There are some incredible places to visit in Sri Lanka. This small country that was devastated by civil war for more than 25 years is an incredible holiday destination. More than that, it has a very strong identity, with people who are proud of their culture and heritage, and who are incredibly kind and welcoming.
I have been to Sri Lanka twice – and I am actually waiting to go again: that’s how much I like it. Sri Lanka captured me with its beauty, its lush vegetation, its peaceful atmosphere, its gorgeous beaches, the temples, the tradition, and all the tropical fruit.
If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka and are looking for the best places to visit, you are in the right place. Continue reading to discover all the unmissable Sri Lanka attractions, and how to make the most of them.
The Nicest Places To Visit In Sri Lanka
Negombo is so close to Colombo international Airport (less than 20 minutes drive) that it makes sense to stop there for a night or two to rest after a long haul flight. It it’s easy enough to add to the itinerary, so you may as well go.
Negombo is home to some of the best known Sri Lanka beaches, perfect for a sunset walk. Furthermore, its fish market makes for an interesting stop. Other than that, there isn’t much else to do.
Here are some more tour ideas for Negombo:
Most people think Colombo is capital of Sri Lanka, except it actually isn’t! In fact, the capital is Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte – of which honestly not many people outside of Sri Lanka have ever even heard for (including myself!).
Colombo isn’t your typically pretty city, so don’t spend more than a day there, especially if this would mean missing other more interesting destinations in the country. But if you have time, certainly take advantage of it.
Sri Lanka’s biggest city has a lot of construction work going on. To be fair there has been a lot of improvement, and there are a couple of interesting temples and landmarks you may want to see. Make sure to visit Gangaramaya – Colombo’s most important Buddhist temple (you can get in for 300 Rupees, which is about $3 USD) and the Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devashtanam.
Beira Lake and Colombo Lotus Tower are two of the most famous landmarks. The Independence Memorial Hall is a nice place to hang out – you’ll find a small crowd of locals, and it’s a nice place for photographs. Finally, make sure to go to Galle Face Green – Colombo’s waterfront is where the locals go for a walk, to swim in the ocean and to enjoy local snacks and street food.
The best way to get around Colombo is by taxi or tuk tuk. I actually recommend doing a guided tour so that you don’t have to worry about transportation and guides. You can book your tour here.
Ridee Viharaya Temple (Ridigama)
Known as the Silver Temple, Ridee Viharaya is one of the most unique temples (and one of the less touristy) in Sri Lanka. It was built in the 2nd century BCE as a sign of gratitude for finding the silver needed to complete the great stupa of Ruwanwelisaya, in Anuradhapura. It is completely carved in the rock.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The temple is located around 18 km north of Kurunegala, and 95 km from Colombo. Admission is 200 Rupees (around $1 USD).
Blessed with long sandy beaches and various Hindu temples, Trincomalee is located on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and a good place to relax for a few days.
The city’s main attraction is Fort Frederick, a fortification originally built by the Portuguese and then taken over by the Dutch and the British. You can still walk around the area, though most of it is used for military purposes.
FUN FACT: The center of Trincomalee is populated by spotted dears, and you can see many on a simple walk.
Walking up from the fort, you can get to Koneswaram Temple and Pathirakali Amman, two colorful Hindu temples, next to which you’ll find Swami Rock and Lover’s Leap. The latter is a fantastic viewpoint.
Other attractions include the British War Cemetery and the hot springs.
A small island off Nilaweli Beach, in Trincomalee, Pigeon Island certainly is perfect for a day of snorkeling and diving. It’s a National Park, and there is a $30 USD fee to access (plus the cost of the boat to get there), but the marine life is fantastic. You’ll have a chance to swim with sea turtles, lots of colorful fish and to even spot small sharks.
Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The site is definitely one of the most important tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, but what makes it worth visiting is the large presence of locals who, completely dressed in white (the color of prayer in Buddhism), pray in the temples.
TIP: Make sure to dress appropriately. Cover your shoulders and legs when entering the temples, and remove your shoes.
It takes around 6 hours to visit the various places of interest in Anuradhapura. After that, you inevitably gets exhausted with the heat and humidity.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Admission to Anuradhapura archaeological site costs around 3850 Rupees ($25 US dollars). The site is quite spread out and the best way to visit it is either by contracting a tuk tuk for the day, or by bike (around 700 to 800 Rupees at various shops near the entrance of the site). You can also book a private cycling tour of Anuradhapura. You could also do a day tour to Anuradhapura from Colombo such as this one.
Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after Anuradhapura, and much like it, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site – not to mention, the location where Duran Duran filmed their hit Save a Prayer video (ok, this is a bit geeky but I was a massive fan!). The site is massive and best explored by bike, though most of the ancient structures are currently in ruins. There are gardens, palaces, temples, and a large colony of macaques.
The Royal Rock Temple of Dambulla is a large and incredibly well preserved cave temple located on a rock that rises at 160 meters above the surrounding plains. There’s a total of 5 caves containing statues and paintings in the protected area, though apparently there are many more caves in the vicinity.
Visiting the Royal Rock Temple doesn’t take more than a couple of hours, and it can be done en route from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya. Once in Dambulla bus station, take a tuk tuk to the entrance of the Royal Rock Temple. It is only a 5 minutes ride and shouldn’t cost more than 200 Rupees. Luggage can be left at the site shop for just 100 Rupees.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Admission fee for the temple is 1500 Rupees ($10 USD).
TIP: Once again, you need to be dressed appropriately to visit this temple. You may want to check out my post What To Wear In Sri Lanka for more information.
If you are keen on exploring Dambulla a bit more in depth, you may opt for a tour such as this Dambulla Cave Temple and village tour.
Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park is home to some of the largest elephant gatherings in the world, and – together with Minneriya – one the best places to visit in Sri Lanka in order to admire elephants. Safaris usually last in the range of 2 to 3 hours. Jeeps can only drive along the tracks, and the fact safaris are so inexpensive in Sri Lanka means that there will be a lot of jeeps and a lot of people all pushing to view elephants. Yet, it’s worth going.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Admission fee for Kaudulla National Park is the same as for all other parks in Sri Lanka – $25 USD, or the equivalent payable in Rupees. To this you have to add the rental of a jeep with a driver for the duration of the safari – around 6000 Rupees. It may be an easier option to book a guided safari here.
Udawalawe National Park
Another national park you may want to visit is Udawalawe, which is in the south of Sri Lanka at about one hour drive from Hambantota. The park is an excellent place to admire elephants, crocodiles, water buffalos, monkeys, deers and various species of birds. There are leopards too, but these animals are mostly nocturnal, elusive and harder to spot.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Guided tours of the national park are available. For more information, click here. You can visit Usawalawe National Park on day trips from a variety of locations in Sri Lanka. Here is a selection of the best tours:
At around 20 km from Dambulla, there’s Sigiriya, definitely one of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka. Upon entering the site, the view of the rock of Sigiriya in the distance is truly marvelous. The rock fortress is located on the top of a hill, which is surrounded by lush vegetation. The view from the fortress is breathtaking.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Admission to Sigiriya is 4620 Rupees ($30 USD). It’s actually quite expensive but worth investing in it, and if possible to even hire a guide to make the most of it. From Dambulla, you can book this tour to Sigiriya and it’ll also include Polonnaruwa.
Among the less famous places to visit in Sri Lanka this rock fortress not far from Sigiriya is truly worth visiting. From the entrance, it is a steady 30 minutes of uphill walking (or rather, hiking: do make sure to wear shoes!) to get to the top, from which there’s the most impressive view which goes all the way to Sigiriya. If you have a chance, make sure to go there for sunset.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Admission is just 500 Sri Lankan Rupees (around $3 USD) and you’ll hardly find any visitors.
Here are some tour options for exploring the area:
- Day Trip to Sigiriya Rock, Pidurangala Rock, and Dambulla Temple
- Full Day Tour to Sigiriya Lion Rock and Dambulla Cave Temple
If you’re staying in other areas, there are also some day tour options:
Kandy is an interesting city, if you manage to get past its traffic and pollution. Some points of interest are Kandy Lake, which is an artificial lake build in 1807 and where locals love going for walks; a nice market that sells local produce and souvenirs; and the nearby tea factories.
However, the main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, considered one of the holiest Buddhist temples and one of the ultimate places to visit in Sri Lanka.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Admission for the Temple of the Tooth Relic is 1500 Rupees ($10 USD).
TIP: Make sure to avoid the puja (prayer) times (5:30 to 6:45; 9:30 to 11:00 am, and 6:30 to 8:00 pm) as that’s when the site is most crowded and you won’t be able to see much.
The following guided tours of Kandy may help you make the most of the city:
Make sure to read my posts A Guide To The Most Unique Temples In Sri Lanka.
Easy to reach via public transportation (bus 644 leaves from the bus terminal) the small temple of Embekke Dewalaya. is a charming place. It costs 300 Rupees to get in and even during the hours of puja, the atmosphere is not nearly as hectic as that of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, and you’ll mostly see locals.
GOOD TO KNOW: At around 4 km from Embekka Dewalaya, there’s another gorgeous temple located on top of a hill – Lankathilaka. You only pay to visit if you want to go inside. Hop on a tuk tuk to get there, as it can be a strenuous walk.
If you book this Historical Temples tour, it will take you to Gadaladeniya, Lankatilaka Temple, and Emebekke Devala.
Gal Oya National Park
Gal Oya National Park is one of the places to visit in Sri Lanka to see elephants and a multitude of other animals in their natural environment and in the most responsible way. It can be visited on either a jeep or a boat safari.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Gal Oya Lodge organizes boat safaris for its guests that are in the range of $60 USD, including transportation to the park, admission fee, the boat and a delicious breakfast you will enjoy by the lake.
Other than the park, the area around Gal Oya is gorgeous to explore. There is a beautiful lagoon, a few houses in the countryside, an indigenous communities (one of the last ones in the country). The complete lack of phone reception makes it the perfect place to disconnect from internet and social media.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is one of the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka for its unique wildlife. It is home to many elephants and to a very high population of leopards, though the latter are very hard to spot.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Yala National Park opens at 6:00 am and you’ll find a line to get the tickets, so plan to be there no later than 5:00 am if you are keen to be the first one getting in. Admission is $25 USD which you’ll have to pay in local currency and according to the day’s exchange rate. A jeep for the day costs 6000 Rupees, to be shared among the various people in the group. Keep in mind that drivers aren’t qualified guides or rangers trained in spotting wildlife and in informing you about it.
The issue with Yala is that the park gets very crowded with jeeps and visitors, and since drivers work mostly for tips, they will literally race through the park to spot animals, often getting too close to them and causing them distress. I wholeheartedly recommend to point out to your driver that you won’t accept this kind of behavior.
Bundala National Park
Located in southern Sri Lanka, between Kirinda and Hambantota, Bundala National Park is a fantastic place to admire many species of birds – most endemic to Sri Lanka, some following migratory patterns that take them there all the way from Siberia. Other animals you can see when touring the park are crocodiles, elephants, turtles – which lay eggs on the coast. The landscape is incredible: sand dunes, lagoons, and a unique wetland.
Known as Little England, Nuwara Eliya is one the best places to visit in Sri Lanka to appreciate the tea culture of the country and to enjoy the weather, which is much milder compared to the rest of Sri Lanka. Its nickname is due to the Victorian style architecture which can be seen in many buildings, not to mention in the beautiful Victoria Park. The cloud forest that surrounds the city is another must see.
Among the sights you should not miss there is Pedro Estate, close to the city and a lovely place to experience the whole process of the production of tea, from the picking of the leaves to the packaging.
Finally, Nuwara Eliya Bale Bazaar is a good market where to spend a couple of hours shopping. Goods to look for (here but also in the rest of the country) are: good spices and tea for a real steal; excellent quality coconut oil; nice textiles and branded items right out of the factory for a fraction of their price.
For tours for Nuwara Eliya, check these:
Read more about Nuwara Eliya in my post “A Complete Guide to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka.”
At around 45 minutes drive from the more famous Ella, Wellawaya is a truly wonderful place. You will find some gorgeous waterfalls (the best one is Elle Wala); a hardly known Buddhist temple carved in the rock, called Buduruwagala; lots of wildlife, including flying squirrels and owls; and a lovely rural community.
Here’s a post about Sri Lanka off the beaten path.
It’s easy to see why Ella is a favorite of tourists. Though the city itself is nothing special, the surroundings are simply gorgeous! Once a quiet village, Ella is now the hiking capital of Sri Lanka. From there, you can easily hike Adam’s Peak or – for a less challenging experience – Little Adam’s Peak, whose trail goes through the tea estates of 98 Acres and affords breathtaking views.
Another must see is Nine Arch Bridge, which is completely free to access (you may have to pay for a tuk tuk to get to the trail). The trail to get to the best viewpoint is a bit outside of town. It goes down the hill and along the train tracks for a while before getting to a fantastic spot where you can wait for the train to arrive while sipping a fresh coconut.
TIP: Make sure to check the train timetable and plan your visit to Nine Arch Bridge around that for a truly beautiful photo opportunity.
Last, but definitely not least, not far from Ella there are some gorgeous waterfalls. The most beautiful one is Diyaluma, which is easily visible from the road.
Check out my post A Complete Guide To Visiting Nine Arch Bridge.
In the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Tangalle is home to some of the best beaches in the country – from small coves to long sandy beaches, most of them nicely served with vendors and a variety of services – and a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Make sure not to miss Rekawa Beach, east of Tangalle, where you will find a sea turtle nesting area and a nice conservation center.
Located right between the bigger Tangalle and Dikwella, Nilwella is a small fishing community where life goes on at an incredibly slow pace. Not many tourists end up there, which is part of the charme!
Nilwella is one of the nicest places to visit in Sri Lanka if you are looking to relax listening to the sound of waves. Among the best beaches in the area, there are Blue Beach, perfect for swimming, and the nearby Blue Beach Island – which actually is a tiny isthmus, with really inviting water; Parewella, which is closer to Tangalle and 100% local; and Blow Hole.
Nilwella also has a lovely local market with lots of fresh produce.
Mirissa is one of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka. Most people head there because it is a prime location for whale watching, which is best enjoyed from November to April.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Whale watching cruises cost around $50 USD. They usually leave from the harbor at around 7:00 am, and they may last anything from 3 to 6 hours, depending on how long it takes to spot the blue whales. You can book your cruise locally, or – if you are short on time – opt to book online here.
Mirissa is also famous for the stilt fishermen. This traditional activity has long ceased to be practiced – the stilt fishermen you see nowadays are literally models who pose for photos in exchange for money. There are signs on the beach indicating where you’ll find them and men aggressively running to collect money as soon as you get off the car and take out your camera.
Make sure to read my post 13 Things To Know About Whale Watching In Mirissa.
If you want to learn how to surf, Weligama is where to go. The beach is simply gorgeous – long, sandy, lined with beautiful palm trees. It gets good waves on a regular basis and the sea is nice and warm, perfect for surfing. It’s also a great place to admire sunset!
Another great place to practice your surfing skills (the best waves are between November and March), snorkel and dive is Hikkaduwa. The beach is massive, with lots of stands that sell snacks, street food or where you can rent anything you may need for the day – including surfing or snorkeling gear.
Not far from Hikkaduwa and part of Hikkaduwa National Park, there’s the Hikkaduwa Coral Sanctuary, a protected marine area.
On the southeast coast, Arugam Bay is one of the most popular places to visit for surfers thanks to the perfect beaches and the even better waves. The prime surfing location is Main Point, south of the bay. The town also has some nicely preserved temples and not far from it, Kumana National Park is another great place to admire wildlife.
You are bound to fall in love with Galle. The Old Town is a a series of narrow, cobbled alleys; beautifully preserved colonial buildings; and the gorgeous Galle Fort with its lighthouse and Clock Tower. It’s easy to see why the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The view of the sunset from the wall is splendid.
Galle also has an incredible offer of good restaurants and coffee shops; fabulous shopping opportunities, with great art galleries, souvenirs and clothing stores.
Here are some nice tours of Galle:
Check out my post The Best Yoga Retreats In Sri Lanka.
Bentota isn’t on many people’s radar when they go to Sri Lanka. Yet, it is a lovely place to explore.
The main thing to do in Bentota is visiting the turtle hatchery. It’s a place that rescues turtles or their eggs and protects them and reinserts them in their natural environment. Another thing to do is a cruise along the river.
But in all honesty, if your time is limited skip everything and head directly to Lunuganga to visit Geoffrey Bawa’s house. He was the most prominent architect of Sri Lanka, with a vision for embedding his creations in the surrounding nature. His property gives an aura of peace and relaxation. It’s an absolutely fantastic place and during the visit you’ll get the chance to learn a lot about Bawa’s life and career, as well as the history of the country.
Make sure to read my post “A Guide To The Things To Do In Bentota, Sri Lanka.”