August 23, 2018
Are you planning a holiday to Sri Lanka and wondering what are the best things to see or do in Sri Lanka?
Beaches, tea plantations, world heritage sites, homestays, hiking, leopard safaris – there’s so many possibilities!
It’s a question we often get asked – what are the must see places in Sri Lanka, or what activities should you include (or avoid) when travelling in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is an island roughly the size of Tasmania. But even on such a small island there are so many wonderful places to see and some incredible experiences to have, plus accommodation that ranges from family friendly homestays to ultra luxurious tea plantation stays to boutique hotels in Sri Lanka and everything in between.
You’ll notice that even travelling a small distance in Sri Lanka the climate and geography can change quite a lot. There’s the drier cultural triangle, the cooler hill country and tea plantations of Sri Lankan, and the coasts and beaches – so for the traveller, a tour of Sri Lanka can reveal the changing landscapes and regions of this country in relatively short distances.
And at each place you’ll find different world heritage sites of Sri Lanka, great places to stay, some of our unique experiences such as walking tours in Galle and Colombo, and fantastic local eats.
The good thing about Sri Lanka is that in two or three weeks you can really get a sense of the place and its people, and with one of our custom made private tours of Sri Lanka you can cover as much or as little of the island as you want.
So here are some of the places we love to travel in Sri Lanka – in no particular order of preference. The list is a moveable feast. It comes after many years of travel in Sri Lanka, and depending on the day – it could change!
Some of the things we have included are sites and cities, some are experiences, and some are hotels. We’ve tried not to include too many hotels as there are many incredible places to stay in Sri Lanka, but some are such stand outs we have to feature them.
Here is our list of recommendations for must see places in Sri Lanka – in no particular order.
Also know as Lion Rock, Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO world heritage sites. This impressive rock, which looms over the surrounding plains, is one of the country’s biggest drawcards. The sheer size of Sigiriya and the taxing climb to reach the top are noticed by all who visit. The climb to the top can take anywhere from 1-to-3 hours depending on your fitness, but if you decide to make the climb you’ll be rewarded at the top by the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and the sense of achievement. Marvel at the giant `feet’ carved into the rock as you make the ascent. The climb to the top and the size of Sigiriya aside – the part we love the most are the magnificent cave frescoes painted inside a small cave on the side of the rock. The frescoes really are incredibly beautiful. It’s worth climbing the rock just for these stunning cave paintings.
Jaffna sits in Sri Lanka’s far north and will always make our favourite places to visit in Sri Lanka list. Jaffna was cut off from the rest of the country for almost three decades during the civil war and is now slowly opening up to visitors.
We’ve made several trips to Jaffna in recent years and love it. Jaffna is a place where time seems to have stood still as it sat isolated from the rest of the country. The contrast to a place like Colombo – which is rapidly changing and modernising – couldn’t be starker. Indeed, Jaffna almost feels like a completely different country. We love the remoteness of Jaffna and the far north regions, that sense of time standing still and the modest sights to visit there.
Though modest, a trip to Jaffna will give you an important insight into the country’s history. Our recommendations for Jaffna include a city bike riding tour – taking in the streets, small communities and sights of Jaffna on an old fashioned bike, a visit to the local main city market and the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple. Not to mention a stop for an ice-cream sundae at the city’s much loved Rio’s Ice Cream! From Jaffna you can also make the trip out to islands such as Delft Island and explore Point Pedro. While there are several smaller places to stay in Jaffna, as the city attracts more visitors, several newer hotels are opening. Most notable is the new Jetwing Jaffna, which has all modern amenities, a large restaurant and a roof top bar. It’s the tallest building in Jaffna so you can’t miss it!
#3) Ride a local train in Sri Lanka
Taking a local train is a must do during any tour of Sri Lanka. A popular route is from Kandy into the hill country – to places like Hatton, Ella or Nuwara Eliya. These comfortable scenic journeys wind through the hills, passing local villages, tea plantations and taking you into the cooler hill regions.
Other options for train rides in Sri Lanka that we can include in your holiday include taking the train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna if you are heading to the north. You can also go from Colombo to Galle or vice versa. We love train travel and as we do a lot of family travel in Sri Lanka and family holidays in India – we find not only is it a great way to get from A to B – it’s also great fun for children (both big and small!).
#4) Tea Trails
The hotels we use and recommend in Sri Lanka start at good and go up to fabulous and beyond. Most of the properties we use we have either stayed at ourselves or visited. This way we can be sure that what we recommend for you meets our standards, and we know what you can expect when you stay there. In general what we notice about hotels in Sri Lanka is that the Sri Lankans are incredible hosts. They are genuine and warm and provide great service across all standards of accommodation. Sri Lanka has a distinct style of accommodation that often reflects their climate and the natural environment around them, and a range of properties from large beach resorts to small, hosted accommodation to boutique hotels.
We generally like to encourage people to visit the tea country during a private tour of Sri Lanka, as tea cultivation is such an important part of this country. While there are several great options for tea plantation stays in Sri Lanka, Tea Trails is one of those luxury hotels most people dream of staying at. It is Sri Lanka’s first Relais & Chateaux hotel and is truly a stand out luxury hotel in Sri Lanka – both for its elegance, its service and the beauty of the properties themselves. Set in Sri Lanka’s tea country, these restored colonial planters bungalows are beautifully furnished, surrounded by immaculate manicured gardens and picturesque countryside, and offer fine dining of both Sri Lankan and western fare, all set against a backdrop and theme of tea. You can walk in the tea plantations during a stay at Tea Trails, take a tea plantation and factory tour to learn about tea, be guided on a tea tasting, and be served bed tea and afternoon tea every day. (A must!) A stay at Tea Trails is all-inclusive, including a private butler. If Tea Trails isn’t on your bucket list it should be. Our 12-day Sri Lanka In Style suggested itinerary features a stay at Tea Trails.
The walled city of Galle is a UNESCO world heritage city and a wonderful place to visit in Sri Lanka. Apart from the attractions (the lighthouse, the fort, the museum), Galle is an easy place to explore on foot and an enjoyable place to spend a few days. Our preference is always to stay inside the walled city itself – as its easier then to stroll through the city and go out for meals and snacks. There are many great cafes, restaurants, boutiques and artisan workshops in Galle, and its almost car free streets mean you can easily pass some time here wandering around, shopping, eating and drinking and discovering Galle. Our visits to Galle always include a city walking tour with one of our expert local guides – who takes us to taste some street snacks, see the kites flying and stroll along the fort walls, as well as sharing some local history with us. Some of the hotels where you can stay inside Galle include:
* Rampart Street
* Fort Bazaar
Tips for Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
Many people often overlook Colombo, but not us. It’s Sri Lanka’s biggest city and capital and helps put the rest of the country in context. We like to visit the city’s temples, Beira Lake, go people watching at the end of the day along Galle Face Green, indulge with high tea at Galle Face Hotel, go to the weekend organic market, and visit some of the city’s modern boutiques and stores. There’s also the busy local market of Pettah. Colombo has a contemporary dining scene that’s making the most of the tropical and fresh local ingredients the country has to offer, and some pretty good bars too! (Independence Square and the Dutch Hospital scene is where you can find this contemporary side of Colombo!)
In Colombo some of the top luxury and heritage hotels to stay at include:
* Galle Face Hotel
* Residence by UGA
#7) Arugam Bay
When we were thinking about this list, we knew we had to include a beach stay on it. We often include a few nights at one of Sri Lanka’s beaches during our travel in Sri Lanka, so that we just stop for a few days and unwind. A good option with large groups of friends or families is to hire a private villa. In terms of beach stays, we have been to Sri Lanka’s east, west, south and southwest coasts. Some of them we don’t rate. Last year we stayed at Arugam Bay for 4 nights and we are including it now in our list. Located on Sri Lanka’s east coast, Arugam Bay does take some time to reach by road. You can also cut some of the driving time by taking a domestic Cinnamon Air flight. Though it’s more than 7 hours from Colombo, we’ve included Arugam Bay for its surfing, good vibes, choice of restaurants and cafes and overall atmosphere. For surfing in Sri Lanka – it’s easy to hire boards and get a lesson in Arugam Bay and plenty of people do. There’s also a range of breaks at beaches nearby for different levels of surfing. The town also has some great restaurants where you can get a pizza, sandwiches and other western fare if you are in need of a break from Sri Lankan meals, with lots of places to hang out on the main street that have beach views or access. We are a bit surprised that we have included Arugam Bay on our list, as we usually favour the quieter beach spots, but we do think Arugam Bay is a good beach option in Sri Lanka and visited ourselves on a family tour of Sri Lanka. It’s fun and has a bit of a scene, which will appeal to some travellers. We’d definitely go back.
#8) Chena Huts
This luxury property is a perfect gateway to Yala National Park – one of the best places in Sri Lanka to go on a leopard safari. Chena Huts by UGA Escapes is surrounded by the ocean, a lake and the jungle, beautifully immersed in the natural environment. When you stay at Chena Huts you are in individual chalets which all include a private plunge pool. The property also has a main pool, beach bar, spa and elegant dining. However for us one of the most impressive parts of staying at Chena Huts are the expert naturalists that will take you on safari and the priority access to the national park you get. We’ve never been disappointed on safari when we set off from Chena Huts. A stay at Chena Huts is all-inclusive. If your budget can stretch to the higher end, we recommend Chena Huts.
#9) Hanging out with the wildlife experts at Gal Oya Lodge
While most visitors to Sri Lanka like to include a wildlife safari, particularly a leopard safari in Yala, we’ve come to favour visiting Gal Oya National Park. Gal Oya is Sri Lanka’s least-visited national park and the only park where you can safari by boat. You won’t see a leopard at Gal Oya, but you will see elephants, crocodiles, a range of birds and other animals. We find the boat safari gentle and relaxing (compared to jeep safaris) and like the pace of being out in the boat slowly looking for wildlife. The biggest drawcard to Gal Oya though is Gal Oya Lodge, the only place to stay near the park. It’s here at Gal Oya Lodge you will find a team of passionate wildlife experts and researchers who want to introduce you to their local area and share their enthusiasm for nature with you. We love the range of activities the lodge offers including gentle bird walks, walks with the local indigenous leaders, safaris and more strenuous hikes. The staff are enthusiastic about the environment, their onsite research and wildlife and love to share it with you. They make the place so fabulous. They have an inviting pool to relax by (with an impressive mountain backdrop) and serve delicious fresh meals. Real wildlife enthusiast will appreciate staying here. The days slip into a lovely rhythm at Gal Oya Lodge – a wildlife activity in the morning, breakfast, relaxing by the pool, a delicious lunch, a nap (if you can!) and a wildlife activity in the evening, then dinner. And repeat!
#10) Local rice and curry restaurants
Sri Lankan’s eat `rice and curry’ everyday. Served at lunch and dinner – this hearty meal consists of several types of curries – meat and vegetables – rice, some pickles, a pappadum, and often a yogurt or curd. Most restaurants or hotels will offer a rice and curry option on their menus, as will guest houses and places you stay. (Some hotels and restaurants will serve quite extravagant rice and curry meals!) However, it’s the lunch rice and curry that can be found at small restaurants along the roadside that we love to try. We are always on the look out for rice and curry when we are driving. It’s here you can savour different vegetable dishes at each place, all with unique flavours. A rice and curry is an inexpensive lunch and you can easily ask your driver to find a good one during a private tour of Sri Lanka. Some of our favourite dishes we’ve eaten as part of a rice and curry include a pumpkin curry and a light salad of green vegetables, freshly ground coconut and varying degrees of chilli!
If you’d like to know more about any of our recommendations for top places to visit in Sri Lanka, contact Sri Lanka Unbound today.
We can include some, or all of these into a custom made private tour of Sri Lanka designed especially for you.