Built right up to the shores of the Indian Ocean, Colombo faces west into the setting sun. Many evenings begin with an explosion of magenta and purple on the horizon that you can share with others at a hotel bar or with the real people along the shore.
The first time you almost get run down by a madman with a cart full of goods in the markets of Pettah, you may regret your decision to come. But soon you’ll be in the chaotic thick of things dodging from stall to vendor with aplomb.
From artwork to tea, you can find unique and desirable goods and gifts in Colombo, especially along the leafy streets of Cinnamon Gardens and in flashy new shopping areas.
Sand for All
From all-inclusive package-tour resorts to former hippy hangouts and little-visited sands, the beaches of the west coast span the entire spectrum and keep everyone happy. Start at the wide strand at visitor-friendly Hikkaduwa and continue to the untrodden sands of Kalpitiya.
Ride the waves and dive the reefs of Hikkaduwa, birdwatch on the marshes, explore the back blocks, see the dolphins in the north, get pampered in a spa and take a boat safari around Bentota.
The beaches around Bentota are home to some breathtaking boutique hotels that rank among the finest in the country. Cheerful Negombo also contains some memorable accommodation. Forget every care on an all-inclusive holiday.
There are beaches here with a real traveller vibe and there are beaches with barely another person in sight, but the uniting factor is that they’re almost all stunning. Unawatuna has never looked better while Tangalla offers what feels like limitless options.
The area between Galle and Matara is arguably the finest slice of surf country in South Asia: Ahangama, Midigama and Weligama are known to surfers everywhere – or should be. Each has its own flavour and vibe.
Monkeys crash through the trees, whales splash through the seas, leopards slink through the night, birds flap through the skies, turtles emerge on the beach and animal lovers can’t stop smiling.
The Hill Country
Hack through jungles, shiver over high plateaus, traipse to vertigo-inspiring viewpoints, tiptoe through tea plantations and walk in the footsteps of gods.
Elephants & More
No other part of Sri Lanka offers such varied wildlife habitats. There are steamy rainforests filled with noisy birds, grassland savannahs ruled by elephants, and highland forests covered in delicate lichens and moss. It's a kaleidoscope of the tiny nation's huge diversity.
Eating in Sri Lanka is rarely anything but a pleasure, but it’s in the Hill Country where the preparation and consumption of food becomes an art form, and the best food comes from your guesthouse kitchen. Creative inspiration abounds in towns like Ella, which are the new traveller faves.
The Ancient Cities
The Polonnaruwa Quadrangle, the ancient quarter of Anuradhapura, the jaw-dropping sight of the rock monastery at Sigiriya: just some of the remarkable ruins ready for exploration. You can feel the mystery and the mysticism.
Sri Maha Bodhi
Amid the leaf-shrouded ruins of Anuradhapura is Sri Maha Bodhi, a tree that has seen history and devotion for 2000 years. Nearby, a welter of temples and monuments will inspire your own devotion. You can spend days here exploring.
Biking the Temples
The ruins of the Ancient Cities are sited within much larger parks and reserves. You can pedal between the wonders along palm-shaded paths and never see a car. Guesthouses have bikes for hire. Polonnaruwa is a great place to start.
Most of the east coast’s endless stretches of beach are untouched, but even those that are developed are sandy wonderlands, with just the right amounts of palm trees, white sands and low-key scenes. Head north from Trincomalee for myriad choices.
Snoozing & Diving
The East generously provides activities to alternate with napping on beach hammocks. The ocean here isn’t just calm and gorgeous, it also has the reefs and wrecks for great snorkelling and diving, and the right waves for surfing, especially south around Arugam Bay.
Kumana National Park
Tucked away in the far south, Kumana National Park doesn’t have the size (or the leopard population) of its neighbour Yala. On the plus side it lacks Yala’s tourist population, which means the leopards, elephants and birds here are all yours.
Jaffna & the North
Off the Beaten Path
All but shut down to travel for years, the North is now one of the best places in Sri Lanka for directionless travel. Roads have never been better, making it easy to discover surprises like the abandoned port at the end of Mannar Island.
Hindu gods and goddesses painted in exquisite riots of colour animate towering and legendary temple gateways all over the North. In Jaffna you can see the moody remains of colonial gems ruined during the war, explore mysterious ruins from a lost kingdom and cavort in a fort.
Islands & Coasts
Seemingly endless coastlines curl around the Jaffna region’s mainland. There's even more to discover amid the startling blue turquoise waters that surround lonely coast roads and causeways. Take boat rides to isolated islands with sublime beauty.