Sri Lanka has a phenomenal density of UNESCO sites and natural wonders. Who would have thought that such a tiny island would have so much for us to gawp at?
Whether you are interested in wildlife or history, there will be something incredible for you to see in Sri Lanka. So, allow yourself to be transported back in time and be prepared to see nature like you’ve never seen it before. Chances are you won’t be able to see everything Sri Lanka has to offer on your holiday but you should definitely tick off a few.
If, by the end of the list, you’re feeling inspired, check out our itineraries for suggestions on how to fit as much into your trip as possible. I’ve created 3 potential schedules you could follow but you can mix and match as much as you like to create one that’s perfect for you.
Have you ever wondered how the kings of old lived? Well, the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa might be able to give you an idea. These ruins might lack some of the splendour they had in their heyday but they are still seriously impressive.
Rewind 800 years or so ago and these crumbling ruins were the most important city in Sri Lanka. If the Royal Palace and gleaming Quadrangle look magnificent now, imagine how they must have been almost a millennium ago.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is located just northeast of the centre of Sri Lanka. It is perfectly positioned for those who also want to explore Sigiriya Rock, Dambulla and Minneriya National Park.
Rising up from the lush green plains of central Sri Lanka is the awe-inspiring, UNESCO-listed Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Formed from volcanic magma, this majestic rock is considered by locals to be the eighth wonder of the world. Climb to the top and it’s not hard to see why!
As you climb the steps to the top of Sigiriya take note of some of the site’s most fascinating features. The Mirror Wall and numerous frescoes are just some of the wonders you will see on your way up. There is evidence to suggest that the caves within this rock have been inhabited since the 3rd century BC. The actual fortress itself, however, wasn’t developed until around 477 AD.
The views from the summit of Sigiriya are beyond anything you will have seen before. There is nothing but a lush, green carpet of natural beauty from here to the horizon.
The ruins at the top are also fascinating and worth taking the time to explore while you’re there. Don’t waste your money hiring a tour guide here.
The hike to the top of Sigiriya takes between 30 minutes and an hour depending on how fit you are. I suggest taking your time so you get the full experience rather than just racing to the top. When you go back down again, take some time to explore the grounds or, if you have the energy, climb up neighbouring rock Pidurangala.
If you consider yourself a history buff, or just like exploring ruins, then you would be crazy to miss Anuradhapura. This ancient city ruled Sri Lanka for over 1,000 years and is now one of the most impressive and iconic sights in the country. With crumbling dagobas and temples around every corner – you’re guaranteed to be amazed here.
According to legend, the city of Anuradhapura was constructed around a cutting from the tree of enlightenment. This tree is of huge significance with the religion of Buddhism. After flourishing for 1,300 years, the entire city was abandoned in 993, following an invasion. Nowadays the site is fully accessible and well worth taking the time to visit.
Quite often tuk-tuk drivers will offer to take you around the ruins and will even tell you that you don’t have to buy a ticket. Don’t be cheap. Buy a ticket and support the maintenance of this incredible archaeological wonder. Also be aware of the monkeys that live here, they have been known to rob tourists!
Galle is one of the shining gems in Sri Lanka’s glorious crown. Situated on the west coast of the island, the city is enclosed within fortifications and exudes a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese and British influences. Wandering around the walled city is the perfect way to spend a day in Sri Lanka.
Take the time to stroll through the streets of Galle, checking out the quaint boutiques as you go. Galle is a hotspot for shopping so be sure to pick up a few souvenirs while you’re here. Once you’ve exhausted all that the city has to offer, climb up onto the walls and walk the perimeter of the city.
If the weather is nice (and it usually is) head to the beach or spend an hour watching the incredible cliff divers (be sure to tip them though). At the end of the day, tuck into a delicious Sri Lankan meal at one of the numerous gourmet restaurants. Perfection.
Alternatively, you can get the train from Colombo Fort Station or Maradana Station (where the train starts). You are more likely to get a seat if you catch the train from Maradana, which is situated just a few kilometres outside of Colombo. The train will cost you less than a few pounds and is comfortable and a great adventure.
Unlike Colombo, Kandy is a Sri Lankan city that is worth visiting. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bits of it that are noisy and dirty, but on the whole it is a pretty amazing place. Kandy has all kinds of fantastic places to eat, tons of spas, a beautiful lake to walk around and, of course, the world famous Temple of the Tooth.
The Temple of the Tooth is one of the most sacred places on earth as far as Buddhists are concerned. The temple is said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth and while you don’t actually get to see the tooth, being in the temple is an incredible experience. Even if you don’t want to pay to enter the temple, you can still explore the temple’s beautiful grounds.
Once you’ve seen the temple, make sure you check out the nearby spice gardens, tea factories and Ayurvedic spas. You should also take a trip to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens if you have time.
Have you ever been inside a cave full of Buddha statues? Well now is your chance – and you can do it easily on a day trip from Sigiriya or Anuradhapura. The Dambulla caves are located at the top of a rather long set of stairs and are filled with images of the Buddha in all shapes and sizes.
Dating all the way back to the 3rd century BC, the complex consists of five caves of varying sizes and a monastery that is still functional. There are over 150 statues throughout the caves, almost all of which are of Buddha himself. Walking through these magnificent rooms is a truly phenomenal experience.
As with all Buddhist religious sites, it is important to make sure you are covered up or you won’t be allowed in the temple. You also need to remove your shoes whilst in the complex. You can pay 20 RUP (€0.13, £0.11, $0.15) – 50 RUP (€0.28, £0.25, $0.33) rupees for someone to guard you shoes while you are in the temple.
It used to be free to visit the Dambulla caves but, unfortunately, they now charge an entry fee. This was implemented in February 2017. The ticket booth is about a 1km walk west of the big rock – not inside the Golden Temple like it used to be.
There are few places on the planet that can rival Sri Lanka’s central highlands when it comes to beauty. Here, you can really feel the full force of the power of Mother Nature.
For miles in every direction are tea plantations that paint the landscape a vivid green. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore this verdant section of the country.
If your reason for visiting Sri Lanka includes spotting some exotic and endemic wildlife then you need to add the Central Highlands to your itinerary. Comprising Horton Plains and the Knuckles Conservation Area, these highlands are a biodiversity masterpiece. You could see a slender loris, purple-faced leaf monkey or even a leopard – if you’re lucky.
Base yourself in Ella or Nuwara Eliya during your time in the Highlands. These towns have an excellent tourist infrastructure with loads of restaurants and guesthouses. The Central Highlands is the perfect place to unwind.
Joining the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1988, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals and butterflies. It also boasts an exceptional number of rare and endemic trees. If you consider yourself a nature lover, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a unique experience that you will utterly adore.
Unlike the bigger national parks, Sinharaja doesn’t get too many tourists. There are also no cars allowed in the reserve. This makes for a much more peaceful wildlife spotting experience. Prepare to see purple-faced langurs, Sri Lankan blue magpies and plenty of tree frogs. Despite Sinharaja translating as Lion King, you won’t see any lions here I’m afraid.
According to UNESCO, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the “country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest”. For this reason it is fiercely protected. With its abnormally high level of endemism and stunning landscapes, a visit to this park will be a trip of a lifetime.
When it comes to national parks, Yala reigns supreme. Covering a vast 378 square miles, the park is a wildlife hotspot and one of the best places on earth to see the elusive leopard. Aside from these big cats, Yala’s has an astonishing density of elephants, sloth bears and crocodiles.
Overall there are around 44 species of mammal and over 200 species of birds in the park. That makes for a jam-packed day of animal spotting! It is generally agreed that the best time to visit the park is between May and October. This is when water levels are lowest and the wildlife congregates around the few remaining waterholes.
Most visitors will experience the park from a 4 wheel-drive, which is an excellent way to cover large amount of the park in a relatively short space of time. You will get a chance to stroll along the beach or walk through the jungle at certain points but you’ll mainly stay in the vehicle. In the evening, there are plenty of jungle lodges where you can spend the night for a more immersive experience.
Take note that Yala is not only the biggest but also the most popular of Sri Lanka’s national parks. If you were hoping to be the only car in the park and to see the animals in complete tranquility then you should go somewhere else.
Also known locally as Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Asia. Legend has it that the rock formation at the top is the footprint of Buddha and every year thousands and thousands of Buddhists ascend the mountain to pay their respects.
Rising up almost 2,250m, the hike to the top of Adam’s Peak is no easy feat. Hundreds and hundreds of steps wind from the bottom all the way to the peak so expect some serious leg ache the next day. However, every step is fully worth it for the incredible views from the top.
Not only is Adam’s Peak a natural wonder but it is also a spiritual experience for many. You might not be a Buddhist but there is something incredible about ascending amidst crowds of devotees. Peak pilgrimage time is April. The path might be a bit crowded at this point but the atmosphere will be electric.
Sites Covered: Ancient City of Polonnaruwa/ Sigiriya/ Sacred City of Kandy & Temple of the Tooth/ Dambulla.
Sites Covered: Anuradhapura/ Dambulla/ Sigiriya/ Kandy & Temple of the Tooth/ Central Highlands
Sites Covered: Sites Covered: Kandy & Temple of the Tooth/ Dambulla/ Sigiriya/ Adam’s Peak/ Central Highlands/ Yala National Park/ Galle