Elephants, beaches, tea plantations and ancient cities: there’s no doubt Sri Lanka is a stunning country. The island nation packs a lot of diversity in a small geographical area and the best places to visit in Sri Lanka combine nature, history and culture.
Sri Lanka offers delightful surprises around every corner. So, follow my road trip for an eyeful of the most amazing places to visit in Sri Lanka today.
12 places to visit in Sri Lanka
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.
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 to watch the elephants bathing in the river.
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 of Sri Lanka:
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.
5- Minneriya National Park
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.
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.
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.
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.
9- 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.
10- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.