5. Find blue whales
Sri Lanka is a real hotspot for whale-watching, and it’s one of the only places on the planet where you can reliably spot blue whales, the biggest of them all. Join the flotilla of guided tours departing from the idyllic coastal town of Mirissa on Sri Lanka’s southern tip, and you’ll sail down past Dondra Head into the deeper waters above the continental shelf.
Here, you’ll be in midst of the whales’ migratory route, where sightings of the world’s largest animal are practically guaranteed. Peak season is between December and April every year, and you’ll also be in with the chance of spotting other cetaceans like sperm whales, humpbacks and Bryde’s whales. If seeing a whale is high on your bucket list, Mirissa is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, if not the world.
Whale watching in Mirissa bay, southern Sri Lanka © Shalom Rufeisen/Shutterstock
6. Hike to the top of the rock
The impregnable citadel of Sigiriya is one of the country’s truly unmissable sights. It sits atop a dramatic rock outcrop towering hundreds of metres above the surrounding plains, and was briefly the site of an ancient Sri Lankan capital. It's undoubtedly one of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka.
You’ll have to climb a series of increasingly rickety staircases if you’d like to reach the top – best avoided if you suffer from vertigo. Along the route you’ll pass the famous Sigiriya Damsels, a remarkably well-preserved collection of busty beauties painted directly onto the rock face, concealed within a small cave.
Sigiriya citadel, Sri Lanka © Dmitry Chulov/Shutterstock
7. Go underground
Aladdin’s caves of Sinhalese Buddhist art, the five cave temples of Dambulla are among the country's greatest treasures. They're up there amongst the most impressive places to visit in Sri Lanka and to see them, you’ll first need to make your way up to a rocky outcrop, then past a rather kitsch compound topped off with a shockingly gigantic golden Buddha statue – an attraction in its own right.
The caves themselves are set beneath what was once a craggy overhang, and contain around 150 images of the Buddha, ranging from intricate murals right up to remarkable reclining statues. They are believed to date back to the reign of Vattagamini Abhaya, who ruled until 77 BC: mere months after becoming king, he was dethroned by Tamil invaders and found refuge in the caves. When he reclaimed his position, he commissioned the temples we see today to give thanks.
Dambulla, Sri Lanka © Gerckens-Photo-Hamburg/Shutterstock
8. Spot leopards
With shaggy sloth bears ambling through the undergrowth, elephants crashing through the trees and monkeys chattering overhead, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into The Jungle Book in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park.
The wildlife reserve is one of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka, partly due to the fact that it hosts the highest concentration of leopards in the world. Sightings of the elusive cats are common year-round, particularly at dawn and dusk. You’ll be in with the best chances if you visit during the dry season, when vegetation is sparse and animals congregate around water holes.
A leopard in the wild in Yala National Park © Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock
9. Ride the rails
In a country famous for its railway journeys, the stretch of track between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy is the classic trip. Battered Victorian railway engines crawl up into the hill country through undulating tea estates, and offer sweeping views across the countryside. Expect to swoop through tunnels, and see narrow ledges and vertiginous drops.
If you’re brave (or, some might say, foolish) you can stand beside one of the open doorways and watch as some of the greenest scenery in Sri Lanka unfolds before your eyes – just keep a tight grip on the handrails.
On the way from Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka © kennymax/Shutterstock
10. Visit the Temple of the Tooth
The lakeside Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is one of Buddhism’s most important religious sites. Naturally, that makes it one of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka. Inside, in a nest of golden caskets, lies a tooth relic from the Buddha, reputedly removed from his funeral pyre. While you can’t view the tooth, you're permitted to look inside the holy room during one of the three daily pujas.
Continue down your own path to enlightenment by visiting the Alut Maligawa, a shrine added to the temple in 1956. It commemorates the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death. Crammed with a host of magnificent Buddha statues donated by various countries, you'll also find a sequence of fascinating paintings on the walls depicting the storied journey of the tooth.
Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka © Talal Cassim Photo/Shutterstock
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