Last Updated on April 25, 2022 by Nellie Huang
From exploring wild beaches to ancient rock temples, here are 15 awesome things to do in Sri Lanka plus a quick Sri Lanka travel guide.
Lush jungles, rural villages and wild beaches — Sri Lanka is the Garden of Eden down south, quietly tucked away in secrecy away from the tourist trail. It’s just a leap away from the chaos and madness of India, and yet it seems like a world away.
The island may be small in size, but it’s got it all. First, the island has diverse landscapes, with habitats ranging from thick tropical rainforests to verdant green rice paddies and misty highlands. Then there’s the rich wildlife — Sri Lanka is home to some of Asia’s last remaining leopard, bear and elephant populations.
Let’s not forget the Buddhist heritage that has blessed this spiritual island nation with a slew of ruins, temples and religious (including eight Unesco World Heritage Sites). The British and Dutch have also left their legacy here with charming colonial flair and characteristic architecture.
Table of Contents
- Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka
- 1. See the Legendary Stilt Fishermen
- 2. Elephant Safari in Kaudulla National Park
- 3. Take a Scenic Train Ride from Kandy to Ella
- 4. Visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
- 5. Wander Amidst the Tea Plantations
- 6. Climb to the Top of Sigiriya Rock
- 7. Hike to the Top of Pidurangala Rock
- 8. Take a Scenic Flight over southern Sri Lanka
- 9. Wander around the Colonial Town of Galle
- 10. Do a Pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada
- 11. Hike up to Diyaluma Falls
- 12. Do a Village Trek in Hiriwaduna
- 13. Go on a River Safari on the Madu Ganga
- 14. Go Surfing at Hikkaduwa
- 15. Relax on the Empty Beaches of Beruwala
- How to Get to Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka Travel Guide
Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka
1. See the Legendary Stilt Fishermen
If you’ve read anything about Sri Lanka online, you would have seen the iconic shots featuring fishermen standing on stilts. Stilt fishing, or stick fishing as the locals also call it, is a traditional way of fishing for small sized fish. Although it may look like an ancient tradition, it is actually a practise invented in order to adapt to changing circumstances of food shortage and overcrowded fishing spots in that time.
Today, it’s a dying tradition due to the physical challenges and many external factors involved. Fishermen need relatively calm waters, low tide and good fishing conditions in order to go stick fishing. It’s not that easy to find stilt fishermen these days. Your best bet is to head to the 30-kilometer stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama during dawn or dusk.
2. Elephant Safari in Kaudulla National Park
Just 197km away from Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, is the Kaudulla National Park where you can see wild elephants roaming freely. This is the best thing to do in Sri Lanka for wildlife lovers! Historically, Kaudulla was one of the 16 irrigation tanks built by King Mahasen. Following a period of abandonment it was reconstructed in 1959 and converted into a national park in 2002.
The best time to go on an elephant safari in Kaudulla is between August and December, when up to two hundred congregate at the tank for the annual “gathering”. Besides elephants, there’s a slew of other wild animals that can be found in the park – including Sri Lankan sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, chevrotain, wild boar, Sri Lankan leopard, and sloth bear.
3. Take a Scenic Train Ride from Kandy to Ella
Taking the train in Sri Lanka is an experience on its own. There are several scenic routes that weave their way into the highlands and tea plantations — but the most popular is the Kandy to Ella train journey.
It’s said to be one of the greatest train journeys around the world. The train winds through the central highlands, overlooking farms and vast tea plantations. The scenery is very diverse: one minute you’ll be feasting on views of endless greenery, another minute you’ll be passing through a thick forest.
The train system in Sri Lanka dates back to the colonial times when rail roads were built to bring tea to Colombo for export. Today, Sri Lanka still has an extensive railway system that serves most major towns and cities in the island. Unlike neighboring India, the trains in Sri Lanka are relatively comfortable and punctual. (Scroll down to learn how to book your train tickets.)
4. Visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
The city of Kandy is the largest outside of the capital Colombo. Despite its size, it still has a charming feel to it, with a mountain vibe and a thriving cultural centre. I recommend spending a couple of days here to decompress and soak up the Sinhalese culture. If you’re tight on time, you can actually book a day tour to Kandy from Colombo for just $12.
The most important site in Kandy is, without doubt, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (officially called Sri Dalada Maligawa). It is an important pilgrimage site as it is said to house a very special relic — a tooth of Buddha that was brought to the island in the 4th century. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings and is a World Heritage Site mainly due to the temple.
Priests perform rituals here three times daily: at dawn, at noon and in the evenings. On Wednesdays there is a symbolic bathing of the relic with an herbal preparation made from scented water and fragrant flowers. It can get really busy but always colouful and fascinating! Remember to wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders, and remove your shoes before entering the temple.
5. Wander Amidst the Tea Plantations
Another one of my favorite thing to do in Sri Lanka is visiting a tea plantation. Tea from Sri Lanka is world famous, and there’s good reason for that. The central highlands of Sri Lanka have the perfect conditions and terrain to grow tea.
The story of tea in Sri Lanka started with the Scottish planter James Taylor in 1866. The remnants of his cottage and tea bushes are still preserved as a permanent memento to the man credited for introducing tea to Sri Lanka. Today, Sri Lanka’s central hills from Hatton, Dickoya, Bogawanthalawa, to Nuwara Eliya and every small town in higher elevations have their ground covered in a carpet of premium quality Sri Lankan tea.
The best place to base yourself is Ella. Take a walk along one of the tea trails that criss-cross these estates, watch the dusky maidens at work plucking tea buds and gathering them in rattan basket hung behind them. A few tea factories in this area will be happy to have visitors, and a tea tour will give an insight of how tea is made from fermentation to packaging.
6. Climb to the Top of Sigiriya Rock
Rising from the floodplains of the central valley, the Sigiriya Rock is undoubtedly the icon of the country and climbing to the top is the #1 thing to do in Sri Lanka. The UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts impressive archaeological importance. Once at the foothill of Sigiriya Rock, you’ll see how it gained it fame.
The world-famous attraction features vertical walls topped with a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilization. It’s quite a steep climb up to the top, but the view of the valley beneath is well worth it. It usually takes an hour or so to climb up. I recommend heading here early for sunrise or late for sunset. If you’re tight on time, I recommend booking a day trip to Sigiriya from Colombo.
7. Hike to the Top of Pidurangala Rock
While Sigiriya Rock might steal the show, Pidurangala Rock is the secret spot standing right next to it that nobody knows about! Unlike Sigiriya, it’s never crowded. Plus, entrance fee for Pidurangala is only US$3 while that for Sigiriya is $30.
It’s adjacent to Sigiriya Rock and thus is the best place to get views of Sigiriya and the surrounding valley. There’s a giant reclining Buddha statue about halfway up, partially reconstructed out of brick. The hike takes just around an hour to climb up. Wear proper hiking shoes and bring a sarong to cover your shoulders or else you won’t be allowed to enter.
I personally think that you should hike up both hills as each of them offers a different experience. If time is tight, I suggest going up Sigiriya for sunrise (less people) and Pidurangala for sunset. The Pidurangala rock itself will block most of the sun as you make your way up.
8. Take a Scenic Flight over southern Sri Lanka
If you’ve got a big budget, one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is to take a seaplane. I had the opportunity to catch a scenic flight over the southern end of the island with Cinnamon Air — the view of Sri Lanka’s lush jungles and busy coastline truly blew my mind.
The minute our Cessna 208 seaplane took off from the water runway of Koggala Airport, my window was framed with acres upon acres of greenery spreading into the vast distance. The landscape slowly transitioned from lime green coconut groves by the coast to brownish rice terraces further afield and dark green rainforests up in the highlands.
Once we closed in on the coast, the stunning beaches and colonial coastal towns that the island is so famous for came into full view. We flew over white Buddhist stupas that poked above the forest canopy and groups of fishermen rowing in their traditional wooden boats.
9. Wander around the Colonial Town of Galle
As one of Sri Lanka’s most well known cities, Galle is a charming little colonial town located in the southern part of the island oozing old-world charm and flavor. I loved wandering through its alleyways, weaving between tuktuks (auto rickshaws) and admiring its well-conserved colonial architecture.
One of the main sights to see in Galle is the 17th century fort, which is a world heritage site and the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by Europeans. Other prominent landmarks in Galle include the city’s natural harbor, St. Mary’s Cathedral founded by Jesuit priests, and the seafront. There are plenty of cool cafes, artistic shops and alternative stores. I found a vintage poster shop where I bought a few Sri Lanka travel-themed posters home!
10. Do a Pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada
Many people rave about Adam’s Peak and say that the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain is the number one thing to do in Sri Lanka. I sadly didn’t get the chance to do it as I was in Sri Lanka only for a week, but definitely think it’s worth doing if you love hiking and have time for it.
Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada, is Sri Lanka’s most sacred site. It’s a 2,243m (7,359 ft) mountain in the central highland region of Sri Lanka. The Buddhists believe that the footprint mark on Adam’s Peak is the left foot of Buddha. Hindus think that the footprint belongs to Lord Shiva, while Muslims and Christians believe it is Adam’s first step after being exiled from the Garden of Eden.
Regardless of your faith, anyone can climb up to the top of the mountain. It’s not a technical climb so as long as you’re in decent health, you should be able to do it. The typical climb starts in the middle of the night so you can reach the peak for a breathtaking Adam’s Peak sunrise. Here’s a detailed guide to hiking Adam’s Peak.
11. Hike up to Diyaluma Falls
The Diyaluma Falls are a great day trip from either Ella. Known as the second highest waterfalls in Sri Lanka, Diyaluma Falls are actually made up of multiple falls and natural pools. In Sinhalese, Diyaluma or Diya Haluma means “rapid flow of water” or may be translated as “liquid light”.
According to a Sri Lankan historian, Diyaluma is the setting of the folklore about a tragedy involving a young chieftain who was banished to the highlands. His lover tried to join him in Diyaluma but it was a dangerous journey. The young man let down a rope over the escarpment, but as she was hauled up, she crashed against the rocks and died. The Gods, moved by their love, caused a stream of water to gush down the mountain.
Be prepared as the best way to see it (and the only one that’s really worthwhile) is a steep uphill walk along rubble for 45 minutes each way. I advise wearing water shoes that can get wet but still have a good grip on the rocks.
12. Do a Village Trek in Hiriwaduna
Another one of my favorite things to do in Sri Lanka was the village trek around the Hiriwaduna area organized by Habanara Village by Cinnamon. Wandering through the village and learning about the traditional Sinhalese way of life was like traveling back in time. With a knowledgeable guide in the lead, we met locals, visited their traditional mud houses, tree huts and agricultural farmlands.
Half way through the hike, we hopped on board a wooden catamaran to cross the man-made reservoir. Gliding on the glassy water surface amidst beautiful purple water hyacinth and little schools of fish was a surreal experience. The excursion ended with an ox-drawn carriage ride past rice paddies and vegetable farms, with the sun setting in the distance forming a perfect backdrop.
If your hotel doesn’t organise the village trek, check out this Hiriwaduna day tour that includes a trip to the Minneriya National Park as well.
13. Go on a River Safari on the Madu Ganga
Proclaimed a Ramsa wetland area in 2004, Madu River has a high bio-diversity and supports a healthy population of birds, monkeys and fish. On our boat safari, we spotted lots of beautiful birds, from the cormorant to kingfisher. The purple leaf monkey also made an appearance, cheekily hiding in the tree canopy and peering at us from a distance. The best time to do this safari is in the evening as the sun is setting, making for a beautiful backdrop.
14. Go Surfing at Hikkaduwa
Many surfers travel to Sri Lanka for its swells — the south coast in particular is a surfer’s paradise. If you have never surfed before, this is definitely the best place to do it. It is very easy to learn here and the conditions are perfect for the first timer.
Plus, no matter where you travel along the south coast, you are never far from the jungle, monkeys, peacocks and jungle bliss. There really aren’t too many places in the world that combine both the jungle and surf in such close proximity.
Hikkaduwa is by far the most popular spot to go surfing. Originally a fishing town, Hikkaduwa is now a developed surfing town popular with budget backpackers. There are a number of local breaks and waves can be 3ft to 10ft high: the main reef is deep and relatively safe, perfect for newbie surfers.
15. Relax on the Empty Beaches of Beruwala
Another place I stayed at was the Cinnamon Bey Beruwala located right on the beach in the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Beruwala is the starting point of the 130 kilometres (81 miles) long stretch of beach with a shallow reef that reveals itself at low tide.
This is the spot for the first Muslim settlement on the island, established by Arab traders around the 8th century AD. A large population of Sri Lankan Moors, many of them are gem merchants, still live in the town. Today, it’s a quiet and lazy beach town jiving with local vibes and it’s an excellent spot to immerse in the Sinhalese way of life.
How to Get to Sri Lanka
The main international airport in Sri Lanka is Colombo-Bandaranayake International Airport (CMB). The national carrier is SriLankan Airlines. If you’re flying from Asia, you can actually find pretty good deals on budget airline Air Asia. They fly direct from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Colombo for around US$200 return.
Flights to Colombo from London and other parts of Europe tend to cost around US$600-900 return. Sri Lankan Airlines tend to have the best deals and they are direct flights. Oman Air has affordable flights via Muscat, and Qatar Airways also have good prices flying via Doha.
Flying from New York to Colombo is actually around the same price. It’s surprisingly affordable, at around US$600-1000 return. Emirates have the best deals flying via Dubai, and Qatar Airways also have good prices flying through Doha.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide
How to Get Around Sri Lanka
Train travel in Sri Lanka is itself a journey to remember. Sri Lanka has an extensive railway system serving most major towns and cities in the island. The trains are comfortable and punctual, definitely unlike trains in India. There are even special observation carriages for tourists. You can look up train schedules on the official site.
The most popular routes for travelers are the Colombo-Kandy and Kandy-Ella lines. The trains that enter the hill country are particularly picturesque — particularly the Badullu-Nanu Oya line.
Try to choose the express trains, and always get a reservation beforehand. Traveling 3rd class is not as bad as it may sound. Often the difference between 3rd and 2nd class is only a missing arm rest between seats.
Within the cities/towns, the most common mode of transport in Sri Lanka is a three-wheeler, tuk-tuks. They work just like taxis, and in many situations are a convenient and highly cost-efficient way to get around.
Three-wheelers are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. On any given street, you’ll hardly have to wait more than a couple of minutes without one going by that you can wave down. If you’re traveling with luggage, there are slightly larger three-wheelers with more space for your bags that you can look for.
Sri Lanka Visa and Permits
Most nationalities need to apply for a Sri Lanka visa online before traveling to Sri Lanka. This electronic authorization is valid for 3 months. It allows for two entries, which means you can enter the country twice during the 30 days entry (allowing for a break in e.g. Maldives).
ETA charges are $20 for SAARC countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan) and $35 for others. Citizens of the Maldives, Seychelles and Singapore may obtain a free visa on arrival.
When to Travel Sri Lanka
The best time for travel Sri Lanka is between November and April, when it’s dry season on the south and west coasts (the main beach areas). The central highlands are pleasantly cool and relatively dry from January to April. However, December to March is also the peak tourist season in Sri Lanka. The rest of the year is much quieter and cheaper.
On the south and west coasts, the monsoon season goes from the end of April to October. The heaviest rainfall is usually between May to mid June and October to November, with July to September being relatively drier, though still with low season prices.
In July/August Kandy hosts the island’s most spectacular festival, the 10-day Esala Perahera, which is one of the most important religious festivals in Asia.
Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has no shortage of beautiful beach resorts and jungle lodges that are reasonably priced. Many of these jungle lodges are absolutely stunning yet rustic and tucked deep within the lush jungles. The beach resorts too are aplenty of the wild and empty beaches, especially on the southern coast.
Here are the places I stayed in Sri Lanka that I highly recommend:
Poised on the banks of the Beira Lake, this four-star hotel gives you an escape from the bustling city. The rooms are pretty stiff, just like any business hotel, but I really enjoyed the outdoor pool and lush gardens. Its in-house restaurant also has an excellent buffet that includes local and Mediterranean and Thai options. Check rates here.
This iconic heritage hotel is located within the old town of Galle, just steps from the light house and church. You can walk all over the town from here, with restaurants and shops just at your doorstep. It’s a beautiful property with lots of colonial history seeping through its walls. Definitely the best place to stay in Galle! Check the rates here.
Perched right on the seafront, this affordable three-star beach resort is good for those looking for comfort at a good price. It’s a 10-minute scooter ride from Hikkaduwa town and is a great base for those who wanna surf all week. Book here!
This is the kind of safari jungle lodge that many dream of! I loved the rustic, wooden feel and jungle surroundings. This was my favorite hotel during my Sri Lanka trip. The rooms were comfortable and luxurious but still gave a feeling that you were in the jungle. It’s a great base from which you can explore the nearby Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park. Book here!
You can’t stay anywhere closer to Sigiriya than here! Located right across from Sigiriya Rock, this four-star hotel is set amidst lush tropical foliage. I recommend booking the wooden chalet that’s rustic and natural but still comfortable. It features a gorgeous infinity outdoor swimming pool and unobstructed view of the Sigiriya Rock. Check the rates!
An exceptionally stylish place to stay right by the Mahaweli River, surrounded by lush green jungles. There’s a spectacular outdoor pool that overlooks the river and also a restaurant with outdoor seating next to the water. Imagine waking up to views of the river and jungle and having breakfast next to it! Check the latest rates.
Disclaimer: My trip to Sri Lanka was made possible by Cinnamon Hotels, Sri Lanka Airlines and Professional Travel Bloggers Association. As always, all opinions expressed above are my own.
Inspired? Pin it!