Endless beaches, timeless ruins, welcoming people, oodles of elephants, rolling surf, cheap prices, fun trains, famous tea and flavorful food make Sri Lanka irresistible.
The Undiscovered Country
You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Scores of travelers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of uncertainty kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.
Now, however, all that has changed. The country is moving forward quickly as more and more people discover its myriad charms. Lying between the more trodden parts of India and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka's history, culture and natural beauty are undeniably alluring. It's the place you haven't been to yet, that you should.
So Much in So Little
Few places have as many Unesco World Heritage Sites (eight) packed into such a small area. Sri Lanka's 2000-plus years of culture can be discovered at ancient sites where legendary temples boast beautiful details even as they shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks. More recent are colonial fortresses, from Galle to Trincomalee.
Across the island, that thing that goes bump in the night might be an elephant heading to a favorite waterhole. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks encounter leopards, water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
It’s So Easy
Distances are short: see the sacred home of the world’s oldest living human-planted tree in the morning (Anuradhapura) and stand awestruck by the sight of hundreds of elephants gathering in the afternoon (Minneriya). Discover a favourite beach, meditate in a 2000-year-old temple, exchange smiles while strolling a mellow village, marvel at birds and wildflowers, try to keep count of the little dishes that come with your rice and curry. Wander past colonial architecture in Colombo, then hit some epic surf.
Sri Lanka is spectacular, affordable and still often uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.
Rainforests & Beaches
When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride.
And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds. And you're always just a short hop from something utterly new.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sri Lanka.
Part of Parakramabahu I’s northern monastery, Gal Vihara is a group of beautiful Buddha images that probably marks the high point of Sinhalese rock carving. The giant reclining Buddha statue will be familiar to many travellers, having graced the cover of numerous travel guides to the country (and even more Instagram feeds!), but the complex is actually home to four separate Buddha images, all cut from one long slab of granite. At one time, each was enshrined within a separate enclosure. The standing Buddha is 7m tall and is said to be the finest of the series. The unusual crossed position of the arms and sorrowful facial expression led to the theory that it was an image of the Buddha’s disciple Ananda, grieving for his master’s departure for nirvana, since the reclining image is next to it. The fact that it had its own separate enclosure, along with the discovery of other images with the same arm position, has discredited this theory and it is now accepted that all the images are of the Buddha. The reclining Buddha depicted entering parinirvana (nirvana-after-death) is 14m long. The detail here is amazing, notably the subtle depression in the pillow under the head, and the lotus symbols both on the pillow end and on the soles of Buddha's feet. The seated Buddha on the far left has four further Buddhas depicted in the torana (ornamental gateway) above, making this a probable depiction of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. The carvings make superb use of the natural marbling in the rock. The fourth Buddha in the small rock cavity is smaller and of inferior quality.
With herds of elephants, wild buffalos, sambars and spotted deer, and giant squirrels, this Sri Lankan national park is one of the nation's finest. In fact, for elephant watching, Uda Walawe often surpasses many of the most famous East African national parks. The park, which centres on the 308.2-sq-km Uda Walawe Reservoir, is lightly vegetated, but it has a stark beauty, and the lack of dense vegetation makes game watching easy. Elephants are Uda Walawe's key attraction, with around 600 in the park in herds of up to 50. There’s an elephant-proof fence around the perimeter of much of the park, (supposedly) preventing elephants from getting out into areas with a higher human population and cattle from getting in. Elephants can and do migrate into and out of the park along unfenced borders. The best time to observe herds is from 6.30am to 10am and again from 4pm to 6.30pm. Alongside its famous elephant herds, the park is home to mongooses, jackals, water monitor lizards, lots of crocodiles, sloth bears and the occasional leopard. There are 30 varieties of snake and a wealth of birdlife – 210 species at last count; northern migrants join the residents between November and April. Safaris around the park The entrance to the park is 12km from the Ratnapura–Hambantota road turn-off and 21km from Embilipitiya. Visitors buy tickets in a building a further 2km on. Most people take a tour organised by their guesthouse or hotel, but a trip with one of the 4WDs waiting outside the gate should be around Rs 3500 for a half day for up to eight people. Last tickets are usually sold at 5pm. A park guide is included in the cost of admission. These guys, who all seem to have hawk-like wildlife-spotting eyes, are normally very knowledgable about the park and its animals. However, unless you specifically request otherwise, the whole safari can be a rush between one elephant herd and the next, with no time to pause and enjoy the myriad other, equally interesting creatures who reside here. To get the best out of a safari, explain to your driver and guide beforehand that you're interested in seeing things other than just elephants. When you stop at a sighting, ask your driver to switch off the engine so that you can hear the chatter of birds rather than the roar of the 4WD. Also be aware that, as in all of Sri Lanka's more popular parks, there are serious issues with drivers crowding and disturbing the flagship animals. As a rule of thumb – and for the benefit of the animals and the enjoyment of all concerned – there shouldn't be more than five vehicles at a sighting at any one time. If there are too many vehicles, ask your driver to pull back and wait, or better still, go and find something else to look at. Guides and drivers expect a tip. Nearby accommodation and hotels There's a wide choice of places to stay on the fringes of the park. Rates are high, though – expect to pay more than you would on the coast or up in the highlands. Day tours of the park are offered from Ella, Ratnapura, Tissa and many south-coast resorts. However, taking in a tour from these places means you'll be visiting the park in the heat of the day when all the animals are having a siesta. It's far better to spend at least one night here, which will allow you to do an early-morning and an evening safari. Good accommodation options near Uda Walawe National Park include Silent Bungalow, Superson Family Guest and Elephant Safari Hotel.
This 357-sq-km park, once known as Yala East, is much less frequently visited than its busy neighbour, Yala National Park. Consequently, it's a far less zoo-like experience and it never feels too crowded here, even during high season. Yes, the density of animals is lower, but it’s not rare to spot a leopard, along with elephants, crocodiles, turtles, white cobras, wild buffalo and tons of birds. About a dozen bears live in the park, but they’re rarely seen. The park’s best-known feature is the 200-hectare Kumana bird reserve, an ornithologically rich mangrove swamp 22km beyond Okanda. May to June is nesting season. There have been sightings of Sri Lanka’s very rare black-necked stork, but more commonly spotted, even outside the bird reserve, are Malabar pied hornbills, green bee-eaters, blade-headed orioles and painted storks, among others. Watchtowers provide a terrific perspective for viewers, and even a newcomer to bird watching can expect to sight around 50 species of birds in an outing. A pair of binoculars and a field guide to birds greatly enhances the experience. Tickets and other practicalities Enter the park through the main gate near Okanda, 22km south-west of Arugam Bay. Most people arrange a jeep and driver through guesthouses in Arugam Bay (around Rs 10,000 per vehicle for a 3½-hour trip including park fees). These leave before dawn to catch the dawn chorus or at 2pm to make the most of the golden dusk. This is when the landscape is at its most photogenic and nocturnal animals start to pace out from their daytime lairs. It's possible to arrange a jeep from the park office, just inside the entrance. Entry fees are complicated, but include a mandatory guide (who may not speak English but is usually an expert spotter), and cover service and VAT. That said, a discretionary tip for both guide and driver for good sighting is customary. All in all, this DIY approach may be a slightly cheaper option, but in high season jeep availability may not be guaranteed and in low season it does entail some waiting around. There are some modest exhibits at the entrance to while away the time or it's possible to watch birds from the lagoon hide while a driver is summoned from nearby Panama (about 30 minutes or so). Unless travelling on an all-fees-included tour, expect to pay around US$10/5 per adult/child, Rs 250 for vehicle hire and a service charge per group of US$8, plus overall VAT of 8%. We did say it was complicated.
Long the gatehouse of the city, the vast Jaffna fort, overlooking the Jaffna lagoon, has been fought over for centuries. Today you can wander its walls, gateways and moats, see the barracks that once housed thousands of troops and civilians, and view the city from its ramparts. History A fort was originally built in this location by Portuguese colonialists in 1619 during their invasion of the Jaffna Kingdom and was held for nearly 40 years, during which they fought off three Sri Lankan rebellions against their rule. In 1658, the Dutch captured it when they briefly joined forces with the Sinhalese and then used it as a base to consolidate their own power. The Dutch expanded it, and defensive triangles were added in 1792 to produce the fort's defining pentagonal shape you'll recognise from aerial imagery of the structure. However, British colonial powers seized control of the garrison just three years later without firing a shot. Following Sri Lanka 's independence from Britain, the fort became a focal point of the country's civil war between Tamil groups and the the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lankan Government, with government forces using it as an encampment. In 1990 the LTTE (also known as the Tamil Tigers), who were at the time in control of the rest of Jaffna, forced out government troops after a grisly 107-day siege. After the war concluded in 2009, authorities began the painstaking task of restoration, with financial help from the Dutch government. Restoration of the coral, stone, brick and mortar walls is still ongoing. Visiting the fort today Alongside the wonderful views from its walls and ramparts, visitors can check out exhibits relating to the archaeological history of the structure in a room inside the main portal. The entry fee for the fort is US$2 for children and US$4 for adults.
This terracotta-tiled, Dutch-era structure dates back to the early 1600s. Beautifully restored, it's now home to trendy shops, cafes and restaurants. In the central courtyard, surrounded by low, tiled eaves and now populated with stone picnic benches, it's just possible to imagine the hospital in use, with patients lined up on mattresses beneath the stars. History Colombo Fort, of which the hospital is now part, was originally established by the Portuguese, who landed in Sri Lanka and slowly colonised the island during the 16th century. The hospital itself was added to the fort complex by the Dutch after they captured the city from the Portuguese following a seven-month siege in 1656. The hospital was established to serve staff of the Dutch East India Company, both those on-land and those arriving on long voyages from sea – hence the building's location close to the city's port. Upon completion, it was the largest hospital in the country. A canal once ran alongside the building, but it was filled up by British colonialists after they invaded and captured the city from the Dutch. Following Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, the hospital was used as an apothecary and police station before being restored and opening as a bar, restaurant and shopping complex in 2011. Restaurants at the Dutch Hospital Restaurants in Colombo's Dutch Hospital complex include Ministry of Crab, Heladiv Tea Club and T-Lounge by Dilmah, among many others. It's also a good spot for an evening drink, with live music performances in the open-air courtyard on occasion.
Offering a captivating walk through Sri Lankan history, this delightful Colombo museum sprawls across a gleaming white, neo-Baroque building constructed for the purpose by William Henry Gregory, Governor of Ceylon, in 1877. Rooms take you through each of Sri Lanka's historical kingdoms, with display boards explaining interesting details such as the significance of the mudras (gestures and poses) of Sri Lanka's Buddha statues. You’ll encounter all manner of art, carvings and statuary from Sri Lanka’s ancient past, as well as swords, guns and other paraphernalia from the colonial period. There are 19th-century reproductions of English paintings of Sri Lanka and a collection of antique demon masks. Rooms 2 through 5 have the powerhouse displays and are a must before visiting the Ancient Cities and Kandy. Look for the magnificent royal throne made for King Wimaladharmasuriya II in 1693, as well as the 9th-century Bodhisattva Sandals, which resemble two giant bronze feet. Upstairs galleries are devoted to Sri Lankan arts, crafts and culture. In the banyan tree-shaded grounds are a good cafe serving Sri Lankan meals, a branch of the Laksala gift shop and the modest Natural History Museum, with a collection of wonky stuffed animals and skeletons. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets for the National Museum cost Rs1000 for adults and Rs500 for children, or Rs1200 and Rs600 when paired with entry to the Natural History Museum. The National Museum is open every day from 9am to 5pm, except during national holidays.
This long crescent of sand, partially shaded by coconut palms, is as good a reason as any to visit Arugam Bay. In season, its appeal to surfers is obvious but throughout the year it is simply a lovely place to kick back and unwind. The southern half of the beach supports a busy fishing community with wooden shacks for the hard-working crews jumbled together at the top of the sand. At dusk, locals residents gather here for a chat and a paddle. Surf schools and board rental Arugam Bay owes its popularity to its solid surf credentials, and, as such, there are a number of surf schools and board rental spots near the sand. Safa Surf School and old favourite Dylan's Surf Company are two good options, offering board rentals, repairs and lessons. Accommodation near Arugam Bay Beach Most local hotels and guesthouses are located virtually on the high tide line. Many of these family-owned enterprises have a homespun charm and what they may lack in terms of polished exteriors, they make up for in the warmth of their welcome. A few small hotels compete for guests, offering air-conditioning and hot water showers, but given the cool night breezes and the tropically hot daytime temperatures, these conveniences are not wholly necessary. Most guesthouses have shared shady terraces for home-cooked meals. Low-season discounts of 20% to 50% are common. Good options right next to the beach include, Nice Place, Happy Panda and Sandy Beach Hotel.
A vision of tropical bliss, Mirissa Beach boasts powdery pale sand, while its azure water is framed by an arc of coconut palms. The west side is the nicest and has the broadest expanse of sand; as the bay curves gently around to the east it meets up with the roar of the Galle-Matara Rd. Close to the centre of Mirissa bay is a much-photographed sandbar that connects to a tiny island that you can walk to at low tide. The western end also has a reasonable right point break for surfers. The far eastern section of the beach has been lost to coastal erosion and is lined with unsightly concrete sea defences. There's also very little shade on the beach thanks to much of the original fringe of palm trees being chopped down to make way for beachfront cafes and hundreds of sun loungers. Nearby hotels and restaurants Numerous places set up tables and chairs right up to the tide line day and night. Wander and compare which one has the freshest seafood. All are good for a beer; some also serve espresso coffee. You'll find a thicket of good-value guesthouses and modest beach hotels at the west end of Mirissa. Options include Poppies and Surf Sea Breeze, among numerous others. Beware of road noise at the east end of the beach and loud and late music near the beach cafes.
This long open space traditionally faced a narrow beach and the sea. It was originally cleared by the Dutch to give the cannons of Fort a clear line of fire. Today its broad expanses and seaside promenade are a popular rendezvous spot; on most days it’s dotted with kite flyers, bubble blowers, families and canoodling couples, and (especially Sunday evening) food vendors at the southern end along the surf offer up all manner of deep-fried and briny snacks. Try a fresh isso wade, a shrimp fritter with the shrimp still whole and cooked right in, then wash it all down with a fresh lime juice at vendors that include the very popular original (note the many copycats) Nana's. Kids jump from the small pier into the rather dubious waters below. Sunsets here are enjoyed by one and all. Hotels near Galle Face Green Colombo boasts accommodation suited to every budget, and a number of great options can be found within walking distance of Galle Face Green. Good options include Cinnamon Grand Hotel (a 13-minute walk away) for those looking for luxury, Miracle City Inn (formerly Colombo City Hostel) for those on a budget (a 25-minute walk away) and Lake Lodge (a 25-minute walk away) for those somewhere in the middle.
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