Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island in the tropical Indian Ocean with a variety of landscapes and cultural attractions scattered across the country. Tourist arrival numbers have multiplied several-fold in recent years, with travelers flocking to Sri Lanka to visit Kandy, Galle, Colombo, Ella and so on. Though the island is compact, there are a myriad of tourism destinations in Sri Lanka to satisfy even the most discerning traveler. Wondering where to go in Sri Lanka? Here is a comprehensive list of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka – I hope this list encourages you to look beyond the obvious destinations!
Ahangama is a sleepy coastal town in south Sri Lanka popular with those who appreciate a slower pace of life and easy access to the nearby beaches. Head inland and you’ll be met with traditional craftspeople and lush rice paddies, or venture to the coast for hipster cafes, restaurants and surf breaks to suit all levels of surfers.
Don’t miss: The Kip for brunch, sunset drinks at Lighthouse Ahangama, beach hangs at Kabalana Beach, Handunugoda Tea Estate.
The sacred city of Anuradhapura is an ancient capital in Sri Lanka and part of the country’s Cultural Triangle. This city is a living heritage site and remains a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists in Sri Lanka and around the world, which makes it one of the most important historical places in Sri Lanka. Today, the sprawling ruins of Anuradhapura features monasteries, shining stupas and remnants of the ancient city. Click here to read more about visiting Anuradhapura.
Don’t miss: Ruwanwelisaya stupa, the Sri Maha Bodhi shrine, the twin ponds, Thuparamaya.
3. Arugam Bay
Arugam Bay is a famous surfing destination on Sri Lanka’s east coast, though more and more non-surfers and families are flocking to the small town from May to October for its long sandy beaches, proximity to lesser-visited national parks and budget-friendly hotels.
Don’t miss: Arugam main beach, Peanut Farm (if you are an avid surfer), Kudumbigala Monastery, Gal Oya National Park.
Bentota is a classic resort town in southwest Sri Lanka, easily reachable from Colombo or Galle. It offers sandy beaches and quiet lagoon tours through the mangroves. Its name comes from a mythical story which dates back to ancient Sri Lanka where legend is that a demon named “Bem” ruled the river.
Don’t miss: Ventura Beach, Bentota River.
Sri Lanka’s major commercial hub, Colombo is a bustling city that blends rich traditional architecture and culture with the colonial, and features pockets of vibrant and up-and-coming neighborhoods, restaurants, rooftop bars and cafes. It is the main transportation gateway in Sri Lanka with more to offer than meets the eye. Click here for how to spend 24 hours in Colombo!
Don’t miss: Gangaramaya Temple, Pettah and the Red Mosque, the Dutch Hospital.
Dambulla is a small city in central Sri Lanka known for being home to the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex on the island. A sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site for 22-plus centuries, the Dambulla Cave Temple complex consists of 5 caves covered in colourful frescoes and more than 150 Buddha statues.
Ella is an enchanting mountain town that has quickly become a must-visit tourist destination in Sri Lanka. It offers some of the best views in Sri Lanka – a seemingly endless sprawl of lush tea plantations and rocky mountain ranges. Visitors can indulge in luxurious massages and tea factory tours and tastings, or adventurous hikes and waterfall treks. Click here to read more about visiting Ella!
Don’t miss: Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, Nine Arch Bridge, Mini Adam’s Peak, Ravana Falls.
Galle was an important port city when the country was occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and was later fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century. It served as an important military stronghold before the arrival of the British, and today features the UNESCO-listed Galle Fort and old world architecture. Even after 400 years, Galle Fort has maintained its traditional appearance after extensive reconstruction following the tsunami that devastated parts of the island in 2004. Click here to read more about visiting Galle.
Don’t miss: The Galle Fort ramparts, Galle Lighthouse, Old Dutch Hospital.
Hambantota is a rural town in southeast Sri Lanka and part of the ancient Kingdom of Ruhuna. The city served as an important port city in the past, and continues to play an important role in Sri Lanka’s trade and commerce today. It is also now home to one of Sri Lanka’s biggest beach resorts, the Shangri-La Hambantota.
Don’t miss: Bundala National Park, river safari on Walawe River, Godawaya, ancient Tissamaharama stupa.
Haputale in Sri Lanka’s hill country is a small town surrounded by tea estates, and is most well known as being a convenient launch point for visitors heading to the picturesque Lipton’s Seat viewpoint.
Don’t miss: Dambethenna Tea Factory, Lipton’s Seat, Thangamale Sanctuary.
One of Sri Lanka’s most famous and popular beach towns, Hikkaduwa is lined on either side by shallow coral reef and lush palm trees. It is popular with divers and snorkelers alike who flock to its shores to see the rich marine life.
Don’t miss: Peraliya Tsunami Memorial, Hikkaduwa Beach.
Hiriketiya is an idyllic horseshoe-shaped bay in Dickwella town in south Sri Lanka. It is one of the best beaches in south Sri Lanka and is protected from wind and swell throughout the year, which makes it a wonderful swimming spot all year round – it has quickly become one of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka.
For easy access to Hiriketiya beach, check out Sam & Lola’s (my property named after my beloved dachshunds)! The twin private villas each feature a private plunge pool and beach-inspired decor. You can book via AirBnb here and here.
Don’t miss: Surfing in the bay, spa treatments at Amor, brunch at Verse Collective, cocktails at Smoke & Bitters.
13. Horton Plains
Horton Plains National Park is a national park in the highlands of Sri Lanka featuring lush grassland and evergreen forests, as well as endemic flora and fauna including the graceful Sri Lankan sambar deer. World’s End is one of the most spectacular clifftop viewpoints in the country, or you can venture along one of the many hiking trails that traverse through the park.
Jaffna is a small city located at the northernmost tip of the island with a predominantly Tamil population. Though it was rebuilt after the Civil War that ended in 2009, tourists are slowly venturing north from Colombo to explore the city’s rich Sri Lankan and colonial landmarks and history.
Don’t miss: Jaffna Fort, Nallur Kandaswamy temple, Vaitheeswaran Kovil Pond.
Kalpitiya is located in the Puttalam district approximately 4 hours by car northwest of Colombo. It is bordered by the Gulf of Mannar on one side and the Puttalam lagoon and Dutch Bay on the other, which makes it a very popular destination for people who love water sports such as kitesurfing and windsurfing. Click here to read more about visiting Kalpitiya.
Don’t miss: Kitesurfing lessons, dolphin and whale watching, Kalpitiya Dutch Fort.
Kandy is one of the most famous destinations in Sri Lanka: it was the last capital of the Sinhala kings and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it is one of the most important cultural and religious epicenters in Sri Lanka and home to the revered Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Don’t miss: The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, International Buddhist Museum, Kandy Lake, Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha.
17. Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park in Central Sri Lanka is one of the best places to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka. The park is narrowly separated by a jungle corridor from Minneriya National Park, and is a popular safari destination on the island. Click here for more information on how to watch the annual Elephant Gathering in Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks.
18. Knuckles Mountain Range
Named after the ridges along the mountain that resemble knuckles of a closed fist, the Knuckles Mountain Range in Central Sri Lanka is a UNESCO Heritage Site that features viewpoints with sheer drops, dense cloud forests, roaring waterfalls and hiking trails. It won’t take you long to see why Knuckles is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka! Read on for a guide to planning the perfect Knuckles day trip.
Don’t miss: Mini World’s End, Sera Ella waterfall, local village visit and lunch.
Koggala is a small coastal town in south Sri Lanka featuring the sprawling Koggala Lake on one side, and long golden beach on the other. The town is also well known for the stilt fishermen who are often found straddling precariously thin wooden stilts by the beach.
Don’t miss: Koggala lake and lagoon boat tour, stilt fishermen, Kathaluwa Old Temple.
Madiha is a small town close to the city of Matara in south Sri Lanka with a growing number of beach cafes and restaurants. It is especially popular among surfers who flock to its shores for consistent reef breaks.
Don’t miss: The Doctor’s House, Madiha Beach, Polhena Beach.
Matara near the southernmost point of Sri Lanka is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest cities. It was ruled by Sinhala kings for thousands of years is currently a transportation and commerce hub in the south. As it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch it also features colonial architecture and landmarks.
Don’t miss: Paravi Duwa temple, Dondra Lighthouse, Star Fort.
Midigama is a tiny town sandwiched between Ahangama and Weligama in south Sri Lanka. Though it is not as well known as its neighbours, it is popular among surfers who head to Midigama to ride Lazy Left’s, Ram’s and Lazy Right’s. Non-surfers can also visit the Yakinige Duuwa tombola and snorkel around its shallow reef.
Don’t miss: Yakinige Duuwa, Animal SOS Sanctuary.
23. Minneriya National Park
Minneriya National Park, like its neighbour Kaudulla, is one of the best places to see wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka. Large hordes of elephants trek to the reservoir during the dry season to play, bathe, drink and socialize, and visitors can watch these gentle giants from afar in their natural habitat. Click here for more information on how to watch the annual Elephant Gathering in Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks.
Mirissa is one of the top tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, famous for being the hub for dolphin and whale watching in the south coast. Before you embark on a whale watching adventure, make sure you choose an ethical tour operator that does not chase or harass the marine mammals. I have heard good things about Raja & the Whales (read more reviews here) and I also recommend Sail Lanka’s luxury catamarans for a more intimate experience.
Don’t miss: Mirissa Beach, Coconut Tree Hill, morning fish market at Mirissa Fisheries Harbor.
Negombo is a small beach-side town on the west coast of Sri Lanka with a large Catholic population. Though I personally think Negombo Beach is not the best for swimming, lounging or surfing, you can walk along the sandy shoreline and watch the fishermen at work. It is an extremely convenient town to stay in if you need a place before a late-night or early-morning flight, as it’s only a 15-20 minute drive from the main international airport.
Don’t miss: St. Mary’s Church, St. Sebastian’s Church, Negombo Beach.
Nilaveli is a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka best known for its long pristine beach and access to the coral reef-laden Pigeon Island Marine National Park. Perfect for visitors to Sri Lanka looking for a quiet beach experience.
27. Nuwara Eliya
Also known as “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya high up in Sri Lanka’s hill country is strangely reminiscent of a small British village with its colonial-era heritage bungalows and houses. It is a popular starting point for people looking to hike up Adam’s Peak or visit World’s End, or you can simply take a gentle stroll around Lake Gregory to take in one of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka – no judgment here!
Don’t miss: Lake Gregory, Bluefield Tea Gardens, Mackwoods Tea Museum, Bomburuella Waterfall.
Pasikudah is slowly gaining popularity as a beach destination in eastern Sri Lanka after the civil war and tsunami. Like Nilaveli, the beach is near-pristine and far quieter than the famous beaches in the south, though the tourism infrastructure is still being improved upon.
Polonnaruwa served as Sri Lanka’s ancient capital city for nearly 2 centuries between the 11th and 13th centuries. The sprawling city is a UNESCO Heritage Site that can be explored on foot, by bicycle or by car – the ruins, temples and shrines are impeccably preserved. Read more about visiting Polonnaruwa by clicking here.
Don’t miss: Sacred Quadrangle, Rankot Vehara, Lankathilaka, Gal-vihara.
Sigiriya is one of the top tourist attractions in Sri Lanka – the massive, awe-inspiring monument is an ancient fortress that dates back to the 5th century featuring a Sky Palace that sits atop of the humongous 200-metre-tall rock. Read more about climbing Sigiriya Rock here.
31. Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a national park in south Sri Lanka and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. It is “the last remaining relatively undisturbed remnant of tropical humid evergreen forest in Sri Lanka” and home to a huge array of threatened, endangered and rare species. You can do guided tours or day trips around the forest reserve, and it is especially popular with avid bird watchers and wildlife lovers.
Talalla is a small, somewhat “secret” town in south Sri Lanka offering a laid-back beach that stretches along for more than a kilometre. For those seeking some serious downtime, set up shop at Talalla Retreat and sign up for daily Yoga and meditation classes, or head to the local spa for a massage or Ayurveda treatment. After a few days, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that this is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka!
Talpe is an often overlooked south coast town nestled between Unawatuna and Koggala. The main road is lined with boutique hotels aplenty, but if you cross over to the other side you’ll find popular beaches and Instagram-famous rope swings.
Tangalle is one of the largest towns in southern Sri Lanka, not far from Hambantota. It offers an array of unspoiled beaches and tends to be much quieter than its counterparts on the southwest coast. It’s also home to the luxurious Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort if you’re looking for a relaxing, upscale stay in south Sri Lanka.
Don’t miss: Mulkirigala Rock Temple, Hummanaya blowhole, Goyambokka Beach, Unakaruwa Beach.
Trincomalee, or “Trinco” as the locals call it, is a port city on the east coast of Sri Lanka. The community is predominantly Tamil, and is one of the oldest settlements on the island. Trinco has long, idyllic beaches to offer, and its shores are graced by the presence of whales and dolphins from May to about September during the east coast’s “peak season”.
Don’t miss: Koneswaram temple, Fort Fredrick, Uppuveli Beach.
36. Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is located in the south of Sri Lanka and is a popular destination for those hoping to spot wild elephants. It is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see elephants throughout the year as there are a few hundred elephants living within the park. Elephant lovers must also visit the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe to watch orphaned baby elephants get fed and nurtured back to health. Click here to read more about visiting Udawalawe National Park.
Another one of Sri Lanka’s most famous tourist beaches, Unawatuna is a coastal town with a number of beaches and tourist attractions on offer. The small town is extremely developed with many restaurants and cafes available for the large hordes of tourists that flock to its golden shores. Alternatively, you can rent a snorkel or try your hand at diving off its shallow reef.
Don’t miss: Japanese Peace Pagoda, Jungle Beach, Dalawella Beach.
Weligama is the poster child for beaches on the island, and one of the top tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. The former fishing village embraced visitors very early on, so offers many restaurants and well-established tourist infrastructure. The beach is almost always densely packed with tourists as well as up to a hundred surfers learning to surf in white water.
Don’t miss: Sunset drinks at Cape Weligama, Taprobane Island, Weligama Beach.
39. Wilpattu National Park
Nearly sixty lakes and tanks are found throughout Wilpattu National Park in northeast Sri Lanka, as well as the rare sloth bear and an unknown population of the Sri Lankan leopard. Wilpattu is one of the largest and oldest National Parks in Sri Lanka but tends to be far less crowded than its counterparts in the south. Read more about visiting Wilpattu National Park by clicking here.
40. Yala National Park
Yala National Park is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka and receives the most number of visitors each year. It is located in the south and is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist destinations – visitors head to the park in the hopes of spotting leopards as it boasts one of the highest leopard densities in the world. Click here to read more about visiting Yala National Park.
Ready to see some of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka? What are some other must-visit destinations in Sri Lanka? Tell me about them in the comments section below!
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