There are so many things to do in Sri Lanka. I spent a month travelling around the island and I fell in love. For a start, the people are laid back. You don’t get the stress or the hassle that you get when walking the streets of India. The scenery is beautiful, the history enchanting and the beaches are some of the best that I’ve visited in the world.
To help you make the most of your time on the country I shortlisted some of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. There are a couple of sites that you just shouldn’t miss; I’ve put them at the top of the list. Let’s get started.
1. Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock is an ancient Palace and Fortress built on the top of what appears to be the shell of an extinct volcano (a bit like those Greek Monasteries in Meteora). To reach the palace you trek through a series of gardens and then take the stairs that circle the rock. The final stairway that takes you to the top of the rock is sculpted in the shape of a Lion (The name Sigiriya means Lion Rock in Sinhalese). It’s well worth the climb. The view from the top is incredible (definitely one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka).
Tip: Arrive at opening time to avoid the crowds.
2. Galle Fort
Galle Fort is a huge structure circling the old town of Galle. The Portuguese built the fort in 1588 on a peninsula jutting out into the sea. Over time the town with warehouses, town houses and cobble-lined streets grew in its center. It’s picturesque and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A lot has been done to maintain the look of the town, though most of the old houses have been turned into shops, restaurants and hotels.
Tip: Try the ice cream at Pedlar’s Inn – Gelato and the Fish with Lebanese Sauce at their restaurant.
3. Adam’s Peak
Adam’s Peak is a mountain in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. There are trails that lead to the top of the mountain. In the early morning, the peak rises out of the mists that hugs the trails, making it a very popular tourist spot for sunrise. There’s a good guide for Adam’s Peak on The Yoga Nomads. It’s one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka.good guide for Adam’s Peak on The Yoga Nomads. It’s one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka.
Tip: Arrive early for the best view.
4. Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (or Ella) by Train
The highlands of Sri Lanka are beautiful. The stretch from Kandy to Ella, an area of sweeping valleys lined with tea plantations, is especially beautiful (it feels a bit like Munnar in India). While you can drive the route I’d recommend taking the train. The journey takes about 3 hours. The carriages get packed, even if you’re backpacking in Sri Lanka it’s worth booking a first-class ticket in advance online. Oh, people scream when going through the tunnels, it feels like you’re taking a ghost train. So much fun!
Tip: Take a seat by the door if you didn’t buy a ticket in advance.
5. Whale and Dolphin Watching
There are two spots for whale and dolphin watching in Sri Lanka that I know. The most famous spot is just off the coast of Mirissa. The other one is Trincomalee. The tours start at sunrise and take you a few kilometers out into the ocean where you can see all kinds of whales (blue whales, killer whales and a whole lot more). It’s fun, but very busy with tourists. Tickets start from 1,500 per person up to around 6,000.
Tip: It can get rough out at sea so be prepared for the waves.
6. Visit the National Park
There are a lot of national parks around Sri Lanka where you can see elephants, leopards and peacock. When we visited Sri Lanka we went to Kaudulla National Park (close to Sigiriya). It was a fun half-day safari and we saw a lot of elephants (probably around 200 elephants), peacocks & peahens, but no leopards. It’s worth doing if you’ve never taken a safari.
Tip: Bring a hat to keep off the sun.
7. Relax on the Beaches
Chilling on the beaches is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. The sand on the beaches is a deep yellow. They are lined with palm trees, clean and mostly empty. Plus, unlike many beaches in the tropics, the sea is deep enough for a nice swim. Some of my favorite beaches are Unuwatuna Beach (5 km from Galle), Dalawella Beach (close to Unawatuna, try their swing!), Koggala Beach (for the stilt fishermen fun) and Uppuveli Beach in Trincomalee.
Tip: Just make sure you spend time at a beach.
8. Tea Plantations – Little England
The first thing I remember seeing when I arrived in Nuwara Eliya was a big white sign above the tea plantations reading “Edinburgh”. I’d arrived in Little England (that’s the literal translation of “Nuwara Eliya”). The temperature is cool and the landscape is picturesque, lined as it is with tea plantations. It’s the perfect place for long country walks.
Tip: Trek to Lovers Falls and climb to the top for some beautiful views (very carefully as it’s dangerous).
9. Temple of the Tooth
The Temple of the Tooth is one of the most important religious sites in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Temple is built in Kandy in the Royal Palace Complex and houses the tooth of Buddha. It’s one of those cultural places that you should add to your “things to do in Sri Lanka list.” For all the hype I found the temple a bit disappointing, though I did enjoy Kandy.
Tip: Visit during the Kandy Esala Peraha Festival for a real spectacular.
10. Hot Air Balloon
A hot air balloon ride offers some of the best views of Sri Lanka. The ride takes you over the National Parks in Dambulla. You’ll get a birds-eye view of thick forests, open savannah and herds of elephant. The hot air balloon rides last around 3.5 hours. The best season for hot air ballooning in Sri Lanka is November to May.
Tip: March and April are the best months for a balloon ride.
11. Explore the Ancient City of Anuradhapura
If you’re interested in the history of Sri Lanka then you need to visit the ancient city of Anuradhapura. The city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a centre of Theravada Buddhism. Pilgrims come from all over the country to visit the temples and stupas. Though there is a lot to see, the two highlights are Isurumuniya Temple and Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba.
Tip: Visit Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba close to sunset.