Sri Lanka is booming. It’s now almost ten years since the end of the devastating civil war which traumatized the country for a generation – a decade of peace which has seen Sri Lanka transform into one of Asia’s most vibrant and diverse destinations.
Few countries pack so much variation into such a compact space: world-class wildlife-watching, spectacular hills swathed in tea plantations, several of Asia’s greatest Buddhist monuments and some of its loveliest colonial towns – not to mention more stunning beaches than you could ever drop your towel on. And with new developments constantly unfolding, from enticing hotel openings to railways linking once-hard-to-reach regions, there’s never been a better time to add Sri Lanka to your travel list.
1. It’s now easier to explore the north
Sri Lanka’s far north really is another country: a land of Hindu Tamils in an island of predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese, closer, both physically and culturally, to India than Colombo. Getting there used to be half the adventure but is now easier than ever, with a superb new railway linking Jaffna to Colombo and Anuradhapura. It’s a fascinating but still little-visited region, now recovering gradually from the horrible toll of the civil war, for which it provided the main battleground.
Jaffna, the vibrant capital of the north, is the highlight, a beguiling mix of soaring Hindu temples and crumbling Dutch colonial architecture. Also to explore are the sublime seascapes of remote Mannar Island and the tranquil beaches and lagoons of low-key Mullaitivu. Mullaitivu was the scene of the Tamil Tigers' desperate last stand in 2009, and is now creeping back onto the radar of adventurous travellers curious to learn about this beautiful island’s darker past.
2. There’s an ancient royal palace atop a giant rock
Age-old temples, ruined palaces, magnificent murals, venerable Buddhas, striking stupas – Sri Lanka has an extraordinary profusion of ancient monuments dating back to a quarter of a millennium before the birth of Christ. Nothing, however, matches Sigiriya, a historic royal palace built on top of a vast rock outcrop towering high above the central plains. To reach it requires an exhilarating, dizzying ascent passing intricate water gardens, exquisite murals of heavenly nymphs and the remains of one of the largest lions ever carved – of which, sadly only the feet survive.
3. Its capital is a city transformed
One of Asia’s most underrated capitals, Colombo's attractions range from the fascinating crush of the Pettah bazaar district to the serene sweep of the seafront Galle Face Green. It's a city that has transformed spectacularly over recent years, mushrooming new sights and skyscrapers on a seemingly weekly basis. Among the ever-growing array of superb restaurants and cool clubs on offer, the stunning new Botanik Bistro and Bar on the roof of the swanky Fairway Colombo hotel should not be missed.
The historic Fort district has also been revamped. Until a few years back a wilderness of army emplacements and barbed wire, the district has now been restored to its former colonial pomp, with elegant streets of snowy white British Raj-era municipal buildings. The Fort distract is also home to a superb selection of places to eat and drink including the novel Ministry of Crab – recently voted one the top 50 restaurants in Asia – which is set in a 400-year-old Dutch hospital.
4. You can find your own slice of barefoot heaven
Sri Lanka has a seemingly endless supply of beaches, from the bucket-and-spade resorts of Beruwala and the all-night-party action of Unawatuna through to the remote surfing hangout of Arugam Bay. For the very best beaches, though, you’ll need to head to the far south of the island, around Tangalla, where a chain of idyllic sandy coves nestle amidst endless palms – still blissfully unspoilt, unlike the hoards of concrete engulfing other parts of the coast.
There’s been a spate of outstanding recent beach-based hotel openings across the country, including the cool new Zephyr boutique hotel in Talalla and the rustic Dots Bay House at Hiriketiya. Meanwhile, slightly longer-running favourites like the gorgeous Buckingham Place in Rekawa and the very chilled-out Mamboz Beach Cabanas at Kalametiya are still guaranteed to please.
5. You can witness an incredible wildlife spectacle
Sri Lanka is an absolute treasure trove of biodiversity. There’s some of the planet’s best leopard-spotting at Yala National Park, whale-watching at Mirissa, glimpses of dolphins in Kalpitiya, rare birds everywhere and much more besides.
However, there’s no question that the elephant is the king of the Sri Lankan jungle. There are more wild pachyderms per square mile here than in any other Asian country. These majestic beasts are best seen during Minneriya National Park's remarkable “The Gathering”. Usually taking place in August or September, this is the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world, an annual event that brings hundreds of elephants from across the northern plains to congregate on the waters of Minneriya Tank.
6. Now is a great time to join in the nation’s cricket frenzy
Cricket is a national obsession in Sri Lanka, with all the country’s sporting passions poured into the red (or white) ball and strip of willow. All-time Sri Lankan cricketing greats Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene may have now retired, but the national team still boasts some serious talent, including star bowler Rangana Herath, the world’s best-ever left-arm spinner. Matches are played in Colombo, Galle, Dambulla, Hambantota and Kandy – and with the England team touring the island in autumn 2018 (playing nine matches, including three tests), now is a great time to catch a match.
Discover more of Sri Lanka with The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka. Compare flights, tours, hostels and hotels, or plan and book a bespoke tour designed by local experts. And don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Header image via Givaga/Shutterstock.