More and more travellers are choosing a holiday to Sri Lanka thanks to miles of stunning coastline, mist-covered forests and rolling hills of rich flora and fauna. Adventurers can dive into over 2000 years of cultural heritage at ancient sites, where even highly-revered temples shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks.
Sri Lanka has some of the greenest landscapes in the world, full of biodiversity and perfect for explorers with hiking boots on tow. Take the time to explore inland, coast and the cities to get a real feel of this diverse country. If you’re not sure where to start, dive into our top tips on the best places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Most popular: Hakgala Botanical Gardens
Top recommendation: Seetha Amman Temple
This picturesque city is located in the tea country hills of central Sri Lanka, where lush greens paint the landscape and waterways cut through the hills. Colonial-era bungalows, well-tended hedgerows and pretty gardens have helped give Nuwara Eliya its nickname of ‘Little England’. This old stomping ground of English and Scottish tea traders has a distinctly ‘bygone era’ feel, only heightened by the golf courses and billiards spots.
A visit to Nuwara Eliya wouldn’t be complete without visiting Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Here you’ll discover not only local flora but exotic blooms rich with colour, native to a range of countries including the Netherlands, Japan, Britain and China. There’s a rose garden, filled with giant blooms and an orchid house, home to a variety of exotic specimens.
Next, you could pop on over to Seetha Amman Temple, dedicated to Sita, the wife of Lord Rama. Located within the mountains of Nuwara Eliya, this ornate temple provides a startling contrast of rich and ornate decoration, against the lush greens of the forest. Devotees believe the riverside of this temple bears the imprints of the monkey-god Hanuman’s feet.
Most popular: Belilena cave
Top recommendation: White water rafting on the Kelani River
Kitulgala may be one of the wettest places in Sri Lanka, experiencing multiple monsoons each year, but in the first few months of the year, it’s the place to be. For those that like their holidays with a shot of adrenaline, Kitulgala has to be on the itinerary due to the excellent adventure sports centres that make the most of Kitulgala’s landscape.
For the explorers out there, there’s plenty to discover, from jungle trekking to birdwatching and cave exploration. One of the most popular spots is Belilena, a huge cave where evidence of prehistoric life has been found, including skeletal remains of ten individuals believed to have lived 32,000 years ago. Visit at the right time of year and you’ll be able to stand within the cave and gaze out at the vast jungle from behind a waterfall.
But we think something would be amiss if you left Kitulgala without hopping in a white water raft. Grab some friendly strangers and navigate your way down the rushing waters of the Kelani River. After a few hours of letting the wild river currents throw you and your new pals around, we bet you’ll be firm friends.
Most popular: Sri Muthumariamman Temple
Top recommendation: Trek through Knuckles Mountains
The regional city of Matale is a bit of a congested, urban sprawl, but it’s a great jumping-off spot for the surrounding attractions. Just north of the city is a road lined with dozens of spice plantations, where you can see vanilla, rubber, cinchona, jackfruit, cocoa and cardamom thrive and learn about their cultivation. The area is famous for its small, mild chillies, so make sure you sample them by making the most of local food.
The vibrant and ornate Sri Muthumariamman Temple is hard to miss. It’s a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess of rain and fertility, Mariamman, and you’ll find certain parts of the temple are accessible only to locals, but there is still plenty available to explore. A vast number of statues and figurines decorate this sacred site and it’s a real feast for the eyes.
Head out into the Sri Lankan wilderness of the Knuckles Mountains with your walking boots to experience the eerie beauty of this region. Trek up through a landscape perpetually shrouded in a delicate fog, where the keen-eyed will be able to see spotted deer, purple-faced leaf monkeys and mongeese amidst the dense, lush forest.
Most popular: Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Top recommendation: Learn to cook traditional Sri Lankan food
Mist clings to the hills that surround the beautiful lake at the heart of Kandy and while blue skies might not be as abundant as elsewhere in Sri Lanka, the colourful houses, vibrant green landscape and Kandyan architecture mean Kandy is a city that is beautiful, no matter the weather. A visit during July or August means you’ll get to experience the renowned Kandy Esala Perahera festival, but this is also a city of cultural delights year-round.
Within Kandy, you’ll discover one of Buddhism’s most sacred shrines, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Within the golden-roofed and revered main temple, lies an important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. During prayer time, you can visit the room that houses it, although you won’t see the tooth itself, but its golden casket. The complex includes a series of smaller temples, shrines and museums, all featuring beautiful gold and white architecture.
The gastronomical delights of a country add so much to a holiday, so why not take them with you? Book yourself onto a tour of a local spice garden, where you’ll uncover the secrets of Sri Lankan cuisine. Here, you’ll learn how to infuse your curries with spice, without overdoing the heat, meaning you’ll be able to take the taste of Sri Lanka back home and into your kitchen.
Most popular: Galle Face Green
Top recommendation: Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Colombo is a city of contrasts, where high-end hotels and slick office blocks sit alongside red-tiled colonial-era buildings. Sprawling street markets brim with fragrant spices, colourful silks and fruit and veg, while in other parts you’ll stumble across ever-more stylish eateries, galleries and shops.
One of the most popular spots is Galle Face Green, an ocean-side urban park, which stretches for 500m along the coast. On Saturday and Sunday evenings the area is home to a plethora of food vendors, selling cooked crabs and prawns, as well as slices of mango with pepper and salt. The green butts up against the beach, so it’s a popular spot for sun loungers and day-trippers alike.
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is a striking building that’s hard to miss. Decorated in vibrant red and white patterns that make the building seem almost candy-striped, this mosque was built by the local Indian Muslim community in 1908. Its architectural style is a hybrid, featuring elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture, as well as the Gothic revival and Neo-classical styles. Avoid prayer time and dress modestly when you visit this tranquil spot.
Most popular: Tsunami Honganji Viharaya
Top recommendation: Hikkaduwa National Park
This southwestern Sri Lankan resort town is a top spot for surfers, drawing them in with strong waves and palm-lined beaches lined with restaurants and bars. There are good diving and surf schools aplenty, while the resort is also a good jumping-off point for interesting excursions by three-wheeler or rental scooter.
On the north coast of Hikkaduwa is a statue of a standing Buddha facing the waves, known as Tsunami Honganji Viharaya. He stands with his hands in a pose conveying fearlessness and protection, protected by four lions and surrounded by a pond. This stirring statue was built as a memorial to the victims of the 2004 tsunami.
Hikkaduwa is home to a rich array of marine life, much of it protected within Hikkaduwa National Park. It acts as both a coral sanctuary, full of biodiversity, and home to marine turtles and exotic fish. The shallow fringing reef in this park makes it a top spot to grab your snorkel and come face-to-face with Sri Lanka’s marine life.
Most popular: Demodara Nine Arch Bridge arches
Top recommendation: Visit a tea plantation
Ella is a small town, surrounded by hills covered with cloud forests and tea plantations, rich in biodiversity. The Ella Gap allows views across the southern plains of Sri Lanka. Visit the Ella Gap on a clear night and you can spy the subtle glow of the Great Basses lighthouse on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Visit during the day and the view is simply stunning.
While it may seem odd for a bridge to be a top tourist attraction, the architectural splendour of Sri Lanka’s Nine Arch Bridge combined with the lush beauty of its surrounding flora and fauna means it draws in plenty of visitors. Bring a good camera and visit on a misty day, when cloud hangs low in the valley and wait for one of the vibrant blue trains to pass over the bridge.
When the rolling hills are so rife with tea plantations, it would be rude not to visit. Learn how this much-loved beverage is grown, roasted and best brewed, so you know what goes into the perfect cup of tea.
Most popular: Ahungalla Beach
Top recommendation: Turtle conservation projects
The small coastal town of Kosgoda is quickly gathering the attention of travellers, drawn in by beautiful beaches, Kosgoda Lagoon and local turtle hatcheries. It was once known for cinnamon production, with Kosgoda’s believed to be some of the best cinnamon in the world.
Spend a few days of downtime on the sandy shores of Ahungalla Beach, where warm waves lap the shore and a rustic outdoor restaurant provides sustenance. Here, the waves aren’t too rough or the pace too fast, it’s the perfect spot to relax and watch the locals come and go with their fishing nets.
Kosgoda’s turtles are one of its most charming attractions and there are a number of conservation projects and hatcheries that are protecting these gentle creatures. The coastal stretch is home to 5 of the 7 ket turtle species, so their protection is a big deal. Victor Hasselblad Sea Turtle Research & Conservation Center is the oldest turtle conservation centre in the area and an excellent spot to learn about the turtles, hatching projects and the threats to their natural habitats.