Sri Lanka is often referred to as ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean’, showcasing world-class natural beauty and wildlife. It combines a myriad of cultures, religions, landscapes, climates, and food. In just a short period of time, one can visit dusty plains, luscious tropical mountain regions, soak in the sun on the beautiful coastline, and meander in down the streets of bustling cities. There are endless things to do in Sri Lanka.
And what’s more, traveling in Sri Lanka is a relatively easy experience. English is widely spoken, the country is safe, the locals are friendly, the prices cheap, the scenery astounding and the infrastructure is improving.
Here is a complete list of the top things to do in Sri Lanka to help your plan your next trip!
1. Explore the Sacred City of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is one of the sacred cities of the Cultural Triangle (along with Polonnawura and Sigirya). The main sights are contained in an archaeological park and require a lot of walking from one site to another, so I would recommend renting a bike or visiting by tuk-tuk. I, personally, rented a bike and it offered more freedom than a tuk-tuk. Tickets cost 25 USD and are sold at the Archaeology Museum.
Here is a list of the top sites:
Temple of the Sacred Tree (Bodhi Tree Temple) – the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka. This ancient tree blossomed from a piece of Bodh Gaya, India, where Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment. The sacred tree is a realistic and living link to Gautama Buddha and is the oldest tree in the history of the plantation.
Rathna Prasada – Best known for its finely carved stone structures, the Rathna Prasada is the Uposatha house (a place for purifying the sullied mind) of the Abhayagiri Viharaya. It is of high significance to Buddhists and a historical monument.
Abhayagiri Vihara – The Abhayagiri Vihara is among the most majestic and fascinating constructs in the ecosystem of Anuradhapura. The vast size of the remains of the monastery is absolutely impressive.
Jethawanaramaya Monastery – Jetavanaramaya Monastery is among the biggest monasteries in the heritage town of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. This incredible construct was the third-largest building in the classical civilizations. Legend has it that part of the Lord Buddha’s sash or belt is here at the Jetavanaramaya monastery.
Ruwanweli Maha Seya – Ruwanweliseya pagoda is one of the main stupas or dagobas in the center of Anuradhapura. The great King Dutugamunu built this ancient stupa. The Ruwanwelisaya stupa is also famous as the Maha stupa and is among the most embellished structures of the people of Sri Lanka.
Thuparama – Thuparama is the first stupa built in Sri Lanka after the introduction of Buddhism. The medieval stupa of Thuparamaya was built during the reign of King Devamnampiyatissa sometime in the 3rd century B.C., which is said to enforce the right collar bone of Gautama Buddha.
How To Get There: Anuradhapura is located north of Colombo, and easily reached by bus or train. I took the train and regretted not taking the bus. The train was significantly slower than the bus, and the views were not extraordinary.
2. Hike to Mihintale
Mihintale is a Buddhist pilgrimage site and religious complex within the Culture Triangle. It is believed that Mihintale is where Mahinda converted King Devanampiyatissa to Buddhism. Other ruins to visit at Mihintale include the Lion Pond, Naga Pond, Mahinda’s Cave, Kantaka Cetiya stupa, Maha Stupa, and the Aradhana Gala rock. Aradhana Gala is often referred to as “meditation rock” or “rock of invitation.”
How To Get There: Mihintale is located approximately 13 kilometers east of Anuradhapura. It can be reached by bike or tuk-tuk from Anuradhapura. While tuk-tuk is much easier and faster, I choose to rent a bike and explore the surrounding area.
3. Climb Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock Fortress, or ‘Lion Rock,’ is a gigantic column of rock rising 200 meters from the forested jungle below, and built within the walls and on the plateau is an impressive fortress. It’s said that the fortress was built over 1,000 years ago by parricidal King Kasyapa who buried his father alive in a wall before commandeering the throne. Kasyapa died a violent death in 495 AD after which the fortress was used as a Buddhist monastery.
Today, Sigiriya Rock Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can climb the 1,200 steps – many of which are bolted onto the rockface – to explore one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
How To Get There: Sigiriya is easily reached from any of the main tourist sites in Sri Lanka. The entrance fee is about 30 USD. Climbing Sigiriya, and walking around the park can be done in one day. I, personally, enjoyed the area and spent the night in Sigiriya. I met other travelers that stayed in Dambulla, which is about 30 minutes by bus from Sigiriya.
4. Meander Down the Bustling Streets of Kandy
Located in the heart of Sri Lanka, Kandy was once the capital of the ancient kings and it remains one of the country’s most significant cultural and religious centers. Not only is it home to the country’s most holy relic, Buddha’s tooth, but the city also offers numerous wondrous attractions and sights, from tropical forests to tea plantations and spice gardens.
Here is a list of some of top activities to do in Kandy:
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is considered one of the holiest places in Sri Lanka and is an important pilgrimage destination. The golden-roofed temple is supposedly home to a tooth of Buddha. During the puja, the time of offering and prayers, tourists, as well as religious followers, are able to inspect the gold casket where it’s guarded.
Kandy Lake – Kandy Lake was artificially constructed by the last king of Sri Lanka and Kandy, Wikrama Rajasinhe, as an additional feature for the beautifully laid out Temple of Tooth complex. Also called the Milky Ocean, the lake remains partially incomplete due to the British invasion in 1815. Several legends are connected to Kandy Lake and it is believed that the king installed a secret tunnel from the island to the palace.
Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue – Located on a hill, overlooking the city, lies Bahiravokanda Vihara, a giant Buddha statue and one of the city’s most notable religious monuments. Once at the top of Bahivara Kanda, or devil’s hill, you will be greeted with panoramic views of Kandy and its surrounding area. It takes roughly one hour to hike to the top of the hill.
Peradeniya Royal Botanical Garden – The Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya, is located just a few kilometers outside of the city and is home to more than 4000 different plants species including, medicinal plants, orchids, and palm trees.
How To Get There: Kandy is in the center of Sri Lanka and is a transportation hub. If you are coming from Sigiriya, you will first have to go to Dambulla and catch a bus at the station. (It is easiest if you stand on the sidewalk, in the direction facing Kandy, and flag down a bus passing by.)
5. Discover Ella
Ella is tucked away in the misty Sri Lankan high country, amongst idyllic green hills and gushing waterfalls, and is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful destinations in the country. There are endless activities to do in Ella.
Here is a list of some of the top things to do in Ella:
Hike to the Nine Arch Bridge – The iconic Nine Arch Bridge is roughly 40 min from the city center. From there I walked along the train tracks to Ella’s train station. If you are lucky you will get to see the train pass.
Hike to Ella’s Peak – The summit of Ella rock offers beautiful views over Ella, Little Adam’s Peak, and Ella Gap. This is definitely a view not to be missed.
Hike Little Adam’s Peak – Named after its similarly shaped, yet far taller older brother, Adam’s Peak, the Little Adam’s Peak hike takes about two hours roundtrip from Ella. It starts in the lush tea plantations before slowly snaking its way to the first set of viewpoints. From here, you’ll have 360-degree views overlooking the giant Ella Rock and Ella Gap towards Udawalawe National Park. I would advise continuing the hike further down the ridge, as the views become more spectacular and less busy. The return route follows the other side of the mountain, overlooking the incredible 98 Acres resort before slowly making its way back to Ella.
Useful Tip: For all three hikes I would recommend using maps.me. The trails are clearly indicated. I would also bring a lot of water as the sun is very strong in the early afternoon.
How To Get There: Ella is located in the center of the country and can be reached from just about anywhere by bus or train. See below for the epic train journey between Kandy and Ella.
6. Take the Epic Train Journey from Kandy to Ella
Perhaps one of the most beautiful train rides in the world is the train from Kandy to Ella. This epic journey winds through misty forests, verdant tea plantations; over gushing waterfalls and streams, and past colorful towns. The most scenic part of the journey is from Nanu Oya to Ella, through the dense forest of the Horton Plains national park. I recommend getting the window seat or standing in between the doorways and enjoying the views as they pass by.
Useful Tip: Due to its popularity, you need to book your travel in advance (usually 1 – 2 days prior). The train may also be quite crowded, especially during peak season, so be warned you may need to push your way on. Here is everything you need to know about train travel in Sri Lanka
7. Safari in Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park lies on the boundary of Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces, in southern Sri Lanka. The national park was created to provide a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River.
While I found Udawalawe National Park absolutely beautiful both in terms of landscape and animals, this is not something I would do again. There are really a lot of ’empty’ jeeps entering the park (ie a jeep with 10 seats, but only 1 or 2 people), and it is clear that pollution is having an effect on the animals. If a more eco-friendly way to visit the park is implemented, I would, perhaps, be able to recommend the safari.
How To Get There: Getting to and from Udawalawe can be challenging. If you are coming from Ella, you will need to take the bus to Wellawaya, then to Thanamalwila, and from there to Udawalawe. Or you can take a bus to Embilipitiya, where you will find a direct bus to Udawalawe. If you are leaving Udawalawe and heading to the beach. There is a direct bus to Mirissa beach. It is only known by the locals so I would ask your hostel or hotel staff. There is only one bus and it leaves early in the morning.
8. Watch the Sunrise over the Jungle
While it might sound cheesy to watch a sunrise or sunset, it is true that Sri Lanka had some of the most beautiful. The colors are magnificent, whether you are in the jungle or on the beach. I would recommend taking a moment out of your travels to appreciate at least one sunrise or sunset.
9. Relax on a Beautiful Beach
Relaxing on a beach is an absolute must in Sri Lanka. In my opinion, Sri Lanka has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I have to admit I had a difficult time choosing which beach to soak up some sun. Some of the top beaches are – Hiriketiya, Benotota, Arugam Bay, Mirissa, Uppuveli, and Tangalle. My favorite was Mirissa beach. It was not too touristic, the waves were calm, and accommodation and food were excellent and very cheap.
How To Get There: If you are coming from Colombo there are numerous buses. If you are coming from a Safari in either Udawalawe or Yala, there are direct buses to the coast.
My Favorite Thing To Do in Sri Lanka
I spent two weeks traveling around Sri Lanka, and I had the chance to visit and do a lot of fun activities. In fact, my favorite thing to do in Sri Lanka was to relax on the beach, which is probably surprising as I am more of an adventure seeker. Mirissa beach was really beautiful and wonderfully relaxing. There was a chill vibe, and the locals were really nice. Considering all of this, it was relatively cheap. There are lounge chairs that I was able to use for free, and I could even order food and drinks! If you are looking for a beach holiday, Sri Lanka should definitely be on your list!
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Check Out My Other Travel Guides
Hope you enjoyed my post on the top things to do in Sri Lanka and found it useful. Here are some of my other travel guides that you might find interesting.
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Have questions about the top things to do in Sri Lanka? Are there any activities in Sri Lanka that are on your must-see list? Send me a message in the comments below!
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