Elephants, beaches, tea plantations and ancient cities: Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with a treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage attractions. The island nation packs a lot of different landscapes and experiences in a small geographical area, so the best places to visit in Sri Lanka combine nature, history and culture.
A Sri Lanka vacation offers delightful surprises around every corner, with 24 wildlife reserves, with Asian elephants, sloths, sloth bears, leopards, snakes, deer and birds. It was also home to the first wildlife sanctuary in the world, Mihintale, which became one in 247BC during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa).
Sri Lanka is geographically close to India, separated only a by the Gulf of Mannar but it’s an incredibly easy country to travel around. So, follow my 10 days in Sri Lanka itinerary road trip for an eyeful of the most amazing places to visit in Sri Lanka today.
- 15 Stunning Places To Visit In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka Information
15 Stunning Places To Visit In Sri Lanka
Negombo, a city on Sri Lanka’s west coast, is rich in European history and an excellent place to start your Sri Lanka sightseeing.
It’s a small city with temples, waterways and a surprising number of churches that are a legacy of Sri Lanka’s past.
The Portuguese colonised Negombo 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 an excellent spot to wander around and meet the fishermen or soak up the excitement at a daily fish auction.
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and is a large city with plenty of city diversions, from sightseeing to shopping and tasting local food.
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.
There’s a hop-on-hop-off bus that makes it easy to take a tour of Colombo’s sights, and after dark, the city comes alive. The restaurants, bars and nightclubs are packed with people enjoying Sri Lanka city life.
3- Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
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 significant 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.
Visiting the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is one of the more controversial things to do in Sri Lanka, as not everyone feels the elephants are treated as well as they should be.
When I visited, I didn’t see any sign of animal abuse but one of our writers went on a tour with TripADeal and wasn’t happy with the conditions.
Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant spot to stop for lunch to watch the elephants bathing in the river.
4- 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.
Buddhism has influenced the culture and laws of Sri Lanka, so it’s not surprising that one of the main attractions at Anuradhapura is the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree (possibly the oldest tree in the world?).
This is a sacred fig tree planted from a cutting taken from the original Sri Maha Bodhi tree where the Lord Buddha became enlighted in Bodhi Gaya in India.
Even more interesting to watch is the devotees who offer flowers then pray and chant around the tree.
Watch this video about the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka:
5- The ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Another historic gem, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa, is packed with archaeological treasures.
Exploring Polonnaruwa is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka as it was the country’s capital during the 11th and 12th centuries.
Located beside a manmade lake, Polonnaruwa attractions include ruined palaces, pools, stupas and rock sculptures.
One of the main reasons is that this is such an iconic place to explore is that you’ll see and learn about the island’s golden age of engineering, where structures e made of brick.
The Gal Vihara is a group of four impressive statues carved in rock, including a 7m tall standing Buddha and a reclining one.
Polonnaruwa was built during a time when Hinduism was introduced to Sri Lanka through Chola invaders from South India.
Make sure you visit the Polonnaruva Site Museum to learn more about that time.
I was most impressed by the chart displaying the Singhalese alphabet, which looks far too complex to have been invented 2000 years ago.
It’s worth looking into the Parakrama Samudra reservoir and irrigation system, which although it isn’t photogenic, you’ll soon understand how agriculture became prominent in the region.
6- Minneriya National Park
With our heads swimming with historical facts, a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park is an opportunity to get out in nature and spot sambar deer and elephants.
The park has large numbers of Asian elephants, which are much smaller than African elephants but still impressive to see while on safari.
It’s also home to sambar deer, leopards, sloth bears and two endemic Sri Lankan monkeys – the purple-faced langur and the toque macaque. Most of these are difficult to spot in the park but you’ll see lots of elephants.
Sri Lanka’s famous rock fortress of Sigiriya is also known as the Lion Rock and is one of the most famous tourist places in Sri Lanka to visit.
King Kasyapa built this fortress in the 5th century on top of a 200m granite rock with 750 steps to climb.
At the top of the 200m rock, 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.
I was extremely impressed with the frescoes of bare-bosomed maidens in a chamber near the top (you have to climb a metal staircase to get to them).
They are meant to be paintings of ladies who were brought to Sigiriya to entertain King Kashyapa.
Other impressive things to see on the Sigiriya climb is the Mirror Wall, which has a kind of ancient graffiti and the ancient swimming pool.
On the way to Kandy, 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.
Maharaja Vihara Lena (Cave of the Great Kings) is the largest and most impressive cave, named for the statues of King Valagambahu and King Nissankamalla.
It also has a gallery of 50 Buddha statues and a massive sleeping Buddha statue that is sure to impress anyone.
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 and is fast becoming one of the most popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka.
The main thing to see 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 enormous, and its halls and shrines are usually crowded.
10- 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.
11- 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 but you may not see all those animals.
You will most likely see elephants and, if you’re lucky, you might come across a leopard (we saw one rustling behind some bushes).
While this is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka to see leopards in the wild, unfortunately, our timing wasn’t right.
Although our safari guide hung around to give us the chance of seeing the leopard, we were out of luck.
However, we come across several other tourists who had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to photograph the leopard.
Sri Lanka has a stunning coastline and any visit to Sri Lanka should include a stay near the beach, where long stretches of sand and swaying palms of the south coast are particularly inviting.
The south coast is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka and it’s not surprising that the beach towns here attract lots of tourists.
Galle is one of the larger seaside towns along this coastline and an exciting destination to add to your Sri Lanka tour.
You could spend days exploring Galle’s Dutch colonial town, which has a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage-listed sea fortress.
Another beautiful beach town on the south coast, Mirissa is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka to see dolphins and whales.
This is the place to go on a whale-watching tour to see the Blue Whales.
It’s also an excellent spot for a relaxing beach vacation where you can swim in the Indian Ocean, spend the day sunbaking on the sand and the night sipping cocktails and dining in a restaurant on the beach.
Another popular seaside resort on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast is Hikkaduwa, which is one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka for a surfing holiday.
Another reason to go here is the beach is not far from Hikkaduwa National Park, where the coral sanctuary is the place to snorkel with green sea turtles and a colourful variety of fish.
The best time to surf here is between November and March when the surf is an impressive 3m high but don’t be put off if you’re a beginner as there’s an area straight off the main beach that is suitable for learners.
Visit the Hikkaduwa Turtle Hatchery, which aims to save turtles from the perils of fishing nets by nurturing the hatchlings before they are released into the ocean.
One of the most photographed places in Sri Lanka, Ella is a beautiful spot to do some scenic sightseeing in Sri Lanka.
Popular things to do in Ella include visiting tea plantations, walking the Demodara Nine Arche Bridge and visiting gushing waterfalls.
For a real challenge, try hiking to the peak of Ella Rock (it’s much harder than climbing Little Adam’s peak) and should take about two hours to get to the top.
The train from Kandy to Ella is a popular journey and a great way to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in Sri Lanka. Tickets cost $1.50 and the trip takes five hours.
Sri Lanka Information
As you can see, Sri Lanka is a beautiful 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 more tips about travel in Sri Lanka.
Where to stay in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Beach Resorts
Looking for a luxurious resort on an exotic island? Shangri-La Hambantota Resort & Spa is on the southern coast of lush and tropical Sri Lanka. The 300-room resort is the first to have its 18-hole golf course.
The resort’s 26 suites come with private butler service, views of lush landscaped gardens and an artisan village, where the local craftsmen create and sell pottery, ceramics and wood carvings.
Click here to book this hotel
Best time to go to Sri Lanka
As Sri Lanka is located along the equator, the temperatures are steamy most of the year 26-30°C (78 -86°F).
The coastal destination in Sri Lanka has a higher level of humidity that the highlands, which has a cooler and more comfortable temperature.
The best time to go to Sri Lanka is during the dry season if you’re planning on visiting the coastal areas is between December and April.