Top things to do in Sri Lanka
Whether you’re visiting for the epic surf, the soaring mountains, the white-sand beaches or the jaw-dropping wildlife, Sri Lanka is the teardrop shaped island which has it all. Read ahead for 20 top things to do in Sri Lanka and get inspired.
Things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka
It’s likely that Colombo will be your first step into the wonderland of Sri Lanka. The cosmopolitan capital offers a refreshing, modern vibe if you’re coming from another spot in South Asia and it’s the perfect springboard for diving into the varied surrounding regions.
1. Take a walk on the wild side at Udawalawe National Park – 4 hours from Colombo
Home to over 5,000 elephants, hundreds of bird species, leopards, buffalo and other wildlife, Udawalawe is a National Park which is not to be missed. It’s smaller and less crowded than the nearby Yala park, which makes for a less commercial and more natural experience. The safari lasts for around 3 hours and it’s recommended to hire a local guide as their eyes are as sharp as hawks!
2. Navigate your way through the maze that is Pettah market
Want to visit a bazaar which is truly bizarre? Pettah market is a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells and an afternoon spent here will leave you entirely spellbound. Weave in and out of the lanes each devoted to a different trade and stock up on spices, veggies and travel essentials – just make sure you haggle for the best price!
3. Join the swingers down at Dalawella beach swing – 2 hours from Colombo
If you’re seeking that perfect Instagram shot, then make sure you add the most insta-famous spot in the whole of Sri Lanka to your backpacking itinerary. But does the swing really live up to its hype (…and the crowds)? Well…time your visit for sunset, grab some bevvies, swing out over the Indian ocean with turtles swimming below and you tell us (here’s a clue – the answer is yes).
4. Go Dutch at the Old Dutch Hospital
After a long day of strolling the streets of Colombo, there’s no better place to rest and reset than the Old Dutch Hospital. Beautifully restored and said to be the oldest building in town, this is THE PLACE for sun-downers and chilled vibes with new friends.
5. Take a day trip to Galle Fort – 2 hours from Colombo
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Galle Fort offers a portal into an alluring and captivating world which is jam packed with history. Full to the brim with chic boutiques, charming cafes and bustling restaurants, you could be fooled into thinking that you’ve landed into a city in Europe rather than Sri Lanka. Step away from the bustle and look up at the Dutch colonial buildings – you’ll soon see the true magnificence of this fort!
Image by lapping
6. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming with turtles at Dalawella beach – 2 hours from Colombo
Here’s one for the bucket list – swimming with giant wild turtles! Dalawella beach serves up shallow waters and calm seas which are the perfect conditions to spot some turtles in the wild just doing their thang. Just make sure to keep a safe distance from these glorious creatures so that they keep on returning to the region – there will be plenty of photo opps to go around!
7. Surf’s up in Hikkaduwa – 1 hour 50 minutes from Colombo
Sri Lanka is a surfer’s paradise and Hikkaduwa is easily accessible from Colombo which makes it an excellent place to stop off and catch some waves. If you’re not yet skilled in the ancient art of wave riding (nope – us neither) then you’ll be pleased to hear that there are many surf schools offering lessons to all – from the novice to the converted. Get out on that board bro!
8. Take a tour on a tuk-tuk
You know how the saying goes…it’s not just the destination, but the journey that counts too right?! Take a load off and kick back in the coolest ride around town – the local tuk-tuk! There’s no better way to see the sights of Colombo than travelling around in, what is essentially, an oversized moped. Your driver will give you all the insider info on where to experience authentic Sri Lanka and you might even find yourself a new pal for life. Just make sure to shake on a fixed price before you set off!
Things to do in Kandy, Sri Lanka
With a history as riveting as Game of Thrones, Kandy is the cultural and historic centre of Sri Lanka. It’s vibrant, royal and is home some of the best food around!
9. Walk in the footsteps of Kings & Queens at The Royal Botanical Gardens
Experience nature at its finest by visiting the overwhelmingly beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens. Slow down your pace, take a deep breath and let all your worries drift away as you pass through grounds which Kings and Queens exclusively used to roam around in. These gardens are the largest in all of Sri Lanka with over 10,000 trees, so you’ll definitely meet your oxygen quota for the day if you venture out here.
10. Make the tooth fairy jealous with a visit to the Temple of the Tooth
The temple of the tooth attracts crowds from near and far and is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. You’ll need to time your visit well and cover your legs and shoulders before entering as the tooth of Buddha is considered sacred. The only question left to ask is – did Buddha use to take trips to the dentist?
Image by Sachinthaka Serasinghe
11. Learn how to cook Sri Lankan style
Save your family and friends from “This tasted SO MUCH BETTER in Sri Lanka” by mastering the essentials yourself. From curries and kottu, to roti and samosas, learn the art of the flavours in Sri Lankan food from the locals who have been perfecting the same dishes for years. There are hundreds of cooking classes in Kandy to choose from so why don’t you spice things up and take a few?
12. Jump aboard the train from Kandy to Ella
You’ll never look at a train in the same way again after you’ve experienced this iconic and mesmerising ride. With misty forests, gushing waterfalls, chatty locals and picturesque views you’ll be wishing the journey could last longer than 8 hours – a rare perspective when you’ve been on the road for a while! Jump aboard and experience the sheer beauty on offer – there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world!
13. Get your groove on with some Traditional Kandy Dancing
The Kandy Lake Club is the most popular place to go for a cultural dance show in the city and it’s certainly a spectacle you don’t want to miss. With masks which will have you reaching for the papier-mâché and moves which will have you grabbing your own percussion instrument, this night out will be one to remember!
14. Take a stroll around Kandy Lake – not to be confused with Candy Mountain
As day turns to night, there’s no better place to whittle away those final hours of daylight than the Kandy lake. It takes about an hour to walk the entire way around, but you’ll want to take lots of breaks to take in the dazzling reflections and the local wildlife…pure bliss!
Things to do in Ella, Sri Lanka
Ella is a backpacker’s haven – nestled up in the mountains and offering an abundance of activities on your doorstep.
15. Take a hike up Ella Rock
Re-write the rule book by walking along the train tracks at the start of your hike up to Ella Rock – just listen out for the whistle of an oncoming train! Although this hiking route can be a little hard to follow (especially if you run into misleading touts) you should make it to the top in around 2 hours and the views over Ella, Little Adam’s Peak, and Ella Gap will make it all worthwhile. Grab some snacks, some water and a sun hat – this one’s going to leave you breathless!
Photo by Heshan Rajapaksha
16. Time for tea? Time to visit a Sri Lankan tea plantation
Sri Lanka is famous for tea and if a cuppa in the morning is what gets you going you’ll need to make sure you squeeze in a visit to a tea plantation on your trip. Uva Halpewatte tea factory is the largest tea factory in the Uva region and is just 5 km north of Ella. Be sure to check out the perfectly trimmed bushes of shimmering green tea leaves which blanket the sides of the hills on arrival. Now, go and put the kettle on, will you?
17. Get Down at the Down Town Rotti Hut
Head straight for the chop and gobble up Sri Lanka’s finest delicacy, Kottu Rotti, at the Down Town Rotti Hut. Marvel at the pure craftmanship of this dish’s creation, and hold your breath as the plates chop down onto the ingredients at an alarmingly close distance to the creator’s fingers. Ouch.
18. Reach dizzying new heights by visiting some of Sri Lanka’s endless waterfalls
If you’re in need of escaping the afternoon heat, venture to one of Sri Lanka’s many waterfalls that tumble down the mountains from dizzying heights. Just a 10-minute drive from the centre of Ella will land you at Ravana Fall’s where you can take a dip before jumping straight back in the car. If you’re in the mood for something a little more adventurous – take the trip to Bambarakanda where you can actually climb up the waterfall – our Spiderman senses are tingling!
Photo by Buwaneka Boralessa
19. Have some hoppers at any time of the day
Sri Lankans love their hoppers and it’ll become second nature to eat them at any time of day during your travels. Hoppers are a pancake bowl served with eggs, curries, sambols and chutneys and prices start from as little as 30p a pop. In Ella, visit the Green Cabin or Café on the Fifth – both worthy establishments of your time and your taste buds!
20. Unwind with an Ayurvedic Massage
Ayurvedic massage is the process of balancing the body and mind through the medium of oil massage and is believed to be of divine origin. Ella has several spots where you can see if this kind of massage is for you – at the very least you’re guaranteed to come out feeling like a well-oiled machine!
About the author:
Jen Gale is currently travelling in India and Nepal. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Expect critiques of curries, swoons over the colourful clothes and a generous helping of photographs.