There are a lot of places to visit in Sri Lanka. This small country that was devastated by civil war for more than 25 years has a lot to offer to those who make it their 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 visited between August and September and was impressed with the vegetation: this is by far the greenest place I have ever visited. I am quite sure that whoever said the word “tropical” for the first time had Sri Lanka in mind.
In this post, I highlight some of the unmissable places to visit in Sri Lanka and share some tips to make the most of this incredible country.
The Nicest Places To Visit In Sri Lanka
Of all the places to visit in Sri Lanka, Negombo is the one closest to Colombo international airport so it makes sense to stop there for a night or two to rest after a long haul flight.
Negombo is home to some of the best known Sri Lanka beaches, where it is pleasant to go for a walk. Furthermore, if visiting markets is one of the most interesting things to do in Sri Lanka, Negombo fish market makes for an interesting stop.
Other than that, the city definitely isn’t the most interesting one in the country: there are more beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka for sure.
Where to stay in Negombo
As with most places to visit in Sri Lanka, Negombo has a wide selection of places to stay, for any budget. House of Dilly is a good budget guest house a bit off the centre. Rooms are on the small side, but clean; the included breakfast is very filling and the owner very kind.
If enjoying Sri Lanka beaches is the main purpose of the trip, then Jetwing Beach is the place to stay in Negombo and one of the best places to stay in Sri Lanka altogether. Its main perk is the swimming pool, which makes any swimmer like myself drool: it’s a whopping 100 meters long.
How to get to Negombo
Negombo is well connected with the rest of places to visit in Sri Lanka, and it’s the closest city to the international airport. A tuc tuc ride from the airport to the centre of town shouldn’t cost more than 1000 Rupees, for a ride of around 20 to 30 minutes.
Anuradhapura is one of the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka, and its uniqueness is such that it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The entrance ticket to the Anuradhapura archaeological site costs around 3850 Rupees ($25 US dollars) – a bit overpriced considering the actual cost of living in the country. The site is quite spread out and the best way to visit it is either by contracting a tuc tuc for the day (and in this case, haggling the price is one of the things to do in Sri Lanka), or by bike. Bikes can be rented for around 700 to 800 Rupees at various shops near the entrance of the site.
It takes around 6 hours to visit the various places of interest in Anuradhapura. After that, one inevitably gets exhausted with the heat and humidity. 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.
As there are various temples in Anuradhapura, it’s important to dress appropriately. Shoulders and legs should be covered when entering the temples, and shoes removed – this is the case all the holy places to see in Sri Lanka.
Read my post “A Great Guide To Anuradhapura Sri Lanka.” To find out more about the holy sites of Sri Lanka, read my post “Sri Lanka: Ancient Cities, Holy Places And Wild Nature.”
Where to sleep in Anuradhapura
Aside from the beautiful archaeological site, Anuradhapura city isn’t really that interesting. However, as with the rest of tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, there is a decent selection of places to stay.
Unable to find the place I had actually booked, I eventually found a room at N & L Holiday Resort. Located a bit off the centre of town, it turned out to be a very good guest house. Rooms are large, the location is very quiet, and the wife of the owner cooks a really good curry for a more than reasonable price (one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka is eating curry, even better if home cooked).
Travelers with a higher budget can opt to stay at The Sanctuary.
How to get to Anuradhapura
As with all the major tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is well connected. In order to get there from Negombo, take a bus to Kurunegala, then change and take a bus to Anuradhapura. The trip can last anything between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the traffic and on the frequency of the buses. The overall journey shouldn’t cost more than 400 Rupees.
Dambulla, Sigiriya and Pidurangala
The Royal Rock Temple of Dambulla is one of the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka. It 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’s many more caves in the vicinity.
Although the Royal Rock Temple is one of the best known tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, not to mention one of the most holy places in the country, I hardly think it is worth the 1500 Rupees ($10 USD) entry fee. To be fair, the best part for me is the view from the top.
One of the things to do in Sri Lanka when visiting temples and holy places is dressing appropriately (covering shoes and legs) and removing shoes. The same goes for Dambulla. Shoes can be left on the shelf by the entrance for a fee. I put mine in the backpack I was carrying.
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 tuc tuc to the entrance of the Royal Rock Temple. It is only a 5 minutes ride and shouldn’t cost more than 200 Rupees. Remember to haggle the price: it is one of the things to do in Sri Lanka. Luggage can be left at the shop for just 100 Rupees.
At around 20 km from Dambulla, there’s Sigiriya, perhaps the most famous of all the 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 (as it usually is the case in Sri Lanka) is surrounded by lush vegetation. The view from the fortress is breathtaking.
The entrance fee 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.
Yet, it’s the less famous places to visit in Sri Lanka that I enjoy the most, such as Pidurangala, another rock fortress not far from Sigiriya. It only costs 500 Sri Lankan Rupees (around $3 USD) to get in, and there’s hardly any visitors.
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. One of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is actually admiring the sunset from Pidurangala.
Make sure to read my post “A Guide To The Things To Do In Sigiriya Sri Lanka.”
Where to sleep near Sigiriya
Among the greatest things to do in Sri Lanka there’s staying in places that are fully immersed in nature and that are environmentally friendly. Back of Beyond Dehigaha Ela is at about 30 minutes drive from Sigiriya, and one of the most unique hotels I have ever stayed at. I stayed first in a tree house, and then in a boulder cottage. Both rooms were stylish, cozy and fun to sleep in.
Back of Beyond Pidurangala is located closer to the famous Sri Lanka attractions, but just as beautiful. As both places are quite isolated, meals are available there for a very reasonable price. There’s a good selection of local and international cuisine – trying local food is one of the things to do in Sri Lanka!
How to get to Dambulla, Sigiriya and Pidurangala
There are direct buses from Anuradhapura to Dambulla, costing only 200 Rupees. Once there, hop on a bus to Sigiriya which shouldn’t cost more than 100 Rupees. Alternatively, tuc tucs should cost around 1000 – but keep in mind that one of the things to do in Sri Lanka before getting on a tuc tuc is haggling the prices.
Kandy and its surroundings
Kandy is thought to be one of the nicest places to visit in Sri Lanka.I spent 3 nights there, exploring the city (which is ok) and the surroundings (which are absolutely gorgeous). It is an interesting city, though there’s a lot of traffic and pollution. The main 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 most important places to visit in Sri Lanka.
It costs 1500 Rupees ($10 USD) to visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Appropriate clothing is required and it is better to avoid the puja (prayer) times (5:30 to 6:45; 9:30 to 11:00 am, and 6:30 to 8:00 pm). I didn’t know that there’d be a prayer at mid morning too, and found ourselves pushed and pulled by the praying crowd to the point that we hardly enjoyed what is meant to be one of the best tourist attractions in Sri Lanka.
More than the actual city of Kandy, I enjoyed the temples and villages not far from the city. So much so, that I came to the conclusion that it is the lesser known tourist attractions in Sri Lanka that are worth seeing.
Easy to reach via public transportation (bus 644 leaves from the bus terminal) there’s the beautiful, small temple of Embekke Dewalaya. It costs 300 Rupees to get in. Even during the hours of puja, the atmosphere is not nearly as hectic as that of the Temple of the Tooth Relic. It’s so peaceful there that it quickly becomes one of my favorite places to see in Sri Lanka, especially as it is mostly locals there.
At around 4 km from Embekka Dewalaya, there’s another gorgeous temple, located on top of a hill. It is called Lankathilaka and visitors only have to pay if they want to visit the tiny interior. The walk there may have been quite pleasant, were it not for the incessant rain that forced me to hop on a tuc tuc. A quick reminder that one of the most important things to do in Sri Lanka is to always carry an umbrella.
Where to stay in Kandy
As with all the best known places to visit in Sri Lanka, there’s a lot of accommodation options in Kandy. I opted to stay at Old Town Hotel, a nice guest house with large, comfortable rooms and modern bathrooms. A scrumptious breakfast is included in the price of the room, and for a small additional fee the owners will prepare a delicious home cooked meal.
How to get to Kandy
Kandy is one of the main cities of the Hill Country, and one of the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka. It’s easy to get there by public transportation from literally anywhere.
Gal Oya National Park
All the nice places to visit in Sri Lanka are natural sites, and possibly off the main tourist path. Gal Oya National Park is where to go in Sri Lanka to see elephants and a multitude of other animals in their natural environment and in the most responsible way.
Going on a safari to admire local wildlife is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. Gal Oya can be visited on either a jeep or a boat safari. I did a boat safari that departed from Gal Oya Lodge before the break of dawn and costed around $60 USD, including transportation to the park, the entry fee, the boat and a delicious breakfast which we ate in the middle of nature.
Other than the park, the area around Gal Oya is gorgeous to explore, making it one of the nicest places to visit in Sri Lanka. 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.
Where to stay near Gal Oya National Park
One of the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka is staying at unique hotels that are completely immersed in nature. Gal Oya Lodge is the only place available near Gal Oya National Park. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny and it makes the trip worth it. The lodge is 100% sustainable, it is completely immersed in nature, and there’s local naturalists and guides. The on site restaurants serves delicious food.
How to get to Gal Oya Lodge
Gal Oya National Park and Gal Oya Lodge are some of the most isolated places to visit in Sri Lanka, but they are worth the effort of going. In order to get there from Kandy, take the bus to Ampara via Bibile, and ask the driver to stop when near Gal Oya Lodge (it’s a good idea to make someone from the Lodge talk to the driver).
Known as Little England, Nuwara Eliya is among the 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.
Nuwara Eliya’s nickname is due to the Victorian style architecture which can be seen in many buildings, not to mention in the beautiful Victoria Park. It is however the incessant rain and the cool nights that, more than the architecture, remind me of England.
If one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka is visiting tea plantations and tea factories, Nuwara Eliya is the best place to do that. Pedro Estate is close to the city and it’s a lovely place to experience the whole process of the production of tea, from the picking of the leaves to the packaging.
Nature is among the best tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, and this is the case even in Nuwara Eliya where there’s a thick cloud forest that deserves to be visited.
Finally, Nuwara Eliya Bale Bazaar is a good market where to spend a couple of hours shopping. Prices are so good that this should be considered one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. 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.
Read more about Nuwara Eliya in my post “A Complete Guide to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka.”
Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya
One of the reasons that makes Nuwara Eliya one of the places to visit in Sri Lanka is the Victorian style architecture, a good example of which can be found in the Oatlands by Jetwing hotel, a small boutique hotel that only has 4 lovely, cozy rooms located in a picturesque cottage. The adjacent St. Andrew’s is a larger hotel, with gorgeous interiors.
How to get to Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya can be easily reached by bus from Kandy (the ride lasts about 3 hours). Alternatively, Nanu Oya railway station is at around 9 km from Nuwara Eliya and connected to Kandy and Ella. Although trains are incredibly slow in Sri Lanka, the scenery is so beautiful that getting the train across the Hill Country may well be one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka.
At around 45 minutes drive from the more famous Ella, Wellawaya hardly makes the list of places to visit in Sri Lanka. I ended up there as I decided to skip Yala National Park. I wanted to get off the beaten path, and I surely did.
Wellawaya is a fabulous destination to enjoy all the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka. Nature is fantastic here, with some gorgeous waterfalls (we visited 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.
Where to stay in Wellawaya
Tourism is still developing in Wellawaya, which means that there are less accommodation options than in the rest of the country. In a way, it is a blessing, as there’s none of the crowds that at times make it impossible to enjoy tourist attractions in Sri Lanka.
I stayed at Jetwing Kuduruketha and truly enjoyed our time there. It is completely immersed in nature, and it is run in an ecofriendly way. All bungalows have a gorgeous view, and the onsite restaurant serves excellent food. To top this off, yoga classes and ayurvedic treatments are offered – one of the things to do in Sri Lanka to completely switch off from the stresses of modern life.
How to get to Wellawaya
Wellawaya can be easily reached by bus from Ella, currently one of the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka among backpackers. The bus stop is located a bit outside the center of Ella, on the main road. It takes around 45 minutes to get there.
In search for the best beaches in Sri Lanka, I ended up in Nilwella, located right between the bigger Tangalle and Dikwella. It’s a small fishing community where life goes on at an incredibly slow pace.
Nilwella is one of the nicest places to visit in Sri Lanka for anybody who is looking to relax listening to the sound of waves. Come to think of it, surfing is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka and Nilwella has some beaches that are perfect for that. There’s also a lovely local market with lots of fresh produce.
Among the best beaches in Sri Lanka that are located close to Nilwella, there’s Blue Beach, 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.
Where to stay in Nilwella
There are various acommodation options in Nilwella. I opted to stay at Vattersgarden Isolabella, a beautiful property right by Blue Beach Island, to which there’s direct access. One of the things to do in Sri Lanka is enjoying ayurvedic treatments and these are on offer at Vattersgarten too.
How to get to Nilwella
Nilwella is located right between Tangalle and Dikwella. Any bus going towards Matara and onto Mirissa and Galle (some of the best known places to visit in Sri Lanka) are bound to stop on the way. Alternatively, take a bus to Tangalle and from there one heading to Dikwella. Either way, ask the bus driver to be dropped off at the junction to Nilwella and from there take a tuc tuc.
Of all the places to visit in Sri Lanka, Galle is the one you are bound to enjoy the most. The Old Town is a a series of narrow, cobbled alleys; well preserved colonial buildings; and the gorgeous Galle Fort with the beautiful lighthouse and Clock Tower. It’s easy to see why the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Among the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka there’s taking a stroll along Galle Fort to admire the mighty power of the sea; and observing the youths playing joyfully in the water. The view of the sunset from the wall is splendid.
Galle has an incredible offer of good restaurants and coffee shops – it looks like all the ones that I haven’t been able to find in the rest of the country are concentrated in once city; and fabulous shopping opportunities, with great art galleries, souvenirs and clothing stores. By the look of it, it is quite obvious that Galle is one of the best known tourist attractions in Sri Lanka.
Check out my post “A Complete Guide To Galle, Sri Lanka” and find out why Galle should be the last stop on a trip to Sri Lanka.
Where to stay in Galle
Being one of the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka, Galle is packed with accommodation options for any budget. There’s plenty of good boutique hotels in the Old Town; some hostels and a lot of family run guest houses. I stayed at Richmond Hill Villa, which has a great quality / price ratio and whose owners went above and beyond to meet my needs. But it is a good walk from the Old Town.
An excellent place to stay in the Old Town is Galle Heritage Villa by Jetwing. Otherwise, the best place to treat oneself when in Galle is staying at one of the incredible luxury villas at its outskirts. It may well be one of the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka. I treated myself to the marvelous Villa Sepalika, where we had a gorgeous colonial style villa with beautifully decorated rooms, a lush garden, a pool and even a butler to ourselves.
How to get to Galle
As one of the unmissable places to visit in Sri Lanka, Galle has direct connections by bus or train to Colombo and to a range of other destinations such as Matara, Kandy (though the trip lasts around 10 hours) and others around the country.
Useful Information To Plan Your Sri Lanka
When To Visit Sri Lanka
Asking about the best time to visit Sri Lanka means asking the trickiest question of all. I don’t think I can answer that. Sri Lanka has two different monsoon seasons, and for those who are not accustomed to them it is hard to sort them out. In any case, some of the places to visit in Sri Lanka get lots of rain throughout the year.
This means that, no matter what time of year one plans to go, there are high chances of rain and you may well get stuck somewhere waiting for it to pass.
Getting A Visa For Sri Lanka
Visa on arrivals are available in Sri Lanka, but it is much better and faster to actually apply to get a visa online. Specialized agencies such as iVisa can help with the application process. Tourist and Business ETA allow a maximum stay of 30 days and a double entry in the country.
Currency In Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan Rupee is the official currency of the country and the one accepted at all tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. There’s ATMs in all cities, and much less in the smaller villages. Keep in mind that some cards don’t work, so having two different ones belonging to two different circuits may be a good idea.
Only the best hotels in the country take payments with credit cards. Otherwise, cash is used. It is possible to exchange Euro and US dollars in banks and even in some shops. The exchange rate is around 177 Rupees for $1 USD; and 197 Rupees for €1 Euro.
Safety and Scams In Sri Lanka
Safety is hardly an issue in Sri Lanka. People are incredibly friendly and helpful, even when they speak no English and even in the most remote locations.
I was never a victim of scams, though I immediately realized that haggling is one of the things to do in Sri Lanka. This applies to shopping in markets and as well as to tuc tucs and taxis.
Traveling Around Sri Lanka
Surprisingly enough, public transportation works quite well in Sri Lanka. Buses and trains may be old, slow, and crowded but they connect all the most important places to visit in Sri Lanka, and even the most remote ones; they are dirt cheap and they are very reliable, if only a bit crowded.
Tuc tucs are pretty much everywhere, and they are cheap – provided one knows the charging system. Besides, one of the most fun things to do in Sri Lanka is riding a tuc tuc. After a week of traveling, a local couple warned me that tuc tuc normally charge around 100 Rupees for the first 2 km, and after that, something around 40 Rupees for km. We used our best haggling techniques to bring the prices down. Having a rough idea of the distance to cover helps with the haggling.
Taking a guided tour of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is an easy enough country to travel around independently, especially given that the public transportation is – despite slow – cheap and efficient and connecting all the places to visit mentioned in this post. However, I can understand that you may not be a fan of planning, and that you may have limited time in Sri Lanka. If that is the case, you may want to leave the organization bits to the expert and just worry about packing.
G Adventures has several good tours you can consider:
Wi-Fi In Sri Lanka
Hotels and guest houses in all the most famous places to visit in Sri Lanka provide wi-fi, though the speed is decent at best. Some places are so isolated that there no phone reception at all. Tourists can buy local SIM cards with data plans for very convenient prices. It’s a good way to stay online and to use Google Maps to calculate distances and traveling times (especially when having to haggle with tuc tuc drivers).
Shopping In Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka isn’t exactly shopping paradise (aside for Galle!), yet the local markets are among the nicest tourist attractions in Sri Lanka and they have a good variety of things to buy. Spices and pure coconut oil can be found for very cheap prices. Shop owners often try to push the awful elephant pants, while there’s much nicer clothes to buy. Always haggle prices.
People in Sri Lanka
One of the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka is meeting the locals. People there are always friendly, kind and generally helpful, despite the language barrier.
Responsible Tourism In Sri Lanka
The use of animals in tourist attractions in Sri Lanka is unfortunately still quite common, and tourism is impacting Sri Lanka wildlife. I saw dancing monkeys in Anuradhapura; charmed snakes in Galle, and people riding chained elephants in various places in the country. These poor animals are tortured to be trained, and live a miserable life.
One of the most important things to do in Sri Lanka in order to stop the explotation of animals for entertainment is to refrain from taking part in such activities: guides, owners of guest houses and tuc tuc drivers will often try to sell “elephant safaris” but a firm now it the only way to answer.
There are lots of stray animals in Sri Lanka – cats, but especially dogs. One of the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka in order to help is supporting one of the local organizations that fend for the animals and help in their sterilization. There’s a few of them that take donations. One of them, Embark, has a lovely shop in Galle where all profits go to the support of animals.
Eating And Drinking In Sri Lanka
I am not a fan of spicy food, and though most people say that one of the nicest things to do in Sri Lanka is eating, I had a really hard time finding food I could enjoy. At times I was so desperate for something mild that I bought avocado, bread and tomatoes and just ate a sandwich.
All the best places to visit in Sri Lanka have a decent selection of restaurants, though the budget ones are also extremely low quality. Guest houses are good places to try local food: owners usually offer to prepare meals and they also have a selection of vegetarian options. String hoppers and chicken curry are among the dishes to try in Sri Lanka.
Beer would be good in Sri Lanka, were it not for the fact that it is hardly served cold. Lemonade, on the other hand, is incredibly refreshing.
Hygienic Conditions And Pollution In Sri Lanka
After having visited India, I was prepared for the worst in Sri Lanka. To be honest though, Sri Lanka isn’t nearly as dirty and polluted as India. Tourist places are pretty much spotless.
On the other hand, there’s quite a bit of garbage even on some of the best beaches. It’s a real pity and I hope authorities intervene to clean them up.
Have you ever been to Sri Lanka? What are your favorite places to visit in Sri Lanka?
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