Must see attractions in Sri Lanka

  • Top ChoiceSights in Polonnaruwa

    Gal Vihara

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Uda Walawe National Park

    Uda Walawe National Park

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kumana National Park & Kumana Reserve

    Kumana National Park

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Jaffna

    Jaffna Fort

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Colombo

    Dutch Hospital

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Colombo

    National Museum

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Arugam Bay

    Arugam Bay Beach

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Mirissa

    Mirissa Beach

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Colombo

    Galle Face Green

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kalkudah & Passekudah Beaches

    Kalkudah Beach

    Kalkudah Beach is the kind of fantasy that makes you want to chuck away your return air ticket and lounge forever under the palms. Good roads run inland from the sand and it may not be long before hotels again line the shore the way they did in places before the 2004 tsunami. In the meantime, while there's little shade, it's a delight to explore; just wander along the shore until you find your own private patch of sand. The long, rugged beach is located 34km north of Batticaloa and is adjacent to the more populated and more up-market Passekudah beach, which is enclosed in a sheltered bay 2km to the north. Hotels near Kalkudah Beach Luxury resorts are dotted along Coconut Board Rd and strung out along the extensive Passekudah shoreline, while budget and midrange places are concentrated inland along the Valaichchenai–Kalkudah Rd. For closeness to Kalkudah, Laya Waves is your best bet, located right at the northern end of the sand. Elsewhere, both Nandawanam Guesthouse and New Land Guesthouse are within walking distance of the beach (around 10 minutes and 15 minutes respectively).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Nilaveli

    Nilaveli Beach

    Nilaveli's 4km stretch of sand is considered one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches and with its paradise-island remoteness, swaying palms and golden tinge to the shore, it's easy to see why. As such, it's a surprise that it is so little frequented. A few modest resorts are tucked above the shore line and Pigeon Island, which offers great snorkelling opportunities, is a short boat ride away. Nearby hotels Nilaveli has a number of rather exceptional places to stay scattered along the coast. Two good choices are Nilaveli Beach Hotel and That's Why, both within striking distance of the surf. In the low season some guesthouses close completely and even in high season, the whole strip feels remote. Note that it's not possible to wander from one hotel to another as they are widely dispersed.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Uppuveli

    Uppuveli Beach

    This honey-coloured crescent of sand makes a lovely spot to enjoy life under a coconut tree. Swimming is possible although there are often red flags blowing on windy days, indicating strong currents. The motley assortment of beach dogs may try for a few laughs by snatching your unguarded shirt while you're swimming, but, overall, this is a peaceful spot to rest up for a few days. Hotels near Uppuveli Beach There are many good-value places to stay right at the top of the beach; other attractive options sit just inland, on the road that parallels the beach. Good hotel options right on Uppuveli Beach include Coconut Beach Lodge, Golden Beach Cottages and Blue Sand Beach Resort, which are all situated pretty much on the high-tide line.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Anuradhapura

    Abhayagiri Dagoba

    Dating back to the 1st century BC, this colossal dagoba was the ceremonial focus of the 5000-strong Abhayagiri Monastery. Originally over 100m high, it was one of the greatest structures in the ancient world, its scale only matched by the pyramids of Giza (and nearby Jetavanarama). Today, after several reconstructions, Abhayagiri Dagoba soars 75m above the forest floor. Visually, it's stunning, and your first glimpse of this brick monument through a gap in the surrounding forest is breathtaking.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Polonnaruwa

    Quadrangle

    A short stroll north of the Royal Palace ruins, the area known as the Quadrangle is literally that – a compact group of ruins in a raised-up area bounded by a wall. It’s the most concentrated collection of buildings you’ll find in the Ancient Cities – an archaeologist’s playpen.

  • Sights in Polonnaruwa

    Polonnaruwa Ruins

    For three centuries Polonnaruwa was a royal capital of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. Today's archaeological park is a delight to explore, with hundreds of ancient structures – tombs and temples, statues and stupas – in a sprawling forested core. Although nearly 1000 years old, it’s much younger than Anuradhapura and generally in better repair. You can see the site in a day, and the highlights in half a day.

  • Sights in Sigiriya

    Sigiriya

    Rising dramatically from the central plains, the enigmatic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka's single most dramatic sight. A set of near-vertical staircases climb past some remarkable frescoes to a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation. The spellbinding vistas over the surrounding landscape only add to Sigiriya's extraordinary appeal.

  • Sights in Anuradhapura

    Anuradhapura World Heritage Site

    The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas (brick stupas), ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years as capital of Sri Lanka.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Horton Plains National Park & World's End

    World’s End

    The Horton Plains plateau comes to a sudden end at World’s End, a stunning escarpment that plunges 880m. The walk here is 4km, but the trail then loops back to Baker’s Falls (2km) and continues back to the entrance (another 3.5km). The 9.5km round trip takes a leisurely three hours. Unless you get there early, the view from World’s End is often obscured by mist, particularly during the rainy season from April to September.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Wellawaya

    Buduruwagala

    The beautiful, 1000-year-old, rock-cut Buddha figures of Buduruwagala are the region's biggest attraction. The gigantic standing Buddha (at 15m, it is the tallest on the island) here still bears traces of its original stuccoed robe, and a long streak of orange suggests it was once brightly painted. It's surrounded by smaller carved figures. This remote site is located 9km south of Wellawaya, accessed by a scenic side road.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Tangalla & Around

    Mulkirigala Rock Temples

    Dangling off a rocky crag 16km northwest of Tangalla and nestled away among a green forest of coconut trees are the peaceful rock temples of Mulkirigala. Clamber in a sweat up the 500 or so steps and you’ll encounter a series of seven cleft-like caves on five different terraced levels. Housed in the caves are a number of large reclining Buddha statues interspersed with smaller sitting and standing figures.