25 Epic Places To Visit In Sri Lanka – The Ultimate Bucket List
If you are looking for the perfect destination to visit after the pandemic, then look no further than the beautiful country of Sri Lanka. Found in the Indian ocean just off the coast of southern India; this country is a tropical paradise. After 150 years of British rule, Sri Lanka finally regained its independence in 1948 and became the popular holiday destination that it is today. Formerly known as Ceylon, this country is well known for it’s beautiful beaches, incredible wildlife and it’s endless tea plantations. In this blog post we’re going to go through 25 places in Sri Lanka that you just have to visit!
1. Coconut Tree Hill in Mirissa
Coconut Tree Hill is one of the most popular Instagram spots in the whole of Sri Lanka. It is located past Mirissa beach, and is an outcrop of palm trees situated at the edge of the ocean. This place is beautiful and is the perfect place to take a seat and watch the sunset (or sunrise if you’re an early bird). If you’re a keen photographer we’d definitely recommend heading there at sunrise, as this spot gets extremely busy during the afternoon and at sunset.
If you’re lucky you might even get to see a turtle pop their head up, and surf the waves. Make sure you take the time to relax here and enjoy the views, because getting to watch these beautiful creatures surface is such a magical experience. In our opinion, Coconut Tree Hill is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka and must not be missed!
2. Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves are located around 30 minutes from the famous Sigiriya Rock, and approximately two hours from the city of Kandy. This sacred spot is the largest cave complex in the whole of Sri Lanka, and is also the most well preserved. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and consists of five separate caves; each with different statues located within.
This Buddhist complex is officially known as the ‘Golden Temple of Dambulla’ and has been a pilgrimage site for over 2,000 years. These caves have over 150 Buddha statues located within, and numerous murals to admire. The largest cave is known as the Maharaja Vihara Lena (or the Cave of the Great Kings). This is because it contains the statues of Nissankamalla and Valagambahu – two ancient Sri Lankan kings.
One thing we will say is make sure you don’t forget your water bottle! There are quite a few steps to get to the top, and with Sri Lanka’s humidity you’ll feel it if you don’t keep yourself hydrated. Although make sure the monkeys don’t try and steal it as they are pretty cheeky!
3. Udawalawe National Park
If you love wildlife, then going on a safari in Udawalawe National Park is a must! This national park was established in 1972 and has since become extremely popular with tourists. The main reason being is that it is one of the best national parks in the country to see the Sri Lankan elephant. This is because of the Udawalawe reservoir located within which draws the elephants in, especially during the dry season. Other wildlife that you may get the chance to see include leopards, jackals, sambar deer, water buffalo and crocodiles amongst others. This makes Udawalawe National Park one for the bucket list – especially for animal lovers!
There are plenty of different companies that offer safaris in Udawalawe National Park, but make sure you do your research first. Some of the tour companies are unethical in their practices and choose to crowd around the animals to give people a better view. However, this is damaging to the wildlife here so it’s a good idea to read reviews before you choose your company. If you don’t want to worry about which company to choose, why not join us on our 12 day Sri Lanka tour. We will sort everything out for you, and you’ll even get to go glamping only 45 minutes outside of the national park itself. You can watch our YouTube video about glamping in Udawalawe National Park to see how cool the accommodation is!
4. Nine Arches Bridge
If you are planning a future trip to this beautiful country, then undoubtedly the Nine Arches bridge is on your itinerary! This bridge is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka, and there are so many different viewpoints you can get to see it from. The bridge is located in the mountain town of Ella and is surrounded by lush green forest and tea plantations.
The Nine arches bridge stands at an impressive 30m high and is located between Ella train station and Demodara train station. Trains head over this bridge at varied times throughout the day, and they give you a great opportunity to take the most amazing photographs. If you are unsure of the train times, check with your accommodation owner. There are plenty of places to explore around the bridge whilst you wait, and there is even a cafe located nearby.
5. Mirissa Beach
Mirissa beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Sri Lanka so make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to relax here during your trip! Whether you simply want to grab your towel and relax, try your hand at surfing or go snorkelling, this beach has something for everyone. If you want to surf, your best bet is to head down to the western end of the beach where the waves can get pretty big, and the beach is quieter. If snorkelling is up your street then we recommend heading to Parrot rock where you will get to see plenty of colourful fish!
There are plenty of great food choices on the beach here too, ranging from tasty Sri Lankan curries to lots of western food if you fancy a bit of home comfort. Once the sun starts to set the restaurants tend to light candles and lanterns, making this the perfect time to grab some tasty food! Mirissa beach doesn’t seem to get overcrowded like many of the others in Sri Lanka and has a really relaxing atmosphere, so is the perfect one to visit.
6. Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock is one of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka, and is a must visit. It is one of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites located within the country and was once the royal palace of King Kassapa – one of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings. Towering over the lush green forests below, Sigiriya Rock is home to the oldest surviving palace in all of Sri Lanka, and is given the nickname Lion Rock. This is down to the huge lion statue that used to be situated at the entrance to greet it’s visitors. Now unfortunately, all that remains of the statue are the lion’s paws, which are found at the bottom of Sigiriya rock.
This ancient fortress is quite the climb so be prepared for a sweaty journey up to the top. It is over 1200 steps to get to the top, although it sounds tiring (which it definitely is) the views from the top are so worth it. Some of our top tips to make your journey a bit easier include wearing lightweight clothes, comfortable shoes and taking plenty of water! Sunscreen is also a must up here as the hot Sri Lankan sun will be beaming down on you during your walk, and especially once you get to the top.
During our 12 day Sri Lanka tour, we head out super early in the morning to hike up Sigiriya Rock. The views from the top are incredible, so this is a place where you don’t want to forget your camera. We will show you the ancient wall paintings and sanskrit marked mirror wall as you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Why not come along for this magical experience with us!
7. The tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya
If you are heading up to central Sri Lanka, then Nuwara Eliya has to be on your list! Aside from the beautiful lake and amazing food, Nuwara Eliya has plenty of incredible tea plantations for you to explore. If you love tea then going on a tour through one of these tea plantations is a really unique experience. You will get to learn how the tea workers pick the tea, how it is processed in the factory and even get the opportunity to enjoy some Sri Lankan tea tasting for yourself.
If you aren’t keen on tea, then it’s still worth visiting one of these tea plantations as the views are so beautiful! Some of the most popular ones to visit include Pedro tea estate, Mackwoods tea centre (otherwise known as Damro) and the Oliphant Estate. It is best to do some research first before you decide as some tea plantations offer tours, and some it’s just a case of wandering through the plantations yourself (which is still a pretty amazing experience).
8. Ella Rock
Ella Rock is one of the best viewpoints in Sri Lanka, but the walk up isn’t the easiest. There is no clear trail or signs for this hike, and the paths seem to go here, there and everywhere. Some of the signs have even been changed to point the wrong way, so that locals can find you when you’re lost and make some cash by taking you to the top (pretty cheeky if you ask us). Make sure you check with your accommodation owner first to get the right route, or simply follow people up there if they are heading that way!
Once you get to the top, there are a few different viewpoints which you should visit. At the first one you will find a little hut offering delicious juice and smoothies; perfect after your sweaty hike. If you head to the left of the cabin, you will come across two more viewpoints where the scenery will blow you away. In total the route is approximately a 10km round trip so you will need sensible shoes and plenty of water (and snacks of course).
When planning a trip to Ella Rock, we recommend heading up there early morning or late afternoon as the temperature is at its lowest. The walk up is a long one but is totally worth it!
9. Whale watching in Mirissa
We know this isn’t technically a ‘place’ but more of an activity, however we just couldn’t leave this one off the list! If you travel to Sri Lanka between the months of November and April, you have an incredibly high chance of seeing the world’s largest animal – the blue whale. Sri Lanka’s whale watching season falls between those months, and the chance of seeing one of these incredible creatures is as high as 90%. However, it’s important to remember that these are wild animals and although your chances are high, sightings aren’t guaranteed.
It’s not just blue whales that you may get to see off the coast of Mirissa, other species of whales pass through this part of the ocean too. Sperm whales, Fin whales, Pilot whales, Bryde’s whales and even Killer whales are often spotted along these waters. Bottlenose and spinner dolphins often like to swim right alongside giving you a playful display, and if you’re lucky you might even get to see a whale shark or turtles!
If you travel with us during whale watching season, we will take you on a whale watching tour that is ethical and fun! You will get to spend your day out on the ocean searching for whales and eating some tasty cooked food throughout the day. Who could ask for more?
10. Adams Peak
If you are looking for a big hike, then Adams Peak is the place. At 2243m, Adams peak can seem pretty daunting but the views from the top will be well worth your time and effort. This mountain is also known as Sri Pada mountain and is an important pilgrimage site for various reasons. Adams Peak is believed to be where Adam was exiled to the Garden of Eden, but it is also believed to be the location of Buddha’s last footstep on earth before he reached Nirvana. This makes this site very important to a lot of different religions, and pre-pandemic approximately 20,000 pilgrims climbed Adams Peak every year. As the 5th tallest mountain in Sri Lanka, that’s not an easy feat!
There are different routes you can take up to Adams Peak, but all require quite a good level of fitness. The most popular route is to start from Hatton, which is usually the route most pilgrims take too. This route is shorter than the others but very steep and takes roughly 3 hours to get to the top. However, there are plenty of places to rest along the way including smaller temples and little huts which sell tea and snacks. That definitely makes the trip easier!
11. Temple of the Tooth
The Temple of the Tooth is located in Kandy and is home to Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist Relic. A heavily guarded room within the temple is home to a tooth of the Lord Buddha himself, so as you can imagine this is a pretty special place. The tooth is kept in a gold casket so you won’t actually get to see the tooth but you are allowed to enter the room during certain times of the day.
Whilst visiting this amazing place it’s important to wear respectful clothing so make sure that your legs and shoulders are covered. The complex can get pretty busy as it’s a popular spot with both tourists and worshippers, but there are other areas to explore within the complex if you feel like the main temple is too busy. There are several other museums you can visit here, and you can also get a glimpse of the Kings palace (although this isn’t open to visitors).
12. Pidurangala Rock – The Buddhist monastery of Pidurangala
We’ve already talked about how great Sigiriya Rock is, but the view from the top of Pidurangala is unrivalled! Watching the sunset at the top of this huge rock is one of our favourite things to do in Sri Lanka and is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. The hike up to the top usually takes around 30-45 minutes depending on your fitness levels. The journey up can be quite steep at times and there is a little rock climbing section at the end but it is well worth the work. You will get an incredible view of Sigiriya rock in the distance once you reach the top, so make sure you have your camera with you!
On the way up you get to see the remains of the Royal Cave temple, and the huge reclining Buddha that lies inside. The temple is said to have been built by King Kashyapa whilst he was building the ancient fortress that sits atop Sigiriya Rock. The purpose of this temple was to relocate the monks that had been displaced during the construction of Sigiriya. It is the perfect place to catch your breath during this tiring walk!
During our 12 day Sri Lanka tour, we will hike up this incredible Rock together, and show you the magical view that awaits you at the top. If you want to know more, then you can watch our youtube video about hiking up Pidurangala Rock at sunset!
13. Yala national Park
Yala National Park is definitely one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka if you love wildlife! Located in the south of the country, this national park is renowned for having the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world. Although sightings obviously aren’t guaranteed as these are wild animals, the density of the leopard population within the park gives you a good chance of spotting one of these elusive creatures. For this reason, Yala is probably the most popular national park in Sri Lanka.
Leopards aren’t the only incredible species you can spot here. Other wildlife found here include elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, jackals, water buffalo and the Sri Lanka grey hornbill among others. Yala National Park is over 12,600km² in size but only a fifth of the park is open to visitors, which is great for wildlife. Part of this national park is even located on the coast and is a nesting ground for different species of sea turtle including the Olive ridley turtle and the leatherback turtle.
Trincomalee is a city located on the east coast of Sri Lanka, and has the biggest natural harbour in the world. It is also surrounded by beautiful beaches which are much quieter than a lot of the beaches on the south coast. Snorkelling is also very popular in Trincomalee, especially as there are plenty of black tip reef sharks you can swim with! Swimming with sharks here is very popular, and is a great experience for any adrenaline junkies out there. There are different areas you can visit off the coast, and some are quieter than others so it’s best to check where your boat trip is headed to.
If you are interested in whale watching, Trincomalee is also a great place to visit. The whale watching season here runs from March to August, which is different to Mirissa as the whales continue their migration up the coast of Sri Lanka. During these whale watching trips, you still have the opportunity to see the magnificent blue whale (although sightings are less common), sperm whales, killer whales and dolphins can also make an appearance on the east coast.
If you are after activities that aren’t related to the ocean, then why not explore Fort Frederick and admire the beautiful deer that are found here – a species of spotted deer that are found only within Sri Lanka. Koneswaram temple is also located within Fort frederick and is a colourful hindu temple.
15. Hikkaduwa beach
If you want to see turtles in Sri Lanka (and let’s be honest who doesn’t) then Hikkaduwa is one of the places to visit. Swimming with sea turtles is a bucket list experience for many and Sri Lanka is definitely one of the best countries to do it.
When visiting Hikkaduwa there are a couple of important things to remember. These turtles are here pretty much all year around so this is their home – it’s important to respect it. They are often found right at the shore looking for seaweed so make sure you don’t get too close and give them their space. Another huge thing is not to touch them! They are wild animals so should not be poked, prodded or grabbed for any reason. If you head further out from the beach into the water, you will often come across more turtles swimming around. This will give you a more serene experience with the turtles as most people often just tend to stay by the beach.
During our 12 day Sri Lanka tour we head to Hikkaduwa to see these incredible sea turtles. There is a certain part of the beach where these turtles are most often sighted, which will give you the chance to live out this bucket list experience.
16. Little Adams Peak
Little Adams Peak is located in Ella, and it’s a place that offers incredible views for those who decide to hike up to the top. Not to be confused with Adams Peak (where the walk is much longer and tougher), Little Adams Peak is relatively easy going. Despite the amount of stairs, it is one of the easiest walks in Ella. The trail starts on the main road which makes it easy to find and there are plenty of signposts along the way.
The hike up to the top roughly takes about an hour, and takes you through lush tea plantations. Once you get to the top you will be blown away by the surrounding scenery, so give yourself some extra time to enjoy the views. If you’re an early bird and want to head up to Little Adam’s Peak for sunrise you will be well and truly rewarded. Likewise sunset is pretty spectacular too but you will have a lot more company. The views from the top are stunning at any time of day, but be mindful of the heat if you decide to head up there in the afternoon. If you’re feeling hungry or need to quench your thirst you can stop off at 98 acres resort on your way down.
17. Arugam Bay
Arugam Bay is one of the most popular surfing spots in Sri Lanka, and is well known for its huge waves. This surfing spot is great for all ability levels, even if you are a total beginner. There are plenty of companies that offer surfing lessons, but make sure you do your research first. A lot of people offer ‘safe’ surfing lessons but most often won’t have the qualifications or the knowledge, so have a look around and make sure to look at reviews first!
If you aren’t looking to surf, but for a quiet beach experience then this is the perfect place to visit. Only a few hundred people live here and all the facilities are found along a single road opposite the beach. Arugam bay has a very laid back vibe, with endless hammocks for you to park yourself for the day.
18. Galle Fort
Galle is Sri Lanka’s 4th largest city but a part of this city makes it very different to the likes of Colombo and Negombo. As you head through the city, you will come to the old Dutch Quarter located right by the coast, known as Galle Fort. This area is the best preserved colonial town in all of Sri Lanka and was first built by the Portugese during the 16th century. Afterwards, the fort was conquered by the dutch in the 17th century who then fortified the area, until it fell to the British. Now it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Sri Lanka, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As you step from the city of Galle into Galle Fort it will feel as though you’ve gone back in time. Some of the most popular places to visit include Galle clock tower, the Groote Kerk and of course the famous Galle lighthouse. This lighthouse has taken Instagram by storm and is a popular spot for budding photographers. You will want to give yourself a good few hours to explore this charming place and take in the sights. If you’re lucky you might even get a glimpse of the sea turtles swimming below from the fort walls!
Galle fort is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka and is a must for your trip! During our Sri Lanka tour we will head to this amazing place and show you the best spots to explore.
19. The dog care clinic
The Dog Care Clinic (The DCC) is located in Unawatuna and plays a massive role in helping the many stray dogs that are found across Sri Lanka. There are around 40 million stray dogs in Sri Lanka; this is double the human population of the country. I know, how insane is that? Often these dogs have a horrific time living on the streets as they suffer from neglect, disease and hunger. Stray dogs in Sri Lanka are often physically abused by people and are often involved in traffic accidents leading to horrific injuries. However, there is hope for these beautiful animals!
After travelling through Sri Lanka and being overwhelmed by the suffering of these dogs, an amazing lady decided to make a difference. In 2007 Marina Möbius set up the dog care clinic and now works on a variety of different projects to help the dogs in this country. Marina and her employees help these dogs in a number of ways. They have a neutering and vaccination program which helps to keep the dogs free of disease and stop any further breeding, field clinics and they do daily tours to find dogs in need of help and feed other strays.
If you are travelling through Sri Lanka, and want to make a difference then why not look at helping out at this clinic. The DCC offers a semester abroad for veterinary students, internships and animal welfare vacations. If you choose the latter, you will get the opportunity to stay in one of the DCC apartments which means all of the profits will go directly to the charity. Even better, you will get the opportunity to meet all the dogs and learn about the projects that happen here. You can also help from home by becoming a sponsor, offering donations and by buying items from their online shop (although there is only a german version at the minute).
20. The rope swing at Dalawella beach
If you’ve seen photographs of Sri Lanka on Instagram then we can almost guarantee that you have come across the famous rope swing. Located on Dalawella beach, this is a popular spot among tourists. The rope swing is found in front of a guest house called ‘Dream Cabana’. The guys who work here built the rope swing as a bit of fun for themselves, but little did they know it would turn viral and become one of the most popular attractions in Sri Lanka.
There is a charge for the swing but as this is technically owned by a private property, it’s completely understandable. Whilst you’re here, make sure to have a chat with the people who work here and even buy a drink as this spot is the perfect place to relax. If you head there at sunset the rope swing can get pretty busy but it’s worth it for the incredible sunset photos you can get!
21. Visit a turtle sanctuary
Sri Lanka is home to 5 of the 7 species of sea turtle in the world. These are the Leatherback turtle, Green turtle, Loggerhead turtle, Hawksbill turtle and the Olive Ridley turtle. This gives you an amazing chance to see them in the wild, but if you want to learn more about them, you can also visit one of the many sea turtle sanctuaries across the country.
Sea turtles face many threats in Sri Lanka including illegal poaching of eggs, habitat destruction, and getting caught in fishing nets. This Is why a number of sanctuaries have come into place in the country to protect these incredible creatures. The majority of these sanctuaries have incredible facilities that help care for and rehabilitate turtles, with the aim of releasing them back into the wild. It is best to do some research first though, when it comes to visiting one of these sanctuaries as some are unethical in their practices.
During our 12 day Sri Lanka tour we will visit one of these incredible turtle sanctuaries on the south coast of Sri Lanka. You will get to learn how a baby turtle takes their first swim and how the sanctuary rehabilitates injured adults back into the wild. If you come with us, you won’t have to worry about ever visiting an unethical animal sanctuary as the welfare of wildlife is one of our top priorities when it comes to our tours.
22. Take a ride on the famous Train
We know that a train isn’t really a place, but we just couldn’t miss this experience off the list. Sri Lanka’s famous train journey is known as one of the most beautiful in the world as it travels through lush tea plantations and misty mountains. The train journey starts from Colombo but the most famous part is the Ella to Kandy section (or vice versa). This part of the train journey takes around 6-7 hours and is the perfect opportunity to relax, so make sure you stock up on the snacks. If you want to travel over the famous Nine Arch bridge then you will want to start in Kandy and book a ticket to Badulla station which is one of the train stations just past Ella.
You can book the tickets online or at a train station, but either way it is best to book the tickets in advance. This train ride is one of the most popular things to do in Sri Lanka, so can get booked up pretty quickly especially if you want to book a first class ticket. However, often you will get a better experience in 2nd class with the windows open, the carriage buzzing with people and the opportunity to take a wander around. Whichever class of ticket you choose to book, this is an experience not to be missed!
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was once the commercial and religious centre of Sri Lanka around 800 years ago. During the 13th century the city was abandoned and the capital then moved to the western side of Sri Lanka, which is where Colombo is found today. Before you head into the ancient city to explore there is a museum located next to the ticket office which will give you a good introduction into Polonnaruwa and what awaits you.
There are plenty of incredible sites to explore within Polonnaruwa; one of which is the Royal Palace. This is the first site you will come across once you enter into the complex, and is a pretty incredible one. The buildings found here date back to around 1153-1186, so as you can imagine only a small section of what this area once was, remains. However, once the palace used to house around 50 rooms and the amazing thing is that it must have been built by hand; without machines.
The king’s audience hall and the king’s swimming pool are also found within this group of buildings and they are some of the best preserved sites within the ancient city. Some of the other sites you need to explore within this ancient city are the Sacred Quadrangle, the Shiva Devale No.2 (which is the oldest building in Polonnaruwa) and the buddha statue at Lankatilaka.
24. Minneriya national park
Minneriya national park is most well known for its elephant migration during the drier months of June and September. If you’re lucky you can get to see as many as 300 elephants congregating around the ancient Minneriya water tank, as they come to drink during the dry season. It is the largest, recurring gathering of Asian elephants across the world and for that reason is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Minneriya national park covers an area of 8,890 hectares and is home to plenty of other wildlife aside from elephants. Other large mammals such as the Sambar deer and the Sri Lankan axis deer are found here, as well as two species of monkey which are endemic to Sri Lanka. These are the purple faced langur and the toque macaque. If you are lucky you might even catch a glimpse of a leopard or sloth bear! Aside from mammals, over 160 bird species are found within the national park and plenty of reptiles including crocodiles, pythons and water monitors.
During our Sri Lanka tour we will give you the option to head out on an extra safari in Minneriya national park if you wish too! If you are travelling to Sri Lanka with us during the off season of whale watching, then this safari is included.
If you are looking for the perfect destination to relax, get some sun and eat plenty of amazing food then Unawatuna is the place. This beach is probably one of the most famous in Sri Lanka with golden sands, beautiful clear water and plenty of palm trees. At the end of the beach there is a pagoda with a small buddha statue located inside, which you can walk up to. It’s only a very small walk and from the top you will get an incredible view overlooking Unawatuna. Unawatuna is also a great place to learn to surf, and there are plenty of places you can get lessons.
Jungle beach is also only a short walk away from the centre of Unawatuna and is a bit more quiet and secluded. The Japanese peace pagoda is located near to jungle beach and is located in the nearby hills. It was constructed in 2005 by Japanese monks as part of a project to build peace in areas facing conflict and war. It acts as a beacon of hope for the people, and is now also a popular tourist attraction. It offers incredible views towards Galle and is a great place to watch the sunsets that Sri Lanka is so famous for!
If you are falling in love with the sound of Sri Lanka already (I mean, who wouldn’t) why not join us in exploring this wonderful country together? Take a look at our 12 day Sri Lanka tour and let us show you the magic of this beautiful destination!
Feeling inspired to save for your next adventure? Check out our other trips here and use the code ONELIFE15 at checkout to get an enormous 15% off all our trips, for a limited time only! (June 2021)
Written By: Abbie Bevan