Sri Lanka is the definition of multi-culturalism and diversity. Its culture has received influences from all over the world, namely the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. This feature makes Sri Lanka a great destination for anyone interested in exploring its distinct heritage.
Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka has grown tremendously since its independence from British colonial rule. Popular among European travelers, Sri Lanka is recognized as a best value holiday destination. If you’re seeking a holistic budget-friendly travel experience, Sri Lanka is the answer you have been waiting for.
Sri Lanka’s largest city, financial center, and commercial capital, Colombo is easily one of the most-visited places in the country. Home to a vast number of religions, ethnic groups, and languages, this vibrant city embodies a mixture of modern life and colonial ruins. Don’t be afraid to explore Colombo’s unique culture and appreciate its busy city life.
1. Understand Buddhist doctrines at Gangaramaya Temple
Through modern architecture and cultural essence, Gangaramaya Temple encapsulates a mix of different cultures, such as Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese. It is one of the country’s most important temples, serving as a place of Buddhist worship and learning.
Admire the beautiful exterior of its main features, the Vihara (temple), Cetiya (Pagada), Bodhitree, and Seema Malaka (monks’ assembly hall). At the same time, learn about the teachings of Buddhism, such as the notion of karma. Like many temples, admission to Gangaramaya Temple is donation-based. Don’t forget to make a small contribution on the way out to help with maintenance of the complex.
Address: Gangaramaya, 61, Sri Jinarathana Road, Colombo 2, Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 5:30 am - 10 pm
Duration: Around 30 minutes
Price: Recommended donation amount of 100 LKR (0.70 USD)
Website: Gangaramaya Temple
2. Paddle out onto Beira Lake in a swan boat
Situated in the city center of Colombo, Beira Lake was initially built to make transportation of goods within the city more convenient for merchants. Today, it has become one of Colombo’s most popular tourist attractions.
If you’re looking to be physically active, stroll around the tree-shaded path around the lake, or paddle out onto the lake in a rental swan boat. Or if you prefer some down time, people-watching by the river is always fun too. While you’re there, be sure to visit the water temple on the lake, and the bridge connected to lover’s island.
Address: James Pieris Mawatha, Colombo 2, Sri Lanka
3. Cruise down the road on a tuk-tuk, Sri Lanka's most popular form of transportation
Tuk-tuks, three-wheeled auto rickshaws, are the most convenient way to get around the city. Even though you could experience this anywhere in Sri Lanka, only the tuk-tuks in Colombo offer metered rates. This means you will less likely to be ripped off by the driver.
However, not all tuk-tuks are metered, and you should always check the rate of your fare before you get on. It isn’t difficult to flag these little rickshaws down; they roam around every corner of the street. So, hop on and enjoy the breeze in your face as you cruise down the chaotic roads of Colombo.
Tip: avoid getting in a tuk-tuk from a crowded tourist area. The drivers there usually target tourists and you may end up paying unnecessarily more than usual.
4. Enjoy the vast space of Galle Face Green in the midst of Colombo’s crowd
With a population of over 5.5 million within Colombo’s metropolitan area, you may need a break from all the hustle and bustle. Head to Galle Face Green, a park and beach in the city along the coast of the Indian Ocean.
This urban park is the largest open space in Colombo, stretching for half a kilometer (0.3 miles). A suitable spot for all ages, people flock from the city center to take a breather here. Buy a kite before you head out to Galle Face Green; kite-flying is one of the most popular activities here. Jogging, playing, and just lounging around are also common.
5. Buy unique local handicrafts at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct
Home to 21 exclusive stores, Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct sells a unique collection of products. From handicrafts, to paintings, to spices, to jewelry, you will find some of the most eccentric items there.
The mall gets its name from the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital that once stood there. Dating back to the Dutch colonial era, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Even if you are not keen on shopping, grab a bite at one of its many dining options. This heritage building is worth a visit, regardless of what activity you partake in.
Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct
Address: Hospital St, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 10 am - 10 pm
Elevated at 1,041 meters (3,415 feet) above sea level, Ella has a much cooler climate than its surrounding region. Known for its surrounding cloud forests and tea plantations, this small town has gained traction in recent years, especially among backpackers. The rich biodiversity in Ella offers lots of opportunities for visitors to get away from the city and immerse themselves in nature.
6. Let your breath get taken away by the view from Little Adam's Peak
Little Adam’s Peak is the most popular hike among tourists in Ella. Named after the holy mountain Adam’s Peak due to its similar shape, Little Adam’s Peak is a much easier climb. The path is marked all the way and is easy to navigate.
Breathe in the fresh air at 1,141 meters (3,743 feet) above sea level at the top of Little Adam’s Peak. As you look down at the landscape, admire the spectacular views of the mountain and greenery. Don’t forget to bring your camera with you. The scenery is like no other; you wouldn’t want to miss this photo-op.
7. Challenge your physical abilities and climb to Ella Rock
Ascending to Ella Rock is a more challenging route that Little Adam’s Peak. This famous cliff located above the village requires a challenge 1+ hour trek to get to. You can choose to explore the path by yourself or pay for a local guide to lead you.
Push yourself all the way. As exhausted as you may feel, the sight of the stunning hill country and dense tea plantations will make the struggle worthwhile. You will never want to come down once you make it to the top.
8. Watch a train coast across the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge
Located between the railway stations of Ella and Demodara, the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic bridges. It is recognized for its impressive complex architectural structure, built solely out of rocks, bricks, and cement (i.e. no steel).
You can get to bridge by walking or taking a tuk-tuk. Check the train schedule before you go to ensure that there will be a train passing through during your visit. As impressive as the bridge alone is, the sight of an old-school train gliding across adds bonus points to the experience.
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge
9. Cook mouth-watering Sri Lankan delicacies at Ella Spice Garden
Explore the gardens of Ella Spice Garden to learn about different spices and ingredients commonly used in Sri Lankan cuisine. Even though the tour is short, they also offer cooking classes that you can partake in.
Providing you with an insight into authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, Ella Spice Garden aims to let foreigners learn about their local culture through food. Take home a free cooking book at the end of the class, and you will be able to whip up some of those delicious dishes back home.
Can’t get enough of tea? Fortunately, Sri Lanka is one of the largest tea producers in the world and gets much of their foreign exchange from this industry.
At Halpewatte Tea Factory, visitors can join an informative 1-hour tour to learn about tea production. The tour also includes a tasting of a range of teas at the end. If you love any of the samples, purchase some of their rich factory-fresh teas to take home.
Tip: tours take place during the day, but the frequency depends on what kind of tea is being produced. Visiting in the morning is your safest bet at guaranteeing an available tour.
A similar tour is available in Colombo through Viator.
Halpewatte Tea Factory
Address: Badulla Road, Hela Halpe, Ella, Sri Lanka 90090, Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 8 am - 5 pm
Duration: 1 hour
Price: 300 LKR (2 USD)
Website: Halpewatte Tea Factory
Holding lots of historical and archaeological significance, the ancient rock fortress Sigiriya stands at close to 200 meters (656 feet) high. Referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World by the locals, it is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning. Rumor has it that that the setting for the flying castle in the popular animated Ghibli movie ‘Castle in the Sky’ was inspired by here!
11. Climb to the top of Sri Lanka’s most frequented historic site, Lion Rock
Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock, actually refers to the rock structure itself, which the area was named after. This astonishing feat of construction is recognized as one of the world’s oldest tourist attractions. And the name ‘Lion Rock’ derives from the lion gateway on the side of the rock.
What makes this monument particularly notable is that it was built in the 5th century before technology existed. Ponder at how this impressive and sturdy structure has managed to survive through centuries. Visitors can climb up to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding landscape and colorful frescoes of the rock.
Sigiriya (The Lion Rock)
Opening Hours: 7 am - 5:30 pm
Duration: Around 2 hours
Price: 30 USD
Access: Drive along A1 or A6; public bus available every 30 minutes from Dambulla
Website: Sigiriya (The Lion Rock)
12. Face another tough climb up to the Pidurangala Rock Temple
If you’re looking to do something more offbeat, head to Pidurangala Rock Temple, located slightly north of Sigiriya. Climb to Pidurangala Rock Temple for a more comfortable and peaceful hike. Because it is not well-known, the route is a lot less crowded. However, also note that the paths here can be hard to find as they are unmarked.
You can enjoy a view just as amazing without having to squeeze in with many tourists. An additional bonus is that it is a lot more affordable than Lion Rock, costing a fraction of the price to enter.
Pidurangala Rock Temple
Duration: Around 2 - 3 hours
Access: 3 kilometres (1.9 miles / 6-minute drive) from Sigiriya
13. Explore the depth of 80 caves at the Dambulla Cave Temple
A short drive away from Sigiriya is the Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. This massive cave complex is one of the largest and best-preserved in the country, spanning over 80 documented caves in the area.
If you do not have enough time to explore the entire complex, be sure to visit the 5 caves holding all the main attractions. These primarily consist of statues and paintings related to Gautama Buddha’s life. But if you are free, it is recommended that you take time to see this prehistoric cave complex that dates back to millenniums ago.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Address: Kandy - Jaffna Hwy, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 7 am - 7 pm
Duration: At least 2 hours
Access: 20 kilometers (12.4 miles / 30-minute drive) from Sigiriya
14. Gape at wild animals in their natural habitat at Minneriya National Park
If you are an animal-lover, Minneriya National Park is a must-see. Because of its proximity to Matale, Polonnaruwa, and Trincomalee, it serves as a feeding ground for the elephants in the area during the dry season.
Watch some of the most unique animal species in the world in their natural habitat. Home to native monkeys (the purple-faced langur and toque macaque) and rare endangered species (e.g. Sri Lankan leopard and Sri Lankan sloth bear), Minneriya National Park will not be like any national park you may have been to.
Minneriya National Park
Access: 20 kilometers (12.4 miles / 25-minute drive) from Sigiriya
15. Float around the sky above the Cultural Triangle in a hot air balloon
Located in the center of the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka (consisting of Anuradhapura, Polonnarawu, and Dambulla), Sigiriya is in an ideal position to explore this region. Known for holding cultural and archeological remains from the past, the Cultural Triangle is a must-visit for any tourists.
If you don’t plan to explore the area on land, why not experience it from up in the air instead? Hot air balloon rides are only offered from November to April, which is the best time to marvel at the dramatic countryside and dense jungles. The best part is watching the landscape light up with vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow as the sun rises.
My Ceylon Adventures: Air Ballooning
Hours: Pick up at 5 am (November to April)
Duration: 4 hours (from pick up time)
Price: 210 USD (adult), 160 USD (kids between 7 and 12 years old)
Website: My Ceylon Adventures: Air Ballooning
Because of its central position on the island, Kandy is a major transportation hub with convenient access to the Central Highlands and all other parts of the island. It is the second-largest city in Sri Lanka, only falling behind Colombo. Kandy is the endpoint for 2 of the most scenic roads in the country, Colombo - Kandy and Nuwara Eliya - Kandy. Seize the opportunity to experience the beauty of Sri Lanka’s countryside and travel to Kandy via one of those routes.
16. Visit the city’s most famous attraction, Temple of the Tooth
No trip to Kandy would be complete without visiting the Temple of the Tooth, also known as Sri Dalada Malifawa. Situated in the royal palace of the former Kingdom of Kandy, this famous temple is considered as one of the most sacred places of worship for Buddhists.
It is home to the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, which played an important role in local politics during ancient times. The myth was that whoever held the relic had the power to govern the country. Drop by on Wednesdays to watch the process of Nanumura Mangallaya, a symbolic bathing of the relic using holy water that is believed to have healing powers.
Temple of the Tooth
Address: 20000, Sri Dalada Veediya, Kandy 20000, Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 8:30 am - 8 pm
17. Engage in the myths of Kandy Lake and take a stroll around it
Also known as Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk, Kandy Lake is an artificial lake next to the Temple of the Tooth (see #16). The Royal Summer House on the small island in the middle of the lake and the surrounding decorative wall called Walakulu Bamma are the 2 main features of Kandy Lake.
Stroll around the lake at a leisurely pace. It is a nice way to unwind in the afternoon and to escape the intense sunshine by hiding under the shade. You can also drive around the lake if you are too tired to walk.
Tip: there have been some issues of harassment in the past. Women are strongly advised against walking around the lake alone, especially at night.
18. Admire the spectacular views of Kandy from the top of the Big Buddha
Located at the top of a hill is the Big Buddha. Climbing to the statue takes you 27 meters (88 feet) above ground, providing amazing panoramic views of Kandy from the top. For an even higher viewpoint, you can also climb the staircase on the Buddha’s back.
This massive white statue is a distinct feature of Kandy’s landscape and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. It reflects the importance of the Buddhist religion on both the city and the country.
19. Experience the life of Veddas, Sri Lanka’s indigenous people, in Dambana
Veddas are the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka, originating from a hunter-gatherer civilization that began years ago. Over recent years, the population of the Vedda people has gradually disappeared, resulting in the decline of their distinct culture and language.
Tours are offered to visit some of the last remaining Vedda villages in Dambana, a town located 96 kilometers (59.7 miles / 2.5-hour drive) from Kandy. Even though the Veddas have become more contemporary, this tour will probably be one of your only chances to learn about their indigenous culture. Tours vary between 1-night or 2-night trips.
Best of Lanka: Vedda Village Tours To Dambana In Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 9 am - 6 pm. Closed on public holidays.
Duration: 2 - 3 days
Price: From 180 USD (min. 2 people)
20. Learn about caring for elephants at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Aimed towards nursing and protecting wild elephants, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is known for having the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. An admission fee is charged, whereby the proceeds are used to look after the elephants.
Visitors can learn about the daily care routine for these elephants and tour the orphanage complex. But the most highly-venerated part of this experience is the bathing of the elephants in the river. Watching the elephants blissfully enjoy the water on their skin is a moment you don’t want to miss.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
*Address: B199, Rambukkana 71100, Sri Lanka
Opening Hours: 8:30 am - 6 pm
Duration: Around 1 hour
Bonus: Yala National Park
Even though Yala National Park is in the far south and not close to any major city, it is one of the most popular spots in Sri Lanka. This famous park may only be the country’s second largest national park, but it is by far the most visited. No matter where in Sri Lanka you are, you have to make a trip down to Yala National Park and spend a few days here.
Book a jeep safari tour to take you through the wildlife. Home to 6 native bird species and an array of unique animals, you may just be lucky enough to spot some of these magnificent creatures. With the highest leopard density in the world, Yala National Park is the place to see these predators prowl through the forests.
Yala National Park
Price: 40 USD (half day tour), 75 USD (full day tour) *Entrance ticket fees are 3,688 LKR (25.50 USD) for adults, 1,037.52 LKR (7.20 USD) for kids
Website: Yala National Park
Temples and tea, parks and peaks
With the end of the civil war almost a decade ago, there is no better time to visit Sri Lanka than now. Its fascinating culture and diverse spirit makes it a place suitable for all travelers. Whether you are interested in history, food, wildlife, or nature, there will be something for you to do in Sri Lanka. When you think about it, it’s actually pretty amazing how one little island can encompass so much.
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