Sri Lanka's Most Beautiful Towns and Cities

Visit Back Bay beach in Trincomalee to see the catch of the day being hauled off fishing boats
Visit Back Bay beach in Trincomalee to see the catch of the day being hauled off fishing boats | © paul kennedy / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Helen Armitage
2 September 2021

From picture-perfect beaches to beautiful tea plantations in rolling uplands, Sri Lanka is a haven of scenic spots and locales. We take a tour of the most beautiful towns and cities in the country, from coastal hamlets such as Mirissa to the sacred city of Kandy.

Kandy

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Colonial architecture on the main road, Kandy, Sri Lanka
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Kandy, in the hills that hug the scenic shores of Bogambara Lake some 100km (62mi) northeast of the capital Colombo, is a Unesco World Heritage site and haven of traditional culture. The focal point of the city is the Temple of the Tooth, a beautiful structure dating back to the 16th century and one of the most sacred sites in the Buddhist faith. Each August the city streets come alive with the Kandy Esala Perahera, one of the most well-known religious celebrations in Sri Lanka. The 10-day event is among the most grand and lavish of Buddhist festivals. For a luxurious experience, book a stay at one of the best boutique hotels in Kandy. You can also visit with Culture Trip by joining our specially curated 12-day Sri Lanka adventure, led by our local insider.

Nuwara Eliya

Forest, Natural Feature
Map View
Landscape view tea estate, Nuwara Eliya, Central Province, Sri Lanka, Asia
Courtesy of Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

In the heart of the hill country, Nuwara Eliya is the most important tea production hub in Sri Lanka, and thanks to its picturesque locale, one of the best-loved destinations to boot. Though its name translates as City of Light, Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as Little England, a reference to the city’s colonial past, still evident in 19th-century structures such as the Queen’s Cottage country house and the Grand Hotel – where you can spend the night. One of the most popular ways to arrive in town is via a scenic train ride from neighbouring Kandy, taking in views of the surrounding waterfalls, mountains and tea plantations.

Galle

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Galle old Town on a sunny afternoon
© Viktor Karasev / Alamy Stock Photo

On the shores of the southwestern tip, Galle is best known for its beautiful Old Town, built by Portuguese settlers in the late 16th century, before being extensively fortified during the 17th century by Dutch colonialists. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the best-preserved sea forts in South Asia. You can visit with Culture Trip on our action-packed small-group Sri Lanka trip. Head to the top of the 18th-century clock tower for panoramic views of the Indian Ocean and other local landmarks, including the stunning Galle Lighthouse, built in 1939. Here are some of our favourite places to stay in Galle for every traveller.

Mirissa

Natural Feature
Map View
The Main street of Mirissa, one of Sri Lanka top beach destinations.
Courtesy of Maciej Bledowski / Alamy Stock Photo

Around an hour’s drive east along the coast from Galle, Mirissa is a small town with a scenic, sandy stretch of beach fringed with palm trees and home to a succession of quaint guest houses and modest hotels. A buzzing nightlife scene has sprung amid the growing tourism industry, with many bars and restaurants on the water’s edge, offering gorgeous sunset views. For visitors who prefer their trips more nature-based, the waters off Mirissa are also a prime spot for whale and dolphin spotting.

Anuradhapura

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark
Map View
The great seated Buddha at Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Alamy Stock Photo

Dating back more than 2,500 years, Anuradhapura is the oldest city in the Cultural Triangle region. Today it’s one of eight Unesco World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka, displaying its history in bell-shaped dagobas, including the third-century BCE Jetavanaramaya stupa, and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree which, planted in 249 BCE, is the oldest documented tree on the planet and is said to have grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Trincomalee

Natural Feature
Map View
Shiva statue Koneswaram Kovil Hindu temple, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, Asia
Courtesy of Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

On the northern edges of a huge natural harbour of the same name, Trincomalee is a bustling port city home to both historical sites and plenty of scenic natural spots. First head to Swami Rock – home to the 17th-century Fort Frederick, Sri Lanka’s largest Dutch fort; the beautiful Koneswaram Temple; and some of the best blue whale-watching opportunities in the world. Then relax on one of many picturesque, sandy beaches – stay right next to one at Jungle Beach by Uga Escapes.

Ella

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Main Street in Ella, Sri Lanka
© Oliver Förstner / Alamy Stock Photo

A sleepy little town nestled in a scenic valley in the Sri Lankan hill country, Ella is a peaceful retreat a world away from the country’s bigger, bustling metropolises. Take a tour of the nearby Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory and plantations to learn about and sample Sri Lanka’s most famous export, and make sure to explore the hillsides. A hike to the top of Ella Rock offers panoramic countryside views, while an hour’s hike south takes you to a beautiful waterfall, the Ravana Ella Falls. If you are looking for a place to stay in Ella, there is plenty to choose from. A variety of homestays and mountain lodges are ready to be discovered. Check out the best hotels here.

Kataragama

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Buddhist pilgrims during a celebration at the Buddhist part of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya temple
© Hilda Weges / Alamy Stock Photo

Considered among the most holy of all Sri Lankan destinations, Kataragama is home to the Maha Devala temple, a multi-religious sacred site visited by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, and the annual Kataragama Perehera festival, which attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, often from as far afield as Jaffna in the northernmost reaches of the country. For nature lovers, the sacred city makes a great base for exploring the neighbouring Yala National Park, a haven of wildlife home to elephants, leopards and hundreds of species of birds. Fully immerse yourself in the park with a stay at one of these hotels.

Tangalle

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Tropical beach with fishing boats, Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Oliver Förstner / Alamy Stock Photo

With 4km (2.5mi) of scenic, sandy coastline, it’s perhaps no wonder the beaches of Tangalle are often hailed as the best on the southeastern shores. Though the idyllic coastline here is no doubt perfect for relaxing, more adventurous visitors can explore the waters via a scuba diving trip or witness marine turtles nesting at Rekawa Beach, while staying at one of the hotels in the area. For history and archaeology buffs, a trip to Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara, an ancient Buddhist temple perched high on a rock northwards of the town, is a must.

Haputale

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Tea plantations around Haputale, Sri Lanka
© Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Alamy Stock Photo
Haputale is the location of the Dambatenne Tea Estate, one of the country’s longest-running tea plantations and home to Lipton’s Seat, a scenic spot with gorgeous views over mountains and hills – a favoured lookout for estate founder, Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton. Other local points of interest include the beautiful 19th-century Adisham Bungalow, built in the Tudor style and nestled within the bounds of the Thangamale Bird Sanctuary. Around an hour’s drive westward resides the stunning Bambarakanda Falls, the tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka. Dream Cliff Mountain Resort will make for an unforgettable trip to the area.
These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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