Top 10 things to do in Sri Lanka

Eloise Barker

Title photography by laughingmango

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July 2018

Spice gardens, sambal and surfing: Sri Lanka is a treasure trove for travellers. With great beaches in the south, ancient sights in the cities and wonderful hiking routes among its tea plantations, the country offers a great deal to the average explorer. The island has just celebrated 70 years of independence. It’s time to discover it for yourself.

1. See the Temple of the Sacred Tooth at Kandy

Sri Lanka’s second largest city, Kandy is set amongst the tropical plateaus of the centre of the island. It’s the site of one of the most significant Buddhist temples in the world – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth – a must-visit sight for any traveller. It was said the left canine tooth of the Buddha was retrieved from his funeral pyre and eventually brought to Sri Lanka, smuggled in the hair of a princess. It was brought to Kandy, where it was the responsibility of the monarchy to ensure its safety. Encased in seven gold caskets, and set under a golden canopy, it’s a much-venerated sight. Plan your visit to the temple complex to coincide with the daily ‘puja’ – prayers; the ceremony includes drums and flower offerings. Once you’ve ‘done’ Kandy’s key attraction, you have permission to unwind along the shores of the milky manmade lake or spot cinnamon trees in the local spice gardens.

Top tip:

Visit Kandy on the full moon, when a public holiday sees the temple doors open to hundreds of white-robed pilgrims, and the city is resplendent in lights.

2. Discover the wonders of the Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka’s rich history is best seen in the so-called Cultural Triangle to the north of Kandy. The triangle’s ‘points’ are Kandy, and two ancient cities, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The first sight you’ll encounter after Kandy is Sigiriya Rock, a lone plinth in the rainforest topped with an ancient fortress and known for its great Lion’s Gate – an entrance between two massive rock-hewn paws. At UNESCO-listed Anuradhapura you’ll see important religious sites, including three stupendous stupas. At Polonnaruwa there are the remains of an ancient city, now populated with cheeky troops of toque macaques. Venture into the atmospheric rock temple at Dambulla to see murals and great statues of the Buddha reclining in dimly-lit caves.

Top tip:

Instead of climbing with crowds at Sigiriya, set out at dawn to climb Pidurangala Rock. From the top you’ll have beautiful views over the neighbouring fortress in the changing morning light.

  • The Famous Sigiriya Lion's Rock fortress. © Sylvain Bouzat.

    King of the jungle

    At the top of this 200m rock column are the ruins of an ancient palace. To reach them, you must pass through a dramatic gate flanked by rocks fashioned into clawed paws. The 'Lion's Gate' gave 'Sigiriya' (or 'Lion's Rock') its name.

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3. Meet elephants at Udawalawe National Park

Sri Lankan elephants are their own special sub-species, and Sri Lanka is estimated to have the densest population of elephants in Asia. These sympathetic creatures are a popular tourist draw – which has lead, unfortunately, to animal right problems in some so-called elephant ‘orphanages’. There’s no greater way to encounter the elephant than as equals in the wild; so head to Udawalawe National Park, where the open grassland, marsh and forest provide the perfect habitat for these gentle creatures. The Elephant Transit Home within the park is an orphanage for up to 40 juvenile elephants. The elephant calves are free to roam in their area, and wild elephants can visit the premises, too. Though the rehabilitating residents are kept at a safe distance from visitors, they can still be seen at feeding times from a viewing platform.

Top tip:

Don’t just keep your eyes peeled for pachyderms: the park is also home to eagles, civet cats, deer and the Indian hare.

4. Keep your eyes peeled for leopards at Yala National Park

Shy, lone predators with a skill for subterfuge and a perfect pelt – leopards live in Yala National Park in the hundreds. In fact, here is the highest concentration of leopards in the world. But despite their telltale markings, these big cats are not all that easy to spot. Go on a three-hour safari tour, or rent a jeep of your own at the entrance to the park and look up at the trees, or in the thick brush, where leopards typically rest in daylight hours. There's a chance you'll also spot wild boar and peacock, elephants and the rare sloth bear as well. You might recognise the shy sloth bear – Baloo from The Jungle Book has given it a special celebrity status.

Top tip:

The wildlife is more active at first light and after 4pm, and January to July is leopard-spotting season.

  • The train from Ella to Kandy winds through tea plantations near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. © Nick Brundle Photography.

    All aboard

    Hate your morning commute? Rethink train travel in Sri Lanka, home to the most scenic rail journeys in the world.

  • Sri Lankan egg hopper, a traditional dish. © bonchan.

    Pop out for hoppers

    These light, coconut-milk based pancakes are the perfect breakfast food. Look out for kiri hodi – coconut sauce to have over the top, or spoon in a spicy sambal.

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  • A Leopard in Yala National park. © Utopia_88.

    Visiting Yala

    Yala National Park is made up of five 'blocks' – most tours head to Blocks 1 and 2 – but the other blocks are often quieter.

5. Take tea at Nuwara Eliya

Tea, red post boxes and even cloudy weather – Nuwara Eliya is known as ‘Little Britain’, thanks to its colonial past – and it certainly looks the part. It’s here that you can visit tea plantations, tea museums, and even tea factories that create citrusy Ceylon tea (tea companies didn’t update their names when ‘Ceylon’ became ‘Sri Lanka’). In Nuwara Eliya, tea is king. The high-altitude town sits amidst misty plantation fields. The beautiful, verdant hills of tea bushes, coupled with the steep slopes and plentiful waterfalls make the area popular among hikers. Time it right with gaps in the cloud, and hike to World’s End in Horton Plains National Park. You’ll get dramatic clifftop views.

Top tip:

Heard of Lipton tea? Thomas Lipton’s estate is in the nearby village of Haputale. You’ll find his statue on Lipton’s Seat. Legend has it this was his favourite spot in his estate. It’s not hard to see why: you can see several provinces from up here.

6. Explore the Dutch fort at Galle

The Portuguese settled in Galle, but the Dutch took over in 1640. It has since grown into a major city in the south of Sri Lanka. The streets has a pleasantly buzzy vibe, and there are temples, markets, and whitewashed Dutch architecture – including a photogenic lighthouse. But, as with most things, it’s the fort that counts. The UNESCO-listed Dutch fort complex in the centre of the town was quite simple until the Dutch built towering walls with coral and granite – and constructed 14 bastions. With its sea views, it’s a great place for an evening stroll along the grass-covered walls, long-consigned to nature. Once you’ve explored, drive down to Unawatuna, a charming fishing village bordered by gorgeous coral reefs and historic shipwrecks.

Top tip:

The stretch of coast between Unawatuna and Weligama is a great place to spot fishermen on stilts. Nowadays, though, most fishermen get more money posing for photos than they do from fish.

  • A Buddha figure from the interior of the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy. © Matthew Wakem.

    Golden temples

    Explore the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy in Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, before continuing to Lion Rock and the rock temples at Dambulla.

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7. Keep watch for blue whales at Mirissa

Sri Lanka’s south coast is famous for its many golden beaches. Some are jam-packed with jostling sunbathers; others are mercifully quieter, save for a raft of surfers sitting on their boards out to sea waiting for the next wave. Mirissa falls towards the busier end of the spectrum. It’s got a crescent of beautiful golden sand, but it’s backed by food stalls, and bars keep it buzzing after sunset. Whilst it’s not the quietest beach, there’s a big, big reason to visit Mirissa – the chance to see the largest animal that has ever lived. The three-mile stretch of ocean between Mirissa and Dondra Head is the best place in the world to spot migrating blue whales. Specialised tours set out from Mirissa. Look out for sperm whales and spinner dolphins whilst you’re on the water, too.

Top tip:

Pick a responsible tour operator for your trip. The best times to see the whales are as they pass through the area in January and March.

8. A famous rail journey in the Podi Menike

Sri Lanka’s bright blue trains are famously photogenic and wonderfully retro. The ‘little maiden’ passenger train, Podi Menike, will take you along Sri Lanka’s most scenic rail route between Columbo Fort and Badulla. The whole journey lasts ten hours, but you could just hop on for the prettiest section: the journey between Nanuoya and Ella. Here the tracks descend from the hills through tea plantations, cloud and forest. Book into the first-class observation car to get the best views – plus a snap of the blue train carriages curling along the edge of the frame.

Top tip :

Once you arrive in Ella you’ll be rewarded with brilliant hiking. But first, head just out of town to Nine Arch Bridge, and wait for a train to pass over – for your best locomotive photograph yet.

9. Ascend Adam’s Peak at night

In Ella, central Sri Lanka, there’s one climb that’s celebrated above all others: a night time ascent of Adam’s Peak. A holy site for Buddhists, other religious groups have also claimed this dramatic hilltop as their own: for at the top of this pointed peak is a rock formation that resembles a footprint – the Buddha’s, or Lord Shiva's. It’s also said to represent Adam’s first step on earth after he was cast out of paradise. Whatever your religion, join the pilgrims ascending the 5,500 steps at 2am to arrive at the summit for dawn. Following the torch-lit trail, you can refresh at an all-night tea shop during pilgrim ‘season’. At sunrise, the peak casts an amazingly sharp shadow over the hills below.

Top tip:

The season for climbing Adam’s Peak is from December to May. Outside of this time the path is unlit and cannot be attempted at night.

10. Get second helpings of hoppers in Colombo

Hoppers have made it onto the world’s menus in recent years, but they started as a delicacy on the Indian subcontinent. These delicate, bowl-shaped pancakes look too good to eat, but go with just about everything on the menu: curry, an egg, or, at breakfast, filled with yoghurt and honey. Depending on where you go, hoppers may also be referred to as 'appam' on the menu. Whilst Sri Lanka generally isn’t a gastronomic hub, Colombo has a modest restaurant scene. It’s here in the capital that you’re most likely to eat well outside of your hotel. Other delicacies to order with your hoppers are the ever-present curry and rice – and a side of sambal, a fiendishly spicy chilli accompaniment.

Top tip:

Order the local beer. Lion Lager is the most popular Sri Lankan beer. Its original brewing company was founded by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who gave his name to Baker’s Falls near Nuwara Eliya.

Where to stay

Shangri-La Colombo

If you want to spend a few nights in Sri Lanka’s capital, surely the Shangri La is the best place to stay in style. Set in a tower block, the rooms have big views over the city, Beira Lake or the ocean. And before you head out in search of authentic Sri Lankan curries, try gastronomic delicacies in the hotel’s four restaurants, including proper Chinese cooking at Shang Palace.

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Tangerine Beach Hotel

Want to explore the southern beaches? Head to Tangerine Beach hotel. Set in a quiet location near Kalutara, this large three-star beachfront hotel is decked in tropical technicolour. The large pool, and swim-up bar, get amazing sunset views.

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Thilanka Resort & Spa

If you’re planning to spend time in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle then Thilanka Resort & Spa, set near the rock temples of Dambulla, is a great pied-a-terre. This three-star hotel is surrounded by mango trees, overlooking rice paddies and verdant countryside – all of which you can see from the pool. It’s well-located for hiking, sightseeing, and even has its own cricket ground.

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