21 Great Things To Do in Sri Lanka
This is a small island, just over 500km long and almost 300km wide, however, you can find so many things to do in Sri Lanka.
And it’s not just the quantity but also the variety of the experiences that you can have.
This is a country where you can do one of the easiest elephant safaris in the world, you can hike a unique monolith with a fortress and a pool on top (Sigiriya), or could surf some of the best waves on our planet, not to mention experiencing one of the most beautiful train routes in the world between never-ending tea plantations.
You get the point.
I made multiple trips to Sri Lanka and I was lucky enough to experience so many things. And believe me, I am so looking forward to my next trip there.
In this post, I have listed the 21 most amazing things to do, including a few hidden gems unknown to the most.
Table of Contents
- 1 Colombo – hot or not
- 2 Negocombo
- 3 Kandy
- 4 Attend the Esala Perahera Festival
- 5 Take the “Tea Train” from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
- 6 Experience the Tea Plantation life
- 7 Hike to the Sigiriya fortress
- 8 Climb to the Pidurangala peak
- 9 Elephants safari at the Minneriya National Park
- 10 Visit to the Dambulla Cave Temples
- 11 Hike to Mini World’s End (Pitawala Pathana)
- 12 Stop at the controversial Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
- 13 Jaffna, the new destination in the north
- 14 Anuradhapura and the ancient Sinhala civilization
- 15 Pareiyan Ella Falls, only for the locals
- 16 Trincomalee, off the beaten path
- 17 Pasikudah – The best beach in Sri Lanka?
- 18 Surfing in Arugam Bay
- 19 The historic centre of Galle
- 20 Relaxing time at the Hikkaduwa Beach
- 21 Whales Watching from Mirissa
You can read also
- Best time to travel to Sri Lanka
- Best areas to visit in Sri Lanka with itineraries
- 10 great itineraries of Sri Lanka
- Travel photography in Sri Lanka – best images and a full guide
- Essential travel guide to Jaffna in the north of the country
- Where to go and how to experience a tea plantation in Sri Lanka
Colombo – hot or not
This is a very common question. Is it worth staying and experiencing Colombo?
Let me be honest with you, on my first visit I was a bit disappointed.
It’s a big busy city, and I was not impressed by my walks. The old centre and the Pettah market were nice, but I could not find anything else to really get crazy about.
But it was my mistake. I did not plan properly my trip to the capital. I rushed it through and I missed the best.
On my second trip there, I decided to spend two days in the capital with an extensive list of experiences to do.
And as a result, I enjoyed Colombo and I would definitely suggest it if you travel to Sri Lanka.
There is one important thing though, you need to prepare a list of things to do and places to visit (attractions are scattered around the city), otherwise you end up like me on my first visit, not enjoying the city.
Based on my trips there, I have prepared a list of 19 things to do in Colombo, with a few hidden gems.
How many days do I suggest staying there? One or two full days will do, either at the start or end of your Sri Lankan trip.
And, by the way, there is an interesting chilled out nightlife too.
You can also check out these 2 suggested accommodation in the Colombo section of my best places to stay in Sri Lanka, including one of my favourite hotels in the country
Negocombo is often seen as the alternative to Colombo when you arrive or leave the country.
It’s a small town, 20 minutes north of the airport with a nice beach and a lagoon too.
I suggest a stay for either the first or last day of your Sri Lanka trip.
There are better beaches than the one in Negocombo, but the location is so practical for an early/late flight, especially if you have already seen Colombo and/or you are not too keen to stay in a city.
It is a chilled out big village with a few attractions to keep you busy for a day, besides relaxing at the beach.
You can easily walk everywhere, which is a great bonus.
Add to your must-do list:
- the beach, of course
- the St. Mary’s Church, a catholic church in the centre of the town
- the local fish market, always interesting for an understanding of the local life
- what is left of the small fort, built by the Portuguese and later used by the Dutch. There is still a tower and a part of the wall. Just behind the fish market.
This is one of my favourite towns in Sri Lanka. It has something for everyone.
Sri Lanka was ruled by kings for over 2,300 years and the last kingdom, located in Kandy, held power till the British arrived in 1815.
The tooth of Buddha is believed to be housed in Sri Dalada Maligawa (the Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy.
Political governance in Sri Lanka has been centred on the tooth relic throughout its history, which explains the importance of Kandy still today
In addition to being one of the country’s greatest religious landmarks, the Temple of the Tooth is also a popular attraction in Kandy and Sri Lanka
In Kandy you should also not miss the local market, one of the best in the country for photography and not only.
And I could keep going with the dreamy lake, the Lord Kataragama Temple, the St. Paul’s Cathedral and, of course, the Esala Perahera Festival (more on this later)
I actually wrote an extensive guide on Kandy, with the things to do and places to visit, which I highly suggest reading before going there.
This organised day tour in Kandy is also a great way to get the most out of the town, especially if you are running short on time
I have also included Kandy in my guide to an itinerary of 10 days in Sri Lanka that you can reach with a direct train from Colombo
Attend the Esala Perahera Festival
The Esala Perahera is known for being one of the most colourful religious processions in Asia.
At the beginning of August, it usually lasts for 10 days and you should consider adding it to your bucket list and planning your trip accordingly.
This iconic festival in Kandy is dedicated to the country’s most prized possession, the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, that is taken out from the temple only on this occasion.
It’s an experience of a lifetime.
My photos are unable to describe the sound of the louder and louder local music and the smell of the oil burned during the procession by the men of fire.
It was suddenly like being in a Kipling’s book, a world so far away and for one night so close to me
You can read more and see other photos in this section of my Kandy attraction guide.
However, the so called Tea Train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is really something else, the best train trip I have ever experienced in my life.
The winding train track goes through hills of tea fields with unique and never ending views.
It is a slow train that will allow you to appreciate the landscape and the people living and working in the fields.
Doors and windows are open for you to hang out (be careful), like described in the best novels of the British Empire.
It is literally like suddenly stepping back in the 18th century.
The trip takes around 3 hours, and the train is popular with both travellers and locals commuting.
You have two possible ways to experience it.
- Join a local organised tour that will assist with the train and they organise a van in Nuwara Eliya to take you back to Kandy. On the way back, you will stop also at the Ramboda Falls and the Blue Field Tea Factory. This tour is a great time saver that will allow you to experience not only the Tea Train but also the landscape and the small villages only reachable by car. Moreover, you will get to see a Tea Factory where you can taste the “real tea”, as it was described to me 🙂
- Do it yourself. The train ticket is very cheap (around $3). If you have time, this is the most economical way to experience such an amazing attraction. Once in Nuwara Eliya, check with a local agency about a trip to a Tea Factory. There are a few of them around town. The DIY way works best if you are not planning to go back to Kandy.
Experience the Tea Plantation life
Sri Lanka has a few Tea Plantation areas that you can visit.
- Hatton, a beautiful green province approximately 2.5 hours away from Kandy and west of Nuwara Eliya.
- Nuwara Eliya, one of the most famous and popular provinces for tea plantations, reachable also with the Tea Train I just mentioned in the above thing to do in Sri Lanka
- Kandy, the perfect alternative if you do not have enough time to visit Hatton or Nuwara Eliya. You can still be based in Kandy and organise a day trip from there like this one including the Tea Train.
- Taylors Hill and Loolecondera, between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, where tea farming started back in the 19th century. James Taylor from Scotland started here the first commercial tea factory in Sri Lanka, called Loolecondera Tea Factory Sri Lanka
Choosing a location is determined more by your travel plans.
It can take three to four hours to drive 100km in this country due to the curvy roads and heavy traffic.
If you plan to stay just a night or two, keep in mind the transportation time.
Lastly, if you’re not travelling by car, you should consider whether the hotel is close to a train station. And in this case, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya are the best locations.
I wrote an extensive guide to choosing a Sri Lanka tea plantation hotel, based on the different locations, with the pros and cons of each choice, including a few suggested accommodations.
Hike to the Sigiriya fortress
The Sigiriya fortress is probably the most famous and iconic destination in Sri Lanka, seating on a massive monolith.
The hike to the top is a must do, right on top of any list, full stop.
Sure, the ticket is not cheap ($30) but the experience in absolutely unique.
On the summit of the monolith, the Sigiriya fortress is isolated and not connected to anything. Inaccessible without a long hike of countless steps, some of them hand-carved in the rock.
Buddhism monks were already using this location in the 3rd century (BC), however King Kasyapa built a fortress on top in the 5th century (AD) and made it the capital of the empire.
It was primarily for safety reasons.
Also in this case, I wrote an extensive guide on the Sigiriya hike as well as other incredible things you can do around.
My quick tip here is to plan your hike as early as possible in the morning, to avoid both the heat of the day and the many tourists visiting this attraction.
The Pidurangala climb is another spectacular thing to do in Sri Lanka.
This is another monolith facing the Sigiriya Fortress, much less popular but as magnificent.
True, you don’t get to find a fortress on top, but the view you get from the peak is probably as striking, if not even better than the one from the Sigiriya Fortress.
Another great thing is that access is a just a small fee (around $3), basically a tenth of the price, great if you travel on a budget
You can read more info and see more photos on my description of the Pidurangala experience.
The Minneriya National Park is very close to Sigiriya, which is great because you can easily kill two birds with one stone
In fact, I highly suggest spending at least 2 full days in the Sigiriya area because there are so many things to do there.
I loved this elephant safari for a few reasons:
- I got to see so many elephants and other wild animals
- It’s so easy to organise
- It must be one of the cheapest safaris in the world, which is always great of course
It does not come with a few drawbacks, of course, of which the most notable one is probably the amount of jeeps entering the park.
I was on a queue for at least 20 minutes (surely something I did not expect in a park), however, it was just to enter the park.
Then the jeeps drive around to find spots with elephants and things are not as busy, but you will not be alone of course.
You can read more on my description of the Minneriya National Park safari experience, including information on organising your trip, prices and the best time of the day.
Dambulla is located 20km (30 minutes) south-west of Sigiriya, on the way to either Colombo or Kandy.
Since 1991, the Dambulla’s Golden Temple has been on the World Heritage List.
A must-see when in the area, this is Sri Lanka’s biggest and best preserved cave temple.
Considering your spare time, you could check out also the other cave temples around the Golden Temple.
In most temples, Gautama Buddha is worshipped and his life is depicted in paintings and statues.
You can read more on the Dambulla Cave Temples, including price and maps of the area.
I must be honest with you, the Mini World’s End is not an easy place to get to unless you rent your own driver (or drive your car)
This is a place located only 60km north of Kandy, however, the winding road made the trip last over 2 hours
You will be rewarded by one of the most beautiful views in Sri Lanka.
The hike from the parking place is 45 to 60 minutes, on a very easy to follow path.
I would suggest the hike to the Mini World’s End if you are on an itinerary of 2 weeks or more in Sri Lanka.
Stop at the controversial Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Should you visit it or not? And why not?
A few bloggers reported that elephants were mistreated at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, however, most of the locals highly rate this place.
So why is this discrepancy?
I visited the place and being an orphanage, you get to see so many cute small elephants and a few adults.
The aim at this place is to help the abandoned small elephants to grow. They would die if left in the wild.
However, I spotted myself 2 elephants chained to a big tree, with the impossibility of moving further than 10 metres from it.
These elephants showed disturbing signs of the chains on their legs. I spent some time investigating what was happening.
I talked with the director and the chief elephant manager that introduced me to a bigger problem, called musth
When an elephant is in the musth (male period), he gets aggressive, he fights, he becomes violent.
Some TV footages show them chasing giraffes and killing rhinoceroses. The elephants in the musth can be really dangerous.
In the wild, they are isolated from the herd.
A problem arises when the environment does not allow isolation, as in this 30 hectare orphanage, or worse, in a zoo. Not enough space.
I did believe the explanation, however, I checked as well with a zoo in Australia, asking also how they deal with that.
You can read more about the place and my investigation on my post of the visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Jaffna, the new destination in the north
Jaffna is a town in the far north of Sri Lanka recently opened to tourism, after a cruel civil war lasted for too many years.
I met some of the most genuine people in the world, all very happy to see a few travellers around (not as many though).
It is a new destination to discover with many interesting places to visit and experience.
You should read my guide to Jaffna with all the information you need for a trip there.
My suggestion is to travel there before this unknown town will be on the beaten path, and it will happen.
This is a must go area if you have 3 weeks or more in Sri Lanka.
Besides Kandy (already mentioned before), Anuradhapura was also one of the ancient capitals.
Not as many people know that Colombo has been the capital of Sri Lanka only since the 19th century
The unique thing about Anuradhapura is that you can find temples, monuments, and sites that are almost intact thanks to its immaculate conservation and preservation.
Anuradhapura has a very interesting history.
It was founded in the 5th century and it became the Sinhalese capital of Sri Lanka for over 600 years, till the South Indian army invaded the area.
The political capital was moved south, and the city was abandoned and lost in the jungle (similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia)
In the 19th century, a group of British researches found it again and Anuradhapura became the Buddhist pilgrimage centre of the country.
A trip to Anuradhapura is very similar to a trip to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, also a big historical park.
The temple area is spread, but it can be easily visited by either bicycle or tuk-tuk.
You can visit the entire area on a full-day, but it is going to be a long day.
I would personally recommend 2 days there, starting your visit with the Abhayagiri Vihara dagobas (bell shaped shrine), Thuparamaya, the first Sri Lanka Buddhist stupa and surely Isurumuniya, a Buddhist temple made of granite and marble, the best viewpoint at sunset time.
This was an amazing finding on my last trip to Sri Lanka.
It was so hard to get there that even my Sri Lankan guide got lost.
The location on Google Map is not 100% exact. There is, however, a local sign you can follow from the main street (B35) that will take you to a tiny parking place.
The last 2km of the road is unsealed and not in great conditions, although I feel it could get worst after the raining season.
Walk down around 200m and you will see a few tiny falls. Follow the river till you see the big Pareiyan Ella fall.
Honestly, it’s not a super tall waterfall, only around 15m, but the remoteness of the place and the total lack of tourism make up for it.
I felt myself like an old day traveller looking for the unknown, sharing the place only with a bunch of locals very surprised to see a western person there.
You can have a refreshing dip in one of the few waterholes on top, or walk under the waterfall for a small lake.
Trincomalee, off the beaten path
Up in the north-east of Sri Lanka you will find Trincomalee, a small town famous for its tranquillity by the beach.
This is another hidden gem of the country where only a few travellers have ventured.
The main attraction is sunbathing at the local beach and having a chilled out time under the sun.
You can find also other things to do, of course, like a visit to the Koneswaram Temple and the Fort area.
You can read and see photos of the area on my post of the attractions of Trincomalee.
Pasikudah – The best beach in Sri Lanka?
In the 70s, Pasikudah was probably the most famous beach resort in Sri Lanka.
It was still in its infancy, however, thanks to its amazing beaches, it started becoming one of the world destinations for hippies and VIPs.
Then the civil war in the north-east of the country started in 1983 and Pasikudah was not anymore accessible.
Unfortunately, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami destroyed the first attempt to resurrect the beauty of the area
I was lucky enough to experience Pasikudah and Kalkudah Beach just before the pandemic and I had such a great time.
Both beaches were absolutely pristine, with Pasikudah Beach being the more developed centre and Kalkudah the wild one, with fishing villages scattered all around.
I am looking so forward to my next trip there, hoping that the local businesses have not been damaged too much by the pandemic.
You can read more on Pasikudah and all the activities you can do there on my guide.
Arugam Bay is one of the best places in the world for surfing, full stop.
The great thing is that there are areas for newby with easy and long waves, on a sandy beach, and more challenging sites for the expert surfers.
It’s a big surfing playground with a chilled out vibe.
I am planning to stay there for a month end of the next year with my 7y old child to practice more surfing together, a destination for adults and families too.
Galle is probably the most famous destination in Sri Lanka.
It should be on anyone must-do list, especially for travellers interested in the history of the country.
The UNESCO listed Galle Dutch Fort is impressive in both size and beauty.
The old town, a maze of small streets and lanes, is another gem of the city, now with almost 100,000 citizens
The lovely cafes all scattered around will offer you the best cappuccinos and lattes in the country
Galle is called the city of Art and although now the rent is too high for local artists to have the own lab and shop, you can still find many galleries rented mainly by photographers and expats.
Then you should visit the Japanese Peace Pagoda, the National Museum, the Dutch Reformed Church and I could keep going.
Although Galle does not have the best beach, it will be easy enough to catch a bus or a taxi for a 10-15 minutes ride to a few great ones, or even to the famous Hikkaduwa Beach (20km)
This is a long, wide and sandy beach between Galle and Colombo, one of my favourite places to stay for a relaxing time.
The area is very popular also with surfing although, personally, I prefer Arugam Bay
I loved my chilled out time there.
The beach is scattered with bars and restaurants serving great fresh local food.
You can rent there also sunbeds, surfing boards and other stuff to have fun at the beach
Plenty of palm trees to make you feeling in paradise.
If you plan to be in Sri Lanka between November and April, you should not miss the whale watching season.
This is the time when the whales migrate from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere.
The water is usually very calm with long small waves in the open sea.
The best spot to start you boat trip is from Mirissa, a town 30km west of Galle, just before the city of Matara.
Agencies and hotels from Hikkaduwa to Galle and Matara offer whale watching as a day trip, with transportation to the port included in the price.
As you can imagine, it’s an early bird start with a 6:00am pick-up.
Once on board, you will have to wait for all the tour operators to arrive with the own customers.
In my case, I had to wait for almost an hour before leaving to the open sea. Well, it is part of the game, I guess.
From there it’s a whole day in the water, so bring sun cream with you and crackers in case you feel seasick.
I had a few people not feeling well on my boat. Dried ginger roots always help me a lot to prevent seasickness.
The reward is the view of these amazing and huge marine mammals.
You need to be lucky too, of course, because the whales come to the surface only for a few dives, before submerging for 20-30 minutes. It is a real waiting game.
Another great thing about this experience is that the price is absolutely a bargain, especially if compared with other parts of the world where you can do whales watching.
You can see more photos of all the activities mentioned in this photo on my Sri Lanka Travel Photography Gallery.