1. Visit a National Park and See Elephants
You can't leave Sri Lanka without visiting a National Park and seeing wild elephants. Considering how small the country is, you will be surprised to know that it has at least 25 National Parks. If you spend enough time in Sri Lanka, it is likely that you will see elephants at some point from your bus or car, but it is a different experience when you see them in a national park. Never in my life I had seen so many wild elephants together the way I saw in Kaudulla National Park near Sigiriya. A few other national parks that you can visit to see wild elephants are - Yala National Park, Minneriya National Park and Uda Walawe National Park.
Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park is home to around 200 elephants and once a year, during The Gathering, they all come together around one big water reservoir. Travelers can visit the park by participating in a jeep safari with expert guides who know just where to find the elephants. Anticipation rises as the jeeps make their way over muddy paths until suddenly, there they Families with little ones playing in the water and young bulls playfully testing who is strongest.
During the safari, the guides make sure to keep a safe distance from the elephants and they urge everyone to remain in the jeep and not to make too much noise. While the elephants at Kaudulla are used to seeing humans, they remain wild animals and thus unpredictable. But that makes it even more special to see them running around.
2. Visit Yala National Park
Located on the South East coast of Sri Lanka, this Natural Reserve could seem a bit out of the way, when it is just a few hours away one of the most popular destinations in the country, Galle.
Yala is an all year round destination, and wildlife safaris run every day. Many tourists, when visiting the island, make a quick one or two nights stop at Yala National Park when actually three or four nights are needed at least if you want to absorb what the place has to offer.
Be aware that if you stay in one of the resorts there, it is not rare to be woken up at sunrise by the monkeys playing nearby your room, finding deer that come to the poolside for water during the daytime or how witnessing how elephants have dinner meters away from your cabin at dusk.
I would highly recommend contacting the guys at Nature Trails for both wildlife safaris and other experiences in Yala. A renowned team of naturalists and conservationists that have studied, researched, designed, developed and curated every activity minding the environment and local communities of the area, they do know what they are doing. And that will make your experience in Yala National Park an unforgettable one. On top of that, you will be helping the researchers to go on! Isn’t it awesome to know you are contributing to preserving Yala leopards?
3. Go on a Safari inside Yala National Park
Going on safari in Yala National Park is a must do when you visit Sri Lanka. Although it’s the second largest park in the country it’s the most visited due to the likelihood of seeing leopards.
In fact, there is a higher density of leopards in Yala National Park than anywhere else on Earth. We were fortunate to find a leopard sleeping in a tree on the day that we visited. It’s amazing to see creatures that you normally only see in zoos in person!
You’ll almost always see elephants as well, we saw many during our time in the park.There are many companies that can arrange a jeep safari for you. Make sure to ask around and bargain hard as prices can greatly vary.
4. Take Tea in the Mountains Near Nuwara Eliya
While staying Kandy in Sri Lanka’s high country, a day trip to the mountains to taste tea is a must-do. The journey up the mountain is incredibly scenic. Make sure you have your camera ready. As you climb the New England air becomes increasingly more crisp. Most tours include entry to the bigger tea plantations like Mackwoods and Glenloch. The tours are quick and interesting; they take you through the whole tea production process from picking to packaging from the tea terraces to the factory floor. Afterwards, you can enjoy a cuppa and a piece of cake overlooking the valleys. Make sure you take tips for your guides and ensure you ask workers or tea pickers before snapping their photos.
5. Climb the famous Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya
One of the best things that we did during our month long trip in Sri Lanka was climbing on top of Pidurangala rock in Sigiriya town. We woke up at 4 am, rode our bicycles to the start of this hike and climbed in dark to reach the top. The climb is easy in the beginning but gets slippery towards the end. We reached just in time to see the most spectacular sunrise from up here.
On one side we could see Sri Lanka's most popular landmark - Sigiriya rock, while the other side was covered with forest and mountains. Sigiriya rock and Pidurangala rock are located next to each other in Sigiriya town. Climbing Pidurangala rock much more tricky as compared to climbing on top of Sigiriya peak where you can just follow the steps.
6. Take a train powers up through Sri Lanka’s southern hill country
The train rides through Sri Lanka’s tea country between Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella are some of our favourites ever.The train powers up through Sri Lanka’s southern hill country in Kandy, passing the many tea plantations and then ventures into the clouds, weaving in and out of the many mountain tunnels as it eventually descends to reach Ella.
The railway network in Sri Lanka was initially introduced by the British Colonial government in 1864, mainly to transport the tea (and coffee) from the hill country to the capital, Colombo. Since the advent of road travel, the train network in Sri Lanka declined heavily after the the 1970s, but recently the industry has been reignited, mainly for tourism.
Our favourite part of this journey is the stretch between Nuwara Eliya to Ella, because of the incredible views across the southern Sri Lankan hill country as the train passes in and out of numerous mountain tunnels through tea plantations, eucalyptus forests and nearby villages, with low lying clouds adding to this very memorable scenery.
7. Visit Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura, the capital city of the North Central Province, is a sacred, well-preserved settlement of the ancient Sri Lankan civilization.
The old city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is made up of several complexes, temples, stupas and monasteries. The highlights are the four monumental stupas: Jetavana, Ruyanvelisaya, Mirisavati and Abhayagiri, and the Temple of the Sacred Tree. They are truly huge, dramatic and full of history, and while some sites look to be in ruins, others have been completely rebuilt.
The site is enormous, so I recommend that you take one or two full days to visit this place. It’s become quite popular to rent a bike and explore the site at your own pace. Otherwise, you’ll find plenty of tuk-tuks available to take you around to the different stupas within the archeological park. Tickets cost $25 US and are sold at the Archaeology Museum.
8. Go on the Colombo Food Tour
While we weren't "wowed" by Colombo the one tour I highly recommend doing if you have an evening is the Colombo Tuk Tuk Safari food tour. It was difficult to find authentic food but with this tour we were brought right to it. Riding in the comfort of a tuk tuk we ate our way across Colombo. The tour mixed in some history highlights to round out the eating. Not only was the food excellent (the mango juice and egg hoppers were my favorite), the guide was entertaining and the price was a steal at just $50 per person. In my opinion, this is the one thing you must do if you're in Colombo.
9. Take a cooking class and market tour in Unawatuna
Once you try the tasty deliciousness that is Sri Lankan food, you’ll want to learn how to recreate the famous “curry and rice” dishes at home. Karuna’s cooking school in Unawatuna is a great place to learn how to make the most amazing fish, green bean, beetroot, pumpkin curries and perfect dhal.
Firstly you jump in a tuk-tuk to journey up the road to visit the Galle market and source your vegetables for the day. Swinging by a spice shop and the roadside fishmonger you return to Karuna’s rustic kitchen where she shows you all the tips and tricks of how to make this fabulous food.
The setting is really rustic - think cooking in an open air kitchen over a basic gas stove - but the food is easy to make, delicious and Karuna is such a character. Once you’ve cooked all the food it’s time to sit down and enjoy the feast with your fellow classmates. It’s a really fun way to learn more about this incredible cuisine.
10. Try Pol Roti
Having lived in Sri Lanka for over three years I slowly grew fond of its unique vibrant cuisine full of spices, coconut milk and carb-loaded dishes. If you visit this little island in the Indian Ocean, chances are you will eat rice and curry almost every day. But I encourage you to explore Sri Lankan food beyond rice and curry and try some other local treats. My personal favorite has to be pol roti – Lankan coconut flat bread.
Pol roti is made by mixing in scraped coconut flesh into dough and grilling the flat breads in coconut oil. Pol roti is usually served for breakfast along with lunu miris – spicy paste made of onions and chili. You can also eat it with parippu (lentil curry) and pol sambol (scraped coconut mixed with chili and lime juice). Although Sri Lankans usually eat their roti with all things spicy, I love mine sweet. You can pour some kithul treacle (local sweet syrup) or spread butter and jam on top.
11. Visit the Elephant Transit Home
There many places to see elephants in Sri Lanka. Some are amazing, and some are downright cruel. Ideally, elephants should be in the wild. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has the highest rate of elephant-human conflict in Asia! As such, there is a need for centres to care for orphaned elephants. Luckily there is the Elephant Transit Home.
It is an actual orphanage. There are no chained and no hooks or goads. The orphans and injured elephants are together in a “herd”. The rules for visitors are rightfully strict, and there is no direct contact allowed. The few dollars it costs to enter covers the milk formula costs. During the feeding times, you can view them from a viewing platform some distance away to limit the human contact. It was brilliant to see their cute little faces as they charged in during bottle time.
The Elephant Transit Centre is located very close to Udawalawe National Park, so makes an ideal addition to a safari drive. The centre has even successfully released over 100 elephants back into the wild! It also has a great museum on site. It is an experience you can proudly support knowing you are helping care for these baby and maimed elephants!
12. Search for the Big 3 (Elephants, Sloths and Leopards)
The Sri Lanka “Big 3” are Sri Lankan Asian elephant, Sri Lankan sloth bears and Sri Lankan leopard. You can most reliably see all three in Yala NP in the south-east or Willpattu NP in the north-west.
You will see elephants; they are everywhere. Seeing a leopard is not easy though, and spotting a sloth bear is harder still. The best time to see a leopard is during the dry season as they must search further afield for water. The Palu fruiting season is your best bet to see a sloth bearv– they love this fruit. We, fortunately, visited during the ideal times and saw the Big 3.
A word of caution. You need to patient and ideally, go on a few drives. Yala NP is known as “the circus” due to “jeep cowboys”. Unfortunately, it is an apt description and sad sight to see. It is essential to get a knowledgeable and ethical company to go on safari with to avoid adding to this behavior. In the end, over 10+ safaris, mostly in Yala, we saw countless animals and birds, many elephants including a newborn calf, five different leopards and two sloth bear! Well worth the effort.
13. Go Surfing in Midigama
When people think of surfing in Sri Lanka, they think of the crowded spots like Mirissa or Arugam Bay but there is a hidden spot in the Southern coast that's not so crowded - at least not yet.
Surfing in Midigama is not popular yet but this town boasts with decent waves and a very tight-knit community of surfers. Though there aren't a lot of food options (not even malls!), this is definitely the haven for many surfers who are seeking for a less-crowded trip. Beginners and professionals alike have a place in Midigama because there are a lot of spots that will fit your capability and likeness.
The beaches are swimmable and day trips to neighbouring cities are easy (Galle, Koggala, Mirissa, etc) so even if you are not into surfing, there is something in this area for you.
14. Go Whale Watching in Mirrissa
We went whale watching in the south of Sri Lanka in a small tourist town called Mirrissa. This hands down must be in your itinerary when traveling to Sri Lanka. It’s the best, easiest and most consistent place in the world to see Blue Whales, not to mention all the other species of whale you have a very good chance of seeing.
We set out early in the morning as the guide advised us that sometimes it takes longer to find them. However, we struck gold when the whales were only just off the coast. This gave us so much time with the whales and we have some cracking shots of tails in the air.
There are A LOT of whale tour guides operating out of Mirrissa harbor so shop around as always. Always choose a guide that has mandatory lifejackets throughout the trip. If you get sea sick then you can pick up sickness pill very cheaply in local pharmacies. Finally, try to go with a reputable tour group that doesn’t endanger or interfere too much with the whales, we saw some very invasive maneuvers just to get closer to the whales which is unnecessary.
Jade & Kev
15. Visit Jaffna
Jaffna is located all the way up in the North of Sri Lanka and not many travelers make it this far. But if you have the time, you really should include Jaffna in your itinerary!
Why you may ask? Jaffna and the surrounding area is not very touristy (yet) and exploring this off the beaten track was one of the highlights of our 1-month Sri Lanka trip! The best way to explore? Rent a scooter and drive around the beautiful islands Velanai and Karainagar. Discover crumbling buildings, colorful Hindu temples and deserted roads.
The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges and small ferries. These days the roads are quiet and peaceful, but this area was heavily impacted by the Sri Lankan civil war which ended only in May 2009…
16. Climb the famous Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya
One of the best things that we did during our month long trip in Sri Lanka was climbing on top of Pidurangala rock in Sigiriya town. We woke up at 4 am, rode our bicycles to the start of this hike and climbed in dark to reach the top. The climb is easy in the beginning but gets slippery towards the end. We reached just in time to see the most spectacular sunrise from up here. On one side we could see Sri Lanka's most popular landmark - Sigiriya rock, while the other side was covered with forest and mountains. Sigiriya rock and Pidurangala rock are located next to each other in Sigiriya town. Climbing Pidurangala rock much more tricky as compared to climbing on top of Sigiriya peak where you can just follow the steps.
Sonal & Sandro
Sounds great! Sri Lanka sounds like it has such a diverse range of experiences, and I can see why so many people recommend it as the ideal destination 🙂
Wow~ I had no idea that there was such a wide variety of things to do in Sri Lanka. From elephants to the food and the nature views, wow! Jaffna looks like a quiet place to reflect and explore. That peak and sunrise says it all, let’s go!
Amazing. Thank you for sharing
Great post. May I add visiting Galle. You cannot miss Galle while visiting Sri Lanka. I also found the Polonnaruwa (within the cultural triangle) very interesting. #5 and #16 seem to be duplicates. Perhaps you could replace one of them with these points.
We loved our time in Sri Lanka! Despite spending ten days there, we still didn’t touch the amount of thing there are to experience. From your list, we definitely want to do a safari and food tour next time we’re there!
I want to visit the Elephant transit home! That looks amazing! What time of year did you visit and when is best to go?