Sri Lanka may be a small island in the Indian Ocean, but that’s the only thing small about it. The country, formerly known as Ceylon, boasts an ancient civilization, golden sandy beaches with their swaying coconut palms, mountains, and tea plantations. While visiting the island, you’ll see colonial architecture from when the Portuguese, Dutch, and English ruled.
You’ll also see lots of elephants, some of which participate in local festivals and, if you’re lucky, perhaps a leopard or two at a wildlife sanctuary.
Here’s a look at the best places to visit in Sri Lanka:
The small, seaside city of Hikkaduwa, is north of Galle, along the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Well-trodden by tourists looking for a slice of sand and a chilled-out time, the town is packed full of cheap guesthouses, tourist shops, and many cafes and restaurants. It may have lost a little of its beauty since the tourists started arriving here in the 1970s, but if you want to spend a few days near the sea, this might be the spot for you.
Located in a beautiful setting with forest-covered hills, sweeping valleys, and picturesque tea plantations, Ella is a lovely place to spend time. The journey by rail to Ella from Kandy is iconic and will take you chugging along in a colorful carriage up through the lush, verdant hills. Ella itself may be small, but if you enjoy hiking or just relaxing in the peace of nature, it’s well worth your time. Make sure to hike to some of the nearby waterfalls and temples, as well as to the top of Ella Rock, for incredible views.
Anuradhapura is an ancient sacred city established around a cutting from Buddha’s fig tree. Dating back to the third century BC, Anuradhapura was established by the founder of Buddhist nuns. This magnificent city of palaces, temples, and monuments flourished for 1,300 years but was abandoned after it was invaded in the late 10th century. Much like Peru’s Machu Picchu, locals were aware of it but not many others until it was “discovered” by Europeans many centuries later. These fantastic ruins have since been excavated and are accessible for the public to enjoy.
7. Colombo Colombo
Colombo Colombo has been the commercial capital of Sri Lanka for more than 2,000 years when its large natural harbor made it popular with ancient trades from Italy to China. It’s often referred to as the country’s capital, though the legislative capital is located in a nearby city. Ruled over by first Portuguese and then British colonists, Colombo is a popular tourist destination. The city seamlessly mixes modern malls and skyscrapers with beautiful colonial buildings. A range of architectural styles can be found in the city, with the Murugan Hindu temple being one of the best.
6. Yala National Park
Yala National Park is a wildlife sanctuary about 150 miles from Colombo. It has the highest density of leopards globally, so the chances of seeing them are very high. Although leopards are the main attraction here, they are followed closely by elephants, sloth bears, and crocodiles. The park is divided into five blocks. Some zoned to hunters until Yala became a national park in 1938. Ensure you make time to visit the very informative visitor center at the park entrance for insightful displays about the area.
If you’re looking to holiday in a tropical paradise, Mirissa just might be the answer to your dreams: swaying coconut palms, beautiful golden sand beaches, days spent rocking away in a hammock. It doesn’t get much better than this. This crescent-shaped piece of paradise is famous for having the most stunning sunsets and sunrises in Sri Lanka. There are no luxury resorts to mar the landscape, so it’s just you and the beach during the day. The pace picks up at night. Mirissa is the largest fishing port on the south coast and is a good place to go dolphin and whale watching.
The second oldest kingdom in Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa is known for the ruins of this ancient garden city. The 12th-century ruins are some of the best preserved in the country. Polonnaruwa was where traders of exotic goods mingled with worshippers in the many temples. Start your tour at the Archaeological Museum, then proceed to the massive Royal Palace with its well-preserved audience hall. The stunningly decorated Sacred Quadrangle is another must-see here.
Kandy, the second-largest city in Sri Lanka, is the gateway to the Central Highlands and its tropical plantations that grow tea and rubber. If you’re driving from Colombo, you’ll pass by rubber plantations on a road that is considered one of the country’s most scenic. The last capital of the ancient kingdoms, Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred Buddhist temples in the world. A major, colorful festival involves taking the tooth relic around the city. Movie buffs may be interested to know Kandy was a chief location in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Galle’s most famous attraction is its 17th-century fort built by Dutch colonists. Sitting on a promontory overlooking the Indian ocean, the fort is known for its architectural style. Galle is considered a prime example of a fortified city. The fortress is not just another pretty place. However, today it houses courts and businesses. Galle is becoming known as an arts colony and its ex-pat community. Other top sights include a natural harbor, Sri Lanka’s oldest lighthouse, a maritime museum, a key Shiva temple, and the Jesuit-built St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Wannabe archaeologists need to put Sigiriya on their must-see places in Sri Lanka. This ancient city is built on a steep slope, topped by a plateau almost 600 feet high. This plateau is known as Lion’s Rock as it oversees the jungles below. The ancient rock fortress dates back to the third century BC, a monastery. It was later turned into a royal residence. Access to the site is through staircases and rooms emanating from the lion’s mouth. You’ll also see ponds, gardens, and fountains. Locals consider the site the eighth wonder of the world.