Best things to do in Sri Lanka
What is it? A coastal destination and Sri Lanka’s surfing capital, set amidst wildlife and history.
Why go? Arugambay has the island’s best surfing spots and lovely beaches. From cafes serving the perfect hearty breakfast for surfers to delicious street-side BBQs and restaurants serving local and international fare, Arugambay offers an amazing culinary experience. It is filled with wonderful hotels overlooking the beach. The area was once a part of the ancient Ruhunu Kingdom, and therefore there are many historical sights to explore. The wildlife enthusiasts will be thrilled by encounters with elephants, leopards, sloth bears and birdlife in the south eastern national parks and sanctuaries.
Don’t miss: It is an all-year round destination. The surfing season from mid-May to mid-November, when the waves are at its best, resort lifestyle takes over the shoreline as well as dining and parties are held all-long.
What is it? The rich legacy of the country is reflected by the remarkable remnants of historic kingdoms of yore scattered in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy.
Why go? Sri Lanka boasts a history spanning over two millennia. From incredible palaces, to fortified fortresses and ornate places of worship; vestiges of the island’s ancient story linger in the ancient capitals. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – the first two capitals of Sri Lanka, and Kandy – the island’s last kingdom, are sacred cities designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Walk through the quaint precincts of these historic sites to witness the splendour of bygone eras. In Kandy, observe ancient architecture mingle with icons from Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Sigiriya, a rock fortress built by an ambitious king, is regarded as the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Dambulla is noted for the sacred Rock Temple, while there are also prehistoric sites in the area.
Don’t miss: The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (Sapling of the Bodhi under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment) in Anuradhapura and Dalada Vahansa (Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha) at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy are of incredible historical and religious importance.
What is it? Jaffna, located in the Northern peninsula in the island, brims with vibrant Hindu culture, history, tradition and distinctive landscapes.
Why go? Once called Yalpanam, Jaffna is known for its fertile landscape dominated by palmyrah palms. Remnants of the Jaffna Kingdom as well as the area's colonial past can be witnessed. Visit the magnificent Nallur Kovil at the heart of the city and be enthralled by its architecture, design and the fervour of devotees. Dambakola Patuna is an ancient port where Sangamitta Theri landed with the Sri Maha Bodhi. The Jaffna Fort, with its octagonal layout and large bastions make for a great exploration. Visit the historic Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya and kovil in Nagadeepa. Relax on the Casuarina and Kankesanthurai beaches.
Don’t miss: Crunch into the culinary delights that only Jaffna has to offer. Enjoy Paruthithurai Vadai, Pinnatu, Murukku and Kotta Kilangu, and wash it down with nelli cordial or Jaffna grape wine. You can find these popular Northern snacks at the Jaffna Market in the town.
What is it? The seas around Sri Lanka, especially in Mirissa, Trincomalee and Kalpitiya attract aqua life of all sizes and species, especially whales and dolphins.
Why go? Be mesmerised as a Blue Whale – the largest animal on earth, breaches, spouts water, flukes its tail and takes a dive. Witness pods of Humpback whales, Killer whales and Sperm whales enjoy the warm waters filled with plenty of plankton and krill for them to feast on. While on the sea safari, you’ll also see various species of dolphins acrobatically jump through the waters with their squeaky call. Spinner dolphins in particular will captivate you with their twirling moves.
Don’t miss: Whale and dolphin watching is seasonal. So head to Mirissa from November to April and safari in Trincomalee from March to September for whale and dolphin watching. Take to the seas off Kalpitiya from November to April to spot dolphins, while whales can be seen here from November to December and from March to April.
What is it? Snap on your boards and kites, and let the wind carry you over the waters. The lagoons surrounding the island create an ideal atmosphere for kitesurfers to enjoy their thrills.
Why go? Kalpitiya lagoon is a hotspot for kitesurfers with ideal wind, water and sand conditions. During the season, the gusty blue sky is dotted with vibrant kites dangling thrilled surfers in the air. While Kalpitiya is the most popular, emerging kitesurfing destinations are the Mannar island and Arugambay. There are kitesurfing schools in these locations and you can also borrow some kitesurfing and windsurfing equipment too.
Don’t miss: Kitesurfing is seasonal, so make sure to time for just the right gusts. The Kalpitiya season is from May to October and December to March. The Mannar season is from May to October and January to March.
What is it? A congregation of hundreds of elephants on the banks of the Minneriya or Kaudulla reservoirs.
Why go? Named ‘The Gathering’, the meeting of elephants in Minneriya is known to be the largest congregation of Asian elephants in the world. A spectacular ‘Gathering’ also takes place at the Kaudulla reservoir. Many herds make the journey to these reservoirs during the dry season. The adults relax and swim in the water while feasting on the greens. Mothers keep their newborns protectively close. The youngsters frolic and dance under the watchful eye of the matriarch. It is a spectacular sighting. Witness the long bull elephants emerge, fight each other for supremacy and seek out a mate. Watch as the herd unites to protect a mother elephant as she gives birth to an infant. The Gathering is unlike anything you have seen before.
Don’t miss: The Gathering takes place from July to October, with the ‘Minneriya Gathering’ reaching its peak in September.
What is it? The rolling hills from Uva to Kandy to Uda Pussellawa to Nuwara Eliya and Dimbula make up the ‘Tea Country’. These slopes are carpeted with emerald tea fields – the island’s green gold.
Why go? Tea Country is a serene and picturesque area with neatly pruned tea fields dotted with colourfully adorned tea pluckers. Tour the estates and receive a detailed experience on the all-natural process of plucking and producing Ceylon Tea. Discover the legacy behind the estates and factories, some being over a century old. As you walk through the factories the aroma of tea will overpower your senses, while wrapping you with warmth amidst the cool climes. Once the tour is over, enjoy a refreshing cuppa. And while you are at it, learn about the various grades of tea that make Ceylon Tea quite so distinctive.
Don’t miss: Having a freshly brewed cuppa and buying some freshly packed tea from the estate/factory to take home.
What is it? Inspired by the island’s landscape and nurtured by the masterpieces of our ancestors, the works of young Sri Lankan artists are displayed throughout the country. One of the easiest places to get a glimpse of their talent is along Ananda Coomaraswamy Road, Colombo 7.
Why go? Whether to add to your art collection or enhance a space with character, art is important to everyone. Sri Lankan artists are nurtured by a plethora of stimuli and their works can be seen at along art streets and at street art fairs. Head to Ananda Coomaraswamy Road in Colombo and be enthralled by the talent on display. There are displays of art along Hospital Street in Colombo Fort every second weekend of the month. Kala Pola is an open-air art fair that takes place annually, while there are also art displays on the side-lines of the Galle Literary Festival.
Don’t miss: Fill your home with a piece of Sri Lanka or be enthralled by witnessing Sri Lankan art.
What is it? Ella is a happening holiday destination and hikers' haven surrounded by picturesque hills and immersed in cool climes.
Why go? Ella is a destination in the hills surrounded by salubrious landscapes and sheathed in a cool climate. Hikers wake up at dawn to trek through the many trails in the area including the hike to Ella Rock or Little Adam’s Peak. Witness the cascading Ravana Falls and the myths surrounding it. Experience a relaxed and happening nightlife, with toe-tapping music and tongue tingling dishes. From chocolate rotti to inspired pizzas, there is a feast of flavour. It really is a party on the hills!
Don’t miss? Hike over to the remarkable Nine Arches Bridge and take the iconic photograph of a train chugging over it. Or snap a picture in front of the misty Ella Gap.
What is it? Three of Sri Lanka’s National Parks where one can spot the ‘Big Three’.
Why go? Wilpattu and Yala National Park are the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the island. Along with Kumana National Park, they are known for being the best places to spot the Sri Lankan leopards, Sri Lankan elephants and Sri Lankan sloth bear. These animals, who are subspecies unique to Sri Lanka, are called the ‘Big Three’ of the island with the leopard being at the top of the food chain. Watch herds of elephants’ saunter away the time, witness a leopard on the prowl or be enthused by the frolics of sloth bears having their fill of palu berries. The parks, along with the other national parks located across the island, are known for their biodiversity as well as free roaming bird and animal populations.
Don’t miss: The best times to spot the ‘Big Three’ are during the dry season being December to March for the Yala National Park; May to September for the Wilpattu National Park; and June to November for Kumana National Park.
What is it? Also called Neduntheevu and located westwards of Jaffna; Delft Island is a land of mystery and wonder with much to discover.
Why go? Surrounded by corals, the sandy landscape of Delft is dotted with palmyrah trees. It echoes a quaint life, with simple houses thatched with palmyrah leaves and surrounded by unique coral walls. It was once a key location used by the Dutch when they ruled the Jaffna peninsula. Yet, what draws crowds to the isle are its mystery-filled landmarks. Be amazed by the rock deemed to be alive and growing; witness the sprawling Baobab tree; and explore the vestiges of buildings built by the Dutch, including a fort. Perhaps the most fascinating colonial remnant is the Queen’s Tower with an ingenious mechanism to navigate ships before the invention of electricity.
Don’t miss: An encounter with the wild horses on Delft island, once bred by the Dutch. These majestic creatures roam wild and free.
What is it? A town in the Sabaragamuwa Province that is known for gem mining and the gateway to many eco-tourist destinations.
Why go? Aptly named the ‘City of Gems’ in Sanskrit, Ratnapura has for eons been the centre of gem mining in Sri Lanka. The district’s reputation as a hotspot for precious stones is dotted throughout history. Ratnapura is also of great religious and historic importance as it is the location of the Maha Saman Devalaya dedicated to God Saman; Ratnapura Pothgul Rajamaha Viharaya where King Valagamba sought refuge and is the entrance point of a route to the sacred Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) mountain. The ancient Delgamuwa Rajamaha Viharaya, where the Dalada Vahansa (Sacred Tooth Relic) smuggled out of the Kotte Kingdom was hidden from the Portugese is also located in the Ratnapura district. The area is also the entryway to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Udawalawe National Park and Kitulgala.
Don’t miss: The Adam’s Peak pilgrimage season from December Poya day to April Poya day, which provides a glimpse of religious fervour, ancient customs and biodiversity at the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary.
What is it? A fort built by the colonials that still echoes with life and is a melting pot of cuisine, culture and art.
Why go? A fusion of European architecture and Sri Lankan lifestyle, the Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Overlooking the pristine Indian Ocean, the fort has landmarks dating back to the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisation of the area. Today, many quaint structures have been transformed into resorts, boutique villas, cafes and restaurants. The fort also offers a preview of Southern arts and crafts. Crowds flock to the giant bastions at evening to watch the sunset while being fanned by the salty breeze. The entire Fort comes alive for the Galle Literary Festival in January.
Don’t miss: Take the Southern Expressway (E01) from Kottawa to Pinnaduwa that connects Galle and Colombo with an approximately 1.5-hour drive, and enjoy a day at the Galle Fort.
What is it? With varying distances as well as difficulty levels, Sri Lanka is home to many mountains and hills that make for the ideal hiking adventure.
Why go? Experience the breathtaking natural sequence of colour as dawn breaks from atop the peak of a hill. Feel the adrenaline rush and your cheeks blush against the cold wind as you ascend the mountain along a rocky trail to Piduruthalagala, Kirigalpotte, Ella Rock and Great Western. Discover unique biodiversity and wildlife while renewing your connection with nature on a hike to World’s End and the Knuckles Range. Immerse in history as well as nature as you trail Adam’s Peak and Pidurangala. Be enthralled by a traditional way of life in Meemure.
Don’t miss: Watching the shadow of Adam’s Peak fall on the surrounding mountaintops at sunrise or capturing a glimpse of Sambur deer at World’s End.
What is it? Lewis Place and Poruthota Road in Negombo are happening streets with delicious cuisine and all-night parties.
Why go? Are you looking for a laidback beach getaway with action-packed nights? Just an hour’s drive away from the Katunayake Airport and Colombo city, the streets of Negombo are the ideal place to have some fun. Lewis Place and Poruthota Road are filled with restaurants, cafés, bistros and hotels. From Sri Lankan to European and South East Asian cuisine, there are delicious meals to be enjoyed. Dine on the freshest seafood, caught daily in the waters nearby. And dance the night away to toe-tapping music while enjoying tropical-inspired beverages. There’s art, culture and a little bit of everything to make your holiday a special one.
Don’t miss: Negombo is happening all year round, with the area reaching its peak from December to March. Especially in December, the area that is known as ‘Little Rome’, is beautifully decorated and filled with Christmas cheer.
What is it? The cosmopolitan capital of Sri Lanka with distinctive geographies is the place to wine and dine in the island.
Why go? From traditional to fusion Sri Lankan cuisine, flavours from the Mediterranean to the exotic dishes of the Orient, there is a plethora of fine cuisine from around the world. Whether you seek a hearty meal or an artistically plated and carefully curated degustation, there is a choice of restaurants. Fine dining for special occasions, ambient settings, rooftop bars overlooking breathtaking views and restobars with a casual atmosphere, Colombo caters to every whim and fancy of diners. Combined with warm Sri Lankan hospitality, it makes for a wonderful dining experience.
Don’t miss: Colombo is a seaside capital along the west coast fanned by the ocean breeze. At sunset the skies create a mesmerizing medley of colour wafted by balmy winds. Dine or unwind with a drink by the seaside or on a rooftop setting around this time.
What is it? The maze of lanes in Pettah and the colonial era promenade now called Galle Face Green are the perfect places to get your street food fix.
Why go? The carts light up around 3am. They steam with boiled kadala (chickpeas) and sizzle with crunchy wadey (fritters). Crispy manyokka (casava) chips and breadfruit fries fill the glass display boxes. Isso wadey (prawn fritters) and kakuluwo wadey (crab fritters) bring passersby to a stop. Mouthwatering aromas of tangy and tart achcharu promise to tinge the tastebuds; veralu, mango, pineapple, amberella, biling, nearly every native fruit has been pickled to delight. For those with a heartier appetite, there’s fresh appa (hoppers) in the making and kottu to dip your forks into. Paratha dipped in curry or wrapped around an egg, will deliciously satisfy your hunger.
Don’t miss: Everything and anything about Sri Lankan street food should not be missed. Try them all and wash it down with a cup of sweet milk tea.
What is it? The island’s staple dish is rice served with a diverse range of vegetable, meat and seafood curries rich with flavour. It’s the main course for lunch in Sri Lanka.
Why go? Nothing spells Sri Lanka more than a deliciously prepared rice and curry meal served hot. It’s been our staple meal for millennia. Steamed white or red rice is heaped on to a plate. It is then served with traditional curries like kiri hodi (white potato curry), bonchi (bean) curry, carrot thel dala (devilled), ala thel dala (devilled potato), kiri kos (jackfruit curry) and mallung (green leaf salad). Sinhala Achcharu (vegetable pickle) and pol (coconut) sambol adds a tangy punch to the meal. Spicy chicken curry, prawn curry, crab curry, mutton curries and fish white curries are also popular accompaniments. Finally, the dish is topped off with some fried sprats or papadam to add a crunch to the meal. Whether you eat at a Sri Lankan restaurant, cafeteria or way-side eatery, Sri Lankan rice and curry is a must-try. It’s a great option for vegetarians and vegans too.
Don’t miss: Having a Sri Lankan rice and curry served on a banana leaf (kehel kole) or lotus leaf (nelum kole); it adds a whole new dimension to the dish.
What is it? Theatre has been a part of Sri Lankan culture for eons and our folk drama traditions have fused with modern arts to present a genre of theatre that is unique to the country.
Why go? No matter where you are in the world, the theatre provides a glimpse at local culture and thinking. Sri Lankan theatre productions are inspired by our folkdrama traditions and modern theatre, and thus have a strong element of music and dance. Watch popular classics such as ‘Sinhabahu’, ‘Siri Sangabo’, ‘Ramayana’, ‘Maname’, which are of historical significance. ‘Nari Bena’ and ‘Kada Walalu’ are plays that offer a unique message to audiences. Sri Lankan theatre also present adaptations of popular international plays with a new interpretation fused with local theatre traditions. Our modern plays direct the spotlight at present-day issues, themes and offer a timely message.
Don’t miss: Watch the island’s popular theatre productions taking the stage every month.
What is it? Experience all the aspects of traditional Sri Lankan life at a village, which preserves these ancient customs.
Why go? The village of Hiriwadunna in Habarana will give you a peek of the traditional and simple life. A community involved in chena farming, the area is verdant with cultivation nurtured by the fertile soil. The environment is tranquil with humble contraptions that indicate the coexistence between man and nature. To vist Hiriwadunna, is to take a trip back in time to a simpler time. Relish a home cooked traditional Sri Lankan meal, filled with flavour and goodness.
Don’t miss: Take a boat ride through the lotus filled Hiriwadunna lake and ride a bullock cart through the village.
What is it? Escape the city bustle within the city itself at the quaint Independence Square and tranquil Diyatha Uyana.
Why go? If you are seeking some time to yourself to achieve your wellness goals, then the Independence Square and Diyatha Uyana are the perfect pick. Permeated with national pride and quiet majesty, Independence Square is a monument that marks the nation’s independence from colonial rule. The grounds are ideal for a jog, meditation or yoga. Diyatha Uyana in Battaramulla overlooks a serene landscape of nature and wildlife. Stroll through the walking tracks and keep fit; there is a special area for the children.
Don’t miss: Purchase plants, crafts, eco-friendly goods and nutritious food at the Diyatha Uyana fair, especially over the weekend.
What is it? Centuries of tradition and skill create the perfect souvernir to remind you of your tour of Sri Lanka.
Why go? Throughout Sri Lanka there are craft centres, villages and shops that display the best of the island’s handcrafted goods. These are linked to traditional crafts that were perfected by our ancestors. It takes great skills to carve and paint a traditional Sri Lankan mask, each has its own symbolism and power believed to aid you in a specific need. The coconut is a remarkable tree and the islanders make every use of it, and most coconut-made utensils and tools are great eco-friendly alternatives. Laksha art from the Kandyan Era makes for beautiful mementos and gifts. Cane and wicker goods and furniture are popular in Sri Lanka, they are great nature-friendly alternatives and will add a sense of character to your life. Pick up a Dumbara Mat that tells a story from times of yore.
Don’t miss: Visit the villages the crafts hail from and meet the craftsmen. Ambalanthota is famous for traditional masks; cane and wicker goods hail from Wewaldeniya; Laksha crafts are linked to Kandy; and the weaving village of Udu Dumbara brings to life beautiful mats.
What is it? The Yaal Devi connects Colombo and Jaffna by train, while Udarata Menike connects Colombo with Badulla.
Why go? These trains are your link to the Northern peninsula or the hill country. The Yaal Devi takes you along the coast, through the historic Kingdoms of the island and the coconut triangle. The Udarata Menike train chugs through quaint villages, picturesque slopes and emerald tea fields. Both trains start their journey at the Colombo Fort railways station.
Don’t miss: If you want a quicker ride, opt for the Yaal Devi Express and Udarata Menike Express.
What is it? The most densely populated town in Sri Lanka, Kattankudy located on the east coast has an exotic culture.
Why go? Experience the co-existence of cultures, exotic cuisine and distinctive architecture. Relish Maravalli Kilangu, a preparation of boiled cassava doused in spicy gravy. The same dish topped with a spicy preparation of tripe is called Tasty Parcels. These are dishes unique to the area.
Don’t miss: The night scene at Kattankudy is lively, so dine on some Maravalli Kilangu or Tasty Parcels while enjoying the excitement in town.
What is it? Sri Lanka is blessed with a picturesque landscape. Make the most of your holiday by choosing these scenic routes.
Why go? Most places in Sri Lanka can be reached via road. Hence, there are many routes across the island that provide scenic thrills. Whether it’s along the coast, through a wild forestry path or amidst paddy fields, there is beauty at every turn. As you move away from the city limits, roll down the shutters, let your hair lose and breath in the fresh air. Even while travelling along the expressways, your flanks will be filled with natural beauty.
Don’t miss: Time Out Sri Lanka’s top routes include the road to Ritigala; the A32 Causeway Sangupiddy connecting to Jaffna; the road from Hettipola to Kuliyapitiya; the Buttala – Kataragama road where you may meet an elephant; the road from Ampara to Siyambalanguwa and the east coast road to Panama beach.
What is it? Everyone wants to know the perfect places to take a photo; the one that will help you fondly look back on your travels.
Why go? A journey is never complete without a photo moment. It can be taken near a beautiful site or after an accomplished hike, these are photographs you will treasure. Take a photograph at the top of Adam’s Peak at sunset. Snap on in front of St Clair’s or Devon Waterfalls or take a photo in front of the Demodara railway bridge. Pose for a photo on top of the Whisky Point rock out crop at dawn. Sit in a thoughtful pose as the Father of Ceylon Tea once did at James Taylor’s Seat in Loolecondera. Take a photograph in front of the entrance to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Snap a photo while standing at the island’s Northernmost edge – Point Pedro. Pose for a photograph in front of the quaint Dondra Lighthouse.
Don’t miss: Sri Lanka is breathtaking, so don’t miss snapping that picture perfect moment.
What is it? A nursery and orphanage for young elephants and the largest captive breeding grounds for Asian elephants.
Why go? Get up close to the nearly 90 elephants living at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Feed them fruits and watch them being walked over to the river for a bath. The elephants and their calves playfully splash the water about.
Don’t miss: The feeding time for baby elephants. You can feed them yourself.