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Top 10 places you must visit in Sri Lanka

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

Sri Lanka is an island blessed with so much, there is something for everyone! Whether you are on the lookout for great wildlife or diving into history and culture, reaching mountain tops to treat yourself to breathtaking vistas or soaking up the sun on a sandy beach, Sri Lanka is the place for you. Let us narrow it down to 10 of the best places in Sri Lanka.

The beautiful city of Jaffna has been open to visitors for just over a decade and with very few

tourists spotted in the peninsula, it is best to visit now! With Jaffna being cut off from the rest of the country during the thirty year civil war, a once flourishing city with a richly colourful (literally and metaphorically) culture, an erudite populous and wonderful hospitality was put on pause and is now developing and evolving faster than any other area in Sri Lanka. The palmyrah fences maybe getting replaced by new and colourful walls, the vintage classic cars that were lined up at the taxi stand just ten years ago may have been replaced with tuk tuks and Tata Nano cabs and buildings around the peninsula may be getting long awaited facelifts but the essence of Jaffna is still alluring and undeniable.

The Jaffna peninsula is dotted with hundreds of Hindu temples and temple goers in colourful

attire. These are interspersed with churches old and new. The markets are a riot of colours! The food; delectable and rich. Some of the sites have legends that go back thousands of years while others are from colonial times.The Jaffna experience extends further than just the city or peninsula as you can even hop on a local boat and explore the island of Nainativu or even head further out to the island of Delft where the wild ponies still roam.

While accommodation options may seem limited in compassion to the South, there is a good

variety from home stays to small boutique hotels, city hotels, budget hotels and more. One of

the easiest ways to travel is by train as it is both convenient and economical. You also have the options of driving and flying in.

Travel Tips:

  • Try the Jaffna crab curry! It can be found in many places but is best at The Valampuri. Cycling is a great way to explore and blend in.

  • Visit the Nallur Temple during the pooja/service. The main pooja is at 4.30. Women must wear clothes that cover shoulders and knees but men must enter shirtless.

Polonnaruwa is the second oldest kingdom of ancient Sri Lanka and judging by the monuments and the city’s natural setting, it was undoubtedly a beautiful period! Unlike Anuradhapura, it’s predecessor which boasts many colossal stupas and other religious sites, Polonnaruwa paints a more vivid picture with palaces, audience halls, bathing ponds as well as temples, both buddhist and hindu, all set in relatively in close proximity around one of Sri Lanka’s largest man made tanks, the Parakrama Samudra.

With the sites being closer to each other, you can easily cycle between them while taking in the fresh air and natural beauty. Each of these ancient sites are juxtaposed with troops of monkeys (toque macaques) that have made the sites their home. They have even been the subject of study by the Smithsonian Primate Research Center in Polonnaruwa and several documentary movies have been made recording their cheeky antics and almost human like behaviour. While there are some lovely accommodation options in Polonnaruwa, it might be more practical if you are visiting other places such as Sigiriya and Dambulla, to base yourself more centrally and visit Polonnaruwa as a day excursion.

Travel Tips:

  • Always carry a hat with you to beat the heat and stay hydrated.

  • Hire a bicycle to move between the archaeological sites.

  • Take the time to explore the surrounding villages and their natural beauty.

Trincomalee is a quiet seaside city on the East Coast, established around one of the world’s

best natural harbours. For that reason, it played a prominent role in history. As recorded in the Ramayan, one of the oldest Hindu chronicles, Rama is said to have built the Thirukoneswarma Hindu Temple just north of the entrance to the bay. Further north of the city is a Buddhist temple that is said to have been built during the time of the Buddha over 2500 years ago. The bay and the city has been a key player in the country’s geo-political history from the very beginning, through colonial times and even through the civil war.

Ancient Buddhist temples on rural hill tops, colourful Hindu temples overlooking the Indian

Ocean from cliff tops, the largest Dutch fort in the country and the well maintained

Commonwealth cemetery from the second world war are just one side of the Trinco experience. It is better known for the pristine beaches that extend for miles and the deep blue ocean that is not only home to blue whales and dolphins but offers great opportunities for snorkeling around Pigeon Island off of Nilaveli, the only island sanctuary in Sri Lanka and diving exploring WWII wrecks and an underwater museum.

There is a vast collection of beachside hotels to choose from though the majority sit on the economical end of the scale but there are few large hotels as well as some beautiful boutique hotels.

It is easily accessed by road, especially if you are doing a round trip, coming through the cultural triangle. You could also fly in with the added experience of breathtaking aerial views! A train journey is possible but it will require change overs.

Travel Tips:

  • Trinco is affected by the North East Monsoons between Deecember and April so the season for travel falls between May and October with visits being highest in July and August.

  • Whale watching follows the same season structure.

  • Don’t expect as many restaurants as you would find in the South so try and plan ahead before stepping out for the night.

Mirissa is best known for its beautiful palm fringed, sandy beach scalloping in on the southern coastline. While some beach areas are quieter than the others, Mirissa is mostly a beach with an energetic vibe, especially at night when restaurants set up tables on the beach and pump up the music. Being a town sustained through tourism and fisheries, the restaurants serve up some amazing seafood bought fresh off the boat.

While the nights are great for eating out and enjoying the beats, during the day, you can find a

quieter corner to lay out a towel and soak up the sun or even head into the water for a swim,

some snorkeling or even on an early morning boat ride to spot some whales as deep sea is

closest to land just off Mirissa. You can also hop in a tuk tuk and explore the area visiting some scenic spots like Coconut Tree Hill, Parrot Rock and the (not so secret) Secret Beach. If you venture just a little further out of Mirissa, you can catch the waves at one of the best surf spots in the country, Weligama bay. The waves are ideal for beginners and intermediate surfers. You could also hop in a bus or a train for a day trip to explore the Galle Fort.

Travel Tips:

  • The season is from December to March/April.

  • When going whale watching, go with a reputed supplier to ensure both your safety as well as the whales’.

Colombo is often overlooked as a destination as it is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. While skyscrapers are coming up faster than sand castles, rapidly changing the skyline of the city, the underbrush of this concrete jungle is full of surprises.

Being a trading hub for centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch and the British made Colombo a key

port conducting their trade and later even making it their governing base. In 1948, when the

country gained independence from the British, Colombo remained the capital city. Most of the colonial buildings are concentrated in the fort area and many of them have been there from Portuguese and Dutch times, evolving through the British period, telling a story of power, commerce, transportation, international relations and much more.

Since the city was redesigned by the British as a garden city, it was planned out with large parks and lakes (man made tanks). Thus as you venture outwards from the fort area, you come across the iconic Galle Face Hotel looking over the esplanade, the seemingly floating Buddhist temple, Gangaramaya, the Independence Square and the old race course.

Colombo is also home to some of the best restaurants in the country so don’t miss the

opportunity to treat yourself to some great food while in the city. Though Sri Lanka doesn’t have a street food culture like most Asian countries, we recommend trying some kottu, hoppers, wadai or rotis from a roadside restaurant, often called “hotels” for some local flavour. A bus or train to anywhere in the country can be boarded from Colombo and the city is just over half an hour from the international airport. This makes it a great starting or ending point for a holiday.

Travel Tips

  • Enjoy a sunset drink at the Galle Face Hotel.

  • You can use your existing Uber app or an equivalent local service provider like Pickme to get a tuk tuk or cab.

Download the BA.LA.MU audio guide of Colombo Fort when exploring the fort area to make

sure you don’t miss anything.

Ella has gained a lot of popularity over recent times and rightly so. Anyone would tell you that

the best way to reach Ella is by train! You can either board from Colombo,Kandy or Nanu Oya

and the journey will take you through tea plantations, forests passing waterfalls and lakes to the beautiful hill station of Ella. The town is abuzz with restaurants and tourists who have come not only to take in the natural beauty but also the vibe of the town.

It is an adventure lover’s paradise. A trek to Little Adam’s Peak, a walk down to the 9 Arched

Bridge, climbing Ella rock are just a few of the activities that can be done in Ella itself. Heading a little further out, you can explore a number of waterfalls and view points. For the ultra adventurous traveller, there is even the option of exploring an underground cave with a secret lake!

Accommodation is both many and few. In Ella and the nearby towns, there are many hotels that are of comfort level. If you are looking for more high end accommodation, there are a few lovely options but spread far apart.

Travel Tips

  • If you are looking for a young-vibe hang out, The Chill and Rawana Pool Club are good options.

  • Families might like the option of zip lines and ATV rides

Kandy is a unique city with great cultural importance and natural beauty. As the last kingdom of Sri Lanka, the city still holds a strong sense of tradition and culture but as the last city to be invaded and won over by the British, the city was imposed with a strong colonial presence which is still evident through the architecture in the city. This city of cultures is set against the backdrop of forests and mountains while it is built around a picturesque man made lake but the heart of the city is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The Temple is a part of the palace complex and is believed to house the sacred Tooth relic of

the Buddha. Thus attracting Buddhist devotees both from within the country and around the

world as well. The Sinhalese culture in the city is crafted around the Temple, the annual

procession parading the Tooth relic and the duties bound to it. The Perahera, is a procession

that parades the Tooth relic for public viewing through the streets of Kandy for 10 days in the

months of July/August with dancers, whip crackers, drummers, fire dancers, caparisoned

elephants and opulently dressed custodians. This attracts tourists and locals from far and wide to take in the spectacle. However, just exploring the city by foot is an experience as you take in the architecture, pop into the local shops, walk through the market vibrant with colourful and aromatic fruits and veggies and dodging the traffic to try wayside food.

While in Kandy you can also visit the Royal Boatnical Gardens just a few minutes' drive from the city center, or one train station away, the Hanthana Tea Museum, Udwatta forest or venturing further out, some beautiful temples from an earlier period. You can also go further north to explore the Knuckes Mountain Range.

You can reach the city by road or by train. If pressed for time, you can even fly in. Accommodation options are plentiful.

Travel Tips

  • If traveling during the Perahera Period, the hotels cost a little extra.

  • You might find a visit to the Garrison cemetery an interesting one.

  • There is a lot beneath the surface so when visiting places like the Temple of the Tooth, you can

Download the BA.LA.MU audio guide to learn about its importance.

Yala is Sri Lanka’s best known national park with the world’s highest concentration of leopards. It is a great place for both wildlife enthusiasts as well as those who are looking for a short wildlife adventure. While the leopard is one of, if not the main attraction, it is home to a myriad of species. You can also spot the sloth bear, elephants, sunbathing mugger crocodiles, a plethora of birds, both resident and migrating, as well wild boar, mongoose, spotted deer and more. As Yala is in the dry zone, the shrub jungle makes spotting wildlife easier and gives a unique identity to photographs.

The park is divided into blocks and most visitors visit Block One. This means that during the

season, if you are lucky enough to watch a leopard laze around atop a rock, you will most likely be sharing that luck with 10 other jeeps.

Accommodation in Yala is interesting and varied. Whether you want a conventional big hotel, a small home stay, a high end unique experience, a mix between a wildlife holiday and a beach stay or all out camping in the wild, there is something for everyone in Yala.

Travel Tips

  • Yala is closed during the month of September.

  • To avoid park traffic, you can either enter from the Katagamuwa entrance of Block One, going against traffic or visit the smaller, quieter Block Five.

  • If you are interested in birds, the migratory birds will be there from December to the end of March.

The Galle Fort is the crown jewel of the South and it can still transport you back in time as you step in through the arched gateways of the fortification onto its cobbled roads. Initially built by the Portuguese in 1520 and later taken over and expanded by the Dutch and British, the Galle Fort is steeped in history. It has gone through many transformations over the years but it is now one of the best maintained forts in the world. Located off the tip of the tip of the southern city of Galle, upon entering the fort, the colonial architecture and the cobbled roads surrounded by fortification and a lighthouse and clock tower standing tall in the distance on either side, you enter a world and time of its own.

It is still home to a multi ethnic, multi religious community and there are many churches,

mosques and temples to prove it. However, most of the beautiful white and ochre buildings are now owned or operated as shops, restaurants, boutique hotels or are privately owned villas. You can effortlessly amble through the streets frome cafe to museum to church or restaurant while the day goes by. If you walk along the thick granite walls of the fort, you will come across prison cells of different sizes, bartizans, view points and even a place from which daredevils dive into the rocky ocean.

It is a great place to stay a night or two but you can even visit from neighbouring cities. It is

especially beautiful in the evenings as the sun begins to set behind the ramparts. The Fort has a great selection of restaurants to choose from, ideal to celebrate special occasions.

Travel Tips

Download the BA.LA.MU audio guide to guide you around the Galle Fort.

Sigiriya, often dubbed as the 8th wonder of the world, is an architectural, engineering and

historical marvel. While the palace complex and fortress was built in the 5th Century BC, the

caves in the compound were occupied by ascetic monks for centuries before that.

Passing the moat and entering the premises you have to make your way through the large

landscaped expanse that is the water garden and through the boulder garden to ascending

Sigiriy, passing the frescos and graffiti engraved mirror wall to the iconic lion paws. It is believed that above these paws would have been the head of a lion, giving the fortress its name, Lion Rock.

Atop the rock, reached through a staircase along the rockface, the grand palace complex,

complete not only with split level chambers, and throne rooms but also a large pond. It is

believed that the water from this pond is carefully channeled down through pipelines to the

watergarden where the ancient fountains still bubble. On misty mornings, it is by all means a

castle in the heavens.

Travel Tips

  • Download the BA.LA.MU audio guide of Sigiriya to guide you through the gardens and rock fortress.

  • Wear comfortable shoes and carry some water with you.

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