Not long ago, the small island of Sri Lanka remained hidden in the shadow of its ‘big sister’ India. But the travel community has finally caught on.
Sri Lanka has exploded onto the scene with its bright culture, palm-lined beaches, wild safaris, and picturesque train journeys. It was even named the top country to travel to in 2019 by Lonely Planet.
Aside from everything being totally Insta-worthy, here are our top ten reasons Sri Lanka is such a hot spot.
Sri Lanka boasts not one… not two… but eight UNESCO World Heritage sites (and the country’s only twice the size of Vancouver Island).
Discover the power of Buddha’s tooth relic in the sacred city of Kandy. Delve into Portuguese history at the old Galle Fort. Explore the ruins of former capital Polonnaruwa or clamber up to the ancient city of Sigiriya and explore the remains of King Kassapa’s palace (it’s a great #legday workout — trust us). Instead, you might follow pilgrims to the sacred city of Anuradhapura or the Golden Dambulla Cave Temple. For a different kind of pilgrimage, head to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Horton Plains National Park, or Knuckles Conservation Forest.
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Commuting between destinations is an attraction itself — Sri Lanka boasts some of the most scenic train rides in the world.
Roll gently past misty jungles, lush tea estates, and old pine forests while leaning (carefully!) into the cool wind. Catch the bustle of local life unfolding at tiny and colourful stations of Sri Lanka’s countryside. The most scenic journey is from Kandy to Ella, which winds through the heart of tea country. Continuing east past Ella also takes you over the iconic Nine Arches Bridge.
The best part is that first class tickets cost less than your grande PSL.
Heads up: Second-class tickets can usually be purchased at the station but seats aren’t guaranteed. It’s a breathtaking experience either way but we totally recommend booking tickets in advance for at least one leg. Don’t forget to pack your own water and snacks.
Sri Lanka’s rail lines were originally built by the British Colonial government for tea export. If you’re hopping on a scenic train ride, chances are you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of tea country.
Take high tea at The Grand Hotel in the cool mountain town of Nuwara Eliya. Still in the heart of the tea trade, Nuwara Eliya remains steeped in British colonial history. For a behind-the-scenes experience, stop at one of many tea plantations. At Ella’s Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, tours lead to the tasting room where a hot cup of heaven and sweeping views await.
Sri Lanka’s unique climate and biodiversity makes it one of the best places in Asia for a mix of mammal, bird, and marine wildlife.
Yala National Park is known for having the highest concentration of leopards. Udawalawe is the go-to park for elephants and is home to nearly 500 of them. Wasgamuwa National Park is known as a hotspot for observing elephant herds and their precious little ones. Bird-lovers will find mixed flocks at the Sinharaja forest reserve while Wilpattu National park is a great place to spot the elusive sloth bear (which are just as cute as they sound).
There are many tour companies to guide your foray into the wild so please choose ethically.
Though you’re destined to run into the tacky souvenir stands that pop up wherever tourists roam, authentic experiences are still prevalent.
You don’t have to wander far from tourist traps to eat “Sri Lankan spicy” food (folks at the Matey Hut, located at the end of the main road in Ella, will challenge your taste buds if you dare them). Recover by basking in the healing properties of Ayurveda or catch one of many local festivals.
We stumbled upon a Tamil Hindu procession involving human hook suspension — this traditional practice is not for the faint of heart!
Sri Lanka is home to over 100 waterfalls including the famous Bambarakanda and Diyaluma falls. Sri Lanka has hikes for all levels, and waterfall or not, each is stunning. A gentle stroll through Horton Plains National Park takes you to Baker’s Falls and a sheer precipice aptly named World’s End (for the best vantage point, opt for the narrow path that edges along the cliffside from Mini World’s End instead of the main path).
Other popular hikes include Ella Rock and Adams Peak. H-core adventurers can head out on multi-day excursions to remote villages like Meemure in the wilder Knuckles Range.
Whether you’re a beginner or pro, Sri Lanka has waves for you. The country’s southern tip is lined with gorgeous beaches and surf breaks ranging from chill to totally gnarly. From November to March, stick to west coast beaches like Weligama Hikkaduwa, and Unawatuna.
From May to September, shift over to east coast beaches like Arugam Bay (be sure to get on that Magic Seaweed for the latest surf report).
If surfing isn’t your thing, don’t worry. These coastal towns are bumpin’. You’re guaranteed to find a beach-side lounger and a cocktail, and if walking barefoot in the sand to ambient waves is your preferred method of barhopping — Sri Lanka is definitely for you.
Let’s be honest, SEA can be a challenging place to navigate. While narrowly escaping chaos and misfortune often add to the adventure, smooth sailing is cool too. Sri Lanka has proven itself to be one of the most chill Southeast Asian countries for travellers while still offering diverse experiences and an exotic feel. It’s the perfect place to YOLO solo, or to find your groove before taking on the likes of India.
Since Colombo is the only international flight hub, most visitors tend to follow a logical loop from sacred cities to tea plantations, through national parks, and back via coastal beach towns. While this quickly burns a tourist trail, there are still many places to wander off the beaten path.
Take side trips to Kaduruketha or the Knuckles Range. Or better yet, jet to the northern and north-eastern sides of the island. They are more challenging to reach and remain relatively untouched.
Sri Lanka has a tumultuous past. The country has emerged from colonial rule, civil war, and natural disasters, including the 2004 Tsunami that claimed 30,000 lives.
Still, the country rebuilds and heals. Sri Lankans proudly celebrate tradition and share their culture with the warmest smiles. Adding like-minded travellers to the mix makes Sri Lanka is a great place to meet genuine and lovely people from all over the globe.
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