Such a vast range of attractions rarely comes as neatly packaged as on this beautiful Indian Ocean island of surprises.
There is a lot to get excited about in Sri Lanka, and it’s all packed into a relatively small island nation. Resplendent in its natural and cultural bounty, tropical climate and dramatic geography, Sri Lanka is a feast for the senses. The diversity of attractions is impressive, distances are manageable and sights are plenty, so you can pack a lot into a trip. Contrast the ruined spiritual capital of Anuradhapura with the vibrant city of Kandy. Mix in some beach time to recharge, then get your nature fix hiking in the hill country. Complete your Sri Lankan experience with some wildlife watching in one of the many national parks. For a holiday with a different adventure every day, this could be your dream destination.
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Top things to do in Sri Lanka
There are countless wonderful experiences to be had on this beautiful island. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Sri Lanka.
Spot leopards in Yala National Park
Sri Lanka’s show-stopping wildlife includes the leopard, and the southern reserves of Yala National Park have the greatest density and therefore the best chances of a sighting these glorious big cats. Keep your eyes to the trees as they are keen climbers and can often be spotted snoozing the afternoon away on a comfy branch. Tracts of grassland and forest allow for regular sightings of elephants, spotted deer, sloth bears, crocodiles, jackals and monkeys. The bird life is also a big draw, with Sri Lanka's feathered inhabitants drawing twitchers from all over the globe.
Explore the "Cultural Triangle" from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa
History lovers and culture vultures should definitely incorporate Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’ into their holiday. A treasure trove of fascinating Sinhalese monuments scattered across the plains north of Kandy, it is ripe for exploration. Wander the ruined monastic city of Anuradhapura, the medieval relics of Polonnaruwa, the cave temples of Dambulla and the iconic Sigiriya rock with its summit palace complex and beautifully ornate paintings and carvings.
Visit Gala Fort
Galle Fort is bursting with old fashioned charm and colonial character, wearing its history on its sleeve with appealing architecture and a picturesque faded grandeur. The historic fort neighbourhood sits on its promontory as it has for centuries since it was built by the Dutch, yet it is no museum piece. The buzz of daily activity lends an air of vibrancy to the streets.
Discover why everyone loves Kandy
When you feel the need for a fresher climate head to Kandy, the cultural heart of Sri Lanka. It’s a showcase for some of the island’s finest architecture and enjoys a lovely setting on the shores of a lake. Its most famous cultural site is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, home to a tooth plucked from the funeral pyre of the Buddha 2,500 years ago.
Relax on Sri Lanka's golden sands
Beaches are not hard to come by in Sri Lanka, and whether you prefer a deserted cove, an authentic fishing village or a five star beachside resort you’ll find it here. The beaches in the south and west are popular, while those in the north and east are less well known. The best areas to base yourself for whale watching and turtle nesting are on the south coast.
Lesser-known things to do in Sri Lanka
While there are many well-known things to do in Sri Lanka, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Sri Lankan adventure.
Find views galore in the Knuckles Mountain Range
It’s easy to see how the Knuckles Range in central Sri Lanka got their name. A series of peaks and troughs zigzag across the horizon in a pattern reminiscent of a row of clenched knuckles. Visible from all over the region, these mountains form the spine of the island’s southern highlands, but they are yet to appear on many tourist itineraries. However, they have plentiful wildlife, wonderful views and some challenging trekking routes to recommend them.
Forget Yala... try Wilpattu for a special wildlife experience
Sri Lanka is a favourite among Asian wildlife destinations for its impressive roster of animals and affordable safari set up. Yala National Park attracts the crowds who come in search of its sizeable population of leopards. Those who prefer a little more solitude head for Wilpattu instead, with a similar list of species but a much lower footfall. Look out for elusive leopards, spotted deer, water buffalo, sloth bear, elephant and a fantastic array of birdlife.
Discover your artistic streak in Kandy
Let your creative side loose on an artistic retreat near Kandy. Stay with a local artist family and enjoy masterclasses on writing, local cuisine and painting. Put your new skills to the test when you spend time painting the iconic sights of Kandy.
Get off the beaten track in the Tamil regions
Explore the northern Tamil regions which have only been open to visitors for a decade, including lively Jaffna, which is closer geographically and spiritually to India than it is to Colombo. The dominant religion is Hindu and the feel of the region is very different to the Sinhalese south. Lovely beaches and islands await the adventurous traveller.
Explore lesser-known Paramakanda Temple...
Paramakanda Temple may not be frequently visited, but its unique situation under and on top of a monumental outcrop of rock makes it a distinctive and worthwhile destination. Shrines occupy the small caves and clefts at ground level, many of them finely decorated with Buddhist friezes. Once you have explored the lower shrines, ascend the stone stairs to the breezy viewpoint which is hidden on top of the rock temple.
When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka’s location close to the equator ensures that you can rely on year-round warmth, but the monsoons complicate the picture as they affect different parts of the island at different times. Locals claim that the sun is always shining somewhere on the island, but for reliably settled weather without excessive humidity the best time to visit is between December and March.
Interesting facts about Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
- Sri Lanka’s tea industry is the world’s fourth biggest and Ceylon tea has a good reputation as a very fine product.
- Sri Lanka might be mad about cricket, but it's not their national sport. Quite surprisingly, that honour falls to volleyball.
- There are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka, which is a significant number considering the size of the island.
- The most important Buddhist site in the world is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, where what is said to be one of Buddha’s teeth is kept.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Sri Lanka, and also will inform you of any cultural quirks that you should be aware of before travelling there.
Greetings and relationships
Common greetings in Sri Lanka include "Ayubowan" in Sinhala or "Vanakkam" in Tamil, which both roughly mean "may you be blessed with long life". These words are often accompanied by palms clasped (as if in prayer) and a gentle nod of the head - if from an equal - and a more obvious bow if the person greeting you is wishing to be particularly courteous. If you want to impress the locals when meeting them, if they greeted you in Sinhala, you could respond with "Kohomada" (how do you do?). Younger Sri Lankans will often readily greet you with a handshake.
You cannot get Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) before arriving in Sri Lanka, and any remaining rupees you have should be converted back to your currency before you leave the country. Generally you are recommended to change your currency at the airport when you arrive, though some hotels can have money exchange counters. Major credit cards are becoming more readily accepted in the main centres of the country and ATMs can be found in the larger towns, but its advisable to not depend fully on the ATM network. If you're planning to bring in more than $10,000 (USD) then you have to declare how much you have brought on arrival.
One important aspect of Buddhism you should keep in mind if visiting Buddhist sites is that you should never stand with your back to a Buddha statue or you risk causing great offence. Shoes and hats are also often left at the doors of temples, so if you think your feet may appreciate slight protection from the heat of the floor, bring a pair of socks.
What to pack for your Sri Lanka holiday
If you've never been to a country like Sri Lanka, it can be hard to know exactly what to pack for your holiday!
The most practical clothing in Sri Lanka's often hot and humid climate is made up of loose fitting, light cotton. Do bear in mind that the Hill Country can feel a bit like England in spring time, with cooler temperatures dropping yet further in the night. If you are planning to visit the mountains, you should probably pack a warm jumper for the evenings and a light cardigan or sweater will easily suffice for during the day.
On the whole you can wear casual, comfy clothes, and bikinis / trunks on the beach are absolutely fine, however be aware of cultural sensitivities when out and about. Whist remaining casual, it's appreciated when you wear knee length shorts, skirts or dresses.
There are a few strictures when visiting religious sites such as shrines and temples. Whilst short sleeved tops and vest tops are fine elsewhere, for women it's important that shoulders and legs are covered to an extent, so pack a shawl or sarong to cover up when required. Men too are asked to wear long-ish shorts or trousers and t-shirts or shirts rather than a vest top for example.
Wearing sandals or flip-flops is recommended for trips to temples etc. as you are often asked to remove them before you enter, however if you're planning to go for hikes or treks through the jungle etc. it's a good idea to pack decent socks and trainers.
Of course, when you're visiting a hot country, it's important to pack sun protection - suncream, glasses, hats or caps. Plug adaptors, insect repellent and a day bag / backpack will all also come in useful.
What to read before you go to Sri Lanka
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Sri Lanka, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Running In The Family' by Michael Ondaatje
'This Divided Island' by Samanth Subramanian
'The Village In The Jungle' by Leonard Woolf
'Cinnamon Gardens' by Shyam Selvadurai
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