The 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
2 September 2021

Sri Lanka was described by Marco Polo as one of the finest islands in the world. Its history dates back thousands of years and – despite being relatively small – it has oodles of nature and beauty to admire. Itching to explore? For the country’s most beautiful sights, this is where to go in Sri Lanka.

Inspired to visit Sri Lanka but not sure where to start with planning your itinerary? Consider joining Culture Trip’s specially curated 12-day Sri Lanka adventure, led by our Local Insider.

Adam’s Peak, for a mountain pilgrimage

Natural Feature
Four people take selfies of the vast, verdant Adam's Peak from the smaller Little Adam's Peak in Ella
© Ben Pipe / robertharding / Alamy
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 around dawn for an unforgettable sunrise.

Galle, for colonial architecture

Archaeological site
The white-painted Galle Lighthouse stands amid several tall palm trees under blue skies
Courtesy of Ivoha / Alamy Stock Photo

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, as you can now go there with Culture Trip as part of our epic 12-day Sri Lanka adventure. Plan to see the Dutch-built Galle Fort – the largest remaining European-built sea fort in Asia and a World Heritage Site. Other highlights include the natural harbour, St Mary’s Cathedral, and Galle International Stadium, one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world.

Sigiriya, for a huge rock fortress

Tourists walk the tree-lined pathway towards the enormous Sigiriya rock fortress (Lion Rock) in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
© Matthew Williams-Ellis / robertharding / Alamy
Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, is a rock fortress and palace in the Matale district. The Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the must-visit attractions in Sri Lanka. Climb up to the ancient ruins, which are surrounded by gardens, ponds, and magnificent frescoes, to see dramatic views of the jungle hills below.

Yala National Park, for spotting wildlife

Forest, Park
An Asiatic tusker elephant stands on grass close to tourists in one of two jeeps following a track in Yala National Park
© Peter Barritt / robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Yala National Park, on the southeast coast, is the place 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 also run around the grassy plains and forest areas.

Polonnaruwa, for temple ruins

Several people walk past a lawn and by steps up to the dome-like Rankoth Vehera stupa in Polonnaruwa
Courtesy of Stefan Huwiler / Alamy
View fine examples of ancient Sinhalese art and architecture in the Unesco-protected town (and former Sri Lankan capital) of Polonnaruwa. It’s home to well-preserved ruins, including the 12th-century Gal Vihara rock temple, the ancient site known as the Quadrangle, and the Buddhist Lankatilaka temple.

Bentota, for laid-back vibes

Natural Feature
Three people by the huge Buddha statue at Kande Vihara temple near Bentota beach
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 such as helicopter rides and watersports.

Kandy, for seeing Buddha's tooth

Architectural Landmark
Many Buddhist pilgrims walk into the white shrine of Sri Dalada Maligawa (or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) in Kandy
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 Tooth, within the fourth-century royal palace complex, as it’s said to hold Buddha’s tooth – although you can’t actually see it. Elsewhere, Kandy is surrounded by the central highland mountains and is the place to sample Sinhalese culture – especially if you visit during the Esala Perahera festival in summer. It also features as one of many wonderful destinations on Culture Trip’s specially curated small-group Sri Lanka tour.

Nuwara Eliya, for tea plantations and mountains

Forest, Natural Feature
A tea estate in Nuwara Eliya, with a road running through it towards several houses; there are mountains in distance
Courtesy of Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

Nuwara Eliya is a plateau town surrounded by mountains. It is also known as Little England for its British colonial buildings, such as the Queen’s Cottage and the General’s House. The area holds natural beauties, too, including waterfalls, hills, tea plantations, and Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is one of many tea plantation regions in Sri Lanka, but regarded as the most important tea producing spot in the country – try a cup on your visit.

Arugam Bay, for great surfing

Natural Feature
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, is a remote town that attracts surfers from around the world. Brush up on your skills at one of the schools, such as Pappy’s Surf School or Amigo Surf, before heading out to the swell on Main Point. When not at the beach, visit the historic temples or the nearby Kumana National Park.

Dambulla, for seeing a cave temple

Buddhist Temple, Shrine
Ornate stone sculptures on a tiled floor inside the ornate, historic Dambulla cave temple
Courtesy of MehmetO / Alamy
This large town is where to go in Sri Lanka to find the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in the country. Covering a total area of 2,100sqm (22,604sqft), it has 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 also 153 Buddha statues throughout the complex. Other statue subjects include Sri Lankan kings, gods and goddesses.

Mirissa, for beachside relaxation

Natural Feature
Several cars, bikes and people line the main street of Mirissa, with shopfronts on either side, and tall palms behind them
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 the south coast, best known for its sandy bays. The 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, for a bustling city break

Architectural Landmark
The skyscraping Lotus Tower stands before Beira Lake at sunrise in Colombo, with many multi-storey buildings beneath it
Courtesy of ITPhoto / Alamy
Kick start your Sri Lankan adventure with a few nights in the capital. The starting point of Culture Trip’s epic 12-day adventure through Sri Lanka, this west-coast metropolis has a skyline that comes alive at night, with the 350m (1,148ft) tall Lotus Tower 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, for the iconic Nine Arch Bridge

The tall Nine Arch Bridge in Demodara stands over and amid verdant flora
Courtesy of Ulf Huebner / Alamy
The mountainous town of Ella is best known for having the stone Nine Arch Bridge, between Ella and Demodara station, built by the British at the turn of the 20th century. You can take the journey from Kandy to Badulla or marvel at it with a trek through the surrounding jungle and tea plantations. This is where to go in Sri Lanka if you can never have too many hiking and photo opportunities – don’t miss waterfalls such as Bomburu Ella, which is the widest in Sri Lanka.

Anuradhapura, for ancient historical sites

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark
The large, white seated Buddha statue on a plinth amid sprawling green forest at Mihintale, Anuradhapura
Courtesy of Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Alamy Stock Photo
Step back in time at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, which is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, perhaps dating back as far as the 10th century BCE. As you might expect, the ancient metropolis, surrounded by 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, for beaches and diving

Natural Feature
Several people gather by the large, blue Shiva statue at Koneswaram Kovil Hindu temple in Trincomalee
Courtesy of Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo
The port city of Trincomalee, on the northeast coast, is usually reached by train or bus from the capital – taking around seven hours. Once you’ve made it, put your feet up and enjoy sweeping beaches such as Uppuveli and Coral Cove, before spotting blue whales from Swami Rock Cliff. If you’re a keen diver, visit the Trincomalee Underwater Museum, off Sandy Bay Beach, to see sculptures and cannons.

Jaffna, for temples, forts and markets

Natural Feature
Entrance to the sacred, gold-and-blue Hindu temple Vallipuram Alvar Vishnu Kovil near Jaffna
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. 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, for the best beaches in the country

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Tropical sandy beach with green trees by wooden fishing boats as the tide comes in
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, has some of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, including the palm-fringed Tangalle Beach and Rekawa Beach, the latter being a top spot to watch turtles lay their eggs. If surfing is your thing, hit Hiriketiya Beach, which has year-round great waves for all abilities, including a more advanced reef break. Just fancy sunbathing and splashing around? Calmer waters are found at Goyambokka Beach.

Udawalawe National Park, for seeing elephants

Several water buffalo in the muddy green fields of Udawalawe National Park
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 well and truly where to go in Sri Lanka 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). They 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 September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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