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Sri Lanka Dambulla

From ancient ruins to a vibrant and welcoming contemporary culture; from lazy afternoons on glorious beaches to hikes through the rolling hills of tea country and wild elephant spotting in untouched national parks; this is a destination that truly has it all.

Despite having its hard-won stability rocked by the tragic events of Easter 2019, Sri Lanka's tourism infrastructure is developing in leaps and bounds. Hospitality is warm and abundant, transport is convenient, and accommodation — particularly in the independent boutique sector — is world-class.

16 days

Complete Sri Lanka

Ancient temples and endless beaches
Colombo (2 days) Polonnaruwa (3) Kandy (2) Haputale (2) Udawalawe (1) Tangalle (3) Colombo (3)
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13 days

Southern Sri Lanka experience

Tea, treks and Tangalle’s beaches
Galle (3 days) Haputale (3) Yala National Park (2) Tangalle (4) Colombo (1)
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17 days

Nature and wildlife explorer

The best of rural Sri Lanka
Colombo (2 days) Paramakanda Rock temple (3) Polonnaruwa (2) Knuckles Mountain Range (2) Gal Oya National Park (3) Yala National Park (2) Galle (3)
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14 days

Undiscovered Sri Lanka

Explore the hidden northeast
Colombo (2 days) Jaffna (3) Trincomalee (4) Wilpattu National Park (2) Paramakanda Rock temple (2)
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14 days

Slow travel Sri Lanka

Culture, countryside and beaches
Colombo (2 days) Polonnaruwa (3) Kandy (3) Galle (6)
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16 days

Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle and Maldives beaches

Luxury Sri Lanka and Maldives adventure
Colombo (2 days) Polonnaruwa (3) Kandy (2) Haputale (3) Colombo (1) Maldives (5)
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  • Tangalle

    Tangalle

    Laidback Tangalle in Sri Lanka’s south is one of the region’s more relaxed beach destinations, combining simple guesthouses and some upmarket hotels...
  • Yala National Park

    Yala National Park

    Southeast Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is the country’s most visited wilderness reserve...
  • Polonnaruwa

    Polonnaruwa

    Polonnaruwa was the medieval capital of Sri Lanka, a thriving centre of commerce and religion...
  • Udawalawe

    Udawalawe

    Sri Lanka’s finest national park is home to herds of elephants, wild buffalo, crocodiles and leopards...
  • Colombo

    Colombo

    Cosmopolitan Colombo is more than just the gateway to Sri Lanka...
  • Haputale

    Haputale

    The hillside town of Haputale is a little-visited stop on the train route into tea country from Kandy to Ella...
  • Knuckles Mountain Range

    Knuckles Mountain Range

    The Knuckles Mountain Range – also known as the Dumbara Mountain Range – is home to 34 peaks and offers plenty of treks for hikers to explore, with waterfalls, tiny villages and elusive mountain animals part of the experience...
  • Galle

    Galle

    The historic fort town of Galle is best explored on foot, allowing you to take in its grandiose colonial buildings, ancient temples and mosques and many quirky side streets...
  • Kandy

    Kandy

    Central Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s most significant religious sites, being home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a tooth from Buddha himself...
  • Gal Oya National Park

    Gal Oya National Park

    Gal Oya is the most untouched of all of Sri Lanka’s national parks and is the only one where you can take a boat safari...
  • Wilpattu National Park

    Wilpattu National Park

    Wilpattu translates as ‘natural lakes’ in Sinhala and ‘10 lakes’ in Tamil, so it’s no surprise what the main attraction is in this national park...
  • Trincomalee

    Trincomalee

    The port city of Trincomalee is best-known as a gateway to the beaches and resorts on Sri Lanka’s east coast...
  • Pasikudah Bay

    ...
  • Jaffna

    Jaffna

    Intriguing Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s far north offers an insight into the country’s Tamil culture...
  • Anuradhapura

    ...
  • Mihintale

    ...
  • Paramakanda Rock temple

    ...
  • Ella

    ...
  • Dambulla

    ...

New edition!

Undiscovered Sri Lanka

Getting off the tourist trail in Sri Lanka

If measured by size alone, Sri Lanka would be a middleweight – the planet’s 25th largest island, roughly equal to Tasmania, and significantly smaller than Ireland and Hokkaido. On a map the country appears as a modest dot below the vastness of its northern neighbour India.

But measured by cultural heritage, natural diversity and physical beauty, Sri Lanka is a global heavyweight, which might explain the country’s meteoric rise to prominence as a travel hotspot in recent years.

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Seasons & climate

The weather in Sri Lanka is almost always sunny, with the possibility of sudden thundershowers. By and large, the country has tropical weather all year round, with temperatures hovering between 28-32 C (82-89 F), except for the central highlands, with cooler temperatures of 15-18 C (60-64 F).

Sri Lanka has a complex weather system that is largely determined by two monsoons – the southwest (or yala) monsoon and the northeast (or maha) monsoon. Interseasonal rains between the two bring showers to most parts of the island.

Month-by-month

On the west coast, humidity can soar uncomfortably during the buildup to the monsoon in late March and April when blue skies can suddenly turn dark and brooding, bringing short spells of rain. Bring rain gear just in case.

The wettest months on the western and southern coasts are between May and early September. Availability is better and crowds are likely to be thin, but the ocean is rough and unsuitable for swimming. It’s worth packing an umbrella or raincoat – and be prepared for short but intense bursts of rain.

The southwest monsoon also brings rain to hill country, with an elevated risk of landslides, but again, crowds are much thinner. The busiest time of year to visit hill country is during Avurudu (or Sri Lankan New Year), in mid-April.

Off-season on the west coast corresponds with peak season along the east coast. If you’re looking for lazy days on the beach and manageable crowds, it’s worth travelling to this part of the country between May and September.

Jaffna, in the island’s arid zone, is dry and sunny for most of the year. The heat can be brutal in April, May, August and September, and the coolest time to visit is between October and January, when the northeast monsoon brings rain to the north and east coasts, and the Cultural Triangle.

Islandwide, December to late January sees the lowest temperatures, averaging around 27 C along the coast (80 F), dropping to around 18 C (64 F) in the hills.

During peak season from December to March, prices are many times higher and availability of rooms is limited, particularly along the popular beaches of the western and southern coasts and in Nuwara Eliya and the surrounding areas. If you intend to visit the country during this time, make sure you plan well in advance to get the best deals.

Sri Lankan food is often compared to that of South India, and they do share some similarities in terms of ingredients and techniques. But Sri Lankan cuisine has a distinct identity, thanks to the communities and cultures that have shaped the country’s history.

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Distinguished by simple yet bold flavours and the masterful use of freshly ground spices, Sri Lankan food champions local, seasonal ingredients. Rice, coconut and fish – both fresh and dried – form the building blocks of most dishes, in addition to a variety of tropical fruits, vegetables, seafood and a little meat.

These ingredients are rendered into a flavoursome whole by raw and roasted curry powders, which are made from the island’s signature spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, rampe or pandanus, and fiery red chillies.

Shaped by its geography and the abundance of seafood, northern Sri Lankan cuisine is several notches hotter than that of the south. The region’s most iconic dishes, such as the Jaffna crab curry, and Jaffna kool – a signature seafood soup thickened with palmyrah flour – are unabashedly fiery. Unfortunately, these dishes are increasingly hard to find on restaurant menus in Jaffna – after years of isolation, Jaffna is in a greater hurry to embrace international flavours than it is to showcase familiar, home-style cooking.

Exploding with restaurants serving an array of international dishes, chic coffee shops, bars and gelaterias, Colombo is the most food-centric city of Sri Lanka. And given that it is sustained by tourism, Galle Fort also has a blossoming food and drink scene.

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Sri Lankan food

Rice is at the heart of Sri Lankan cooking, and features in one form or another in every meal. It is ground into flour to make appa or hoppers, bowl-shaped, fermented rice crepes that are eaten for breakfast or dinner; idiyappa or string hoppers, steamed noodle cakes that are a morning favourite, and pittu, a steamed rice flour and coconut dish which is a northern staple, and used to make a variety of sweets.

Throughout the island, rice-and-curry is the lunch standard. It is a colourful and nutritious meal of steamed red or white rice, served with several vegetable, fish or meat curries. This elaborate and usually homemade meal is tucked into a neat buth packet or rice parcel, which makes it a convenient take-away option for office-goers and travellers. Some curry shops will offer you the luxury of choosing three or four curries to go with the rice. The selection will almost always include parippu or lentils, two or three vegetable curries, a mallung or green salad, and a meat or seafood curry, in addition to condiments such as salted and deep-fried chillies and crunchy pappadum.

Other highlights of the cuisine include hot butter cuttlefish (a Sri Lankan-Chinese hybrid of batter-coated cuttlefish rings, flash fried in butter), lamprais (rice, mixed meat curry and condiments, baked together in a banana leaf), and kottu (a beloved street snack made of roti or flatbread, meat and vegetables, all finely chopped on a griddle). In between meals, Sri Lankans have a penchant for snacking on “short eats” – savoury pastries and puffs with egg, vegetable, fish or meat fillings.

Sri Lankans have a pronounced sweet tooth. This translates to desserts such as chocolate biscuit pudding (made of alternating layers of milk-soaked biscuits and chocolate cream), watalappan (a rich custard made of eggs, cashew nuts and condensed milk) and sago pudding. The most popular dessert is kiri peni, a creamy buffalo yoghurt, served with a drizzle of kithul treacle, made of the sweet sap of the foxtail palm.

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Sri Lankan drinks

If Sri Lanka could have a national drink, it would probably be thambili or the sweet juice of the orange-hued king coconut, which is sold throughout the country. Full of essential minerals, it is a convenient and inexpensive way to stay hydrated in summer.

If you’d like something stronger, the country also produces arrack, a distilled alcoholic drink made by fermenting the sap of palm trees. Smooth and similar to rum in flavour, arrack makes for excellent cocktails such as arrack sour, a local twist on the whisky sour with arrack, lemon juice and sugar. Arrack is available in varying degrees of refinement, and makes a great souvenir to take home.

Will I need a visa?
Citizens of most countries (except Singapore, the Maldives and Seychelles) require a visa or an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to visit Sri Lanka. To apply for the ETA, visit www.eta.gov.lk – the official e-visa portal for Sri Lanka – and fill out a brief form. The application is usually processed within a couple of hours or a maximum of one day after it is submitted. The non-refundable cost of a 30-day tourist visa is US $20 for SAARC countries (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and US $35 for non-SAARC countries. You will need to print out your ETA (or have it available on your phone) to show immigration officials before entering Sri Lanka.

How much time should I spend in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is a small country but if you’re travelling by road, traffic delays can significantly affect travel times. To avoid exhaustion and experience the country in an unhurried way, we recommend spending at least two weeks there. This will allow you enough time to travel inland from the coast to the hills or the Cultural Triangle, and also factor in a few days of rest.

What is the Sri Lankan currency?
The Sri Lankan rupee (LKR / Rs) is the national currency. Most business in Sri Lanka is conducted in rupees, and tourists will use it to pay for public transport, hotels, groceries, meals and entry to most attractions. Although US dollars or UK pounds may occasionally be accepted in larger hotels, the conversion rate is usually far from favourable.

The Sri Lankan rupee is not an international currency, so it is best to bring cash with you and exchange it, or withdraw small amounts of money at a time from an ATM. The latter might be smartest as the conversion rate is usually better than the one you will get at a bank or exchange bureau. However, ATMs charge a small fee (usually Rs 200-300; US $1-2) per transaction and a similar foreign exchange transaction fee. They also have daily withdrawal limits that range from Rs 40,000-60,000 (US $260-390), although some banks have higher limits.

When changing money it’s best to use a bank or an authorised currency exchange service. Currency exchange services at the airport are convenient but often offer unfavourable rates. Avoid unauthorised or fly-by-night currency exchange services to prevent being scammed.

Can I use credit/debit cards in Sri Lanka?
International credit and debit cards are accepted at larger businesses, hotels, restaurants, etc. But away from the larger businesses and outside of the bigger towns, Sri Lanka is still a largely cash-based economy, so it is best to always have some rupees with you.

How will we get around?
Local buses are the most budget-friendly way to get around the country, although you’ll have to be prepared for crowds, occasionally erratic driving, and bumpy roads. The train network serves most of the island and is a convenient way to travel to the hills or to the far north. But you need to make reservations in advance, especially during peak season.

A good tour operator will be able to arrange a car rental. Given that most of the country is now connected by good roads and high-speed expressways, hiring a car is an efficient and comfortable way to get around, particularly if you plan to visit several places during your visit. Although rush hour traffic in Colombo may suggest otherwise, travelling by road in Sri Lanka is mostly safe. However, it’s best to avoid winding roads in the hills after dark; rogue bus drivers can occasionally make this a hair-raising experience.

Organised tours will use private cars or minivans for small groups, and luxury buses for larger numbers. An organised tour minimises the hassle of battling touts, queuing to buy tickets or bargaining for the best price with local transport providers and tour guides.

Whether you opt for a private vehicle or an organised tour, it is likely that your driver will expect a small tip for his services in addition to the pre-decided fee. Pay this only if you are satisfied with the service.

Is Sri Lanka safe?
Post-war Sri Lanka is remarkably safe, and the high security and paranoia of the conflict years seem a distant memory. Violent crime is extremely rare, and makes waves when it does occur. In Colombo and other cities, take basic precautions such as avoiding flashy jewellery or carrying too much cash. It is advisable for women to avoid hiring tuk-tuks in the street late at night; cab services like Uber, PickMe and Kangaroo are safer options. In smaller cities, isolated beaches and parts of the north that are just getting used to tourists, women travellers should avoid travelling alone at night.

Unfortunately, touts and tuk-tuks masquerading as tour guides abound around many of Sri Lanka’s most famous attractions. Beware of anyone promising to get you free entry or heavy discounts – this is usually a scam.

When buying gemstones, insist on a certificate of authenticity. Most reputed stores in Colombo and Galle will offer you one, especially for valuable gems such as sapphires. Buying cut-price gemstones may be a tempting proposition, but it is more than likely that you will be sold a piece of glass.

What vaccinations are needed for Sri Lanka?
The recommended shots for Sri Lanka are the standard travel vaccinations – tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A. If you intend to stay for a longer period, your doctor may also suggest vaccinations for rabies and hepatitis B.

Is there malaria in Sri Lanka?
Mosquitoes are plentiful (and hungry!) but although malaria is present, the risk of contracting the illness is low in all parts of the island. Antimalarials are not usually required, but make sure you bring precautions such as mosquito repellent or a citronella spray with you. If you are staying in homestays or lower-key accommodation, ask in advance about the availability of a mosquito net, or just bring your own to be safe.

Dengue fever has been a widespread problem in Sri Lanka in recent years. There is no vaccine for it, so it’s wise to take precautions such as keeping covered up and using mosquito sprays and repellents or gentler sticker-patches for children.

Can you drink the tap water in Sri Lanka?
Most well-known restaurants offer filtered water but avoid drinking tap water in smaller restaurants or highway stops. Bottled mineral water is widely available, and is generally the safer option. In some tourist areas, fruit juice vendors may offer to use mineral water – this is by far the better choice.

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Sri Lanka culture and history

On the hunt for the 'real' Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s cultural landscape has been shaped by millennia of religious influences, global commerce and the legacy of colonial rule. While the central part of the country is dotted with significant Buddhist sites, the Tamil-dominated north is a Hindu heartland. And throughout the country, you will find lingering reminders of the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires, each of which left their own fingerprints on the country’s cultural heritage.

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This heady blend of influences has endowed Sri Lanka with a vibrant contemporary culture alongside a wealth of historical and archaeological sights, all of which are guaranteed to fascinate inquisitive visitors.

Sri Lankan culture

Sadly the country’s cultural diversity is largely ignored by the mass tourism industry, which focuses its attention on a small number of busy tourist traps.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy. Millions of visitors flock to Kandy all year round to visit the temple, which houses the Buddha’s tooth. Ill-equipped to handle the crush, the city’s infrastructure is strained and solitude is almost impossible to find in the temple grounds.

It’s a similar story at Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka’s most-visited tourist destination at the heart of the famous Cultural Triangle (see below). Sigiriya is cursed by large throngs of visitors, so expect long queues to ascend the rock.

Avoiding tourist traps

That said, it’s surprisingly easy to get away from the tourist bustle and catch more than a few glimpses of the ‘real’ Sri Lanka.

See a little-known side to Sigiriya

For an alternative view of Sigiriya Rock and its history, consider visiting the often overlooked yet thoughtfully curated Sigiriya Museum, among the finer museums in the country. Designed to reflect the architectural finesse of Sigiriya and its surrounding moats and gardens, the museum has a diorama of the monument and an accurate reproduction of the famous rock-cut frescoes.

The museum is near the ticket booth and the main entrance to the monument. A visit to the museum is included in the entrance fee – $30 for people from non-SAARC countries (those belonging to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation); $15 for people from SAARC countries).

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Witness temple festivities in Jaffna

Culturally and visually distinct from the rest of the country, the northern city of Jaffna is a bastion of Hindu culture. The whitewashed stupas and Buddha statues of the rest of the country are notably absent here. Instead, you’ll find a profusion of candy-coloured, vividly decorated Hindu temples sprinkled across the Jaffna peninsula.

The largest and most significant of these is the Nallur Kandaswami Kovil, an imposing temple crowned with a gilded gopuram or tower, which stands out against the squat skyline of Jaffna. In July or August every year, the Nallur temple hosts the 25-day-long Nallur Festival, a riotous celebration of faith in honour of Murugan, the presiding deity of the temple. Thousands of devotees throng the temple during this time to participate in the daily pujas or rituals. The streets surrounding the temple become a colourful bazaar with vendors selling luridly coloured sweets, saris, trinkets and toys.

The festival concludes with a chariot procession called therthiruvizha (shortened to ther), during which the deity is paraded through the streets of Jaffna. A visually resplendent spectacle, the ther also features devotees performing acts of self-mutilation as a display of their faith.

The timing of the festival varies from year to year, but it usually falls between late July and early August. Hotels in Jaffna are booked to capacity during the festival, so it is best to plan your trip well in advance. We recommend staying for three to four days.

Visit monastic ruins inside a biosphere reserve

Often overlooked by visitors, the Ritigala mountain in the north-central part of the island is a fascinating confluence of natural splendour and historic ruins.

The mountain’s higher slopes are designated a “Strict Nature Reserve” and are out of bounds to visitors. But the accessible lower reaches are home to the well-preserved ruins of an ancient forest monastery that is believed to have once been occupied by an order of austere ascetics called Pansukulikas. The Pansukulikas are said to have worn robes made of rags to distinguish themselves from the monks in nearby Anuradhapura. The ruins include bathing tanks, raised meditation platforms and even the remains of an ancient Ayurvedic hospital.

Even before the ascetics, the mountain is believed to have been home to the Yakkas, a legendary tribe of fearful warriors. It also finds mention in the Ramayana, the Hindu mythological epic, as one of the spots where the monkey-god Hanuman accidentally dropped a chunk of the Himalayas – said to be a reason for the mountain’s exceptional biodiversity.

Also in the north-central province, Ritigala is accessible by road from many key cities in the Cultural Triangle, including Anuradhapura and Habarana (both are about four to five hours from Colombo). Since the mountain is in a secluded area, it is best to organise your trip through a reliable tour operator.

The roads leading to Ritigala get treacherous in the rainy months. Visit during the dry season from June to September.

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Visit the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Rising 1,000 feet above the flat terrain of the north-central province, Mihintale has a special significance for Sri Lankans. In 247 BC, it was on the summit of this mountain that the ruling king, Devanampiya Tissa, is believed to have been converted to Buddhism by Mahinda, the son of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Ever since, Mihintale has been revered as the birthplace of Buddhism in the country.

Mihintale makes for a pleasant and gentle climb – broad stone steps flanked by trees lead to terraces on multiple levels that contain remains of an ancient hospital, an alms hall or refectory, a dagaba or monastery, and the main shrine. On full-moon night in June, called Poson Poya, millions of pilgrims visit the shrine for a colourful festival to commemorate the day that Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka.

Mihintale is 12km east of Anuradhapura (approximately half an hour), and about four hours from Colombo by car. There isn’t much choice in terms of accommodation in the town itself, so it would be advisable to stay in Anuradhapura.

The best time of year to visit is between June and September.

Explore Galle Fort on foot

The quaint charm of the 430-year-old Galle Fort – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Sri Lanka’s most-visited destinations – is best experienced on foot. The cobblestone streets and narrow alleys of the fort, first built by the Portuguese and later fortified by Dutch colonisers, are particularly good for unhurried walks.

The Fort packs a number of architectural and historical landmarks into a compact space. Some of these include the 17th century Dutch Reformed Church, the Maritime Museum, the courthouse where typewriters are still used, and the Meeran Mosque, a striking structure that is a testament to the Fort’s multi-ethnic social fabric.

Allow yourself at least three hours for a thorough exploration. A good guidebook and map will help you plan your walk, although it is impossible to get lost inside. We recommend staying at least two nights to fully soak in the laid-back vibe of the Fort.

Given its location on the southwestern coast, the best time of year to visit is between December and April.

Nature and wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka

Up close and personal with Sri Lanka's natural beauty

Sri Lanka’s natural heritage is one of the country’s biggest draws. With two marine sanctuaries, 26 national parks and a dazzling diversity of scenery and wildlife, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s ecological heavyweights.

The country has its fair share of wildlife celebrities, such as the Sri Lankan leopard, elephant, and sloth bear, all of which can be readily observed in the wild. But visitors also enjoy bird watching, wreck diving, and hiking through Sri Lanka’s storied landscapes.

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Bin the brochure

In Sri Lanka, you never have to go out of your way in search of nature, but the country’s fame for its natural wonders has come at a price. Many of the better-known wildlife attractions are overcrowded all year round, and there are serious concerns about the impact of mass tourism on the country’s ecological well-being.

Elephant rides and visits to elephant orphanages are staples of many a glossy brochure but the elephant tourism industry is fraught with controversy (see: Elephants In Asia, Ethically). So-called orphanages and sanctuaries are not always what they seem, and taming elephants for direct human contact can involve abusive training practices – see these magnificent creatures in the wild instead.

Most package tours include a visit to tea country, and Nuwara Eliya’s cool weather and crackling fireplaces make it popular as Sri Lanka’s “little England”. But the romance fades during peak season when the city’s narrow streets can be choked with traffic and garbage.

Roads less travelled

Prefer to get well away from the well-trodden tourist trail? Seek out the following backwaters instead.

See the swimming elephants of Gal Oya National Park

Just outside the town of Ampara in the south-east of the island, Gal Oya National Park’s remoteness – and bumpy connecting roads – have kept it a relative backwater, usually overlooked by visitors.

Built around Sri Lanka’s largest man-made reservoir, the Senanayake Samudraya, Gal Oya’s chief attraction is its population of wild elephants (and leopards, although in smaller numbers). Having adapted to the local ecosystem, Gal Oya’s elephants have learned to swim from island to island in search of food. The best way to spot them is on a leisurely boat safari – this is the only national park in the country to offer one – especially between the months of March and June.

The circuitous but scenic drive from Colombo to Gal Oya takes six or seven hours, factoring in a pitstop in Kandy. The Central Expressway linking Colombo to Kandy should ease journey time but won’t be completed until 2020. Travelling by 4x4 or a car with high ground clearance is recommended.

There aren’t many accommodation options inside the park. A decent bet is Gal Oya Lodge, an eco-lodge that was thoughtfully designed to blend in unobtrusively with the surrounding forest.

Stay at least three nights to make the most of Gal Oya.

Birdwatching in the Knuckles Mountains

The Knuckles Range gets its name from its distinctive rock formations which resemble the knuckles of a clenched fist. The range was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 for its incredible biodiversity: Its undulating valleys, moss-covered peaks and evergreen cloud forests are home to more than 120 bird species, and more than 50 species of mammals and reptiles.

The Knuckles Range is renowned for its birdwatching. Some of its endemic bird species include the small and rare Sri Lanka whistling thrush, the Sri Lanka green pigeon (which has a distinctive green hue), and the dull-blue flycatcher.

Kandy, near the foothills of the Knuckles, offers a convenient entry point. The road which meanders through picturesque tea estates is mostly good, and the journey to the heart of the mountains should take roughly an hour and a half.

The higher reaches of the Knuckles are challenging to access and require permits, so it is advisable to organise your expedition through a reliable tour operator.

For accommodation, the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge is a good choice, with 18 rustic yet luxurious tents that offer spectacular views of low-hanging clouds and mist-covered mountains. The hotel can organise treks, hikes, camping trips and bird watching expeditions.

Allow yourself two nights in the Knuckles, plus an additional day if you intend to do any trekking or hiking.

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Off the beaten path in tea country

Despite its growing reputation as a hipster haven, the hill town of Ella has far more mystique than Nuwara Eliya. Surrounded by terraced tea gardens, valleys and waterfalls, this sleepy village is the perfect launching pad for easy and moderately difficult hikes and treks.

According to local legend, Ravana, the 10-headed demon king of Hindu mythology, kidnapped the princess Sita and held her captive in this area – which is why many of its natural attractions are named after him. Of these, the Ravana caves, a network of tunnels connected to the nearby Ravana waterfalls, are arguably the most popular.

If you’d rather get off the tourist trail entirely, hire a tuk-tuk from Ella and make the 45-minute trip to Wellawaya, a town unremarkable in itself, but one which offers access to many secluded waterfalls. These include Ella Wala, a rock pool hidden from view by jungle, and the Diyaluma Falls, which has the distinction of being Sri Lanka’s third highest waterfall.

The most enjoyable – if time-consuming – way of getting to Ella is by train from Colombo. The 10-hour journey offers views of tea gardens and mist-engulfed towns and is considered one of the world’s most scenic train routes. Make sure you reserve seats in advance in the first-class observation cars that have large windows. Although you cannot book tickets online, a quality tour operator can arrange tickets for you.

Since getting to Ella takes the better part of a day – and delays are common – spending at least three nights is advisable.

Wreck diving in Pasikudah Bay

Pasikudah, an isolated hamlet on the east coast until the end of the war, has become a popular tourist destination. With a number of shipwrecks in shallow water and a couple of deeper Second World War wrecks not too far from its popular tourist stretch, Pasikudah is emerging as a hotspot for wreck diving.

Some of the famous wrecks near the Pasikudah coast include the British Sergeant, a British tanker that was sunk during a Japanese air raid in 1942; the Gladys Moller, a transport ship that was wrecked in very shallow waters, and three so-called boiler wrecks that are an excellent training ground for divers looking to improve their skills. An hour away, off the coast of Batticaloa in deeper waters lies the wreck of HMS Hermes, the first custom-built aircraft carrier that was sunk during a Japanese air raid. At a depth of 42 to 53 metres, this is considered one of the world’s great wreck dives, suitable for trained and experienced divers.

A few dive shops in Pasikudah organise both easy and more advanced dives. Some hotels in the area also have their own dive schools with PADI-certified scuba trainers and dive masters to accompany you. If you are a serious diver, ensure that you check beforehand about the facilities before choosing a hotel.

Pasikudah is an approximately six or seven-hour drive from Colombo, accounting for traffic along the way and breaks. The diving season on the east coast runs from May to October which is also the high season for this coast, so make your bookings in advance.

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Wild elephant spotting in Udawalawe National Park

With Sri Lanka’s largest wild elephant population, Udawalawe National Park is a quieter alternative to the frequently overcrowded Yala National Park. (It is also the only national park in the country where an elephant sighting is virtually assured).

Just south of the Central Highlands, the park is a four-hour drive from Colombo.

Eco-conscious travellers with an appetite for adventure will enjoy staying at Banyan Camp. Just outside Udawalawe’s perimeter, the lodge is built of natural materials, uses recycled furniture and eschews air-conditioning. This isn’t your average resort, so it would be prudent to expect a few surprises.

The best time to visit Udawalawe is in the dry season between May and September.

Walks by the bund in Anuradhapura

Best known for its Buddhist stupas and ruins, Anuradhapura – an ancient capital of Sri Lanka – is at the heart of the Cultural Triangle. But it is also a great nature spot, ideal for contemplative walks along the banks of the reservoirs that were built to serve the once-thriving city.

Largely secluded and quiet except for the odd passing vehicle, the reservoir embankments provide a great vantage point from which to spot large flocks of water birds at sunrise and sunset.

Ulagalla Resort, near the Wannemaduwa Reservoir, offers eco-conscious visitors luxury within easy reach of Anuradhapura. The hotel also offers private birdwatching tours led by naturalists. Consider spending two nights here, which will give you enough time to visit some of the country’s most culturally significant sites.

Anuradhapura, which is in Sri Lanka’s arid north-central province, is easily accessible by train and road and is about four hours from Colombo.

Explore the mangrove forests of Madu Ganga

The beach town of Bentota, on Sri Lanka’s south-western coast and easily reached from Colombo, is a tourism hotspot – the beaches here are crowded and a tad dirty in peak season.

But just half an hour’s drive from busy Bentota is one of Sri Lanka’s best-kept secrets: A dense tangle of mangrove forests on the Madu Ganga river. Part of an inland coastal wetland, they are among the last untouched mangrove forests in the country. Local operators offer boat tours that weave through the mangroves and past small river islands.

Bentota is a little under two hours’ drive from Colombo so you could easily make it a day trip. Stop for a Sri Lankan rice and curry lunch at Lunuganga, country home and estate of Geoffrey Bawa, the renowned 20th century Sri Lankan architect. (Make a lunch reservation in advance; a tour of Lunuganga’s landscaped gardens is included in the entry fee.)

The best time to visit this part of the country is between January and April.

Adventure holidays in Sri Lanka

Best activities for thrill-seekers

Traditionally known for its rich history and quiet natural charm, Sri Lanka has more recently established itself as an adventure travel destination too. Whereas active holidays in Sri Lanka were once limited to pleasant hikes in tea country, adrenaline junkies of all ages and abilities can increasingly enjoy more boisterous pursuits including kitesurfing, whitewater rafting, and trekking.

This is particularly good news for families, as there is now more to keep the youngsters happy than ever before – in between the temple visits of course.

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Adventure travel in Sri Lanka

Not content whiling away the afternoons on the beach? The more adventurous among us might want to take a look at the following activities.

Guided treks of tea country

Some of Sri Lanka’s most high-quality tea is grown in the Bogawantalawa Valley in the central region, marked by misty mountain roads and terraced tea slopes. To soak in fully the beauty and serenity of the surroundings, consider taking a guided trek through the valley, stopping to explore colonial-era tea plantations and understanding the processes that a tea leaf must go through to become the brew in your cup.

The Bogawantalawa Valley is approximately 130km from Colombo and is best accessed by car or train. The scenic train ride to Hatton – the closest station – takes considerably longer than the road trip, but the seven-hour journey will be more comfortable if you are prone to car sickness.

Hatton is pleasantly cool all year round, but the area is prone to landslides in the rainy season. The best months to visit are from January to April.

Kitesurfing in Kalpitiya

A backwater compared to the more popular tourist spots around the country, Kalpitiya, on the northwestern coast, has slowly built a reputation for its kitesurfing. It is at the tip of a slender finger of land sticking out into the Indian Ocean, with a lagoon on its eastern side.

While the relatively gentle winds and calm waters of the lagoon make it a great spot for beginners, more experienced kitesurfers flock to Alankuda beach, which has stronger winds and moderate crowds. A couple of kitesurfing schools in the area provide training, rent out kites and offer basic accommodation. Check out the Sri Lanka Kite School.

New kite resorts in Kalpitiya run their own schools and offer special accommodation packages for kitesurfers. Rascals Kite Resort, a rustic hotel with colourfully decorated cabanas, is run by kitesurfing enthusiasts and has direct access to the lagoon. Bar Reef Resort, an eco-conscious hotel at Alankuda beach, also offers kitesurfing lessons and excursions to nearby lagoons.

For a different kind of adventure, Kalpitiya has excellent opportunities for snorkelling and dolphin spotting. It is also only a two-hour drive from Wilpattu National Park, one of the country’s premier wildlife sanctuaries, which has the largest population of leopards. It’s well worth planning a day trip to Wilpattu while you are in the area.

Spend at least three nights in Kalpitiya, especially if you intend to kitesurf, and an additional day or two for other excursions.

The ideal time for kitesurfing here is between May and October. Wind conditions are milder but still favourable between December and March.

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Hike through Horton Plains

Nuwara Eliya may now be an overdeveloped mess, but it is the gateway to one of the most unique landscapes in the country. Approximately 30 km uphill from the city is the Horton Plains National Park, a protected grassland spread out over a vast plateau that makes for a fascinating and moderately intense trek.

A microcosm of Sri Lanka’s diverse topography, Horton Plains is marked by scrawny shrubbery interspersed with green hills and dense cloud forests. The 10-km trek winds through a rugged forest path that leads to a sheer precipice called the World’s End, and culminates in the Baker’s Falls, one of the park’s chief attractions.

While not particularly challenging, the three-hour-long trek requires stamina and some agility. The ideal time to visit Horton Plains is at dawn when low-hanging clouds lift to reveal the park’s surreal landscape. After 10am, the view from World’s End is likely to be obscured by cloud cover.

The trip to Horton Plains and back takes half a day (or longer, depending on the length of your trek), so stay in Nuwara Eliya for two days. Your hotel should be able to help you book a van or SUV for the return journey. Note that low-clearance cars are likely to struggle on the bumpy road to the top.

It’s best to visit Horton Plains during the dry months, between January and March.

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Explore the northern countryside by train

The train service between Colombo and Jaffna was once a lifeline connecting the two cities, but it was suspended for nearly 25 years during the country’s civil war. When the Yal Devi or Queen of Jaffna – an iconic train that plied the route for more than 40 years – resumed its run in 2014 after extensive track repairs, it became one of the most telling signifiers of the end of the war.

The train remains the most memorable way to see the distinct shifts in the landscape as you travel to the country’s northernmost reaches. It offers you glimpses of nondescript villages, lush paddy fields and the arid northern countryside, inaccessible until recently. It is a journey that is likely to give you pause – and a break from the brochure-ready beauty of most of Sri Lanka.

With its non-air conditioned coaches and vendors supplying a steady stream of snacks, the Yal Devi makes for a leisurely 10-hour ride. But if you’d prefer air-conditioned comfort, the speedy Inter-City Express is a better bet. The train service to Jaffna is a popular one, so it is advisable to buy tickets in advance from a railway station in Colombo (or in Jaffna, for the return trip). Tickets cannot be bought online, but a reputed travel agent should be able to arrange them for you.

Visit a revered Hindu temple off the coast of Jaffna

Of the many islands scattered off the coast of Jaffna, Nainativu – or Nagadeepa as it is also known – holds a special religious significance for Hindus and Buddhists. Believed to have once been home to a legendary tribe called the Nagas, Nainativu is best known for the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, an ancient temple dedicated to Parvati, the consort of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

Nainativu’s importance is heightened by the fact that it is mentioned in both ancient Tamil and Buddhist literature. Apart from the temple, the island’s other religious attraction is the Nagadeepa Purana Vihara, which is counted among the holiest Buddhist shrines in the country. Legend has it that the Buddha visited the Nagadeepa Vihara on Bakmaha Poya, or the full moon day in April.

Getting to Nainativu is an adventure in itself, and one that requires a degree of fortitude. The journey involves taking a bus or car from Jaffna to Kurikadduwan (KKD) jetty, some 36 km away, and then taking a ferry to the island. The ferries run at regular intervals but are notorious for being overcrowded, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.

June and July are the most colourful months of the year to visit Nainativu – the temple hosts a 16-day thiruvizha festival during this period. Check the festival dates beforehand, and expect large crowds.

Sri Lanka's quietest beaches

Peaceful beaches away from the crowds and mega-resorts

With 1,790km of coastline, Sri Lanka is virtually synonymous with surf, sand and sunny days on the beach. If your idea of a perfect holiday is to snorkel, surf the waves or simply while away lazy afternoons under a giant umbrella -- or you want a beach break after exploring the Cultural Triangle -- you’re spoiled for choice.

There are the postcard-perfect beaches of the southern coast with cerulean waters and powdery sand. There is surf-friendly Arugam Bay in the south-east, considered one of the top surfing spots in the world. And there are the deserted beaches of the country’s once war-torn north, where mass tourism remains blissfully absent.

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A crowded coast

But it’s not all an unbroken paradise. With a slew of resorts and hotels clamouring for a piece of the prized coastline, many beaches on the southern and eastern coasts are overcrowded, packed with lousy hotels, and littered with trash. The frenetic pace of development and haphazard reconstruction after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has further contributed to coastal erosion.

Many of the beaches that are most easily accessible from Colombo – like Negombo in the west and Bentota in the south – are congested with cookie cutter resorts which are best avoided if you’d rather not spend your holiday queuing at a hotel buffet.

Rampant commercialism and overdevelopment have ruined popular beaches elsewhere, such as Mount Lavinia, south of Colombo, and Hikkaduwa on the southern coast. And although Unawatuna and Mirissa, the best-known of Sri Lanka’s southern beaches, are undeniably charming, they’re much more enjoyable in the off-season.

Sri Lanka's quietest beaches

But Sri Lanka still has plenty of picturesque beaches and coastlines that have been spared the disruption of mass tourism.

1. The unspoiled north - Casuarina

Only just opening up to outsiders after decades of civil war, the beaches surrounding Jaffna, at the northernmost tip of the country, are superb, isolated – and, at least for now, refreshingly non-commercial.

Named after a grove of casuarina trees that border the shore, Casuarina is the best known of these beaches. With placid waters and a sandy stretch devoid of people, especially on weekdays, Casuarina makes for a perfect day trip from Jaffna.

There are changing facilities, toilets and a few kiosks on the beach, but it would be advisable to bring your own picnic basket. There are hardly any hotels or guest houses in the area, so Jaffna might be your best bet for accommodation.

Casuarina is about 20 km from Jaffna on the island of Karaitivu, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway. You can get there with a rental car or local bus from Jaffna; alternatively, a quality tour operator will be able to help with transport.

Jaffna is easily reached from Colombo by road or train (it’s an approximately six-hour trip). The best time to visit is between May and September.

2. Hidden gems of the south - Kabalana, Goyambokka, Tallala

Despite its greater popularity, there are still plenty of unspoilt beaches on the southern coast.

Most people don’t bother making the trek to Tangalle, which means that the beaches in and around this coastal town are among the most pristine you will find down south.

Beaches between the towns of Galle and Tangalle are generally long, wide and sandy. A few beaches of note include Kabalana, Mawella and Hiriketiya.

A 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from Tangalle, Goyambokka beach boasts clean sands bordered by the country’s signature coconut palms, clean waters and an unhurried vibe. Large hotels are still few and far between in these parts, but a number of restaurants along the beach offer fresh seafood, beer and thambili or king coconut water.

Closer than Tangalle but almost as untouched, Talalla is another beach worth visiting. A long, crescent-shaped beach partially hidden from view by a thicket of shrubby trees, Talalla is clean – if underdeveloped – and ideal for an offbeat holiday. A few shacks on the beach offer refreshments and you can also rent beach beds for a small fee. The currents here can be quite rough, so it is best to check conditions beforehand.

Talalla is just over three hours from Colombo by car via the Southern Expressway, while Tangalle takes half an hour longer. The ideal time to visit both these beaches is between December and April.

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3. Diving at Pigeon Island

For snorkelling and diving, there are few better locations than Pigeon Island National Park, just off the coast of Trincomalee, a popular beach town on the east coast of the island.

One of two national marine parks in the country, Pigeon Island is surrounded by shallow waters and an abundance of marine life, including corals, shoals of colourful fish, and even the odd sea turtle. The beach itself is narrow in parts and can get crowded at weekends and holidays with visitors who make the 1 km boat trip from Trinco (as it is fondly known).

A number of private scuba operators along the Nilaveli beach in Trinco organise round trips to Pigeon Island throughout the day. The Nilaveli Private Boat Service, run by an association of local boat owners, also organises round trips at a fixed rate of LKR (Sri Lanka rupee) 2,000 ($13). You can also rent snorkelling gear for a small fee. Entry tickets to the park cost $10 per person and $8 for a group, and are available at the Pigeon Island ticket office on Nilaveli beach.

Pigeon Island can get very crowded in the peak season, between May and September, so make sure you book a boat in advance.

4. Surfing at Arugam Bay

On the remote south-eastern coast of the island, Arugam Bay is the last word when it comes to surfing in Sri Lanka. Counted among the top surfing destinations in the world, “A-Bay” boasts large swells that wash up to its shore from Antarctica and a number of right-hand breaks that are suitable for beginners as well as more advanced surfers.

About 30 km from Kumana National Park is the country’s top bird sanctuary, Arugam Bay. The natural beauty here is stunning. Tucked away in a distant part of the island, A-Bay is a seven or eight-hour drive by car or an overnight ride by luxury bus from Colombo. Not yet as developed as the southern coast, A-Bay has just a handful of hotels. The best time to visit is between May and November.

Hiriketiya, a horseshoe-shaped bay just 10 minutes from the town of Dickwella along the south coast, is a great testing ground for novice surfers. Regarded as one of the country’s most picturesque beaches, Hiriketiya is shrouded from view by a coconut grove. It has a year-round surf break that makes it ideal for those learning to ride the waves.

The beach has a few shacks selling fresh juices and renting beach beds. Visit between December and April.

Where to go for honeymoon in Sri Lanka?

Recommended locations for romantic retreats


With a growing collection of one-of-a-kind boutique hotels championing personalised service, authenticity and exceptional locations, it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka is a popular destination for extra-special honeymoons. Here are a few of Sri Lanka’s most luxurious honeymoon experiences.

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Unusual ideas for luxurious Sri Lanka honeymoons

Travel by rail along one of the world’s most scenic lines

Sri Lanka’s Main Line Railway travels through some terrific mountain scenery. Built by the British colonists to transport their crops of Ceylon tea to the capital, the line’s 46 tunnels, nine arched viaduct and Damodara's 360-degree substation loop were painstakingly carved out of mountains over a period of 60 years. These days the line's old-fashioned carriages and spectacular views make for a nostalgic trip, perfect for couples on a romantic honeymoon. It takes around a day to travel from Kandy to Badulla, the line’s eastern terminus, so if you’re short on time, opt for the most spectacular stretch between Nanu Oya and Damodara (2.5 hours).

Book into the Owner’s Cottage at Ceylon Tea Trails

Honeymooners will be drawn to the evocative collection of former tea planters’ bungalows in the Hatton hills known as Ceylon Tea Trails. Sensitively upgraded for the discerning traveller, each sits in idyllic mature gardens fringed by tea estates in and around the Castlereagh Lake Valley. Although any of the master or garden suites at the bungalows will suffice, for the ultimate luxury, book yourselves into the Owner’s Cottage, a one-bedroom freestanding hideaway located up and behind Dunkeld Bungalow. It comes with a private butler, lounge, terrace and a hot tub, and shares Dunkeld’s far-reaching valley views and pool. Once here, you can relax or get active – options include white water rafting and tea estate trails.

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Ceylon Tea Trails: purpose made for luxurious honeymoons

Seek out stylish souvenirs in Colombo

Pick up chic souvenirs in Sri Lanka’s up-and-coming capital Colombo and base yourself at Paradise Road Tintagel, a boutique hotel carved out of the former home of the Bandaranaike family, a dynasty of political rulers. From here, it’s just a 10-minute walk to the Saskia Fernando Gallery, the capital’s go-to place for contemporary art, and PR, a chic concept boutique selling ladies and men’s’ fashion by new and emerging regional designers (look out for in-house brand Maus), as well as candles, toiletries and jewellery. Hop in a tuk tuk bound for Barefoot (a Sri Lanka icon, known for its multi-coloured handloom wares), Paradise Road (for chic designer home items) and Spa Ceylon to stock up on delicately scented massage oils.

Safari in style at Yala National Park

Sri Lanka’s wildlife is excellent and Yala National Park is the best reserve for spying its biggest game – leopards, sloth bears and elephants. For all its merits, Yala can get very busy. Most visitors enter the park from the south so the location of Leopard Trails’ campsite, to the north of the reserve, near the quieter Katagamuwa Entrance, puts you at a distinct advantage. Some of their guides trained in South Africa and each has his own specific interest. The camp’s honeymoon appeal comes in the form of roomy air-conditioned tents with king-sized beds, air conditioning, ensuite bathrooms with hot water showers, and private starlit dining.

Seek out whales from secluded Jungle Beach

If you’re honeymooning over the summer months, Sri Lanka’s eastern beaches promise fine weather and calm seas. Kuchchaveli, a 3km long bay, 30-minutes’ drive north of Trincomalee, is a remote and romantic spot where just one hotel – Uga Jungle Beach – hides amidst its scrubby shoreline. The freestanding beach chalets, with outdoor showers, immersed in greenery, make the most of this seclusion. There are daily trips out to sea to spy whales and dolphins, and Trincomalee is a much less congested place to see these giants than south coast Mirissa, which has become oversubscribed and haphazardly regulated in recent years. You could also nip out by boat to Pigeon Island, Sri Lanka’s top snorkelling spot.

Switch off at Santani

Many hotels promise a ‘digital detox’ but few actually deliver. Santani, up in Kandy’s northeastern hills, vows to change this. Everything about this hilltop wellness resort is designed to let the mind be at peace. The rooms – many cantilevered sharply out from the hillside – and the main buildings all follow a minimal design aesthetic, and while Wi-Fi is there, you must request it. The resort’s spa is world class and promises luxurious treatments as well as traditional Ayurveda, hydrotherapy facilities, yoga and packages – if this is what you want. There is no obligation to sign up to anything – absorb these pristine natural surroundings from your room balcony or get active, trekking to pristine rivers and off-the-beaten-track temples.

Chase waterfalls in the south-eastern hills

Sri Lanka’s south-eastern hill country is blessed with some of the island’s most spectacular waterfalls, and many of these are hidden well away from public roads and therefore deserted. Stay at Living Heritage Koslanda, a six-bedroom boutique hotel amidst 60 acres of forested grounds, and you can escape to their private, secluded waterfall. You won’t see anyone else around, and between May and September, the forest – part of a network of woodland that snakes up through the hills, is a migratory route for elephants. Sleep in one of the cantilevered, open-sided forest chalets for a close-to-nature feel, and swim in their remote hilltop infinity pool. There are also walking trails of 10km or more, taking you through tea and rubber plantations, and to the top pools of Diyaluma Falls, Sri Lanka’s third highest waterfall.

Book a villa-for-two

For the ultimate private stay, skip the hotels and book yourself into a private villa for some quiet time amidst the buzz of the southern Galle coastline. One-bedroom Kikili Beach House, in Dalawella, casts a magical spell over every guest that steps foot inside its granite walls, which combines multi-hued tropical chic with the feel of a British beach house. It’s also close to one of the region’s best beaches and the colonial-era Galle Fort for historic walks and shopping. Kikili comes with an always-smiling butler to cook and keep the villa shipshape, leaving you two to chill on the veranda, cosy up in the lounge or dip into the plunge pool.

A guide to the Cultural Triangle cities of Sri Lanka

What to see in Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle plots a vaguely triangular expanse between three key historical Sri Lankan centres: the city of Kandy, and the two ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Here’s a guide to the cities of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.

Sri Lanka Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

What is Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle?

The Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka’s scenic hinterland is home to the majority of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage attractions and a rich collection of the world’s most important Buddhist sites. These include the ancient Cultural Triangle cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. All are equally worthy of a visit and are relatively easy to travel between.

Then there is the epic ancient city of Kandy. It is part of the Cultural Triangle, but enough of a draw and a hub to be considered on its own. Kandy is the one to visit for those who can only squeeze in one place in the Cultural Triangle and is a good base for making day trips too. If you want to cover all four of Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle cities, plan for at least a day in each – but preferably more.

Cultural Triangle cities and Buddhism

Sri Lanka is a key Buddhist centre, with evidence of the faith here stretching back well over a millennia. Such is Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history, that some scholars believe it to be the world’s oldest Buddhist country. The Cultural Triangle cities offer an impressive array of monuments, royal palaces and a sweep of Buddhist temples that were pivotal in the evolution of the Sinhalese civilisation, which has been crucial to Sri Lanka historically and remains predominant in society today. The edges of this triangle are traced out by the trio of historic capitals - the first Sinhalese capital Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa (which superseded it), and Kandy, the last capital of the Royal kingdom.

There was a time when the Buddhist sites of Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle cities were mainly the preserve of practising Buddhists. Things have changed over the years with non-Buddhists and tourists now welcomed.

Getting here is easy these days too – you can access the Cultural Triangle from Colombo by car in around three hours. A car with a driver is recommended rather than a hire car due to the sometimes poor Sri Lankan driving standards. Public transport offers a more cramped experience and is less reliable. A driver/guide is the ideal solution as then you don’t have to organise a guide or tour on arrival.

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Vatadage at sunset, Polonnaruwa

The tumultuous terrorist attacks of Easter Sunday 2019 rocked Sri Lanka to its foundations but did nothing to dent the fact that tourists are still welcome across the swathe of attractions in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle cities. Increased security is noticeable, but doesn’t tend to inconvenience visitors too much, bar longer queues and more thorough security checks, which, of course, help reduce the chance of future attacks.

One key thing to remember is to always take a sarong, or other clothing, to adequately cover up shoulders and legs (exposed midriffs are not welcome either), as many of the Buddhist sites as still in active religious use today and those that are defunct are still venerated. Shoes should be removed before entering temples.

Be wary of visiting temples during periods of puja (worship) as they may be closed to non-Buddhists. However, if you are welcomed by the faithful, these can be a great time to visit with colourful ceremonies often accompanied by drumming and music.

What to see at Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura is not just one of the oldest cities in Sri Lanka, it’s also one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, founded as far back as 380BC. The first Sri Lankan capital is integral to Sinhalese culture and history, a place where they first tamed nature and came together to live in an urban area. With civilisation came religion and Anuradhapura remains one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country – Buddhists believe Anuradhapura grew up around a branch of the Buddha’s bodhi tree where he received enlightenment.

As with all sights in the Cultural Triangle, it’s worth having a local guide to fill you in on the details and to smooth logistics. The sheer number and scale of Buddhist and historical sites throughout the Cultural Triangle can be a little daunting, so try to narrow down your focus. Handily, many of the key attractions in Anuradhapura are sprinkled around a trio of sites within the Sacred Precinct to the west of the modern city.

Buddha’s sacred bodhi tree is found in Mahavihara, as is the vaulting white Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba (dagoba is the local version of a stupa – dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) and the evocative Lowamahapaya palace ruins. Many visitors don’t even notice Thuparamaya Dagoba, thought to be Sri Lanka’s first dagoba. This is the most ancient part of the old city so it makes sense to start here.

Second is Jetavana, whose voluminous red brick dagoba originally soared over 100m, making it the third tallest monument in the world after a brace of Egyptian pyramids. Allow time to explore the ruins of the monastery complex here, as well as the former Royal Palace. Don’t miss the Jetavanarama Museum too, which dates back to British colonial times. Third is Abhayagiri to the north, another ruined monastery complex whose highlight is the Abhayagiri Dagoba. Parts of this site are still charmingly wild so it’s a great place to indulge your inner explorer.

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Thuparamaya dagoba, Anuradhapura

What to see at Sigiriya

There is nothing quite like Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya, a vaulting citadel atop a hulking granite rock that soars 200m high and spreads itself over three acres. Also known as the ‘Lion Rock’, after the lions that once thrived here, this Royal citadel is unmissable.

It’s a steep climb up the narrow staircases and walkways to ascend this precipitous site so bring plenty of water and try to time your visit early in the morning or in the later afternoon. Note there is not really much shade on the top either and avoid visiting on a weekend when it gets even busier. En-route make sure to check out the remarkably well-preserved frescoes (note photos are not allowed) and the ‘graffiti’ - some are thought to date as far back as the 7th century.

The effort of ascending Sigiriya (allow at least three hours) is worth it for the views and the ruins on a site first thought to have been populated by Buddhist monks. The main attraction is the footprint of the old Royal Palace. It’s easy to feel the grandeur of the days when King Kashyapa chose to build here back in the 5th century.

To learn more, a visit to the onsite museum is essential. Come before you climb up to Sigiriya. After the summit you can relax in the impressive ancient complex of pools and gardens that sit below as other less fortunate souls swelter above. Take time to check out the Buddhist ruins down here too. You will also find Buddhist inscriptions in the caves.

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Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

What to see at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa superseded Anuradhapura as the island’s capital between the 11th and 13th centuries. Handily, it’s a fairly compact site compared to Anuradhapura and is set around the Parakrama Samudra lake. The highlight of the impressively preserved remains is the Royal Palace complex, which sits within the restored walls of the central Citadel. Look for the well-preserved Audience Hall’s stone-carved elephants and lions guarding the entrance.

To the north is Alahana Pirivena (the Monastery of the Cremation Grounds), home to the remarkable Lankatilaka Temple, whose walls soar 17m tall and 4m wide, where you will also find an 18m high statue of Buddha – although time and disrepair has rendered it headless.

Look for the Buddha granite rock carvings of Gal Vihara, consisting of four separate images. The standing Buddha is considered the best of the four, with its unusual crossed arms and solemn face leading devotees to suggest it is an image of Buddha’s disciple Ananda, grieving for his master.

You can explore the Cultural Triangle city Polonnaruwa by car or noisy, uncomfortable tuk-tuk, but a bike is a more eco-friendly way to get around. Biking also gives you a better feel for the ancient city’s scale and layout.

Sigiriya is only an hour’s drive from Polonnaruwa and is much better set up for staying over, so consider it as an alternative base instead. Make sure to look out for the endemic toque macaques.

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Lankatilaka Temple, Polonnaruwa

What to see in Kandy

Kandy – the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings – is the stand out attraction in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, lying on its southern fringes amidst a rich cloak of emerald green forest. The country’s second-largest city serves as Sri Lanka’s unofficial cultural capital. It’s a charming oasis set in the country’s Hill Country, which reclines around the sculpted Kiri Muhuda lake, and has a spirit and passion quite unlike Colombo.

Kandy is an excellent base for exploring the Cultural Triangle as it has good road and rail connections, plus a multitude of cafes, bars and restaurants. One mistake visitors often make is spending too little time here before heading off to the surrounding sites in the rest of the Cultural Triangle. It’s an enjoyable city for just strolling around and makes for a rewarding couple of days at the beginning or end of a Cultural Triangle adventure. A major attraction is Kandy’s contrasting architecture, with crowded markets rubbing shoulders with grand colonial buildings and gold-shrouded Buddhist temples.

Kandy’s fierce sense of pride was part of the reason it became the last Buddhist bolthole, resisting Portuguese and Dutch forces in turn for three centuries before finally succumbing to the British in 1815. It’s no mere stark historical site either – consider timing your visit to coincide with one of the lively cultural events that bring life to the streets throughout the year.

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Royal Botanical Gardens, Kandy

The highlight is the 10-day Esala Perahera (Festival of the Tooth), which is normally held in late July into early August. The festival has its roots back to the arrival in Sri Lanka of Kandy’s sacred tooth back in the 4th century AD.

The Kandy area played a key role in the ferment of political and religious pressure that built in the run-up to the terrorist attacks of 2019. Steer clear of political and religious conversations here, even if you think you know the other person’s viewpoint, as unintentional offence can easily be caused.

A word of caution on touts and street hassles too. This is arguably the worst place in Sri Lanka for this menace, but it’s not usually threatening. A few local words usually see off touts but employing a guide is even more effective.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy

The city’s number one attraction is the golden topped Temple of the Sacred Tooth, home to Buddha’s Tooth, which was brought to Sri Lanka back in the 16th century. It’s very much an active temple so make sure to check ahead in case it is closed for a ceremony or event.

The landmark temple lies at the heart of Kandy and is also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa. Architecturally it’s an eye-catching collage of slick marble, stark ivory and solid hardwoods, with plenty of gold woven in too. Buddha's Tooth (Sri Lanka’s most famous Buddhist relic) now stands as the fulcrum of the two-storey high shrine topped by a golden canopy. Today it is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world with daily worship and ceremonies, backed up by lavish special events.

Note you’ll be disappointed if you were hoping to actually see the tooth itself as it is hidden safely from public view in a gold casket. The site is well worth visiting, though, for its drama and Buddhist architecture. There are also a sprinkling of further temples dotted around the complex, as well as museums. It’s worth taking on the services of a guide to help you navigate the site efficiently, with guides available on the day.

Sri Lanka kandy tower of temple of tooth relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy

Don’t miss the vast Alut Maligawa shrine hall (built in 1956 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s death), with its array of Thai-style sitting Buddhas, and the Sri Dalada Museum. The latter houses many of the gifts given by various world leaders to the temple and also features information on the damage caused by the 1998 bombing. It also, of course, tells you everything and anything you could want to know about what is surely the world’s most celebrated tooth.

Other must-visit sights in Kandy include the Royal Palace. It houses the National Museum of Kandy, which features over 5,000 exhibits, many tying into Buddhism in the country. It was the last Royal Palace to be built on the island. Then there is the green lung of the Royal Palace Park and the even more impressive Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya, which lies a little out of Kandy, but is worth the journey to.

Also worth heading out of Kandy for are a brace of key Buddhist sites – Lankatilaka Temple and the Gadaladeniya Temple. Further Buddhist attractions include the Malwatta Monastery, one of the most heralded in the country.

Elephants near Kandy Sri Lanka

Alternative Buddhist sites in the Cultural Triangle

There is plenty to see beyond the ancient cities of the Cultural Triangle. There is the cave temple of Aluvihare, the rock-hewn standing Buddha statue at Avukana, the Buddhist centre of Mihintale, the mysterious forest monastery in Ritigala, the long-abandoned citadel of Yapahuwa, and then Dambulla Cave Temple, the island’s largest cave complex, which soars 160m above the plains in the Matale District. The danger is trying to do too much and not really getting a real flavour for the Cultural Triangle so choose wisely. Less is usually more in this beguiling corner of the world.

Beyond Buddhist sites, the Cultural Triangle is also home to a brace of superb national parks. The chief attraction in the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks are the large elephant populations that peak through during the rainy reason between June and September. So impressive are the numbers and the spectacle, that locals talk of ‘The Gathering’, which sees Asia’s largest concentration of elephants.

Where to go in Sri Lanka

Our recommended places

Tangalle

Tangalle

Laidback Tangalle in Sri Lanka’s south is one of the region’s more relaxed beach destinations, combining simple guesthouses and some upmarket hotels. What really sets it apart from the other resorts along the coast are the nearby attractions, including turtle-watching at Rekawa and the rock temples of Mulkirigala – both a half-day trip away.

Yala National Park

Yala National Park

Southeast Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is the country’s most visited wilderness reserve. Home to leopards, elephants and crocodiles, the park’s trails can get crowded during the high season.

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa was the medieval capital of Sri Lanka, a thriving centre of commerce and religion. Today, visitors can explore the site’s archaeological treasures, including the Sacred Quadrangle and a number of temples. Combine your trip with a visit to the nearby Sigiriya Rock Fortress.

Udawalawe

Udawalawe

Sri Lanka’s finest national park is home to herds of elephants, wild buffalo, crocodiles and leopards. The park’s light vegetation makes it easier to spot the animals, with the 200 Asian elephants that call the Udawalawe home the main attraction.

Colombo

Colombo

Cosmopolitan Colombo is more than just the gateway to Sri Lanka. Here, you can learn about Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic history, with churches, mosques and temples all in a line, street food with influences from around the world, and shopping in a mix of ancient markets and huge malls in Pettah.

Haputale

Haputale

The hillside town of Haputale is a little-visited stop on the train route into tea country from Kandy to Ella. Surrounded by tea plantations, this is the perfect place for a hike through Sri Lanka’s countryside away from the crowds. Take a side-trip to Diyaluma Waterfall to see the country’s second-highest waterfall, complete with three sets of pools to soak in.

Knuckles Mountain Range

Knuckles Mountain Range

The Knuckles Mountain Range – also known as the Dumbara Mountain Range – is home to 34 peaks and offers plenty of treks for hikers to explore, with waterfalls, tiny villages and elusive mountain animals part of the experience.

Galle

Galle

The historic fort town of Galle is best explored on foot, allowing you to take in its grandiose colonial buildings, ancient temples and mosques and many quirky side streets. Make sure to take a walk on the ramparts of the fort, with views out over the ocean.

Kandy

Kandy

Central Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s most significant religious sites, being home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a tooth from Buddha himself. The golden-roofed temple is actually part of the Royal Palace complex, which includes several museums and temples. Look out for the annual perahera festival, when the tooth is paraded around the city by 65 decorated elephants.

Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya is the most untouched of all of Sri Lanka’s national parks and is the only one where you can take a boat safari. Take to the water on Watawanna Lake to see elephants swimming, crocodiles hunting and birdlife up close.

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu translates as ‘natural lakes’ in Sinhala and ‘10 lakes’ in Tamil, so it’s no surprise what the main attraction is in this national park. The many watering holes provide shelter for elephants, deer, sloth bears and elusive leopards.

Trincomalee

Trincomalee

The port city of Trincomalee is best-known as a gateway to the beaches and resorts on Sri Lanka’s east coast. However, it’s worth lingering to see the town’s Hindu temples and for whale watching between March and August.

Jaffna

Jaffna

Intriguing Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s far north offers an insight into the country’s Tamil culture. For several decades, Jaffna and its surrounding regions were at the centre of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the Tamil north and Sinhalese south. Today, Jaffna is a strikingly cosmopolitan city emerging from its troubled past.

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