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19 Things to Do in Sri Lanka

Author: Charlotte Boswell

The island jewel of Sri Lanka is a small yet extremely diverse country which offers visitors an eclectic blend of culture, history and scenery. It is a rich country full of spectacular national parks and ancient ruins, a beautiful coastline and lush tea plantations. With so much to do ranging from searching for elephants and leopards on safari to staying at a colonial tea plantation, here are 19 of the best things to do whilst on a tailor-made holiday in Sri Lanka.

1. Discover the spectacular ruins at Polonnaruwa

Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a treasure trove of archaeological remains which are in excellent condition. The Quadrangle is one of the finest collections of ancient buildings in Sri Lanka where the various temples and ruins are intricately detailed with pillars, steps and religious carvings. Continue to the Gal Vihara Buddha figures where four striking statues stand; these Buddhas are considered the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. You can also visit the white Kiri Vihara Dagoba which was discovered by archaeologists after 700 years of neglect in the jungle; the original white lime plaster of the stuba is still in great condition.

Buddha statue Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Buddha statue Polonnaruwa
Esala Perahera Festival in Kandy
Esala Perahera Festival in Kandy

2. Attend the Esala Perahera Festival

Considered one of the oldest and most extravagant of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist celebrations, the Esala Perahera Festival in Kandy is a week-long holiday during July or August commemorating the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. During this festival, thousands of Sri Lankan’s flock Kandy to watch and take part in the celebrations and processions which include some 5,000 lavishly-dressed dancers, drummers, fire jugglers, musicians and jewel-adorned elephants. The spectacle is unmissable if you are in Sri Lanka during this time and is well-worth planning a visit to be part of the extravaganza.

Nine Arch Bridge Sri Lanka
Nine Arch Bridge

3. Experience one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys

Often described as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, the seven-hour trip between Kandy and Ella takes you through the spectacular scenery of central Sri Lanka. Pass tumbling waterfalls, local villages and lush tea plantations that are framed by the looming mountains whilst local kids run along the tracks and wave. During the train ride you will encounter vendors selling fresh mango with cinnamon, chilli fritters and buttery barbecued corn; all which provide the perfect snack whilst watching the Sri Lankan countryside roll by.

Green bee eater Sri Lanka
Green bee eater

4. Bird watch at Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Sri Lanka’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest, Sinharaja Forest Reserve, is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The forest’s canopy towers up to 45m and the area is studded with tumbling waterfalls, bubbling pools and emerald ferns. The reserve, however, is best known for its excellent birdwatching. Sinharaja supports over 80% of the island’s bird species as well as being a habitat for endemic birds such as the green-billed coucal, the blue magpie and the red-faced malkoha. Take a birdwatching trip for the day or stay in an eco-lodge for a couple of nights to really explore this wonderful area.

Worlds End at Horton Plains Sri Lanka
World's End in Horton Plains / Image credit:

5. Hike to World’s End

Within the Horton Plains National Park lies ‘World’s End’; a spectacular cliff that plunges 880m at the edge of the regions plateau. Take a rewarding 9.5km round-hike to the stunning viewpoint where you can spot tea plantations, local villages and sometimes Udawalawe National Park from the edge of the ridge. The best time to arrive at the escarpment is between 6-9am before the thick fog covers the rolling hills. During the hike you will pass the beautiful Baker’s Falls, plus keep your eyes peeled for sightings of endemic flora and fauna.

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6. Climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock

The UNESCO-listed ancient rock fortress at Sigiriya is one of the most recognisable and possibly dramatic landmarks in Sri Lanka. Rising majestically out of the emerald forest and dominating the skyline, Sigiriya was built in 495 AD and served as a palace with colourful frescoes for King Kasyapa. You can hike 1,200 steps to the top of Sigiriya to explore the ancient ruins of the Lion Rock Fortress (there are several platforms en-route to break up the journey!). Alternatively climb the opposite Pidurangala Rock for the most breathtaking views of Sigiriya Rock itself.

Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress

7. Visit the quaint colonial city of Nuwara Eliya

A favourite summer retreat of the British during the 19th century, this colonial hill-station of Nuwara Eliya is dotted with English country-style homes, mock-Tudor buildings and pretty gardens. Explore the city of Nuwara Eliya where you can take a scenic boat ride around the picturesque Gregory Lake, stroll through Victoria Park or visit the beautifully manicured gardens full of roses and orchids at the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Nuwara Eliya sits 2,000 metres above sea and the temperate, cool climate provides the optimum conditions for growing tea; it is an excellent destinations in Sri Lanka to explore tea plantations.

Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka
Nuwara Eliya

8. Discover the Dambulla Cave Temple

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Dambulla Cave Temple complex, situated in the country’s northern central province, is the largest and best-preserved cave monastery in Sri Lanka. It is a site of great importance and is believed to have been a place of worship for Buddhists since the 1st century BC. The beautifully painted complex is made up of five separate shrine caves which contain over 150 beautiful Buddha statues and murals portraying some of the country’s most important religious art.

Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple

9. Search for leopards in Gal Oya National Park

Although most visitors will flock to the popular Yala National Park, Gal Oya in eastern central Sri Lanka is a wonderful option for an untouched and authentic experience. At the heart of the national park lies Senanayake Samudraya Lake which is framed by evergreen forest and open savannah and where you can often see elephants swimming to the lake’s island. Gal Oya is also home to the elusive leopard, take a jeep safari to pursue the search of the majestic beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

Leopards in Sri Lanka
Leopards in Gal Oya

10. Uncover the ancient city of Anuradhapura

The city of Anuradhapura is a UNESCO-site and is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is famous for its rich collection of archaeological wonders and well-preserved ruins. Highlights include the 1st century terracotta stupa - the Abhayagiri Dagoba – which features beautiful carvings and an octagonal spire, the beautiful Buddhist temple of Isurumuniya surrounded by green pools, the sacred fig tree in the Mahamewna Gardens and the bright-white Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba containing Sri Lankan relics.

Monks at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka
Monks at Anuradhapura
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Little Adams Peak in Ella Sri Lanka
Little Adams Peak in Ella / Image credit: Sacitha Obeysekara

11. Take in the views from Little Adam’s Peak

Whilst Little Adam’s Peak bigger brother, the holy Adam’s Peak, sits at 2243m high and is a very challenging climb, Little Adam’s Peak is a more enjoyable yet still rewarding hike. Located in the small town of Ella, the hour-or-so hike follows winding paths through lush tea plantations and emerald forests. Pass tea pickers dressed in colourful saris and local children playing in the fields before reaching the peak. Once you have ascended to the 1,141m summit take in the 360-degree views of the spectacular Sri Lankan countryside.

Elephants in Sri Lanka
Elephants in Minneriya National Park

12. Spot elephants in at ‘The Gathering’ in Minneriya National Park

leopards, plus there is a wonderful range of migratory and indigenous birds. However, the star attraction of the reserve is ‘The Gathering’; a spectacle where over 300 elephants congregate to the Minneriya reservoir as they search for water and fresh grass during the dry season (July – October). This wonderful event is the largest meeting of Asian elephants in the world and is a must-see if in Sri Lanka during this time.

Tea pickers in hills of Sri Lanka
Tea pickers

13. Learn about Sri Lanka’s tea industry

After tea plantations were first introduced by the British in the late 1800s, Sri Lanka has since established itself as one of the world’s most prominent tea producing countries and is the fourth largest producer globally. The central highlands provide sloping terrain which offer the perfect conditions and eco-system for growing high-quality tea. You will find hundreds of lush green tea plantations dotted throughout the central region which you can visit and learn how different types of tea is grown, visit the factory and after enjoy a high afternoon tea with various tea tastings.

Sambar deer in Horton Plains National Park
Sambar deer in the Horton Plains

14. Explore Horton Plains National Park

Located in the central highlands, the Horton Plains measure up to an impressive 2,100 metres above sea level, making it the highest plateau in Sri Lanka and consequently named the ‘Roof of the Island’. The plains comprise largely of montane grasslands and lush cloud forest which are rich in endemic flora and fauna that have adapted to the cool climate. Hike through this protected area and keep your eyes peeled for the extremely rare slender loris and rhino-horned lizard as well as more common mammals such as the wild boar, giant squirrel and rusty-spotted cat.

Sri Lankan Spices
Sri Lankan spices

15. Take a cooking class in Ella

The lovely town of Ella, surrounded by tea plantations and lush mountains, is situated in the Badulla District of Central Sri Lanka. It is an excellent place to take a local cookery class and discover the local life and culture; head to the local market for fresh vegetables and spices before learning how to prepare (and then eat) some Sri Lankan delicacies such as curry and rice, hoppers and roti. The island’s cuisine has been shaped by historical, cultural and geographical factors resulting in a melting-pot of gastronomy and should be incorporated into any Sri Lanka itinerary.

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16. Visit the Aukana Buddha State

The Aukana statue is thought to be one of the finest examples of a standing Buddha in Sri Lanka. Located near Kekirawa in the northern part of the central province, this Buddha statue stands at over 40 feet tall and is carved from sand-coloured granite rock. The date of construction is unknown, however some sources report that the stunning Aukana Buddha was built in the 5th century during the reign of King Dhatusena. Sitting in the midst of an emerald forest, nearby you will also fine a small-domed dagoba and also the Maha Bodhi Tree shine.

Aukana Buddha Statue in Sri Lanka
Aukana Buddha Statue

17. Wander the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya

Once reserved exclusively for Kandyan royalty, these beautiful botanical gardens are the largest and most impressive in Sri Lanka. Boasting 60 hectares of stunning plants, flowers and trees, highlights of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens include the Javan fig tree, 40-metre high Burma bamboo, the intriguing cannonball fruit tree and an extensive selection of orchids. Just 6km from Kandy, the gardens are also home to fruit bats, exotic birds and hundreds of monkeys who you are likely to encounter during a visit.

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens Kandy Sri Lanka
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens / Photo credit: Amila Tennakoon

18. Ascend to the top of Mihintale Peak

The important mountain peak of Mihintale located outside of Anuradhapura, is believed to be the place where Buddhism was first introduced in Sri Lanka after a meeting between the Buddhist monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa took place. Mihintale is a significant pilgrimage site full of ancient ruins which attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. To reach the two remarkable dagobas at the summit climb some 1,840 steps; your journey will be broken up – to take a breath - as you pass shimmering pools, ancient monastery ruins and rock inscriptions as well as the important Monk’s Refectory.

Seated Buddha Mihintale Sri Lanka
Seated Buddha in Mihintale

19. Visit the sacred Temple of the Tooth

The Temple of the Tooth complex in Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s most important shrines. Located in the city’s Royal Palace complex, the gold-roofed temple is home to the most important relic in the country; the Buddha’s tooth. The tooth itself is hidden away in a gold casket, which contains a series of six caskets diminishing in size, so visitors are unable to see the legendary tooth however a visit to the sacred Temple of the Tooth is a must when in Kandy. Enjoy exploring the pretty temples and golden shrines overlooking shimmering Kandy Lake.

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
Temple of the Tooth

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