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7 of the Best Things to do in Sri Lanka

Last updated on November 19th, 2023 at 04:34 pm

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country and although my visit was relatively short at just over a week long, you will be surprised at the wide array of things you can see and do in that time – think sun, sand, temples, ancient sites, tea, wildlife.…you get the picture! 

If you’re considering a trip to Sri Lanka then read on for my list of seven of the best things to do while you’re there.

Negombo

Flying into Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, you can either choose to stay there or travel the short distance to the coastal town of Negombo. Wide, sandy beaches, some large hotels and an historic fishing industry make this a calm, albeit interesting introduction to the ‘teardrop in the Indian ocean’.

Negombo lagoon is home to fisherman’s huts and brightly painted boats. At the fish market you can see hundreds of fish drying out under the sun, it’s quite a spectacle! A closed market meant my views were from the bus only!

Kandy

Located in central Sri Lanka, Kandy is the country’s second city and the gateway to the surrounding hill country well known for producing tea.

Kandy Lake

Dominating the centre of the city is the man-made Kandy Lake. The Lake was created in the early 1800s from what were formerly paddy fields. It is a protected lake with fishing banned but it has suffered from pollution issues.

The walls which surround the lake (known as cloudy walls) indicate a nearby Buddhist Temple. In this case, the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa).

The Temple of the Tooth

The Temple of the Tooth is the most revered site in Sri Lanka. The sacred relic was smuggled into the country from India by Princess Hamamala and Prince Dantha in 310 – the relic itself hidden in her hair.

Daily services together with four main festivals take place at the Temple making it a popular destination with both pilgrims and tourists alike. Although the relic itself is not visible, the decoration, flowers and abundance of white clad pilgrims make it a wonderful place to visit.

Visitor information: the Temple is open from 5.30am to 8pm. Visitors need to pass through airport type security (the Temple was the site of a terror attack in 1998) and should dress conservatively with legs and shoulders covered. Remove your shoes once past security and reclaim them at the end of your visit.

Nuwara Eliya

A chance to experience the joy of train travel in Sri Lanka as you make your way north from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in the tea country hills. This town, known as little England, was a retreat for the colonial British taking them away from the heat of places like Kandy.

As the train winds its way north, the landscape slowly changes until you arrive amidst the tea growing hills. Dotted against the verdant green of the tea plants are the pickers. Expectations are that the pickers will pick 18-20 kilograms of tea per day.

Tea plantations in the area offer visitors the opportunity to not only try selected teas but to witness the processing of the freshly picked leaves.

On arrival in Nuwara Eliya it’s hard to miss the imposing presence of the Grand Hotel. Built in 1828 as a holiday home for the Governor of Ceylon, a second storey was added in the 1890s. There have been other subsequent extensions and it now operates as a hotel.

The town post office, built by the British, is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka.

My experience travelling by train really made me feel like I was in Sri Lanka! Be careful though, the thrill of hanging out of the doors whilst the train is moving is going to disappear pretty quickly if you fall out…and it has happened!

Dambulla Cave Temple

Located about 70 kilometres north of Kandy, the Dambulla Cave Temple is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It comprises 5 caves of different sizes dating to the first century AD. A climb of some 300+ steps will get you up to them.

Once at the top, take time to look at the wonderful panoramic views of the surrounding area before making your way into the first of the five caves. The caves contain statutes of Buddha, various other gods and beautiful paintings.

Sigiriya (Lion Rock)

No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya (Lion Rock).

Although it is believed that the surrounding area has been occupied since prehistoric times, the rock was selected by King Kashyapa as his new capital in the 5th century. He built a palace at the top, a mirrored wall decorated with frescoes, bathing pools, moats and gardens. Halfway up he built a gateway in the form of a lion. The head has since collapsed but you can get a sense of scale when you see the paws!

The walk from the lion’s paws to the top is via a metal staircase. If you’re not good with heights, don’t look down! Depending on the crowd size however, it won’t take too long to get to the top.

The views from the top are incredible and worth the 1200 steps to get there! You’ll marvel at just how they built it all so long ago.

The palace complex was abandoned after the Kings death, but the rock was used as a monastery until the 14th century. It was rediscovered in the 19th century with archeological work beginning in the 1890s.

If you are planning a trip to Sigiriya (and you should!) then my advice is to:

  • go early – this will help avoid crowds and to climb in cooler conditions
  • wear good walking shoes
  • wear comfortable clothing – it can get hot and humid
  • carry plenty of water
  • wear sunscreen and take a hat – there’s no shade up high
  • take your time walking up
  • do what I did and treat yourself to a massage after!

Elephant Safari

The Minneriya National Park is home to various species of animals but the one we all want to see are the elephants! Jumping into jeeps, you will travel through the Park along bumpy, dusty roads in search of these magnificent animals.

It didn’t take too long before we came across several other jeeps, a dead giveaway that something is nearby! I was so lucky on my visit to see many elephants including a little precious bundle aged about 1 week.

At one point, the females panicked when some idiot in another jeep touched one of them. This triggered lots of noise and rushing together to protect the baby. An amazing event to witness but please, don’t touch the elephants.

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to various sites of veneration which take the form of stupas. A stupa is a dome like structure which houses a relic.

The Ruwanwelisaya stupa, at 103m tall, is one of the most impressive. Its white colouring indicates that construction has finished. Buddhists will walk around a stupa 3 times in a clockwise direction. Shoes must be taken off but there are mats to walk on as the ground can be very hot. You can wear your socks, although many worshippers were in bare feet!

Jetavanarama stupa is unfinished and comprises some 93 million bricks! Its original height was 122m but it’s now 71m tall. It was built during the period 273-301 and the compound covers some 5.6 hectares.

Visitor information: Make sure you are either wearing clothing that covers your shoulders and legs when visiting Temples or carry light weight trousers or a sarong with you.

I explored Anuradhapura by bike and can highly recommend it!

The Peleton!

I travelled around Sri Lanka on a 7 night group trip and therefore all hotel and most transport costs and entrance fees were included in the trip price. Please check my Resources page here for help in planning your own trip to Sri Lanka.

My trip took place in March 2022 before the political upheaval really took hold, although the economic crisis was well underway. It was sad to see such new difficulties hitting the tourism industry so soon after the Covid pandemic.

As governments change their travel advice however, visitors will hopefully make their way to this wonderful country and the industry will recover. Do check/confirm your own Government guidelines and local requirements before travelling.

Is Sri Lanka on your bucket list?

Disclaimer – Visitor information was correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting.

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