A compact, teardrop shaped island, Sri Lanka offers an array of glorious destinations. Explore vibrant cities, and discover revered ancient monuments. Spot wildlife in pristine national parks. Sun, swim and snorkel on palm fringed, white sand beaches. Here are seven of Sri Lanka’s finest.
Soaring dramatically above the surrounding plains, the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya cuts an imposing figure. A steep hike of approximately one hour brings you to the summit of this archaeological treasure and UNESCO world heritage site, located in central Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle region. You’ll climb a series of precipitous stairways carved into the rock, flanked by an enormous pair of lion’s paws (Sigiriya means lion’s rock). En route, encounter a series of time honoured frescoes and murals which decorate the rock face. At the top, along with spectacular views, you’ll find the ruins of an ancient city and landscaped gardens which date back to the 5th century.
The picturesque seaside village of Passikudah lies about 20 miles from the historic settlement of Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast. Cherished for its beautiful white sands and calm, shallow waters, the town offers a good range of upscale and budget accommodation, along with abundant water sports. Enjoy swimming, diving, snorkelling, sailing, and kayaking. Fringed by palm trees, the towns sweeping expanse of bay is protected from Indian Ocean swells by a coral reef, which attracts abundant shoals of fish. Several dive schools operate locally, and equipment hire is available.
On the edge of Sri Lanka’s hill country lies the vibrant city of Kandy, a hub of bustling streets, lively markets, temples and colonial buildings. The city is home to the renowned Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, believed to house the relic of the tooth of Buddha. A major Buddhist pilgrimage destination, the sacred site draws scores of visitors each day. Don’t miss a visit to the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens in nearby Peradeniya. Renowned for its orchids, Sri Lanka’s largest tropical gardens house over 4,000 plant species.
Discover Sri Lanka’s ‘tea country’ on an atmospheric train ride. Take a three hour journey which climbs over 6,500 feet from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. You’ll pass wonderful landscapes of deep valleys, waterfalls, wooded mountainsides, and tea plantations. Look out for Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s revered holy mountain, which towers on the horizon at 7,360 feet. The climate becomes cooler and more temperate as the route ascends. Sri Lanka established itself as a major global tea exporter in the 19th century, and its industry thrives today. Take a guided tour around a traditional tea factory where you can observe processing methods, and enjoy a home-grown cuppa at the end of your visit.
Uda Walawe National Park
Renowned for its population of 500 wild Asian elephants, Uda Walawe National Park is Sri Lanka’s premier destination to observe these glorious creatures in their natural habitat. The park’s vast 30,000 hectare expanse of bush forest and savannah receives fewer tourists than nearby Yala National Park, about 50 miles away. Visit in early morning or late afternoon to avoid busy times. As well as elephants, keep a look out for crocodiles, water buffalo, and bears. You may spot a reclusive leopard slinking in the undergrowth. The park’s expansive reservoir attracts over 100 species of bird including fish eagles, storks and pelicans.
Don’t miss a visit to the Uda Walawe’s Elephant Transit Home, which has been looking after orphaned elephants for 26 years. Over 40 orphaned elephants receive care and nurturing at the sanctuary, until they are ready to be safely released back into the wild.
A colourful mishmash of Chinese, Arab, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch influences, atmospheric Galle is Sri Lanka’s oldest city. This historic trading port today presents a vibrant hub of Arabic and European culture. Roam the cobbled streets lined with galleries, shops and restaurants. Visit the 17th century Dutch fort overlooking the ocean, a UNESCO world heritage site. Admire the juxtaposition of mosques, churches and Dutch colonial architecture. Take a whale and dolphin watching excursion and check out the glorious beaches that line the south coast.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Visit the magnificent cave temples at Dambulla, where a gentle 30 minute walk brings you to a system of five caves filled with 2,000 year old paintings and statues all depicting the image of Buddha. Join a guided tour to explore colourful frescoes and paintings dating back to the 1st century B.C. Admire the 45 foot long reclining Buddha carved from the rock face. As the temple is a religious site, you’ll need to dress accordingly (i.e. ensure you cover shoulders and knees, and remove shoes when you enter the caves).
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com