27 June 2019
Guide books and internet searches will give you endless number of things to do during a tour of Sri Lanka. But chances are they are all very similar ideas and not very original, and likely put together by someone or some company that hasn’t travelled in Sri Lanka very recently.
So what are some of the unique and lesser-known must do activities to consider during a visit to Sri Lanka? Our group of senior travel planners visit Sri Lanka several times a year searching new and interesting activities to include in our custom made private tours of Sri Lanka. They look for lesser-known places to visit, unique places to stay and insider tips on places to go and things to do. With two of our team of expert Sri Lanka travel planners having just returned from another Sri Lanka visit last month – here’s our very latest list of some of the best things to do in Sri Lanka – some secrets and those that are known only by a few. Here’s 10 things lesser known things you must do in Sri Lanka – based on our years of travel and exploration of this beautiful country.
- Stay in a quintessentially Sri Lankan property
Sri Lanka is full of accommodation options whether you are looking for budget, mid-range or upmarket. However, staying in a quintessentially Sri Lankan hotel can add to your experience of the country. It provides you a private and a personal experience generally coupled with great service. In addition, you get to experience some of the little nuances including Sri Lankan food and architecture. It is also a great way to start your journey and be introduced to the country and its people.
Sri Lanka’s architecture and design aesthetic draws heavily on the country’s world-renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, whose style Tropical Modernism can be found across the country and in parts of Asia. There are several Bawa designed or inspired hotels in Sri Lanka which are incredible places to stay and a must to for travellers with a keen interest in design or architecture. (We can also arrange a tour of some of the Bawa properties if you are particularly interested in architecture, just ask us.)
In terms of other places we like to stay which will give you a feel of the genuine Sri Lankan hospitality, we really like the smaller boutique properties with Sri Lankan design, architecture and possibly with a history behind. Most of these properties have been family owned. We have a range of boutique hotels across Sri Lanka which we prefer to use. Notary’s House in Makandura and Horathapola Estate are a couple of examples of some of our picks for top hotels in Sri Lanka. (You may also get some other ideas from our travel blog – 6 hotels worth splurging on in Sri Lanka.)
- Experience real village life
There are many commercial tours that service providers offer within a travel plan. We are not keen on these as they can be very mechanical and commercial. You are unlikely to experience real Sri Lanka and how the locals live in villages.
Therefore we like to suggest village walks in our private tours. These are genuine and authentic experiences where you would talk a gentle walk or exploration in a small village with a local guide, to see and understand how the locals live, their daily lives, their daily challenges and just be greeted by those warm smiles and perhaps even a cup of tea in their homes, all for nothing in return. Often these are offered at the properties or hotels we use, which like to introduce guests to the local villagers and villages nearby. Sri Lankans are well known for their hospitality and this to us is the best way of experiencing that.
- Learn to cook the Sri Lankan way
Nothing compares to the dimensions of flavours in Sri Lankan cuisine. Although you may worry about the level of spices, let us tell you that there is a whole range of food in Sri Lanka that are not so spicy. In case you are adventurous and like your spices this is one cuisine that’s hard to resist.
We tried our hand at making Sri Lankan food recently during a cooking class in Kandy and loved the experience. Also, we were thrilled to discover that mastering a (simple) Sri Lankan curry wasn’t beyond our capabilities! For beginners you have the easy curries like dhal or potato curry, and for those who want to experiment with more complex flavours chicken curry is a good option. And if you are feeling more adventurous go ahead and make hoppers. The cooking lessons are offered by some hotels. You can get independent cooking lessons outside your hotel in a typical local home which is far more exciting. If you want to know more about where you can take a cooking class in Sri Lanka and is it worth doing a cooking lesson during a tour in Sri Lanka – read our recent Sri Lankan cooking class travel blog for more details about our first-hand experience.
- Try street food and Sri Lankan short – eats
We encourage you to to try as many Sri Lankan short-eats and street food as you can. The great news is that they are freely available, clean and safe to eat in most instances. Your driver/guide can recommend good place to try in various cities. You can pick a local bakery (there are many reputed chains) or pick places that are popular and patronised by locals. There is an interesting selection of food available at these places which will give you the opportunity to savour authentic local eats. These are food on the go and can easily replace a meal when you are travelling.
Our favourite picks are
- Hoppers: plain and those with an egg in the middle (a kind of a pancake with crispy edges and a fluffy middle).
- Koththu roti: Thick pancake chopped into pieces and with vegetables, chicken and egg and mixed with the thick gravy. The eating is really in the making. It’s quiet entertaining to watch the chef rhythmically chop the pancake on the grill.
- Vegetable, fish or chicken rotis: Stuffed with your own choice of filling and wrapped in a thick pancake. This is further tossed and grilled to give the crispy edges. You will find these in any bakery across the country and as well as in small way side restaurants too. They could be a bit spicy but worth having a go at it.
- Buns: there are so many different varieties of buns in shapes and sizes and flavours. Try the fish bun, the tea bun and the coco/kimbula bun.
10 of the best things to see and do in Sri Lanka: lesser-known travel tips
- Mingle with the locals
How could you travel to a destination and not know the lives, stories and secrets of the locals?
Sri Lankans are very friendly, and they are always ready to open their homes to visitors. We really enjoy it when we get the opportunity to step into a local home on a village walk and stop by a local way side shop in a village to say hello.
We found this lovely lady at a village closer to Colombo while we explored the place on foot recently. She was kind to offer us a cup of tea and a whole array of Sri Lankan short–eats. On another instance we had the privilege of witnessing how the ladies of the house made beautiful brass ornaments. Serious hard work yet beautiful to watch them focused and engaged in the craft of making, something that have been handed over from generation to generation. We have a range of gentle activities from village walks to meals in family homes, which we can include in your Sri Lanka holiday itinerary which will allow you to interact with local people in a relaxed manner and comfortable environment. Be sure to take the time to meet the people you come across during your travels, even if it’s just for a short chat, and you will be rewarded by the experience.
- Spend a little time on shopping
By any means Sri Lanka is not a major shopping destination but there are many intricate beauties that will catch your eyes. It is great to get a few things to take back home with you. If you are in the larger cities you can hop into a shopping complex and search for local brands, Odel, Cotton Collection are some. We also like Barefoot and Paradise Road in Colombo. Seyln and Barefoot (Sri Lankan handloom based products) are available in Colombo and Galle. For more details on the best places to shop in Colombo – read our blog on tips on top places to shop in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
- Visit a temple that’s lesser-frequented
The beauty of the local culture is in the temples that are not so famous and less-visited. You will find these in anywhere outside the big cities. You are likely to find serenity together with beautiful murals and statues in their original form. Catch a glimpse of locals worshipping and discover some of the real, simple beauty of Sri Lanka.
- Try an upmarket Sri Lankan restaurant
Sri Lanka has become quite the hotspot for its cuisine, particularly in places like Colombo where you can experience contemporary and sophisticated Sri Lankan dining. There are a number of restaurants offering elegant and modern dining such as Culinary Ceylon and Rare at Residence, to name a few. We encourage you to take the time to visit one of these top restaurants of Sri Lanka in your tour.
- Go on to a less visited national park
Visiting a national park and taking a wildlife or leopard safari in Sri Lanka is a must do. What we love are the parks that are less frequented by visitors where you won’t have to battle for space with other safari jeeps. Our favourite picks are Gal Oya National Park and Kumana National Park. What more you can experience unique accommodation options in these locations. To find out which is the best national park in Sri Lanka for a safari – read our recent wildlife travel blog here.
- Experience breakfast the Sri Lankan way
Last but not the least, your Sri Lankan travel is never complete without sitting down to a hearty Sri Lankan breakfast. Well it is more like brunch. A beautifully prepared Sri Lankan breakfast will include an array of food including coconut roti, hoppers, string hoppers, and rice accompanied by several curries. You will also be treated with local sweets like lavariya, halapa completed by a cup of Ceylon Tea.
These are just some of our Sri Lankan travel tips, with a focus on lesser-known activities, which you might like to include in your Sri Lankan holiday. They’ll compliment other experiences or sightseeing which may tend to focus on Sri Lanka’s top attractions or well-known sights.
You might also like to read our other travel blogs, including:
A guide to eating in Sri Lanka: 13 foods that are worth travelling for
Top 10 places to visit in Sri Lanka in 2019
Top beaches for Sri Lanka: which one is best for your holiday?
If you’d like to speak to one of our senior Sri Lanka travel planners about a custom made private tour of Sri Lanka, you can contact Sri Lanka Unbound at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free anywhere in Australia on 1300 449 709.