10 Places to visit in Sri Lanka now

Sri Lanka hasn’t been on most traveller’s radar for very long, but it’s rapidly gaining in popularity – for good reason. On this island in the Indian Ocean you'll discover ancient civilisations, tea-swathed hillsides, idyllic beaches and holy mountains. It's a place where leopards slink through lowland jungles and the world’s mightiest whales still call from the deep. To get you started, we’ve picked out some of our favourite places to visit in Sri Lanka.

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1. Join pilgrims on Adam’s Peak

Adam’s Peak has been a pilgrimage site for over a thousand years. 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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: view from Adam's PeakView from Adam's Peak © Cristi Popescu/Shutterstock

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 new-found interest in the beverage, feel free to pop in – Newburgh is open to visitors.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: tea plantation in Sri LankaA tea plantation in rural Sri Lanka ©  Volodymyr Goinyk/Shutterstock

3. Visit a local restaurant to 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 in a bowl-shape filled with tomatoes, chili and curry leaves. Come lunchtime, make sure you try kotthu – 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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: egg Hopper, a Sri Lankan dishThe egg hopper is a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast dish ©  Bonchan/Shutterstock

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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan Tuk Tuks awaiting passengersSri Lankan Tuk Tuks awaiting passengers ©  Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock

5. Find 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 . If seeing a whale is high on your bucket list, Mirissa is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, if not the world.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: whale watching by Mirissa bay, southern Sri Lanka.Whale watching in Mirissa bay, southern Sri Lanka © Shalom Rufeisen/Shutterstock

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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: Sigiriya, Sri LankaSigiriya citadel, Sri Lanka © Dmitry Chulov/Shutterstock

7. Go underground

Aladdin’s caves of Sinhalese Buddhist art, the five cave temples of Dambulla are among the country's greatest treasures. They're up there amongst the most impressive places to visit in Sri Lanka and 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.

The caves themselves are set beneath what was once a craggy overhang, and contain around 150 images of the Buddha, ranging from intricate murals right up to remarkable reclining statues. They are 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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: Dambulla, Sri LankaDambulla, Sri Lanka © Gerckens-Photo-Hamburg/Shutterstock

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 .

The wildlife reserve is one of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka, partly due 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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: a leopard in the wild in Yala National ParkA leopard in the wild in Yala National Park © Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

9. Ride the rails

In a country famous for its railway journeys, the stretch of track between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy is the classic 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, and see narrow ledges and vertiginous drops.

If you’re brave (or, some might say, foolish) you can 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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: on the way from Kandy to Ella among tea plantations and mountainsOn the way from Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka © kennymax/Shutterstock

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. 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.

Places to visit in Sri Lanka: Temple of the Tooth in KandyTemple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka ©  Talal Cassim Photo/Shutterstock

Has our rundown of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka piqued your wanderlust? We can help! Try our new and enjoy a fully personalised trip planned by a local expert.

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