The Top 11 Things to Do in Sri Lanka

Naga and Buddha

Imagebook / Theekshana Kumara / Getty Images

There's something for everyone in Sri Lanka, whether you're a culture vulture or a beach bum. The country has grown in popularity as a tourist destination in recent years, appearing on more and more itineraries. Compared to neighboring India, Sri Lanka is a much easier country to visit; distances are shorter, and overall, it's cleaner, cheaper, and less crowded.

Sri Lanka has a tropical, monsoonal climate, with a high season that runs from December until March—in terms of weather, this is the best time to visit Colombo, Galle, Hill County, and other cities throughout the southwestern part of the country. The weather in Sri Lanka's north and east is best during the low season, which happens from May until August. April and September are considered to be shoulder season months, offering the best chance of good weather if you want to visit the whole country.

Wildlife safaris, nature, tea plantations, historical cities, ancient ruins, diving and surfing can all be part of a trip to Sri Lanka. Here's how to make the most of your time there.

01 of 11

Hike Alongside Buddhist Pilgrims to Sri Pada (Adam's Peak)

Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) in Sri Lanka at sunrise

saiko3p / Getty Images

Sri Pada / Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka

If you feel like following in the footsteps of Buddha, make your way up to Sri Pada, also called Adam's Peak, alongside hundreds of other pilgrims. At 7,359 feet, you'll be treated to beautiful views of the central highlands, which are particularly stunning if you plan to make the climb at night and reach the summit by sunrise.

Interestingly, there's a common theory among religious folks who visit this part of Sri Lanka. Buddhists say the famous footprint you'll find on the mountain was left behind by Buddha, while Hindus say it's that of Lord Shiva and Christians and Muslims believe it was left behind by Adam as he and Eve left the Garden of Eden.

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02 of 11

Spot Leopards on Safari

A leopard in the wild at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka

Jamie Lamb / Getty Images

No81, sella road, කතරගම 91400, Sri Lanka
Phone +94 71 261 9387

Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy leopard spotting on safari at Yala National Park, a 378-square-mile leopard sanctuary located along Sri Lanka's southern coast. Birders can also spot more than 90 species of birds, such as waterfowls, cormorants, larger waterbirds, pelicans, and flamingos that call the park's wetlands home.

Situated on the southeastern corner of the island, Kumana National Park is harder to reach but because of that is usually less crowded. If you can swing it, it's a great place to spot leopards, elephants, and birds in the wild.

Not too far away along the southern coast, Bundala National Park is another popular spot among birders. Slightly to the north and back toward the center of the island, UNESCO World Heritage Site Sinharaja Forest Reserve is home to outstanding jungle hiking and birding opportunities, and is also worth a look.

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03 of 11

See Elephants Up Close and in the Wild

Elephants spotted on a safari in Sri Lanka

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

892P+9VM, B199, Rambukkana 71100, Sri Lanka
Phone +94 352 265 284

Want to see elephants in the wild? You're unlikely to find a better country in the world to do so than Sri Lanka. Udawalawe National Park is the most popular place to visit, while Minneriya National Park is home to one of Asia's greatest wildlife spectacles known as "The Gathering," when more than 200 elephants congregate in one spot each year in August and September. Here's a secret though: nearby Kaudulla National Park is just as good a place to see it and happens to be cheaper.

It's also possible to see and spend time with elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, which can be visited during a day trip from Colombo.

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04 of 11

Explore Sri Lanka's UNESCO World Heritage Cities

Galle Fort

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Galle, Sri Lanka

Although it's only a small island, Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, two of them being major cities.

Galle, situated on the southwestern tip of the country, is surprisingly stylish and hip. The coastal city was founded in the 16th century by Portuguese colonizers, and was further developed in the 17th century by the Dutch. Its main attraction is the Galle Fort; a walk around it at sunset is absolutely mesmerizing.

Kandy, located in central Sri Lanka, is the country's second largest city. Known for its culture, it served as the royal capital of Sinhalese Kings from 1592 until the British took it over in 1815. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was built within the royal palace complex, and holds a tooth believed to have belonged to Buddha.

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05 of 11

Go Walking or Hiking

Two people carrying plants up a mountain

TripSavvy / Faye Strassle

Pidurangala, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's remarkable natural beauty makes it ideal for enjoying the great outdoors. Soaring Sigiriya, a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site, requires a strenuous climb to reach the top but incredible panoramic views are your reward. Alternatively, hike up to the Pidurangala Observation Deck for views of Sigiriya’s rock fortress at a fraction of the cost.

High up in Sri Lanka's Hill Country, Horton Plains National Park offers some of the most enjoyable walks in the country. For exciting hikes in the heart of Hill Country, head to the densely vegetated Knuckles Mountain Range.

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06 of 11

Chill at the Beach

Woman walking on Mirissa Beach at sunset, Mirissa, South Coast of Sri Lanka

Matthew Williams-Ellis / Getty Images

2764+5P9, Maharamba Rd, Unawatuna 80600, Sri Lanka
Phone +94 76 760 8597

Sri Lanka is an island, meaning gorgeous beaches are a major highlight. There's a beach to suit any need, from party vibes to total seclusion. Located near Galle on the south coast, Unawatuna Beach is one of the most lively; Unawatuna Diving Center is a great place to learn scuba diving, while water sports are also a fun activity to try there.

Mirissa beach, the next major beach destination south of Unawatuna, is more peaceful and whale-watching and snorkeling are popular activities. Those who really want to get away from it all can find deserted beaches in the south and east. Consider Navalady, Kalkudah, and beaches along the Uppuveli to Nilaveli strip. There's also a growing surf scene at Arugam Bay, located along the east coast across from Colombo.

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07 of 11

Marvel at Massive Buddhist Statues

Isurumuniya temple, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Peter Stuckings / Getty Images

89MR+R4J, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Phone +94 71 777 7115

Sri Lanka is home to more than 2,000 years of religious heritage and the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation. About 75 percent of the population is Buddhist and the statues of Buddha here are quite astonishing.

At the ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site of Polonnaruwa, you'll find a spectacular group of Buddha statues carved from a solid granite outcrop. One of them is an incredible 14-meter long reclining monolithic Buddha statue from the 12th century.

Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. The UNESCO-listed Anuradhapura ruins are also evocative, while the Isurumuniya Rock Temple is delightfully devoid of tourists and you can view a large colorful reclining Buddha in its temple complex.

More marvelous Buddhas can be found at the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple complex, about two hours north of Kandy. Each of the five rock-cut caves contain statues and paintings related to Buddha and his life, with the highlight being a towering golden Buddha. Ritigala, an ancient forest monastery dating back to the 1st century BC, is also worth seeing.

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08 of 11

Tour Sri Lanka's Tea Estates

Tea picking in Sri Lanka.

Tuul and Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's tea is famous around the world and it's interesting to visit tea estates to see how it's produced. If you're a tea lover, consider this a must-do.

Tea replaced coffee production in Sri Lanka during the mid-1800s after the country's coffee plantations were extensively damaged by disease. As a result, Sri Lanka is now the fourth largest tea-producing nation in the world.

The majority of its tea estates are located in Hill Country and adjoining regions in the south, with many running free tea factory tours. Nuwara Eliya Tea Estate is at the heart of the upper part of Hill Country, while Pedro Tea Factory is one of the best tea plantations to visit in the area. The factory was built in 1885 and comprehensive tours of it are offered. Bluefield Tea Gardens is also worth a visit. About 30 minutes from Galle in Ahangama, the Handunugoda Tea Estate produces more than 25 varieties of tea for the Herman Brand, with virgin white tea being its main specialty.

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09 of 11

Ride the Scenic Train

Train from Kandy to Hatton, Hill Country, Sri Lanka
Kim Walker / robertharding
Ella, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's railway network may be described by some as antiquated rather than nostalgic, but it's also very atmospheric and scenic. One of the most popular journeys is through Hill Country to the town of Ella. The trip from Ella to Badulla (an hour one way) is arguably even more picturesque, plus there's a large Buddhist temple within walking distance of the train station. Many visitors spend a couple of days relaxing in Ella, as it's home to some of Sri Lanka's best guesthouses. 

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10 of 11

Experience Hot Air Ballooning

Sri Lanka hot air balloon.

Nicolo Sertorio / Getty Images

Sisirawatta, Kandalama road, Dambulla 21106, Sri Lanka
Phone +94 77 352 2013

Seeing Sri Lanka's captivating landscape from above is sure to be an unforgettable experience and among the highlights of your trip. Just try to imagine floating serenely across misty mountains and jungles as the sun comes up.

Sunrise Ballooning and Sri Lanka Ballooning are both reputable companies that conduct early morning hot air balloon flights from Dambulla in the middle of the Cultural Triangle. The cost includes a one-hour flight, breakfast, Champagne toast upon landing, and round-trip hotel transfers from accommodations in Habarana, Sigiriya, Dambulla, and Kandalama.

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11 of 11

Feast on Sri Lankan Cuisine

Sri Lankan curries.

Rudi Van Starrex / Getty Images

266X+85V, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Undeniably delicious, Sri Lankan cuisine can be hot or mild, according to your preference. Rice and curry—all kinds of curry—are the staples of every meal. The food generally described as Sri Lankan is that of the Buddhist Sinhalese community, which makes up the majority of the country's population. The curries taste kind of like Indian curry, but the use of spices is different and coconut is an integral ingredient.

Unfortunately, hotels and restaurants that cater to western tourists tend to modify the dishes and water them down. If you do want to sample traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, choose homestay accommodations or family-run guesthouses where hosts will usually be happy to cook it for you. Otherwise, drop by a simple local roadside restaurant.

If you want to learn to cook Sri Lankan cuisine, try Karuna's Cooking Class at Sonja's Healthfood Restaurant in Unawatuna.

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The Top 11 Things to Do in Sri Lanka