Until recently Sri Lanka was a tiny, undiscovered island that wouldn’t have usually been included on any ‘must-visit destinations’ lists. But as more people discover this little island packs a big punch, it is fast becoming a regular on bucket lists. A vibrant, friendly culture, charming colonial towns, moorish food, relaxing beaches and stunning scenery. Sri Lanka is a small piece of paradise on earth. There are way more reasons than 10 to visit Sri Lanka, but here’s our starting point!
Sri Lanka’s fourth highest mountain, Adam’s peak, is a place of myths and legends. A mysterious footprint-shaped mark at the summit is one of the most famous religious sites in Sri Lanka. Buddhist legend states that it belongs to the Buddha, and Hindus claim this as the footprint of Lord Shiva. Christians also believe it to be where Adam first stepped after being kicked out of Eden. Rather poetically, the mountain has also been given the name ‘Butterfly Mountain’ – the place where butterflies go to die.
Climbing the never-ending steps in pilgrim season will have you walking a candlelit path for around 2-4 hours. It’s best to start around midnight to reach the summit before sunrise where the atmosphere at the top is simply magical. Religious chanting, perfumed incense floating down over the edge of the mountain, and local families passing around tea and rotis in hushed silence, waiting for the sun to rise. At around 4 am, the clouds lift to uncover one of the most beautiful scenes that could easily have been taken right out of a fairytale.
If there is only one activity you do in Sri Lanka, make sure you visit Sigiriya rock. Being the most popular site on the island, this excursion is often included in a tour to Sri Lanka! It’s been given the name ‘Lion Rock’ due to the enormous lion’s feet that greet you halfway. Located at the heart of the island, 15 km from Dambulla, the 200-meter rock will leave you breathless (in more ways than one!). The top plateau houses palace ruins from an ancient civilisation that once resided there. Reaching the top will give you one of the most dramatic sights you will ever behold. The beauty from the surrounding gardens, moats, forests and dry planes is spectacular and not to be missed.
Visiting Sri Lanka is an excellent opportunity to feast on its rich, mouth-watering cuisine. Fill your bellies with as many street snacks and beach-side dinners as you can. Often referred to as the island of rice and curry, this is the base for many beloved Sri Lankan dishes. The Ambul Thiyal is a particularly good one! Made from chunks of fish, sauteed in a blend of spices and mixed with sour fruit. Delicious!
Other foodie favourites include hoppers – the Sri Lankan pancake filled with curry, vegetables or eggs. And if you don’t fancy curry for breakfast, try the buffalo milk curd. Similar to Greek yoghurt but drizzled with palm treacle! If you have a craving for fried fast food after one too many Arracks, try the delicious Koththu Rotis! It’s a leftover-type-dish consisting of a mix of fish, chicken, egg, vegetable and flatbread strips, fried together and topped with curry sauce. Mmm mm.
Beaches & surf
It’s no secret that Sri Lanka is famous for its array of pristine beaches and excellent surf – and with so many to choose from, you will always be able to find a favourite. From the chilled backpacker’s paradise of Hikkaduwa to the honeymoon sanctuary of Dickwella – no two beaches are the same. Some, such as Arugam Bay are perfect for surfing and famous for its point break, and some are great for watersports such as Bentota. With Sri Lanka having an abundance of coral reefs, snorkelling can pretty much be enjoyed from any shoreline. Sometimes the water is so clear you don’t even need a snorkel! There are also numerous spots around the island perfect for diving.
Having been in the game for over 50 years, Sri Lanka is big in the tea business. This is where the famous Lipton tea is produced. Picture verdant rolling hills as far as the eye can see, mist creeping up over the hilltops, and the odd little lady hand-picking leaves. Variety is never an issue as there are lots of different plantations and regions to choose from. Some are more historical than others such as Mackwoods, who specialise in teaching the process of tea making. Others like Uva Halpewatte provide a much more hands-on experience. They specialise in inviting you to be part of each stage of the process, offering tastings at the end. Visiting the tea plantations are a great way to escape the heat and humidity, giving you a chance to relax in the cooler, hillier regions.
Wildlife & safaris
With spectacular scenery and a variety of climates and landscapes, Sri Lanka is a wildlife-lovers paradise. The island is home to elephants, leopards, monkeys and buffalo, and is regularly frequented by whales, dolphins, turtles and an astonishing selection of marine life. There are a total of 22 national parks on the island, so there is much to choose from! The most famous is Yala National Park which houses over 30 leopards. The other one to note is Udawalawe National Park. This park is by far the best for seeing elephants – over 300 roam the grounds. The park was built to protect the reservoir and is a perfect spot for elephants to thrive. You are pretty much guaranteed a close-up encounter here.
Galle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, packed with history and beautiful architecture. Wandering these sleepy streets will give you an insight into what Sri Lanka once was. Galle was the island’s main maritime port, and so remains of the colonial past are prevalent almost everywhere you go. At the heart of Galle is the old fortified quarter, surrounded by Galle Fort. Compared to the rest of Sri Lanka, Galle is an especially unusual place. The town is built around historic, dutch colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets are lined with bohemian boutiques, trendy cafes and luxury restaurants. This, added to the tropical climate and the nearby beach nightlife at Unawatuna, makes for an exciting mix, and one you most definitely need to explore.
Train to Kandy
Often regarded as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, this 7-hour ride winds through the most scenic parts of Sri Lanka, starting from Ella and ending in Kandy. This stretch of track will find you staring out of the window at the lush tea plantations, misty mountains, beautiful bridges and majestic waterfalls. Trains are one of the best ways to travel in Sri Lanka. They are comfortable, affordable, and easy to book. Booking a seat in the observation carriage will make this ride especially memorable. This gives you an all-round better view of of the incredible scenery drifting by. However, the train itself is very slow! You will often have children running alongside and sellers popping in to offer you delicious snacks of fresh mangoes and cinnamon. But it all adds to the charm!
Sri Lanka is a devoutly spiritual island with religion being at the core of its history and culture. Buddhism is the dominant religion, with Christians and Hindus making up the majority of the rest. Temples and ancient religious sites are sprinkled all over the island. Some of which are world-famous and some are tiny, personal sites that may not be a popular tourist destination, but if you are lucky enough to stumble upon them will be something to remember. A must visit is the famous ‘Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic’ in Kandy. Allegedly, the tooth belonged to Buddha and whoever holds the tooth, holds the governance of Sri Lanka. This temple is one of the holiest and most precious Buddhist sites in the world. If you travelled to this part of the globe, it would be a shame to miss it.
Sri Lanka is just as rich, colourful and enchanting below the surface, as it is above. Being a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it has an extensive range of marine life. From the palm-sized, newly hatched baby turtles, to the mammoth 100-foot long blue whale, and every little colourful thing in between. Mirissa is the most popular place for whale and dolphin watching. The companies in Sri Lanka that offer this excursion have a tremendous success rate. The island is also perfect for snorkelling, with almost every shore fringed in coral reef. If you are more of an experienced diver, the wreckages, underwater cave systems and tombs are fantastic to explore.