The 18 Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka might be small, but it packs in a world of awe-inspiring beauty and nature
Sri Lanka might be small, but it packs in a world of awe-inspiring beauty and nature | © eFesenko / Alamy
Photo of Courtney Stanley
28 March 2021

Sri Lanka was famously described by Marco Polo as one of the finest islands in the world. It has a history that dates back thousands of years and, although it’s small, there is so much history, nature and beauty to see in this country. Explore its beaches, jungles, tea plantations, temples, and much more from our list of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka.

Adam’s Peak

Natural Feature
Map View
Great Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka early in the morning
Courtesy of Anton Romanov/Shutterstock
Adam’s Peak is a tall, cone-shaped mountain in a diverse biological site in central Sri Lanka. The 2,243m (7,359ft) ascent is a common pilgrimage route in the Buddhist religion, as it’s said there is an impression of Buddha’s own footprint near the summit. It takes between two and four hours to climb; aim to arrive at the top of the mountain around dawn for an unforgettable sunrise.

Galle

Archaeological site
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Galle is a UNESCO World Heritage site
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Visit the well-preserved colonial city of Galle, on the southwest coast, for a relaxing city break. This town is full of charming Dutch-era villas and seaside views. Plan to see the Galle Fort (a Dutch fort that’s recognised as the largest remaining European-built sea fort in Asia), which is now a World Heritage Site. Other highlights include the natural harbour, St Mary’s Cathedral, and Galle International Stadium, which is widely regarded as one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world.

Sigiriya

Ruins
Map View
The historical Sigiriya rock fortress is surrounded by a breathtaking landscape
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Sigiriya, also known as ‘Lion Rock’, is a rock fortress and palace situated in the Matale district. The Unesco World Heritage Site has been called one of the most important must-visits when in Sri Lanka. You can climb up to the ancient ruins, which are surrounded by gardens, ponds, and magnificent frescoes, to see wonderful, dramatic views of the rolling hills in the jungle below.

Yala National Park

Forest, Park
Map View
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Thomas Dekiere/Shutterstock
Yala National Park, on the southeast coast of the island, is the place to go to see big cats in Sri Lanka. The park is home to the highest concentration of leopards in the world, and it is also an important sanctuary for Sri Lankan elephants and aquatic birds. Monkeys, crocodiles, and other creatures run around the park’s grassy plains and forest areas.

Polonnaruwa

Museum
Map View
MCJKBN - Stupa, Dagoba Rankoth Vehera, Polonnaruwa, Northern Central Province of Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Stefan Huwiler / Alamy
View fine examples of ancient Sinhalese art and architecture in the Unesco-protected town of Polonnaruwa. Numerous well-preserved ruins of tombs, temples, statues and other archaeological sites, including Gal Vihara, Quadrangle and Lankatilaka, are located in this town in North Central Province, which was in fact a capital of the island hundreds of years ago, as well as a busy commercial and religious hub.

Bentota

Natural Feature
Map View
Big Buddha statue at the Kande Vihara Temple. Kande Viharaya is a major Buddhist temple near Bentota beach in Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Andrey Khrobostov / Alamy

This town, on the southwest coast, has magnificent beaches, luxury hotels and plenty of untouched beauty. Spend a day soaking in the sun at Bentota Beach, visit the nearby Kosgoda turtle hatchery or find peace in the Galapatha Rajamaha Viharaya Buddhist temple. Bentota is a tourist hotspot, so you’ll also be able to get stuck into activities like helicopter rides and water sports.

Kandy

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Buddhist pilgrims walking into the shrine of Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, in Kandy, Sri Lanka, celebrating the the Ves
Courtesy of Victor Jiang / Alamy

This large city is known as the Sacred City of Kandy for its significance to Buddhists. Many travel to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, within the royal palace complex that was built in the 4th century, as it holds Buddha’s tooth – although you can’t actually see it. Elsewhere, Kandy is surrounded by the central highland mountains and is the place to go to get a taste of Sinhalese culture – especially if you can visit during the Esala Perahera festival in the summer.

Nuwara Eliya

Forest, Natural Feature
Map View
Landscape view tea estate, Nuwara Eliya, Central Province, Sri Lanka, Asia
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Nuwara Eliya is a plateau town surrounded by mountains. It is also known as ‘Little England’ for its old British colonial buildings, like the Queen’s Cottage and the General’s House. The area holds many natural beauties, like waterfalls, hills, tea plantations and the towering Pidurutalagala, which is the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is one of many tea plantation areas in Sri Lanka, but it is regarded as the most important spot for tea production in the country – don’t forget to try a cup on your visit.

Arugam Bay

Natural Feature
Map View
A group of surfers climb down Elephant Rock at Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka towards the beach for a surfing session.
Courtesy of Thomas Wyness / Alamy

Arugam Bay, on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, is a remote town that attracts surfers from around the world. Brush up on your skills at one of the bay’s schools, like Pappy’s Surf School and Amigo Surf school, before heading out to the swell on Main Point. When not at the beach, visit the town’s historic temples or the nearby Kumana National Park.

Dambulla

Buddhist Temple, Shrine
Map View
Historical Dambulla cave temple, in Dambulla, Sri Lanka
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This large town houses the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in all of Sri Lanka; covering a total area of 2,100sqm (22,604sqft), it boasts five cave temples containing a huge collection of Sri Lankan Buddhist artwork, including statues, shrines and murals. The paintings and statues tell stories from Buddha’s life – there are a whopping 153 Buddha statues throughout the complex. Other statue subjects include Sri Lankan kings, gods and goddesses.

Mirissa

Natural Feature
Map View
Mirissa, Sri Lanka - December 25, 2019: Main street of Mirissa, one of Sri Lanka top beach destinations.
Courtesy of Maciej Bledowski / Alamy Stock Photo

Fancy hanging out in a hammock under the sun? Make your way to the beachside village of Mirissa on Sri Lanka’s south coast, where sandy bays are what it’s best-known for. The area’s namesake beach is particularly popular, from which you can head out on a dolphin- and whale-watching boat trip between May and November. Coconut Tree Hill is also a must-visit destination to watch the sunrise.

Colombo

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Lotus Tower on Beira Lake at sunrise, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Courtesy of ITPhoto / Alamy
Kick start your Sri Lankan adventure with a few nights in the capital. This west-coast metropolis flaunts a skyline that comes alive at night, including the 350m (1,148ft)-tall Lotus Tower, in the heart of the city, which is perhaps the most impressive sight. Here, you can soak up sky-high views of Beira Lake from the observation deck, while tucking into a feast at the revolving restaurant. For natural beauty, head to Crow Island Beach Park and Viharamahadevi Park during the humid summer months.

Ella

Bridge
Map View
RW0GJJ - View on Nine Arches Bridge in Sri Lanka, Ella
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The mountainous town of Ella is best known for its stone Nine Arch Bridge, between Ella and Demodara station, built by the British at the turn of the 20th century. You can take the famous journey from Kandy to Badulla or marvel at it from a different perspective with a trek through the surrounding lush jungle and tea plantations. There are endless hiking (and photo) opportunities around Ella, including waterfalls such as Bomburu Ella Waterfall, which is the widest in Sri Lanka.

Anuradhapura

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark
Map View
The great seated Buddha at Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Alamy Stock Photo
Step back in time at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, which is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, perhaps dating back as far as the 10th century BC. As you might expect, the ancient metropolis, surrounded by lush jungle and rice fields, is home to numerous historical sites; the most popular include the Ruwanwelisaya (featuring Buddhist relics) and Abhayagiri Stupa (a Buddhist monastery). Meanwhile, the sacred bodhi tree in the Mahamevnāwa Gardens is another place of pilgrimage, attracting thousands of visitors annually.

Trincomalee

Natural Feature
Map View
Shiva statue Koneswaram Kovil Hindu temple, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, Asia
Courtesy of Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo
From Sri Lanka’s capital, the port city of Trincomalee, on the northeast coast, is usually reached by train or bus – taking around seven hours. Once you’ve made it, put your feet up and enjoy sweeping beaches like Uppuveli Beach and Coral Cove Beach, before spotting blue whales from Swami Rock Cliff. If you’re a keen diver, head down to the Trincomalee Underwater Museum, off Sandy Bay Beach, to see sculptures and cannons.

Jaffna

Natural Feature
Map View
Vallipuram Alvar or Valipura Aalvar Vishnu Kovil is a hindu temple near Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Vallipuram Alvar Kovil is considered as one of the oldest H
Courtesy of Andrey Khrobostov / Alamy
If you’re in the northern tip of Sri Lanka, spend a few days enjoying the sights and sounds of Jaffna, which is off the main tourist track. The cultural highlights include visiting the arches of the gilded Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu temple, which is one of the most significant Hindu temples in the country, and the Instagrammable Jaffna Fort, built in the 17th century by the Portuguese. More photogenic moments will be found at Jaffna Market, where you’ll find traditional sweet treats, colourful fruits and vegetables, and exotic souvenirs.

Tangalle

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Tropical beach with fishing boats, Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Oliver Förstner / Alamy Stock Photo
Don’t forget to pack your beach gear if you’re heading to Tangalle. This coastal city, around three hours south of Colombo, boasts some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful beaches, including the palm-fringed Tangalle Beach and Rekawa Beach, which is one of the best spots in the world for seeing turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. If surfing is your thing, hit Hiriketiya Beach, which has great all-year waves for all abilities, including a more advanced reef break. Just fancy sunbathing and splashing around? A calmer body of water can be found at Goyambokka Beach.

Udawalawe National Park

Park
Map View
Water buffalo in the Udawalawe National Park on Sri Lanka.
Courtesy of Martin Silva Cosentino / Alamy
It’s as though you’ve stepped into a wildlife documentary at Udawalawe National Park. The expansive sanctuary, on the borders of Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces, is a must-visit for animal-lovers. Between October and April, you’re guaranteed to see elephants while in your 4×4 (since there are around 700 in the area), who share the park with leopards, crocodiles, water buffalos, otters and several species of eagle. The landscape varies as you go, with grasslands and scrublands complemented by rockier, more mountainous areas.

Sadie Whitelocks contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on March 28, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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