Visiting Sri Lanka: what are the best things to do and see on the island that is nicknamed the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”?
- 1. Colombo
- 2. Anuradhapura
- 3. Polonnaruwa
- 4. Trincomalee and its region
- 5. Sigiriya and Lion Rock
- 6. Dambulla Caves
- 7. The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
- 8. Nuwara Elijah
- 9. Horton Plains
- 10. Adam’s Peak
- 11. Sinaharaja Forest Reserve
- 12. Uda Walawe
- 13. Galle
- 14. Southern Beaches
Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was an island renowned more for its tea production and spices than for being a top tourist destination in Asia. Since 2009, the date of the end of the civil war which lasted around thirty years, the country has been in the throes of change. It is becoming day after day a destination more and more popular with tourists eager for sun and seaside holidays.
Alongside the superb beaches in the south or east, the country also has many attractions, both cultural and natural. Among these, there are no less than 7 cultural and natural places listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, many places borrowed from the rich history of the island, a number of Buddhist and Hindu temples, lush nature with natural parks and splendid landscapes. “The pearl of the Indian Ocean”, such is the nickname received when it was discovered by Europeans, a nickname which, today, still suits it perfectly.
Here is a list of the 15 places of interest and unmissable visits to do during your trip to Sri Lanka!
Economic capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo does not reflect, with its skyscrapers and its traffic jams, the idyllic image of the island. Despite some flaws, the city is still an important stopover during a stay on the island. It is not distinguished by beaches or hikes but by its past, its heritage and its markets. Founded by the Portuguese, it is possible to distinguish some traces of this history by going to the district of the fort. The city is also famous for its Buddhist and Hindu temples, as well as for the district of Pettah famous for its market and its fruit and vegetable stalls.
Located in the heart of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is nevertheless the cradle of the island. First capital for fifteen centuries, the city is appreciated for its spiritual dimension. Buddhism is omnipresent there. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this site contains, over ten kilometers, a multitude of treasures such as the first stupas of the island and the cutting of the Bô tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
Also located in the heart of the island, Polonnaruwa is the second historic capital of Sri Lanka. The city is known to contain a gigantic archaeological site dating from the 11th-12th centuries which is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are temples, pools, many statues including the four famous Buddhas of Kalu Gal Vihara.
4. Trincomalee and its region
The eastern side of the island has often made the headlines following the years of wars and natural disasters that have occurred there. Today, the Trincomalee area is experiencing a real revival. A few kilometers north of the city, the beaches of Uppuveli and Nilaveli are among the most beautiful on the island.
5. Sigiriya and Lion Rock
Sigiriya and its Lion Rock are the most surprising places of interest to visit in Sri Lanka. Atop this huge ochre-colored monolith that defies the jungle in the center of the island are the ruins of a royal palace. The existence of this strange and ancient capital is the result of virulent opposition within the royal family of the 8th century.
6. Dambulla Caves
Located at the top of a hill, the five caves of Dambulla constitute one of the holy places of Buddhism. They contain an impressive number of statues bearing the likeness of Buddha and some wall frescoes. At the foot of the hill, under the imposing golden statue, is a museum of Buddhism.
7. The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
Surrounded by mountains and hills, Kandy is the last capital of the island to fall into the hands of European colonizers in 1815. Kandy is above all the center of the country. It is also an artificial lake around which it is pleasant to walk and which adjoins the high place of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the Temple of the Tooth. This temple houses one of Buddha’s relics, namely his tooth, which is kept in seven stupa-shaped reliquaries. The tooth is only shown to the public every 7 years; the next time will be in 2015, but expect to queue to get in!
8. Nuwara Eliya
Are we still in Sri Lanka? This is the question we ask ourselves once we arrive in Nuwara Eliya. The highest town on the island (1900 m) is in fact a high station created at the end of the 19th century by His Majesty’s settlers in order to escape the heat of the plains. The city does not benefit from the tropical climate present on the whole island, but from a milder microclimate specific to this region. Here, the beaches, the temples and the elephants are gone, and make way for the tea plantations, the British architectural style and the golf courses.
9. Horton Plains
A few kilometers from Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains is a natural domain named after a British settler, Sir Horton, whose passion was to hunt elephants at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, these high plains are animated by a completely different function: protecting the environment and the often endemic biodiversity. The area offers walks through a bush located at just over 2000m above sea level and which lead to impressive promontories. In good weather, it is possible to see the Indian Ocean located almost 80 km away, and if you are lucky, you may see a leopard!
10. Adam’s Peak
Culminating at an altitude of 2243 m, Adam’s Peak is a sacred place for many believers. Also called Sri Pada, meaning “sacred imprint” in Sinhalese, Adam’s Peak is said to be the last place on earth where Buddha resided. This sacred dimension makes it an important place of pilgrimage on the island. The best time to climb Adam’s Peak is to begin the ascent at night. The 5500 steps swallowed, we reach the top early, just in time to enjoy the sunrise. Another good time to accomplish this ascent is to do it on full moon days (poya day); you then feel overwhelmed by the fervor of the many pilgrims you meet, it’s magic. At the top, and in good weather, you can enjoy one of the most beautiful panoramas on the island.
11. Sinaharaja Forest Reserve
Located in the mountainous and green region of the south-west of the island, the Sinharaja reserve is a tropical forest or rainforest where it is pleasant to walk; but it is better to take a raincoat with you! Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is symbolically considered the cradle of the Sinhalese ethnic group. Alongside this mythical aspect, it is especially renowned for its biodiversity: there are several endemic species, both plant and animal. However, the fauna is difficult to observe there through the imposing green mass.
12. Uda Walawe
Located south of the mountainous region, Uda Walawe is one of the main natural parks of the island. Centered around an artificial lake, the park is renowned for its large number of elephants; there are about 500 of them. Apart from elephants, ornithology lovers will be able to observe many species and varieties of birds.
To go to Galle is to jump back a few centuries in Sri Lankan history and its Portuguese, Dutch and English colonial past. Located in the southwest of the island, the old town of Galle is surrounded by ramparts, like a city fortified by Vauban. The interior of the fort is made up of streets intersecting at right angles, colonial-style houses with red tiles, baroque churches, … Nothing better than a short walk on the ramparts to discover the fort.
14. Southern Beaches
The south coast of the island is made up of a succession of beautiful beaches. This part of the Indian Ocean is sometimes accessible for swimming but it is always necessary to make sure of it, the sea currents there being very dangerous! There are also surf spots like the world-renowned Arugam Bay and sites where turtles come to lay their eggs. The light sand beaches are bordered by rows of coconut palms behind which are a few guesthouses. Heaven ! Among the most heavenly, there are those of Mirissa, Unawatuna, Tangale…
Along with Uda Walawe, Yala National Park is one of the main natural parks on the island. Located in the southeast of the island near Tissamaharama, Yala is home to a very diverse fauna. On board a jeep, you can observe reptiles (crocodiles, monitor lizards, snakes), elephants, deer, peacocks, birds of prey, thousands of birds, and if you are lucky perhaps come across a bear or a leopard.