What to do in Sri Lanka
What to do in Sri Lanka
Our guide on the best things to do in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise that offers a wide range of experiences for nearly every type of traveller. From interactions with warm and friendly locals, to the amazing selection of international cuisine and delicious local food, to a refuge of wellness coupled with centuries-old indigenous natural Ayurvedic healing… Sri Lanka is truly an experiential destination. Captivating and awakening all your senses with experiences around every corner, ticking all the boxes for anyone seeking to find adventure, to get back to nature, to find inner peace or to just relax and rejuvenate!
The diverse scenery, from postcard-perfect beaches to tropical rainforests, waterfalls, and brilliant emerald tea-carpeted hills, is magnificent. Outdoor adventurers will find endless appeal, with everything from surfing and wakeboarding to hiking, climbing and cycling. Scuba diving is outstanding here, with the opportunity to dive off many beaches to explore a breath-taking underwater world with colourful fish, coral gardens, caves and shipwrecks.
The island offers Asia’s best wildlife watching opportunities too, including its very own ‘Big Five’. Island-wide there’s a population of nearly 6,000 elephants – often spotted just by the side of the road! – and the world’s biggest concentration of leopards, along with water buffalos, sloth bears, monkeys, crocodiles and a wide range of birdlife. In the water, you can see blue whales swimming by in season or watch spinner dolphins dance in the surf.
Visitors who enjoy exploring history will find plenty too, with many ancient temples dotting the island. Beautiful Galle is a must for history buffs, boasting Dutch colonial architecture and a late 16th-century fort. The Dutch modified it extensively the following century, making it one of the most important historic, architectural, and archaeological monuments illustrating European influence in Southeast Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many caves can be explored too, including the Dambulla Buddha caves which are filled with cave paintings and Buddha statues.
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Best activities in Sri Lanka
UTC can arrange an enticing variety of tours and activities across Sri Lanka. We’ve picked our just a few of our favourites below. There’s plenty more to recommend though; let us know what excites you most about Sri Lanka, and we’ll map out the perfect itinerary.
Sri Lanka is a wildlife lover’s dream, home to many exotic animals, including leopards. It boasts the highest density of wild cats anywhere else in the world. While you’re here you can watch the monkeys swing through the trees, listen for the thunder of the elephants’ hooves, keep an eye out for tooth crocs and see many bird species too. Safari drives are available island-wide, and for our clients are arranged on a private basis in your own jeep with a private naturalist.
Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is home to the world’s best train rides. The section of track between Kandy and Ella is truly unforgettable, passing through scenery of mountains, tea plantations, and charming hill villages. You are travelling by local train so this is not a luxury experience; we usually recommend picking one 3-4 hour chuck of the line, with the run from Nanu Oya through to Ella our personal favourite. Other recommended train routes on the island include the coastal line which hugs the ocean from Colombo down to Galle; the climb from Colombo up to mountain capital Kandy; or the highly significant route from Anuradhapura up to Jaffna, re-opened after years of civil war in 2015.
Picturesque Kandy sits beside a lake in the central highlands, providing a cooler respite and a wealth of ancient temples. This was the last capital of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings, home to the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, believed to have belonged to Buddha himself. Your time here can also include walking tours (or independent time) diving into busy bazaars and gem markets, walks in the Uda Watte Kele forest sanctuary high above the city, or a trip to the botanical gardens in nearby are Peredeniya which have an impressive collection of orchids.
Much of the Hill Country is carpeted in emerald green tea plantations, laid out in concentric circles up the steep hillsides, making a truly striking sight as you move through the area by road or rail. We recommend stopping during one of your journeys to visit one of the many plantations where a guided tour will educate you on the tea cultivation process from plant to cup, showing you around the grounds and into the factory buildings, many of which are well over a century old. Tours usually followed by tea tasting and cake with your host.
Food & Drink
Sri Lanka is the ‘spice island’. A natural abundance of spices saw fierce competition between colonial powers to take control here, and in doing so holding a near limitless supply of cinnamon, pepper, cloves, cardamom, chilli, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger…to name a few. A visit to a lush plantation is a fine experience, where you can enjoy a guided walk and tour followed by a mouth-watering lunch of Sri Lankan ‘rice-and-curry’. Matale has some exceptional spice gardens which make a great place to stop on the drive between the Cultural Triangle and Kandy.
Food & Drink
Sri Lankan cuisine does not carry the same worldwide fame of nearby India or Thailand, but gastronomes who do visit will be richly rewarded with an exciting and highly original food scene, with an emphasis on delicate spicing, fresh seafood, and imaginative vegetable curry preparations. Colombo’s major cities – Colombo, Galle, Kandy – are great places to dive into the island’s street food scene, with guided walks introducing you to delights such as hoppers, kottu roti, vada, and ‘short eats’.
Where to start with beaches in Sri Lanka? The south coast in particular is cove after cove of fine white sand and swaying coconut palms; a very happy few days can be spent picking one or two fine beach hotels and spending your days moving up and down the coast to find the perfect beach for you. If you’re looking for pristine, deserted beaches base yourself around Tangalle and use tuk-tuks to ferry you back and forth to Mawella, Nilawella, and Hiriketiya; on the east coast base yourself in Arugam Bay and enjoy the many surf spots in the vicinity; while a base in busier Bentota has turtle hatcheries, ayurvedic spas, cooking classes, and tropical gardens all within reach.
Five different species of sea turtle call Sri Lanka their land ‘home’, with seasonal nesting sites found around the island’s south and west coast. There are numerous risks to turtle eggs here – seabirds, large fish, and most unfortunately, over-zealous humans – so as a result a number of protected hatchery sites have been set up, where the eggs are protected and allowed a full incubation. We recommend hatchery sites in Kosgoda, Akurala, and Rekawa, with the latter also offering the chance to see night-time hatching if you stay nearby.
One of the most iconic historic landmarks and most photographed sites in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock is a must-visit: the eighth wonder of the ancient world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 5th century, it was the official residence of King Kasyapa, and is dominated by a massive column of rock rising over 650 feet from the ground. Experience it by climbing 1,200 steps to the top, best done in the early morning hours to avoid the heat and big crowds. The final part of the climb is a little strenuous, so many choose to stop at the ‘Lion’s Paw’ and focus their visit instead on the water gardens and the Sigiriya Frescoes, paintings of the ladies of the harem of King Kasyapa I.
Dolphin & whale-watching
Sri Lanka’s wildlife excitement is found not just on land but also out to sea. This is the only place in the world where you can see both the largest land and sea mammal in one trip (elephant and blue whale), and handily you’ll also find whale migration patterns coincide with beach seasonality: great on the east coast from June to September, and the south and west coast from November to April. Trincomalee in the east, or Mirissa in the south, are your bases from which to arrange dolphin and whale-watching trips: make sure to ask your consultant for our recommended operators.
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