Sri Lanka: Top places to visit in the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’

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Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka: Places of Interest
There are several UNESCO heritage sites and Buddhist monuments to explore.

This compact island nation lies in the Indian Ocean, south of India. For a small country, Sri Lanka offers a very diverse set of experiences. It boasts of a wide array of wildlife. Some fine sandy beaches are to be found here; the quiet ones near sleepy towns as well as the more lively ones besides large resorts with all facilities. From the coastal areas, it is not too far to experience misty mountains and lush tea plantations. As for the culturally inclined travellers, there are several UNESCO heritage sites and Buddhist monuments to explore. Wandering around a charming colonial town will suit most tastes.

Let me give you 5 reasons to visit, and show you the top places of interest in Sri Lanka.

Also read: Sri Lanka Highlights: An itinerary for a family holiday

Immerse yourself in the Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka has more than 3000 years of continuous history. The Sinhalese came to this island in 6th century BC, and Buddhism was introduced in 3rd century BC.

There are several sites to visit in the central plains, this area is popularly referred as Cultural Triangle. You can do a day trip to the ancient ruined city of Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka’s longest-serving capital and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Another highlight is the extensive and well-preserved remains at Polonnaruwa; the island’s second capital after Anuradhapura. Dambulla – famous for its 5 cave temples that house fine murals and Buddhist statues – is a worthy attraction as well.

Sri Lanka Places of Interest
Climb 600 steps to see 2 lion’s paws, hewn from the rock at Sigiriya.

A popular attraction in the Cultural Triangle is the rock citadel of Sigiriya. This was the shortest-lived of all Sri Lanka’s medieval capitals. But its dramatic setting – the citadel sits atop a massive rock and towers 200m above the surrounding countryside – makes it a must-visit attraction. Finally, there is Kandy, a famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists, with beautifully carved houses, palaces and temple preserved for nearly 500 years.

Go on a wildlife safari. There is also plenty in the ocean.

Despite its small size, Sri Lanka is part of the top 5 biodiversity hotspots in the world. The Sri Lankan elephant, sloth bear, leopard, sambar and wild buffalo are amongst the large mammals to be of interest to a wildlife enthusiast. The ocean around the island is home to the blue whale, sperm whale and dolphin. The country also has more than 400 species of birds.

Sri Lanka National Park
Sri Lanka has several national parks to see the wild elephants in their natural habitat.
Sri Lanka National Park
Yala National Park has a large variety of birds, besides the elusive leopard and sloth bear.

Make sure you go on a wildfire safari to one (or more) of the country’s 22 national parks. Some of the most touristed parks are Yala, Uda Walawe, Bundala, Minneriya and Kaudulla. Yala is the place to head for leopards (though sightings are rare of these elusive creatures), crocodiles, sloth bears and a wide variety of birds. For wild elephants, take your pick from Minneriya, Kaudulla or Uda Walawe. Horton Plains, a popular national park is a plateau surrounded by some of the highest peaks in Sri Lanka. Whale watching trips start from Mirissa, on the south-west coast of the country.

Do read: The road less travelled in Plitvice Lakes National Park

Find a perfect beach stay

Imagine this: a quiet town where life goes on slowly, lying on a sandy beach with a book, dipping your toes in the ocean, having a sundowner mesmerised as the sky lights up with hues of red, yellow, purple and orange, making a sand castle with your child.

Or, imagine surfing or going whale watching, coming back to a cold beer at a shack with music and laid-back vibes, having fresh seafood, and enjoying the day slip by.

Find a beach stay in Sri Lanka
Whatever your idea of a beach vacation is, Sri Lanka has it.

With nearly 1600 m of coastline, you have plenty of options to choose from. There is Bentota with a wide collection of luxury beachside hotels. If you are headed to the east side of the country, check out Arugam Bay with its fine sand, surf and laid-back atmosphere or visit Trincomalee for secluded beaches. South of Galle lies Unawatuna and Mirissa, both with fine beaches. Mirissa is also the base for whale watching tours. There are kite surfing and dolphin watching to be found at Kilpatiya. If you are looking for a vacation on unspoilt beaches and are not on a budget, Tangalle doesn’t disappoint.

Do read: Beach + History + Food + Nature: 4 awesome reasons to visit Central Vietnam

Lose yourself to the charms of misty rolling hills and tea plantations

The central highlands of the country are filled with stirring mountains and lush green tea gardens. Drive through Nuwara Eliya to see vistas of rolling green landscapes shimmering in the sunlight, mingling with clouds and mist. Nuwara Eliya also referred as Sri Lanka’s ‘Little England’ makes a good base to explore the spectacular countryside and the tea plantations. Or if you are not on a budget, experience a stay at a tea estate itself. Another appealing destination in the hill country is Ella – an English village lookalike – surrounded by green hills and tea plantations.

Sri Lanka Places of Interest
Spend a day or two amidst lush tea hills (Photo courtesy:

Then there is Adam’s Peak – this soaring summit is one of Sri Lanka’s most striking natural landmarks, sort of a miniature Matterhorn where the ascent is traditionally made at night. It is also an essential Buddhist place of worship and has been an object of pilgrimage for over a thousand years.

Wander around colonial towns

Culture. Wildlife. Tea estates. Beaches. Finally, there is Dutch colonial architecture.

Galle, Sri Lanka’s most perfectly preserved colonial town, is a must-visit. Ambling around the car-free streets of Galle – a Unesco World Heritage Site founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century – is like doing time travel. You come upon Dutch-period villas and buildings with original red-tiled roofs.

Visit the ramparts of the Galle Fort in the evening before sunset. Locals and travellers gather there to have a chat, drink a beer and watch the sunset over the Indian ocean.

Then there is Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital where all international travellers begin their journey. it has become a worthy destination in its own right and makes an excellent start or finish to your Sri Lankan adventures. There is Fort with its colonial architecture, Pettah with its crowded markets and the spiffy Galle road.

General information

When to go: It is a tropical country, and the best time to visit is from November to March. There are 2 rainy seasons to bear in mind: North-East monsoon (October to January) that affects the east coast and South-West monsoon (May to July) which mainly affects the west & south coast of Sri Lanka.

There is a great network of hotels, to suit all budgets, and appeal from backpackers to elite travellers and everyone in between. The train network is extensive only in the west and south part of the country. The road network is not bad, and it is still not-too-expensive to hire a car with a driver, if you fancy a comfortable road trip. Most importantly, Sri Lankans are a kind and welcoming lot.

For more information and travel planning resources, check out the following:

Sri Lanka Tourism

Sri Lanka – Lonely Planet

Sri Lanka – Rough Guides

Happy planning! Do read Sri Lanka Highlights: An itinerary for a family holiday

Sri Lanka Places of Interest

Have I convinced you to put the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” on your travel list?

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Author: zestinatote

Hi! I am Shweta, the zest behind this blog . I play several roles – parent to a 6-year old, adventure enthusiast, travel blogger, generally open to trying out new things in life. Besides travel, I love books and theatre and art. I would love to hear from you; do drop a comment. Join me on Instagram / Twitter @zestinatote.

24 thoughts

  1. Our world is such a colorful place, with amazing places on every corner. The Indian ocean is not in my history basket yet, but I’m looking forward…

  2. I’ve had Sri Lanka on my list for such a long time! Your post is pushing it up the priority list. It looks incredible! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad you found it useful. Sri Lanka is lovely in Dec. Although, I would not a chilled-out traveller as you seem to be – if I was travelling in Dec, it would be already booked, else I would be sweating!!

      1. 😁😁 I always end up booking things about fifteen days in advance. I know this is not ideal, but I have another business and this is usually the notice I have.

  3. Since I’m from Hawaii we always look for places to surf around the world. Arugam Bay sounds like a wonderful fit for our beach, surf and sand family. What did you think about the food there? Any recommendations for us foodies?

    1. Wendy, I didn’t venture to the east side at all. In my travels to SL, I stuck to the south, west and central parts of the country. Overall, fresh seafood is available all over the country esp on the coastal areas. There are couple of beaches on the south-west as well known for surfing, but Arugam Bay is supposedly the gold standard. It is a long way to travel from Hawaii though!

  4. Oh wow that looks gorgeous! Thanks for all of the info, I don’t know that much about Sri Lanka, but your post and links are definitely helpful!

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