to spotting leopards in Yala, discovering ancient rock fortresses to authentic slices of life in local markets, we’ve got you covered!
Our ultimate Sri Lanka bucket list | the best places to visit in Sri Lanka
ADVENTURE | The best places to visit in Sri Lanka For Adventurers
#1 - Swing your life away on Sri Lanka’s southern coast Rope Swings
To this day we're still amazed that a simple rope swing could have single-handedly turned a country into a travel 'hot spot', yet that's exactly what happened here in Sri Lanka. Thanks to a couple of well-known travel instagrammers, the rope swings on the southern coast went viral on Instagram and before long every single visitor to the country wanted 'that shot'.
Although a little gimmicky, it really is a heap of fun and, considering the location and stunning tropical setting, is definitely one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka! The best rope swings are located at Dalawella beach and Mihiripenna beach, just south of Unawatuna, although others can be found all the way along the coast.
There are also a tonne of great things to do in the area, which you can read in our Unawatuna guide.
Cost | Generally LKR 500 for 5+ swings (and, in our opinion, a rare tourist trap that’s worth it!)
Where to stay in Unawatuna | Search and book Unawatuna hotels here
Read more | Our ultimate guide to Unawatuna
Welcome to paradise: Sri Lanka’s popular Unawatuna beach
#2 - Hike to the top of Sri Lanka, Adam's Peak (Sri Pada)
Watching the sun rise from the peak of Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak on the cusp of the Sinhalese New Year, remains one of our defining travel moments.
After climbing the leg-burning 5,500 stairs to the summit, we waited for dawn to approach surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims from all religions. The nearby hill country slowly came into vision, before the sky turned all shades of pink, orange and finally blue. Pilgrims chanted, bells tolled, and tears were shed.
Rising from the famous rolling hills of Sri Lanka's hill country, the summit of Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), is one of the most iconic natural landmarks in the country. It's also home to myth and legend for Buddhist, Islamic, Hindi and Christian faiths; the summit is said to be home to Buddha's footprint, where Adam set foot on Earth after being cast out of heaven, and Shiva's footprint.
No matter whether you're religious or not, hiking to the top of Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak, is definitely one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka.
Where | Sri Pada / Adam’s Peak
Cost | FREE
#3 - Learn to surf in Weligama
The whole southern coast of Sri Lanka is a surfer’s paradise; think awesome breaks at just about every corner attract sliders from all over the world, and surfing in Sri Lanka is one of the best things to do on this island nation.
For beginner surfers like us (we know, we’re terrible Australians!), it's also a great place to learn, with warm waters, cheap boards and easy waves the perfect combination to catch that first wave.
The best place to learn to surf along the coast is Weligama, located around 2.5 hours south of Colombo or 30 minutes from the popular town of Unawatuna. Built for surfers, there are hundreds of surf schools located right on the beach - just turn up, speak to a tout and you’ll be learning your way around a board just a few minutes later.
A 1 - 1.5 hour lesson costs around LKR 2,500 per person, and will teach you the basics of surfing including how to stand up, paddling for a wave, surfing etiquette, and safety. Somehow, we both managed to stand within our first five waves, and the thrill was incredible. We're now 100% converted to surfing.
After a surf, go a hang out with the legends at Ceylon Sliders, a boutique hotel-cum-cafe-cum-surf store celebrating surf culture in Sri Lanka. They happen to have some of the best food in Sri Lanka, as well as the coolest staff we've ever met.
Where | Weligama, Sri Lanka
Cost | Lessons cost around LKR 2,500pp
#4 - Admire the stunning Nine Arch Bridge, Ella
Flanked by verdant forests and tea plantations, the Nine Arch Bridge stands proudly across the valley below. Calling it picturesque would be doing it an understatement, particularly on a misty day when the cloud hangs low in the valley and creates a moody, mystical scene.
Completed in 1921, Nine Arch Bridge is built entirely out of brick, rock and cement, with no metal used in its construction - an incredible engineering feat back in those days. Spanning 91 meters and a height of 24 feet, the bridge is on the famous Kandy to Bandarawela (via Ella) train line, with trains passing around five times a day depending on the ever-changing Sri Lankan train timetable.
There are plenty of epic viewpoints to see the bridge from. The most popular is the actual bridge itself, another is below from the tea plantation (this is private land, so please ask for permission before entering).
For us, the best views were from above, either looking from the forests surrounding the bridge or from one of the cafe platforms in the surrounding hills. Watching the train slowly make its way across the bridge is a wonderful sight!
Where | Nine Arches Bridge, Ella
Cost | FREE
Where to stay in Ella | Search and book Ella accommodation here
#5 - Hike to the top of Ella Rock
High in Sri Lanka's hill country lies Ella, a formerly sleepy town that’s now one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka because of its natural beauty and epic hiking.
One of the best things to do in Ella is the famous Ella rock hike, which offers spectacular views over Ella, Little Adam's Peak, and the surrounding jungle-clad valley.
We started our hike at the famous Ella train station, following the Ella to Kandy train line past many beautiful waterfalls, bridges, tea plantations, and homes, before starting our ascent towards the Ella Rock summit, king coconut in hand for some extra energy. We needed it; the hike to the summit is tough! We sat at the summit for at least an hour, enjoying a vegetarian roti and some well-deserved water while taking in the incredible views.
The route to the summit can be a little complicated, however if you follow the clearly marked paths and ignore the touts, you shouldn't have too many issues (this in-depth post will help you get there).
All up, the hike takes around 2 hours roundtrip, but remember to pack enough water and snacks to power your journey as the days can get quite hot.
Where | Ella Rock, Ella
Cost | FREE
Where to stay in Ella | Search and book Ella accommodation here
How to get to Ella Rock | We used this guide, and made it without any hassles!
Read more | Our comprehensive guide to Ella, Sri Lanka
Hill country exploring | our guide to Ella, Sri Lanka
#6 - Stand on the top of Diyaluma Falls
We know, we know, there’s a famous song telling you not to chase waterfalls, but you’re going to need to ignore that advice here as Sri Lanka's second tallest waterfall, Diyaluma, is impressive beyond words.
Cascading from high in the Sri Lankan mountains, Diyaluma falls may be a little off the beaten track, but the epic views and natural infinity pools make the trek worth the effort. After a two hour tuk tuk ride from Ella to Poonagala, through quintessentially Sri Lankan tea plantations, we set off on foot, hiking downhill through long, dry grass for around 30mins before getting our first glimpse of the upper Diyaluma falls.
A short walk further and there we were, standing at the lower Diyaluma Falls, above a sheer 220m rush of water to the valley floor below. We watched the sun set over the valley below from top of the falls, joined by a group of young local guys keen to chat about our travels (and cricket, of course!). We flew our drone, snapped a few insta-bangers, and relaxed before reluctantly commencing our journey back to Ella.
READ | We’ve written a comprehensive guide to Diyaluma Falls, which you can read all about here!
Where | Diyaluma Falls, Koslanda
Cost | FREE
Where to stay in Ella | Search and book Ella accommodation here
Read | Check out our comprehensive guide to Diyaluma Falls here
#7 - Watch the sunset from Little Adam’s Peak, Ella
Over the last few years, Ella has grown from sleepy hill town to one of Sri Lanka’s best places to visit, and it's not hard to understand why; the steep mountain ranges, unique natural beauty and incredible views make it very popular with tourists.
One of the most popular short hikes in the area is to the top of Little Adam's Peak. A golden afternoon we spent watching the world go by from Little Adam's peak was one of our favourite things to do in Sri Lanka on our first trip to the island in 2016.
The full hike takes about two hours from Ella town and starts in the lush tea plantations before slowly snaking its way to the first set of viewpoints. From here you'll have 360-degree views overlooking the giant Ella Rock and green valley towards Udawalawe, perfect for photos. We'd definitely advise continuing the hike further down the ridge, as the views become more spectacular and less busy. Here, we sat and relaxed in the grass, eating our lunch while watching storm clouds form in the distance.
The return route follows the other side of the mountain, overlooking the incredible 98 Acres resort before slowly making its way back to Ella. Stop on the return journey back to relax and grab a refreshing king coconut or juice from the little wooden hut near the start of the trek!.
We recommend hiking up during late afternoon and before watching glorious sunset unfold; and advise against hiking during the middle of the day as there's little shade to hide from the glaring sun (fun fact: our worst sunburns in 3 months of travel through asia happened from doing this hike at midday!).
Where | Little Adam’s Peak, Ella
Cost | FREE
Where to stay in Ella | Search and book Ella accommodation here
Read more | The very best things to do in Ella
NATURE | The places to visit in Sri Lanka
#8 - spot Leopards on Safari in Yala National Park
In our opinion, Yala National Park, which straddles the south-eastern coastline of Sri Lanka, is a must-see on any Sri Lanka bucket list.
The 1268sq km park is home to a rich array of dunes, forest, open plains and lush lagoons, which also attracts a huge diversity of wildlife ; 44 mammals species (including elephants) and over 215 bird species, to be exact!
Most visit Yala National Park for two reasons; the opportunity to see Leopards and Elephants in the wild. Yala contains one of the largest densities of Leopards in the world, with an estimated 25 leopards roaming Block 1 alone. If you’ve dreamed of spotting these glorious creatures in the wild, a safari in Yala is absolutely your best chance to witness the elusive cats, while an elephant sighting is basically a given.
We were fortunate enough to see both during our early morning safari, stumbling across a beautiful elephant family at a watering hole, although our leopard sighting was only through a trusty set of long range binoculars.
As Yala is so popular with locals and tourists alike, the safari routes can get very popular and crowded, especially when a leopard sighting has been reported. We were on safari the first morning that the park was open for the season and actually got stuck in a 30-minute traffic jam to see a Leopard! To avoid this, we'd suggest visiting during shoulder season, or joining a safari tour group. Note: we actually booked our tour within minutes of arriving in the nearby town of Tissa, as there are plenty of drivers/guides waiting at the station to book passengers for the next day. Easy peasy!
Cost | LKR 3,500 per person
Where to stay in Yala National Park | Search and book Yala National Park accommodation here
#9 - Elephant spotting on a Safari in Udawalawe NP
If Yala National Park is the place to spot Leopards in the wild, then Udawalawe National Park is definitely the place to visit in Sri Lanka to spot elephants. In fact, during our early morning safari, we spotted well over 15 elephants including a number of impossibly cute bubs.
Sprawling across the southern lowlands, nestled near the towering Horton Plains, Udawalawe is one of the most popular parks in Sri Lanka. Although the park's landscape is fairly monotonous, it provides the best viewing opportunities for elephants and other fauna. It’s also possible to spot buffalo, monkeys, deer, crocodiles and leopards (although the latter is extremely rare).
In many ways, we preferred our safari in Udawalawe than Yala National Park, mostly due to the numerous elephant sightings, and the lack of crowds which overrun Yala in peak season.
Where | Udawalawe National Park
Cost | LKR 3,500 per person entry. A eight-seater safari jeep will cost around LKR 3,500 for a morning hire
Where to stay in Udawalawe | Search and book Uda Walawe National Park accommodation here
#10 - Stay in jungle heaven at Tri Lanka, Koggala Lake
“Guided by nature, evolved by aesthetic passion, and fortified by an all-encompassing sustainable philosophy.”
It’s not often that you’ll find us raving over luxury accommodation - so when we do, you can be sure it’s because we’ve stumbled across something pretty special.
Tri Lanka, a five-star sustainable, luxury retreat nestled into the jungle that surrounds Koggala Lake on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, is truly one of the greatest accommodation experiences we’ve ever had. Not only is the entire hotel absolutely stunning, but everything about Tri is designed to be in, and of, the nature that surrounds it.
From the construction and design that incorporates local materials and the most up-to-date sustainable practices right through to the locally-sourced (and seasonal) gourmet food served in the restaurant; Tri is turning the image of sustainable travel on its head by marrying conscious travel and blissful luxury together perfectly.
It’s also focused on nurturing your body, mind, and soul, which means there are plenty of activities available, including Quantum yoga classes, bicycles tours of the local village, boat trips out to Cinnamon island, a beautiful organic spa and glass-walled library and reading room, and if all that wasn’t enough to keep you satisfied, there that insta-famous infinity pool too. Bliss!
This is the ultimate splurge and one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, but trust us, it’s worth it (read all about our time at Tri Hotel here).
Where | Tri Lanka, Koggala Lake
Book | Check prices and availability on Mr & Mrs Smith here
#11 - Watch sunset from Galle Fort wall
There’s just something about that glorious technicolour end to a day that feels more special in Galle Fort than anywhere else we’ve visited.
Each afternoon at around 5:30pm, locals and tourists alike gather along the Fort walls to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean. It’s a festive and happy affair; cricket games are played on the grass below, whole families gather to see of the last of the day, and travellers mingle and chat while Mother Nature streaks the sky all kinds of shades of blue, orange, pink and purple.
The best point to watch the sunset from is the Triton Bastion, however you can watch the sunset from pretty much any point on the western side of the Fort walls and be guaranteed a great view.
Don’t forget to keep a lookout for the cliff jumpers at Flag Rock too; each evening a group of locals defy danger by leaping backwards off the ramparts to the ocean below.
Where | Triton Bastion, Rampart St, opposite Pilgrims Bar
Where to stay in Galle Fort | Search and book Galle Fort accommodation here
Read more | Our comprehensive guide to Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
Charming, exotic, and full of history: our guide to sri lanka’s galle fort
#12 - Hang in Mirissa, and visit the famous Coconut tree hill of Mirissa
Mirissa is home to one the prettiest beaches on the southern coast, and after spending five nights chilling out in this laidback coastal town we definitely weren’t ready to leave.
Each day we'd swim, eat, and surf. Each night, we'd make our way down to the beach to watch the sunset (a very typical evening during our month in Sri Lanka), marvelling at the kaleidoscope of colours that lit up the sky.
Although there are plenty of things to see and do in Mirissa, one of our favourite places to visit in Sri Lanka was the insta-famous and delightful Coconut Tree Hill. Although it’s been plastered all over social media, it really is a beautiful and unique place to see with your own eyes, with literally hundreds of palms jutting out of this small, burnt orange hill.
Located at the eastern end of Mirissa beach, the views over Mirissa are spectacular, and there are plenty of places to just chill and watch the world go by. Although it's gaining in popularity quickly, early mornings are relatively free from crowds, while a clear evening will gift you some pretty epic sunset views from here. For anyone thirsty, there’s a small makeshift bar nearby for a quick sundowner!
Where | Mirissa beach
Where to stay in Mirissa | Search and book Mirissa beach accommodation here
How to get to Coconut Tree Hill, Mirissa | Walk along the Matara Rd out of Mirissa until you reach Maison D’hotes Sanda Beach.
From there, follow the path on your right and you’ll come to a gate, from which you should be able to walk directly to the palm trees.
#13 - Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya near Kandy
We're huge fans of sprawling city parks, and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya in Kandy are amongst the best we've visited anywhere in the world.
Formerly reserved exclusively for Kandyan Royals and with a history dating back to 1371, Peradeniya was turned into botanical gardens in 1821 at the behest of the British. The gardens are now home to over 10,000 trees spread across 60 hectares (the largest garden in the country), showcasing all of Sri Lanka’s flora and species from around the tropical world, including their famous orchid collection.
We definitely recommend visiting the impressive and insta-worthy avenue of royal palms; a beautiful tree-lined pathway on the interior of the gardens. The unique and otherworldly Cannonball tree, planted by King George and Queen Mary during their visit in 1901, is another must-see on your garden strolls.
The gardens and its lawns are a great way to escape the hustle, bustle and fierce heat of Kandy’s streets, and are definitely our favourite place to visit in Kandy.
Where | Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya, Kandy
Cost | LKR 1,500 per person entry
Where to stay in Kandy | Search and book accommodation in Kandy here
How to get to Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya | You can hire a tuk tuk to the gardens for around LKR 400 or include the gardens in a Kandy day tour itinerary. A cheaper alternative is the #644 bus from the Kandy Clock Tower, which will take you directly to the garden for around LKR 20.
Read more | Our guide to the best things to do in Kandy
Sri Lanka’s cultural capital | Our guide to Kandy
#14 - Chill and surf at Hiriketiya Beach
After a long and sweaty three hour tuk-tuk ride from Unawatuna, we arrived into Hiriketiya Bay on the southern coast of Sri Lanka not sure what to expect. It was love at first sight.
Palm-fringed golden sands, surfers carving up sweet left-handers, cool cafes serving up incredibly fresh brunch worthy of any Melbourne cafe; this was a place so beautiful, so peaceful, and so perfect that we knew we'd definitely arrived in heaven.
What was once a sleepy hidden gem on Sri Lanka’s south coast with little more than a few wooden huts is fast becoming the ‘it’ place for digital nomads and their acai bowls, bronzed surfers riding waves all day long, and salty-haired wanderers chilling into a new level of zen. There are surf shops that wouldn’t look out of place in any cool coastal town, beachside bars serving up cocktails from mason jars, and even a co-working space, (one of the first in Sri Lanka) has popped up in recent years.
Despite all this progress, Hiriketiya still manages to be the kind of place where thick jungle meets the sea and time becomes totally irrelevant - and we absolutely love it for that.
Where | Hiriketiya Beach
Where to stay in Hiriketiya | Search and book Hiriketiya accommodation here
Read more | Our ultimate guide to Hiriketiya
Where jungle meets the sea: our guide to Hiriketiya, Sri Lanka
#15 - Hike to the summit of Pidurangala Rock for sunrise
While there's no doubting Sigiriya's astounding beauty, historical significance, and dramatic features, at USD $30pp, it can be a little expensive for those on a strict budget.
Fortunately, Pidurangala rock, located adjacent to Sigiriya, provides equally epic views of the surrounding area, a historic cave complex of its own, a tenth of the crowds, and the most incredible view overlooking the famous Sigiriya rock.
Hiking Pidurangala rock for sunrise has become something of a right of passage for backpackers visiting Sri Lanka, and we definitely recommend waking up early for this - it's a truly magical experience. If you're looking to do both Pidurangala and Sigiriya, we recommend hiking Pidurangala for sunrise and summiting Sigiriya for sunset.
We stayed in a treehouse at Back of Beyond Pidurangala, a sustainable eco-lodge in the heart of the national park and only two minutes walk from the beginning of the Pidurangala hike. We definitely recommend staying here if you’re looking for a unique experience in the Sigiriya/Pidurangala area!
Where | Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya
Cost | LKR 500 per person
Where to stay in Pidurangala | Book Back of Beyond Pidurangala here
CULTURAL | The best places to visit in Sri Lanka
#16 - Explore the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya
Often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, Sigiriya is one of the 'must see' places on any Sri Lankan bucket list.
Located right in the heart of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya, otherwise known as Lion Rock, is an ancient palace and fortress built in 480AD atop a unique rock island that rises 200m above the jungle below.
The Fortress, full of abandoned palaces, gardens, waterways and frescoes, has always been an important part of Sri Lanka history, and has seen many wars and invasions play out over the years. Thankfully, it’s appeal today is a little less gruesome, and it’s become one of the country’s most visited cultura heritage sites.
Starting in the gardens, the hike to the summit of Sigiriya is demanding; it is 1200 steps after all. You’ll then pass through ancient frescoes, the 1600 year-old Mirror Wall, and the famous lion paws.
Although arduous and a little sweaty (even at 8am we were drenched!), the hike is absolutely worth it - the view from the top is awe-inspiring; weathered stone ruins overlook the dense jungle, surrounding plains, and the incredible fortress grounds below.
A note on the entry fee for Sigiriya; there’s plenty of debate around as to whether the (admittedly, very steep) entrance fee of USD $30 for Sigiriya is worth it. We visited in 2016 and splurged on visiting the fortress with absolutely no regrets - it really is a super unique and interesting site. That said, Pidurangala (above) does provide some pretty epic views over Sigiriya, so if money’s not on your side, we’d recommend visiting Pidu instead.
Where | Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Cost | USD $30pp for entry to Sigiriya
Where to stay in Sigiriya | Search and book accommodation in Sigiriya here
#17 - Jump aboard the greatest train ride in the world from Kandy to Ella
Hotter than the London Underground in a summers day, yet takes eight hours and costs £5. Sounds a little like hell, but trust us, the train ride from Kandy to Ella is the best thing you'll do in Sri Lanka.
Winding through misty forests, verdant tea plantations; over gushing waterfalls and streams; and past colourful towns and excitable locals, the train ride from Kandy to Ella is, in our opinion, the most picturesque in the world. But it's not just the scenery that makes this train ride so incredible. It's also the vibe.
Each person you meet greets you with a smile, the local boys play sing, dance and play drums; vendors rush through the train selling chai and snacks, while tourists, head out the windows, stare in amazement at the sheer beauty. Literally everyone you look at is wide-eyed and happy, which in this day and age is hard to find.
The most scenic part of the journey is from Nanu Oya to Ella, through the dense forest of the Horton Plains national park, so we recommend getting the window seat or standing in between the doorways here and enjoying the views as they pass by.
When we first visited Sri Lanka is 2016, the Kandy to Ella train ride was yet to really hit the big time with tourists, however due to its current popularity, you’ll need to book your travel in advance (usually 1 - 2 days prior). The train may also be quite crowded (especially during peak season), so be warned you may need to push your way onto the train.
Third class may be the cheapest option but in our opinion it's also the best, as it allows you to sit/hang out of the doorways, and is filled with friendly locals keen to help you enjoy your experience.
Cost | 2nd class: LKR 240 per person, 3rd class: LKR 175 per person
Kandy to Ella train times | Express trains depart Ella to Kandy - 0640 and 0924 (subject to change)
#18 - Explore the Magical Galle Fort
Galle Fort is unlike any other place we’ve found in Sri Lanka; a vaguely European-feeling city plonked in the deliciously salty tropics, a melting pot of culture and religion bursting with colour, and where, thankfully, the taste of Ceylon tea and cinnamon is never far away.
The Fort is rapidly gentrifying as chic boutiques, cafes, and hotels begin to restore the whitewashed Dutch colonial buildings back to their former glory, but it only takes ducking down a quiet laneway to feel as though you’ve travelled back to the 1700s again.
Alluring, exotic, and totally loveable, Galle Fort is one of the unmissable points of interest on your Sri Lankan itinerary (you can learn all about Galle Fort with our guide).
Some of the Galle Fort attractions we recommend you visit are:
Galle Fort Lighthouse | First built in 1848, this the most instantly recognisable feature of the Fort
Galle Fort walls | The best place to watch an amazing Sri Lankan sunset
Shop | Peddler St is the places to find all the beautiful linens, spices, opals and more
Dutch Reform Church | Historic Dutch church dating back to 1640
Old Dutch Hospital | Colonnaded former hospital dating back to the 18th century
All Saints Anglican Church | Built in the late 1800's from solid rock
Meeran Mosque | The centre of the local Muslim community, built in 1904
Sudharmalaya Temple | Beautiful white Buddhist temple within Galle Fort
Where | Galle Fort
Where to stay in Galle | Search and book Galle Fort accommodation here
Read more | Our comprehensive Galle Fort guide
Sunsets and lighthouses: discover the best things to do in Galle Fort
#19 - Walk or cycle through the historical ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Once the capital of ancient Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa now forms part of the famed cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.
Built between the 10th and 12th centuries, it quickly became the thriving commercial and religious epicentre if the country. Made up of a series of temples and religious buildings, the ancient site looks and feels like the Angkor temples of Cambodia, just not as grand or well preserved. That being said, the site is still wonderful to explore.
The best things to see within the Polonnaruwa complex include:
Gal Vihara | a complete ancient Buddha statue hewn out of solid stone
The Sacred Quadrangle | definitely the most attractive and intriguing of all the ruins
The Royal Palace | a massive structure dating from the 1153
Rankot Vihara | 54m tall large dagoba, still in excellent condition, dating from to 1187
Lankatilaka | impressive church-like structure with 17m high walls and huge, standing Buddha
There's also an archaeological museum that's worth a visit to get an understand of the complex and it's long history.
Our visit coincided with the hottest month, April, so exploring the site was tough due to the oppressive heat. We hired a tuk tuk to drive us in between the best spot, which made exploring mildly possible. Alternatively, the best way to explore the Polonnaruwa complex is via bike.
Where | Polonnaruwa
Cost | LKR 4,500 ($25 USD) entry fee to Polonnaruwa
Where to stay in Polonnaruwa | Search and book Polonnaruwa accommodation here
#20 - Roam through Sri Lanka’s northern capital of Jaffna
The first thing you'll realise upon arriving into Jaffna is just how different it is from the rest of Sri Lanka.
These northern realms of Sri Lanka beat to their own drum, lead by the Tamils and a strong Hindu culture so entirely separate from the Sinhalese and Buddhist culture of the south.
Colourful Hindu temples dot the region, frequented by sari-clad women and shirtless men praying to the gods. The language is distinct, the people more reserved, and the cuisine influenced strongly by Southern India.
Despite the lack of rope swings and insta-famous locations, Jaffna has an incredible amount of unique things for you to see and do, including ancient forts and temples, isolated islands, and truly amazing food.
Some of the Jaffna attractions we recommend you visit are:
Explore the ancient Jaffna Dutch Fort
Admire the colourful and ancient Nallur Kandiswamy Hindu temple
Eat the best Masala Dosa at Mangos
Roam the colourful Jaffna markets and chat with the inquisitive and friendly locals
The region’s still a while away from truly exploding as a tourism destination, but for those like us who were searching for an authentic travel experience and to understand this diverse little island better, Jaffna is absolutely a place we recommend you visit in Sri Lanka.
Where | Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka
Where to stay in Jaffna | Search and book Jaffna accommodation here
Read more | Our guide to the best things to see and do in Jaffna, plus how to get to Jaffna
why you need to visit Sri lanka’s NORTH: THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN JAFFNA
#21 - Experience an authentic insight to life on Delft Island, Jaffna
A day-trip to Delft Island (Neduntheevu in Tamil, or Neduntivu in Sinhala) is a totally unique, authentic experience in Sri Lanka - but be warned, getting there is half the fun!
Located about 30kms from Jaffna city, Delft is an outlying coral and limestone island with a history that dates from the ancient Chola Dynasty, through the Portuguese, Dutch and the British Colonial periods. It's absolutely not your stereotypical postcard-worthy island, but that's all part of its charm.
Visiting the island was like stepping wayyyyy back in time, with tiny villages and windy dirt roads, ancient rock walls and lush palms swaying in the breeze. While it is still an inhabited island, remnants of the island’s past are dotted throughout. We recommend hiring a tuktuk and visiting the following sites:
Portuguese/Dutch Fort | Ruined ancient Fort, originally built by the Portuguese, and turned into a Fort by the Dutch
Delft Island baobab tree | Huge baobab native to tropical Africa, left by Arab merchants
Old Dutch Hospital | Built by the Dutch and converted into an administrative centre in the early 1900's. In 'The Courts', there's a British Emblem inscribed on the wall
Pigeon Nest | A unique structure used to house messenger pigeons to other areas during the Dutch reign
Dutch Horse Stables | Crumbling horse stables built during the Dutch occupation, housing horses from all over the world
Where to stay in Jaffna | Search and book Jaffna accommodation here
How to get to Delft island | From Jaffna you need to get to Kurikadduwan harbour, about an hour away. Take the 776 from Jaffna bus station (LKR 90 per person), departing at 6:30, or a tuk tuk (LKR 2,000).
The ferry for Delft leaves at 8am or 9am (LKR 100 per person), with a maximum number of 100 passengers, so it's important to get there 30mins before departure.
Returning home, we recommend catching the 14:30 ferry back to Kurikadduwan harbour.
#22 - Admire the Royal Rock cave temple of Dambulla
The famous Royal rock temple complex of Dambulla is home to some of the most impressive historical artwork in Sri Lanka, and a must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary.
Sitting proudly atop a 160m rock, this UNESCO World Heritage site contains five separate caves with over 150 Buddhist statues and paintings, some dating back over 2,000 years. These are related to Gautama Buddha and his life, with murals covering over 2,100 square metres of cave walls, including depictions of the temptation by the demon Mara, and Buddha's first sermon. During the 18th century, the caves were restored and painted by the Kingdom of Kandy.
The views from atop the rock are incredible, overlooking the surrounding valley, with Sigiriya in the distance; just watch out for the monkeys as they can be rather vicious!
Where | Dambulla cave temple complex, Dambulla
Opening hours | 07:00am - 19:00pm every day (ticket counter closes 17:00pm)
Cost | LKR 1,500
Where to stay in Dambulla | Search and book Dambulla accommodation here
#23 - Understand Sri Lanka’s spiritual side at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic, Kandy
Built around a thriving man-made lake and tucked away in lush green hills; Kandy’s beauty and charm almost makes you forget that this is Sri Lanka’s chaotic second-largest city, not to mention its cultural capital! After all, this is the home of the Temple of the Tooth, the most important shrine to the country’s majority Sinhalese population.
The ornate, golden-roofed Sri Dalada Maligawa (literally, Temple of the Sacred Tooth), houses the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka - a tooth of Buddha brought to the island in the 4th century. Built between 1687 and 1707 to house and honour the sacred relic, the temple has long been a place of spiritual and cultural importance for both Sri Lankan and international visitors.
The tooth relic itself is enshrined in seven golden caskets, opened briefly during the day for the public to catch a glimpse. Visitors provide offerings and prayers, before moving on to explore the several other temples and museums within the complex.
If you visit Kandy during the annual Perahera (festival of the tooth), you may see the tooth paraded around the city accompanied by 65 decorated Elephants. Note: in no way do we condone, celebrate, or encourage the use of animals for entertainment purposes.
Opening hours | 05:30am - 20:00pm, every day
Cost | LKR 1,000
Where to stay in Kandy | Search and book Kandy accommodation here
Read more | The best things to do in Kandy
#24 Visit Lipton Seat and the tea plantations
Tea is synonymous with Sri Lanka, and the name Lipton is synonymous with tea, so it was only natural that we wanted to visit Lipton Seat, the famous viewpoint whereby entrepreneur and tea mogul Sir Thomas Lipton used to sit and contemplate his vast plantation and the magnificence of Sri Lanka's high country, and sample some of the world's finest tea, straight from its source.
Despite heavy rain and dense fog surrounding the summit upon our arrival, we managed to enjoy a fresh cup of Sri Lankan tea (LKR 50 per person), while watching the clouds roll by. The tea, we both agreed, was by far the best we've ever consumed.
Unfortunately we weren't able to enjoy the panoramic views as we would have liked, however our tuk tuk driver said that on a clear day you can see as far as Uda Walawe National park, and all the way to Hambantota port. Despite the weather, the drive from Haputale station through the verdant tea fields and colourful towns was joyous enough.
If you're looking to visit Lipton Seat from Ella, we advise taking the 6am Ella to Kandy train and jumping off a Haputale (any additional time on that train is well worth it - it's amazing!), and then paying a tuk tuk driver to take you to Lipton Seat from the station (LKR 2,000 - 3,000 for a return trip). We recommend including a tour of the tea factory (more on this below) during your visit.
A visit to Lipton Seat and the tea plantation tour should take around four hours, providing you with enough time to return to the station for the 11am return train to Ella.
Alternatively, you can organise a tuk tuk tour from Ella which will include a visit to Nuwara Eliya, Lipton Seat, and a tea factory tour.
Where | Lipton Seat, This is located about 18 km from Haputale (7km from Dambetenna Tea Factory)
Cost | LKR 100 per person. If arriving via tuk tuk, a LRK 50 charge applies
Opening hours | 6am - 5pm daily
How to get to Lipton Seat | Catch the Ella to Kandy train to Haputale, and organise a tuk tuk to take you to Lipton seat. This should cost around LKR 2,000 - 3,000. Alternatively include Lipton Seat as part of a day tour from Ella
#25 - Explore Sri Lanka’s markets, everywhere
Given the incredible range and quality of produce on the island, it's easy to understand why Sri Lanka has vibrant markets on just about every corner.
Not only are these markets a great place to sample some of Ceylon’s finest, they’re a great place to meet and interact with the locals and maybe grab a bargain or two.
Our favourite markets included Jaffna, which was raw, colourful, unfiltered and full of characters, while the fruit markets just outside Galle Fort were home to some of the freshest and tastiest fruit we've ever eaten.
#26 - Catch an authentic local bus
If you're visiting Sri Lanka, travelling around the country as the locals do is the cheapest way to do it. But besides that, catching a local bus in Sri Lanka is one of the most truly authentic, exhilarating (if not sometimes downright terrifying!) experiences you can have on this little island.
Old-skool Lanka Ashok Leyland buses tear down roads and highways, horns blaring non-stop, pausing momentarily to pick up passengers, before accelerating with gusto to the next stop. Inside, the ambience is festive; Sinhalese pop music is played loudly, while colourful Buddhist deities are proudly displayed on the dash. It's a crazy, chaotic and exciting experience.
Did we mention they’re cheap? Because they’re seriously cheap, ranging from LKR 10 - 100 depending on the distance!
#27 - Stay in a local homestay
We can’t stress this enough: skip the hotels and hostels at least once in favour of staying in a local homestay. You absolutely will never regret it.
Sri Lankans are some of the kindest and most hospitable people on the planet, and their generosity is unmatched. They'll bend over backwards to make your stay enjoyable, like our hosts in Hiriketiya, who greeted us each morning with a huge smile, fresh Sri Lankan tea and bananas, and provided us with all the local recommendations, including where to eat, surf or explore. All at no extra cost.
Staying in a homestay in Sri Lanka is the definitely the best way to meet locals, ask questions and enjoy an authentic stay.
If you’re travelling to Hiriketiya, please, please book a stay on Airbnb at the Mission House with Siri, Suba, and Dulanjan, the wonderful family we stayed with for three nights.
BOOK | Book Airbnb in Sri Lanka using our discount code for up to £30 off your first booking
Unsure about Airbnb? Here’s our comprehensive guide to Airbnb (including a free coupon!)
FOOD | The best things to do in Sri Lanka
#28 - Indulge in rice and curry at every opportunity
"Rice and curry for my tummy, rice and curry, yummy yummy". Yes, this is an actual song Mark made up during our time in Sri Lanka, much to Mim’s chagrin. But truly, our love of rice and curry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was seriously real.
Rice and curry is the staple of the Sri Lankan diet, blending warm spices, coconut, vegetables, and occasionally meat (generally fish) to form the most delicious of flavours.
A typical meal involves a pile of rice, two vegetable curries as well as the option of a meat curry (or a third veggie curry). Curries you absolutely must try are:
Dhal | the staple comprising of lentils cooked in spices with a coconut milk
Brinjal (eggplant) curry | sweet, almost caramelised eggplant with spices
Jackfruit curry | tender baby jackfruit (with an meaty texture) mixed with spices
Just about everywhere serves rice and curry, which costs anywhere between LKR 150 - 500, so for those on a budget, it's not only delicious, but seriously cost effective, too.
For veggies, Sri Lanka is one place you can truly rejoice; considering such a huge portion of the population is Buddhist, vegetarian options are plentiful and delicious.
#29 - Learn how to cook Sri Lankan style in Ella
In our humble opinion, Sri Lankan cuisine is amongst the best in the world, so we recommend joining a cooking class in Ella and learning to how to make an assortment of delicious curries.
We joined a class of eight at Lanka's restaurant and cooking school, and learned to cook an assortment of curries including potato, okra, beetroot, pumpkin and jackfruit; all cooked in traditional clay-pots, as well as sambal to accompany our meals.
It. Was. Amazing. Not only was the class a lot of fun, our new found curry making skills will serve us well in the future.
Cost | LKR 2,000 per person
Read more | Our guide to the best things to do in Ella
#30 - Eat Sri Lanka’s favourite street food, Kottu Roti
You’ll hear Kottu Roti long before you taste it, so ubiquitous is the metal clanging of the hot plates its cooked on. Truly, there’s one thing you need to eat in Sri Lanka, it’s this.
The most popular Sri Lanka street food, kottu is a mix of shredded godamba roti, vegetables and an assortment of spices, cooked quickly on a hot plate and served on just about every street corner. Sometimes mixed with meat or cheese, this is Sri Lankan 'fast food' at it's best.
Your standard kottu roti will cost about LKR 200 - 500 depending on ingredients, making it ridiculously affordable and extremely filling.
#31 - drink a million delicious king coconuts
Perhaps our favourite daily habit in Sri Lanka was devouring a delicious king coconut at every opportunity. So, naturally we recommend you do the same.
King coconuts, otherwise known as Thambili, can be found just about everywhere in Sri Lanka, and are a huge source of daily vitamin and mineral needs. They also are a great way of replenishing electrolytes from dehydration, which in stinking hot of Sri Lanka, is absolutely necessary.
Not only are thambili coconuts delicious, they're also served naturally (instead of a horrible plastic bottle), so there's no plastic pollution as a result of your hydration.
They should cost no more than LKR 50 - 100 (around 50c), and remember to refuse a straw, cause, you know, saving the planet!
A map of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka
Want to see all the best things to do in Sri Lanka? Download our Sri Lanka map to your phone and follow our recommendations.
Sri Lanka trip planning essentials | Plan your visit to the best places in Sri Lanka
How to get to Sri Lanka
Being an island in the middle of the Indian ocean, pretty much the only way to get to Sri Lanka is by plane. Right now, the main gateway to the country is Bandaranaike International Airport, at Katunayake, 30km north of the capital Colombo.
Transport in Sri Lanka | How to get to the best places in Sri Lanka
Due to Sri Lanka’s small size and abundance of transport options, getting around the island is easy, if not a little time consuming and uncomfortable.
Buses and tuk tuks are the most common form of transport on the island, and service even the most remote corners. Buses, however, are a fraction of the cost of tuk tuks and often times make for a much faster method of getting from A to B.
The most picturesque form of transport, however, is Sri Lanka’s train network. The network may be slow, cumbersome, and somewhat unreliable, but it services all the main areas of the island and provides travellers with rich cultural experiences that just aren’t common in western countries.
READ | Check out our Sri Lanka travel guide to learn more about transport in Sri Lanka
Accommodation in Sri Lanka | Where to stay in Sri Lanka
Accommodation to suit any budget can be found in Sri Lanka, from luxury hotels right through to dorms in budget backpackers. By far the most common type of accommodation is guesthouses, which you can find just about anywhere throughout the island.
Luxury hotels on Sri Lanka are some of the finest in the world, and definitely worth splashing out.
Hotels in Sri Lanka range from the most incredible 5* resorts through to standard 3* shoe boxes. Despite this, hotels are much cheaper here than other parts of the world, so if you’ve got a decent travel budget, you can find some incredible accommodation at decent rates.
Guesthouses are the most popular accommodation option in Sri Lanka and can be found just about everywhere on the island. While some are fancy, the majority are a room/s in family homes, which provide an authentic experience with your host family.
We recommend searching for and booking guesthouses through HotelsCombined, however they can also be booked via Airbnb.
BOOK | Use HotelsCombined to find the best deals on your Sri Lanka guesthouses
FREE AIRBNB COUPON | Use our Airbnb code to get £25 off your next booking!
It’s important to note that hostels are rarer in Sri Lanka than other southeast Asian countries, mostly due to the abundance of wonderful guesthouses. That being said, there are a number of cool hostels in all the main destinations on the island, including Unawatuna, Galle, Ella, Kandy and Colombo.
One of the best is The Doctors House, located in Matara, which is located in a restored colonial building and has a cool outdoor bar and chill area to meet other travellers.
BOOK | Check Hostelworld for the best hostels in Sri Lanka now.
On our two trips to Sri Lanka, Airbnb has been the go-to for booking accommodation. On top of guesthouses, smaller, boutique hotels list their rooms on Airbnb, so it really is the best place to find unique and comfortable accommodation at a reasonable price.
FREE AIRBNB COUPON | Use our Airbnb code to get £25 off your next booking!
Sri Lanka weather, and the best time to visit
Sri Lanka’s weather, much like its politics, is a complicated beast punctuated by two seperate monsoons, which affect different parts of the island and different times of year.
When the monsoon occurs will define where you should travel to, however it also means that some part of the island will have good weather when you decide to visit!
If you’re wanting to visit the incredible sights of the south and central areas, December to March is the best time to visit Sri Lanka.
Alternatively, if you’re keen to hit the surf breaks of Arugam Bay and Trincomalee, April/May to September is the best time to visit Sri Lanka.
READ | Learn more about when to travel to Sri Lanka in our Sri Lanka travel guide
Best Tours of Sri Lanka
Although we’re definitely advocates for independent travel, we understand some travellers may want to experience Sri Lanka with a guide, and with all the nitty gritty travel details taken care of. Below are selection of tours in Sri Lanka, and the best day tours around the Island.
Sri Lanka Encompassed with G Adventures | A 14-day small group tour visiting major cultural sights within Sri Lanka, including the most scenic train ride in the world from Kandy to Ella. Includes expert guides, meals and transport. Book here.
Whatever you do, don’t travel through Sri Lanka without travel insurance. Whether it be Delhi belly, theft, or lost baggage, things can go wrong in Sri Lanka, and insurance is your only way of mitigating the issues!
SRI LANKA BACKPACKING ESSENTIALS
Travelling through Sri Lanka comes with a unique set of needs. To help you have a comfortable, happy journey, we recommend bringing the following items with you:
Reusable water bottle | THE BEST INVESTMENT WE’VE EVER MADE! We use the Grayl water purification bottles, which allows us to fill up from any water source, anywhere in the world (including train taps!).
Biodegradable Wet Wipes | Keep clean without destroying the planet!
Hand sanitiser | not something we’d actually recommend normally, but in Sri Lanka it can be a bloody great investment.
A spork | to cut down on unnecessary plastic usage at meal times
Power bank | don’t get caught out without power for your devices
READ | check out our eco-friendly packing guide to travel through Sri Lanka consciously and comfortably
EXPERIENCE MORE OF SRI LANKA WITH THESE ESSENTIAL POSTS
THINGS TO DO IN SRI LANKA | 31 incredible things to do in Sri Lanka (this is THE definitive guide on the internet!)
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | Everything you need to know before you visit Sri Lanka (39 essential tips!)
KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN | Our definitive guide to the Kandy to Ella train
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world?
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL | Responsible travel is important. REALLY IMPORTANT.
Learn our top responsible travel tips to help you, your family and friends travel more consciously around the globe
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
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