11 places that should feature on every Sri Lanka itinerary

By Tharaka
Jan 15, 2023
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Leaving the usual path behind, hopping on a local bus to locate temples or tea shops in places not noted on maps, is arguably when the country is at its best. There are, however, some locations that absolutely cannot be missed on any half-decent Sri Lanka itinerary. Here is our selection of the top locations to visit in Sri Lanka.


The enigmatic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya, rising sharply from the country's central plains, is undoubtedly Sri Lanka's most spectacular sight. Near-vertical walls climb to a flat-topped pinnacle containing the ruins of an old palace, said to have been the epicentre of Kassapa's brief reign. The early morning panoramas across mist-wrapped forests are enthralling, but don't miss out on the intriguing on-site museum. After scaling the rock, try hiking up adjoining slopes for unrivaled views of Sigiriya, which towers above its forested surroundings.

Mirissa and its surrounding beaches

Mirissa. Even the name of what is undoubtedly Sri Lanka's best beach sounds paradisiacal, and few visitors are disappointed when they visit. A lovely swath of powdery white sand set against emerald waters. Add a couple palm tree groves drooping lazily overhead, and you've got a beach bum's fantasy. In fact, a number of beaches along the south coast, notably Tangalla and Unawatuna, are suitable for a few days of heavy sunbathing and splashing in the surf, complete with beach-bungalow accommodation and happy-hour cocktail specials. Did you hear someone say beach crawl?


Anuradhapura is one of Sri Lanka's most important historic sites. This is where Sri Lanka's spiritual past comes to life, with towering, bowl-shaped dagobas (stupas), ruined monasteries, and sacred tanks. Sri Maha Bodhi, one of the world's oldest trees, is in the center of the courtyard, grown from a cutting taken from the tree that protected Buddha as he reached enlightenment more than two thousand years ago (!) at Bodhgaya, India. A day spent riding rented bicycles between these massive structures that loom big above verdant treetops will not be forgotten. Head 13km east to the tranquil town and temple complex of Mihintale for additional dagoba sightings

National Park of Uda Walawe

Sri Lanka's riposte to East Africa is this enormous expanse of open grassland, waterholes, and forest groves, home to easily spotted buffalo, sambar deer, crocodiles, tropical birds, and elephants. And we're not talking about a few elephants here; we're talking about hundreds of them. Bring a long lens and request that your driver stand back so you may study these gentle giants without disturbing their sleep.

Arugam Bay

Sri Lanka's favorite wave is the long right-hander at the southern end of Arugam Bay, which is the perfect break at the core of the country's surf scene. The ocean is busy with bodies and boards from April to September, although stragglers can catch decent swells as late as November. There are beach bars, surf schools, and board rental stores mere steps from the ocean, as befits a surf hub. There are also some wonderful eateries to try and cheap, high-quality beach huts to relax in, making Arugam appealing to folks who can't distinguish a longboard from a Mini Mal.


The Colombo to Ella train, rattling through emerald tea gardens with the wind in your hair and the aroma of the tropics on the breeze, is the stuff of travel fantasies, but what awaiting you isn't too shabby either. Ella is a great place to take a break from traveling by spending a few days relaxing in one of the country's greatest guesthouses. But don't be too relaxed: make time for relaxing walks through tea plantations to temples, waterfalls, and vistas. After working up an appetite while hiking, look forward to some of Sri Lanka's greatest home-cooked food combined with a revitalizing cup of tea.


Colombo, which is frequently ignored, has a lot to offer visitors if you can get your head around its fairly disjointed layout. The British built the railway tracks that cut the city off from much of its ocean shoreline, but they also left a legacy of landmark structures across the city, particularly in the colonial-era Fort sector. Beyond the busy arterial roads that run north-south through the center, you'll find centuries-old churches, colorful temples, frantic marketplaces, and evocative drinking dens, such as Traveller's Bar, with soothing views of the Indian Ocean that will make you reconsider heading elsewhere.

Adam's Peak

Adam's Peak (Sri Pada) is a sacred site for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike. Pilgrims have trudged by candlelight up to the summit for over a thousand years to stand in the footprints of the Buddha (or Lord Shiva, or the biblical Adam, depending on which tradition you follow), contemplate the cosmos, and admire the stunning beauty of the hilltop, where, according to locals, the island's butterflies go to die. Today, tourists join the masses of local pilgrims who have been similarly enchanted by the charm..


Jaffna and the northern islands, once the epicenter of furious fighting, have been restored, providing a fascinating glimpse of the Sri Lanka that may have been if Hinduism had won the day earlier in the island's history. Everything appears to be different up north, with staccato Tamil replacing Sinhala's singsong tone, dagobas (stupas) replaced by colorful Hindu temples, and a menu that faces north towards India. Jaffna has never looked better, with new hotels and a renewed feeling of purpose; rent a bike and take a rickety ferry to islands like Neduntivu, distant from the tourist crowds.


In Galle, man and nature collaborated to create a living work of art. The Dutch created the streets and buildings, the Sri Lankans contributed color and culture, and nature finished it off with a soft layer of tropical greenery washed over by the salt sea air. The result is a charming, Unesco-listed city that entices cultural vultures with landmark buildings, art galleries, and museums, as well as eccentric, cosmopolitan places to stay, eat, and buy. It is without a doubt the country's most popular urban destination for tourists.


The ancient cities of Sri Lanka may have a longer history, but Kandy has the force of belief on its side. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, whose central shrine is supposed to contain a tooth of the Buddha himself, is located in the island's cultural capital. This is the holiest place on the island for the Sinhalese. Kandy has more tangible pleasures for tourists: nostalgic strolls through the ancient quarter, stunning vistas of the center lake, a slew of excellent museums, and some of the island's best botanical gardens nearby.

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