When we were invited to explore Sri Lanka this year it was an easy decision to go. For one, Sri Lanka was a new unexplored country for us and we always love seeing new places. Secondly, Sri Lanka sounded and looked downright incredible full of hospitable people, tasty food, and unique landscapes.
There are so many things to do in Sri Lanka it’s hard to keep this list short, we definitely have plans to return as we barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. Here are some of the highlights to get you started!
Things to do in Sri Lanka
Ancient city of Sigiriya & Pidurangala Vihara
Of the many things to do in Sri Lanka, ruins are pretty high up on the list. Visitors should make a point of exploring this incredible prehistoric treasure. The Sigiriya Rock Fortress, though a bit of a journey from the city of Colombo (about a four-and-a-half hour drive, to be exact), really earns its keep. It’s a UNESCO heritage site atop an enormous rock overlooking the surrounding valley.
Sigiriya, though dating from the first millennium, was constructed very elaborately given the time period. Instead of just ruins, what remains today are preserved pieces of what originated as a place of worship as well as a fortress. King Kashyapa chose the site to become the new capital city; it stands on a rock formation nearly 650 feet off the ground. The name means Lion Rock in Sinhalese, and its gateway consists of a stone lion carved into the side of the enormous rock. It’s not just known for its size, though; ancient frescoes and some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world are among the plethora of things to explore.
Just a few kilometers to the north is Pidurangala Vihara: a Buddhist temple set on an equally large rock with a large sleeping Buddha statue. Both sites are easily doable within the same day.
Ancient city of Polonnaruwa
There’s arguably little that’s cooler to a traveler than ancient ruins, so knowing that the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is classified more as an ancient kingdom is sure to have you planning a trip here. Considered the country’s medieval capital, it became such when it was discovered that it sat upon some of the most fertile grounds in the region.
Among the many attributes that draw travelers here is undoubtedly the Palace of King Parakramabahu. The ruins indicate that in its time it was imposing and grandiose, totaling seven stories and richly adorned. The structure even had a drainage system, indicated by the dazzling royal bath just down from the palace pillars still standing today.
Ruins of Yapahuwa
Another prominent city in medieval Sri Lanka, Yapahuwa is located in the northwestern province. Similar to Sigiriya, Yapahuwa was a capital city for a time and is constructed much the same – as a citadel-like structure carved atop an enormous rock. While it was a palace, it also served as a military fortress to deter invaders. This can be seen in the dichotomy between the features still standing today – the grandiose staircase versus indications of past battle defenses.
Several clues exist that hint that this was formerly a Buddhist monastery, including a stupa and a cave-like shrine with Buddha carvings.
Yala National Park
When you’re searching for what to do in Sri Lanka a safari should be on the list! National parks make up a large portion of Sri Lanka’s terrain. When the wildlife is so different from many other areas of the world, national parks become one of the coolest things to do in Sri Lanka. Many here are dedicated to conservation and eco-research. Yala National Park is among them, having become a wildlife sanctuary in 1990 and since then, striving to be a place where animal protection is prioritized – particularly elephants, leopards, and aquatic birds.
Yala National Park is the most visited in Sri Lanka and is a popular place for wildlife watching. Wild elephants commonly roam the park, and it is here that the largest concentration of leopards in the world can be found; however, there is also an impressive lineup of reptiles, birds, and amphibians. Waking up early is key to having a good safari experience, especially in Yala. The park is known for getting extremely overcrowded and hoarding around animals – which is not cool.
Udalawale National Park
Like Yala, Udalawale National Park was established primarily for conservation purposes. In this case, for the specific reason of supporting, rehoming, and protecting wildlife that was displaced by the construction of a massive reservoir on the Walawe River – specifically waterfowl and elephants.
Alongside the elephant population – including conservation efforts to rehabilitate baby elephants – there is a long list of mammals in Udalawale, like leopards, civets, wild boar, langur monkeys, and more.
Travelers are drawn to this national park for a multitude of reasons. Birdwatching is popular thanks to a large population of species in the park, and jeeps will carry visitors around the park to spot the local wildlife – just make sure to tell your guide what your interests are!
Kaudulla National Park
Just under 200 miles outside of Colombo, Kaudulla National Park is another pro-conservation park. It is particularly known for its bird conservation and has been labeled a critical location for avian conservation and protection.
The park is especially popular for elephant sightings, with some tourists reporting seeing over 250 in a single excursion. Watching elephant families interact and care for their young has been a particular highlight for many who have traveled to Kaudulla.
But it’s not just elephants; alongside the usual fauna like leopards, boar, buffalo, and large water birds, the park is one of the few that is home to the grey slender loris, endangered due to human intervention, which includes keeping the loris as a pet or for tourism cruelty.
Horton Plains National Park & Baker’s Falls
What’s better than a national park? A national park that boasts everything from waterfalls and cliffs to a diverse array of national wildlife. Hortons Plains National Park is located in the highlands of mid-southern Sri Lanka and is bound to appeal to hikers and adventurers from far and wide.
Due to the altitude of the park – situated on a plateau – it is the source of many important rivers in the country. It’s altitude also gives it one of the country’s most popular attractions: World’s End is a sheer cliff with an immediate drop of around 4,000 feet. Though steep and dangerous, it remains a much-visited part of the park and offers unparalleled views of the region’s beautiful environment.
Another top attraction you’ll want to cross off your list while you’re here is Baker’s Falls, a beautiful waterfall located along a river tributary. During germination season, the area’s rhododendron bushes are in full bloom.
Visit a Local Market
Sri Lanka has some seriously amazing food – but you won’t find it at the grocery store. Make sure to visit a local market when visiting, they are in just about every time. It’s here you’ll find freshly caught fish and coconuts galore!
Sri Dalada Maligawa / Sacred Temple of the Tooth
It seems an odd thing to build a temple around a tooth, but if that tooth had belonged to the Gautama Buddha, you’d probably do the same. The Sacred Temple of the Tooth is a Buddhist temple located in the city of Kandy. Though its exterior appears simple, it is still striking in its own way, thanks to contrasting red roofs and bright white stone walls.
Inside, the interiors consist of ornately carved wood and stone painted bright colors, serving as a surprising but welcoming contrast to the simple but robust exteriors. If you’re able to visit during Esala Perahera (one of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the world) you’ll have the privilege of seeing the 10-day parade, and a procession of fire dancers, musicians, drummers, and a long line of elephants follows behind.
Being a Buddhist temple, shoes are prohibited, so be sure to pack a pair of socks for the burning, sun-baked pavement.
Dambulla Cave Temple
It’s pretty hard to restrict a list of things to do in Sri Lanka to fewer than 20, but good news for travelers— Sri Lanka seems to have no shortage of World Heritage sites; the Dambulla Cave Temple is another one you can add to your list.
Located 45 miles north of Kandy, the complex is the oldest and best-preserved cave complex in the country. The rock in which it sits towers 160 meters over the plains below and over 80 caves have been recorded so far. Most of the primary attractions are concentrated in five main caves, including Buddha statues as well as statues of various deities.
As if the origin of the Buddha wasn’t old enough to quell your history cravings, the caves here were once home to prehistoric Sri Lankans; burial sites with human remains as old as 2700 years have been identified.
Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Temple
Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is a Buddhist temple built on the edge of the Kelaniya River and found roughly seven miles outside of Colombo. It’s easily one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka! Due to the spiritual belief that Buddha himself came to the location and managed to quell an oncoming war, the temple is especially sacred, thus one of the most important Buddhist worship sites in all of Sri Lanka.
The original temple structure – likely dating from prehistoric Sri Lanka – was partly ruined various times throughout its history, whether from invaders from the south of India or Portuguese militant forces during the age of Portuguese colonialism. Due to these separate destructions, the edifice today was erected in 1927, though parts of the original structure still remain.
Detailed carvings and impressions, enchanting architecture, and both ancient and modern murals depicting the Buddha’s life stories make this a fascinating insight into Buddhist worship in Sri Lanka.
Enjoy the Beaches in Mirissa
The small fishing village of Mirissa is a popular destination for tourists after beaches, yoga, and surfing. It’s one of the main beach destinations in Sri Lanka and the town is full of yoga studios and hip cafes geared towards foreigners. We haven’t been to all the beaches in Sri Lanka, but are told by well seasoned Sri Lankan travelers it’s one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset and relax with a coconut in hand. This is also the jumping off point for many whale watching tours. I personally did not like our whale watching tour and would not recommend partaking in the activity.
It’s far too many boats filled with tourists chasing after a pod of whales (or in our case – just one). I couldn’t help but think this had to disrupt their natural behavior. Besides that, it can take anywhere from one hour to eight (or longer) to catch a glimpse of one. In our case, we went out three hours to sea, chased the whale for twenty minutes, and went back to Mirissa. Seven hours later we left hungry and tired from our very early wake-up call.
Sri Pada/Adam’s Peak
Hikers and outdoor fanatics assemble – this one is for you. Adam’s Peak is one of the highest mountains in Sri Lanka, with a total altitude of over 7,300 feet. A large impression in the shape of a foot – known as Sri Pada – has long been believed to be the footprint of the Buddha departing from the peak on his third and final visit. The site is considered among the holiest of Buddhist worship sites and draws thousands of pilgrims every season, who will endure a grueling, hours-long hike to the steep peak to pay their respects.
Don’t worry, there are sights along the journey; halfway up the trail, you can find the Peace Pagoda, built in 1978 for prayer and meditation. Whether or not you choose to stop, the sight of the plains below that awaits you when you reach the peak makes the journey worth it.
While many of the things to do in Sri Lanka involve exploring temples, roaming national conservation parks and trekking, you can’t deny that there’s something universally appealing about soft sand beaches and deep, fiery sunsets.
Arugam Bay is a coastal village on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, about 200 miles from Colombo. Though its population is largely Muslim, there are growing numbers of international expats. Bring your surfboard if you have one; where the area’s income was largely reliant on fishing, it now depends more heavily on tourism from surfing, thanks to quality waves and breaks in the region.
There’s a ton of traveler-friendly activities, such as yoga, moped rental, safaris in Kumana National Park, and more. Bring your sense of adventure, because Whisky Point has rowdy Friday nights with lots of dancing and music – or there’s always the Mambo’s beach parties.
Try Ayurveda in Sri Lanka
Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. Developed thousands of years ago in India it is based on the belief that our health depends on the balance of the spirit, body, and mind. There are specific treatments towards certain health problems, but the overall goal is to promote good health all around.
Siddhalepa Ayurveda was one of our first stops on our Sri Lanka tour and we loved learning about this whole process, along with getting full body massages and treatments. If you’re into health and wellness it’s one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka – plus it’s set along a gorgeous beach.
Ride the train from Kandy to Ella
Sri Lanka is well-known for its stunning, scenic train rides that cross from one major city to another, passing through lush greenery and exotic countryside. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is much the same and is consistently considered one of the best scenic rides in the country.
Seven hours in length, and passing between two major cities, the train passes through beautiful terrain such as sloping tea terraces, waterfalls, tiny villages, and green valleys. No matter which end you start at, grab a snack from a seller at the stations, who are often selling fresh cut fruit, homemade curries, or snacks like papadums.
Though both Ella and Kandy are worth seeing, it would be accurate to say that the train ride itself is an attraction. While a great part of riding the train is meeting and hanging out with other travelers, you may not be able to tear your eyes away from the window.
Many things to do in Sri Lanka seem to be UNESCO World Heritage Sites, meaning that you’re pretty much guaranteed to see something incredible. The Galle Fort is a fortress first built by the Portuguese in the 16th century on the southwestern coast of the country. Though upon its initial completion it was quite simple, it has undergone detailed modifications a century later by the Dutch; due to constant careful upkeep, is still in excellent condition given its age.
The fortification was originally made with mud and sticks. But since its Dutch renovations in the 17th century, it gained many new additions, including a church, a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a hotel, a clock tower, and the Old Dutch Hospital.
Since there is so much to see rolled up into one attraction, this is a very in-depth insight into what life may have been like nearly 400 years ago. Don’t forget to walk around the town of Galle after you see the fort. It’s got plenty of unique restaurants, cafes, and boutique shopping for everyone! Was a highlight of our whole trip to Sri Lanka!
Located not far from the city of Kandy, the Knuckles Range mountains is a much-loved place for trekkers and campers, due to a varied terrain that includes grassland and mountainous terrain as well as waterfalls and streams. The highest point of the mountains (thus named due to their resemblance to a clenched fist) stands at over 6100 feet and sits engulfed in a cloud forest.
Trekkers are likely to spot wildlife on their journey; wild boar, monkeys, porcupines, and mongoose are found here – along with many varieties of lizard.
Where to stay in Sri Lanka
Cinnamon Wild Yala
We stayed here when we were on safari in Yala National Park. Although this lodge isn’t inside the park, it’s pretty darn close and there are wild animals on site. We loved how comfortable and affordable the rooms were and it’s only steps away from the wild coast (see image above).
The Hikka Tranz hotel is set right on the southern coast in the town of Hikkaduwa. It’s only a 30 minute drive to Galle and an hour to Mirissa. We loved the food here and massive pool!
Cinnamon Grand Colombo
By far one of the best hotels in all of Colombo. We stayed here three nights and absolutely loved our stay. Rooms were spacious and comfortable and the staff are absolutely delightful. We especially enjoyed the full service cafe in the lobby and the sushi on the buffet.
Plan Your Travels to Sri Lanka
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below.
- Need Transportation? See the best ways to get around Asia here.
- Get to Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan Airlines operates out of Colombo and is connected all over the world. We flew them from Colombo to The Maldives and had a fantastic experience.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
- Water: The water in Sri Lanka is not drinkable.
- Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook.
- Adapter: Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
We were invited to Sri Lanka as part of #TBCAsia with Cinnamon Hotels. All thoughts and opinions remain our own. We can’t wait to return to Sri Lanka!
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