Sri Lanka is a beautiful tropical island country in South Asia. Laying southeast just beneath India in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is a hidden gem with beaches, palm trees and wonderful fruits to eat. We will discuss visiting Sri Lanka’s best things to see and do on vacation.
With a total population of 21.67 million people. The people in Sri Lanka are very kind to tourists. The tourism industry is relatively new and people are more than happy to have a new business. Sri Lanka is just like most other developing countries and there are still growing pains. So as a tourist, you also need to BEWARE of people trying to scam the innocent visitor.
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is still developing compared to places like Thailand, Bali, or even India. It is still a developing country and wifi and the internet is not always accessible or reliable. It might be a good idea to take a guide book along with you. Book a tour here to Thailand or Bali.
Travel Insurance if Traveling in the near future
As we are all concerned about traveling after the Coronavirus and we all need to take precautions when traveling. We have used travel insurance a number of times and we recommend buying travel insurance. We also recommend buying travel insurance that has Cancel for any reason. This provides medical coverage if needed and you can cancel for any reason.
If you are planning to travel in the near future, you need to purchase travel insurance. This is a must right now. Remember two things when you are purchasing travel insurance. I recommend travel insurance through Travel Guard. The link will look like the picture below, make sure to select Cancel For Any Reason so you are covered if you need to cancel.
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Where is Sri Lanka located?
Sri Lanka is located on the Southern tip of India. It is an island in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is located in Southeast Asia, west of Thailand. If you are looking at a globe, Sri Lanka is barely noticeable on a map. It is just just a small dot at the bottom of India. Sri Lanka’s location makes it the perfect place for a tropical vacation.
The capital of Sri Lanka is Colombo, this is also the largest city in the country. Sri Lanka’s capital is on the southeastern side of the island. You will most likely fly into Colombo.
Sri Lanka Map
Getting to Sri Lanka’s best places
You will fly to Colombo International Airport from any international airport. If you are coming from Europe, Australia, or the United States you will probably transit through another Southeast Asia city, such as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, or beautiful Singapore. We always recommend considering a stopover in one of these cities to make your trip even more enjoyable.
Sri Lanka Visa
Upon arrival, you will need a Tourist Sri Lanka Visa. It is easy to get a Sri Lanka Visa in advance online, or you can get one at the airport. We recommend doing it online here to avoid waiting in line for hours.
The cost of a Sri Lanka Visa is around $20 USD for a tourist visa and $72.00 if you will need a business visa. Most of the tourist Sri Lanka visas are good for 30 days. So you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy your vacation in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Currency
What is the currency in Sri Lanka? The Sri Lankan currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. (This is different than the Indian Rupee that is used in India). At the airport, you will need to exchange your money to Sri Lankan Rupees.
Once you are out of the airport, there are many banks in the country that will accept your debit cards if you need to get out more cash. You will pay a transaction fee for drawing money out of your account no matter where you take money out in a foreign country.
Transportation in Sri Lanka
There are many transportation options in Sri Lanka. If you want to adventure on your own, you can rent a car or take the popular motor scooters. Make sure to get your international driver’s license before leaving your home country.
There are many taxis or Tuk-tuks waiting to take you where you want to go. Before you get into a taxi or Tuk-tuk make sure they are metered, or you have negotiated the price beforehand. This is a good time to haggle, drivers will start high and you will need to try to get them to lower their price. We also like to take Tuk-tuks if it is going to be a short ride. They are not very comfortable for long distances.
In the Colombo and Negombo area, you may take Uber or Pick Me. Private drivers can also be arranged. This is a great idea even when you want to go out of the city. Many hotels will even give drivers a free room when you pay for a room.
Hiring a driver in Southeast Asia is much less expensive than you think. Typically you can hire a driver with a car for under $50 USD per day. One of the best places to look is on Klook. You can read reviews on each driver and book directly on Klook’s website. Plus they have great rates! Make sure to read reviews so you find the best driver for you.
Taking the Bus
Once you are in a major city you can arrange to get around by train or bus.
If you are going to take the bus, we suggest looking for the AC bus. The regular busses have no air conditioning and they get very hot. The buses that have air conditioning are the minibusses. This typically costs between $2-4 per person for each ride. If you are going to take the minibus, you have to have a seat. There is no standing room. You can buy your tickets on the bus.
For the standard buses you do not need a ticket in advance. Most tickets cost less than $0.50 per person for each ride. You can buy your tickets with the driver on the bus. These buses can get crowded since they do allow passengers to stand on these busses.
Taking the Train in Sri Lanka
When visiting Sri Lanka’s best destinations there is no better way to see the country than by train. This is one of the most fun Sri Lanka transportation options. Not only is it very affordable but an amazing experience.
One of the train routes through Sri Lanka is considered to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the entire world. A train ride from Kandy to Ella goes through lush landscapes and stunning tea plantations. The mountain views and old rails and bridges are worth this ride.
What a great way to see a sight by walking along the train tracks. You get to the Nine Arches by walking around 2-3 km along the train tracks from Ella train station, which is a great experience walking through tea plantations. The nine arched bridge which is just outside of Ella is a real sight with rain forest on one side and a tea plantation on the other side.
You can book that exact tour with Tourradar here. Most trains in Sri Lanka don’t go fast. But in some parts of the country is still one of the only ways to get around. Remember the train in Sri Lanka is time to sit back and relax, enjoy the scenery!
Tips for taking the train in Sri Lanka
You can buy your train tickets at the train station. Plan to buy your tickets one or two days before you take the train.
If you take the train, we suggest taking 1st class. You pay a little more, but you have air conditioning and an assigned seat. The price difference is worth it if you would like to travel in comfort.
2nd class you have an assigned seat but no air conditioning. You can open your window but on a hot, humid day it can be uncomfortable. 3rd class, good luck on finding a seat because it can get crowded. It also only has basic facilities.
Pack a few snacks and water, there is not a snack bar on the train. Make sure to carry cleansing wipes and hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean. Make sure your phone is charged or you have an external charger. I love this external charger from Amazon, it charges super fast.
**Pro-Traveler Trip: If you are looking to capture one of the fun/stunning photos hanging out the window with the beautiful green hills in the background, you will need to book a 2nd class ticket. The 1st class windows don’t open as it is air-conditioned.
Visiting Sri Lanka’s best things to see
Kandy – the 2nd Largest city in Sri Lanka
Kandy is a large city in central Sri Lanka also known as the City of the Kings. It is located almost in the center of Sri Lanka, just east of Colombo. This beautiful city is set on a plateau surrounded by mountains.
The city of Kandy was able to maintain its rich culture because they were never invaded by early settlers. Kandy remained independent until 1815 when it finally succumbed to British rule. Because of this you will kind more traditions and a richer culture than most of Sri Lanka.
The gorgeous mountains that surround Kandy are home to tea plantations and biodiverse rain forests. Before Colombo, Kandy was the last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka.
At the city’s heart is scenic Kandy Lake, which is popular for strolling. Kandy is Sri Lanka’s undisputed historical and cultural capital. If you want to experience the “True” culture and people of Shi Lanka you need to visit Kandy. Book a tour to Kandy here from Colombo.
There are many great things to see in Kandy, let’s take a look at visiting Sri Lanka’s best things to see in Kandy.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa)
You will see the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth house as you approach. The tooth of the Buddha is an important Buddhist relic. This is the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka. This temple holds the Tooth of Buddha and is heavily guarded to protect this important relic.
Buddhists and tourists alike offer prayers and offering in this sacred temple. You will quickly notice the grounds and relics are heavily guarded. Unfortunately, you don’t get to see the tooth, as it is secured in a gold casket in the shape of a Stupa.
When visiting this temple, try to arrive in the morning. The temple does get very busy between tourists and worshippers. Remember to be respective to others as they worship and pray. Make sure to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and legs. Also, make sure to remove your shoes.
Temple of the Tooth Hours and Tickets
- Tickets for adults are around $8 USD.
- The temple grounds are open every day from 5:30 am to 8:00 pm.
Celebrate with the Grand Esala Perahera
Kandy Esala Perahers is also known as the Festival of the Tooth, held annually in July and August in Kandy. This amazing festival is a parade with elephants, jugglers, and dance troupes to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.
This is one of Sri Lanka’s best celebrations to be a part of. If possible, plan your trip to go in July or August so you can take part of this amazing parade.
To observe the pageant, you can arrange seats from hotels or restaurants on their balcony, for a fee, of course. There is no cost to watch from the street but arrive early to claim a good spot. This will get crowded so if you do not pay for a balcony, be prepared for lots of people!
The Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya
Established in 1843 with plants brought from other parts of Sri Lanka and as far as London. These gardens were originally only available for royals. Lucky for us, the sprawling gardens are now open to all, locals and tourists come to visit these beautiful gardens.
The gardens include more than 4,000 species of plants, orchids, spices, medicinal plants, and palm trees. The gardens are spread out over 147 acres.
You’ll want to visit the beautiful avenue that is lined with Royal Palms. This definitely an Instagram worthy spot. Stop at the Orchid Garden to see the numerous types of beautiful orchids. Don’t miss the unique Cannonball tree, planted by King George and Queen Mary on their visit to Sri Lanka in the early 1900s.
The Royal Botanical Gardens Hours and Tickets
Every day 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, some Saturdays they are open till 7:00 pm. The best time to visit the garden is actually in the afternoons around 4:00 pm.
Tickets are around $20 USD for an adult and $10 USD for a child. If you are planning to take a camera into the gardens for pictures, they will charge you more.
It is easiest to book a tour that includes the Royal Gardens, they will have a guide that will show you all the best spots in the Gardens and explain the Gardens to you. You can book a Kandy tour with TourRadar here.
Explore Old Town Kandy Streets and Markets
Get into the hustle and bustle of the number of markets and busy streets. This is where business, trade, and shopping happens. The sounds and smells of business and local food fill the air here. You can find delicious local food here or have some shirts or suits make with their number of textiles.
Kandy is a fun town to wander the streets. This town is so colorful and the streets are always bustling with activity. Take a walk from Kandy Clock Tower to Colombo Street. This is the best walk in Kandy!
The best market for souvenirs and local gifts is the Main Market. This is located in the center of Kandy. This market can be an adventure. I would not recommend going alone to this market, it can be very busy, and the sellers often overprice items for tourists.
Another great market for more produce and organic food is called the Good Market. It’s a great place to spend a Saturday morning. This is a colorful and fun market. You will find lots of produce and local goods.
Sigiriya – Lion Rock
A couple of hours north of Kandy, still in the middle of Sri Lanka, you will find one of Sri Lanka’s best and most visited sites, The Lion Rock. Sigiriya is located between the towns of Dambulla and Habarana.
An ancient rock fortress built by fifth-century King Kashyapa, who ruled the native Sinhalese dynasty. Formed from magma of an extinct volcano and is 200 meters higher than the surrounding jungles. The rock formation stands out in the green landscape. You can book a tour to Lion rock here.
Hiking Lion Rock
The only way to truly understand the magnitude of this rock is to climb it. The hike up to the top of Lion Rock can be strenuous as shown in the picture to see the frescoes. If you have a fear of heights you should avoid this hike as you are teetering on the edge of the rock. On the small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock King Kashyapa built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion.
Be prepared as it is incredibly hot and humid in Sri Lanka. Here are 13 essentials that we pack when traveling and from living in Southeast Asia. For his hike, we recommend a water bottle and a small fan to stay hydrated and cool. Make sure to drink a lot of water!
Once to the top, you will be rewarded with King Kasyapa’s storied views over the valley and to the mountains in the distance. At the top, you will see the royal thrones and remnants of an ancient irrigation system. You will easily see why this is one of Sri Lanka’s best places to visit.
Dambulla Royal Cave
About an hour and a half north of Kandy, you’ll find Dambulla Royal Cave. Dambulla Royal Cave is also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka.
The temple is built into five caves under an overhanging rock, containing paintings, statues, and wall murals. Here you will find 157 statues of Buddha and many additional paintings on the wall and ceilings. These temples have been used for over 22 centuries and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Dambulla Royal Cave Hours and Tickets
The cave is open every day from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. The ticket counter closes at 5:00 pm. The tickets are about $8 USD. You can buy your tickets at the base of the rock.
To enter the temple, you do need to make sure your shoulders and legs are covered. This is for everyone boys and girls 🙂
Minneriya National Park
Another great day trip from Kandy and by far one of the best things to visit in Sri Lanka is the Minneriya National Park. It is located about 2 hours northeast of Kandy.
” Large numbers of Sri Lankan elephants are attracted to grass fields on the edges of the Minneriya Tank during the dry season. The Great Elephants gathered here is numbering around 150-350, which is the largest wild Asian gathering in the World” They eat, play & bath at their native environment.” – minneriyasafari.com
This national park is one of the best places in the country to see wild elephants, which are often present in huge numbers. Seeing these giant animals gathered in real life is something that will take your breath away. It is a gorgeous sight!
You can also see other animals such as: monkeys, sambar deer, buffalo and many other birds and reptiles. In order to enter the National Park, you need to purchase an entrance ticket and hire a guide, which can be done at your hotel or park entrance.
You can pre-book a tour here with Klook. I’d recommend booking your tour in advance so that you don’t have to worry about a thing once you arrive. Klook or your tour agency will take care of the tickets and everything else for you.
When is the best time to visit Minneriya National Park?
To see the large gathering of elephants you will want to visit in the dry season. The dry season runs from April to October. During the dry season, you will see the elephants gathering in the pools of water that are still left. I’m telling you all, this is worth it!
But if you do visit during the rainy season, there is still a good chance to see large numbers of elephants together just not the 200 to 300 that you would see in the dry season. Either way, this park is beautiful and you will not be disappointed.
Polonnaruwa vs. Anuradhapura
By now you probably have been pleasantly surprised by Sri Lanka but it just continues to get better. Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are 2 of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals. These two locations rival each other for the best ruins in Sri Lanka. Both highlight and represent the booming civilization around the 12th century.
If you have the time to visit Sri Lanka’s best archeological and historical sites, you will want to try and fit both into your schedule. Here is a look at each ancient capital and you can decide which one to visit or plan your schedule to fit both.
Polonnaruwa – visiting Sri Lanka’s best ancient capital
Polonnaruwa is the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms. It was established in the 10th Century after the invasion of the country’s then-capital Anuradhapura which was the first ancient Sri Lankan kingdom.
Polonnaruwa for centuries was the royal capital and religious center. Here you will find a number of temples and other religious buildings. When the capital was moved from Anuradhapura the reason was that it was as a strategically better place to be to protect themselves against attacks from the Ruhunu Sinhalese on the southeastern part of the island, and my favorite, there were fewer mosquitoes.
The ruins of Polonnaruwa have scattered over 4 milometer area but is a smaller area than that of Anuradhapura. Here are some of the must-see ruins to visit in Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa’s best things to see
- Big Buddha Lankatilaka (Standing 17 meters, 51 feet tall)
- Shiva Devale (The oldest building in Polonnaruwa, around 1070)
- The Swimming Pool (Located on the corner of the Palace grounds)
- The Royal Palace (the first ruins you meet)
- Audience Hall (One of the best-preserved, hand-carved elephants line the walls)
- The Vatadage (a circular relic line is the best-preserved example of vatadage in Sri Lanka)
- Pabalu Vehera (This dagaba is is in great condition)
- Rankot Vihara (The largest dagaba in Polonnaruwa, and the 4th largest in Sri Lanka)
Polonnaruwa’s Ticket Prices and Hours
You can only buy tickets at the museum, which is about 10 minutes away from the Ancient Ruin Gate. So make sure to buy them at the museum before heading to the ruins. Tickets are around $35 USD. (Pretty expensive but well worth it.)
Polonnaruwa’s opening hours are the same everyday 7:30 am to 6:00 pm.
Anuradhapura – Visiting Sri Lanka’s ancient capital
According to historical records, the city was founded around the 3rd Century BC and some archaeological data puts this ancient city back as far as the 10th century BC. It is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. But old doesn’t mean that it isn’t one of Sri Lanka’s best places to visit.
This world UNESCO site was hidden in dense jungle for many years but now has been preserved.
There are four main areas to visit at Anuradhapura: Mahavihara – considered the spiritual center, Abhayagiri Monastery – Where many of the ancient ruins lie about 2000 years old, the Citadel – about 1000-year-old ruins are located here, and Jatavanarama– has a huge stupa or dagoba, ad large Buddhist monument. This visiting Sri Lanka’s best ancient ruins.
Top places to visit in Anuradhapura to see
- Thanthirimale – is about 40 kilometers from Anuradhapura and is a sacred Buddhist place.
- Padeniya Raja Maha Viharaya
- Ruwanwelisaya (One of the largest Stupa/dagobas in Sri Lanka and one of the most prominent places to visit here)
- Monastery of Jetavanaramaya (One of the largest monasteries in Anuradhapura. Around 10,000 monks call this monastery home.
- Gal Vihara (is a rock temple of the Buddha that was carved in the 12th century.
Anuradhapura’s Tickets and Hours
Tickets for Anuradhapura are about $25 per adult. Children ages 6-12 are half price.
Anuradhapura is open every day from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm. I would recommend going first thing in the morning. The weather gets very hot and I don’t like to tour in the heat so I like to get up and go early.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
If you didn’t get enough elephants at Minneriya National Park, you will want to spend some time at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. This is the largest elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. Here you can book your private tour to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
Pinnawala has the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. It is an orphanage, nursery, and captive breeding ground for wild Asian elephants to continue to grow the herds.
At Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage you will get a chance to milk feed the baby elephants (this is so awesome), feed fruit to the others, walk and even bathe with them in the river. This is a once in a lifetime experience and when visiting Sri Lanka’s best experience.
It truly is amazing to be so close to these majestic and huge animals. You can see why the Thai people in Thailand treat them like royalty.
Most sanctuaries or refuges do serve a purpose to injured elephants. And elephants that have been mistreated in logging camps or riding camps. Many of these places are not perfect but without them, many elephants would not survive.
I will caution you on which Elephant Orphanages or sanctuaries you visit. Since many of them do not treat elephants with great care. This goes throughout all of Southeast Asia, just need to do your homework and research before going to one. But our experience at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was positive.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage’s Hours and Tickets
To enter the Pinnawala Orphanage without a tour, the ticket prices are around $16 USD per person. I would recommend booking a tour for this experience. So you don’t miss any of the fun things to do.
The orphanage opens at 8:30 am everyday. They feed the babies with bottles at 9:15 am, 1:15 pm, and 5:00 pm everyday.
If you’d like to bathe with them make sure to make an extra pair of clothing. Bathing times in the river are at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm.
Trincomalee & the white sand beaches
Let’s head to the East coast of Sri Lanka now! Trincomalee is a little town on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. If you are a beachgoer or just enjoy a good white sand beach you will want to add Trincomalee for visiting Sri Lanka’s best beaches.
Trincomalee spans more than two and a half thousand years. It is one of the oldest cities in Asia. It has been a maritime seaport since its beginning. Trincomalee is home to major naval and air force bases. Some have described it as the “finest harbor in the world”.
Besides the beautiful beaches like Nilaveli Beach, other things to do and see in Trincomalee are temple visits, surfing, scuba diving, fishing, and even whale watching.
Other notable destinations when visiting Sri Lanka’s best sites
Galle Dutch Fort
This beautiful Fort is located on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. It was built-in 1588 by the Portuguese. Then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century.
This fort has served as a prison, camp to incarcerate Sinhalese natives who opposed the Portuguese. The British took over the fort in 1796 until Sri Lanka became an independent nation in 1948. This charming fort is the largest fort in Asia and definitely worth a spot on your Sri Lanka bucket list.
Nuwara Eliya has a picturesque landscape and temperate climate. It is at an altitude of 1,868 meters (6128 feet) and is considered to be the most important location for tea production in Sri Lanka.
The city is overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is known for its temperate, cool climate, the coolest area in Sri Lanka. It also has Botanical Gardens and tea factories to visit. It also sits on the edge of Horton Plains National Park.
You have to try the fruits in Sri Lanka
Mangoes, papayas, pineapples, King Coconuts, wood apple, red bananas, green oranges, rambutans, 29 varieties of bananas, mangosteens, durian, jackfruit, lychee, and the list goes on and on of some of the most delicious and amazing fruit in the world.
Pick up your favorites at a local market for the freshest fruits. But Sri Lanka is so much more than amazing fruit, just like the unique lychee or mangosteens, Sri Lanka is unique.
Don’t forget a Gem or two
Natural gemstones found in Sri Lanka, including Sapphires, Topaz, Ruby, Moonstone among many others. Often times you can get rare gems from Sri Lanka for a lower cost than in your home country.
What to Pack to Sri Lanka
- A Lifestraw water bottle. You can not drink the tap water in Sri Lanka. This water bottle will filter any water and make it drinkable. You can even fill this bottle up from a river and it will make it safe to drink.
- Mosquito protection is an absolute must. We recommend some form of wear mosquito protection such as a sticker or a wearable bracelet.
- Lightweight clothing, it is hot and humid all year round.
- Comfortable walking shoes that you don’t care if they get wet.
- If you are coming from a different time zone, I would recommend packing Melatonin to help you sleep at night so you waste any time during the day. If you are traveling with your kids, they will definitely need melatonin for the flight and to adjust to the new time zone. Here is my favorite melatonin for kids on Amazon.
- For girls~ make sure to take some tissues for the bathrooms. Also, pack your own feminine products for the trip.
- In Sri Lanka, the electric outlets are like the UK outlets so don’t forget your converters! This is my favorite universal converter that also has multiple USB ports.
For all the essentials that you need to pack to go to Sri Lanka, visit our post on the essentials when traveling to Southeast Asia.
Wrap up on visiting Sri Lanka’s best things to do and see
This tiny island nation, the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” the land of the ancient kingdoms is the perfect place to get lost. Immerse yourself in a different culture and way of life.
With some of the longest standing history in the world, there is still so much to discover. The people are some of the most gentle and kind people we have ever met in all of our travels and livings abroad.
Sri Lanka has something for everyone beaches and surf, history and ruins, religion and temples, nature and hiking, animals and fresh fruit. Take the time to discover this still underdeveloped but rich in everything island.
If you are a little nervous to venture on your own we recommend booking a tour. This 7-day tour will get you visiting Sri Lanka’s best things to do and see. Book here if you are interested in going to Sri Lanka.
About the contributing author: Crystal Luke, along with her husband lived in Kandy, Sri Lanka for 18 months. Immersing themselves in the culture and traditions in Sri Lanka. Some of Crystal’s favorite places she has been around the world are Japan and Malaysia in Asia, France, and Switzerland in Europe and Toronto and Yellowstone in North America.
Contributing Photos: Luke Kenyon, also known as Luke Travels the World on Instagram share’s his amazing adventures traveling the world. For more wanderlust inspiration please follow Luke on Instagram.