For an island of such modest dimensions, Sri Lanka boasts an extraordinary variety of places to visit, including eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, and it has a diverse landscape, from idyllic beaches lapped by the Indian Ocean, to lush, lowland jungles and the misty heights of the Hill Country.
Laze on the beaches, explore timeless ruins, marvel at the wildlife, enjoy the spicy, flavoursome food, drink plenty of tea and meet some of the friendliest locals in the world.
Here’s our pick of 35 things you must do on a trip to Sri Lanka.
1. Laze on the Beach
Beaches are the undisputed highlight of any trip to Sri Lanka and there’s a diverse selection around the island: long golden stretches of sand, dainty strips of powdery white sand, wind- and surf-battered beaches, and pristine secluded spots. Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Uppeveli are popular, but there are plenty more options.
2. Go Birdwatching
The tropical climate and exotic landscape of Sri Lanka is home to over 400 species of birds, including 23 endemic species and over 200 migratory species, making it a paradise for bird lovers. The end of the year is the best time for birdwatchers, and there are a number of sanctuaries to explore across the island.
3. Eat Curry & Rice
The staple dish of Sri Lanka is rice and curry. There’s a mouthwatering selection of dishes to sample, and their contrasting flavours – coconut milk, chillies, garlic, curry leaves, cinnamon and fish – bear witness to Sri Lanka’s role as one of the original spice islands.
4. Try Surfing
If you’ve never surfed before, Sri Lanka is the ideal place to try it out. Conditions at Hikkaduwa beach are perfect for the first timer, as the sandy break cushions your fall and the waves aren’t as large and intimidating as in other parts of the world. But you don’t have to be a beginner; expert surfers head to other beaches to catch a decent wave.
5. Sip Tea
Originally known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer in the world, which makes this a top spot to sup a cuppa. Tea drinking culture on the island is strong, and you can find fine single traditional teas or mixed fruit blends.
6. Explore the Hill Country
The sublime green heights of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country are a world away from the golden beaches. Here mountainous forested hills rise to rugged peaks and the mist slowly parts to reveal emerald carpets of tea plantations. With traces of British colonial rule sprinkled around the landscape, it’s the perfect spot for a cuppa.
7. Watch Cricket
Another legacy of British colonial rule, cricket is now a national pastime in Sri Lanka. Watch kids play on a rough piece of ground, improvising bats, balls and wickets with whatever they have to hand, or participate in a game on the beach. If you’re lucky you can catch a test match in Colombo or Kandy.
8. Visit Galle
Located on the south of the island, Galle is unmissable. It’s a town of great beauty, where the Dutch colonial architecture mixes gently with the exotic backdrop. Galle’s fort is one of the island UNESCO sites, and the area is filled with boutique shops, making it a magnet for artists.
9. Honeymoon at Bentota
Head to the southern end of Bentota beach and you’ll find one of the most attractive beaches on the island. This wide stretch of sand, backed by thickets of palm trees, is home to a number of luxury hotels and villas, and is a popular honeymoon destination.
10. Visit Yala National Park
The most popular and rewarding of Sri Lanka’s national parks, Yala is home to a staggering array of elephants, crocodiles, monitor lizards, monkeys and birds, but the real draw here are the leopards. Home to the largest population on the island, there’s a very good chance of catching a glimpse of one of these rare, elusive creatures here.
11. Explore the Cave Temples at Dambulla
A sacred pilgrimage site for over 22 centuries, the cave monastery at Dambulla, also known as the Golden Temple, is the largest and best-preserved cave temple site in Sri Lanka. Its five sanctuaries are a treasure trove of Buddhist art, sumptuously decorated with murals, shrines and 157 statues.
12. Go Whale & Dolphin Watching
The south of Sri Lanka, below Dondra Head, is one of the best locations in the world for whale and dolphin watching, with blue whales, sperm whales and spinner dolphins all seen here. The prime time for excursions is between December and April, when the sea is generally calm.
13. Attend a Night Ceremony at Kataragama
The small, remote town of Kataragama is one of the three most important religious sites on the island. The sleepy town is magically transformed during the evening puja, when throngs of pilgrims of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim faiths, make offerings of fruit to the gods in a colourful ceremony involving music and dancing.
14. Ride the Train
Riding one of Sri Lanka’s trains is like stepping back in time. Another legacy of colonial times, the railway is now charmingly decrepit but as you chug slowly through the hills and valleys it’s an experience that will live long in the mind. The morning journey from Kandy to the Highlands is one of the best railway journeys in the world.
15. Try a Ayurveda Treatment
The ancient science of Ayurveda is used throughout Sri Lanka, using herbal medicines and traditional techniques to promote holistic wellbeing. So any visit should include a little pampering, with a variety of body massages, hot oil treatments, herbal soaks and herbals wraps on offer in luxury spas around the island.
16. Explore the Archaeological Site of Sigiriya
The iconic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is one of the most recognisable sights on the island. Near-vertical walls rise to a flat-topped summit, once home to an ancient civilisation. It’s worth climbing the steep staircases, passing a pair of remarkable frescoes, to reach the top, with its spellbinding vistas and impressive water gardens.
17. Chill Out at Mirissa
The chilled-out village of Mirissa is the ideal spot to get away from civilisation, crack open a coconut and rock gently in a hammock. The beach is one of the nicest in the south, a pretty bay backed with coconut palms, and at night it’s lit up with thousands of tiny fairy lights.
18. Go Diving or Snorkelling
With spectacularly coloured coral reefs, fascinating shipwrecks and a multitude of tropical fish, it’s little surprise that Sri Lanka offers some world-class diving and snorkelling opportunities. Hikkaduwa , Weligama and Kirinda are some of the best places to catch a glimpse of the underwater world.
19. Try a Hopper Snack
Sri Lanka’s tastiest snack is the engagingly named hopper (appa). A small bowl-shaped pancake, it’s usually made from coconut milk and palm toddy, and can be eaten for breakfast or dinner. Various ingredients can be added to the hopper, with one of the most popular offerings being an egg fried in the middle.
20. Take a Pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak
One of the most sacred spots on the island, Adam’s Peak has been a pilgrimage site for over 1,000 years. This lofty peak in the southern Hill Country has a large footprint in its side, thought to be either the place where Adam first set foot on earth, the footprint of Buddha as he headed to paradise, or even that of Lord Shiva.
21. Visit Colombo’s Pettah
A colourful neighbourhood of Colombo, Pettah is a helter-skelter bazaar where each street is home to a different trade. It’s an energetic, absorbing area, with gridlocked streets and merchandise piled high. Exploring can be a slow and somewhat exhausting process but well worth it, especially for photographers.
22. Admire the Art & Architecture at Polonnaruwa
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka, after the destruction of Anuradhapura. Today the ruins are spread over an extensive area of woodland, and they contain some of the finest examples of ancient Sinhalese art and architecture on the island. There’s a lot to see so allow at least a day to explore.
23. Explore the Temples at Kandy
High up in the Hill Country is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city. The last capital of the Sinhalese kingdom, Kandy offers a cooler, more relaxed vibe, with plenty of history and culture on tap. It’s home to the Temple of the Tooth, which contains the famous Tooth Relic – the symbol of Sinhalese sovereignty.
24. Witness the Kandy Esala Perahera Festival
One of Asia’s most spectacular festivals, the 10-day Esala Perahera festival is held in July/August every year and its origins date back to the arrival of the tooth in Kandy. It involves magnificently decorated elephant parades, drummers, dancers, acrobats, fire, and a water-cutting ceremony.
25. Have a Beach Day at Arugam Bay
Arugam Bay is a chilled-out spot on the East Coast; a lovely moon-shaped bay with soft sand and gently swinging hammocks. Popular with the surfing fraternity who regard this as the best surfing location on the island, it’s equally appealing to those who simply want to relax and get away from it all.
26. Go White-Water Rafting at the Kelani River
If you fancy a little adrenaline on your Sri Lankan break, head to Kitulgala to go white-water rafting down the Kelani River – an exhilarating and challenging experience in a picturesque location. If you really fancy a challenge, try black rafting during the night either side of the full moon.
27. Visit Uda Walawe National Park
Sri Lanka has a number of national parks, but Uda Walawe can rival the best safari experiences in East Africa. With herds of buffalo, sambar deer, and leopards, the real draw here are the elephants. It’s home to the Elephant Transfer Home, an orphanage and rehabilitation centre, with emphasis on the elephants’ wellbeing.
28. Get to Know the Locals
Sri Lankans are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet on your travels. They’re curious to interact with tourists and always prepared to give you a hospitable welcome. If you’re privileged enough to be invited to their home for dinner, jump at the opportunity – it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience.
29. Explore Anuradhapura
The picturesque ruins of Anuradhapura are an evocative sight. Once a major centre of Sri Lankan civilisation, the fascinating ruins contain a rich collection of architectural and archaeological wonders: crumbling temples and palaces, huge bell-shaped stupas, ancient pools and magnificent sculptures. Several of the sacred sites remain in use today, giving it an extra-special atmosphere.
30. Go Trekking
Sri Lanka is filled with excellent trekking options, especially in the lush Hill Country, giving you an opportunity to get off the beaten track and see some of the lesser-known parts of the country. The numerous rivers and waterfalls are a key attraction, both for their beauty and the opportunity they provide for a refreshing dip en route.
31. Visit a Turtle Hatchery
Five of the seven species of sea turtles come to the shores of Sri Lanka to breed, and all are under threat from over-fishing, pollution, loss of habitat and hunting. There are a number of hatcheries on the island, dedicated to ensuring the turtles’ wellbeing. The best is Kosgoda where, if you arrive in the evening, you can help release the day’s hatchlings into the sea.
32. Eat Seafood at Mt Lavinia Beach
The seafood restaurants in Colombo claim to have the freshest catch on the island, cooked and seasoned to perfection. Perhaps the best place to test this claim is Mt Lavinia Beach, a laid-back suburb where you can munch next to the golden sands.
33. See Kandyan Dancing & Drumming
Sri Lanka may not have much in terms of traditional vocal and instrumental music, but it does have a rich tradition of dancing accompanied by extraordinary drumming, some of the most exuberant in the world. Catch a performance of this iconic performing art while you’re in Kandy.
If that’s wet your appetite, contact Adventure Lanka Tours to book your dream Sri Lankan trip today.