Top 10 best things to see & do in Sri Lanka

Monday newsletters always feature top 10 travel lists to inspire.

Today (May 28, 2018): Top 10 best things to see & do in Sri Lanka.

Since the end of the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers in 2009, Sri Lanka has been ascending the must-go-now lists. The island – often nicknamed the Teardrop of India or Pearl of the Indian Ocean – lures travelers with miles of tropical coastline and a jungle-clad interior. Home to remarkable ancient ruins, attractive tea estates, wildlife-rich national parks, and world-class hotels, it’s the ideal place to combine a cultural tour with an exciting safari and a bit of downtime at the beach. So, whether you’re a couple looking for a romantic getaway, a family looking to entertain the kids or a solo traveller seeking peace and quiet, Sri Lanka has something for everyone. Here’s my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in Sri Lanka.

There’s more info below the slide show. Think I missed one? Share your favorite place or activity in Sri Lanka in the comments section, or take my poll below!

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Making an excellent start or finish to your Sri Lankan holiday, the capital Colombo boasts a rich colonial heritage, featuring a melting pot of races, religions and cultures. Known as ‘Kolon thota’ – the native name of the city meaning ‘port’ – it became ‘Colombo’ under colonial rule. With a rapidly changing skyline, the city is an eclectic mix of old and new, with shiny office towers neighboring red-tiled colonial-era buildings. Make sure to visit one of the bustling street markets which brim with fragrant spices, colorful silks, and fresh fruits. Make time to visit the Old Dutch Hospital close to the Colombo Fort. And end the day with a sunset on Galle Face Green, the city’s ocean-front urban park which is a popular destination for children, vendors, lovers, kite flyers, and merrymakers.


One of Sri Lanka’s seven World Heritage Sites and referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World, these remnants of a ruined palace – built by the parricidal King Kassapa I (477–95) – lie on the steep slopes and summit of a granite peak standing some 180m (600 ft) high – the ‘Lion’s Rock’ – which dominates the jungle from all sides. In its heyday, Sigiriya lived up to the name, with a series of galleries and staircases emerging from the mouth of a gigantic lion constructed of bricks and plaster provide access to the site. The head is long gone, but two huge paws sit either side of what’s left of the stone stairs that once led past giant teeth, winding their way up to the elaborate villas, gardens and pools of the palace proper.


A holiday to Sri Lanka – the island of rice and curry – is an opportunity to feast on its rich, melting-pot cuisine, which is influenced by its geography. Positioned in the Indian Ocean between Eastern and Western culture, you can expect an abundance of incredible dishes, with liberal use of locally grown tropical fruit, fresh seafood and a coveted arsenal of spices. Though Sri Lankan food is heavily influenced by Indonesian and Indian culinary elements, it remains distinctly its own form of cuisine, offering a vivid array of flavor combinations. Think sweet caramelized onion relishes, bitter melon, spicy scraped coconut, the burn of curry tamed by mild rice, and palm sugar sweetened desserts!


Located in the southern reaches of the Central Highlands, the soaring summit of Adam’s peak is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic natural landmarks, a 2,243 m (7,359 ft) tall conical mountain which stands head and shoulders above the surrounding forested hills, with no mountain of comparable size nearby. Adam’s Peak is also a Buddhist place of worship and has been an object of pilgrimage for over a thousand years. The peak pilgrimage season is in April and the goal is to be on top of the mountain at sunrise, when the distinctive shape of the mountain casts a triangular shadow on the surrounding plain and can be seen to move quickly downward as the sun rises. Climbing at night can be a remarkable experience, with the lights of the path leading up and into the stars overhead.


Sri Lanka is one of the world’s best places for whale watching, as nowhere else on earth does the world’s biggest creature – the blue whale – swim so close to land, so reliably. You have a ninety percent chance that humpback and blue whales will nonchalantly glide past you when you embark on a whale watching excursion off the coast of Sri Lanka. The ideal locations for whale watching are Dondra Point (accessible from Galle, Hikkaduwa and Mirissa) and Trincomalee. Sadly, crowded boats and unethical practices can make for a deeply disturbing wildlife experience, but the Sri Lanka Coast Guard has increased efforts to control the distance, method of approach, and maximum speed that boats have to follow, in order to ensure that the whales’ natural habitat is not disturbed.


One of the world’s oldest forms of healing, Ayurveda — derived from the Sanskrit words for life (ayuh) and knowledge or science (veda) — originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and soon spread to Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese kings established Ayurveda treatment centres in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. In Ayurveda, a combination of herbs, diet, massage, hydrotherapy and oil treatment is used to treat everything from stress to diabetes, migraine, asthma, arthritis and high blood pressure. Ayurveda specialists will tell you that this form of treatment also helps boost the immune system, promotes a general sense of well-being and even helps delay the ageing process. With many in the West turning from medicine which treats only the body, towards a more holistic approach, Sri Lanka has become destination for those seeking solace in the Ayurvedic principle of body, mind and soul.


Rising more than 2500 m (8000 ft) above sea-level, Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands are a world away from the sweltering coastal lowlands. The landscape of rushing waterfalls, plunging ravines, and rugged peak has earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. These verdant highlands are also home to Sri Lanka’s tea heritage with several historic tea plantations clinging precariously to the steep hillsides, a vestige of British colonial culture. Tamil women picking delicate tea leaves by hand in their colorful saris with the mountains as a background is one of Sri Lanka’s most defining images. Over the past few years, several once decrepit colonial-era tea planters’ bungalows have been restored and turned into boutique hotels catering to ‘tea tourists’.


Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, Galle reached the height of its development as a trading port in the 18th century when the Dutch extensively fortified this rocky promontory on the Sri Lankan coast. The Dutch lost Galle Fort to the British in 1796, after which the importance of the fort declined since the British used Colombo as their main base. Nowadays, the old beautiful buildings are impeccably restored into stylish cafes, quirky boutiques and upscale hotels. Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 because it is the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and South-East Asia, showing the interaction between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions.


Situated in Sri Lanka’s south-east hugging the panoramic Indian Ocean, Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and was designated a national park in 1938. Ironically, the park was initially used as a hunting ground for the elite under British rule. Yala is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. Frequently spotted animals are majestic elephants, sloth bears, sambars, jackals, spotted dear, peacocks, and crocodiles. However, Yala is most famous for its leopards, since the park has the world’s highest concentration of these wild cats. Seeing a leopard is almost a certainty, although you have to be prepared to share a sighting with throngs of other tourists. The best time to visit Yala is between February and July when the water levels of the park are low, bringing animals into the open.


For many people, a holiday in Sri Lanka is all about beaches and the country does no disappointment in this department since it’s fringed by 1340 km (830 mi) of tropical coastline and beautiful golden sand beaches. With so many beaches to choose from, it’s a hard job picking the best one, but IMHO, the beaches around Tangalle on the island’s visually-pleasing south coast – sheltered by rocky promontories and quiet coves – are the most magnificent in the country. They represent  exactly what you want a tropical beach to resemble with dozens of swaying palms, expansive stretches of gold sand and clear, turquoise waters. The area was badly hit by the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, but everything has been rebuilt since then.

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