They call it the Teardrop of India: Sri Lanka. The island of spice, sun and tea fields. There’s no doubt about it— this is one darn mystical, amazing, culture-packed, and tasty destination. It’s just about as far south in South Asia as it’s possible to go, with swells of the Southern Ocean crashing into the coastline (hello awesome surf), the Maldives on one side, and the Bay of Bengal to the north.
Most folk touch down in Colombo. It’s the unofficial capital and the largest city. Get your fill of tooting tuk-tuks and urban street food there before breaking away, because outside of town waits a world of elephant-trodden jungles, leopard-stalked plains, cloud-rimmed mountains, and some of the most handsome beachfronts this side of Thailand!
Colombo is rarely more than a quick stopover. Heady and brimming with life, it’s the liveliest spot on the whole island. Delve into the chowks of Pettah to smell broiling dals and sizzling roti breads on every corner. Hop over to Galle Face Green to see the waves of the Indian Ocean rolling against chic hotels. Explore Fort for colonial-era edifices and traces of the British rule.
If you think you can handle the local food the way the locals eat it, then get down to any roadside stall selling samosas. These are one of the most ubiquitous pastry snacks on the island. They’re packed with peas and potatoes and peppers, but really, it’s the capsicum that dominates. Yep, darn spicy is putting it lightly! Be sure to have a mango lassi on hand to cool the taste buds if you are feeling brave enough to try.
Dust off the waterproofs and ready your paddling muscles: Kitulgala awaits. On the way to Ella, it sits huddled in thick groves of forest and high walls of mountains. The main pull is the gurgling stretch of whitewater rapids. They can be conquered on adrenaline-pumping days out with local outfitters. There’s also jungle trekking, safaris, and wildlife spotting to add to the mix.
The jewel of the city of Kandy is surely the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It’s one of the most sacred shrines in all of Sri Lanka, which means you’re likely to be visiting in the company of lots of devotees and pilgrims. Right on the edge of a handsome urban lake, its big grounds give way to corridors laced with golden lotus flowers, vast audience halls scented, and even the old royal palace of the last Sri Lankan kings.
You can’t miss the Bahirawakanda Vihara on the skyline of Kandy. Just look up! It’s that huge marble-white Buddha perched on the hillside. Given the location, the views at the top are obviously stunning— think sweeps of jungle-dashed hills and mist draped over the Central Highlands in the distance. There’s also a rich folklore to uncover, with legends of evil gnomes (yes, you read that right: evil gnomes) that did battle with local noblemen.
Just as Switzerland’s Glacier Express or the Trans-Siberian start a-piping up, the train from Kandy to Ella breathes deep and says: “Hold my beer.” Yep, this is one of the undisputed stunning railway journeys of the globe. Things start low, weaving through groves of banana trees and teaks. Then the line cranks upwards, and before you know it, you’re lost in a sea of emerald greens, with tea plantations undulating to the horizon and mountains that look like gnarled fingers peeking through the clouds in the distance.
Ella is an unmissable part of Sri Lanka. Sitting up in the Central Highlands, it’s the home of Ceylon tea and a veritable hiking mecca to boot. Most travelers opt to do one of two hikes. The harder is Ella Rock. See it lurching above the town on the south-western side. The trek takes around three hours in total, but is trickier in heavy rain and hot sun. Also, try to leave early to beat the clouds. The route goes past railway lines, through tea fields peppered with snake mounds, and then above bamboo forests, finally opening onto stunning vistas of the southern Sri Lankan plains.
Intimidated by Ella Rock? Try Little Adam’s Peak. The less demanding of the two trekking options in Ella, it’s really a casual stroll from the center to the trailhead, and then you hop zig-zagging steps to the summit. The views there are simply divine. From the lookout points you can gaze out to Ella Rock (the one that you might have climbed yesterday) and survey the deep valley below. To the north and east, there are mosaics of tea plants and jungles.
The Nine Arch Bridge is nothing short of legendary on the Insta-travel circuit. You can find it by walking through the pine and beech woods out of Ella’s center, where it arches across a wide gorge, carrying the railway on its way to Demodara. The best photography spots are on the eastern side of the canyon. There’s even a perfectly-placed juice bar where you can get some passion fruit nectar while waiting for a train to roll on by.
Legend has it that this hole in the depths of Ella Rock was once the hideout of the 10-headed King Ravana, who kidnapped Sita in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Ravana Cave is now a sacred site to local followers, who regularly make the trek through the jungle to pay homage to the story and its characters. The walk up is no cinch—think hair-pinning steps through dense undergrowth.
No trip to Sri Lanka could possibly be complete without an overload of tea. This is tea country, after all: Ceylon, the land of the tea plantation. There’s really nowhere better to do some tasting than in Ella town. The whole main strip is packed with tea shops and boutiques. Ceylon Tea Centre has one of the best selections, along with pre-made brews so you can sample everything from white tea to green tea to choose your favorite.
They call Nuwara Eliya ‘Little England.’. It was built and founded by British explorer Samuel Baker back in the 1800s. He envisaged it to be the perfect place for colonial governors to rest, away from the high heat of the coast. In time, the spot became one of the epicenters of Sri Lankan tea production, which can still be seen today in the sweeping plantations. There are also Victorian-styled buildings and quaint country cottages aplenty.
The Horton Plains are a land shrouded in mist and cloud. A national park, the area sits atop the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, dashed by countless waterfalls and carved by huge peaks. The piece de resistance for most is so-called World’s End. That’s a sheer drop of over 1,200 meters from summit to valley floor. Hikers get to stand right on the edge and peer over, if they dare!
Sri Lanka is certainly no stranger to waterfalls. Hundreds—literally hundreds— of cascades crash through the Central Highlands and jungles here. Some are large. Some are small. The iconic Baker’s Falls are definitely large. Clocking up 20 meters in height in the midst of the Horton Plains National Park, they drop over several tiers of black rock into reflective pools. Look out for the lovely garlands of rhododendron and wild flora that burst from the jungle nearby.
You could easily lift up Adam’s Peak and plonk it in the heart of the Swiss Alps. It wouldn’t look out of place one bit. Well…apart from the jungles and palm trees, that is. Not to be confused with Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, this Central Highlands mountaintop is one of the most famous pilgrimage spots on the isle. Take the Sri Pada path to the top and you’ll find what’s said to be a footprint left by Buddha himself!
An old-growth rainforest is rare at the best of times, but when more than 60% of the plant species that flourish within are endemic, there’s something truly special going on. That’s the case with Lanka’s UNESCO-attested Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Find it spreading across the southern foothills with its emerald woodlands. Inside are reptiles, multi-colored birds, waterfalls, murky rivers, strange snakes – you name it!
Bentota is the home of the famous length of white-glinting sand that’s known to Sri Lankan-bound sun seekers as Paradise Island. Essentially a stretch of chic resorts and honeymoon pads, it’s the place to go if you’re after nothing but Indian Ocean rest and relaxation, with a dash of luxury on the side. Behind the sand is a wide river and groves of palms, where mystical temples and Buddha statues lurk.
The breakfast of kings in Sri Lanka is the classic hopper. A humble little pancake made from fermented rice batter and coconuts, it’s usually fried in a deep, bowl-like pan and then served with an egg cracked right into the middle. The result is a sort of ready-made roti, filling and all. Another version are string hoppers. They’re long rice noodles that come with a side of spicy dal.
For sure, Hikkaduwa made its name as a beach town. Ever since the first mass groups of tourists came to the Teardrop of India back in the 70s, this one’s been featured in brochures and magazines. And why not? It’s a looker, with gold-tinted sand and perfect blue oceans. More recently, scuba diving and surfing has bolstered the following, so expect a lively vibe on the shores.
Raised in the middle of the 16th century by the Portuguese as an imperial trading outpost on the Indian Ocean, Galle Fort subsequently fell into the hands of the Dutch and then the British. Its long past as a colonial outpost still shows in the high, salt-washed bulwarks and their cannons. These days, the cobbled streets within the walls have been taken over by cool cafés and art galleries. It’s the perfect place to get lost and wander.
With a name like Unawatuna (that’s oo-na-wa-too-na), you can expect some serious chill time, right? Right. On this laid-back squiggle of shoreline on the south side of Sri Lanka, there are long runs of gold-tinted sand speckled with coconut husks, palm-thronged hammocks, and reggae-style beach bars that wouldn’t look out of place in Jamaica.
Midigama occupies the long run of inlets, coves, and headlands that goes west from Weligama Bay. It’s not really a town per se. Most of the hostels and guest houses are spread along a roadway that’s topped by palm trees just behind the beaches. That gives each of them good access to the coast, where you can either spend days lazing on golden sands and treading tidal pools or hit the reefs with your board in tow: Coconut Point and Lazy Left are two of the best-known breaks.
Ceylon Sliders is a surf-skate mashup of a venue that has gained a reputation for chilled lunching and popping happy hours. It sits facing the boat-spotted sands on the western harbor end of Weligama Bay. Head there for midday to catch plates of salted roast potatoes and stacked burgers. Go in the evening and you’ll get live music, great rooftop views, and some of the best-mixed long drinks around.
Heard about that surfing malarkey but haven’t had a chance to hop on a board yet? Hit Weligama. This is the bona fide beginner spot of Sri Lanka. Easy-going waves that break over a long, wide beach are the name of the game. There are more surf schools than you can shake your spicy dal lentils at. And you’ve got hotels and hostels for all sorts of folk just meters from the breaks.
Rise is one darn tasty find. Nestled just back from the bustling Matara Road, it only opened its doors towards the end of 2019. Its claim to serve the best pizza on the island might seem hefty, but just wait until you see that cushiony dough and fresh passata topping. There’s even buffalo mozzarella on the menu. What’s more, the owners are super friendly and always up for a chat. Buon Appetito!
Think massages, think Thailand, right? Wrong! Sri Lanka also has a huge wellness scene. With long traditions of Ayurvedic treatments and the like, it’s the perfect place to score yourself a spa sesh. One of the highest rated establishments makes its home by the riverway and jungles of Weligama. Set under lush palms, chic and stylish Good Spa has oil massages, scrub treatments, and even deep-tissue sports things for weary surfers.
As well as being a cocktail mecca and beach hub, Mirissa also doubles as Sri Lanka’s whale-watching center. There are oodles of providers offering trips out across the Indian Ocean to find cetaceans big and small. The best of them pay attention to the habitat and wellbeing of the whales, with low-volume boats that keep a safe distance. The best season for whale watching is between November and March.
Ditch the wave-hunters and partiers on Mirissa’s main beach and make for the back roads. Follow the alleys and small streets west and south. Climb the hill on zig-zagging mud tracks, then drop down through fern and palm groves. Viola: you’ve found Secret Beach. Sorry for the vague directions, but this is supposed to be a secret. Regimented coconut trees sway in the breeze there before a boulder-speckled inlet with aquamarine water around white-tinged sands.
When it’s time to let loose a little and shake the salt from your hair with a boogie and a dance, there’s really nowhere better to head than Mirissa. Once a laid-back beach resort, the place has pumped up its hedonism and happy-hour scene in recent years. Start the night on the main beach, where beer deals and bean bag chatter abound. Then, make for the main road, for late-night roti and backpacker bars aplenty.
Remote surf spots are becoming harder and harder to find on the southern coastline of Sri Lanka. But not to worry, they do still exist. Cue SK Town. This small clutch of hotels and guesthouses on the edge of Matara city is hardly known. However, it’s got reliable beach breaks with loads of peaks, suited mainly to intermediate riders who like to have space to themselves.
Calling all digital nomads, skate aficionados, and surf folk: Verse Collective has something to offer. It’s located off the bus-tooting Matara Road, somewhere between Hiriketiya and Dickwella town. Facing the open ocean and a golden beach, the joint is all polished concrete and breezy interiors. There’s a skate ramp and a little shop, along with an enticing menu of breakfasts and smoothies to get stuck into.
Don’t tell too many people about little Hiriketiya Bay. One of the best surf spots in the world, it slots into a horseshoe inlet on the far southern edge of Sri Lanka. The surf is what really draws the crowds. There are two breaks: an easy-going beachy break for the beginners, and a heavier reef left-hander for those wanting fast drop ins. Early morning sessions are shared with fresh ocean breezes and resident sea turtles, who often like to make an appearance.
Safari? In Sri Lanka? You bet. Make for the remote lands of Yala National Park and you’ll be greeted with one of the island’s most biodiverse areas. Rolling through monsoon forests, deciduous gallery woodland, riparian plains, and swathes of open grassland, the reserve is home to all sorts of creatures big and small. Two really take the biscuit. First, it’s the galumphing Sri Lankan elephant. Then come the leopards, elusively hiding in the trees and between the savannah.
If Hiriketiya has whetted your appetite for Sri Lanka surf, then there’s plenty more to come! Topping the list for many is Arugam Bay. Hidden out on the east coast, it swings into high season when the rest of the popular beaches are under monsoon. So, plan your visit for June, July, or August to be greeted with plenty of sun and perfect waves. The most famous is Main Point, which can roll for a whopping 600 meters left to right over the sandbanks.
Historic Polonnaruwa and its half-crumbled ruins represent a time more than 800 years in the past, when Sri Lanka was ruled by dynastic kings. The site was established by the Cholas around the 10th or 11th centuries and went on to become one of the most important and powerful trading centers before total destruction in 1214. These days, the remains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s a must for any history buffs hitting the island.
Ask any culture vulture what’s on their Sri Lanka itinerary and they’ll almost always snap back, “Sigiriya Rock!” A startling UNESCO World Heritage Site that pokes above the plains in the heart of the island, it was once the great royal capital, founded as far back as 477 AD. The main draw is a 200-meter-high bluff that hosts a huge fortress and court rooms.
Sigiriya’s next door neighbor is another jewel of the region. Known as Pidurangala Rock, it also sports an ancient temple and reclining Buddha. However, the real pull here is the view that’s achieved of the fortress of Sigiriya across the way. In the morning, trekkers push through zig-zagging staircases carved into the stone to catch awesome vistas of the old kingly palace as the sun rises.
On the far eastern shoreline of Sri Lanka, the port town of Trincomalee hugs the same deep-water harbor that made it a powerful trading port even as early as 400 BC. Watch out for the lines of kaleidoscopic fishing boats and trading vessels that speckle the beach and the quaysides; a testimony to just how important the ocean is in these parts. Another historic POI waits at Fort Fredrick, where the Dutch once encamped.
Don’t let them tell you that all the best sands are on the south-west side of Sri Lanka. Trincomalee serves as the gateway to the resort area of Uppuveli. Wonderful, white-tinted powder scores the shoreline there. There are charming guest houses with hammocks on their decks, local cookhouses with an endless supply of dal and samosas, and fresh sea breezes guaranteed. Nice, eh?
Clutching the north-western edge of Sri Lanka, the colossal Wilpattu National Park should be relatively easy to reach from Colombo. It’s also a world apart from the big city. With wetlands and wild forests, freshwater lakes and basins of salt grass, it hosts a mind-boggling array of fauna. You’ve got mugger crocs and eagles, kites and rat snakes. But, once again, it’s the leopards that hit the headlines.
Northern Sri Lanka remains largely off the beaten trail for tourists. The area’s largest town is Jaffna, which does draw a steady stream of visitors with its unique Tamil culture and religious sites. Perhaps the cream of them is Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. A hugely important Hindu worshipping spot, it’s thought to date all the way back to 948 AD. Features include the striking gopuram gateway and large fortification walls.