Updated: Feb 17
Formerly known as Ceylon and also referred to as the pearl of the Indian ocean, this tropical island no doubt caters to the interests of many tourists. SriLanka is home to a plethora of world-class attractions and this could mainly be attributed to its rich bio-diversity and historical backdrop spanning more than 2500 years. From white sandy beaches on the eastern coastline to lush green tea estates in the central hills and world-class archeological sites like Sigiriya, this paradise of an island would be your ideal getaway! Here is a brief look at some of the must-see places if you happen to visit.
Horton Plains National Park
Home to many endemic species, this national park lies in the central highlands of Sri Lanka at an altitude of 2100-2300 meters above sea-level. The park is mainly encompassed by montage grasslands and sporadic cloud forests that serve as a hotspot for flora and fauna. The most notable attraction within Horton plains could be considered the World’s End precipice, offering spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding areas stretching for miles. Another such attraction is Bakers falls, renowned for the cascading crystal-clear waters springing out from the lush cloud forest.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
This rock fortress allegedly built by king Kassapa in the fifth-century towers over the surrounding forests at nearly 200m. Tourists are expected to climb the rock along steep stairways to be met by ruins of an old palace and monastery at the top. About halfway up the side of the rock is the iconic lion's paw entrance while the west face of the rock houses beautiful frescos which largely contributed towards Sigiriya being listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Sigiriya is also considered to have some of the first landscaped gardens in the world. Building something of this magnanimity during the time would have taken true engineering ingenuity and there’s no wonder as to why it’s considered an attraction not to be missed in Sri Lanka.
Mirissa is a small beach town located about 150 kilometers south of Colombo that is particularly famous for its night-life. In addition to the palm-laid beaches, chic restaurants, and clubs, Mirissa is also renowned as a whale and dolphin-watching hotspot with daily mid-sea excursions being made via licensed operators. Coconut tree-hill is a famous vantage point not to be missed when in Mirissa and this location is considered to be one of the most Instagrammed places in Sri Lanka.
Unawatuna is famous for its shallow swimmable waters among tourists and locals alike. Located just a few kilometers off the coastal town of Galle, this beach town would be the perfect place to unwind with its laid-back atmosphere. Various kinds of colorful fish and turtles are a common sight in these waters so if you’re in the mood for some action, scuba-diving and snorkeling could be considered the best options. Lodging and food will never be a problem with the numerous hotels and restaurants that line the pristine beach.
Considered to be the third tallest mountain on the island, Adam’s Peak holds immense spiritual significance for Buddhists. Also referred to as Sri Pada locally, the summit is said to have been blessed by the foot-print of Lord Buddha - now represented by a 1.8 m stone engraving. The 5000 step climb to the top is considered to be an arduous task along steep stairways but the numerous stalls selling snacks and drinks will help you cool off. It is recommended that you start the journey between 2:00 and 3:00 AM in order to catch a glimpse of the spectacular sunrise from the summit.
Yala National Park
Craving to spot a leopard in its natural habitat? Then there’s no better place to accomplish this than Yala National Park which is considered to have one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. In addition to this, elephants, sloth bears, and crocodiles are considered to be common sightings within the park premises. Located deep into the south of Sri Lanka, the park is encompassed by varying eco-systems ranging from sandy beaches, grasslands, and marshes to monsoon forests. Some consider Yala to be one of the best safari destinations outside of Africa.
Temple of the Tooth Relic
This holy site is said to house a tooth relic of the Buddha and considered to be one of the most venerated places of religious significance in the island. Various poojas are carried out daily within the premises as a means of paying homage while this culminates with the procession of the Kandy Esala Perehara during the months of July and August. This one-of-a-kind cultural event involves parading of the tooth relic along the streets of Kandy on elegantly dressed tusker elephants sided by traditional local dancers. When visiting, make sure to be dressed in light-colored decent attire covering shoulders and legs.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Declared as a UNESCO world heritage site, Sinharaja is considered to be one of the last viable tropical rainforests on the island. Home to a very large number of endemic birds, mammals, and reptiles, it has been designated as a biosphere reserve with international significance. Despite the dense vegetation, even large mammals like elephants and leopards have been spotted within the reserve in small numbers. Tourists have the option of trekking through designated trails within the reserve to observe wildlife in its natural habitat. Finding an endemic blue magpie bird is a favorite among bird-watchers.
Nuwara Eliya should be right up there in your bucket list of places to explore in Sri Lanka. Also known as “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya is famous for its tea plantations that spread across a major part of the central highlands. Gregory’s lake is the most prominent attraction located close to the city center where you can engage in numerous water-based activities. If you’re looking for a more refined and exclusive experience head over to the Grand Hotel – a luxury colonial hotel famous for its architecture and historical background. February to May is generally considered to be the best months to visit this beautiful hill town when flora and fauna are in full bloom.
Renowned as one of the top ten surf destinations in the world, Arugam Bay is a small coastal town located in eastern Sri Lanka. Despite a surge in the influx of tourists following the end of the civil war, Arugam Bay still manages to exude its local charm and remains largely as an under-developed town. The main surf break is referred to as the Main Point which is located a tuk-tuk ride away from the town center and best enjoyed by intermediate and experienced surfers. Inexperienced surfers can try out Elephant Rock and Pottuvil Point for a more protected break. The months of July, August, and September are considered to be the best for surfing with winds from the east coast picking up. The beach stretch is usually lined with budget hotels and pubs while options are quite limited if you’re looking for luxury accommodation.
Hikkaduwa is home to one of the three marine national parks in Sri Lanka. The beach town is well known for a reef that extends kilometers along the shallow waters of the coastline, providing protection for corals of different shapes and sizes. This in turn has made Hikkaduwa into an ideal place for snorkeling and scuba-diving. Other attractions in the area include turtle hatcheries with guided tours and activities for tourists. The Hikkaduwa town stretches alongside the ever-busy Galle road while most of the spaces are occupied by boutique and souvenir shops. A broad range of accommodation options ranging from budget to star-class hotels is available scattered throughout the region.
Anuradhapura Ancient City
The first administrative capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is a must visit for the history buffs out there. The scattered ruins of this ancient metropolis consist of monasteries, palaces, pavilions, and bathing ponds: considered to be true architectural masterpieces of a bygone civilization. Anuradhapura is also home to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi which is said to be the southern branch of the famous fig tree in India (Buddha Gaya) under which Gautama Siddhartha gained enlightenment. The Ruwanweliasaya and Abhayagiri Stupas are also considered must-visits due to the sheer size of the structures - Abhayagiri was once considered to be the second-tallest structure in the world after the Pyramids in Giza.
This beautiful town located about 200 km east of Colombo is undoubtedly the most popular among backpackers. Ella is surrounded by hills sprawling with endemic fauna and flora. Ella Rock is the most famous vantage point in the area mainly for the spectacular sunrise shots with mountains and valleys stretching for miles in the backdrop. Nine-arch bridge, known to be an engineering marvel at the time of construction is yet another top attraction frequented by locals and tourists alike. The town center has a decent mix of upscale and budget hotels for lodging while Airbnb’s rented out by locals are a favorite among backpackers.
Polonnaruwa Ancient City
Polonnaruwa was once administered as the capital of Sri Lanka following a Chola invasion in the 11th century. The town is mainly famous for its archeological park consisting of withering temples, stupas, and a palace: reminiscing of a glorious past. Among these ruins, the Vatadage and Gal Vihara are must-visits as these sites are a testament to the high standards of Sinhalese sculpting and carving-arts back in the day. Other notable attractions include the Archeological museum and the Parakrama Samudra – a large reservoir lake considered to be a masterpiece of ancient hydraulic management.
The Galle Fort is a designated UNESCO world heritage site in Sri Lanka. The basic fort was first constructed on the rocky peninsula by the Portuguese in the 16th century to be later fortified by the Dutch following invasions. It’s a perfect representation of the synthesis between European and Asian architecture. Despite being over 4 centuries old, the fort seems to be in impeccable condition thanks largely to the amazing reconstruction work undertaken by the archeological department of Sri Lanka. Come present day, the cobblestone paved pathways inside the fort are lined with posh restaurants, souvenir, and boutique shops. The Galle National Museum and Lighthouse are attractions not to be missed during your next visit to this amazing place!
Dambulla Cave Temple
Yet another UNESCO world heritage site, this temple is considered to be a sacred Buddhist site with devotees making the pilgrimage from all parts of Sri Lanka. Also referred to as the Golden Temple, this complex is composed of five main caves built under an overhanging rock nearly 150 meters tall. The caves are filled with majestic murals and statues of Gautama Buddha while most would agree that it’s nothing short of a sight to behold. Take note to wear light-colored attire covering legs and shoulders when visiting.
Named after the affluent tea-planter Thomas Lipton, this vantage point offers breath-taking views of the surrounding tea carpeted hills stretching for miles. Most tourists prefer to take a tuk-tuk ride to the top and make their journey back on foot, paving way for amazing photo opportunities. Right at the summit is a statue of Sir Lipton observing his empire and a small cafe offering tea and snacks. A few kilometers down at the foothill is the Dambatenne tea factory where tourists have the option of checking out the tea production process in detail. Haputale is the closest town that offers accommodation with basic amenities.
Pigeon Island National Park
Photo credit: P.C Anton
Just 1km off the coast of Nilaveli lies Pigeon Island, rightfully named after the rock pigeons that once used to colonize the island. Surrounded by an impressive beach with powdery white sand and coral-fringed shallow waters, this would be the perfect place to spend your day if you happen to be in the Trincomalee area. Tickets to this national park need to be purchased from the mainland where private boat owners take turns transporting tourists back and forth on a daily basis. Snorkeling/diving gear also needs to be rented out from the mainland before boarding the boat.