Sri Lanka is known for its tropical beauty, pristine beaches, mystical temples, and world-famous, impossibly scenic tea plantations. With wonders spanning the realms of both man-made and natural beauty there’s so much to see and do here that you probably won’t be able to fit it all in to one trip so I wrote this post to help you to narrow it down to just my top 10 must visit places in Sri Lanka.
It’s remarkable that this tropical island still flies under many a traveller’s radar. Despite its somewhat undiscovered status as a travel destination, Sri Lanka was named the best country to visit in the world by Lonely Planet in 2019. Sri Lanka absolutely lives up to this title. For a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean, this country has certainly racked up some impressive accolades. In addition to the endless natural and cultural wonders in Sri Lanka, the country currently claims eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. A trip to Sri Lanka strikes the perfect balance between cultural discovery and outdoor adventure.
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If you’re craving a trip to an exciting new country like Sri Lanka, a bit of research will go a long way when devising with the perfect plan. Whether you want a rugged backpacking trip through lush, green forests, a paradise getaway with stunning beaches, luxury resorts and blue whale sightings, or you prefer a journey filled with cultural discovery, Sri Lanka has you covered. The magical offerings of this incredible country await!
Check out my pick of the top 10 must-visit places in Sri Lanka to get you started and if you want to mix things up with some more off the beaten track experiences check out my favourite offbeat places to visit in Sri Lanka here.
Here is my pick of the top 10 Must Visit Places in Sri Lanka:
Galle Fort is one of the most impressive and popular must visit places in Sri Lanka. The fort was initially built by the Portuguese and later restored by the Dutch in the 17th century. This huge historic and atmospheric fort stands on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, on the Bay of Galle. It is a fascinating place where history comes alive. Galle Fort makes the list of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a highlight of the island’s 500 years of colonial heritage.
There are plenty of impressive buildings to explore within the area, including churches, museums, the Galle Lighthouse, cafes, quirky shops and art galleries. Don’t miss taking a walk along the forts walls at sunset and after exploring this fascinating colonial town, unwind in one of the historic buildings that have been converted into fabulous heritage hotels.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Sigiriya (aka Lion’s Rock because of the lions paws sculptures that guard the final pathway up to the sky palace ) is another one of the iconic must visit places in Sri Lanka and one of the most renowned tourist attractions on the island.
This ancient rock fortress is a towering plateau that contains both geological wonder, famous historical ruins, 5th century frescoes and amazing views. Climbing the 1200 steps up to the top of this massive 200m high rock to explore the ancient ruins of King Kasyapa’s palace is challenging but totally worth it and offers unparalleled views over the Sri Lankan countryside.
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s cultural capital. The train ride to, or from, Kandy is enough to make the trip worth it. With stunning views of the lush, rolling hills, you’ll enter Kandy with a newfound love for the scenic landscapes of Sri Lanka.
You can’t visit Kandy without visiting it’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage site – The Temple of the Tooth. This sprawling, bustling temple complex is said to hold the Buddha’s tooth, one of the most sacred Buddhist relics on Earth and visiting is an experience you should not miss, even though you won’t actually see the tooth. There’s also some more temples, interesting museums, the botanical gardens, lake and plenty of walks you can do around Kandy.
The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka are another UNESCO World Heritage site. Featuring the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, Horton Plains National Park and Knuckles Conservation Forest, this part of Sri Lanka is a nature lover’s dream. One of the easiest ways to experience this stunning scenery is on the train ride from Kandy to Ella which is regarded as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. Read more about train travel in Sri Lanka here.
You can also visit the famous, sprawling and incredibly scenic Sri Lankan tea plantations located in this area. I especially loved Nuwara Eliya, nicknamed “Little England,” due to it’s cool climate, colonial architecture, and plenty of beautiful gardens and nature to explore. Hiking in the Knuckles Range and visiting an authentic local village was one of my offbeat highlights, read more about it here.
There are so many gorgeous beaches in Sri Lanka you must visit at least one on your Sri Lanka trip. With so many beaches it’s really hard to choose – check out this post with loads of amazing beaches from the top 10 beaches in Sri Lanka for more ideas. I visited Mirissa Beach, which is an excellent choice. The beaches are beautiful, the area has nice bars and restaurants, and the nightlife is buzzing.
Plus, Mirissa Beach is a must for my fellow animal lovers. It is one of the best places in the world for spotting dolphins and blue whales. You can also climb up Parrot Rock – a small rocky island in the sea and the beautiful palm trees on Coconut Tree Hill are one of the most instagrammable spots in Sri Lanka. Between the great beach vibes and unique animal encounters, this beach makes my list of must visit places in Sri Lanka and should absolutely be on your radar.
Sri Lanka’s first capital, Anuradhapura, is another cultural and historical hub, with impressive Buddhist temples and gigantic stupas worth feasting your eyes upon. The sacred sites here are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the city is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka founded in 4th BC. There are so many temples, stupas, ruins and ancient pools that you’ll need a few days to explore all Anuradhupura’s historical treasures. The three colossal stupas are some of the largest monuments ever constructed by the ancient world, surpassed only by the pyramids of Giza.
Some of the most impressive sights are the Sri Maha Bodhi Temple which contains a bodhi tree grown from a cutting from the tree in Bodhgaya, India where the Buddha gained enlightenment. It still attracts hundreds of devotees every day bearing colourful flowers and all dressed in white. The hill of Mihintale is the alleged birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the massive white stupa at Ruwanwelisaya which was once the largest in the world.
Dambulla Cave Temple
The Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. The cave temple complex is famous for the colourful, well preserved Buddhist murals and statues that date back to the 1st century BC. The area is home to more than 80 caves, and the temple itself contains statues, paintings, and other relics spread over five different caves. From the cave their are stunning views over the surrounding countryside and you can even get a glimpse of Sigiriya in the distance.
Like Kandy and Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is another sacred city that makes the list of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Polonnaruwa was the island’s capital from the 11th to 13th century. This ancient city features intricate carved monuments, Buddhas, mystical, winding footpaths, the ruins of a royal palace, and plenty of other unforgettable ruins and temples. With so many historical sites in a small area, you can make a day of biking around to get your fill of the wonders of Polonnaruwa! Don’t miss the Quadrangle where you’ll find the most impressive structures.
Safari in Kaudulla or Minneriya National Park
Sri Lanka offers some of the best wildlife watching experiences in South Asia and some of the best safari opportunities outside of Africa. Your chances of spotting a herd of hundreds of wild elephants are higher in Sri Lanka’s national parks than anywhere else on the planet making a safari an unmissable expereince when you visit Sri Lanka.
There are over 20 national parks you can explore. Kaudulla or Minneriya are my recommendations for the best safari locations. In either place, you’ll have the chance to see herds of elephants in the wild. What better way to enjoy the nature of Sri Lanka than by taking in its beautiful scenery and watching these majestic creatures roam.
Surfing in Arugam Bay
Surfing is also a good reason to visit Sri Lanka. There are many surf destinations but my favourite is Arugam Bay. Surf season runs from May to September, and the ideal conditions draw in surfers from around the globe. The beach is lined with surf schools, where you can rent gear and take classes to learn the ropes. It’s also a great place to just kick back in a hammock with a coconut and relax on the beautiful beach. There’s also a good party scene and plenty to explore in the surrounding area.
Thanks to Sri Lanka Tourism for organising such an amazing trip. I already can’t wait to go back to Sri Lanka just as soon as I can. For my offbeat Sri Lanka highlights check out this post.