The sacred city of Kandy, located in the hills that hug the scenic shores of Bogambara Lake some 100 kilometers northeast of Sri Lanka’s 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 Sri Lanka’s most famous religious celebrations. The ten-day event is amongst the most grand and lavish of Buddhist festivals.
Nestled in the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country, Nuwara Eliya is the country’s most important tea production hub, and thanks to its picturesque locale, it’s one of its 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 like the Queen’s Cottage country house and the Grand Hotel. One of the most popular ways to arrive in town is via a scenic train ride from neighboring Kandy, taking in breathtaking views of the surrounding waterfalls, mountains and tea plantations.
Located on the shores of Sri Lanka’s southwestern tip, Galle is best known for its historic, beautiful Old Town, originally 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. Head to the top of the Old Town’s 18th century Clock Tower for panoramic views of the Indian Ocean and other local landmarks like the stunning Galle Lighthouse, built in 1939.
Around an hour’s drive east along the coast from Galle, Mirissa is a small town boasting 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 amidst the town’s growing tourism industry with many bars and restaurants situated right 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.
Dating back over 2,500 years, Anuradhapura, the former capital of the country from its founding in the 4th century BC, is the oldest city in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle region. Today one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the rich history of Anuradhapura can be seen across the bounds of the ancient city, from its many bell-shaped dagobas, including the 3rd century BC Jetawanaramaya stupa, to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree which, planted in 249 BC, is the oldest documented tree on the planet and said to have grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Located on the northern edges of a huge natural harbor of the same name, Trincomalee is a bustling port city home to both historical sites and plenty of scenic natural spots. Head to Swami Rock, (not only home to the 17th century Fort Frederick, Sri Lanka’s largest Dutch fort, and the beautiful Koneswaram Temple but also said to be one of the best places for blue whale watching in the world) before relaxing on one of Trincomalee’s many picturesque, sandy beaches.
A sleepy little town nestled in a scenic valley in Sri Lanka’s 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 surrounding hillsides. A hike to the top of Ella Rock offers stunning, panoramic views of the countryside, while an hour’s hike south takes you to a beautiful waterfall, the Ravana Ella Falls.
Considered amongst 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 alike, and the annual Kataragama Perehera festival which attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, often from as far afield as Jaffna in the country’s northernmost reaches. For nature lovers, the sacred city makes a great base for exploring the neighboring Yala National Park, a haven of wildlife home to elephants, leopards and hundreds of species of birds.
With four kilometers of scenic, sandy coastline, it’s perhaps no wonder that the beaches of Tangalle are often hailed as the best on Sri Lanka’s southeastern shores. Though Tangalle’s idyllic coastline is no doubt perfect for relaxing, the more adventurous visitor can explore the local waters via a scuba diving trip or witness marine turtles nesting at Rekawa Beach. 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-see.
A picture-perfect tea-growing towns, 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 the surrounding mountains and hills that was the favored lookout for its namesake and estate founder, the 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, while around an hour’s drive westward of town resides the stunning Bambarakanda Falls, Sri Lanka’s tallest waterfall.