Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka

Top 20 things to do in Sri Lanka

This list of the top 20 things to do in Sri Lanka is going to blow your socks off! In fact, we're pretty confident you'll share this post with your friends as soon as you've read it, with the message that a trip there needs to be planned ASAP!

Sri Lanka is a small country (barely the size of Ireland!) that packs in a whole lot of adventure. The pearl of the Indian ocean is a haven for those 'wanderlusters' looking for some sun, surf, adrenalin, spicy foods, history and culture. The diversity and abundance of adventures to be had in Sri Lanka cannot be found anywhere else in such a small space! Take a look at our list of the top 20 things to do in Sri Lanka ...

A word of caution to others traveling to Sri Lanka: don’t be deceived by the size of the country – there is so much to see and do!

– Jessica Paul

1. Climb 5,500 steps to reach Adams Peak

This one isn't for the fainthearted. Adam’s Peak is a hugely popular mountain in the central highlands with an elevation of 2,243 m (7,359 ft). It's been a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus for over a millennium. Some Muslims and Christians say it’s where Adam first set foot after being cast out of Paradise by God, hence its name. Buddhists believe Buddha left the impression of his left foot there, and Hindus claim Shiva set foot there. The mountain is therefore called Sacred Foot (Sri Pada) by many.

For visitors to Adam’s Foot, a huge part of its appeal is tackling one of the six challenging trails to the top. The trails consist of thousands of rock or cement steps, which are illuminated when its dark to make night-time pilgrimages to the top possible. The trails start in the forest but then take you up above the canopy for awesome views of the surrounding landscape. Many start the hike in the dark in order to catch the stunning panoramic views at sunrise.

Aerial view of Adams Peak at night

View over Adam's Peak with nighttime lights

2. Enjoy the world's most beautiful train ride

If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, you've probably seen or heard stories about the 'most beautiful train ride in the world'. So, is it? We can confirm that the journey through rolling tea estates from Kandy to Ella is spectacular – you won't be disappointed!

We recommend you grab a seat by the window (or dangle your feet out of the doorway) for panoramic views over lush green farms, tea plantations and local villages. And it's not just the rides through the hill country that will blow you away. Take a trip down south along the coastline for fantastic views over the Indian Ocean. The train rides throughout the country encapsulate what is so wonderful about Sri Lanka – the journey is just as important as the destination.

Blue train in Sri Lanka

Riding on the iconic blue train through the heart of Sri Lanka is an absolute must!

3. Tour Uva Halpewaththa Tea Factory

Our favourite tea factory in Sri Lanka is the Uva Halpewaththa Tea Factory, 5 km north of the town of Ella. They run an amazing plantation tour that explains the process of making the tea from start to finish. They also explain the history and geographical significance of tea in Sri Lanka. After you've enriched yourself with tea knowledge, treat your tastebuds by trying samples of the estate's different teas. There's also a small shop selling leaves and tea-related paraphernalia.

Overlooking the Uva Halpewaththa tea estate in Sri Lanka

Overlooking the Uva Halpewaththa tea estate in Sri Lanka

4. Take a walk across Nine Arch Bridge

Commissioned in 1921 under the British Government, the nearly hundred-year-old Nine Arch Bridge in Ella spans 91 m at a height of 24 m. It's built with blocks of stone and cement without any strengthening iron or concrete. The beautiful nine arches make it a picturesque spot, especially as it's located between a dense jungle and tea plantation. Be sure to check the train times in order to catch a view of the train passing by.

Nine Arch Bridge in Ella, Sri Lanka

Nine Arch Bridge in Ella, Sri Lanka | Image: Flickr/Good Fisherman

5. Spot elephants in Udawalawe National Park

Sri Lanka is famous for its population of Asian elephants. Go on a wildlife safari in Udawalawe National Park, located in the south of Sri Lanka. There are a few hundred elephants within the park so it's one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see elephants throughout the year! This is one of the reasons Udawalawe is the third most visited national park in Sri Lanka. You can sometimes witness a herd of females bathing together in the wild.

Other animals to look out for in the park include some exciting cats, namely the rusty-spotted cat, fishing cat and Sri Lankan leopard! Also try to find the following lovely deers: the Sri Lankan sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer and Indian muntjac.

Did you know? All of the 26 national parks in Sri Lanka have a 2 km buffer zone.

Sri Lanka elephants Udawalawe Park

Asian elephants are classified as endangered

6. Enjoy a peaceful lagoon safari in Pottuvil

Try something different and enjoy a couple of hours cruising the peaceful lagoons on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Early in the morning, life in the lagoon slowly wakes up as the fishermen and wildlife emerges for the day. A lot of birds are cruising the sky and perching on the mangrove trees to look for food. You'll have the opportunity to see big saltwater crocodiles (or 'salties') bathing in the morning sun, elephants foraging with their young calves, and maybe even the rare monitor lizard, which is one of the biggest lizards in the world. It really is a magical experience.

Sri Lanka lagoon safari in Pottuvil

Sri Lanka lagoon safari in Pottuvil | Image: Flickr/lukas griesser

7. Marvel at the Dambulla Cave Temples

The Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, is a beautiful and truly unmissable UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka. A sacred pilgrimage site for over two millennia, this cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka.

The intricate paintings and statues inside the temple are related to Gautama Buddha and his life. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings, and four statues of gods and goddesses. Buddha images were first created here over two thousand years ago, and over the centuries subsequent kings had the artworks expanded and embellished. The murals, especially in the magnificent Cave 2, will take your breath away.

Admire centuries old paintings in the Dambulla Rock Caves

Admire centuries old paintings in the Dambulla Rock Caves

8. Spot whales and dolphins in Mirissa

The best place to spot whales is in Mirissa, a small tourist town on Sri Lanka’s south coast. It's popular for surfing and famous for whale watching. The waters around Mirissa are particularly rich in plankton, which has led scientists to believe that there's actually a resident population of whales in Mirissa. There's consequently a high chance you'll spot some whales frolicking in the water. 

If you go to Mirissa during the whale-watching season, which is from November to April, your chances of seeing whales are very high: 90 to 95%! Get your camera ready and keep your eyes peeled. 👀

Spotting whales in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Spotting whales in Mirissa, Sri Lanka | Image: Flickr/Mykefitz

It was my most active holiday yet, from exploring Sigiriya’s natural beauty, the charm of Kandy, or the beaches surrounding the stunning Galle Fort – there was so much to experience.

– Brent Bell

9. Snorkel with sharks on Pigeon Island

This underwater experience cannot be missed by anyone venturing to the east coast of Sri Lanka! Just off the coast of Trincomalee is Pigeon Island National Park, one of the two marine national parks of Sri Lanka. The reef here is shallow, making snorkelling almost as satisfying as diving. It’s home to dozens of corals, hundreds of reef fish (including blacktip reef sharks), and three species of turtles (including the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle). Grab your flippers and explore this beautiful underwater world in the turquoise Indian Ocean.

Did you know? Trincomalee is home to the world’s second largest natural harbour.

Snorkelling near Pigeon Island, Sri Lanka

Snorkellers in the waters of Pigeon Island | Image by M.D. Perera

10. Swim in the pools of Ravana Falls

Another gem to visit when heading to the town of Ella is Ravana Falls. It's one of the widest waterfalls in the country, and is certainly a feast for the eyes. The waterfall is approximately 25 m (82 ft) high and it cascades down from an oval-shaped concave rock outcrop. Legend has it that King Ravana kidnapped Princess Sita and hid her in the caves behind this waterfall – now simply known as the Ravana Ella Cave. There are so many wonderful waterfalls in Sri Lanka that no one knows about. We can take you to them! Explore them with us on one of our bespoke Sri Lanka tours.

Did you know? Most of the electricity in Sri Lanka is produced through hydroelectric power.

Go swimming in the waterfalls of Ella

Go swimming in the beautiful waterfalls of Ella

11. Hike Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress

Referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World, this sophisticated fifth-century city complex atop a massive rock is probably the most visited tourist destination of Sri Lanka! It would be hard to overstate the archaeological importance and historical richness of Sigiriya. Unsurprisingly, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1982.

The Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress is not really a fortress at all, but rather a sophisticated fifth-century capital city complex. Enormous lion paws are carved into the rock’s base on either side of a stone staircase. A large fortress wall also encircles the bottom half of the rock. The adventurous can climb the many, many steps to the top of the nearly 200 m rock, where the view is truly astonishing. The fortress complex at the top includes a ruined palace and its fortifications, as well as vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys and fountains. Sigiriya's gardens are, in fact, believed to be among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world!

Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka

Sigiriya is like nothing else you've ever encountered!

12. Soak in the history of Polonnaruwa ruins

Some 800 years ago, Polonnaruwa was a thriving commercial and religious centre. Its kings ruled the central plains of the island from here. The archaeological treasures that can be found in Polonnaruwa give us a pretty good idea of how the city looked in its heyday. It's amazing to see how advanced Sri Lanka was back then!

You'll find the archaeological park a delight to explore, as there are hundreds of ancient structures like tombs, temples, statues and stupas. There are also the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden-city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century. Hire a bike and cycle your way round this beautiful ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Sacred Quadrangle in the Polonnaruwa ruins

The Sacred Quadrangle in the Polonnaruwa ruins

13. Kitesurf on the coast of Kalpitiya

Kalpitiya, situated nearly 130 km away from Colombo, is a fishing town based around the peninsula of Kalpitiya. It's home to the country’s largest coral reef of 307 km. It also has 14 offshore islands, salt pans, mangroves swamps, salt marshes and vast sand-dune beaches.

Kalpitiya is well known for the large pods of spinner dolphins that can be found just an hour's boat ride from the harbour. As well as spotting dolphins, Kalpitiya is the perfect place to try your hand at some kitesurfing. Kalpitiya has a long, narrow and pristine sandbar that separates the lagoon from the Indian Ocean and is one of the most consistently windy destinations in the word. In other words – it's a paradise for kitesurfing!

Kitesurfing in Kalpitiya

Kitesurfing in Kalpitiya | Image: Flickr/Rennu Subramanium

14. Go white-water rafting in Kitulgala

Head to the town of Kitulgala to go white-water rafting on the picturesque Kelani River. The boulder-strewn stretch of this river offers an ideal setting for white-water rafting. Rafters can tackle five major rapids and four minor ones. Each of the rapids has its own colourful and telling name: Head Chopper, Virgin’s Breast, Butter Crunch, Killer Fall, and Rib Cage. The river flows through green hills thick with tropical vegetation, so when you're not whooping with the thrill of the rapids, you can admire the incredible scenery.

As well as white-water rafting, there are so many other fun adventure activities on offer in Kitulgala. For instance, there's birdwatching, jungle walks, river bathing, trekking to waterfalls, adventure jumps and slides in natural ponds, flat-water rafting, waterfall abseiling, mountain biking ... the list goes on!

White water rafting in Kitulgala

White-water rafting in Kitulgala

15. Surf the waves in Aragum Bay

Since the early 1960s Sri Lanka has been attracting surfers from all around the world. Aragum Bay, a typical fishing village to the south of the small town of Pottuvil, has been a stepping-stone on the Indian Ocean surfing trail for a long time. It's the most famous spot for surfers on the east coast and arguably in the whole of Sri Lanka. With waves fresh from Antarctica crashing up onto the beach, Arugam Bay is sometimes claimed to be one of the top ten surf points in the world. For this reason it periodically playing host to international tournaments. The best time for surfing here is between April and early November. If you're a newbie to surfing, we'll show you the ropes!

Aragum Bay Sri Lanka

Aragum Bay | Image: Flickr/Sarah Owermohle

16. Check out the famous temples of Kandy

The city of Kandy has centuries of history and tradition and is a true must-see during your visit to Sri Lanka! Tucked away in the hills of Sri Lanka’s central province and surrounded by tropical tea plantations, Kandy is studded with temples. Notably, it's home to the centuries-old Temple of the Tooth, a royal palace complex that houses the sacred relic of the Buddha's tooth. At night, the temple is strung with thousands of small yellow lights – so pretty!

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy | Image: Flickr/PANGEA Travel

17. Relax on pristine Unawatuna Beach

Unawatuna is a lovely banana-shaped beach of golden sand and turquoise water, surrounded by palm trees. It's one of the biggest tourist destinations in Sri Lanka and is the most famous beach in the country. It's well known for its sun, sea, sand and relaxation, as well as being perfect for a dip in the ocean or indulging in some waters sports. The town itself is small, and has great shops and guesthouses and trendy restaurants. Sri Lanka is home to so many beautiful beaches, many of which you won't be able to find in any guide book.

Relax on one of many beautiful beaches

Relax on one of many beautiful beaches | Image: Flickr/Ken Farge LRPS

I am amazed at the vast array of geographic topography in Sri Lanka as well as the beauty each one possesses. It would be difficult for me to identify a favourite since all were distinct and wonderful in their own right.

– Eric Johnson

18. Spot the stilt fisherman in Galle

You've probably already seen pictures of Sri Lanka's famous stilt fishermen. This method of fishing is unique to the island. The fishermen sit on a cross bar called a petta, which is tied to a vertical pole that's been driven into the sand a few metres offshore. From this high position, the fisherman casts his line, and waits until a fish comes along and takes the bait. It's an amazing sight and offers a great insight into the traditions of the island.

The famous stilt fisherman

Sri Lanka's famous stilt fisherman

19. Take a swing in Dalawella

A swing built by the local guys at Dream Cabana has evolved into an Insta-famous location in Sri Lanka, and we can see why! The location of the swing is on Dalawella Beach, which is in the south of Sri Lanka near the popular town of Unawatuna. It's the perfect spot for relaxing on the beach and taking some amazing pics. Whether you're snapping during the day or at sunset, it really is a great little spot for some fun photography. The sun sets a little to the left of the swing if you shoot side on, which is perfect for some awesome sunset beach vibes.

Dalawella Beach, Sri Lanka, Image by U. Wickramanayake

Gorgeous Dalawella Beach | Image by U. Wickramanayake

20. Hike and swim Diyaluma Falls

Diyulma Falls, in the Badulla region of Sri Lanka, is the second highest waterfall on the island. It's the perfect spot for a full day's adventure! Throughout the hike to the top there are multiple falls and beautiful natural pools cascading towards the edge of the cliff. You can find stunning spots to take a swim, and even jump from one pool into a lower pool. Pack your swimming costume and get ready for an action-packed day!!

Diyaluma Falls

Diyaluma Falls is 220 m tall | Image by Dilu753

 

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