Written by Philip Briggs
Swathed in lush rainforest, rice paddies and tea plantations, Sri Lanka is a tropical island gem that captivates visitors with its idyllic beaches, abundant wildlife, verdant hill country and wealth of ancient Buddhist and Hindu architecture. Explore the jungle-shrouded ruins of Polonnaruwa, join pilgrims at Kandy’s sacred Temple of the Tooth, spot rare endemic birds in Sinharaja Forest Reserve, or catch a wave at Arugam Bay. Whether you’re a history lover, safari-goer or simply want to top up your tan, Sri Lanka has plenty to offer. Here is our pick of what not to miss.
History and archaeology
Kandy is one of the most impressive Buddhist sites in the country © claire, Shutterstock
The last capital of the Sinhala monarchy, this delightful UNESCO World Heritage Site is at once a pretty modern town enclosed by verdant slopes and a sacred Buddhist shrine dominated by the striking Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth).
Sunset at Flag Rock Bastion, Galle Fort – the best-preserved colonial sea fortress in Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Protected by ramparts dating back to the Dutch and Portuguese eras, this atmospheric old-world UNESCO World Heritage Site is studded with timeworn colonial architecture, informative museums, and restored restaurants and boutique hotels bristling with period character.
The Cultural Triangle
Isurumuniya Temple at Anuradhapura is one of Sri Lanka’s most venerable Buddhist sites © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Home to four of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura), the Cultural Triangle is a treasure trove of ancient monasteries, decorated cave temples, magnificent dagobas and archaeological reserves whose collective history spans 2,500 years.
Colombo National Museum
Prestigious Cinnamon Gardens is home to the Colombo National Museum and Independence Memorial © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Established in a purpose-built Neoclassical building in 1877, Sri Lanka’s finest museum houses a collection of 100,000 artefacts (not all on display) including some superb Buddha statues, beautiful bronzes of Hindu deities, and a Kandyan Hall dominated by King Vimaladharmasuriya II’s throne.
The mysterious dagobas at Kantharodai indicate Jaffna’s importance as an international trading port since pre-Buddhist times © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Sri Lanka’s most overtly Tamil and Hindu city, the energetic and emphatically untouristy capital of Northern Province is studded with historic sites, ranging from a historic fort and several temples to the mysterious field of miniature dagobas at Kantharodai.
Nature and wildlife
Rising majestically above the surrounding hills, Adam’s Peak attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Sri Lanka’s holiest summit, this tall pyramidal peak, reached via more than 5,000 steps, is the subject of a multi-denominational nocturnal pilgrimage attracting up to 20,000 Buddhist and other worshippers daily between the December and May poyas.
Yala National Park
Yala is Sri Lanka’s most popular safari destination © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Sri Lanka’s most popular and rewarding safari destination is renowned for its dense populations of elephant, leopard and other wildlife, and it also hosts more than 200 bird species.
Horton Plains National Park
Best known for the walking trail to the spectacular World’s End Viewpoint, Sri Lanka’s most ecologically important highland reserve supports misty moorland, pockets of elfin cloudforest, and a wealth of endemic wildlife.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
An important biodiversity hotspot, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is Sri Lanka’s number-one birdwatching destination © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Sri Lanka’s most important biodiversity hotspot, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is criss-crossed with walking tails offering access to the magnificent rainforest interior and the opportunity to see more than 30 endemic bird species.
Wilpattu National Park
Almost 200 bird species have been recorded at Wilpattu, including green bee eater © bobby20, Shutterstock
Sri Lanka’s largest national park feels very untrammelled by comparison with Yala, and a full-day safari comes with a good chance of spotting elephant, sloth bear and to a lesser extent leopard.
Gal Oya National Park
Gal Oya is one of Sri Lanka’s lesser-known national parks © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Among the least publicised of Sri Lanka’s terrestrial national parks, Gal Oya is relatively accessible to backpackers, for whom boat safaris on Senanayake Reservoir offer a good chance of close-up elephant sightings.
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is centred around the reservoir of the same name © Lee Dillon, Shutterstock
Among the most readily accessible of Sri Lanka’s national parks, Udawalawe, centred around the reservoir of the same name, offers the county’s most reliable year-round elephant viewing.
Bentota is the island’s most developed beach resort © milosk50, Shutterstock
The most developed beach resort on Sri Lanka’s west coast is the all-but-contiguous 10km band of tourist development that flanks the Bentota river mouth some 65km south of Colombo and centres on the surprisingly gritty north-bank town and transport hub of Aluthgama.
Arugam Bay is Sri Lanka’s most popular surfing resort © Kondephy, Wikimedia Commons
Renowned as Sri Lanka’s top surfing destination, staggeringly beautiful Arugam Bay is a superb chill-out destination whose popularity with backpackers makes it Sri Lanka’s answer to Goa.
Mirissa is renowned for its attractive swimming beach and as the focal point of the south coast’s burgeoning whale-watching industry © dronepicr, Wikimedia Commons
The Deep South’s most developed stretch of coastline, incorporating the small towns of Mirissa, Weligama and Midigama, is renowned for its lovely beaches, superb surfing, seasonal whale watching and varied collection of hotels, guesthouses and other amenities.
Kirinda’s beach is good for swimming December to April © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Known as Dovera in ancient times, the modest coastal village of Kirinda holds a lovely beach, which can be safe for swimming over December–April.
Want to learn more about the Sri Lanka? Check out our comprehensive guide: