Top places to visit in Sri Lanka

Top places to visit in Sri Lanka

I’ve made no secret of the fact that one of my favourite family holiday destinations is Sri Lanka. And I’m not alone. It features on top destinations on lists from top publications and you only have to look at the boom in tourists going there (numbers jumped from 381,000 in 1998 to 2.3m in 2018) to realise it’s growing popularity. It got me thinking about the best places to go and the best things to do while you’re there so I asked some of my favourite bloggers to help me come up with some recommendations. I’m doing this as a series so watch out for the others. I’ll also be adding to the post over time so if you have anywhere that you would like to add please let me know! In the meantime, let’s start with the top places to visit in Sri Lanka.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a booking using one of the links on the page I will earn a small commission to help fund my future travels at no additional cost to you. For more information please head over to my The Small Print page.

Colombo 

Jenny Lynn from Travelynn Family recommends starting your Sri Lanka trip in Colombo. If you do choose to spend time in Colombo, make sure you check out her epic guide on what to do in Colombo with kids.

Many people head straight to the beach resorts of Negombo on arrival to Sri Lanka, for a lighter introduction. We wanted to immerse ourselves as soon as possible into Sri Lankan life and so we stayed our first two nights in Colombo. It’s actually one of the most relaxed Asian capitals we’ve been to and we loved exploring it’s history and street food. 

However, do not mistake the relaxed city vibe as backward. Colombo’s economy is booming and modernisation is prevalent as shiny new skyscrapers transform the city’s skyline, towering above villages where you’ll still find the essence of the bygone Dutch colony.

Head to Viharamahadevi Park where you’ll find a superb play area for children, a toy train ride, horse rides, a small aquarium and a wobbly bridge over a small lake where you can hire boats. Then wander around the narrow alleyways of Slave Island, before marvelling the buddahs and ceremonies at Gangaramaya Temple

Finish your day at Galle Face Green, right on the sea front, just before sunset. Watch the colourful kites soaring high and perhaps buy one and join in, before grabbing some dinner from one of the food stalls to watch the sun set. You may even see a snake charmer. Once night falls, treat the kids to some cheap fluorescent-light toys. It will keep them entertained whilst you stroll the length of the seafront, soaking up the atmosphere.

We splashed out on the Galle Face Hotel when we were there for sentimental reasons – Mr Wanderlust remembered it from years earlier when he had been there. It’s a really cool place to stay – it feels like you’re stepping back in time to a colonial era!

Kandy

Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka after Colombo. It’s a busy city so this isn’t going to be your most relaxing destination but there’s so much to do and it’s so central, it’s still a great place to visit.

Some people head straight to Kandy from Colombo before getting the train down towards Ella, heading over to the East Coast or going north to somewhere like Dambulla or Anuradhapura. Others do the reverse and find themselves going through Kandy on there return leg as they head through to catch their flight to Colombo. We did the former and liked Kandy well enough. I’ve heard some people say they didn’t like it and those people have often come from some much more idyllic parts of the country. While not a destination I would spend more than a night or 2 in, I’d still say it’s worth staying for longer than just to pass through. If you are staying, there are plenty of hotels and homesteads to choose from. We were happy to by in The Golden Crown Hotel although it was a little way out of the centre.

The first thing I noticed when we drove through Kandy was the lake. Lake Kandy dominates a good part of the city and it’s proximity to our hotel and the train station meant we drove past it a lot! I love cities that have some sort of water near them as it noticeably reduces my stress levels.

There’s more to Kandy than just sitting by a lake, though. The most obvious has to be visiting Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) which houses a relic of one of Buddha’s teeth. Part of the royal palace, it was built by the Kandyan kings in the 17th and 18th centuries. We didn’t manage to get to the temple as we were only in Kandy for a couple of half days but we did see the Esala Perahera (Festival of the Sacred Tooth) while we were there which was incredibly impressive if a little long at over 4 hours in duration.

If you have more time, consider going to the Peradeniya Botanic Garden which is located just outside Kandy and / or going to one of the many Kandyan dance and drum shows. We really enjoyed just wandering around the streets and exploring the town while we looked for somewhere to eat.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya was a place that really surprised us. I was worried that we were biting off more than we could chew dragging the Things up there but they absolutely loved it! It summed up the whole holiday really. You can read more about why we love Sri Lanka in my 2019 family destinations post.

Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, is an ancient rock fortress near the town of Dambulla in the centre of Sri Lanka. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site it is well worth a visit. The fortress itself was built on top of a huge rock by King Kasyapa during his reign which lasted from 477 to 495 CE. In fact, it is widely recognised as one of most important urban planning sites of it’s time.

We were in two minds about whether or not to go to the area as we had originally planned our trip around Kandy and the surrounding area. We also desperately wanted to do an elephant safari while we were in Sri Lanka. So when we realised we could do both in the area, it was an easy decision to make!

Stay the night before in Royal Retreat Sigiriya Camping Site so you can get an early start rather than driving in from elsewhere. It’s a 20 minute drive from the main hotel though so plan accordingly!

The ticket office opens at 7am and I’d recommend an early start to avoid the heat and the crowds! Once in the grounds, head through the stunning gardens (among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world) and towards the bottom of the rock.

Here you must decide if you want to see the frescoes on the wall or if you will go straight to the top. We decided to see the frescoes, thinking that the path would take us up towards the summit anyway. While it doesn’t take you away from the summit, it is basically a detour so make sure you’re all prepared for the extra steps. They are really quite incredible paintings, though, so if you can manage it I would highly recommend it. The Things weren’t as impressed with them as we were but they were big fans of the rickety spiral staircase we had to go up to get there (I was NOT!!!) Note: families with bigger Things should have no problem with this addition.

Once past the wall paintings, head to the steps to start your climb to the top. There are around 1,200 steps in total but there are several places to stop and have a rest. Make sure you have plenty of water with you and look out for all the monkeys as you climb! The Things loved doing this and it was a great distraction for them.

A great place to stop is at the large terrace where you will find Lion Gate. Lion Gate is really the entrance to the fortress and it was nice to catch our breath as we took in our surroundings and the beautiful views.

Even more rickety than the stairs to the wall frescoes are the stairs to Sigirya fortress! The Things thought this was hilarious. Needless to say I did not. At the top they enjoyed scrambling over the ruins and exploring all the different parts of the fortress. It doesn’t take an expert to realise when you get there that it’s a remarkable archaeological site. The planning and layout are just so impressive! The views at the top are staggering and will take your breath away too.

Take your time to look around – all those steps have to be climbed down too! Then head in to Sigiriya town (village) for some delicious Sri Lankan food.

Yapahuwa

Wendy Werneth from The Nomadic Vegan raves about going to Yapahuwa. I loved hearing about it – especially the part where she mentions that it’s not on the usual tourist trail!

While Sigiriya is the most famous rock fortress in Sri Lanka, Yapahuwa is also definitely worth a visit. It’s built in a style similar to Sigiriya, rising up nearly 100 meters from the jungle that surrounds it. Unlike Sigiriya, though, Yapahuwa is not that well known among most visitors to Sri Lanka. If you do make the effort to get here, you’ll have a good chance of having the place pretty much to yourself.

The site is quite ancient, and a Buddhist monastery was first built here as long ago as the 3rd century BC. Its zenith came much later, though, when King Bhuvanekabahu I moved his capital to Yapahuwa in the 13th century and brought the sacred tooth of the Buddha here. This is the most holy relic in Sri Lanka and is the same tooth that is now housed in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

The beautifully decorated staircase is the most striking of the various structures that make up the ruins of Yapahuwa. An image of the staircase even decorates the 10 Sri Lankan rupee note. The lions carved out of stone that sit on both sides of the staircase bear an obvious Chinese influence. If you climb the staircase, you can then continue your climb up to the top of the rock, where you’ll see the ruins of two Buddhist stupas.

There’s a little shop at the entrance to the site that sells basic Sri Lankan snacks, but you’ll need to go to the nearby village of Maho to find proper restaurants and homestay accommodation.

Ella

Sarah Carter from ASocialNomad suggests heading to Ella. She and her family loved hiking in and around the area. If you’re looking for a bigger challenge than Sigiriya, Adam’s Peak and Little Adams Peak are always popular recommendations in my favourite travel groups. Check our Sarah’s post for more information on hiking in Sri Lanka.

Deep in tea country and reachable on the gorgeous train through the country, Ella is a wonderful spot to spend a few days chilling out in Sri Lanka.  The hiking here is glorious and varied.  It’s possible to hike to the top of Little Adam’s Peak and to wander through tea plantations.  The more famous hike here, though is to Ella Rock.  

It’s a great hike to take, setting off along the railway line, listening out, of course, for oncoming trains, where you’ll need to hop off the track and wait for it to trundle past.  The views here, once to reach the tops of all the trails around Ella are spectacular.  

Ella is also a great place to stay with a local – homestays are big business here – you’ll get a private room and usually a private bathroom and be offered the opportunity to eat your meals with the family and even take cooking classes – it’s a big eye opener on how the delicious Sri Lankan food is put together from scratch with some very basic cooking facilities!

Ella is a gloriously located place to visit in Sri Lanka, surrounded by verdantly green mountains, with easy to hike trails, friendly people and fabulous food.  It’s well worth putting on your Sri Lanka itinerary.

Galle

Katja Gaskell from Globetotting loves Galle for its history and for the way it feels like a normal destination. Katja also has a great post on things to do with kids in Sri Lanka if you’re looking for more inspiration.

Sri Lanka is filled with incredible places but one of our favourites is Galle Fort. Originally built by the Portuguese in 1588 the fort was later extended and fortified in the 17th century by the Dutch. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important example of the European influence in South East Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries. It’s a beautiful place to explore, filled with colonial houses and cobbled streets.

Start your tour at the lighthouse near which cliff divers sometimes perform tricks into the sea. From here you can walk clockwise around the top of the old ramparts until you reach the old bastions where you might spot a game of cricket being played. Visit at sunset and dozens of kites fill the skies. Afterwards, stroll along the narrow streets filled with pretty boutique hotels, charming shops, dozens of cafes and some very good restaurants.

What’s really interesting about Galle, however, is that it’s still a functioning community and not just a carefully preserved tourist destination. Spend any time here and you’ll spot kids on their way to school, parents on their way to work and locals going about their daily business.

If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka then make sure to include Galle on your itinerary. 

Where is your most favourite place in Sri Lanka?

Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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