Like a jewel dropped into the ocean, Sri Lanka sparkles bright, especially when you have these 10 unforgettable things to do in Sri Lanka. Once named Serendip, then Ceylon, the tear-drop isle might be compact in size, but it heaves with beautiful beaches, UNESCO-listed heritage sites, tea plantations, wildlife, dance, gems, spice, jungles, ancient wonders, Ayurveda and kilo-watt smiles every which way.
Located off the southwestern heel of India, and given this enchanting country’s rapid development, now is the perfect time to visit. I keep returning – I’m a huge fan of this island around the same size as Tasmania. Here are 10 unforgettable things to do in Sri Lanka.
1. Explore the capital of Colombo
To get your bearings, start in the capital of Colombo and join an open-top bus tour with Colombo City Tour. While navigating your way through the bustling traffic, you’ll gain a glimpse into daily life and the juxtaposition of the old town against a backdrop of skyscrapers mixed with temples, including the exquisite Red Mosque, also known as Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid, distinct in its red and white candy stripe. Throughout the tour, it’s hard to miss the 350-metre Lotus Tower honouring the country’s resilience and a flight to the top rewards with panoramic views.
So many temples, so little time, catering to the range of religions living in harmony, including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Established in 1890, the Gangaramaya Temple complex sits on the banks of Beira Lake and includes a museum, a relic chamber filled with dozens of Buddhas sitting in various positions, a Bodhiya tree and a replica of Borobudur. Equally ornate is the Hindu Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil Temple and Koneswaram Temple surrounded by the sea from its rocky promontory.
Built in 1877 and housed in an impressive colonial building, the Colombo National Museum is a fascinating starting point to understanding Sri Lanka’s cultural history and the museum is on the south side of the city’s largest and oldest park, Viharamahadevi Park. Nearby is the air-conditioned One Galle Face shopping centre offering seven storeys of upscale fashion connected to the Shangri-La Hotel. Intrepid shoppers won’t mind getting lost in Pettah Bazaar bursting with clothes, jewellery, Ayurvedic herbs and fresh produce; best avoided early in the morning and evenings unless you’re craving even more chaos.
Take a break from the heat and relax like the colonials on the terrace of the grand Mount Lavinia Hotel in the expat-friendly district of Lavinia. Even if you’re not staying here, you’ll be bathed in crimson at sunset, preferably with a cocktail in hand, bobbing in the pool overlooking the Indian Ocean or you could sample some of Sri Lanka’s prized seafood with the sand between your toes at the Seafood Cove.
2. Indulge in Ayurveda
Legend has it that in the 6th century, Prince Vijaya came to Sri Lanka after being banished from India. He and his personal physician introduced Ayurveda to the island, and soon every village had an Ayurvedic doctor. It’s safe to say the craze caught on as over 6,500 practitioners are registered in one of the oldest forms of healing in the world.
The word Ayurveda literally means “The Science of Life” where ayuh is life and veda is science; rather fitting then that it’s a way of life and is used to treat aches and pains. Ayurvedic centres and spas vary from wooden huts in remote locations to five-star spas catering to the needs of Westerners.
Ayurveda treatments can be as relaxing or intensive as you so desire; either way it promotes positive health, natural beauty, a long life and some even swear it’s anti-aging, and check out what to expect at an Ayurveda retreat in Sri Lanka. With so many to choose from, I have had the pleasure of narrowing it down to Wedagedara Spa (Kandy), Ayusha Weda Madura (Ella), Shine Spa (Sheraton Kosgoda Turtle Beach Resort, by Marriott Bonvoy, click on the image below to redeem your points) and Good Spa Weligama.
Or take it even further with an intensive stay at an Ayurvedic resort such as one of the four Barberyn Ayurveda Resorts (check out my review of Barberyn Beach here) or Siddhalepa Ayurveda Resort in Mount Lavinia (Colombo) and Wadduwa, about 30 minutes south of Colombo. At their Mount Lavinia venue, sample one of their bespoke treatments followed by a delicious and healthy meal at Café Lavinia, prepared by chef Sunil Liyanage, who has spent the last 25 years perfecting Ayurveda dishes for Asian and Western palates.
You might enjoy reading A funny thing happened at the Ayurveda day spa.
3. Visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy
Take one of the most scenic train rides in the world for 115 kilometres from Colombo to the UNESCO-listed city Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-largest city. Set on Kandy Lake, you’ll find the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), one of the most sacred places of Buddhist worship, where you can easily spend hours wandering around.
Believed to have belonged to Buddha, wars have been fought over this relic. Even if you’re not religious, it’s still worth a visit for the temple’s intricate details and serene atmosphere, particularly early in the morning to beat the crowds.
During August, the procession of the Esala Perahera festival honours the sacred tooth, featuring hundreds of Kandyan drummers, dancers and decorated elephants. Kandy is famous for its dancers, so don’t miss a show at the Kandyan Cultural Centre.
Gently lapping at the city’s edge, Kandy Lake is an idyllic spot for a stroll among the wildlife, including enormous monitor lizards, often mistaken for crocodiles and the cause of many a tourist running for cover to the amusement of the locals. While you’re moving those legs, take to the chaotic streets in a maze of colour, shops and tasty food.
4. Explore the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya
About 170km east of Colombo, the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya, a charming town also known as Little Britain, is a favourite spot for expats reigning from the UK craving a reprieve from the heat thanks to the cooler highland temperature. As the mist lifts and the verdant tea bushes weave over undulating hills, you could almost imagine you’re starring in a Dilmah Tea advertisement. Add a visit to one of Damro Tea’s plantations to discover the difference between the tea varieties, join a factory tour and discover what life is like living on a tea plantation.
Stay: Blackpool Hotel where you might even need the fireplace and bath in your room.
5. Go on a safari
Sri Lanka has one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world and witnessing wild animals in their natural habitat is one of the most spellbinding experiences you can have. While on safari in Udawalawe National Park, as the dusty track settled after our jeep’s plume of disruption, an elephant nonchalantly sauntered by with her calf in tow. Her majesty suddenly paused and turned to face our jeep to examine us intensely, leaving us wondering who was observing who while on safari. Our exaltation was palpable until she decided we were no threat to her family. Despite the intense temperature and humidity that day in Udawalawe National Park, I wasn’t the only one who was covered in goosebumps.
Not all safaris are created equal, and I highly recommend joining Niluka Safari for their intimate knowledge of the 30,821-hectare Udawalawe National Park and a fleet of well-maintained open-sided jeeps ideal for spotting over 600 elephants, wild buffalo, peacocks, spotted deers, crocodiles, a wide range of birdlife, monkeys, and on the rare occasion leopards.
Minneriya National Park has the highest gathering of elephants worldwide, as does Yala National Park, where you’re more likely to spot leopards. You might also spot the elusive leopard along with sloth bears, a range of birdlife and reptiles at Wilpattu National Park in the northwest.
Stay: Thuduwa Camp in Udawalawe National Park, where you I promise you won’t be roughing in one of their air-conditioned suites.
Click here for my post about some of the best elephant safaris.
6. Trek to the Nine Arches Bridge
The day before, there were absolutely no goosebumps while trekking about 1.5 kilometres down to the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, between the hilltown town of Ella and Demodara Railway Station. Built in 1921 entirely from rock, cement and brick and spanning 91 metres, the bridge is a prime example of colonial railway construction. This Instagram mecca is especially popular when the train passes over as pretty young things perch precariously on the edge, an activity I don’t encourage for obvious safety reasons but also because you will get a much better vantage point from the surrounding hills. Or you could jump on the train for an immersive experience, something I have planned for my next trip. Avoid visiting during the wet season when it’s muddy and slippery. Here’s another tip, the trail down is picturesque but very steep and uneven and you can take a tuk-tuk at about halfway, followed by a visit to the coconut stands at the starting point for welcome refreshment.
While in the area, keep stretching those calves with an inspiring trek up Little Adam’s Peak or admire it over lunch at 98 Acres Resort & Spa, ziplining, visiting waterfalls (including Diyaluma Falls) and exploring the charming hilltop town of Ella.
Stay: The Orient Hotel Bandarawela is well-placed to explore the region, offers incredible vistas and don’t forget to check out the karoke bar.
7. Flop on a beach
The south coast awaits with its idyllic beaches, outstanding restaurants and relaxing pace. It won’t be hard to spot the foreigners who came for a visit and couldn’t bear to leave. The hippy surf town of Unawatuna hugs the coast and don’t be surprised to find yourself longing for this spot long after your return home. Restaurants and bars dot the palm-tree-lined shore as locals and visitors alike frolic in the waves. Young families should head for the area beneath the temple where the currents aren’t as strong. Nearby are the quieter but equally gorgeous beaches of Tangalla, Weligama and the exquisite Mirissa.
About 90 minutes south of Colombo, Bentota’s beaches are calmer than the south coast, as is Kosgoda Beach, where I recommend staying in one of the ocean-facing suites at the Sheraton Kosgoda Turtle Beach Resort, by Marriott Bonvoy, click on the image to redeem your points.
Tip: The tidal currents are strong and lifeguards are rare, so always take care at the beach and if in doubt ask the locals for advice on where to swim.
Click here for more details about Sri Lanka’s beaches.
8. Wander through Galle Fort
The picturesque fort town of Galle enthrals with its Dutch-colonial buildings, artisans, boutique accommodation, cafes and its tres chic reputation. Unlike most of this region, devastated by the 2004 tsunami, the fort was unscathed thanks to the protection of its walls, and a wander through the winding streets of this UNESCO-listed heritage site will enchant.
Walking around the perimeter and through the entire fort takes a couple of hours, but you could easily lose days in the best possible for the scenery alone – I know I have. Don’t miss the lighthouse (the star of many postcards), museums and churches and some of the best shopping on the island at the many boutiques, gem shops and galleries. Time your visit with a cricket match or the Galle Literary Festival, where you’ll be treated to literary and gourmet events held within Galle Fort and the surrounding region. Check out my story about meeting Candace Bushnell, the author of Sex and the City at the Sex in a Sarong event at the Galle Literary Festival.
9. Explore ancient wonders
No list of things to do in Sri Lanka is complete without the UNESCO-listed Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock Fortress, famed for its erotic frescos of Sigiriya ladies and mirrored wall. Full disclosure, I did visit this iconic rock-top fortress, but my fear of heights prevented me from making it past the feet. From all accounts, this climb isn’t to be taken lightly, with 1,200 steps and a staircase becoming more precarious the higher up you go. Many recommend climbing the nearby Pidurangula Rock for incredible views of Sigiriya and fewer crowds.
However, I spent plenty of time exploring Anuradhapura, the original capital city. Dating back to the 4th century, the ruins, giant stupas and dagobas are some of the holiest spots on the island. The colossal Jetavanaramaya dagoba spans over 233,00 sqm, and the sheer scale dwarfs thousands of annual pilgrims.
After Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the royal capital in the 11th century. Evidence of its significance is still evident today from the well-preserved ruins, baths and stone carvings. I can’t recommend a visit to any of these ancient ruins enough.
10. Try the food
Often compared to Indian cuisine, Sri Lanka food is always spicy and fresh. To give you an idea of how fresh, even the coconut is hand-ground daily, taking my favourite dessert, the coconut pancakes to the next level.
Rice and curry is the national dish, where pretty everything you can think of is curried – even cashew nuts, cucumber and garlic. Since the coast plays such a pivotal role in Sri Lanka, the seafood is superb, and crab curry is a specialty, which you can sample at the Ministry of Crab in Colombo.
Try the thin bowl-shaped pancakes filled with sambal or dhal called hoppers and chopped-up rotti bread with vegetables and/or meat cooked on a hot plate (just listen for the chopping sound) known as Kottu Roti.
One of my favourite dishes I have yet to master making at home is Black Pork Curry, and at every opportunity, I head to The Gallery Café for this tangy curry. On a recent trip, I discovered Nuga Gama in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel serves black pork curry on the buffet. Resembling a village, this restaurant is set around a 200-year-old banyan tree and decked out in fairy lights, it’s a magical spot to dine beneath the stars.
Sri Lankans love their buffets and one of the best I experienced was at S Kitchen at the Sheraton Kosgoda Turtle Beach Resort, by Marriott Bonvoy, and to redeem points click the image below.
I’m also a fan of 39 Bistro & Wine Bar at boutique The Fort Printers hotel in Galle Fort, Dream House in Unawatuna (the best lasagne I’ve tasted outside of Italy) and pretty much any beachside café serving seafood and views.
I’m an incredibly appreciative guest of Sri Lanka Tourism, who I joined in March 2023 with a talented group of journalists and content creators from around the world to spread the word that this intriguing island is open to tourists.
How to visit Sri Lanka:
How to get to Sri Lanka: Qantas has partnered with Sri Lankan Airlines with flights from Perth, Western Australia via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. From the moment you hit the departure gate, you’ll be treated with Sri Lanka’s infamous warm hospitality.
Visas: Australians must apply for a visa online before departure. Once approved, you’ll receive a link to complete your arrival card, ensuring a seamless arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport.
Arriving: Bandaranaike International Airport is in Negombo, and it’s worth noting it’s about an hour north from the capital, possibly more if there’s bad traffic, so you will need to account for this on your way home. Many spend their first and last night in Sri Lanka in Negombo, a charming beach town with several excellent hotels and guesthouses, an old quarter and a lively fish market.
Getting around: One of the best ways of getting around is to rent a driver with a car or tuk-tuk and be prepared to agree on a price beforehand as they aren’t metered. Or rent a tut-tuk for a self-drive adventure – but watch out for the buses that seem to have a death wish. With any of these options, it’s best to research thoroughly and Sri Lanka Travel references some reputable drivers or ask your hotel for a recommendation. Depending on the conditions, traffic can be congested, time-consuming and invigorating. Always allow more time than you think you will need, use a recommended driver and inspect the vehicle (particularly for seatbelts) before negotiating rates.
Tip: Each tuk-tuk is individually decorated inside and take the time to listen to the driver’s tales.
Military: There is a strong military presence, the sight of guns can be a little alarming and there are frequent vehicle inspections; just be polite and it’s worth noting that a smile goes a long way in Sri Lanka.
Climate: Sri Lanka has four seasons – hot, hotter, wet, wetter – so pack accordingly, hydrate and don’t forget to slip, slop, slap. Once you head into the hills, temperatures become milder, so pack a sweater for cool nights.
Health: Sri Lanka is very clean by Asian standards; however, consulting with a doctor before leaving home is highly recommended. The chemists and supermarkets are well stocked with medicines but may not have familiar brands. Clinics can vary and consult with your hotel or consulate on the best treatment if you become seriously unwell. The mosquitos are brutal and insect repellent is essential.
Culture: One of the best things about Sri Lanka is the range of religions living in harmony, including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Their warm hospitality and modesty are a common thread regardless of religion, so please respect this, always cover your shoulders and legs at temples, and save your swimwear for the beach and pool only to avoid unwanted attention.