Sri Lanka, with its original name Ceylon, is a great country marked by centuries of history and the coexistence of two religions (Buddhism and Hinduism). Four different climatic zones affect the island country year after year, enable versatile vegetation and form a contrasting landscape.
Here I present you my best travel tips and highlights of the country. Have fun while reading!
Sri Lanka Attractions: My Top 14 Highlights
The former Anuradhapura Kingdom dates back to the 6th and 14th centuries AD. leave the country with a multitude of cultural treasures, which are now among the top sights in Sri Lanka.
During my trip through Sri Lanka, all these contrasts fascinated me immensely – an experience that I wish you too! Below, I’ll tell you which places you should visit during your Sri Lanka trip and why.
The capital of Sri Lanka – Colombo
Colombo – the capital of Sri Lanka for many centuries served as the port of call for all trade routes between the Western world and the Middle East. From the divided colonial occupation by Englishmen, Portuguese and Dutch a contrasting metropolis arose.
Buddhist temples and statues mingle in the city under glass skyscrapers that tower into the sky next to the old mansions of the capital.
To discover the diversity of Colombo and understand the character of the city takes several days. If you have plenty of time, you can stroll through the bustling lanes of the Pettha Bazaar, admire the Buddhist Gangaramaya Temple or enhance your knowledge of Sri Lanka at the Colombo National Museum.
The latter is not only a (compulsory) attraction for people interested in culture and history but can also help you to get to know Sri Lanka and its inhabitant’s even better before you travel. Also a tuk-tuk tour with local guide * is a fun alternative to walking through Sri Lanka’s capital.
If you have already been to India, then the chaos of the streets of Colombo’s capital will certainly seem very manageable. However, personally, the capital was hectic enough for me to relocate my Sri Lanka trip from the coast to the inland as quickly as possible.
From Colombo you are spoiled for choice: you can travel north, east, south or to the centre of Sri Lanka!
Sri Lanka Attractions: Colombo – the capital of Sri Lanka – is a bustling metropolis full of temples, skyscrapers and contrasts.
The Cultural Triangle
In the heart of Sri Lanka, the royal cities Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy form the famous Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka with all the famous sights and highlights. As former capitals of past kingdoms, each of the cities tells its own story.
With all the impressive ruins, temples and other Buddhist sanctuaries, you quickly lose track and should divide his time in the Cultural Triangle particularly well.
The best starting point for the following attractions is probably the city of Dambulla, which is located about 150 kilometres northwest of Colombo.
Cave Temple in Dambulla
On the outskirts of the city of Dambulla and 72 kilometres north of the city of Kandy lies hidden in the thicket of the jungle, the best-preserved Buddhist cave temple of Sri Lanka.
To reach the entrance gate, you have to climb a few steps, but the effort is worth it twice: In good weather, you can see from the entrance of the Rock Temple over the green rice fields between Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura to the Lion Rock Sigiriya!
Also known as the Golden Temple, this sacred site spreads over a total of 5 caves and houses a myriad of larger-than-life statues from the time of the Anuradhapura Kingdom.
I was impressed not only by the condition of the ancient sanctuaries, but also the extent of the collection: a total of 3 royal statues, 4 gods monuments and 153 (!) Buddha statues are exhibited in the rock temple in Dambulla. For me, the cave temples in Dambulla are a sight that should not be missed on any trip through Sri Lanka!
Admission: 7.50 € (1.500 LKR) | Opening hours: 7.30am – 12.30pm and 1pm – 6pm
Sri Lanka Attractions: The cave temple of Dambulla is worth a stopover.
Ruins of the royal city Polonnaruwa
In direct contrast to the underground caves of the Golden Temple in Dambulla are the ruins of the royal city Polonnaruwa. There is a lot to see in this outdoor museum in Sri Lanka. The distances between the various remnants (temples, columns, Buddha statues, tombs) are therefore relatively large.
To get from one site to another, you can either hire a tuk-tuk driver or rent a bike. Since I explored the ruins of Polonnaruwa early in the morning, I liked the latter particularly well.
At lunchtime, it could be a bit too hot for a bike ride in the blazing sun of Sri Lanka.
·Entrance to the ruined city Polonnaruwa: approx. 17 € (LKR 3.500)
·Opening hours: 7.00 – 17.30
·Price for a tuk-tuk through the royal city of Polonnaruwa: (5 hours): 10 € (LKR 2,000)
·Price for a bicycle (all day): 1.50 € (LKR 300)
The ruins of the ancient royal city of Polonnaruwa are a fantastic sight in Sri Lanka. Make sure you have some time to discover all the treasures there!
The Lion Rock Sigiriya
Many legends entwine around the lion rock Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. But historians seem to agree that the castle was built in the 5th century AD by King Kasyapa. In the struggle for succession, Kasyapa fled from his brother – and then defended his illegally obtained title from the advantageously located rock fortress Sigiriya.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of tourists, Sigiriya was for me an absolute highlight of my Sri Lanka trip. Several reasonably priced accommodations offer spectacular views of the Lion Rocks. For a romantic sunset with Sigiriya scenery on site, it pays to do some research in advance.
For climbing the 200-meter-high UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sri Lanka, I would at least plan half a day and start early in the morning. Although theoretically, you can climb the Sigiriya Rock in about 45 minutes, there are also half-way hidden caves to explore, to admire murals and to enjoy views.
Very impressive and definitely worth a photo is the larger than life, stone lion guarding the stairs to the rock fortress of Sigiriya and giving the place its name (Singha means lion).
Once at the top, one understands why King Kasyapa considered this rock, which was far out of the jungle, safer than the original royal seat of Anuradhapura. It would be easy to spot enemies from here early!
Admission Sigiriya: about 25 € (LKR 5,000) | Opening hours Sigiriya: 7.00 – 17.30
The Lion Rock of Sigiriya is one of the most beautiful sights in Sri Lanka and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cave paintings and the stone lion guarding the entrance to the fortress are just a few of the reasons why visiting the Lion Rock Sigiriya in Sri Lanka is worth it!
Sri Lanka Attractions: As you climb the Lion Rock of Sigiriya, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the surrounding Sri Lanka countryside!
Sri Dalada Maligawa – The Tooth Temple in Kandy
As the name suggests, this Sri Lanka sight is a Buddhist temple in the historic city of Kandy.
The special feature of the temple Sri Dalada Maligawa is the proud exhibit of the tooth of Buddha Gautama. A sanctuary of immense importance in Buddhism: The Buddha’s tooth was once a symbol of the legitimate reign of a king or queen, and was accordingly a highly prized requiem.
Just the idea of such a valuable find lets one enter with special awe in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Women should be careful to wear long pants or bring a scarf to cover their legs. Incidentally, this applies to all temple visits to Sri Lanka.
The sacred tooth of the Buddha cannot be seen as a tourist, but during the prayer time (called puja) you can at least enter the room where the Buddhist sanctuary is kept.
Admission to the Tooth Temple: about 6 € (LKR 1,200) | Opening hours of the tooth temple: 7.00 – 17.30
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is one of the most popular attractions in the country!
Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)
If you yearn for a true physical challenge, you should definitely plan on climbing Adam’s Peak – called Sri Pada – during your journey through Sri Lanka.
The most popular time for the ascent to Adam’s Peak is not without reason before sunrise. Welcoming the rising sun from the top of the mountain is truly the best reward for the arduous hike – but perhaps also the most beautiful hike in Sri Lanka.
Although I often do sports and also like to go hiking, my legs were punished with days of soreness after climbing Adam’s Peak. This is mainly since 80% of the hike consists of steps that climb steeply up the mountain. For the total of 5,500 steps and 2,243 meters up to Adam’s Peak, you should plan at least 3 hours on the way and 2 hours on the way back.
Do not let these numbers put you off! The view from Adam’s Peak is breathtaking, and those who walk in the good company quickly forget to count the steps.
A special Sri Lanka sight- At the latest when the sun rose over the highlands of Sri Lanka I knew: The strenuous climb to Adam’s Peak was worth it!
The train ride from Nuwara Eliya
Who says that sights in Sri Lanka have to be restricted to ancient ruins, Buddha statues and temples? The unbeatable transport in Sri Lanka is the train.
Especially on the highland route between Nuwara Eliya and Ella, you will wish that the journey through Sri Lanka may never end. While sitting in the rattling wagon of this train, legs dangling from the open door and green tea plantations rush past you, you feel so free and easy that you would love to embrace the world.
Trains leave Nuwara Eliya several times a day, but the recommended express train (2.5 hours) runs only once in the morning and once at noon.
Whether you decide on a 1st class, 2nd class or 3rd class ticket depends on your comfort needs.
At least for such a short distance as Nuwara Eliya to Ella, I can definitely recommend the authentic 3rd class experience (no seats, open carriage doors). If you are planning a long train journey or even a night trip through Sri Lanka, you should consider booking a 2nd class ticket or even the 1st class sleeping car.
Ticket prices: 3rd class: 2 € (LKR 400) | 2nd class: 3 € (LKR 600) | 1st class: 5 € (LKR 1,000)
Only rarely do I open a book on a train ride through Sri Lanka. Most of the time, I admire the beauty of Sri Lanka. One of my favourite tracks leads from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. The landscape is incomparably beautiful all the way from Nuwara Eliya to Ella!
Climb to Ella Rock
The beautiful train ride from Nuwara Eliya ends in Ella, a small, sleepy town in the heart of the highlands of Sri Lanka. There is a special attraction waiting for you: The Mountain Ella Rock.
The ascent to the famous mountain Ella Rock is about 10 kilometres long and takes about 3 hours (round-trip).
You start the hike at the station and walk along the train tracks for a few hundred meters. An obvious rock with a blue arrow shows you the way to the final ascent.
The views from Mount Ella Rock to the highlands of Sri Lanka are overwhelming and especially beautiful with the rising sun. However, the path to the viewpoint is not easy to find and to cover this in the dark on your own is not exactly advisable.
The highlands in Ella and Nuwara Eliya are awesome! Everywhere you find rich green tea plantations and after the ascent, you have from the mountain Ella Rock from a great view of the surrounding countryside.
Leopards are watching in national park
Sri Lanka is littered with national parks. Still, it draws most visitors to the 370-square-foot Yala National Park. The reason: the likelihood of seeing leopards in the wild right here is relatively high. If one believes the statistics, one notes in this national park even the largest density of leopard world-wide.
In addition to these fascinating animals, the Yala National Park also features crocodiles, various species of birds and small animals, as well as one of the other herd of African elephants. The Sri Lanka elephant or Ceylon elephant is a subspecies of the African elephant. Unfortunately, the animal is considered extremely threatened for several years.
The Yala National Park is closed from September to mid-October due to heavy rainfall in the south of the country. On my tour through Sri Lanka, I spontaneously decided to pay a visit to the Wilpattu National Park.
For the equivalent of 25 €, I hired a local guide including vehicle and spent several hours of the exciting search for the leopard in the National Park. Although these beautiful animals are really masters of camouflage, we were lucky on the way back to the lodge. A leopard crossed our path at a leisurely pace, wondering why we were staring at her with her mouth open.
The likelihood of seeing a leopard in Wilpattu National Park is much lower than in Yala National Park. However, I can recommend a safari through the Wilpattu National Park, especially if you travel through Sri Lanka during the rainy season in the south (September, October).
In addition to leopards, other animals, such as the Ceylon elephant in Wilpattu Park at home.
Sri Lanka National Park: I’m lucky! In the Wilpattu National Park, a leopard is actually running in front of the lens of my camera!
Beaches in Sri Lanka: Sunbathing & Surfing
Which are just the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka? Choosing between the dozens of paradisiacal beaches of Sri Lanka is no easy task. Fortunately, no beach on the island is the same as the other one, so you may end up opting for the perfect beach.
While the beaches in the south and west of the country are the most beautiful in December to April, you will be better off in the west and northwest of Sri Lanka the rest of the year.
Beruwala is the west
Due to its proximity to the capital Colombo, Beruwala is particularly popular among locals. The bathing paradise in Sri Lanka stretches for several kilometres and the clear, calm water is also ideal for families with small children.
Trincomalee in the northeast
Trincomalee is probably the only beach in Sri Lanka, which is also beautiful or maybe just during the rainy season. While storms rage in southern Sri Lanka, the weather in the north remains largely stable. The otherwise crowded beach of Trincomalee turns into a pleasantly deserted place, especially in October and November.
I visited this beach in September and especially enjoyed the spectacular sunrises with their dramatic cloud formations.
Sri Lanka Attractions: The beach of Trincomalee in the northeast of the island is a lonely tropical paradise in September!
Mirissa in the south
Mirissa has received a lot of visitors in recent years and unfortunately has become almost a small party beach in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the sunsets on the south coast are beautiful and especially for watching whales Mirissa and its neighbouring beaches are ideal.
If you spend several days in Mirissa, you can also make a day trip to the Dutch colonial fortress in Galle. The city of Galle is located in the southwest of Sri Lanka. Both the Galle Fortress and Old Town of Galle are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Arugam Bay in the East
The surfer’s hotspot among the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka is certainly the coast around Arugam Bay. If you are familiar with the surfing culture, you may be surprised that there are hardly any female visitors in bikinis.
The reason: The area around Arugam belongs to the Muslim regions of Sri Lanka – therefore freedom of movement in this place in Sri Lanka is a sensitive topic!
Attractions in the north of Sri Lanka
Less known, but no less fascinating is the north of Sri Lanka. The civil war officially ended in 2014 (fought between the Tamils and the Sinhalese) has long sealed off the north from the rest of the country.
Although the borders between North and South have been opened, tourists are hesitant to venture into this part of the country. The north, therefore, cannot contribute in the classical sense to my list for the top Sri Lanka sights at this time.
Worth seeing are definitely the city Jaffna, as well as Point Pedro, the northernmost place of the island.
What touched me most during my brief visit to northern Sri Lanka is the shy curiosity and frank kindness of the people living here. Anyone willing to discover something different Sri Lanka, I can recommend a trip to Jaffna in any case.
While travelling through Sri Lanka I love to get in touch with locals. The inhabitants of Sri Lanka are especially friendly. In the picture, a few curious school children look at pictures that I have just made of them.
Best Time To Travel Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is permeated by 4 different climatic zones. Therefore, the best travel time depends on your planned activities and sights in Sri Lanka.
The tropical rainforest climate in southwestern Sri Lanka causes heavy rains from April to December, which is why you should visit the beaches of the south coast, as well as the Yala National Park mainly in the winter months.
From March to November, on the other hand, a visit to the north and northeast of Sri Lanka offers the cultural triangle around Anuradhapura, Adam’s Peak and Ella in the interior as well as the tooth temple of Kandy are also pleasant to explore during this time.
Which are the most popular tours in Sri Lanka?
Since Sri Lanka is so incredibly versatile, it is worth planning several weeks for the trip. A roundtrip or organized tour of Sri Lanka can help you get to Sri Lanka’s best attractions in a short time.
Do I need a foreign health insurance for Sri Lanka?
Yes, you need a valid international health insurance for your trip to Sri Lanka.
·For a normal holiday or backpacking trip through Sri Lanka of up to 8 weeks, normal insurance abroad.
·For a long -term trip over 8 weeks you need a suitable long-term foreign health insurance.
Sri Lanka Sightseeing conclusion
Sri Lanka has developed strongly in recent years and has become much more accessible to tourists. Still, the country has not lost much of its unique charm and is still one of my favourite travel destinations in Asia.
The kindness of the people, the cultural remnants of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, the varied landscape and the presence of the majestic leopards – Sri Lanka holds countless grounds and attractions ready for you to board the plane tomorrow!
I hope my tips and information about the most beautiful Sri Lanka attractions have helped you! Have you ever been to Sri Lanka? What were your most beautiful experiences and attractions?
I’m looking forward to your commentary!