All visits to Sri Lanka currently begin at the international airport just outside Colombo, the island’s capital and far and away its largest city – a sprawling metropolis whose contrasting districts offer an absorbing introduction to Sri Lanka’s myriad cultures and multi-layered history. Many visitors head straight for one of the west coast’s beaches, whose innumerable resort hotels still power the country’s tourist industry. Destinations include the package holiday resorts of Negombo and Beruwala, the more stylish Bentota, and the old hippy hangout of Hikkaduwa. More unspoilt countryside can be found north of Colombo at the Kalpitiya peninsula and in the vast Wilpattu National Park nearby, home to leopards, elephants and sloth bears.
Beyond Hikkaduwa, the south coast is significantly less developed. Gateway to the region is the marvellous old Dutch city of Galle, Sri Lanka’s finest colonial town, beyond which lie a string of fine beaches including the ever-expanding village of Unawatuna and the quieter stretches of coast at Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalla, as well as the lively provincial capital of Matara, boasting further Dutch remains. East of here, Tissamaharama serves as a convenient base for the outstanding Yala and Bundala national parks, and for the fascinating temple town of Kataragama.
Inland from Colombo rise the verdant highlands of the hill country, enveloped in the tea plantations (first introduced by the British) which still play a vital role in the island’s economy. The symbolic heart of the region is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city and the cultural capital of the Sinhalese, its colourful traditions embodied by the famous Temple of the Tooth and the magnificent Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most colourful festival. South of here, close to the highest point of the island, lies the old British town of Nuwara Eliya, centre of the country’s tea industry and a convenient base for visits to the spectacular Horton Plains National Park. A string of towns and villages – Ella, Haputale and Bandarawela – along the southern edge of the hill country offer an appealing mixture of magnificent views, wonderful walks and olde-worlde British colonial charm. Close to the hill country’s southwestern edge, the soaring summit of Adam’s Peak is another of the island’s major pilgrimage sites, while the gem-mining centre of Ratnapura to the south serves as the best starting point for visits to the elephant-rich Uda Walawe National Park and the rare tropical rainforest of Sinharaja.
North of Kandy, the hill country tumbles down into the arid plains of the northern dry zone. This area, known as the Cultural Triangle, was the location of Sri Lanka’s first great civilization, and its extraordinary scatter of ruined palaces, temples and dagobas still give a compelling sense of this glorious past. Foremost amongst these are the fascinating ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the marvellous cave temples of Dambulla, the hilltop shrines and dagobas of Mihintale and the extraordinary rock citadel of Sigiriya.
Gateway to the east is the characterful, if war-torn, city of Trincomalee. The east’s huge swathe of pristine coastline itself remains almost completely undeveloped, save for the sleepy villages of Nilaveli and Uppuveli, just north of Trinco, and the surfing centre of Arugam Bay, at the east coast’s southern end, although the construction of a huge new resort at Passekudah is likely to change that. Even less visited, the north is slowly emerging after years of civil war; increasing numbers of visitors are making the long journey to the absorbing city of Jaffna, while a side-trip to remote Mannar, closer to India than Colombo, is another adventurous possibility.