Places to visit in Sri Lanka

Places to visit in Sri Lanka

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places to visit in sri lanka
A taste of Sri Lanka. Photos: Christina Pfeiffer

Elephants, beaches, tea plantations and ancient cities; there’s no doubt Sri Lanka is stunning. The island nation packs a lot of diversity in a small geographical area. Follow my road trip for an eyeful of some of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka today.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka

1- Negombo

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Negombo, a city on Sri Lanka’s west coast, is rich in European history. It’s a small city with temples, waterways and a surprising number of churches.

The churches are a legacy of Sri Lanka’s past. Negombo was colonised by the Portuguese in the 1500s and captured by the Dutch in 1646.

The fish market by the beach is one of the best places to go in Sri Lanka for local colour.

Negombo’s fish market is the second largest in Sri Lanka and a good spot to wander around and meet the fishermen or soak up the excitement at a daily fish auction.

places to visit in sri lanka
Left to right Sri Lanka points of interest in Negombo Blue swimmer crab at the fish market, exploring the fish market, cruising the Gin Oya River in Negombo. are some fun places to visit in Sri Lanka.

2- The road to Sirigaya

I travel through Sri Lanka on a small group tour. Our group of nine piles into a minibus and we hit the road.

Along the way, our guide, Priya, entertains and educates us with snippets of Sri Lanka’s history and culture.

Did you know that the national flower of Sri Lanka is the blue water lily? Or the national gemstone is the blue sapphire? The national bird is the Sri Lankan junglefowl.

We also learn interesting things about Sri Lankan culture – such as 70% of the Sri Lankan population are Theravada Buddhists. And an astrologer is consulted before any major decision is made about anything.

By the time we arrive at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, my head is full of facts, figures and useful tips about travelling in Sri Lanka.

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a pleasant spot to stop for lunch. The river is full of bathing elephants.

places to visit in sri lanka
A Sri Lanka tour package is likely to include elephant sightings. Elephants everywhere at Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary, which is one of the places to go in Sri Lanka if you love animals.

3- The ruins of Anuradhapura

We visit Anuradhapura, the oldest of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities and a city with soaring stupas and dagabas.

Anuradhapura was the centre of power from 377BC to the 12th century AD and is still one of the most famous places in Sri Lanka.

The bell-shaped structures reach up toward’s the clouds in the blue sky. Inside these structures are valuables and Buddhist relics. Watch this video about the cultural triangle Sri Lanka:

famous places in sri lanka - anuradhapura
Impressive places to visit in Anuradhapura: This is the largest and oldest Sri Lankan ancient city and still one of the most famous places in Sri Lanka.

Check out hotels in Anuradhapura here

4- The ancient city of Polonnaruwa

Another historic gem, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa, is packed with archaeological treasures. Exploring Polonnaruwa is definitely one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka.

Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka during the 11th and 12th centuries. Located beside a manmade lake, Polonnaruwa attractions include ruined palaces, pools, stupas and rock sculptures.

With our heads swimming with historic facts, a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park is an opportunity to get out in nature and spot sambar deer and elephants

things to do in sri lanka includes exploring polonnaruwa
Packed with ancient treasures, exploring medieval Polonnaruwa is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka.
best places to visit in sri lanka
Minneraya National Park

Check out hotels around Polonnaruwa here

5- Sigiriya

Sri Lanka’s famous rock fortress of Sigiriya is also known as the Lion Rock and every Sri Lankan itinerary is bound to include a visit to this magnificent place.

King Kasyapa built this fortress in the 5th century on top of a 200m granite rock. There are 750 steps up and it’s worth the effort!

Climb to the top of the rock and you will see why they say this is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka. It’s a bit of a challenge for anyone with average fitness but it’s most definitely doable.

best places to visit in sri lanka
Sigiriya is the jewel of Sri Lanka and one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka.

6- Dambulla Cave Temples

On the way to Kandy, Priya gives us plenty of useful tips on how to travel around Sri Lanka.

We visit the Cave Temples of Dambulla and are amazed at the artistry of the ancient statues and wall paintings.

The caves house hundreds of statues of Buddha and ancient frescoes that have been there since the 3rd century BC.

best places to visit in sri lanka
Dambulla Caves is one of those Sri Lanka points of interest that is truly unique.

7- Kandy

A gem of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, Kandy was once the capital of Ceylon and the last seat of the Sinhalese kingdom.

These days, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s cultural capital. The main attraction in Kandy is the Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The temple is the famous home of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic, a tooth of Buddha. The temple is huge and its halls and shrines are usually crowded.

Check out hotels in Kandy here

best places to visit in sri lanka
Left to right: A traditional performance, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, inside the temple.

8- Nuwara Eliya

The train ride to the lush tea-growing region of Nuwara Eliya is a fun trip and a step back into history.

Sri Lanka travel is varied and interesting. We board a local train at Kandy station and whizz past villages and forests to Gompala, where our minibus is waiting.

Nuwara Eliya is a 19th-century British hill station, with tea plantations, gardens and Tudor buildings. The road to Nuwara Eliya winds its way past tea plantations and waterfalls.

A highlight of the road trip is the local flower boys selling bunches of colourful flowers. They sprint uphill and pop out at every bend.

places to see in sri lanka
Left to right: Sri Lanka travel: Train to Nuwara Eliya, a flower boy, High Tea, a winding road through tea plantations, the British tradition of tea drinking is alive and well in Sri Lanka.

Check out Nuwara Eliya hotels here

9- Yala National Park 

On the way from the highlands to the coast, Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s oldest and most well known national park.

The park is home to leopards, elephants, buffalo and black bears. We spot lots of elephants and come across a leopard hiding in some bushes.

Unfortunately, our timing isn’t right and although our safari guide hangs around to give us the chance of seeing the leopard we’re not in luck this time. However, we come across several other tourists who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to photograph the leopard.

places to see in sri lanka

10- Galle

Sri Lanka has a stunning coastline and any visit to Sri Lanka should include a stay near the beach. The long stretches of sand and swaying palms of the south coast are particularly inviting.

You could spend days exploring the Dutch colonial town of Galle, which has a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage-listed sea fortress.

Check out hotels in Galle here

places to see in sri lanka

10- Colombo

Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka. It’s a large city with plenty of city diversions.

Things to do in Colombo include visiting Sri Lanka’s best temple, Gangarama, which is worth seeing for its intricate brass work, stone carvings and Buddhist art.

places to see in sri lanka
Left to right: Stately architecture in Colombo, a smiling school girl, food in Sri Lanka.

Check out hotels in Colombo here

Discover Sri Lanka

As you can see, Sri Lanka is a scenic country with rich culture and plenty of nature. To see the country, you’ll need to take at least a 10-day road trip around Sri Lanka. Here are some tips about travel in Sri Lanka.

If you’re looking for some down time to play golf by the beach, here’s a cool luxury resort in Sri Lanka to check out: Shangri-La Hambantota.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka

Places to visit in Sri Lanka

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Christina Pfeiffer
I'm a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia, when I'm not on the road. I've lived in three continents and my career as a travel journalist has take be to all seven continents. Since 2003, I have contributed travel stories to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. I have won many travel writing awards and I'm a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Ooh good timing to read this post, we’ve just booked our flights to Sri Lanka for September so will have to bookmark this page. We’re still trying to work out our routes, plus the train journeys, but Kandy is definitely on the list, along with Galle

  2. This is an excellent round up of the things to see in Sri Lanka. There are so many lovely sights and experiences in Sri Lanka. Have been on a short visit there and seen noly Colombo durung a layover. But one place that I would love to get to is Sigiriya. The ruins of this palace are really so intriguing. The other place that attracts me is Nuwara Eliya.

  3. Between the national park and historical sites in Polonnaruwa, this is definitely going on my list! As a history buff and nature lover, Sri Lanka looks like the perfect spot to visit for an extraordinary experience!

  4. From your photos it looks like Sri Lanka is awesome! I think you have compiled the very best of Sri Lanka. For those interested in ancient history Anuradhapura is perhaps the right destination being over 2000 years old. For me Sigiriya is the most impressive which I would not want to miss.

  5. I’ve yet to make to to Sri Lanka, but almost had the chance last year. I’d really live to visit, so your post makes me want to go even more. What was your impression of the Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary? I’m always kind of leary about these kinds of places.

    • Elephant Sanctuaries have come under the spotlight around the world. It’s always better to see elephants in the wild, however, Pinnewala seemed to be not as commercial as some of the sanctuaries you see in Thailand. It was great to see the elephants bathing in the river at Pinnewala.

  6. I’m visiting Sri Lanka in about 2 weeks, so this was perfect timing! There’s also a cool hotel near Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary, where you can “bunch” with the elephants from a distance 🙂
    Also can’t wait to go to Sigiriya, climbing up the Lion Rock is on my itinerary!

    • Fantastic! You’re sure to have a great time in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is amazing and not to be missed. Looking forward to hearing about your travels in Sri Lanka.

  7. I’m hoping to visit Sri Lanka this Winter, so this will come in handy. How was the vegan scene generally? As a Buddhist country, I’m assuming it’ll be totally doable!

    • You’ll have no problem finding vegan food Amelie. Sri Lankan cuisine has lots of tasty vegetarian dishes and these are available everywhere. Have a fabulous time in Sri Lanka!

  8. Sigiriya looks like it is worth the effort to get to the top, stunning view! I loved reading about the history and culture of Sri Lanka and especially love the pictures of the bathing elephants! I would love to visit the Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary.

  9. Thanks for sharing this information post about Sri Lanka. I learnt so much in a short period of time. I had not idea that the national flower of Sri Lanka is the blue water lily and the national gemstone is the blue sapphire. It’s so interesting to hear an astrologer is consulted about significant decisions. I’m considering a stop in Sri Lanka after an upcoming trip to India. Did you travel by minibus apart from the train in and out of the tea-growing region of Nuwara Eliya?

    • Yes, Nancy, by minibus. Sri Lanka is a comfortable place to travel around. The roads are pretty good (even in the countryside) compared to most places in India. I’d highly recommend spending a week or two exploring Sri Lanka.

  10. Sri Lanka is high on my priority list and your this article has further fuel the travel lust for this pristine country. You have given so many interesting facts. Good to know that an astrologer is consulted before any major decision and this practice is very much prevalent in India too. Some day I will capture ruins of Anuradhapur for sure.

  11. There’s so much to see in Sri Lanka! I’d love to visit the rock fortress. Although 750 steps sounds intimidating, I’ve learned that more steps usually means better views lol!

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