Sri Lanka is known as the gem or the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ with diverse landscapes, cultures and activities to do. Spread across the different regions of the island, there really is something to do and see for everyone. Despite the horrific terror attacks in April 2019, Sri Lanka’s tourism is bouncing back faster than expected. With local people so warm and welcoming, mesmerising landscapes, waterfalls, lush green tea plantations, rainforests, beautiful temples, and exotic palm fringed beaches you will have plenty of unforgettable experiences in Sri Lanka.
Our experience in Sri Lanka
We traveled through Sri Lanka in September 2019, only 5 months after the Easter attacks and right after Sri Lanka has been declared safe to travel to. We loved our journey through the island and visited all the top things to do in Sri Lanka. From the famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, to many uncommon places to visit in Sri Lanka. Read in this blog about the 20 best places to visit in Sri Lanka. We hope you enjoy reading about the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka and per subject you will also find a specific blog post which will help you to create your own best Sri Lanka itinerary!
Visit the beautiful Red Mosque in Colombo
One of the main attractions in Colombo and one of the best things to do is visiting the beautiful Red Mosque. This mesmerising architectural wonder, also known as Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid, will take your breath away with its unusual red-and-white pattern. If you have one day in Colombo for sightseeing, you should definitely put this on your itinerary. Its tall minarets can be seen from almost every street, towering over the busy city. Situated in the bustling Pettah district, Sri Lanka’s Red Mosque is one of the architectural wonders of the world. It is said that the Red Mosque has been a landmark for sailors approaching the port of Colombo ever since it was built in 1908. You can easily imagine that being true when you look at the mesmerising red an white color pattern.
Know before you go:
It is possible for women to go inside the mosque to look around. But note that you will need to cover your hair, arms and legs and of course take your shoes off. Be respectful to their religion if you plan to enter, and enjoy this architectural wonder.
Hike Little Adams Peak
One of the must things to do in Ella is climbing up Little Adams Peak. The view from the mountain is just incredible, and the hike isn’t that hard or far. Little Adams Peak is 1141m above sea-level. Although you already begin at a high elevation so you will only hike up a few hundred meters along the trail. The whole way up to the top is a well-maintained dirt path and stairs to the first set of viewpoints. The best view, and light for photography is when you go with sunrise. Sunset is of course also an option. If you want to enjoy some of the best views of Sri Lanka without the need to hike for hours, Little Adams Peak is the perfect trek.
Read everything about Little Adams Peak Ella in our complete guide
Explore Kandy city
Kandy is a vibrant city in the middle of Sri Lanka. It is for some travellers the start, or end point of their train journey through Sri Lanka’s inland. Apart from the beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, the country is also famous for its religious sites which can be found around Kandy and Sigiriya. In Kandy you can visit the Sacred Tooth Relic Temple which is the holiest Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. But also the Botanical Gardens or the nearby Dambulla Cave temple.
So if you have the time, Kandy is really worth it as there are lots of other beautiful places to visit. After all, Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka after the capital Colombo. Plan to spend one or two days in Kandy after, or before you hop on the famous Kandy to Ella train ride.
Read everything about Kandy in our complete guide
Hop on the famous train ride
The Kandy to Ella train journey is said to be one of the most scenic and beautiful train rides in the world! If you travel from Kandy to Ella or the other way around, it is super worth it to hop on this epic train ride! You will come along other places to visit in Sri Lanka like Nuwara Eliya and Ella. The tickets are super affordable, $1.50 to climb aboard for the 5-hour journey.
The views on both sides of the train are breathtaking. You will go through the mountains overlooking farms and villages and of course the vast green tea plantations. The scenery changes all the time during the trip. At one moment you are looking out on an entire green view than the next minute you are in the middle of a woodland forest.
Read all the tips your need in our complete Kandy to Ella train guide
Explore the tea fields and factories of Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is probably the best known tea-growing district of Sri Lanka with her impressive lush green tea plantations. In 2008 Sri Lanka was the second most important tea producing country in the world, producing 330 million kilograms tea each year! The famous Sri Lankan Ceylon tea is, as we may believe by the experts, the finest tea in the world. If you plan to visit Nuwara Eliya, you have to visit one of the tea estates. But besides the impressive lush tea plantations, there are other amazing places to visit in Nuwara Eliya.
Climb Sigiriya Rock fortress
The Lion Rock fortress, also known as Sigiriya Rock, is one of the most valuable historical places in Sri Lanka. Located in the North Central province of Sri Lanka this is a must do activity when you’re in Sigiriya. The ancient rock fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982 and also declared by UNESCO as the 8th Wonder of the World! The creators of this amazing architectural monument used unique and creative technical skills. Besides this, the beautiful vast landscape of the surrounded jungle is amazing to admire. So yes, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is something really special to see with your own eyes. Therefore it is also one of the better known places in Sri Lanka to visit which makes it one of the busier tourist attractions in Sri Lanka as well.
Read everything about climbing the Sigiriya Rock Fortress here
Explore the beautiful waterfalls of Sri Lanka
With over 400 waterfalls recorded, Sri Lanka has a lot of beautiful waterfalls to offer. Because of the hilly inlands, most waterfalls can be found in the central highlands of the island. Some have natural pools to bathe in, while others are more tucked away and can only be seen from a distance. Or if you have a drone, you can fly closer to them. There is even a waterfall where you can bath in at the top! We had a few favorite waterfalls which you can read in our complete guide about the best waterfalls in Sri Lanka.
Go on a safari in the National Parks
Going on a safari in Sri Lanka is an absolute MUST DO! It will be one of the unforgettable experiences of your Sri Lanka adventure. The island has so much wildlife to offer in the different National Parks. You can spot wild elephants, jackals, sloth bears, many different species of birds, crocodiles and even leopards! In Trincomalee and Mirissa you can also go whale watching in the right season. But before planning your Sri Lanka Safari you have to know what the right season is for which National Park. Especially when you have a specific wish to see a certain wild animal!
Where to go on safari in Sri Lanka?
In total Sri Lanka has 22 National Parks, covering 13% of its landmass which is protected as National Parks, all with their own types of wildlife. With so much choice it might be hard to know where to go for your perfect Sri Lanka safari tour. The most popular National Park in Sri Lanka to do a safari is Yala National Park. The reason for that is, during a Yala National Park safari you have a very high chance to spot leopards, but only in the right season! In the dry period from February to July the water levels are lower, which makes it easier to spot animals. Especially leopards! They come out to the lagoons to drink so it’s easier for the tourguides to find them. Udawalawe National Park on the other hand is, together with Kaudulla National Park and Minneriya National Park, the perfect safari to spot lots of wild Sri Lankan elephants.
Hike the Ella Rock
For the nature lovers and the ones who seek a little adventure and spectacular views, the hike up to the summit of Ella rock is something you don’t want to miss out on! It is absolutely one of the best things to do in Ella. The hike is free of charge and offers amazing views on the Ella gap. In 4 hours in total you can get to the viewpoint and back to Ella town. The best time to hike Ella Rock is early morning before sunrise for two reasons. You have the chance of seeing a magical sunrise with a clear view and it’s not so hot yet. Read in the complete guide about Ella Rock everything in detail like the right navigation, what to prepare etc.
Explore the Horton Plains
Horton Plains National Park is situated in the central highlands of Sri Lanka close to Nuwara Eliya. It was a protected National park in 1988 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. Horton Plains National Park is a very special place in Sri Lanka. With diverse landscapes, rich wildlife and excellent hiking opportunities this is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. During the hike you will pass the popular sites like Bakers Fall, mini World’s End and World’s End. The Horton Plains hike is one of the most beautiful and varied treks you will stumble across in this incredible country.
Read the complete guide about Horton Plains National Park and the hike to World’s End to find all the information you need!
Visit Trincomalee for the beautiful beaches
Trincomalee is a cute little beach town on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. It offers beautiful white sand beaches and lots of activities to do. The east coast is the upcoming part of Sri Lanka and quieter than the touristic southern coast. Trincomalee is surrounded by wildlife, green hilltops and impressive rock formations. You can chill at the beach, do a whale watching tour and visit the beautiful Hindu temples around Trincomalee. Especially the beaches like Uppuveli and Nilaveli are super clean and quiet. Perfect for the peace seekers and off the beaten path explorers!
Read everything about Trincomalee and the best places to visit here
Hike Pidurangala rock
Pidurangala Rock is a massive rock formation located just a few kilometres north of Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka. With an interesting history closely related to that of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, climbing Pidurangala Rock must be on your Sri Lanka to do list. It is an awesome experience and you can take a perfect picture with the amazing view over the jungle and the view on the Lion Rock. This was one of our favorite places to visit in Sri Lanka!
Read everything about the Pidurangala hike here
Sri Lanka is one of the best surf destinations in Asia! With waves rolling in all year long, there are a few hotspots for surfing in Sri Lanka. The best Sri Lanka surf spots are Arugam Bay on the east coast of the island. Mirissa, Hiriketiya and Weligama are the best Sri Lanka surf spots on the south coast of the island, and Hikkaduwa is the best surf spot on the west coast of Sri Lanka. In each beach town there are great surf camps where you can enjoy your Sri Lanka surfing vacation. But you can of course also rent a surf board at any surf beach and go your own way!
Stay in Hiriketiya for the relaxing vibes
Hiriketiya is located on a horseshoe-shaped bay where intense turquoise waters hit the golden beach flanked by a lush palm tree jungle. Thanks to its laid-back vibe, Hiriketiya can still be considered as a hidden gem. It attracts a certain type of visitor, mainly surfers, yoga enthusiastics and creatives. This makes Hiriketiya a vibrant melting pot of cultures. The mix of locals and expats works perfectly in Hiriketiya and even led to the opening of the first Digital Nomad co-working and living space in Sri Lanka, Verse Collective. Because of these reasons, we decided to base ourselves for 5 days in Hiriketiya to enjoy the chill beach vibes, get work done and eat healthy at the many lovely cafes and restaurants. We loved this beach town so much, in our opinion it’s one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka!
Read more about Hiriketiya and the 12 best things to do in this blog post
Go scuba diving
Sri Lanka is a paradise for scuba divers. With almost 1600 km of coastline to explore, there are many phenomenal diving opportunities. From exceptional wreck dives to vibrant, healthy coral reefs with an abundance of marine life. Many dive sites which will impress you. Diving in Sri Lanka is affected by the seasonal monsoons. But no matter the time of the year you plan to visit, there is always spectacular diving to be found. If you are travelling between October and May, you’ll want to head to the west and southwest coasts for the best diving in Sri Lanka. If you are planning to visit from May through to October, then the northeast coast offers the best diving conditions in Sri Lanka.
Book a whale watching tour
Sri Lanka is famous for its wildelife. So besides going on a safari in the National Parks of Sri Lanka, you can also book a whale watching tour! It is possible to spot whales and dolphins in different seasons in Trincomalee and Mirissa. This is actually one of the main tourist attractions in Sri Lanka and absolutely one of the best things to do! Especially if you like to be on the ocean and spot these beautiful marine creatures!
In Mirissa the best season to go on a whale and dolphin watching tour is from November to April and in Trincomalee the best season to go on a whale watching tour is from March until August.
Visit the ancient city Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa is considered as one of the best preserved historic cities in the world. Located on the east side of Sigiriya, it is one of the perfect day tours you can do in Sigiriya. Polonnaruwa is considered as one of the best preserved historical places in Sri Lanka and even in the world! It was Sri Lanka’s capital from the 11th – 13th Century. The ancient ruins are declared as an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historic remains and archeological relic sites. The archaeological sites are located close to each other. Polonnaruwa has both its ancient city, the “old town” as well as a the “new town” located about 6km away. Tours can be easily arranged on foot, or more popular by bicycle.
Visit Nine Arch Bridge Ella
Visiting the Nine Arch Bridge is one of the awesome things you must do in Ella and one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka! With its beautiful setting in between the tea fields and the dense jungle in the background, the Nine Arch Bridge is a very picturesque spot. It has become one of the main tourist hotspots of Sri Lanka and it is largely due to the epic scenery and hikes in the region like Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak that tourists decide to stay for some days in Ella. The Nine Arch Bridge has an interesting history and is one of the best examples of colonial-era construction and an incredible architectural feat.
Read more about the Nine Arch Bridge in this blog post
Explore the old Dutch colonial town Galle Fort
Galle Fort is an UNESCO World Heritage Site in the south of Sri Lanka. There are many beautiful places to visit in this old town and you can enjoy yourself a full day exploring. With its charming and narrow laneways, imposing Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques, churches and the famous lighthouse, there is lots of history to see. You can walk over the thick ramparts built by the Dutch merchants that controlled the city in the 17th century. There are also lots of cute boutique shops and cosy cafes and restaurants in Galle Fort to fuel your body.
Read more about Galle in this blog post
Stay in one of the beautiful nature resorts
If you like to spoil yourself for a few nights, Sri Lanka has many beautiful and luxury places to stay. For example Aarunya Nature Resort and Spa nearby Kandy. Tucked away on a hill in the rain forest with incredible views on Knuckles Mountain Range, this is a true gem for nature lovers. The hospitality and service in Sri Lanka is from a very high standard. So even if you are planning your honeymoon in Sri Lanka, there are many options to choose from.
Read more about Aarunya Nature Resort and Spa in this blogpost
Best time to visit Sri Lanka
The temperatures in Sri Lanka are fairly constant between 27°–29°C year round. The climate is dictated by two key monsoon seasons. But because they alternate, Sri Lanka is an all-year round holiday destination. In a nutshell, the best season to visit Sri Lanka on the south-west coast and the hill country is from December to March. But if you want to go to the east coast of Sri Lanka, the best time to visit is from April to September. Be aware that the hilly inlands of Sri Lanka are much colder with a higher chance of rainfall throughout the year than the south coast.
How to get around in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is quite a small island where the distances between the sights are relatively short. That makes it an easy country to travel around and to go t all the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. However, it can be a bit frustrating and time-consuming as many roads are narrow, windy, and in bad conditions. The trains and buses are cheap, but very old, slow, uncomfortable and often delayed. A lack of domestic flight options means that you will have to rely on ground transportation. Renting a car with driver or hiring a Tuk Tuk to drive yourself around are the best options. But of course you can also use public transportation like trains and buses. We used PickMe a few times in Colombo which is the Sri Lankan Uber with fair prices.
Things to know before you travel to Sri Lanka
Visa Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka you cannot just get a Visa On Arrival (VOA) unlike many other countries in Asia. If you’re planning to travel to Sri Lanka, you must obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) prior to arrival. Make sure to do this a week in advance to be safe. But most of the time it can be arranged in 24 – 48 hours. All visitors must hold a passport valid for 6 months and the VISA will last for 30 days. The price will be between $20 – $35
You can not drink local tap water in Sri Lanka. It is not suitable for the western stomach and you will most likely get sick. What you can do instead is using a refill bottle and refill your water where they have big water jugs. Mostly you pay little money to refill your bottle, or at some restaurants its even free to refill your bottle! That way you can help our environment by not purchasing 5 plastic bottles of water every day. Another option is to invest in a Water Purifier filter Bottle. Those are not cheap. But with these innovations, you just fill up your bottle from the tap, press down the filter and then the water is safe.
Keep in mind that there are lots of leeches in the Sri Lankan rainforest. Especially in places where it’s humid or when it has just been raining. If you find a leech attached to your skin, don’t pull it off, as the mouth parts can remain under your skin. The best option to remove a leech is to use something flat, like a creditcard for example. Slide it under the leech to break the seal, at which point the leech will detach its tiny jaws. By using salt, alcohol, DEET or lemon juice the leech will fall off by itself. But this is not the best and safest option because the leech will detach itself quickly. Therefore it’s likely to leave some of the contents of its stomach into the wound in its haste. This might increase the risk of the wound becoming infected.
More Sri Lanka travel inspiration
We hope you got a lot of inspiration about all the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. If you want more in depth information about specific sights in Sri Lanka, click HERE to find all our Sri Lanka travel guides! Do you have any questions, let us know! And share this blog on Social Media with your friends to inspire them to explore this beautiful island as well!