Despite being a small island, Sri Lanka offers so much for travelers to explore from golden beaches to diverse wildlife, to ancient temples. Since the ending of the country’s civil war, this quiet gem in the Indian Ocean started revealing its sparkle and people noticed. In the last couple of years, Sri Lanka’s tourism has been booming. So much so that Lonely Planet even named Sri Lanka as the top country to visit on its Best in Travel List for 2019. If you have been thinking about making way to this much-raved-about island, this is the perfect post for you. I have put together a list of top 10 beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka for first-time visitors. Make sure to read until the end to grab my suggested itinerary PDF. (Or use the menu to navigate the article sections easily.)
My first time in Sri Lanka was generously hosted and organized by the Sri Lankan tourism board. We were a group of bloggers who were invited to visit and be professional tourists (Gosh, I love my job). During our whirlwind journey through the country, I learned a lot about Sri Lankan culture and history, made several new local friends, and consumed more curries than I can count (they are not mild by the way 😉 ). I cannot wait to return to this wonderful country again and see what more it has in its treasure trove.
*All opinions expressed in this article are my own. This post may contain affiliate links, which means, at no extra cost to you, I may earn a commission if you make a purchase. Thanks for supporting!
Traveling in Sri Lanka – Know before you go
Is Sri Lanka Safe?
First things first, let’s address the question that is on everyone’s mind: Is Sri Lanka still a safe place to visit? Ever since the terrorist attack that occurred in Colombo on April 21st, 2019, many countries have unfortunately put up travel warnings advising caution when going to Sri Lanka.
As someone who visited recently, I can bear witness to the fact that Sri Lanka is back. It is just as safe as it was before if not more. Colombo’s infrastructure has more or less recovered from the tragedy. New security measures have been put up in important landmarks. The people have mended their broken hearts and are hopeful again about the future.
I was very touched by all the friendly locals whom I spoke with during my trip. They made me feel extremely safe and welcomed. Seriously, you will never meet smilier people than Sri Lankans. And I’m talking the kind of smiles that you just know are genuine.
When I asked how can people from foreign countries assist with Sri Lanka’s recovery effort, the answer I always got was “please come back to visit us”. And I could see why. People’s livelihoods have been severely impacted since tourism has plummeted. From tuk-tuk drivers to luxury hotel workers, everyone is low on work. It’s such a shame because there is nothing tourists should fear (Other than how spicy the curries are). So if you would really like to help Sri Lanka, the solution is simple. Go visit it!
Best time of the year to visit Sri Lanka
When planning a trip to Sri Lanka, the most important thing is to try to avoid the monsoon season. The south-western side of the island goes through its dry season from December to March, while the east coast is the nicest from April/May to September. The gorgeous hot weather is perfect for hitting the beaches, so bring your swimsuits!
Psst, want to land the cheapest flight to Sri Lanka? Use my favorite search engine Skyscanner to find the best deals. The trick is to choose “the cheapest month” as your travel dates. Good luck!
How to get around Sri Lanka
Domestic flight options in Sri Lanka are limited and expensive. In terms of public transportation, the choice is between buses and trains. Both are quite cheap BUT quite slow. Having said that, I do suggest trying them at least once though so you can get the authentic local experience. We took the famous blue train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya and it was an exhilarating ride. For your overall comfort and sanity though, I recommend joining a good tour operator. We were taken care of by Jetwing Travel, a fantastic company with knowledgeable guides. Of course, G Adventures is always one of my top tour operators to turn to as well. Their Sri Lanka itineraries are amazing. Here are also several tours run by local businesses:
Where to stay in Sri Lanka
There are many amazing hotels to stay in Sri Lanka. If you are traveling to multiple destinations within the country and would like consistent excellent quality, I recommend the Cinnamon Hotels or the Jetwing Hotels. Both of these chains have multiple locations and are just superb. Whether it’s by the ocean, near a forest, or in the city, these guys know how to deliver comfort and style. Check my top picks of luxury hotel in Sri Lanka (at an affordable price) here.
Beautiful Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
There are so many beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka. Traveling from west to east or north to south will bring you completely different sceneries. I was mind blown when I went from soaking up the sun on a palm tree-lined beach one day to photographing English style houses sitting on a misty hill two days later. This list contains my picks of the can’t miss sites in Sri Lanka. Honestly though, I feel like there is much more to see. I guess I will need to return to the island a couple more times.
Trincomalee is a historical port city on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. This little harbor is so nice that multiple colonizers have drooled over it with hunger over the centuries. Today, Trincomalee is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Visit the ornate Koneswaran Temple on Swami Rock Cliff. It is a classical-medieval Hindu pilgrimage center that also happens to offer a great view of Trincomalee Bay. In the temple complex, you can see many sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses (Did you know there are 33 million deities in Hinduism?). The most impressive of all is the gigantic statue of Shiva, the god of destruction. The temple ground is stunning to walk around. If you are lucky, you can watch a ceremony going on. Also, make sure to visit the back of the temple. During the months from March to August, you might just catch sight of a whale or a dolphin.
Top tip: Visitors must cover up the shoulders and knees when visiting religious sites. You can find the red dress I wore here. If you are unsure of what to wear/pack for Sri Lanka, feel free to refer to my packing list for India, where all the same customs apply.
Other great things to do in Trincomalee include taking a boat tour on the Kunchikumban Are river lagoon, browsing the local market, or simply relaxing on the beach. I have a full blog post on things to do in Trincomalee coming up. So stay tuned!
Where to stay in Trincomalee
Budget: Starting 13 USD per night for a deluxe family room, Hotel Tobiko cannot be better value for money. The hotel is only 3 km from Koneswaram Temple, 3.2 km from Fort Frederick, and 3.8 km away from Kanniya Hot Springs. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: Pigeon Island Beach Resort is located north of Trincomalee city. The hotel has a private beach and offers boat rides to the nearby Pigeon Island. The downside is that there is only WIFI in the lobby but not in the room. But who needs internet all the time when you are on vacation anyways. Check availability and prices here
2. Sigiriya Rock Fortress
This rock fortress has several nicknames, “Lion Rock”, “Castle in the sky”, “The eighth wonder of the world”. Whatever the name, it is undeniable that Sigiriya is one of the most valuable historical monuments of Sri Lanka. If you do only one hike in the country, make it this one. The place is located on a giant rock plateau situated between Dambulla and Habarane. Formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, Sigiriya Rock stands out strikingly from the surrounding jungle.
The fortress has a very interesting and scandalous back story. There is murder, there is betrayal, there is fighting for the king’s crown. It is as juicy as a saga goes. I basically imagined Game of Thrones when our guide was explaining all the characters and relationships for me. You really do need to find an expert who knows the history of this magnificent UNESCO world heritage site. Here are some options with good reviews on Get Your Guide.
The hike is quite easy as there are stairs all the way to the top. However, there are some sections of the path that may be scary for those who are afraid of heights. Just don’t look down and you will be fine. The climb takes about 30-45 minutes. We went in the late afternoon and was able to catch the sunset at the top. The views were just incredible.
Where to stay near Sigiriya
Budget: Run by a local family, Sigiriya Rock Side Home Stay is a charming little accommodation 800m away from Sigiriya rock. All rooms have a lovely view of the garden. Guests always rave about the host’s warm hospitality. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: EKHO Sigiriya is a quality hotel with helpful staff and comfortable rooms. The location is excellent with lots of stores nearby. You may also see an elephant or two wandering about outside. 😉 Check availability and prices here
Luxury: With a big tropical garden, lots of wildlife and an outdoor pool, Hotel Sigiriya is absolutely gorgeous. You can get an exclusive view of Lion Rock from the hotel. As well, the friendly staff puts on quite a show for newly-arrived guests, welcoming them in true Sri Lankan fashion. Check availability and prices here
Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destructions of the first capital Anuradhapura in 993. Today, this ancient city is an important archaeological site where you can still see shadows of life from a bygone era. This is a perfect destination to combine with Sigiriya into a day as they are near each other.
The Polonnaruwa area is absolutely huge. There are temples and ruins, tombs and museums. Our guide joked that Polonnaruwa is the “Acropolis of Sri Lanka”. It’s a good idea to explore the site by bike. Our group rented bikes for 800 rupees per person. It was a smart investment as the things to see are quite spread out from each other.
Don’t miss the Royal Palace, Sacred Quadrangle, and Rankoth Vehera (the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa).
Top Tips: You must take off your shoes when entering sacred places like The Vatadage in the Sacred Quadrangle. The problem is that the stone ground absorbs a lot of heat on a hot day and you will feel like you are walking on hot coal. We were hopping around like kangaroos, trying our best to relieve our pour soles. If you do decide to suck it up and go in anyways (It’s worth it), make sure to hide your shoes in a shady spot. We didn’t realize to do this and our shoes were as torching hot as the ground when we returned. *Cry
Where to stay near Polonnaruwa
Budget: Even with their delicious breakfast included, a double room at Seyara Holiday Resort costs only $18 per night. The rooms are bright and come with private balconies and en suite bathrooms. You can enjoy a garden view from all the rooms. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: Pharo Lake is highly praised for their setting right by the Lake Parakrama, where wild elephants tend to visit in the evening. Imagine looking out your window and seeing these guys. The rooms in the hotel have a charming design featuring traditional wood furnishing mixed with modern elements. Check availability and prices here
Luxury: Ekho Lake House is a stunning 5 stars boutique hotel. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited back in 1954. It has a beautiful infinity pool with an outlook over the lake. A perfect spot for watching the sunset in the evening. Check availability and prices here
4. The National Parks
Ok, technically this is multiple beautiful places. It was just too hard to narrow them down. Did you know that Sri Lanka is one of the best safari destinations outside of Africa? Its 14 national parks are home to a rich variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles. The most famous animal to see is undoubtedly elephants.
We went on a jeep tour in Minneriya National Park, one of the best parks for spotting elephants. Sure enough, we found the herd very quickly as soon as we entered. They were just chilling on the grassland, around twenty of them, hanging about. I almost cried when we saw a baby snuggling with its mama. This is the circle of life people. This is nature at its rawest and purest! My heart just exploded with love for this marvelous planet.
Read my article about doing a safari tour in Minneriya if you have this experience on your bucket list.
Besides Minneriya, other popular parks for elephant safari include Kaudulla and Udawalawe National Park. If you make it down to the south east coast of the island, Yala National Park is a must-visit. Not only can you find elephants there, but you can also find leopards, crocodiles and hundreds of bird species.
Which national park safari sounds most appealing to you? My pick is 100% Minneriya. Check out this list that breaks down and ranks the parks by their characteristics.
If you do visit Minneriya, you can also combine the day with a village tour. We visited a typical Sri Lankan village that was surrounded by jungle and marshland. We got to learn about life for the villagers, see the crops they grow and have lunch at a local’s home. Our host for lunch was a kind lady who made the most delicious coconut sambal.
Where to stay near Minneriya National Park
Budget: Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the best sellers in Habarana, a town nearby the park. The rooms come with modern interiors, wooden furnishings and floor-to-ceiling windows. The open-air restaurant serves a fine selection of local, Western and Chinese dishes. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: We stayed in Sorowwa Resort & Spa and it was very lovely. There was a nice outdoor pool on-site and the breakfast buffet was delicious. My favorite part was that I came back to my room at the end of the day and found an elephant made of towels on my bed! I am a sucker for cute gestures like this. Check availability and prices here
Luxury: One can always count on the Cinnamon Hotel Group to do luxury. The Cinnamon Lodge Habaranaoffers guests a relaxing getaway amidst green forests. There is even a butterfly garden where you can take a fairytale-esque walk. Unwind at the onsite spa, work up a sweat on the tennis court, or eat to your heart’s content at the buffet. Check availability and prices here
5. Dambulla Cave Temple
The Dambulla Royal Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, is a great place to learn about Buddhism and find a moment of peace.
About 70% of Sri Lankan’s demographics identify as Buddhists. For them, the Dambulla Cave Temple is one of the most important pilgrimage sites. The complex dates back to the first century BCE. The story goes that King Walagamba hid in the caves in Dambulla for decades while he was fleeing from Indian invaders. After he rose to power again, he transformed the caves into a glorious temple celebrating Gautama Buddha and his life.
There are first main caves that contain colourful statues and murals. It is impressive how well preserved the artworks are. You can see buddha sculptures in varying sizes and positions. My favourite was the reclining buddha, which depicts buddha’s final moments before passing away and reaching nirvana.
Top Tips: When you arrive at the downhill entrance, a stunningly tall golden buddha comes into sight. This is where you can purchase entry tickets. The price is 1500 rupees per person. From there, you can climb up the hill to the caves. However, it is also possible to do the site the other way around, from uphill downwards. In fact, it would be much smarter on a hot day.
Where to stay near Dambulla
Budget: Senomaal Sigiri Resort offers rooms with serene mountain views. The hotel is great for families. There is even a children’s playground. Bike hire and car hire are available at this resort and the area is popular for cycling. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: Athena Lake offers express check-in and check-out for their guests. The hotel ground is full of nature and great for bird watching. The rooms have large and comfortable beds so you can fall asleep dreaming about elephants. Check availability and prices here
Luxury: Although Jetwing Lake is a top-notch 5 stars hotel, the price for a deluxe room starts at only $62 per night! The dollar really does goes far in Sri Lanka. Take advantage my friends. Jetwing Lake is highly rated for their fabulous breakfast and incredible outdoor views. Check availability and prices here
Kandy is another important destination within Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. It is a beautiful city with a mild climate. Due to being higher up into the mountains, the weather tends to be a lot milder here.
The one landmark that all tourists must visit is Kandy Temple, otherwise known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. This golden roof temple is greatly significant as it houses a special treasure: a single tooth of the Buddha.
Every day, devotees come to the temple bearing offerings. Visitors can’t actually see the tooth as it is kept in a gold casket in a heavily guarded room. However, you can still enjoy the serene energy of the temple complex and witness one of the daily ceremonies. My favorite part of stepping into the temple was hearing the chanting of the monks. Although I am not Buddhist myself, there was definitely something about the chants that washed a feeling of calmness over me.
Other great things to do in Kandy include taking a stroll in the Royal Botanical Garden, having a picnic by Kandy Lake, and watching a traditional Kandy dance show.
We happened to be in Kandy during the Esala Perahera Festival, a grand festival that takes places yearly to pay homage to the sacred tooth relic of Buddha. It was a significant cultural experience. We got to see many lovely local dances. There were drummers, whip-dancers, fire tossers. The music and energy were amazing.
However, I must share that there was a part of the ceremony that unsettled me, which was the parading of elephants. There were 50-60 elephants that were in the parade. They were decorated in elaborate costumes and walked through the streets carrying humans or offerings. While Sri Lanka has many elephants living happily in the wild, unfortunately, some of them are still being controlled for human use. Hopefully, change is coming soon. There is an increasing number of activists in the country speaking out about the issue. Please support Save Elephant Foundation and their efforts to protect elephants in Asia.
Where to stay in Kandy
Budget: Kandy Mountain Cottage is a cozy hotel situated 2.1 km from Kandy City Center Shopping Mall. Breakfast is included for all guests and includes à la carte, Full English/Irish and Asian options. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: The Kandyan Manor Home Stay offers rustic cottages or modern rooms. The room designs are chic and colorful. The property is just a5-minute walk from the ancient site of Sri Rajasingharamaya Temple. Check availability and prices here
Luxury: Again, luxury doesn’t have to mean expensive. And Mahaweli Reach Hotel is proof of that. The magnificent rooms here will make you feel like royalty. Everything from the pool to the gym to the restaurant is impeccable. There is even live band playing during dinner time. Mahaweli Reach Hotel is one of Booking.com’s top pick for Kandy. Check availability and prices here
7. Nuwara Eliya
If you are a lover of tea, you have got to visit Nuwara Eliya, a city in the tea country highlands of Sri Lanka. The climate here is refreshingly cool and the green landscape is incredibly picturesque.
Nuwara Eliya is responsible for producing most of Sri Lanka’s internationally famous Ceylon tea. Did you know that Sri Lanka is the fourth-largest producer of tea in the world, after China, India, and Kenya? Take a tour at one of the tea plantations and learn about the process from picking “two leaves and a bud” in the field to the factory where the leaves are processed. End the experience with some tea tasting and bring your favorite tea home as a souvenir.
We visited Lover’s Leap Ethical Tea Boutique, where we had a very informative tour and a very nice cuppa afterward. Sadly, all the tea ladies in the fields were off work due to it being a full moon day, so we didn’t get to see them in action. However, we still learned a lot about tea making thanks to our guide and I got to twirl in the stunning plantation and take some photos. 😛
Another notable thing about Nuwara Eliya is the evident British Influence around the city. (The tea industry itself was brought to the island by the British around 1850) You can see lovely houses like country cottages or Queen Ann style mansions. In the middle of town is Victoria Park, a parked named to commemorate Queen Victoria. Next to the park, there is an adorable old post office in a Tudor-style two-story red-brick building.
Couple the English architecture with the misty cold weather, Nuwara Eliya is really a unique town on the island. I was scratching my head wondering if I was still in Sri Lanka anymore.
Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya
Budget: Hotel Glendower is a 3 star hotel close to interest points such as Gregory Lake and Hakgala Botanical Garden. Their continental breakfast is always raved about by the guests. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: Tudor-style building and British-style interior decor, Jetwing St.Andrew really take on the theme “Little England” seriously. You can have high tea in the beautiful garden or check out the vegetable garden onsite that provides fresh produce straight to the hotel’s kitchens. Check availability and prices here
Luxury: Araliya Green City has a food court and a shopping mall connected to the hotel so you don’t even need to go outside on a lazy day. The rooms are super nice and come with fireplaces. Check availability and prices here
From Kandy or Nuwara Eliya, you can get on the insta-famous blue train to Ella. This is said to be one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Along the way, you can see lush tea fields, pretty villages and breathtaking mountain views. Ella itself is a laid-back town. Although it is small, there are several popular sites here.
Climb up Little Adam’s Peak, a smaller version of Adam’s Peak near Nuwara Eliya. At 1141 m high, the hike is reputed to be quick and easy. Once you reach the top, you can get a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding valleys.
After coming down from Little Adam’s Peak, head to the Nine Arches Bridge nearby. This epic bridge has the nickname “Bridge in the Sky”. About 6 times a day, trains will pass on the bridge. Even if you don’t get to watch a train though, the area is well worth visiting for the photogenic factor.
Where to stay in Ella
Luxury: Get the ultimate celebrity level pampering at 98 Acres Resort & Spa, Set amidst a stunning landscape known as the 98 acre tea estate, this hotel is a paradise. The executive suite even has a private pool attached to the room. The price tag is a bit outrageous for Sri Lanka. Check availability and prices here
The south coast of Sri Lanka is a paradise for those looking for a beach holiday. Being an accessible distance away from Colombo and fairly developed infrastructure wise, Mirissa is one the most popular tourist destinations. Who can blame them? This little town has it all from attractive beaches, to fascinating marine life, to thriving bars and night clubs.
One of the Mirissa’s specialties is whale watching. From the end of November until March, there are tours that take visitors out for a spin in the Indian Ocean for the chance of seeing whales, dolphins and turtles.
Psst, if you are in Sri Lanka during the opposite season, it’s possible to see whales in T