Sri Lanka is simply lovable. I’m very fond of Sri Lanka – its gentle and lovely people, laid-back lifestyle, rich ancient history and culture, delicious spicy foods and fantastic beaches. As such, I don’t have anything negative to say about Sri Lanka. Whenever anyone mentions this tear-drop island nation in the Indian Ocean, I wish I’m back on the island again.
My first trip to Sri Lanka was in 2009 – barely five months after the civil war had ended – every now and then, our vehicle was stopped at various checkpoints in the city for inspections. It was a whirlwind trip as my friends and I had only four days off from work. I returned to Sri Lanka in 2014 for a longer stay – seven days – to explore some of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Central Sri Lanka. By that time, there were no more checkpoints.
Just recently, a friend asked me for travel tips in Sri Lanka. As I shared my experiences with her, it got me thinking that I should write a round-up post on some of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. If you’re planning to travel to Sri Lanka for the first time or wishing to reconnect with the destination again, stay with me on this post 😊
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But, let’s take care of the formalities first i.e. travel visa.
Most nationalities who visit Sri Lanka (citizens of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles are exempted) have to obtain a 30-day Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) visa. You can either apply for the visa online at their government website or via a visa agency, whichever is preferred by you. The great thing about applying Sri Lanka’s ETA is that no documents are required!
Best Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
Now that the travel visa is out of the way, here are my recommendations on what to see and where to go in this island. Whether you’re a beach bum, wildlife enthusiast, hike junkie or heritage buff, Sri Lanka has all those activities available for you.
Your first port of arrival is the capital city, Colombo and the distance from Bandaranaike International Airport to the city centre is 30minutes’ drive on the new highway (it used to be 90 minutes’ drive on the old roads).
The main attractions of Colombo are:
- Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple – Colombo’s biggest Buddhist temple which houses a huge collection of artefacts ranging from numerous Buddha statues from all over the world along with statues of Hindu deities, old Dutch coins and many other antique collectibles.
- Pettah Market – Pettah Market is the best place to get initiated into the local flavour of life. Pettah Market is the local fresh food and wholesale market where you will find a variety of meat and vegetables, spices and chilies, knick-knacks and fruits. It’s fun to wander around the market (especially in the mornings) to see lots of haggling, yelling and chaos!
- Red Mosque – Hidden in the busy Pettah Market is a striking red and white candy-striped historic mosque. Although tourists call it the Pettah Mosque or Red Mosque, its official name is Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque.
- Old Dutch Hospital – If you long for respite from the mad hustle and bustle of the markets, chill out at the watering holes and restaurants at the Old Dutch Hospital. It sounds weird but the hospital with low-slung tiled roofs and attractive colonnades was the oldest Dutch colonial building in the Colombo Fort area. The building is now converted into a heritage shopping and dining area.
- Galle Face Green – Galle Face Green is an iconic park in the heart of Colombo that runs next to the Indian Ocean. The green is actually my favourite place in Colombo and I highly recommend visitors to come to the green at sundown. The place comes alive with locals taking a stroll along the promenade, families picnicking on the green, children flying kites and bustling food stalls.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
The very mention of this elephant orphanage or conservation project might get your knickers in a twist.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is an orphanage and nursery in Pinnawala village that cares for wild orphaned elephants found wandering in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Established by the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1975, the orphanage is also a captive breeding place for these elephants. When the orphanage was first established, there were only five elephants but through the project, they now have 88 elephants from three generations.
I visited Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage twice – 2009 and 2014 – to see elephants bathe by the riverbank. The elephant and their mahouts marched from the village to the riverbank twice a day. All seemed well, there were many cute moments watching those elephants. Since then, I have always advocated this orphanage for two reasons: the elephants are adorable and the revenues earned from ticket sales are channeled for conservation funding.
However, in recent years, some travel bloggers felt that the orphanage is exploiting the animals for tourism, a few elephants were chained, looking distressed. Without speaking with the conservation experts or researching facts, they have written off this orphanage and advised others not to visit this place. As a result, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is seeing a decline in visitors which means reduced revenues from ticket sales to help fund the project.
Among the list of negative reviews by travel blogs (including those written by bloggers who have not been to Pinnawala!), I found one blog which presented a balanced view of this conservation project based on what he saw, his interviews with the biologist and his own research – Time Travel Turtle.
Please note that Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is neither a zoo nor in Michael Turtle’s words, “an idealistic elephant nirvana” but a conservation project. Perhaps the orphanage can do better by educating tourists about their methods in caring and managing the elephants. addressing concerns raised by foreigners and the overall project. To visit the orphanage or not – the choice is up to you but do read the facts before jumping into conclusion.
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Kandy is considered as the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Stay a few nights in Kandy as a temporary base to explore the city and the ancient UNESCO World Heritage sites located a couple of hours’ drive away.
- Temple of the Tooth – No visit to Kandy is complete without visiting the Temple of the Tooth. The temple is actually a royal palace complex – former palace of the Kandyan kingdom – and it houses the relic tooth of Buddha. The relic is very significant in the politics of ancient Sri Lankan kingdom that whoever holds the tooth governs the country.
- Peradeniya – Just a short fifteen-minute drive from Kandy, Peradeniya is known for the stunning Royal Botanical Gardens which showcase a fine collection of orchids, royal palm trees, 40m-high Burmese bamboo trees, the colossal Javan fig tree and other flora species.
*Also Read: Kandy Guesthouse in idyllic Peradeniya
One of the closest attractions to Kandy is the Dambulla Cave Temple where you will be awed by numerous Buddha statues and impressive Sinhala frescoes in the main five caves.
Sigiriya the Lion Rock
Sigiriya is a massive rock of 600 feet high and on the flat top of the rock was once a palace of King Kasyapa dated back to the fifth century. The king built a gateway to his palace in the form of a lion, hence Sigiriya is also called the Lion Rock in Sinhala.
You can climb to the flat top of the rock, however, do take precautions when climbing the stairs as there are massive nests of wasps close by!
Further up to the north central province is Polonnaruwa, a royal capital of Sri Lanka and a fortress city to defend the kingdom of Anuradhapura from foreign invaders in the 11th century.
Polonnaruwa is a massive site, thus I urge you to allocate about four to five hours to explore. Do bring a hat, a bottle of water and use sunscreen during your exploration as there isn’t a lot of shade in the area. You can hire a driver throughout your exploration as the distance from one ancient ruin to another is relatively far. Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle.
Once you’ve had enough of the heat and ancient ruins, it’s time to head to higher elevation for cooler temperatures.
Ella is situated in a valley at 3,500ft elevation, surrounded by mountains, verdant farmland and tea plantations. You can stay in Ella for a few days to relax and chill, hike to Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arch Bridge and walk through tea plantations to temples, waterfalls and viewpoints.
A must-do in Ella is the scenic train journey from Ella to Nuwara Eliya through mountainous terrain bypassing tea plantations. Do travel in the second or third-class coach where you can sit by the open windows to get the best photo shots!
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Moving on south-west of the island is Galle, a walled enclave surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean. Galle is a historical town comprising Dutch-colonial buildings, mosques and churches, mansions and museums, cafes, boutiques, art galleries, bookshops and heritage hotels. It is a delightful town and easy to explore on foot or bicycle. If I were to come back again to Sri Lanka soon, I would definitely spend a few days in Galle compared to my flying day-trip visit back in 2009!
*Also Read: 8 Historical Truths About Dutch Melaka (Malacca)
For sunseekers and beach lovers, Sri Lanka is one of the best beach destinations in the world – the question is which beach to go?
Just before reaching Galle, there is Bentota on the west coast known for its fine stretch of sandy beach and water activities such as waterskiing, jet skiing, sailing and windsurfing. Unawatuna is the “famous beach” in Sri Lanka located only five kms from Galle but it’s too crowded and not exactly a paradise.
For those seeking quiet beaches, Tangalla in the south is recommended but the fishing village suffered badly from the 2004 tsunami and has not fully recovered since as rebuilding process has been painstakingly slow. However, another beach in the south, Mirissa, is just fine with stretches of golden sands and turquoise water. Its relaxed and laid-back atmosphere is ideal for swim, sleep, read, eat and repeat 🙂
*Also Read: Top Places to Visit in South Goa
There is so much more to explore in Sri Lanka but I hope the places that I have mentioned are good enough to entice you to plan a trip to this island nation. So, what are you waiting for? 😊