Sri Lanka is for many travelers a tropical paradise, a country of beautiful beaches, dramatic coastlines and steamy weather. It’s a destination where you can relax away your time on white sands while enjoying a pleasant holiday atmosphere in the sun.
But for others, this is a country that’s bursting with history and culture, a country with a long history of Buddhist Kingdoms who have left their legacies for all to see.
There are colonial Dutch, Portuguese and British ruins to explore and an intriguing mix of modern-day religions and customs to delve into. It’s truly a diverse country and one that offers something unique for every type of traveler.
From hiking scenic peaks and exploring national parks to unearthing ancient kingdoms and colonial relics, there is a lot to be found in Sri Lanka. To help you to plan your trip to this South Asian nation, we put together this guide to the best places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide)
Best Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
Colombo and the Western Coast
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, and for most travelers, it’s the entry and exit point into the country where they will start and end their journey.
Found on the western coast, the city might have a reputation of being a busy and polluted place, but it’s worth hanging around for a few days to experience life here.
There are some excellent museums that will help you to understand the island’s long and complicated history, while hidden amongst the bustling and chaotic streets are plenty of charming parks and green spaces.
The city is also one of those rare urban centers that have sprawled right along the beach, and head away from the center and it’s easy to find stretches of golden sands and resort-style hotels all along the western coast.
From Colombo, you can easily travel to the rest of Sri Lanka’s great destinations and tourist attractions, with rail and bus connections running frequently across the country.
Our top recommended tours in Columbo:
Inland from Colombo and the western coast of Sri Lanka can be found in the small province of Sabaragamuwa. The main city here is Ratnapura, which has traditionally been a center for the gem and precious stone trade in the country.
That trade continues today, and you will find many markets here focused on the business of buying and selling gems. Ratnapura makes an excellent base from which to explore the province too.
Nearby, you will find many beautiful waterfalls in the countryside, including the Katugas Falls which are just a few kilometers away.
Perhaps the main attraction in the province though is Adam’s Peak. This distinctive mountaintop reaches heights of over 2000 meters and is an incredibly important pilgrimage destination amongst Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, who all attribute it in some way to their own beliefs.
You can climb the many thousands of steep steps that lead to the summit, a journey of several hours in the fierce heat. Be prepared with water and a good pair of walking shoes, and brace yourself for the utterly epic views that will await you on the way up and from the top.
Our top recommended tours in Sabaragamuwa Province:
- Private One Day Udawalawe National Park Elephant Safari
- Private Guided Trek to Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge
The Central Highlands
If you are looking to escape the at times insufferable heat of the coastal regions and big cities of Sri Lanka, then make your way into the cooler climes of the Central Highlands.
Here you can find some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic attractions and thus, a stable of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka. Start your journey in the town of Ella by taking what has become known as one of the world’s most scenic train rides, a route that passes through mountains and tea fields to the city of Kandy.
Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an ancient royal capital and a city teeming with history and culture. In the cool climate, there are many excellent hiking opportunities into the surrounding highlands from the city, while to the north you can find the mesmerizing sight of Sigiriya.
This is home to an enormous rock that rises abruptly from the ground, atop which are the ruins of an ancient royal palace.
Our top recommended tour in Central Highlands:
South Coast Sri Lanka
The south coast of Sri Lanka is full of both history and beautiful scenery. The main city is Galle, a place that was established by the Portuguese as a colonial fortress, before passing into the hands of the Dutch and then onto the British.
The streets, the harbor and walls, and towers of the old town make for an excellent place to immerse yourself in the intriguing past of Sri Lanka in what is a setting that is as beautiful as it is historic.
From Galle, head along the southern coastline to the east, towards Yala National Park. This is one of the most visited national parks in Sri Lanka, a breathtaking place of sweeping landscapes and unique wildlife.
This is first and foremost a wildlife sanctuary, and if you are lucky then you may have the chance to see many Sir Lankan animals in their natural habitat.
Yala National Park is home to elephants, crocodiles, buffalo, and even the rare Sri Lankan Leopard and the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear.
Jaffna and the North
Until recently, much of the northern areas of Sri Lanka were seen as a no-go zone by tourists, because of the decades-long conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers.
Things have changed though with the end of that conflict and now the north of the country makes for one of the most interesting places to visit in Sri Lanka for those looking for something a little different.
The main city in the region is Jaffna, a place where Tamil is the predominant language and culture, and a city that will seem very different to the rest of the Sinhalese parts of the nation.
Here you can find temples, forts and the heartland of Tamil culture in Sri Lanka. It’s an off the beaten track destination and it can be trickier to travel around the north in comparison to the more touristy areas to the south, but it will make for an adventure and for an authentic experience.
The East Coast
The long east coast of Sri Lanka is a firm favorite amongst those travelers looking to enjoy sun, sand, and surf, making it one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. In the north, you have the former colonial port city of Trincomalee, a place that is now becoming a big hit with tourists after the end of the Tamil Tiger conflict.
Here you can find some of the most pristine and undeveloped beaches in Sri Lanka, while the intriguing history of the region can be seen in local ruins and architecture.
Head south along the coast and you will come to more developed areas, where there are a growing number of beach resorts and hotels catering to vacation goers.
It’s still nowhere near as busy as the more popular west coast however and makes for a great place to escape to for those looking for that beach life without huge crowds.
One of the most well-known places to visit is Arugam Bay, which is perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful coastal locations. With huge waves and big surf, this is a popular destination for water sports enthusiasts.
The Northwest Coast
Northwest of the capital Colombo can be found land of beautiful scenery, golden coastline, and extensive national parks. Close to Colombo, you have the popular resort town of Negombo, a great place to visit and to stay for those looking for a more traditional beach holiday destination.
If you prefer more pristine, undeveloped beaches then head even further north, to the untouched cities of Puttalam or Kalpatiya, where things are decidedly more rustic.
Along the northern shore, you will frequently see dolphins and whales, and the area is slowly becoming a center for marine watching trips. Wildlife lovers will also need to call in at Wilpattu, which is home to the largest national park in Sri Lanka.
This is a spectacular area and a real haven for rare and endangered local species, such as the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear.
Uva is one of Sri Lanka’s least populated provinces, but one of its largest in terms of land area. The region is home to some of the country’s best hiking and highland scenery and is the site of many of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations.
Visit Lipton’s seat, a viewing area that overlooks vast tea fields in Haputale.
Hike through the fields, through the hills and through the charming local villages for an enjoyable outdoor experience, before visiting the spectacular Horton Plains National Park where you can walk past dreamy mountain peaks in what is a misty and surreal landscape.
Our top recommended tours in Uva Province:
- Horton Plains-World’s End Tour From Nuwaraeliya
- Private Day Trip: Horton Plains and Pedro Tea Factory
Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka enjoys warm, tropical weather throughout the year, however, it’s important to note that certain areas and regions of the country are best visited at different times of the year.
The main event to plan your travels around is the two tropical monsoons. These hit different parts of the coastline at different times of the year, ensuring that actually, Sri Lanka can be visited year-round as long as you go to the regions not currently under the monsoon.
As a general rule, the South West Monsoon hits the south-west coast between May and September while the North East Monsoon will hit the north-east coast between October and February.
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