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.
1. Join pilgrims on Adam’s Peak
Adam’s Peak has been a pilgrimage site for over a thousand years, and its cloud-piercing crest is one of Sri Lanka’s most recognisable natural landmarks. This is partly thanks to what lies on its summit: the Sri Pada, or Sacred Footprint. The footprint is an indent in the rock believed by Buddhists to be the footprint of the Buddha himself.
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.
2. Wander between tea plantations
Is there a greener place than Ella? No matter where you’ll look, all you’ll see is tea. Set deep in the highlands between verdant hills cloaked with tea plantations, this is rural Sri Lanka at its most glorious.
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.
3. Try authentic Sri Lankan dishes
Vegetarians rejoice: Sri Lanka is probably as close as you can get to heaven this side of the River Styx. A unique fusion of local traditions has resulted in a fascinatingly diverse veggie-centric menu, ranging from delicately spiced curries right up to devilishly delicious “devilled” dishes, suitable only for those with genuinely fireproof stomachs.
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.
4. Take a ride in a tuk-tuk
What would you get if you crossed a well-loved tricycle with a small car? The answer is probably a Tuk Tuk. These bizarre, brightly coloured rickshaws hurtle along Sri Lankan streets at breakneck speeds and with little regard for public safety, transporting everything from piles of freshly baked snacks to entire families.
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.
5. Spot 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.
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.
7. Go underground
The five cave temples of Dambulla are among the country's greatest attractions. They're treasure troves of Sinhalese Buddhist art and up there amongst with the most impressive places to visit in Sri Lanka. They’re set beneath a craggy overhang and contain around 150 images of the Buddha, ranging from intricate murals right up to remarkable reclining statues.
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.
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, 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.
9. Ride the rails
In a country famous for its railway journeys, the stretch of track between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy is the classic train 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, along narrow ledges and past vertiginous drops.
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.
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 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.