Sri Lanka is one of the biggest little countries in the world. The island’s modest size means that it’s possible to get a good taste of what’s on offer in just a couple of weeks, although, equally, attractions are crammed together so densely that you could easily spend a year in the place and still not see everything.
Two weeks suffices to see Sri Lanka’s headline attractions, while an extra week would allow you to add on the places listed in the itineraries below.
Start in Kandy, cultural capital of Sri Lanka and a marvellous showcase of Sinhalese religious art, architecture and dance.
Drive north to the cave temples at Dambulla, crammed with Buddhist statues and decorated with Sri Lanka’s finest murals.
The nearby rock citadel at Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most dramatic attraction: the remains of a fifth-century palace perched on the summit of the vertiginous Lion Rock.
Another short drive leads to the marvellous ruined city of Polonnaruwa, home to some of medieval Sri Lanka’s finest art and architecture, including the giant Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara.
5 Horton Plains National Park
Return to Kandy and then continue to Nuwara Eliya for a trip to Horton Plains National Park, a marvellously rugged stretch of unspoilt hill country culminating in the spectacular view at World’s End.
Continue to lively little Ella village, set in a dramatic location amid tea plantations on the edge of the hill country.
7 Yala National Park
Drive south to Yala National Park, home to one of the world’s densest populations of leopards, and much more besides.
Spend some time on the beach and go on a whale-watching trip at the village of Mirissa.
Continue around the coast to the city of Galle and its time-warped old Dutch Fort – colonial Sri Lanka at its most perfectly preserved.
Finish with a day or two in the nation’s energetic capital.
The following itinerary, which picks up on some of the best natural attractions not covered in the Grand Tour, could be done in a week, at a push, allowing plenty of time to combine with other attractions en route during a fortnight’s visit to the island.
1 The Knuckles Range
From Kandy you can hike into the rugged Knuckles Range, one of the island’s most beautiful and biodiverse areas.
2 Nuwara Eliya
Head south to this venerable old colonial town in the heart of the hill country, with spectacular walks in the surrounding countryside.
3 Horton Plains National Park
Sri Lanka’s most scenically stunning national park: a misty mix of moorland and cloudforest, home to rare indigenous flora and fauna.
Dramatically perched on the edge of the southern hill country and with fine hiking through the surrounding tea plantations, particularly the walk down from nearby Lipton’s Seat.
5 Bundala National Park
One of Sri Lanka’s premier birdwatching destinations, spread out around a stunning string of coastal lagoons.
Watch majestic marine turtles haul themselves ashore to lay their eggs on beautiful Rekawa beach.
7 Uda Walawe National Park
Superb elephant-watching opportunities, either in the wild or at the attached Elephant Transit Home.
Stunning area of unspoilt rainforest, home to an internationally significant array of rare endemic flora and fauna.
A slightly offbeat alternative to the Grand Tour, featuring less mainstream destinations mixing religion, culture and wildlife.
Superb dolphin-watching, kitesurfing and some of the island’s finest eco-lodges on beautiful Alankuda Beach.
2 Wilpattu National Park
Enormous and very peaceful park famous for its leopards and elephants.
The greatest city in Sri Lankan history, packed with monuments from over a thousand years of the island’s past.
The birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, with a cluster of absorbing monuments clinging to a jungle-covered hillside.
Medieval Sri Lankan art and architecture at its finest, from the flamboyant Vatadage to the brooding statues of the Gal Vihara.
Vibrant but little-visited east coast town, famous for its “singing fish” and with a fine beach and lagoon.
7 Arugam Bay
This quirky village is one of the most appealing places to hang out for a few days around the coast.
Vibrant multi-faith pilgrimage town, a holy place for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
9 Adam’s Peak
The strenuous climb to the top of Adam’s Peak is the island’s ultimate pilgrimage, rewarded by a glimpse of the Buddha’s own footprint at the summit.