Sri Lanka might be a small island, but it is packed full of things to do, and it can be quite hard to figure out an itinerary if you only have a few weeks to see it all. During my time working in Sri Lanka as part of a travel and tours company, I learnt a lot about this beautiful country, and the following is a list of my favourite cities and sites, grouped up so you can pick one from each category if you don’t have time to see them all.
**Tip! If time is your issue, and not money – hire a driver. The cost of a driver is usually less than $40 a day, and it can save you the hassle of taking unreliable public transport, and make traveling the country a lot quicker**
Where is it? In the North-Central area
What’s good about it? The small town of Sigiriya is perfectly picturesque. Clouds of butterflies, winding dirt tracks ideal for mountain biking, leafy villages, and pleasent guesthouses and hotels make up the extent of it. But the real reason to come here is the rock that the whole city lies in the shaddow of – Sigiriya Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Controversy of origin surrounds this 2,000 year old rock, that some claim was once a fortress, and others an ancient temple. Regardless of what it once was, it remains absolutely breathtaking. The restored gardens around it give visitors a glimpse of what it once might have been like, and the giant lions paws that are cut out of the rock are one of the most amazing things I have ever seen whilst traveling. Forget Angkor Wat, Sigiriya Rock will blow your mind like nothing else. The views from the top are amazing as well.
How long should I spend there? It takes about half a day to climb the rock. Start early in the morning and you’ll be back in time for lunch.
Where is it? In the North-Central area.
What’s good about it? Dambulla is a small town home to a series of ancient rock caves, complete with colourful frescoes that have been a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site for thousands of years. The stairs leading up to the caves are a great place to spot wild monkeys and get glimpses of Sigiriya Rock and the North-Central area surrounding it.
Where is it? In the North-Central area, slightly further North than the previously mentioned.
What’s good about it? For those who want to dip right back into the history of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura’s sprawling cityscape of crumbling dagobas, archaic irrigation tanks, and ancient temples are what is left of Sri Lanka’s first ever capital. A good guide will help you uncover the stories of the Sinhalese Kings who ruled from this powerful city for thousands of years.
How long should I spend there? It takes the better part of a day to really explore this ancient city.
Where is it? In the North-Central area
What’s good about it? Once a medieval capital, Polonnaruwa is home to three opulent palaces that are suprisingly well preserved. Polonnaruwa has the benefit of being the youngest of the ancient cities (1000 years old) and therefore the remains are more true to their former beauty.
How long should I spend there? The ruins have been well categorized to make viewing quicker and easier, but you still need a full afternoon to see it all.
**Tip! If you have time to see all of the ancient cities, then stay in Sigiriya. It is fairly central to all of the other cities, and offers the best accommodation.**
Where is it? Central
What’s good about it? Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s largest mountain, and has a wealth of legend surrounding it. Christian settlers said this was the last place Adam put his foot as he left the garden of Eden, Buddhists say that the peak contains Buddha’s footprint. Whether you believe the myths or not, Adam’s Peak is certainly a sight to see. It takes around 4-5 hours to climb to the top. Most people start the climb at around 2am to arrive at the peak in time for sunrise – something I highly recommend. It is not possible, however, to visit Adam’s Peak at all times of the year. During the monsoon season the rainwater can make the climb difficult, and cloud the visibility from the top. The best season to visit is late October-April.
How long should I spend there? It’ll take you about 4 hours to climb, and a little less to come down, but if you decide to climb at 2am you’ll need to arrive the previous day and rest in one of the hotels at the bottom.
Where is it? Central
What’s good about it? Right up in the highlands, this area boats a serenely beautiful landscape of misty mountains, waterfalls, and wild grasslands. It’s the perfect place to get away from everything, spot wildlife – of which their is an abundance – and enjoy surrounding silence. The area surrounding World’s End forms a 2000m high plateau, which abruptly stops, allowing you to stand on the end of it and stare 2000m down to the valley below. Hence the name World’s End.
How long should I spend there? Get up early in the morning to really enjoy the beauty of World’s End before the clouds and crowds pile in. It’s about a 2-3 hour walk from the nearest town, so allow the better part of a morning to do it.
Where is it? South-Central
What’s good about it? Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this protected forest has nature dripping from every tree. Pick up a local guide at the entrance and ask them to take you to the pool in the middle, where after a sweaty long hike you can refresh yourself by taking a dip in a pool that is fed by a waterfall. The old trees in this rainforest make the difficult walk well worth the effort, and a good guide should be able to point out some great wildlife – everything from snakes, giant centipedes, leopards, and wild boar that call Sinharaja their home.
How long should I spend there? You can choose different lengths of trek. Some are just 1-2 hours long, some go on for much longer. There is even treehouse style accommodation within the rainforest if you fancy an overnight stay to get to grips with the place.
Where is it? South-West
What’s good about it? Colombo is the country’s commercial capital, and is an eccentric hive of activity. There’s plenty to do here from browsing exotic markets, to checking out the fancy department stores, to dining in some of the cities best cafes, to making your way around the colonial sites. Colombo can be a little overwhelming at first, but if you take the time to get to know it, it can be incredibly rewarding.
How long should I spend there? Two days are enough to really get a feel of the place, but if you are lacking in time, skip the capital and spend your precious few days somewhere less hectic.
**Tip! If you are flying in to the international airport, start off in Negombo, not Colombo. It’s a small beach town closer to the airport and is a better place to sleep of your jet lag than the bustling capital. You will no doubt have to come in and out of Colombo to reach other places in Sri Lanka anyway, and you’d be better of saving Colombo until you are feeling a little more adventure-ready.**
Where is it? Central
What’s good about it? The question here is really – what isn’t good about it? Kandy is the second most populated city outside of Colombo, but its stunning backdrop of lush mountains and the picturesque lake running through it make it far more beautiful and relaxed. Kandy is a real cultural hub in Sri Lanka, filled with traditional art galleries, botanical gardens, theatres with Kandyan dance performances, and one of the most famous temples in Sri Lanka – the Temple Of The Tooth. The nature reserve that surrounds Kandy, the Knuckles Range, is also a fantastic place for hiking, and is home to the native tribe of Sri Lanka – the Veddas.
How long should I spend there? Ideally you need a couple of days to explore Kandy, although if you really wanted to, you could squeeze most activities into one day.
**Tip! Watch out for the monkeys that are numerous in this area. They will steal anything. And if you are coming from Colombo, be sure to take the train. The train journey between Colombo and Kandy is one of the most scenic on the island. It’s worth splashing out for the ‘observation carriage’ for panoramic views.**
Where is it? The Southern Coast
What’s good about it? Surrounded by a UNESCO World Heritage fort built by the Dutch during their rule, this coastal city was once the main trading centre of the South. The influence of trade is still visible here, and a mix of international art, food, and produce is still on offer as proof. Winding cobbled streets hide boutique art galleries and new-age cafes, and exotic bustling markets crowd the main part of the city. Galle is generally where the Sri Lankan expat crowd tend to hang out, and as such there is a literary festival held here each year, as well as numerous international art exhibitions year round. Just a ten minute tuk tuk drive from Galle is the banana-shaped beach of Unawatuna, a mellow, chilled out place perfect for unwinding or taking part in a yoga or cooking course.
How long should I spend there? A day in Galle is long enough to soak up most of the atmosphere, but if you plan on visiting Unwatuna as well, then give at least 2-3 days. Unwatuna beach is particularly addictive!
Where is it? North
What’s good about it? Previously off bounds to tourists, Jaffna only recently opened up again after the end of the war. What is interesting here is not particularly the area itself, but the war-torn history behind it. Prepare yourself for a different side of Sri Lanka, where soldiers still craddle AK47s, and the influence of nearby India is much more apparent.
How long should I spend there? It takes a considerable amount of time to reach Jaffna if you are coming from the South, so you might want to consider staying for a few days. Take your time to learn about Jaffna’s history from the locals, and learn about the long and complicated war that Sri Lanka has only just been released from.
Yala National Park:
Where is it? South/ South-East
What’s good about it? One of the largest national parks in Sri Lanka, Yala spreads out over a diverse ecosystem of dry plains, wetlands, forest, beaches, and lagoons, and is home to an equally diverse range of wildlife. It is famous for being one of the best places to spot leopards in the world, but it also boasts a large heard of elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, peacocks, and birdlife, amongst other things.
How long should I spend there? A day or long morning is enough for a trip around the park in a safari jeep, but if you have more time some companies offer overnight accommodation in the park, to give you a better chance of seeing the nocturnal animals.
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage:
Where is it? Central
What’s good about it? Home to a heard of almost 100 elephants, this is an excellent place for those who wish to get up close and personal with the inhabitants here. Take a ride on an elephant, feed baby elephants, or swim with them in a river. Just be aware that the elephant orphanage is not for everyone. The over-touristed nature of the place means that you’ll be hurried in, have a few generic photos snapped, and leave again. It is, however, the only place where you’ll be allowed to touch an elephant in Sri Lanka, unless you come across one randomly in one of the cities and the owner allows you a chance to pet it.
How long should I spend here? An afternoon is all you’ll need at most.
There’s not a huge amount to write about the beaches, so I will simple list my favourites, with a brief description of where they are and what makes them special.
Hikkaduwa: On the South Coast. Decent strip of beach, and especially famous for its all-night parties. Great place to surf too.
Arugam Bay: On the East Coast. The most famous surf spot in Sri Lanka. A very mellow beach, with a great range of cheap accomodation.
Tangalle: On the Southern tip. This is THE place to escape and get a beach all to yourself. Not many people make it so far down South, and the beaches around this area really are worth the trip. 5 different species of sea turtle also lay their eggs up near this part of the beach.
Bentota: On the South-West CoastA bit more upmarket, brim full of shops and fancier hotels. But also the best spot for watersports in Sri Lanka.
Trincomalee: On the East Coast. Easily the best diving spot in Sri Lanka. Make the trip out to Pigeon Island for scuba diving or snorkling – previously off limits to tourists during the war, the fringing coral reef is fantastically well preserved. The beach is stunning as well.
Unwatuna: On the South Coast. Up near Galle, this beach is picturesque if a little crowded, and offers fantastic accommodation at very reasonable prices.
**Tip! The best time to visit the South Coast beaches is from Oct – March, the best time to visit the East Coast ones is April – Sep**
Do you have any tips you’d like to add? Write me a comment and let me know