Sri Lanka's 10 Most Beautiful Towns and Cities

Fishing boats unloading their catch on Back Bay beach in Trincomalee
Fishing boats unloading their catch on Back Bay beach in Trincomalee | © paul kennedy / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Helen Armitage
2 February 2021

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


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

Kandy, located in the hills that hug the scenic shores of Bogambara Lake some 100km 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 well-known religious celebrations. 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.

Nuwara Eliya

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

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 – 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.


Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
GALLE, SRI LANKA - MARCH 227, 2015: Old Town on a sunny afternoon
Old Town Galle | © Viktor Karasev / Alamy Stock Photo

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, including the stunning Galle Lighthouse, built in 1939. Here are some of our favourite places to stay in Galle for every traveller.


Natural Feature
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Mirissa, Sri Lanka - December 25, 2019: 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 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 amid the town’s growing tourism industry, with many bars and restaurants 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.

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

Dating back over 2,500 years, Anuradhapura, the former capital of the country from its founding in the fourth century BCE, 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 third century BCE Jetavanaramaya stupa, to 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.


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

Located 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. Head to Swami Rock – home to the 17th-century Fort Frederick, Sri Lanka’s largest Dutch fort, and the beautiful Koneswaram Temple and 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 – stay right next to one at Jungle Beach by Uga Escapes.


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

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. 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.


Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Bandarawela  Sri Lanka August 02 2017 -  Buddhist pelgrims during a celebration at the buddhist part of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya temple com
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 country’s northernmost reaches. 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.


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

With 4km 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, 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-see.


Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Tea plantations around Haputale, Sri Lanka
Tea plantations around Haputale | © 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 the surrounding mountains and hills that was the favoured 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. Dream Cliff Mountain Resort will make for an unforgettable trip to the area.
These recommendations were updated on February 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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