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The 25 Best Things To Do In Sri Lanka

From hikes to temples, national parks to beaches.

By Journy Team

30 September 2020

The 25 Best Things To Do In Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a diverse island hill country in the Indian Ocean (off the south coast of India) whose roots date back to the 6th century BCE, when it was known as Ceylon. After 150 years of British rule, it obtained independence in 1948 and earned its name in 1972. With influences from Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, Sri Lanka is home to countless temples, shrines, and stupas. It also boasts some of the most stunning natural scenery in the world, including lush tea plantations nestled in the mountains, pristine beaches that surfers will swoon over, and miles of hiking trails that offer the promise of postcard-worthy views.

With so much to do, see, and eat, it's hard to know how best to plan out your itinerary for optimal sightseeing. This list of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is a great place to start.

But remember—no list of top things to do can compare to a custom-built itinerary from Journy. Leave it to the experts to build a daily travel plan from scratch just for you—complete not only with activities and day trips, but also restaurants, cafés, transportation, and accommodation.

1. Climb to the top of Sigiriya to see the Lion Rock Fortress

Northern Matale District in the Central Province

Sigiriya Rock

The most popular attraction in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock is widely considered the 8th wonder of the world. The rock plateau, which soars 660 feet in the air, was formed from magma of an extinct volcano. Atop the rock is an ancient palace that was formerly used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. It exists today as one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning, engineering (there’s a complex hydraulic system with dams, bridges, canals, and fountains), and horticulture (it boasts the oldest landscaped gardens in the world). In 1982, it was officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Protip: For the best views, we suggest trekking to the adjacent Pidurangala Rock, which is slightly lower than Sigiriya.

2. Visit the Holy Temple Of The Sacred Tooth Relic

Kandy District in the Central Province

Holy Temple Of The Tooth | @prabash_madush

This revered Buddhist temple houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. Although visitors are unfortunately unable to see it in person—it’s kept in a secure gold casket—many flock to the site to witness the symbolic bathing of the relic. The holy water used in the ceremony (and distributed to guests afterwards) is scented with fragrant flowers and believed to contain healing properties. While you’re there, be sure to visit the smaller temples, museums, and shrines that dot the property.

Note that appropriate clothing that falls below your knees and covers your shoulders is required. You will also be asked to remove your shoes.

3. Hike to the top of Riverston Peak in Knuckles Mountain Range

Matale and Kandy Districts

Riverston Peak | @yazi999

Riverston Peak is an isolated, off-the-beaten-path trek that boasts some of the best views of Sri Lanka’s mountainous, terraced paddy fields. The 5km forested hike isn’t too strenuous (usually takes one hour, two tops) and leads you to the summit commonly referred to as “The World’s End” due to its precipitous drop into the Knuckles Mountain Range and Thelgamu River Valley. En route to the top, you’ll pass two waterfalls: Sera Ella and Bambarakiri Ella, along with the Thelgamu Oya freshwater river which is perfect for a cooling dip.  

4. Explore Dambulla Cave Temple (aka Golden Temple of Dambulla)

Dambulla, Matale District

Dambulla Golden Temple | @travelling_with_us

With more than 80 documented caves, the Dambulla Cave Temple is the best preserved and largest cave temple complex in the entire country. Scholars believe it was inhabited by Buddhist monks as early as the first century BC. Inside the caves are numerous statues, etchings, and paintings that depict the life of Buddha, as well as gods and goddesses such as Vishnu and Ganesha (two Hindu deities). The notable attractions are spread over just five caves, including the Cave of the Divine King and Cave of the Great Kings.

5. Embark on a safari at a national park

Udawalawe National Park | @kanferrivillasrilanka

Udawalawe National Park
Across the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces

Udawalawe National Park is the sixth largest animal sanctuary and third most visited park in Sri Lanka. Established in 1972 as a sanctuary for animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir, it’s known today as one of the world’s best places to spot wild Asian elephants—some estimate that there are around 500 of them that roam in herds of 100. Other animals you may spot on the 119 square mile property include water buffaloes, wild boars, spotted/sambar deer, jackals, black-naped hares, foxes, Toque macaques, and mongooses.

Minneriya National Park
North Central Province

This former wildlife sanctuary was designated a national park in 1997. Like Udawalawe, Minneriya National Park is known for its population of wild elephants—it’s part of the “elephant corridor” that connects to Kaudulla and Wasgamuwa. For the best chance of spotting the gathering of these majestic animals, plan a visit between May and October.

Minneriya is also known for its vast species of birds—so much so that it’s one of the country’s 70 official Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

Kaudulla National Park
Polonnaruwa District in the North Central Province

Kaudulla is a fairly new national park (it was designated in 2002). The land is covered primarily by dry evergreen forest with an expansive reservoir in the center—in fact, for most months of the year, ⅔ of the park is under water. For the best chance of spotting elephants, visit in early fall (September - October). Other game you’re likely to see here include Sri Lankan axis deer/sambar deer, wild boars, leopards, sloth bears, and chevrotains.

Another option to consider? Yala National Park, which your Journy trip designer can include in your itinerary.

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6. Visit the ancient royal baths and vatadage in Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa District in the North Central Province

Ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa | @traveller_of_globe

While you’re in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Polonnaruwa (the second capital of Sri Lanka), be sure to stop by the royal baths and vatadage.

Ancient royal baths
These ancient royal baths, which are enclosed within the citadel outside the palace grounds, served as the personal pool for King Parākramabāhu from 1153 to 1186. The most impressive features are the two remaining crocodile mouth spouts and the lotus island in the center.

Vatadage
A vatadage is a type of Buddhist structure whose architecture is endemic to Sri Lanka. The one in Polonnaruwa is the best preserved in the country and believed to have been originally built to hold either Buddha’s alms bowl or the relic of his tooth. Excavated and restored in 1903, it features two stone platforms adorned with elaborate carvings.  

7. See the largest stupa in the world at Ruwanwelisaya

Anuradhapura, the capital of the North Central Province

Ruwanwelisaya | @buddhikamn

Many of Gautama Buddha’s relics are housed in the stupa (i.e. hemispherical structure) of Ruwanwelisaya. It’s considered a Solosmasthana, or one of the 16 places of veneration in Sri Lanka, as well as a Atamasthana, one of the eight places of veneration in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. There are many religiously significant features of the structure, including:

  • The four facets in the box on top, which represent the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism (the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering)
  • The concentric rings symbolize the Noble Eightfold Path (Buddha’s instructions to reach the end of suffering)
  • The large crystal at the apex represents the Buddhist goal of enlightenment (to access your true self and, when you pass, enter into a state of nirvana, i.e. the end of suffering)

Note: It goes by many names, including Ran Welisaya, Swarnamali Chethiya, Rathnamali Dagoba, and Mahathupa.

8. Marvel at the well-preserved ruins of Anuradhapura

Capital of the Anuradhapura District in the North Central Province

Anaradhapura | @weilandiniontour

This capital city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited metropolises in the world and the former hub of Theravada Buddhism. It's one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka due to its high concentration of well-reserved ruins, including monastic buildings, pokuna (ponds), dagobas (brick stupas), and ancient pools. Because of its location in the dry zone, it also boasts a complex irrigation system.

9. Explore the fortified city of Galle

Capital of Galle District in the Southern Province

Galle | @travelgleam

Located along the southern coast of the country, Galle is one of Sri Lanka’s largest fortified cities. It was built by the Portuguese and exists today as the largest remaining European-built fortress in Asia. On its list of notable landmarks includes the Galle International Stadium (arguably the most photogenic cricket grounds in the world), St. Mary’s Cathedral (built by the Jesuits at the end of the 19th century), the National Maritime Museum, the Galle Fort, the luxury Amangalla hotel, and countless Dutch colonial buildings and mansions. Although a large portion of the city was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, extensive restorations have taken place since then.

10. Relax at the beaches and visit the temples of Bentota

Galle District in the Southern Province

Bentota Beach | @conniefelicity

There’s no shortage of activities in the coastal town of Bentota, which sits 40 miles south of Colombo. The most popular? Water sports. From jet skiing to wakeboarding, windsurfing to banana boat rides, Bentota has it all.

It’s also a haven for divers—experienced and amateur alike—at popular spots such as Canoe Rock, Hundirangala, and South Reef, where you’re bound to spot lionfish and porcupine fish.

Looking for a more relaxing adventure on the water? The river safari along the Madu Ganga River is a must, if not for the views then for the over 100 bird species you can spot along the way.

Other popular excursions include the Kosgoda Turtle Conservation Project, where you’ll witness turtles in their natural habitat, and Cinnamon Island, a plantation that dates back to the early 20th century where you can learn about the processing, use, and health benefits of this spice.

Bentota also lays claim to the Kande Vihara Temples, which date back to the 18th century—with the sculptures, colorful frescoes, and ancient statues dating back even earlier to the 15th century. Atop this mountain temples is one of the tallest sitting Buddha statues in the world. But that’s not all Kande Vihara is known for. There’s also a 300+ year-old Bodhi Tree (symbolizing the tree of enlightenment in Buddhism).

Protip: Don’t leave Bentota without tasting Toddy, a white liquor-based alcoholic drink made with coconut nectar. The region is famous for it!  

11. Ride the coconut palm tree rope swing in Dalawella

Galle District in the Southern Province

Dalawella rope swing | @juliasdaysoff 

Unawatuna’s Dalawella beach is known for its calm waters that make it ideal for swimming, as well as its sea turtles that make it a haven for snorkelers. It’s also less crowded compared to Sri Lanka’s other beaches. But the primary draw by far is its iconic coconut palm tree rope swing, which is located just in front of the Dream Cabana guesthouse. For the best photo, plan to go around sunrise or sunset.  

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12. Head south to Hikkaduwa for water sports

Galle District in the Southern Province

Hikkaduwa | @hikkaduwa.city

This small town is a must-visit if you’re a fan of water sports, diving, snorkeling, or surfing (the eponymous Hikkaduwa beach ranks second on the list of best surfing spots in Sri Lanka). It’s also known for its nightlife, with a string of resorts, shops, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that stretches two and a half miles long. While you’re there, be sure to visit the famous Coral Sanctuary, where you can get up close to the vibrant corals by swimming or embarking on a guided glass-bottomed boat ride.

13. Take the picturesque train ride from Kandy to Ella

Ella train | @slow.road.studio

On this seven-hour train ride, you’ll pass through rolling, lush green hills, expansive tea plantations, ancient bridges, cascading waterfalls, and quaint small mountain villages. With views that can’t be beat, it makes sense why this is considered one of the most beautiful train trips in the entire world.

There’s no need to stock up on snacks for the ride. At each stop, local sellers will crowd the train cabins with goods. Expect grilled corn slathered in salted butter, piping hot curry, mango dusted with cinnamon, and thin, crispy papadums (Sri Lankan flatbread).

Protip: Due to the popularity of this train journey, it’s imperative to purchase tickets well in advance via 12Go, which your Journy trip designer can handle for you.

14. Once you’re in Ella, hike Little Adam’s Peak

Badulla District in the Uva Province

Little Adam's Peak | @ellasrilanka

Not to be confused with its “big brother,” Adam’s Peak, which is located further west, Little Adam’s Peak is a 3,700-foot hill located in the southeast corner of Ella. It’s not the most strenuous hike, but it offers some of the most spectacular views of the cloud forests and lush tea estates and plantations. The trailhead is just shy of one mile from the center of Ella (right next to the Ella Flower Garden Resort). In our experience, it’s best to budget 2-3 hours for the excursion, with just around one hour to reach the top.

Protip: If you’re up for an early start, it’s worth starting the hike around 5:30am. This way, you’ll reach the summit by 6am to catch the sunrise.

15. Walk across the Nine Arch Bridge in Ella

Badulla District in the Uva Province

Nine Arch Bridge | @ninearchbridge

The picturesque Nine Arch Bridge is nestled between lush green fields between Ella and Demodara where tea is grown at an elevation of 4,000+ feet. Built by the British, it remains one of Sri Lanka’s best examples of colonial railway engineering and is still in use to this day (trains pass six times/day). Crowds tend to congregate starting in mid-morning (10 - 10:30am), so for unobstructed views as you walk across, it’s best to wake up early and head to the bridge for the sunrise. Afterwards, pop by one of the many small cafés in the neighborhood for a bite to eat.

16. Visit Diyaluma Falls, the second highest waterfall in Sri Lanka

Badulla District in the Uva Province

Diyaluma Falls | @colours.of.srilanka

At 720 feet high, Diyaluma Falls—which is located about an hour outside of Ella—is the second highest waterfall in the country, and 361st in the world. If you’re visiting during the summer months, you’ll have the opportunity to swim in the infinity pools (although it’s important to exercise caution, as there are no safety barriers). During the monsoon season (September - early December), the strong currents and high water levels prohibit swimming, but you can still marvel at the spectacular views by relaxing on the surrounding rocks.

17. Tour the tea plantations and markets in Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya District in the Central Province

Nuwara Eliya | @paraviaje

Known as “Little England,” Nuwara Eliya is peppered with Tudor-style hotels and colonial-era houses that once served as the holiday bungalows for British settlers. The city’s temperate, cool climate makes it uniquely suited to tea production, with the most iconic tea factories and estates being Labookellie and The Pedro.

Nuwara Eliya is also known for its markets, including the Central Market and Bale Bazaar (winter market). Shop for traditional, locally-made souvenirs and crafts, as well as textiles and groceries. Because this is the only city in Sri Lanka that experiences colder temperatures, many stalls also sell warm clothing.

Also worth visiting when you’re in Nuwara Eliya? Lake Gregory, St. Clair’s Falls, and Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka.

Protip: Bargaining is widely accepted—expected, even—in Sri Lanka, so don’t be afraid to negotiate prices at the market. And be sure to have cash handy, as most vendors don’t accept credit cards.

18. Visit Shark Point Reef in Pigeon Island National Park

Eastern Province

Pigeon Island National Park | @rishadriyal

If you’re spending time in the city of Nilaveli, it’s worth making the trek to Pigeon Island National Park which, as its name suggests, is a significant breeding ground for rock pigeons. In the Marine National Park area, you’ll find Shark Point Reef, which contains Sri Lanka’s best preserved remaining coral reefs, as well as a high concentration of young and adult blacktip reef sharks. There’s also multiple turtle species here, including Green, Olive Ridley, and Hawksbill.

Protip: The best months to visit Shark Point Reef are between late March and mid-October.

19. Tour the Red Mosque in the capital city of Colombo

Colombo District in the Western Province

Red Mosque | @musafir_dil_harshi

This historic mosque, which is also known as Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid, is one of the oldest in Colombo, the capital city on the west coast of Sri Lanka. It was commissioned in the 19th century by the Indian Muslim community and, to this day, remains a sacred spot of worship and daily prayer. Its unique architectural style blends Gothic revival with Neoclassical elements, with each brick painted red or white in a striking, contrasting design.

20. Shop at the Pettah Floating Market

Colombo District in the Western Province

Pettah Floating Market | @lankan_backpacker

What was once a dangerous neighborhood with abandoned warehouses is now a hub for travelers and locals alike looking to browse the electronics, clothing, jewelry, shoes, and produce of the Pettah Floating Market. The wooden walkways extend over the canal, which was thoroughly cleaned and widened in an ambitious development project run by the Urban Development Authority (UDA). Open since August 2014, the 100 stalls that sit under the red pagodas are open daily from 8am to 8pm.

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21. Visit the ruins of Saint Anthony’s church and cemetery

Jaffna District in the Northern Province

Saint Anthony's | @nizmi_nivin

No one knows exactly how old Saint Anthony’s church is. Some estimate that it dates back to the 17th century during the Dutch rule over Sri Lanka, while others posit that it was built later, during the early 20th century when Sri Lanka was known as the British colony of Ceylon. Because it is built on sand (the largest sand dune in Sri Lanka, in fact), its coral stone and brick walls have been slowly sinking and shifting into the dunes for thousands of years. Nearby is the church’s cemetery, where many victims of the 2004 tsunami are buried.

22. Explore Fa Hien Cave (aka Pahiyangala Cave), one of the largest caves in Asia

Kalutara District in the Western Province

Fa Hien Cave | @janakaclk

Fa Hien isn’t any ordinary cave. During excavations in the 1960s, 80s, and 2013, remains of a 37,000-year-old prehistoric society were found, including fossilized human skulls, hide-based clothing, and weapons made from animal bones. It’s the oldest evidence of bow-and-arrow technology used by cave dwellers outside of Africa. On top of its archaeological claim to fame, this cave site in southwestern Sri Lanka is celebrated as the home of a Buddhist temple, recognizable by its massive, 40-foot-long statue of Buddha.

23. Admire the seven statues at Buduruwagala Temple

Kalutara District in the Western Province

Buduruwagala Temple | @melali_on_the_way

This ancient Buddhist temple, which dates back to the tenth century, consists of seven statues etched into the face of the cliff—all of which represent significant figures from the Mahayana school of thought. The largest statue of Buddha in the center rises 50 feet high, with three smaller ones on either side (the statue in the center to Buddha’s right is thought to be the mythological Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara). If you look closely, you’ll notice that the Buddha statue has retained a subtle orange hue, which suggests that they were once painted vibrant colors.

The name, Buduruwagala, is derived from the words Buddha (Budu), images (ruba), and stone (gala).

24. Tour the palatial Richmond Castle

Kalutara District in the Western Province

Richmond Castle | @hamdhan.27

This colonial mansion was built in 1910 under the orders of the wealthy landowner, Don Arthur de Silva. Having spent time studying in England, de Silva dreamed of a castle of his own with an eclectic architectural style fusing influences from the East and the West. The result? A 16-room, 99-door, 34-window sprawling mansion that sits on 42 acres of land.

25. Visit Koneswaram Temple, a Hindu religious pilgrimage center

Trincomalee District in the Eastern Province

Koneswaram Temple | @manilka.jayasingha.photography

Koneswaram Temple is one of the five “Pancha Ishwarams” (abodes of Shiva, the god of Hinduism) in Sri Lanka’s coastal region. It’s perched atop Swami rock and surrounded by idyllic natural scenery, including one of the world’s largest natural harbors. Construction began as early as the 6th century, although the complex was restored in the mid-20th century.

Today, visitors can take part in the twice-daily prayer service (pooja), obtain a blessing from the priest (swami), or simple walk around the complex admiring the views of the harbor and Indian Ocean.

Protip: Appropriate dress is required to enter, and you will also be asked to remove your shoes.