After a long-drawn civil war, Sri Lanka has finally embraced peace and has thrown its doors open to tourists from around the world. Most of its guests, though, come from its neighbor, India. With honeymooning couples, large families and backpackers visiting Sri Lanka by the dozens, Sri Lanka is fast emerging as India’s most favorite weekend getaway too.
As part of our special series on Sri Lanka, we are listing out all the things to do and places to visit in the island nation.
More from this series
Top 9 things to do in Galle
Top 9 things to do in Colombo
Today, we list out the 21 things you absolutely must do while traveling in Sri Lanka. Ready?
1. Take the Colombo city tour
Colombo is to Sri Lanka, what Mumbai is to India. The commercial capital and the largest city in the country holds on to its old world charm with colonial bazaars, markets, forts and beach fronts. You could do with at least a couple of days to explore the city (though quite like Mumbai, no amount of time is enough to explore Colombo’s cultures and sub cultures). But if you are on a tight schedule, it might not be such a bad idea to take the Colombo city tour bus. The bus halts at three stops, the Town Hall, the National Museum and the Arcade Independence Square. It also passes by iconic destinations such as the Light House, the War Memorial and many more. Once you take a city tour, you will have more than a gist or what you could do in the city. Though Colombo doesn’t have much of a nightlife to speak of there is enough to do and see in the city to keep you busy.
2. Visit the Temple of the Tooth
Located in Kandy, the Temple of the Tooth is the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country. It is situated in a palace complex that belonged to the former kingdom of Kandy. Legend has it that when Gautam Buddha was to be cremated on a sandalwood pyre, his left canine was brought to Sri Lanka from India some years later. Ever since, the tooth relic has been revered by Buddhists from across the globe and is a famous tourist destination. The temple complex houses a shrine of the Buddha called Alut Maligawa, it has various idols of the Buddha gifted to the temple by Thai monks, an audience hall and the Sri Dalada Museum.
3. Witness the Kandy Esala Perahera
The Kandy Esala Perahera is one of the most important celebrations in Sri Lanka. The ten-day celebrations are linked with the Tooth Relic, which is brought out in a grand procession. Celebrated during July or August, depending on when the month of Esala falls, the festival began in the 4th century when Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe the local ruler began the tradition in Buddha’s honor. Today Kandy Esala Perahera is to the Sinhalese what Diwali is to the Hindus.
4. Go ‘Awww’ at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
This Elephant Orphanage is a must visit for those who’d not want to miss the world’s largest group of captive orphaned and rescued elephants. It was established in 1975 to take care of five orphaned baby elephants. Today it is home to over 80 elephants. One of the tourist attractions is the orphanage’s three legged elephant, Sama who stepped on a landmine, and the other, Raja who is blind and the oldest one in the orphanage. There are three feeding sessions everyday (9.15 am, 1.15 pm and 5 pm), making it the best time of the day to visit the orphanage so that you can pet and feed the elephants
5. Trek to the Adam’s Peak
The Adam’s Peak, 2,243 m in height is located in central Sri Lanka. It is famous for the Sri Pada a rock formation that resembles a human foot. Buddhists believe it to be Buddha’s; Hindus believe it belongs to Shiva and the Christians and Muslims consider it to be Adam’s footprint. This makes Adam’s Peak an important destination for people of all these faiths. Surrounded by dense forests, there are six routes to trek to the Peak. The one Nallathanni-Palabaddala route is the most favored one. If the Sri Pada doesn’t interest you there is also a magnificent Peace Pagoda atop the hill that makes the climb worth it all.
6. Hike up to the World’s End
Located at the Horton Plains National Park of Nuwara Eliya, the World’s End is one of the most visited places in Sri Lanka. It is a cliff situated at 4,000 ft above sea level and from here you can get a clear view of the Indian Ocean. The hike up to the cliff is easy and is a little over four km. Avoiding the trails on public holidays and weekends will be better for those looking for some solitude and less crowd.
7.Get an aryuvedic oil massage
Ayurveda is an ancient science that believes in a holistic approach towards living and healing. There are several ayurvedic resorts and retreats that you could visit for a relaxing experience. The Sisshalepa Ayurveda Health Resort is the best option, however there are various other spas you could visit. The most popular form of ayurveda in Sri Lanka is the Panchakarma that stands for a five-fold treatment that involves five varied therapies including, therapeutic vomiting, nasal administration of medicines, purging, enema and blood-letting. Though people travel to Sri Lanka for treating serious ailments with ayurveda, there are plenty of rejuvenating options for you.
8. Visit Galle, the island’s best preserved colonial town
You will find colonial influences in Galle even today. The Portuguese who ruled the beautiful island city till early 18th century, have left their imprints in every part of Galle. It is indeed one of the best examples of fortified cities built by the Portuguese in South East Asia. The Old Town of Galle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Galle Fort and the Galle Fort Walk, National Maritime Museum and Galle National Museum and the Dutch Reformed Church are some of the places in the Sri Lanka’s fifth largest city you have to visit.
9. Visit Anuradhapura, home to ancient Sinhalese Civilization
Anuradhapura is yet another one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Site known for preserving ancient Sinhalese civilization. It is also the capital of the north central province of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world and the oldest in Sri Lanka. The three types of architectural examples you’ll find here are monasteries, stupas (dagobas) and water tanks (pokunas). The city is known for its ancient irrigation methods that were path-breaking back in the time. The town has around eight athmastanas, places where the Buddha is believed to have visited on his three visits to Sri Lanka. Ruwanwelisaya and the Thuparamaya (first dagoba to be built in Sri Lanka) dagobas along with the Kuttam Pokuna (the best example of a bathing tank), Mihintale, believed to be the oldest hospital in the world are few places you mist visit here. The city is filled with historic monuments, buildings and architectural marvels that proves the progressive thinking of the Sinhalese.
10. Try some Kothu Roti, and rice and curry
Kothu roti is one of the many signature dishes of Sri Lanka that you must not try. The local cuisine is influenced by the various colonies that had ruled over the country for centuries. Most food is predominantly prepared with rice, coconut and a variety of spices. Do remember, in Sri Lanka it’s rice and curry, not the other way round as rice (the staple) is given higher priority. You could also try appams and iddiyappams that resemble south Indian cuisine.
11. Go whale-watching at Mirissa
Located on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, the town of Mirissa caught tourist attention only in the late 20th century. Apart from the beautiful-clean beach, whale watching (seldom dolphins too) is the best thing to do here. Sperm Whales and Pygmy Blue Whales cross the Indian Ocean and migrate towards warmers regions in the southeast Asian waters. The migration to and fro takes place between November and April each year. Weligama along with Mirissa in the Matara district are two places that arrange tours for whale watching during the migration period, something you must not miss.
12. Visit the ancient palace and fortress of Sigiriya
Sigiria is another ancient city of Sri Lanka. It is the capital of the kingdom of King Kassapa I. It was built in the fifth century and is not an epitome of ancient urban planning. Legend has it that the king Kassapa killed his father and plastered him in a wall. After being rejected by his people, he fled from Anuradhapura and came to the central province of Sri Lanka. He spent long years of hardwork and built a new palace for himself along with gardens and a a magnificent lion gate to guard his new capital. The fortress and palace was decorated with frescoes on all walls depicting interesting anecdotes and tales. The place is surrounded by lush green and dense forests that are a beautiful sight from the top.
13. Go surfing in Arugam Bay
It is the most engaging beach on the east coast. Flooded with travelers, sun-bathers, surfers, et al; Arugam Bay is one of the top 10 surfing destinations in the world. The best time for surfing is from April to May and October to November. There are four places that have favorable waves for surfing- Pottuvil Point, Crocodile Rock, The Point and Peanut Farm. However, The Point is great if you have some experience and the Crocodile Rock is apt for beginners.
14. Visit the Rumassala Peace Pagoda at Unawatuna
Located in Galle’s coastal suburb Unawatuna, the Peace Pagoda is one of the top tourist destinations in the city. The white stupa of Rumassala is one of the only three Buddhist stupas there are in the country. You can include this in your list of places to visit in Galle, it is located in close proximity from the Galle Fort which offers a nice view of the stupa. The Peace Pagoda is one of the temples built by a group of Japanese Buddhist monks in war prone areas around the world in order to promote peace. Apart from this, Unawatuna is rich in flora and fauna. The Rumsaala hill is alone home to over 60 endemic species of birds including the lesser whistling duck, the white-breasted waterhen and the Asian palm swift.
15. Visit the Seetha Amman Temple in Nuwara Eliya
The Seetha Amman Temple in Nuwara Eliya is related to the Indian epic, Ramayana. It is the only one in Sri Lanka dedicated to Sita. Popularly believed that after Ravana abducted Seeta, she disagreed to live at his palace and stayed here instead. The village is now called Seetha Eliya and is surrounded by the Ashokavanam. The main temple has idols of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. There is a small temple dedicated to Hanumana. There is an idol of Jatayu outside the temple as well. The temple priest and caretakers are usually more than happy to narrate stories and share information about legends associated to it.
16. Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya
The Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Factory is about 20 km north of the Seetha Amman in case you want to visit both places. Entry to the tea center is free and you will be offered a freshly brewed cup of tea as well. The tour guide will talk to you about the different types of tea and explain to you the process of growing and plucking tea leaves, where it is exported to and will promptly answer questions you have. The top of the tea factory will give you a beautiful view of the tea gardens.
17. Buy Masks from the Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum Shop in Ambalangoda
The Sri Lankan devil masks are very famous and Ambalangoda is the mask making hub. The Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum has an elaborate collection of masks and just as many options at their store. The shop and museum was set up by the sons of mask carver, Ariyapala Wijesuriya Gurunnanse. Though you’ll find these products in plenty of shops across the country, the best wooden masks are sold in Ambalangoda or Hikkaduwa.
18. Visit a turtle hatchery in Kosgoda
Kosgoda is located en route Bentota from Hikkaduwa. There are several hatcheries on the way that you could pick one out of. Though most hatcheries have an entry fee, it is worth your time and money as it’ll be used for the nurturing and care of these turtles. The Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, Hikkaduwa Turtle Sanctuary and the Sea Turtle Hatchery are some of your best options.
19. Learn scuba diving in Bentota
Bentota is best known for water sports and its pristine beach. Snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing jet-skiing, wind-surfing, kite-surfing, parasailing, banana boat riding, speed boating and scuba diving are some of the various water based activities you can participate in. You can also learn scuba diving on an amateur level in various schools in Bentota.
20. Visit the Hindu temple complexs in Jaffna
Jaffna, the former stronghold of the LTTE and one which bore the worst of the civil war is today a popular draw among ‘terror tourism’ enthusiasts. Located at the northern end of Sri Lanka, this is predominantly a Hindu city. While here, visit the Jaffna Fort, Nainativu Island and the Jaffna Public Library. The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil Temple must be on your list as it is one of the the most significant Hindu temples in the country. The presiding deity of the temple is Lord Murugan. The idol was given to the temple by a Chola queen in the 10th century
21. Yala National Park
The second largest national park of Sri Lanka is also the most visited one by tourists. Only two of the five blocks of the Yala National Park are open to the public. It was a wildlife sanctuary from 1900 to 1938, when it got designated as a National Park. Though it was a hunting ground under the British, the park is currently home to the largest concentration of leopards in the world along with being home to 44 species of mammals and over 200 species of birds. It is a paradise for birth watchers and a hub for ornithologists. The park is 26 times the size of Colombo! We suggest, carry a compass to avoid getting lost… or becoming dinner.
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