Sri Lanka was famously described by Marco Polo as one of the finest islands in the world, and it has a history that dates back thousands of years. Although it’s small, there is so much history, nature, and beauty to see in this country. Explore the beaches, jungles, tea plantations, temples, and much more from our list of the most beautiful spots in Sri Lanka.
Also known as Lion’s Rock, Sigiriya is a rock fortress and palace situated in the Matale district. Visitors can climb up to the ancient ruins, which are surrounded by gardens, ponds, and magnificent frescoes. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the best ancient sites in the country. Head to the top of Sigiriya to see wonderful, dramatic views of the rolling hills in the jungle below.
Located in a diverse biological site, Adam’s Peak is a tall, pointed mountain in central Sri Lanka. The 2,243-meter ascent is a common pilgrimage route in the Buddhist religion, as it is said there is an impression of Buddha’s own footprint near the summit. Aim to arrive at the top of the mountain around dawn to see an unforgettable sunrise.
Visit the well-preserved colonial city Galle for a relaxing city break. The town is full of charming Dutch-era villas and delightful seaside views. Visit the Galle Fort, a Dutch-built fort that is now a World Heritage Site and the largest remaining sea fort in Asia built by European occupiers. Other good stops include the natural harbor, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and Galle International Stadium, which is widely regarded as the most picturesque cricket ground.
View fine examples of ancient Sinhalese art and architecture in Polonnaruwa. Numerous well-preserved ruins of tombs, temples, statues and other archaeological sites are located in the town. Hundreds of years ago, Polonnaruwa was a capital of the island as well as a busy commercial and religious hub. Don’t miss the historical treasures this World Heritage Site has to offer.
This coastal town has magnificent beaches, luxury hotels, and untouched beauty. Spend a day soaking in the sun at Bentota Beach, visit the nearby Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, or find peace in the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihara Buddhist temple. Bentota is a tourist hot spot, so you’ll also be able to partake in activities like helicopter rides and water sports, too.
This large city is located on a plateau that is surrounded by the central highland mountains. Kandy, a World Heritage Site, is the place to go to get a taste of Sinhalese culture, especially if you can visit during the Esala Perahera festival in the summer. Visit the Temple of the Tooth, which was built in the 4th century and holds a very sacred relic—Buddha’s tooth.
Another plateau town surrounded by mountains is Nuwara Eliya, also known as Little England for its old British colonial buildings like the Queen’s Cottage and the General’s House. The area holds many natural beauties, like waterfalls, hills, tea plantations, and the towering Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is one of many tea plantation areas in Sri Lanka, but it is regarded as the most important spot for tea production in the country. Don’t forget to try a cup while you’re visiting.
Arugam Bay is located on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, and the remote town attracts surfers from around the world. The beach is the perfect place to spend a relaxing day or catching quality surf breaks—the best place to surf is Main Point, located on the south side of the bay. When you need a break from the sun and sea air, visit the town’s historic temples or the nearby Kumana National Park.
This large town houses the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in all of Sri Lanka, holding five cave temples containing a huge collection of Sri Lankan Buddhist artwork, including statues, shrines, and murals. The paintings and statues tell stories from Buddha’s life—there are a whopping 153 Buddha statues throughout the complex. Other statue subjects include Sri Lankan kings, gods, and goddesses. The amazingly crafted murals cover a total area of 2,100 square meters.
Lie back in a hammock under the sun or float in the clear, turquoise water of this small, beachside village. Beautiful hideaway beaches and a thriving nightlife scene make Mirissa a hot spot for tourists, but because tourism didn’t take off until the mid-1990s, the area is still quite down to earth. Mirissa is also world renowned for its fantastic areas for whale and dolphin watching.
PINNAWALA ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE
Gaze at the adorable faces of baby elephants bathing in the river at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The orphanage was founded in 1975 to feed and nurse wild orphaned elephants found abandoned in the forests of Sri Lanka. An elephant breeding program was launched at the facility in 1982, and as of 2012, there were 78 elephants living at the site. The graceful, intelligent creatures are a beautiful sight to see.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide: 14 Things to Know for Your Visit
Travel Tip #1: Don’t drink the water – You shouldn’t really drink the water in Sri Lanka, so bring a reusable water bottle with a purifier. It’s really hot, so to keep hydrated, you’d probably spend 300 rupees ($2 USD) per day on plastic bottles of water at 60 rupees ($0.40 USD) each. But a water bottle with a purifier costs just $20 USD. Over the course of a two-week trip, that’s an $8 USD savings (and you help the environment too)!
Travel Tip #2: Eat the local food– Outside of the major cities of Colombo and Kandy, you won’t find many non-Sri Lankan or non-Indian food options. What you do find is a poor excuse for Western food that is overpriced and often a chain. Stick to the local food! It’s super delicious. I never knew much about Sri Lankan food before hand but now I’m hooked! Just eat it all! Balaji Dosai in Kandy; Ahinsa in Sigiriya; Upali’s in Colombo; Hot Hut in Nuwara Eliya; and the restaurants across from the bus station in Anuradhapura were some of my favorite.
Travel Tip #3: More about food– Food, besides being crazy good, is also really cheap in Sri Lanka! Local food costs about $1-3 USD per meal for simple dishes of dosas (a kind of pancake), kottu (a dish made of roti (flatbread), vegetables, egg and/or meat, and spices), rice, chicken, and everything in between. At restaurants with table service, you’ll pay closer to $5 USD.
Travel Tip #4: Sri Lanka isn’t a party– Don’t expect too many chances to drink alcohol. Outside the coastal tourist towns and the capital of Colombo, there isn’t much nightlife or opportunities to drink. While you can always crack a beer at your guesthouse, Sri Lanka isn’t home to a big drinking/nightlife culture. Expect your nights to be tame.
Travel Tip #5: Hire the Tuk-tuks– You can hire drivers cheaply. Any tuk-tuk driver will let you hire them for the day. Expect to pay around $20 USD for the day. Moreover, tuk-tuk drivers are pretty honest, except in Colombo, where they will try to scam and overcharge you. Elsewhere in the country, you’ll get a fair deal. There’s no need to try to bargain hard.
Travel Tip #6: Take the airport bus – There is a train to the airport you can take from Colombo Fort. It’s the cheapest way to get there, at 30 rupees ($0.20 USD). A tuk-tuk ride is about 2,500 rupees ($17 USD), and buses to the airport cost 110 rupees ($0.75 USD) and leave about every 30 minutes from Colombo Central Bus Station or Mawatha Bus Station.
Travel Tip #7: Travel by train: Train travel, while often slower, are the cheapest way to get around. Some typical routes: Colombo to Jaffna is 150-445 rupees ($1-3 USD), Jaffna to Anuradhapura is 150-295 rupees ($1-2 USD), Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is 85-280 rupees ($0.60-1.90 USD), and Colombo to Galle is 150-295 rupees ($1-2 USD).
Travel Tip #8: Book your train in advance: If you are taking the scenic train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya or Ella (or vice versa) and want a seat, book it in advance through a travel agency, as tickets can’t be booked in person at the station unless it’s done four days before departure. You can always (and only) get a cramped second-class ticket (where you’ll learn the new meaning of a tight squeeze) on the day of departure. Many people will tell you to get to the station at 7am to buy a train ticket, but they don’t start selling them until 8am, so don’t listen to those people. Also, the concept of “sold out” doesn’t apply to “cattle class.”
Travel Tip 9: Show up early at Sigiriya: If you are visiting Sigiriya, get there when it opens at 8am to avoid huge lines and crowds at the site. If you are there after 10am, the crowds are so overwhelming it’s not worth visiting. It takes an hour to walk up as it’s single-file all the way!
Travel Tip 10: Skip the ticket line at Anuradhapura: If you are visiting Anuradhapura, tickets are $25 USD but are never checked unless you are entering the museum. (I also noticed Western tourists were the only ones ever asked to show a ticket at the museum.) Enter the site without paying by using the tiny road just southeast of the museum.
Travel Tip #11: Bring flip-flops to temples: You’ll have to take your socks and shoes off before visiting temples, even if they are outdoors, so bring flip-flops to keep your socks clean!
Travel Tip #12: Don’t expect high-end hostels: Hostels are really basic (fan, mosquito net, electric shower) but at $4-6 USD per dorm bed, you can’t go wrong.
Travel Tip #13: Day trip to Galle: Galle is only worth a day trip. Don’t stay over in the town. There is not much to do there at all.
Travel Tip #14: Find cheap accommodation: There are a lot of cheap accommodation throughout the country. You’ll usually get breakfast with your room too. Private rooms with your own bathroom start at $10 USD per night. Add $5 if you want air conditioning.