Sri Lanka, a country that is so green that it feels like one big tropical rainforest national park. No matter where we went, we usually woke up to the music of birds. During our month long trip in Sri Lanka, there were at least five instances where we saw wild elephants near the main road. Although there are hundreds of things to do in Sri Lanka, but here are some of our favorites and we highly recommend you consider doing some of them on your visit to Sri Lanka. Don’t stress yourself to do all of them but include only some that fit your itinerary so that you can travel at a leisurely pace and enjoy. Oh and by the way, you can check the visa requirements for Sri Lanka for your nationality here.
Things to do in Sri Lanka
01 | Enjoy a Scenic Train Ride in Sri Lanka
Train rides in Sri Lanka are so much fun that they are “bucket-list worthy”. These trains are surprisingly clean, affordable and comfortable. It felt like a mini country tour because the views outside were breathtaking. Although it is easy to get a seat but we realized that the most popular seat was the door seat. Many locals just sat by the door, eating and enjoying the view. So did we! We saw hills that were completely covered with tea plantation, forest, waterfalls, streams, small villages, monkeys and more. It rained a little during the train ride and the forest around us looked even greener than before. After every few minutes, we would spot a food vendor selling delicious and cheap snacks inside our coach. Honestly, it was the most entertaining train ride of our lives.
We traveled by third class and bought our tickets at the station just before the ride. We didn’t even need a prior booking on a part of Sri Lanka’s most famous train route – Kandy to Ella. I met a few people who couldn’t find train tickets for the same route because they were looking for only first or second-class seats.
Suggested Reading: Essential Tips for Traveling in Sri Lanka
02 | Visit a National Park and See Elephants
Do you know that Sri Lanka has around 25 national parks? This is a big number considering the size of this island country. There is at least one national park after every few hundreds of kilometers and we highly recommend you visit one. Yes, we did say that Sri Lanka feels like one big national park and it is possible to see the elephants on the streets, but visiting one is an experience to remember. It is different catching a quick glimpse of wild elephants from the bus as compared to an open-air jeep safari where you can get closer to them and watch them eat. Not just elephants, but you can also see exotic birds, big lizards, crocodiles, deer, and panthers. The fee for entering most of the national parks is the same and is between $10 and $15 for a day. You will also need to pay for the jeep safari, and it’s economical if you go in a group of 6 people. We visited Kaudulla National Park, which is an hour away from Sigiriya. Depending on your itinerary, you can also visit Yala National Park, which is near Arugam Bay; Uda Walawe National Park, which is in South Central area of the island; or Minneriya National Park, which is near Sigiriya.
03 | Go Fishing with the Locals
On one rainy day in Arugam bay, San and I sat next to a backwater lagoon and decided to have a lazy day. In a distance, we could see local fishermen who were trying to catch tuna with their simple net. Half an hour later, somehow we were all friends and were standing next to them as they explained their process.
After a few hours, they invited us to their house where we drank tea with their families. They invited us to join them at 5 am next day for fishing. San loves fishing and as per him, this was the best thing that he had ever done in Sri Lanka.
Fishing is an important part of Sri Lanka’s culture because of a massive coastline and many inland lakes and rivers. Fishing provides daily income and food for many families where men wake up early to fish and women sell their catch. If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, we highly recommend you try fishing with the locals. If you are short of time to make friends with local fishermen, try going for one of the tours. If you’re lucky, you may find the traditional stilt fishing, where locals sit on their stilts and wait for the fishes
04 | Explore the Hill Country
During out month long trip to Sri Lanka, our favorite area of Sri Lanka was definitely the middle part, which is called the “Hill Country”. It’s sad how many travelers miss this area and just head for the beaches because they’re in Sri Lanka for a short visit. This part of Sri Lanka is covered with tea plantations and you can spot many waterfalls. Yes, Sri Lanka is very green but the hill country has got to be the greenest part because it rains a lot here. In fact, the coldest city here – Nuwara Eliya is also called “Little England” because of the rains and tea culture. It was very cold when we visited Nuwara Eliya but we ended up enjoying it because the weather made our experience super romantic.
Another place that you can visit in this area is Ella, which is a backpacker’s hub. Our best experience was in a small town called Haputale in Sri Lanka’s Uva province where San and I explored the tea estates on our own and found many viewpoints. No matter where we looked, we could only see small hills that were fully covered with tea plantation.
05 | Climb Pidurangala Rock and See Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya is one of the most famous destinations in Sri Lanka because we expected it to be very busy but it surprised us. Don’t get me wrong, several tourists do visit this city but several areas of the city were surprisingly empty. The only crowded part was the Sigiriya rock because 99% of the people come here to check this off their list. As we explored the area around the Sigiriya rock on a bicycle, we saw the steps on the rock had a little “human traffic jam”, which turned us off. The next day, we woke up at 4:30 am and went to Pidurangala instead, which is right next to Sigiriya and is as high. We climbed Pidurangala rock in dark to see the sunrise on top of it.
The climb is not as easy as Sigiriya because there are parts where we had to climb some really big rocks towards the end, but the view is definitely worth it. On one side, we saw the famous Sigiriya rock and on the other side Kandy’s mountains. We also saw a massive statue of Buddha that was peeping through the rainforest from far away and gave this area a surreal feel. I am not sure how long we stayed up there but it was definitely more than an hour.
If you’re planning on climbing Pidurangala rock too, then please do this in a group because it can be unsafe if you do it alone and get stuck. It gets very hot in Sigiriya during the day, so please try to do at sunrise or sunset. There is no toilet up there, so please use one before you start to climb.
5.1 .. or Climb Adam’s Peak / World’s End / other famous viewpoints
Apart from Pidurangala rock, Sri Lanka has many other viewpoints that you can climb, so I’m adding all these options here as a sub-point to my last point. In Ratnapura, you can climb the famous Adam’s peak, which is a 2243 meters high mountain. You can start the trail from a small village called Dalhousie, which is 3 hours away from Hatton. You can reach Hatton by train or bus. If Adam’s peak is too much for you, try Little Adam’s Peak, which is in Elle and is very easy. You can reach Elle by the same train that goes to runs from Colombo to Badulla and crosses Hatton, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.
Another alternative is Horton Plains National Park where you can see the famous World’s End and Mini World’s end without much physical effort. This can be done with Nuwara Eliya as your base but please keep in mind that the entry and transportation costs are high. Moreover, because this part of Sri Lanka is usually clouded, there is no guarantee that you will be able to see the view once you’re here. Although not as famous as everything else on the list, but Lipton’s Seat in Haputale is also an interesting option. It is a 9km uphill climb through the tea plantation, with a panoramic viewpoint on the top.
06 | Sleep in Tree House in the Middle of the Forest
Sri Lanka is home to several wild animals because most of the land is covered with the rain forest. To protect themselves from the animals, several villagers built tree houses and slept in them. With the increase of tourism, many of these tree houses have been converted into hotels and resorts while still maintaining their rustic charm. If you love forests, you’re going to love your tree house experience in Sri Lanka. We stayed in Back of Beyond, Dehigaha Ela where we spent 2 days and birds frequently visited our towering tree house in the morning. It was in the middle of Dehigaha Ela’s deep forest and we slept with the sounds of the jungle and felt one with nature. There were a few streams and waterfalls around our tree house and several hiking trails that we tremendously enjoyed. The stream had “spa fishes” and it was amazing getting a free natural foot spa everyday. This place is very 20 minutes away from Sigiriya by car, but we didn’t want to get out because we had never stayed in a place as amazing as this. I even wrote a blog post about this place. Wanna book the same treehouse? Click here to find deals and book.
07 | Visit a Tea Factory
Drinking tea is a very important part of Sri Lankan culture and the country is one of the most important tea producers in the world. If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, we suggest you try to take a quick tour of the tea factory, which can surprisingly be an interesting experience. It is an educational tour because you get to learn about the entire tea making process and different types of tea produce. Moreover, most of the tea factories are surrounded by tea plantation, which forms a great backdrop for pictures. We visited Blue Field tea factory in Nuwara Eliya where we got a free tour of the factory area, retail shop, and café. It was a short tour that lasted only 10 minutes. At the end of our tour, we even got a cup of black tea in their café that was complimentary. Even though it is free, we recommend you leave a tip for your guide.
08 | Go for a Nature Trail or a Waterfall Hike
Sri Lanka is full of waterfalls and you don’t have to see all of them. Just pick one around you and go. Ask locals and try to find one that is not famous so that you can enjoy it without crowds. It’s even better when you get to hike for a few kilometers and visit one. I don’t remember the name of the one we visited, but it was in the central province. We visited it after it had rained for two days and the hike was a little slippery. The view was highly rewarding towards the end because the waterfall was fuller due to the rains. One of the locals informed us that people normally swam in that waterfall but due to the rains it is not advisable. We also did a nature trail in Back of Beyond Dehigaha Ela where we walked upstream and found a waterfall. If you love waterfalls, you’re going to love Sri Lanka because there are many of them around.
09 | Hit the beaches and try surfing
C’mon, you can’t visit Sri Lanka and not visit the beaches. After all, it is an island country and has a massive coastline. Sri Lanka has so many amazing beach towns that you can visit, that you will be spoilt for choice. When you land in Sri Lanka, you can enjoy Colombo or Negombo. You can then head to the South and visit Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa, or Mirissa. We went to Arugam Bay, which is the Eastern province of Sri Lanka and is one of the top ten surfing spots in the world. Keep in mind that surfing can’t be done all year round. Unlike what the guidebooks mentioned, in Arugam Bay, the waves were not strong enough in the month of January but the locals informed us that the real surfing season is in Arugam bay is in the months of March and April.
10 | Dolphin or Whale Watching in Mirissa
We all know that blue whales are the biggest known mammals on Earth, but do you know that you can see them in South of Sri Lanka? The most popular whale watching spot in Sri Lanka is Dondra Point, which can be easily reached from Mirissa, Galle or Hikkaduwa. Several tour operators organize dolphin and whale watching tours that start very early in the morning and cost between $35 and $50 per person with a boat that takes 40 people. You can also do a luxury whale-watching cruise, which can cost anything between $120 and $200. We already saw dolphins in Arugam Bay and didn’t do whale watching, but here’s a picture from our friend, Charlotte. If you like this picture, then do head over to her awesome account and check out the pictures.
11 | Try Scuba Diving
Being an island country, it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka is a hot scuba diving destination. If you like wreck diving, there are a few dive sites where you can see World War I and World War II shipwrecks, which are mostly near Colombo and Negombo. The beach towns of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and Galle have some famous reefs. For South Coast, the months from November to April are good months to dive, whereas for East Cost, it’s April to September. The visibility has been reported to be around 10 – 25 meters and the water temperature is usually warm throughout the year. If lucky, one can spot whale sharks, blue and sperm whales.
12 | Explore Small Towns on a Bicycle
Surprisingly, the scooter rental costs in Sri Lanka are very high as compared to most of Asia. To make things affordable and more fun for us, we decided to rent bicycles instead, which turned out to be a very good decision. Not only we were able to explore the entire town on our own, we even managed to get lost and find places that we wouldn’t have found if we didn’t have our bicycles. We ended up having a very good day exploring a small town on our bicycles.
13 | Get Close to the Monkeys
If you’re an animal lover like me, you’re gonna love Sri Lanka. Monkeys are definitely my favorites because they are mischievous and always up to something. I find them very funny to watch and I wish I had a pet monkey of our own. As we got away from the beach towns in Sri Lanka, we saw a lot of monkeys. We even saw a few while we were enjoying our train ride through the hill country. Having lived in India, I often see monkeys but unlike India, the ones in Sri Lanka didn’t appear to be aggressive. My sister was once bitten by a monkey when we were kids so I never pet them, but I love getting close to them and watching their antics. If you decide to do the same, please hold on to your valuables because monkeys love snatching.
Wait, is that all?
No, there’s more! I have a few bonus points for you which are the “obvious” things that you will anyway do in Sri Lanka wether you read about them or not.
BONUS 1: Enjoy Sri Lankan Food
This is not actually added in the original list of unique experiences because if you visit Sri Lanka, of course you’re going to try the local food. Wether you’re a vegetarian or a seafood lover, you’re going to love Sri Lankan food but be careful, it is saucy and spicy! I couldn’t get enough of egg samosas, Kothu, and rice & curry meals.
BONUS 2: Find Peace in Temples
The majority of population in Sri Lanka is Buddhist and you will definitely get to see a few temples regardless of where you go. Yes, Anuradhapura is famous for temple ruins but you will be surprised to see old temples in many other places too. In many parts of Sri Lanka, the Buddha statues are massive in size and at times you can see them from a distance. Not just Buddhist, but Sri Lanka has many beautiful Hindu temples, Muslim Mosques and Catholic Churches that are worth a visit.
BONUS 3: Enjoy Tuk Tuk Rides
If you saw my tips for traveling in Sri Lanka, you must have read about how we got scammed by our tuk tuk driver on the first day. Despite the first bad experience, we tremendously enjoyed our rides on these slow moving scooters. If you end up visiting Sri Lanka, I’m sure you’re going to ride one at some point. Here’s a picture for you to enjoy.
Even though it’s a small country, there are many things to do in Sri Lanka that can keep you busy while you’re there. Despite spending a month here, we still didn’t get a chance to explore the Northern part of the island that has only recently opened to tourism. We are slow travelers by choice so that we can drink in the beauty and completely absorb the culture. If you’re a fast paced traveler and plan well, you can perhaps check off everything on this list in just two weeks.
If you have visited Sri Lanka already and have a few points to add, let me know in the comments.