Climbing with pilgrims from around the world to the sacred mountains, praying under the oldest tree in the country (2,400 years old!), enjoying fresh aroma tea while gazing at the tea hills or whale watching. These are just a few experiences that are excitingly unique to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. So, what to do in Sri Lanka and top things to do in Sri Lanka? Let’s explore Sri Lanka travel experience: My trip to Sri Lanka blog — Top 7 unique and best things to do in Sri Lanka every traveler should do.
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I have travelled extensively to many parts of the world but rarely did I find a land with such amazing historical and natural attractions like Sri Lanka. What are you waiting for? Check the weather forecast, pack your bag and let’s go!
These are the list of best things to do in Sri Lanka.
1. Cycle in the holy city of Anuradhapura
If you want to see how Sri Lanka looked like 200 years ago, visit the city of Anuradhapura, 220km from the capital city Colombo. Founded in the 6th century BC, Anuradhapura was the first capital of Sri Lanka for over 1,000 years. The historic remains of the old city are one of the most impressive sights in South Asia. It is home to more than 10,000 architectural and Buddhist archaeological wonders with enormous brick stupas, built by hand by ancient dwellers, and crumbling temples and pools surrounded by monasteries covering an area of 40 square kilometers.
Deemed the world’s largest brick structures, the Jetavanaramaya, Abhayagiriya or Ruwanvalisaya are often compared to the pyramids in Giza. The 2,000-year-old Jetavanaramaya stupa is considered the tallest structure in the ancient world with a height of 122m (approximately equivalent to a skyscraper of 40 floors). Today the structure is no longer the tallest, but it is still the largest, with a base area of 233 square meters and built purely out of bricks. The construction techniques used in Anuradhapura at the time are so outstanding that many architects of the modern world have never ceased to be amazed. The stone statues of the Buddha located here are some of the world’s most classic icons of south Asia.
Another important site to visit in Anuradhapura is the Bodhi Tree (Sri Maha Bodhi), where the Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment under. Sri Maha Bodhi was brought from India and planted in the 3rd century BC. The Bodhi Tree has since been considered the most sacred and revered place, worshiped by Buddhists from all over the world.
+ Transportation: The best way to explore the monuments of Anuradhapura is by Tuktuk or renting a bike. Bicycles can be rented from most hotels and homestays.
+ Note: Do not forget to bring water and wear a hat as the weather is very hot. You could also bring along some sandwiches to eat. A few pairs of socks are necessary for when you enter a number of temples, tourists are required to take off their shoes. The socks will allow you to safely go barefoot on the tiles without burning your feet on the hot stone.
+ Sightseeing: Admission is $25 per day. It will however take you 3 days to explore all of the monuments. To get the most out of your day, you should always visit the furthest temples first.
2. Watch sunrise from Adam’s Peak
You would feel a lot more holy if you visit Adam’s Peak, known as Sri Pada in Sri Lanka, a 2,234m high mountain located in the beautiful region of the Central Highlands with unique rock structures at the top. The summit has attracted large numbers of pilgrims for over 1,000 years. According to legend, this place marks the Buddha’s footprints when he entered Nirvana. The Hindus consider it the footprint of Lord Shiva. The Christians and Muslim however think it belongs to Adam, the first person to set foot on earth after having been exiled from heaven. These different beliefs are precisely the reason why this mountain attracts large numbers of pilgrims all year round.
A climb to the top of the mountain will reward you with spectacular panoramic views. The mountain can be accessed by numerous trails. Visitors take on average about 2.5-4 hours to climb to the top. Although the trails to the mountain are very steep, the climb will certainly be one of the most exciting and unforgettable experiences of your life.
Many Sri Lankans consider the climb to Adam’s Peak a task to be completed at least once in a lifetime. You will easily find local families taking the mountain trails along with their parents and children. Many people climb the summit early in the morning at 2 am to catch the sun. It is a truly worthwhile experience.
+ Time: The trails are crowded from January to March and less crowded on other months.
+ Note: Be sure to bring food, especially drinking water, as you may need it as there are no shops around during the low season. Also bring along a coat and a hat as the weather can get quite cold at the top. Do not forget to bring torches if you want to climb in the evening. Although climbing is generally safe for tourists, group travel is always recommended.
3. Relax on the white pristine beach of Mirissa
Put your mobile phone away, bring a book and order a fresh coconut or a glass of beer to lie on a hammock at the beach and relax. This is truly a sweet experience at Mirissa, a beautiful semi-secluded beach where your dream of a tropical paradise turns into reality.
Hotels and guest houses are built right on the beach, giving you the impression of a deserted island. There are many cafes and small restaurants serving fresh seafood along the beach. The particularly relaxed atmosphere can be felt in the evening, when tables are set up on the beach and lightened with candles and lanterns. This is a great destination for romantic dates.
Three things not to be missed in Mirissa
+ Activity: In Mirissa there is a number of exciting activities such as scuba diving or surfing in the blue clear water. Thanks to stable waves and the lack of tourists, Mirissa attracts surfers from all over the world. The best surfing time is from October to March.
+ Dolphin watching: Whale and dolphin tours are very popular with tourists. Be sure to choose reputable tour operators, ensure that the boat is not too crowded and have enough life jackets for all passengers. If you want to see the blue whale, come here from mid-December to March.
+ Ayurvedic traditional medicine: Mirissa has many spas, traditional Ayurvedic and yoga centers with various herbal body massages and aromatherapy all at good prices.
4. Visit the tea hills of Nuwara Eliya
Another ideal destination in Sri Lanka to enjoy and breathe in the cool air is the city surrounded by mountains, Nuwara Eliya. With its cool climate and colonial-style architecture, lovely parks and gardens with neatly trimmed grasses, visitors are reminded of the English countryside’s sense of tranquility. In the 19th century, British pioneers in the tea industry often came to this retreat and immersed themselves in pastimes such as deer hunting, fox hunting, golf and cricket.
Take a walk around the picturesque tea hills around the city and you will find the local women carrying baskets full of tea leaves on their back. It is an equally impressive sight to see. Despite having a long day of hard work, the local people still give the visitors their best smiles.
+ Activity: One of the activities that cannot be missed when visiting Nuwara Eliya is to visit the tea factory. You can go on a tour or go alone to find out about tea processing, tea growing techniques, different types of tea and why some types of tea have an orange color…
+ Tea indulgence: After the tour is a tea ceremony where visitors are invited to taste different kinds of tea.
5. Visit the spectacular Sigiriya Rock Lion
Meaning “lion stone”, Sigiriya is the most remarkable landmark of Sri Lanka, famous for its palace ruins at the top of a 200m high rock surrounded by a system of water gardens, fountains, pools, ponds, courtyards and other structures. All beautifully show the exceptional skills of ancient landscape architects.
1600 years ago, King Kasyapa turned this natural rock into a royal fortress. The movie makers of the famous HBO series “Game of Thrones” must have been inspired by the story of this scheming and treacherous king. The king’s palace on the summit has only one entrance, through the mouth of a lion statue with its huge footprints carved into the rock. You will see a lot of mural paintings and worship caves along the way up. During the 2.5-4 hour period trek, tour guides can answer all of your questions about each of the artifacts you encounter.
+ Visit: Tickets to the Sigiriya monument which is recognised by UNESCO as the 8th wonder of the world cost $30 per person. If this ticket is too pricey for you, you can also visit the nearby Pidurangala ruins. This rocky spot is about the same height as Sigiriya and give visitors breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
+ Note: It is not easy to climb the spiral stairs attached to the standing wall in Sigiriya. You should consider this if traveling with children. Do not forget to bring drinks, snacks and a hat.
6. Shopping at Galle Fort
It is extremely difficult to control oneself when you go passing through jewelry and gems stores and dozens of handcrafted shops.
The beautiful 90 hectare Galle Fort is the best preserved port in South Asia. For the past hundred years, Persian, Greek, Indian and Chinese traders traded in this seaport, mainly trading spices. But Galle’s “modern” history dates back to 1505, when the Portuguese took over the fort and 100 years later the Dutch took over and built the present fort with an extensive map of roads and houses.
Today, the fortress is considered a cultural heritage site of UNESCO, becoming a source of inspiration and an ideal destination for many foreign artists, writers, designers and photographers. The combination of small shops, colonial-style hotels, cozy restaurants, unique museums and art galleries is what makes it stand out.
Inside Galle Fort, you can buy travel and movie posters from the late 1800s, fabrics, handicrafts, household accessories, hand-painted posters and masks. Once you get tired of shopping, you can visit one of the most prominent landmarks of the fort, the Dutch Protestant Church with its 300 year old organ. You could alternatively visit the hourly lighthouse, Meera Mosque, All Saints Church or the former Dutch government house.
+ Sightseeing: The fortress is open to tourists. The best way to explore the fort is to walk inside the wall just before sunset. Local people and visitors often take a stroll and enjoy a drink or watch sunset over the Indian Ocean.
+ Special note: If you are lucky, you can actually find the giant lizards sunbathing along the walls. They look like crocodiles, but are not dangerous.
7. Watch elephants bathe in Kandy
Protected by UNESCO, Kandy city has countless activities to astound visitors whether you are a nature lover or enjoy exploring temples and museums. You can visit a temple that is considered one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka bearing the tooth relics of the Buddha.
If you want to find a less touristy and quiet place, the Royal Botanic Garden is an ideal destination. It is one of the most magnificent (60ha) gardens in the world and is easily accessed by taxi or bus. There are over 10,000 types of plants of different ages, shapes and species. Among them are rare trees such as banyan trees, 40m tall Burmese bamboo, and Javan fig trees with roots up to 1,800m2. The blooming of various kinds of orchids and roses also make the garden extremely attractive.
But one of most wonderful experiences that you will find is watching a bunch of elephants bathe in the river. One hundred of them! This is the estimated number of elephants currently living in the Pinnewala Orphanage (40 km from Kandy). The elephants have a very boring daily habit, that is, eat and bathe twice a day. They are fortunately not forced to entertain tourists by playing football or drawing, unlike their brethren on some elephant farms in Thailand.
It’s fun to watch them bathe and move to the river. When they cross the street, all the traffic will stop to give way. They will then follow one another along the narrow road between the souvenir shops. Crowds of tourists would exclaim in amazement and try to capture images of the elephants from a safe distance. Watching the elephants bathe is a very interesting experience. Visitors may also bottle-feed baby elephants but you will have to pay extra.
Admission for this fun activity is $16 but it is really worth it, especially when you travel with children.
Some best day tours, trips, activities and transfer services, tickets in, from and to Sri Lanka you can refer to
- Private City Transfers for Colombo and Surrounding Areas
- Private Bandaranaike International Airport Transfers (CMB) for Colombo.
- 4G SIM Card (CMB Airport Pick Up) for Sri Lanka
- Galle and Surrounding Areas Day Tour from Colombo
- Whale and Dolphin Watching in Mirissa
- Colombo City Half Day Tour
- Sigiriya Lion’s Rock Fortress Day Tour And Village Experience from Colombo
- Galle and Surrounding Areas Day Tour from Colombo
- Kandy Day Tour from Colombo
- Kandy Cultural Show Ticket
- Yala National Park Safari Experience from Mirissa
Are you looking for more top things to do in Marina: Tours, activities, attractions and other things? Read more: My trip to Sri Lanka — Top 7 unique & best things to do in Sri Lanka. And check it out here.