10 things to see, do and experience in Sri Lanka

From ancient temples to orphaned elephants, the wonders of Sri Lanka are waiting to be discovered. Find out what to see and do on the island paradise.

By Saga team

Published 6 May 2024

India's neighbour Sri Lanka is a diverse and culturally rich country with exotic wildlife and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, including Mirissa and Trincomalee.

Since Sri Lanka is larger than you may imagine, deciding what kind of trip you’re after is important so that you can maximise your time away.

Getting to grips with this fantastic destination is most easily done on a Sri Lankan tour - although the right hotel stay can also tick all the right holiday boxes.

These tips should help you make the most of your Sri Lankan holiday, whether you're after history, culture, or good old-fashioned relaxation.

Explore Colonial Ceylon and pass through Colombo, a city that was colonised by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British before regaining its independence in 1948.

This city, with its naturally formed harbour, was a prized treasure among those who sought to stake their claim on Southeast Asia.

Colombo has a distinctly Sri Lankan feel to it, and on your holidays you can wander through streets that have been crafted by many hands and still feel like you are in the beating heart of this Southeast Asian nation.

You can also learn about how the British colonialists started tea production in Sri Lanka on a plantation in Nuwara Eliya, and see how this beautiful part of the country functions today in a contemporary and independent climate.

Outside Colombo, explore the naturally beautiful attributes of Sri Lanka, and see where the modern meets the ancient by visiting Kandy and the famous Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is said to house one of Lord Buddha’s teeth.

If you want to explore all the shades of Sri Lanka’s history and culture, then opt for a tour will take you to the western coast, and then up through the country to view the largest cave temple, Dambulla, which has been so well preserved it gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Head to the Hindu Shrines and Buddhist Temples near Yala National Park to step inside Sri Lanka's religious landscape.

Take advantage of the famous Sri Lankan shoreline, and dip your feet in the warm Indian Ocean from one of the many hotels on the western side of the country.

The waters that surround the western shoreline is blue and the coast is brimming with golden coloured sands and palm trees stretching along the beach as far as the eye can see.

Visit a local fishing village to explore your surroundings and purchase local handicrafts, or travel to the Negombo Lagoon, where you can board a boat for a mini-cruise along the Dutch Canal, one of a number of waterways built during the 18th century by the Dutch East India Company to facilitate their trade.

Visit the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe to see orphaned and injured elephants being cared for until they're well enough to be released back into the wild.

Wilpattu National Park covers an impressive 425 square miles and boasts a variety of flora and fauna – the perfect place to visit if you want to try and glimpse the elusive leopard, sloth bears and Sri Lankan elephants.

There are also several natural lakes, which attract a large number of birds – from painted storks to kingfishers.

Alternatively, go into the wilds of the Yala National Park for the chance to spot leopards, macaques, water buffaloes, sea turtles and wild elephants.

UNESCO site of Polonnaruwa

You can discover a variety of archaeological monuments in this incredible city – the second ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka.

Of particular note is the famous Gal Viharaya, or Stone Temple, which features four Buddha statues carved out of stone reflecting peace, serenity and strength.

Sigiriya’s famous ‘Lion Rock’ was the brief capital of King Kassapa I some 1,500 years ago. Sitting on top of the 80-metre tall granite rock are the ruins of an ancient palace complex.

Two colossal paws still stand either side of limestone steps, a reminder of the huge lion figure that once guarded the entrance to the palace.

Sigiriya is also well known for the ‘Heavenly Maidens’, rock paintings of beautiful women found on a sheltered ledge on the side of the rock, and now considered among the greatest art treasures of the world.

The age-old art form of Batik involves creating ornate designs by applying wax to cloth and dyeing it.

It’s a time-consuming technique, and some of the more intricate designs can take many painstaking hours to complete. It’s a fascinating process to watch, and the end results can be truly amazing.

Sri Lanka doesn’t instantly spring to mind as a whale-watching destination, but from May to October there is a good chance of spotting both sperm whales and blue whales in the waters around tropical Pasikuda Bay.

Longing to see the beautiful beaches and ancient temples for yourself? We have a range of escorted and independent tours of Sri Lanka.

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