Welcome to beautiful Sri Lanka! Once known as Ceylon, this widely overlooked and vastly under-appreciated country was recently our destination for two weeks of discovery, adventure, and travel in a place not often highlighted online. The beautiful beaches, lush mountains, and kind people astonished us each and every day we traversed Sri Lanka. There may not be many lists to show off the wonderful sights of Sri Lanka, but travelers will tell you that no single list could encompass all of this small country’s many wonders.
Sri Lanka has so much to offer, and while impossible to fully convey this amazing country, we’ll at least show off our top 9 places in Sri Lanka. These 9 should be on anyone’s itinerary when exploring Sri Lanka, but we have no doubt that there are as many places we still don’t know about as the number of things we loved about Sri Lanka but also didn’t make this list. Enjoy, then, our top picks in Sri Lanka!
#01 | Galle
The Galle Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1588 and was first a trading port in Sri Lanka. Although it was fought over many times by the Dutch and the Bristish Empire, the fort managed to survive and still to this day looks pristine in appearance.
Inside the fort you will find what seems to be a small walled off city with roads crossing through stores, homes, churches, hotels, and even a functioning court house. The entire place is still fashioned in a Dutch colonial style with gambled roofs and curved eaves along the length of the buildings. We were quite blown away by its size and beauty and wish we could have spent more time exploring the roads and alleyways of this incredibly charming place.
Save at least a full day to fully explore this site and bring your swimsuit if you feel like taking a dip in the waters stretching alongside the fortress walls.
#02 | Mirissa
Mirissa Beach is a seriously stunning stretch of sand just a three hour train ride away from the capital city of Colombo. This beach is certainly the most visually stunning beach on this list as it is split in two by the Parrot Head Rock pictured above. We have no idea exactly why it is called this, but the small island is beautiful nonetheless.
This beach is great for surfers who are beginners to intermediate as the waves can go up to six feet and right over a reef. We saw quite a few people sitting out in the waters at all times of the day, trying to catch the perfect wave.
There is plenty to do on the beach itself from day trip activities such as whale watching and snorkeling, to restaurants and bars that are open late into the night. At sunrise, you can get up early to check out the beach at it’s most deserted time and enjoy the warm sunshine from the top of Parrot Head Rock.
#03 | Tangalle
Tangalle Beach, located on the south tip of Sri Lanka is the perfect getaway for those of you looking to escape the crowds that some of the other beaches play host to. The sand here stretches as far as you can see and the sunsets are truly spectacular. You can get to Tangalle via city bus from Mirissa Beach. The journey takes around two hours.
Though the waves are too large to swim in comfortably, there are a few places built up with wave breaks so you can swim. You can spend the majority of your time enjoying relaxing, kayaking around the mangrove lake, or hunting for sea turtles which are commonly found laying eggs on the beach.
Tangalle also makes a good hangout spot if you need a place to stop over before heading to Yala National Park. The bus from here is around two hours to Tissamaharama, the small city near the park.
#04 | Yala
Though you’ll need to stay the night in Tissa (Tissamaharama, if you want the full name), a trip to the stunning Yala National Park is a must for anyone wanting to glimpse the wildlife of Sri Lanka without the highly questionable ethical qualms of the elephant “sanctuaries” that can be found around the country.
Tours in Yala consist of open-topped “jeeps” bouncing along dirt roads in this massive national park. The entire park is not accessible to the public to allow the animals a protected environment in which they can live the way we all like to imagine before the human population began to interfere. Thankfully, the zones visitors are allowed to travel include many water sources which tempt many animals down from the hills.
We saw a pretty incredible number of animals during our visit to Yala National Park: elephants, leopards, sloth bears, peacocks, mongoose (mongeese?), jungle fowl, yellow hornbills, black beaked Ibis, crocodiles, and endless water buffalo. The leopards are the most famous and can often be see in rare glimpses around the morning hours, but many of the other animals are more common and can be seen throughout the day. The variety of wildlife was quite impressive, and we were amazed by our close encounters with the mother and baby elephant.
#05 | Ella
The small mountain town of Ella, Sri Lanka stole our hearts with it’s charm and stunning scenery. For hikers and nature lovers, a long stay in Ella should certainly be on your itinerary as this place has mountains and views in spades.
Need suggestions for things to see and do in the area? Check out the tea plantations, which are famous in the central regions of Sri Lanka and get a cuppa overlooking the mountains. Try one of the breathtaking day hikes in the area. Little Adam’s Peak can be done in a couple of hours and is a very easy and enjoyable hike, or try Ella Rock, which will take you the better part of the day, but offers the best views of the area. There are a couple of famous waterfalls on the outskirts of town as well as the famous 9 Arch Bridge which is more reminiscent of a scene from the Harry Potter movies than something one would expect in South Asia.
We suggest dedicating a few days to this area as there is so much to see and do that you would be remiss to not give this place the time it deserves. We experienced some unseasonable rains during our stay in the area which made touring around a bit difficult, so we were glad to have so many days as well as a guesthouse that overlooked the 9 Arch Bridge. The afternoons spent reading on the balcony watching trains roll through were some of our fondest memories from our trip in Sri Lanka.
#06 | Ella – Kandy Train
Without doubt, the train ride from Ella to Kandy was the most scenic train route we have ever taken. This 6 hour journey may take twice as long as the bus ride, but it is certainly not something you should miss.
The tracks are strategically placed on the mountain ridge lines that cut through the middle of the country and this positioning gives passengers views of the surrounding countryside. You will cut your way through miles and miles of tea plantations and pine tree forests on your way north to the former capital city, Kandy.
The 6:30am train is usually pretty crowded, so we found the 9:30am to be a better bet. Seats were available without having to reserve them, so we were comfortable for the entire ride. The trains cars also have bathrooms and there is a food car for any refreshments you may need.
#07 | Kandy
Kandy was once the capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka and therefore houses a lot of history throughout the city. Most guides will tell you that you do not need to spend much time here, but it is certainly a must see place on any tour of the country. We recommend spending 2 days here to see everything on your list.
The most well-known historical site in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth, which is one of the most sacred Buddhist places to worship in the world. There are also plenty of museums in the city dedicated to Buddhism, the history of Kandy, and tea where you can see how it is made and try it yourself.
The Royal Botanical Gardens are a perfect place to spend a day wondering around the grounds and enjoying nature. The site dates back hundreds of years, making the trees on the property enormous and quite impressive.
#08 | Sigiriya
Sigiriya or Lion Rock is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of Sri Lanka. The rock itself juts up six hundred feet into the sky and is a remarkable sight to see sitting in the middle of of a forest of trees in the rural countryside.
The rock is a historical archeological site where there is some of the best preserved evidence of ancient urban planning. You can climb the rock to the top to see the foundations of what was once a city complex, palace, and fortress to protect the then King from attack. At the entrance of the stairs to the top, you can see the remnants of two giant lion paws, hence the name, Lion Rock. The head of the lion which was sculpted above he paws fell off long ago. There are frescos, gardens, and a museum on the site which should not be missed.
A note of warning: There are tourist attractions for riding elephants around Sigiriya Rock, but please be responsible and read the facts of elephant riding before you book an excursion.
#09 | Polonnaruwa Ruins
If exploring ancient ruins is a must, then you should certainly not miss out on the ruins of Polonnaruwa. Also declared a World Heritage Site, Polonnaruwa has the best preserved archeological sites and artifacts in Sri Lanka.
The site is first and foremost a religious center of Sri Lanka, so the majority of the buildings and ruins are temples and religious relics. This was also once the capital, so you can see the ruins of the royal palace, audience hall, and even the royal swimming pool. The grounds are vast and span many kilometers so exploring the area makes you feel like you’re the first to discover them. Places like Polonnaruwa have the ability to transport you back in time and leave you absolutely transfixed by the ancient cultures that have managed to be preserved for thousands of years.
Though not as big as sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is still quite large and getting around can be difficult without some form of transportation. Try renting a rickshaw for the day or, if you are feeling more adventurous, rent a bike from your hotel and pedal yourself! Most hotels in Polonnaruwa offer bike rentals.