11 Reasons Why You Should Visit Sri Lanka

Downtown Colombo, the commercial capital and largest city in Sri Lanka by population | © Buena Vista Images / Getty Images
Photo of Naveedh Samad
3 February 2021

The tropical climate, beautiful beaches and incredible food of Sri Lanka are just some of the many reasons to include the South Asian country on your travel wish list. In this island nation known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, you can learn of its ancient history by visiting the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya in the Cultural Triangle, witness a giant gathering of Asian elephants in Minneriya National Park or catch some waves at Arugam Bay or Hikkaduwa.

Sri Lanka is a great place to visit for water sport and wildlife enthusiasts and a haven for history buffs. As well as a guide to some of the best things to see and do in Sri Lanka, we’ve picked a selection of places to stay to help you put together your travel plan.

A tropical climate all year round

Sri Lanka experiences two monsoon seasons which affect different parts of the country during different months. This means that, at any given time, travellers can expect a sunny climate somewhere on the island. The southwest monsoon is between May and July, which leaves the north rain-free, and the northeast monsoon is between October and January, which leaves the south ready to be explored.

Make the most of the weather with a stay at one of the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

Mirissa Beach is recommended for those looking to soak up the sun in peace | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Amazing food

Sri Lanka is blessed with a distinctive cuisine flavoured with exotic spices. The famed rice and curry spread includes an intense and fragrant lentil and chicken or fish curry with rice and vegetables on the side. The fish curry is highly recommended by locals. Kottu is a popular street food of Tamil origin with chopped roti flatbread and usually egg, meat, vegetables and salna — a spicy sauce on the side — and is not to be missed. Make sure you try egg hoppers too.

A dish of kottu being whipped up, a popular Sri Lankan delicacy | © Łukasz Szczepanski / Alamy Stock Photo

Rare land animals

Sri Lanka boasts 26 national parks and two marine parks. The most well known of them, Yala National Park, has the highest density of leopards in the world, 215 species of bird, mugger crocodiles and other reptiles, while the coastline bordering the park is a nesting spot for five species of sea turtle. Adjacent to Yala is Udawalawe National Park, home to herds of elephants and rare birds such as the changeable hawk-eagle and the serpent eagle.

You can spot leopards in Yala National Park | © Stefan Jacobs / Alamy Stock Photo

Pigeon Island attracts many travellers looking to experience the marine life surrounding the island. The reef off the island consists of about 100 species of colourful corals and up to 300 species of reef fish, making snorkelling in these waters an incredible experience.

Glorious beaches

Sri Lanka has some of the most pristine coastline in Asia, with many unspoiled sandy beaches with palm trees and turquoise waters. Mirissa is recommended for those looking to soak up the sun in peace, while Unawatuna is better suited for those in the mood for beach parties. For adrenaline junkies, Bentota, with its water activities such as kitesurfing and para-cycling, is the place to be.

Make sure you check out the 10 best beach resorts in Sri Lanka to help you decide where to stay.

Serene Mirissa beach is great for getting away from the crowds | © Matteo Carta / Alamy Stock Photo

Whales and dolphins

Sri Lanka is probably the only place in the world where you can view a species of both the world’s largest land mammal, the elephant, and the largest water mammal, the blue whale. Five species of whale, including the blue whale and the minke whale, are regularly seen in the seas off Kalpitiya. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot spinner dolphins too. The peak months for whale watching in Kalpitiya are between January and March.

A whale sighting off Kalpitiya | © Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Alamy Stock Photo

Gorgeous landscapes and hiking trails

Sri Lanka’s abundance of flora and fauna means that it has beautiful nature trails, with stunning vistas and waterfalls, misty mountains rising into the clouds, hillsides covered with paddy fields and tea estates and the occasional peacock or deer crossing your path.

A waterfall near the city of Nuwara Eliya in the tea country hills of central Sri Lanka | © Jaromír Chalabala / Alamy Stock Photo

For beginners, the Demodara Rail Hike in Ella is a great option that takes hikers past Nine Arches Bridge, a colonial-era viaduct. More experienced hikers should consider going to Kirigalpotha or the Knuckles Mountain Range, widely regarded as the most beautiful hiking trail in the country.

To make the most of all the things to do in Ella, you should book a stay at one of these hand-picked hotels.

Super surfing

Easy access to the waves, the great number of sand-bottom breaks and the ever-consistent swells have made Sri Lanka a popular surfing destination. Arugam Bay is arguably the best spot for surfing and regularly hosts international competitions such as Red Bull Ride My Wave. Not only does it have the best swells, but the wide range of choices means there are plenty of options for both novices and experienced surfers. Many other coastal towns, such as Hikkaduwa, offer great surfing opportunities too.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Hikkaduwa, check out this list of the best hotels for every traveller.

The swell at Hikkaduwa, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular surfing destinations | © Marius Dobilas / Alamy Stock Photo

Millennia of Buddhist heritage

Buddhism has played a key role in the country over the centuries and there are several ancient temples dotted throughout Sri Lanka. These centuries-old places of worship often feature inspiring architecture and designs that were far ahead of their times. The most well-known example is the Temple of the Tooth, though the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, which has a bo tree from the original Sri Maha Bodhi in India, and Ruwanwelisaya, are also must-visits.

Sri Maha Bodhi, a major Buddhist religious site in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka | © Rob Pinney / Alamy Stock Photo

Intriguing colonial history

Dubbed Little England, Nuwara Eliya is a sleepy town in central Sri Lanka’s tea country hills. Full of colonial-era buildings and bungalows, Tudor-style hotels and well-manicured hedges and gardens, Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of a town from a bygone era and though small, it offers plenty to see and do. You can drop by the massive Gregory Lake for water activities and a lakeside barbecue, or visit Horton Plains, a beautiful grassland with rolling plains, waterfalls and the dramatic escarpment known as World’s End.

A stay in the 19th-century Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya is recommended.

Nuwara Eliya is known as Little England | © Photiconix / Alamy Stock Photo

An elephant get together

During the months of May to September, the retreating banks of a 1,700-year-old reservoir make for the most astonishing sight. Around 400 Asian elephants gather by the lake at Minneriya National Park to feed, socialise and frolic in the water. It is thought to be the largest gathering of this species of elephant in the whole world. The park has plenty more to see in the form of deer, purple-faced langur monkeys and a variety of birdlife.

A giant group of Asian elephants like this gathers at Minneriya National Park each year | © Thomas Wyness / Alamy Stock Photo

The Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is a treasure trove of ancient cities, relics and religious monuments showcasing Sri Lanka’s early civilisation. The triangle consists of the area between three cities – Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Visitors can find Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress, the cave temples of Dambulla and Mihintale, which is the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There are also lesser-known but culturally important attractions such as Yapahuwa, a medieval citadel which was briefly the capital of Sri Lanka in the 13th century.

There are a range of places to stay in the Cultural Triangle, from boutique hotels in Kandy to hotels in Dambulla.

The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya is one of the landmarks of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle | © marcos alvarado / Alamy Stock Photo

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