From a rich colonial history and well-preserved national parks to lush, green tea plantations and palm-fringed beaches, discover the best places to visit in Sri Lanka.
YALA NATIONAL PARK
One of the first national parks in Sri Lanka, this designated wildlife sanctuary 260km southeast of Colombo has the highest concentration of leopards in the world. Yala National Park also plays an important role in the conservation of Asian elephants and is home to over 200 bird species (six of which are endemic). Other wildlife to look out for are the Sri Lanka sloth bear and water buffalo. The best sightings are in the dry season, from February to June, when water levels are usually at their lowest. Our top pick of where to stay is the Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a luxury tented camp set on a deserted beach.
Sri Lanka’s capital has a rich colonial history and culture at its heart, even as modern construction continues to boom. Don’t miss the Gangaramaya Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the city or the Pettah floating market on Beira Lake where boats are piled high with everything from fabrics to local crafts. At the centre of the lake is the Buddhist Seema Malakaya Temple - a peaceful retreat from hectic Colombo. There are several beautiful parks including Viharamahadevi Park which is adjacent to the Colombo’s National Museum and has lovely city views. There’s also Galle Face Green, an oceanside urban park that stretches for 500m along the coast: enjoy the beach, fly kites and be sure to time your visit with sunset.
Southeast of Colombo and south of Kandy, Hatton is a key stop-off in Sri Lanka’s tea country. Founded during British colonial times to serve the coffee plantations and tea estates, the town (named after a village in Scotland’s Aberdeenshire) is a central point for tea growing regions such as Maskeliya, Talawakelle, Bogawantalawa and Dickoya. Characterful bungalows punctuate the plantations. The best stays are five-bedroom Camellia Hills, near Dickoya, or one of Ceylon Tea Trails’ restored tea planter residences such as Dunkeld, which is perched high above Castlereagh Lake (take a boat or kayak out to explore the reservoir). Hatton is also a good starting point for those wanting to climb Adam’s Peak, a conical 2,243m hill famous for the Sri Pada "sacred footprint" rock formation near the summit, which in Buddhist tradition is believed to be the footprint of the Buddha.
A gorgeous historic trading port on the south coast, Galle was built by the Portuguese and then expanded by the Dutch. The old town and its fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage site: must-visit spots include the Galle Fort Lighthouse, National Maritime Museum (the oldest Dutch building in the city which houses a trio of galleries) and the inner fort area with its cobbled alleyways, craft shops, galleries, independent restaurants and cafes. There are several beaches near Galle too. Palm-fringed sandy Unawatuna Beach is the most popular while family-friendly Bentota Beach offers water sports and Akurala Beach has pristine reefs.
WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK
The largest and one of the oldest national parks in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu is best known for its leopard population and for having a number of natural basins that fill with rainwater, attracting large numbers of resident and migratory water birds. Look out for elephants, sloth bears, spotted deer and buffalo too.
SRI LANKA'S CULTURAL TRIANGLE
The Cultural Triangle is in the heart of Sri Lanka and comprises the World Heritage Sites of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy and Polonnaruwa.
A former capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom, the Polonnaruwa archaeological park is a delight to explore, featuring ancient temples, stupas, shrines and palaces. The Gal Viharaya (meaning rock monastery), a series of 12th-century stone Buddha statues, is a stand-out and considered to be one of the best examples of ancient Sinhalese rock carving. Polonnaruwa is also close to several wildlife-rich national parks including Kaudulla National Park (home to over 200 elephants); Minneriya National Park (known for its elephant migration during the dry season when they congregate around an ancient water tank, called the elephant gathering by locals) and Wasgamuwa National Park, which is dominated by the Sudukanda Mountain Range. The best time to visit is during the dry season, from May to September; the rest of the year, elephants can still be seen but in less concentrated numbers.
Set on the banks of the historic Malvathu River, this ancient city is one of the most archaeologically important in Sri Lanka. Reportedly the capital of the ancient Ceylonese kings from the 5th-century BC to the 11th-century AD, it was also the centre of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries (visit Thuparamaya, the first stupa constructed in Sri Lanka after the introduction of Buddhism). Stroll through the Mahamewna Gardens to see Sri Maha Bodhiya, the oldest documented tree planted by a human (rather than self-seeding) in 288 BC.
A sacred pilgrimage site, the UNESCO World Heritage Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest and best preserved of its kind in Sri Lanka. Five separate caves feature stunning Buddhist mural paintings and statues.
Near the town of Dambulla, Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress that was chosen by King Kassapa (477-495 AD) as the site of his capital. He built his palace on top, decorated its sides with colourful frescoes and, on a small plateau halfway up, created a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The capital and royal palace were abandoned after the king's death and it was then used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. The best time to visit is January to April when the weather is cooler.
Located in Sri Lanka’s Central Province, Kandy is a pretty city, set around a lake, with colonial era architecture. Its best known for the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world, but it’s also worth visiting the Royal Palace and Park, the former residence of the Sri Lankan monarchy which dates back to the 14th-century (in 1942, the remains of the palace were turned into the National Museum of Kandy). For the best panoramic landscape views, head to Rajapihilla Mawatha. It’s also close to the Knuckles Mountain Range, where densely forested walking trails wind across the 34 peaks. Relax and unwind with a stay at Santani Wellness Resort and Spa, nestled in the serene hills north of Kandy, the sweeping views from floor to ceiling glass windows are as outstanding as the treatments.