Sri Lanka has so many things to experience that it can be a challenge to work out what is actually worth doing. To help you decide, I’ve listed my favourite activities, any of which can be incorporated into a trip. From sipping delicious tea in the lush tea plantations of the hill country, to meandering through old colonial cities, from admiring the sunset over thousand year-old forests and ancient ruins to close encounters with majestic wildlife, I hope you’ll be inspired.
1. Watching the sunset from Sigiriya Rock Fortress
One of the wonders of the world, Sigiriya Rock is a 660 ft. high fortress with a history thought to date back to 3rd Century BC. Surrounded by incredible man-made tanks, used to store water that was funneled up to the top of the rock, it’s an engineering masterpiece and a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold. For those willing to do some exercise, a climb to the top rewards you with some incredible views over the surrounding forests.
2. Meandering through Galle Fort
UNESCO heritage Galle Fort is a beautiful place to explore at any time of day, but there’s something really special about it at sunset and twilight. I travelled here just before a Poya Day – a monthly Buddhist lunar festival – and the twinkling lights added an extra air of mystery and beauty to this seaside town.
It’s a historic place that feels at once both similar to Europe and yet very different; the pretty, narrow streets within the Fort feel more medieval than Sri Lankan, but the language you hear as the locals chat with their neighbours on their doorsteps alongside the spicy aroma and tropical breeze create a more exotic ambiance. It’s particularly atmospheric to explore at dusk. Do make sure you stop for an ice cream at The Dairy Man as you seek out little shops and restaurants at your own pace.
3. Meet Charles Carmichael at the Garrison Cemetery in Kandy
A discreet graveyard on the outskirts of Kandy, the Garrison Cemetery is the final resting place of many British colonists, each with their own remarkable life stories about their time in Ceylon. The caretaker Mr Charles Carmichael has an unparalleled knowledge of each of the gravestone’s stories, which he is happy to share with you. His son is also often on hand to help bring to life, the dead – so to speak. It’s an incredible experience.
4. Drink a cup of tea in the hill country
The deep emerald greens of the hill country are stunning and what makes the moment even better is sipping a wonderfully fresh cup of tea as you take in the view. Usually drunk without milk but with jaggery (a cane sugar), it’s a delicious ritual.
5. Take a train ride through the tropical countryside
Sri Lanka’s colonial railway network features some of the most stunning scenery in the world. Mounds of lush tea plantations rise from valleys as defiant trees emerge from hilltops. The bright blue colour of the train is a beautiful contrast to the surrounding rich emerald colours and the journey is a photographer’s dream. Our top tip is to travel second class with its opening windows – feel the wind blow in your hair as you rattle along like a local.
6. Expert guided tour through colonial Colombo
One of our longest-standing guides, Mark Forbes, leads wonderful tours through Colombo, uncovering some of the most fascinating stories dating back to the colonial period. He’ll lead you on a journey through Dutch courtyards and past magnificent commercial buildings built by the British. There are tales of humour, scandal, and intrigue in combination with stunning architecture and refreshing rooftop drinks.
7. Spotting elephants
What’s wonderful about Sri Lanka is its many opportunities to spot elephants in the wild. Uda Walawe in the south of the country, is an often-overlooked National Park that gives visitors a very good chance of seeing these majestic animals. Within the park’s borders is the Elephant Transit Camp, run by the Born Free Foundation; here you can see how orphaned elephants are rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
From July to October, you can witness the biggest gathering of wild elephants in the world at Minneriya National Park, which is a truly spectacular experience. Remarkably, you can also enjoy an elephant safari by boat and, if you are very lucky, spot them swimming near Gal Oya Lodge. Or you can opt for a more traditional jeep safari at Wilpattu and Yala – the latter offering a very good chance of spotting the elusive leopard too.
8. Meeting locals around Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura
Whilst the ancient city of Polonnaruwa and the Buddhist stupas of Anuradhapura are imposing enough, what’s rather wonderful about these places is that they also provide a window into everyday Sri Lankan life. Families often come here for a picnic outing or schools bring children in their smart white uniforms. It’s a really interesting and unobtrusive way to look beyond a tourist hotspot and explore below the surface of the country.
9. Cycling to a tank and going for a swim
It’s surprising how few people know about the incredible water tanks of Sri Lanka that characterise many of its rural areas. A really memorable experience can be had cycling to a reservoir near The Mudhouse eco-lodge and taking a refreshing swim in the lake. The air is so clean and the experience is incredibly wholesome.
10. Experiencing a festival or commemorative event
Sri Lanka has various colourful community events throughout the year. Every month, on a full moon, is Poya day: a time where communities come together to share food and have fun. In August, there is a remarkable procession known as the Esala Perahera that commemorates Buddha’s tooth arriving in the country. You can book a balcony room in Kandy for a private viewing of the elaborately-robed elephant carrying the relic, or you can reserve seats on a raised platform and watch the procession go past you from there.
If you’d like to talk to a Sri Lanka travel specialist about your potential holiday, do give us a call on 020 7924 7133 or email us here. You can see some examples of the kinds of trips we organise by looking at our Sri Lanka portfolio. All our trips are tailor-made though, so can be changed to suit your exact needs.