Sri Lanka is blessed with all the essential ingredients for the family trip of a lifetime. Comparatively compact, with a colourful cultural identity, incredible wildlife and food you will never forget, this is the subcontinent at its most manageable. Rough Guides Managing Editor Keith Drew has the lowdown on why this tropical island paradise should be next on your family’s holiday hit list.

1. There are ancient kingdoms “ruled” by monkeys

Most children will be able to tackle the climb up Sigiriya, a royal citadel remarkably perched atop a weathered hunk of rock at the centre of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle – though a head for heights is needed for the metal staircase that marks the final push to the summit.

After this, you should be able to fit in another sight before temple fatigue kicks in, so pick the former capital of Polonnaruwa. Fifty-five kilometres to the east, it’s colonised by macaques and enlivened with tales of King Parakramabahu I (and his 300 wives).

Where to stay: The ground-breaking Jetwing Vil Uyana is set in former arable land now returned to paddy-fields, marsh and forests. Large thatched “dwellings” share an infinity pool, but the best thing for kids is the variety of wildlife, including the rare (and ridiculously cute) slender loris.

Monkey in Sri LankaAlex M Jones/Flickr

2. You can learn to surf on a laidback beach

The best waves in Sri Lanka crash onto the long expanse of beach that curves around Arugam Bay, a low-key settlement in the southeast of the country. The vibe here is very different to the more popular west coast, and it’s a good place to drop out from a sightseeing itinerary for a few days.

Several surf schools run lessons for children around Arugam Bay and Pottuvil Point further north; Baby Point is an aptly named break to start things off on.

Where to stay: There are lots of rustic choices on the main road through Arugam Bay, but for something a bit more relaxing, head to Kottukal Beach House by Jetwing at Pottuvil Point. It’s a breezy villa with two family rooms in the main house and instant access to an empty stretch of beach.

Arugam Bay, Sri LankaSurfing the Nations/Flickr

3. You might spot leopards on safari

Mongoose? Check. Crocodiles? Tick. Elephants? You bet. The animals at Yala, a beautiful national park of forested scrub and tree stump-studded lakes, are like a roll call of wildlife encyclopaedia favourites.

But leopards add a real “wow” factor – and with a higher concentration of these beautiful big cats here than anywhere else in the world, you’ve got a good chance of seeing one prowling through the forest or lounging up a tree after (its) lunch.

Where to stay: For a real jungle adventure, camp the night (or two) in one of Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris’ canvas tents, in a wild buffer zone abutting the park. Extremely knowledgeable guides lead morning and afternoon game drives into Yala. There are plenty of kids’ activities to fill your downtime, too, from learning to ID animal tracks to junior photography lessons.

A leopard in Yala, Sri LankaAlGraChe/Flickr

4. You can watch back-flipping dancers

What child is not going to like the sound of a town called Kandy? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main sight here concerns a tooth – the Buddha’s, housed in the striking Temple of the Tooth. But the big treat for kids is an evening visit to a traditional Kandyan drumming and dancing show.

Clad in elaborate silver headgear, troupes of dancers feverishly whizz through a number of acrobatic routines, accompanied throughout by the incessant pounding of their backing drummers.

Where to stay: Overlooking the northern fringes of Kandy, stylish Elephant Stables has several rooms in the main hotel that can accommodate families – and there’s also a plush standalone family suite in the garden. Don’t miss the tasty set-menu dinners of rice with a dozen or so different curries.

Dancers in Kandy, Sri LankaDennis Kandy/Flickr

5. Sri Lanka is home to one of the world’s most scenic train rides

Sri Lanka’s Hill Country can make a refreshing respite if you’re coming from the parched plains of the Cultural Triangle or the South Coast’s beaches.

But for many people it’s the getting here that counts: the dramatic ride from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is considered one of the world’s great train journeys. Weathered locomotives heave themselves up through eucalyptus forests to a rolling landscape of immaculate tea estates. Stand (carefully) in the open doorways and watch some of the finest scenery in Sri Lanka roll by.

Where to stay: The British retreat of Nuwara Eliya makes a good location from which to explore the region, and Jetwing St Andrews, a former country club, is a very suitable base. The split-level family rooms are spruce and spacious, and you can follow up buffet dinner with a game in the full-size billiards room or a nightly frog-watching tour.

A tea plantation in Sri Lanka Pixabay/CC0

6. You can watch turtles lay their eggs by moonlight

The coast around Tangalle is one of the most beautiful in Sri Lanka, attracting weekenders from Colombo and sun-worshipping tourists – and hundreds of nesting sea turtles.

Turtle-watching tours are run on Rekawa Beach, where you’re likely to see a green turtle laying a clutch of shiny white eggs in the moonlight before (very) slowly returning to the sea.

Where to stay: Backing onto a fabulous stretch of beach just west of Tangalle, The Last House was designed by Sri Lanka’s premier architect, Geoffrey Bawa, and bears the hallmarks of his unique style, with plenty of open, airy spaces blending the outside with the in. Large families can book the top-floor Cinnamon Hill suite, whose wrap-around balcony overlooks the Indian Ocean.

Tangalle, Rekawa beach, Sri LankaLisArt/Flickr

7. There’s a chance to see the world’s largest animal up close

When it comes to playground bragging rights, there can’t be too many things that can top watching the massive tail fluke of a 100ft blue whale disappear into the depths of the Indian Ocean. Whale-watching trips off Mirissa, on Sri Lanka’s south coast, offer a very good chance of spotting these jaw-dropping cetaceans, just an hour or so from shore.

Where to stay: If spotting blue whales wasn’t enough for one day, you can ramp up the novelty factor by staying on a cinnamon estate at Mirissa Hills. Accommodation options are staggered up the hill, with the pick of the bunch the large family suite at Mount Cinnamon, with its own library, oversized terrace and inviting pool.

Whale watching boat in Sri LankaJosé Ozorio/Flickr

8. You can walk the ramparts of an old Dutch fort

On first sight, the charming colonial town of Galle might seem like one for the older members of the family, a parental payback for all the surfing and safariing that’s gone on until now. But this is one of the best places for children to explore urban Sri Lanka.

Take an afternoon stroll along the ramparts surrounding Galle Fort to fly a kite or watch the daredevil “Fort Jumpers” hurl themselves off the walls into the water below.

Where to stay: In the historic Dutch quarter, boutique Fort Bazaar occupies a tastefully renovated seventeenth-century traders’ townhouse, with contemporary-cool rooms and a buzzy street-side café. They even do a kids’ massage at their Z Spa. A pool and cinema are on their way.

Galle Fort, Sri LankaSeanbjack/Flickr

Your need-to-know:

Etihad Airways flies twice daily from London Heathrow via Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Due to flight timings, most families spend a night near Bandaranaike International Airport; the Wallawwa, a stylish conversion of a former chieftain’s residence just 10km from the airport, has huge rooms with Balinese four-posters and a lovely pool set in tranquil gardens.

Ayu in the Wild offers a range of tailor-made trips to Sri Lanka, with an emphasis on interesting and unusual experiences – from tea-picking in the Hill Country to cooking classes for kids – and can help organise everything from (friendly and reliable) drivers to guided bike tours of Polonnaruwa.

Explore more of Sri Lanka with The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent.

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