Sri Lanka, a tiny tropical island off India’s southern tip, witnessed a tourism boom in the years following the end of its civil war in 2009. And that’s really no surprise: its lowland jungles, cloud-piercing mountains and tea-swathed hillsides all vie for your attention alongside a seemingly endless supply of untouched beaches. In a single trip, you can track leopards, clamber over colonial forts and plunge into caves filled with ancient Sinhalese treasures – and finish each day with rice and curry, the classic Sri Lankan feast.
A decade of peace came to an abrupt end earlier this year when a series of explosions rocked Negombo, Batticaloa and the capital Colombo, and in the aftermath, governments around the world advised against all but essential travel. In a country that depends on tourism, this was a devastating blow, felt most keenly by the local guides and tuk-tuk drivers whose income disappeared virtually overnight.
Since then the restrictions have been lifted, and while security remains high and there are still precautions in place, travellers have begun to return. And now is the time to go: prices are low and Sri Lanka’s most popular attractions – among them wildlife-rich Yala National Park and the remarkable clifftop citadel of Sigiriya – are refreshingly crowd-free.
To get you started planning a trip, we’ve picked out some of our top places to visit in Sri Lanka.
It's one of the most important religious places to visit in Sri Lanka, and thousands of people make the gruelling climb to see it each year. Getting there means hiking a seven-kilometre track comprised almost entirely of rough, stone steps – guaranteed to make even the most experienced knees wobble. Traditionally you start at night to reach the top by sunrise, when there’s less cloud cover and you’re most likely to see the peak’s imposing triangular shadow.
Spend your morning hiking up Little Adam’s Peak, the far less intimidating relative of Sri Lanka’s most famous mountain. The route is largely flat, save for a steep section at the end. From the top, you’ll be able to take in the sweeping views across Ella Gap and the endless plantations of the Newburgh Tea Factory. If you find this inspires a renewed interest in the beverage, feel free to pop in – Newburgh is open to visitors.
Considering a trip to Sri Lanka? Take a look at our Best of Sri Lanka itinerary to get you started.
Start your day with egg hoppers – eggs fried into a bowl-shape filled with tomatoes, chilli and curry leaves. Come lunchtime, make sure you try kottu – a scrumptious mishmash of stir-fried roti, vegetables and spices – or the crispy, alarmingly large pancakes known as dosas, which you tear up and dunk into sambar and chutney.
They’re a great, fun option for short journeys, and are one of the cheapest ways of getting around. However, one thing to bear in mind is that they’re largely unmetered, so the fare will be whatever you can agree with the driver – never set off without first shaking on a price.
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.
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.
They’re 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. 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 wildlife reserve is one of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka, predominately thanks 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.
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.
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 and is 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.