The Best Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

The tiny tear drop shaped island in the Indian ocean has become the latest hotspot for tourists. After the end of the 30 years civil war, and all the travel advisories lifted, tourists just can’t wait to head out to the exotic island of Sri Lanka. The friendly and hospitable people of Sri Lanka, in their turn, with hands folded and ‘Ayobowan’ on their lips are ready to make your holiday the most memorable you’ve ever had.

Tourism in Sri Lanka can, broadly, be divided into three categories. The beaches, the cities of cultural, historical and religious importance and last but definitely not the least, the nature reserves. Do not be fooled by the size of the country. The tiny island is rich with places to visit from all these three categories. Join me as I unravel the wonders of Sri Lanka.

The bustling city of Colombo is the largest in Sri Lanka. It is about an hour’s drive from the Bandarnaike international airport. Just like other metropolitan cities, Colombo is a hub of activity. There are many places worth seeing. It being a coastal town, you can enjoy stunning views of the sea along with the throngs that head to Galle Face greens in the evening. If deserted beaches are what you are after, then you can head to other places, which shall figure later in my list. Other than that, you can visit the National museum, the National zoological gardens, and the Independence square which was built to mark Sri Lanka’s freedom from the British. You can shop your heart out at Majestic City, Liberty plaza or Odel. It is easy to commute around the city, with buses, radio taxis and auto rickshaws called tuk-tuks locally, readily available.

Sri Lanka isn’t just about beaches. If you travel inland there are many treasures to be discovered. If you are a fan of the cooler climate, there aren’t many places in Sri Lanka but Nuwara Eliya would definitely be one of them. Nuwara Eliya is a hill station located in the centre of Sri Lanka, just a little to the south. When Sri Lanka was under the rule of the British, this is where most of the British came for an ideal summer getaway. The impact of the colonial era can still be seen in the city, whether it may be in the nickname ‘Little England’ or in the architecture or in the various activities that you can immerse yourself in while there, such as boating, golf or horse riding.

Another very important aspect of Nuwara Eliya is that it is one of the most important towns as far as tea production is concerned. So be prepared to see endless stretches of tea plantation on both sides while you are approaching Nuwara Eliya. Don’t forget to drop in on one of the many tea factories dotted along the way there, such as the Labukele Tea estate. The people there will gladly talk you through the process of making tea from picking the leaf, to processing it, while they show you around their estate. Prepare to be baffled by the variety and flavours of tea you can buy there.

As far as tourist destinations are concerned, Nuwara Eliya has many. For those who are familiar with the Hindu mythological epic of Ramayana, the ‘Seetha Kovil’ or the Sita temple would be a place of interest. According to legend, king Ravana of Sri Lanka abducted queen Sita from her kingdom in North India and brought her to Sri Lanka. It is believed that it was here, where this temple is located, that he kept her. There is a giant foot mark there as well, believed to be of Lord Hanuman. Even the direst non-believers will experience a strange and outlandish sensation overcome them as they stand there watching the lush green mist-covered hills, wondering what all this place must have been witness to for so many centuries.

Just a little ahead of the Seetha Kovil is the Hakgala Botanical Garden, which is another interesting place to visit. Spread over a large area, it is enough to keep the nature lovers out there occupied for hours.

After Colombo, the city of Kandy (called Maha Nuvara locally) is the most important in Sri Lanka. There is no shortage of things to do and places to visit here. Historically, Kandy is important as it was one of the last kingdoms to remain independent from colonization. On the way from Colombo, it will be the first major town that you encounter while travelling towards the Central Highlands.

The first thing you will notice about Kandy will probably be the huge lake in the centre of the town. Bordering this lake on one side is one of the most important pilgrimage places for Buddhists, the temple of tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa. It is believed that, along the duration of many centuries, the holy relic of Lord Buddha’s tooth after travelling many miles from India, and then within the island itself for the sake of protecting it from the people who wanted to destroy it, found its final resting place in this temple. It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. You can see the various rituals that are performed in the temple three times a day, roughly around 5.30 and 09.00 in the morning and 06.30 in the evening.

The annual festival of the Esala Perahera, which falls on the full moon around July or August, is in honour of this relic. This whole pageant is a sight to see with the traditional Kandyan dancers, beautifully decorated elephants, fire acts and what not. It is also interesting to note that whenever the tooth relic has been taken out for public exposition, it has almost always rained.

There are many good hotels dotted around the lake on all sides. In close proximity to the temple of tooth is the modern Kandy city centre, and the shopping complex, which is a good example of the beautiful blend of modern and ancient that this wonderful town is.

A suburb of Kandy is the town of Peradeniya. It is home to the illustrious University of Peradeniya and the Royal Botanical Gardens, the largest in the island.

Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are two towns which, together with Kandy, complete the so called cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. If you are a history buff, and are interested in the ancient heritage of Sri Lanka, these places are not to be missed. Both of these towns are UNESCO world heritage sites and were once flourishing capitals of ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka, and the ruins that can be seen here today tell the tale of a rich and stable kingdom which prospered from 4th century BC till the 11th century AD when it was sacked by the South Indian Chola kingdom after which the capital moved to Polonnaruwa. The reign of King Parakramabahu I in Polonnaruwa was considered the golden era of Polonnaruwa.

Both towns have many temples, water tanks and ponds, stupas, statues of Kings and Lord Buddha and ruins of palaces scattered around and are definitely worth visiting to get an idea of the rich historical and archeological significance of these two towns. Not to be missed in Anuradhapura, is the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, which is said to have grown from a sapling brought in 3rd century BC from the sacred Bodhi tree in Gaya, India under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. In Polonnaruwa, the Parakrama Samudra is a place worth visiting. It is actually a reservoir which was built in the 4th century AD to keep the town self sufficient but looks as vast as an ocean, hence the name ‘Samudra.’

Another definitely not-to-be-missed place in Sri Lanka and also a UNESCO world heritage site is Sigiriya or the Lion Rock. As you approach, you will be stunned at this 5th century palace which sits on top of a 600ft rock and is visible for miles around as it rears its head out in the midst of miles of lush green flat land. It is said to have been built by King Kasyapa, who feared invasion by his half-brother and built this palace for his own protection. You can marvel at the numerous rock shelters or water gardens at the base or as you climb up the 1200 odd steps to the top, gaze at the frescoes mid-way to the top and the mirror wall which once upon a time acted as a mirror for the king but now has become a place for graffiti showing ancient Singhalese script. The lion gate, called so because of the large lion paws at the entrance, leads you to the summit which is a large flat area scattered over which are the ruins of ancient palace, including an ancient throne and a pool. The view from the top is breathtaking. You can even see Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the distance. Often, it is so windy that you feel you’ll be blow away. Do not forget to take water along with you as there are no shops on the way. Apply plenty of sun block, and wear full-sleeved clothing and a cap. These precautions are necessary not only to protect you from the blazing sun, but also from occasional wasp attacks.

There is much more to the town of Dambulla than cricket! Yes, there is an international standard cricket stadium here but did you know that this historical town also houses a world heritage site? Dambulla, located near Sigiriya, is also famous for its cave temples. These cave temples are situated around 160m above the town. The five most important caves here are clustered together and can be seen after paying a small fee for the ticket. Many guides are available who will familiarize you with the history of the place and the symbolism of the various statues of Lord Buddha and other gods and goddesses. It is interesting to ponder over the fact that some of these caves date back to the second century B.C. and were used by King Valagamba as shelter during his time in exile.

If we talk about the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, then Sigiriya and Dambulla form the centre of this triangle. It would be wise to base yourself in Sigiriya and travel and discover Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa on day trips.

Another place worth visiting in Sri Lanka is Adam’s peak, a 2,243m high mountain located near the southern end of the Central highlands. What is the most amazing thing about this mountain is that it teaches us the unity of religions. It is venerated by people of all religions alike. The mountain is also called ‘Sri Pada’ or ‘holy footprint’ which refers to the imprint at the summit of the mountain. Buddhists believe that this is the footprint of Lord Buddha, Hindus believe it to be the footprint of Lord Shiva, it is the footprint of St. Thomas for the Christians and for the Muslims it is the footprint of Adam, the first man. The best time to climb the mountain is around December to March when camps and better facilities are provided. Most of the pilgrims start climbing around midnight and reach the summit in time to see the spectacular sunrise. Make sure to take plenty of warm clothes. Pilgrims then descend immediately as once the sun comes out, the heat often gets unbearable.

Sri Lanka is rich in flora and fauna and home to many wildlife sanctuaries and natural reserves, some of which are the Gal Oya National Park where large herds of elephants can be seen, Yala National Park with one of the highest leopard densities in the world, and Ravana Ella wildlife sanctuary which contains the famous Ravana falls and caves, significant to the Hindu epic of Ramayana. All these places have stunning landscapes and are rich in natural wealth. It is hard, therefore, to select one to write about. However, Sinharaja Biosphere reserve is one of the most significant amongst these, not only because it is a UNESCO world heritage site, but also because it is one of the last few rainforests left in the world. Due to the density of the vegetation there are fewer animals to be seen but it is a botanist’s dream come true for those who would like to study the plants of rainforests, many of them native to Sri Lanka.

Another place worth mentioning here is the Pinnawela elephant orphanage which can be visited on the way to Kandy. It is home to more than 100 elephants. You can enjoy the sight of the elephants happily marching their way to the bank of the river Ma Oya for their bath, which happens twice a day. You can also feed them milk from a bottle with the assistance of the mahouts or helpers. Do your bit to help out and make a donation of bananas or milk for the elephants! The whole experience of seeing these gentle giants frolic in the river will truly be unforgettable.

The country newly freed from the clutches of ethnic conflict now has many places open for tourists which, earlier, were even out of the reach of the locals. One such place is the northern district of Jaffna, locally called Yaalpaanam. It can be considered an island connected with the mainland of Sri Lanka by a narrow strip of land called the elephant pass. Jaffna has many shallow lagoons and offshore islands. One of the most important islands would be Nagadipa on which is located a holy Viharya or Buddhist shrine. You can soak up the culture and traditions of the Sri Lankan Tamils here in Jaffna. Other places worth seeing are the Jaffna fort, and the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, a Hindu temple located in the outskirts of Jaffna. Prayers are conducted here punctually six times a day, starting from five in the morning and the last prayer being at six in the evening. The best period to visit this temple would be in July/August when the annual festival is held.

It being an island, the sea is never far off in Sri Lanka. And if you love beaches then you will be spoilt for choices here. The best way to go about it would be to land at the present international airport in Sri Lanka, near Katunayke and head for the city of Negombo, after which you can travel south along the coast and discover the many coastal towns and enjoy the beaches. You will be passing through the commercial capital of Colombo, which may not be one of the best places if beaches are what you are after, but further down are the towns of Mount Lavinia, Bentota, Balapitiya, all of which have plenty of budget hotels and many activities to keep you occupied with. Further down is Hikkaduwa where you can see corals in glass-bottom boats, and Galle, not only famous for its beaches but also for an ancient fort. Close to Galle is the Unawatuna beach which is considered one of the best in the world not only because of its wonderfully musical name but because of its sheer unspoiled beauty, coral reefs and opportunities for scuba diving. Further down, the beaches of Mirissa, which is also famous for cinnamon cultivations, and Dondra, the southernmost point of Sri Lanka and home to a towering lighthouse, are hot spots for dolphin and whale watching. The Arungam Bay is famous for hosting many international level surfing competitions.

Trincomalee, a port city located on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, boasts of the beautiful Nilaveli, Uppuveli and Red rock beaches with pink boulders. During June to September the shores of Trincomalee also becomes a hot spot for whale and dolphin watchers. There are many hotels all over Sri Lanka which are associated with this sport and can provide you with assistance to make your experience unforgettable. Not only is Trincomalee home to Fort Fredrick, the largest Dutch fort in Sri Lanka, it also has many places important for Hindus and Buddhists such as the Koneswaram Hindu Kovil and the Seruwila temple. Definitely not to be missed is the Naval museum and the Hood’s tower which was a lookout point for the British navy, hence provides a wonderful 360-degree view of Trincomalee. Trincomalee is important because it is a natural harbor, in fact the fifth largest in the world. Be ready to face a few routine checkpoints as it is located within the regions that were part of the ethnic conflict.

If shopping is what you are after, then you can buy tea, available in many flavours. The local handicrafts are another option. The Batik work produced locally is stunning. Batik is a fabric art which uses wax and dye. You can buy wall hangings, sarees, and other items which are made using this art. The precious stones and jewellery available here are another thing worth considering. In fact, the town of Ratnapura (literally, the city of gems) is well-known for its rubies, saphires and emeralds. You can also take home a variety of good quality spices. There are many spice gardens dotted around the country where you can you learn more about the cultivation and uses of a variety of spices.

One small island but many reasons to visit. So head to this beautiful country on your next vacation.