Sri Lanka: The Ultimate Guide

Nestled in the Indian Ocean, the island nation of Sri Lanka has been gaining popularity as a must-visit travel destination. The country had been featured as a must visit place by several popular travel magazines over the years for its rich history and culture, breathtaking natural wonders, delicious cuisine, mesmerizing beaches and a variety of adventure activities.

Sri Lanka has something to offer for everyone whether you like beaches or misty mountains or searing hot climates to wet and cold climates. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what makes Sri Lanka so special and why you should add it to your travel bucket list irrespective of whether you are looking for place to relax, have some adventures or just sightseeing.

History and Culture

Sri Lanka has a long and fascinating history that dates back to ancient times. It was known as Ceylon during colonial times and gained its independence from the British in 1948. The island has been invaded by various foreign kingdoms throughout history, including the Indian, Arabs, Dutch and Portuguese due to mainly to the strategic position of the island nation in the Indian ocean and has been called by various names during the course of the history.

Many historical figures had mentioned the country in their writings for both its natural beauty, resources and people and the country was a popular trade destination for Greek, Roman, Persian, Armenian, Arab, Malay, and Chinese traders. As a result, Sri Lanka’s culture is a rich tapestry of different influences, including Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian.

Ruins of a king's palace - Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Built in 12th century AD, King Parakramabahu’s palace was once a 7 storied, 1000 rooms marvel.

Sri Lanka is known for its festivals and traditions, since it is a multiethnic country with majority Sinhala Buddhists followed by Hindus, Christians and Muslims, there are one or the other religious festival occurring throughout the year. Some of the most popular festivals include Esala Perahera, a grand Buddhist procession held in Kandy during the month of July every year, and the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, which takes place in April.

Sri Lanka is also famous for its traditional arts and crafts, such as batik, woodcarving, and pottery. There are small villages and communities dedicated to different types of crafts scattered around the island nation. For example, Weweldeniya for cane crafts, Piimathalawa for brass items and Ambalangoda for traditional puppets and devil masks.

Natural Wonders of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an island nation with beautiful beaches all around the island and the country is home to an abundance of diverse natural wonders. From national parks and wildlife reserves to beaches and waterfalls and mountains in the chilly hill country the island nation is a place where a person can experience all four seasons within few hours of driving.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sinharaja Forest Reserve

As a tropical country with rain year around, the country is home to a wide variety of wildlife and national parks.

  1. Sinharaja Forest Reserve: An UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest and well-preserved rainforests in Sri Lanka. It covers an area of approximately 11,187 hectares and is home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, including several endemic species. Sinharaja Forest Reserve is home to a rich biodiversity, including several endemic species of flora and fauna. It is home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many species of birds and reptiles. The forest reserve is characterized by its dense vegetation, including tall trees that can reach up to 45 meters in height, as well as numerous streams and waterfalls. Visitors can take guided tours through the forest to learn about its unique ecosystem and observe the various plant and animal species. Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a popular destination for eco-tourists and nature enthusiasts and is considered one of the best places in Sri Lanka for bird watching. Some of the bird species found in the reserve include the Sri Lankan blue magpie, Sri Lankan spurfowl, and green-billed coucal.
  2. Yala National Park: Located in the southeastern part of Sri Lanka, Yala National Park is the second largest national park in the country. It is known for its population of leopards, as well as elephants, crocodiles and bears. The park is also home to over 200 bird species, including the Sri Lankan junglefowl, which is the national bird of Sri Lanka. The park is popular amongst travelers who love safaris and camping.
  3. Udawalawa National Park: This park is located in the southern part of Sri Lanka and is famous for its large population of elephants. It covers an area of approximately 30,821 hectares and is also home to several other animals, including deer, buffalo, and crocodiles.
Horton Plains National Park
  1. Horton Plains National Park: Located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, Horton Plains National Park is a popular destination for hikers and nature enthusiasts. It covers an area of approximately 3,160 hectares and is known for its unique landscape, which includes grasslands, forests, and montane ecosystems. Horton Plains is home to several endemic species of plants and animals, including the Sri Lankan sambar deer, purple-faced langur, and the Horton Plains slender loris. The park is also known for its impressive waterfalls, such as Baker’s Falls and the World’s End waterfall, which drops about 880 feet. One of the main attractions of Horton Plains is the World’s End viewpoint, which offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Visitors can also enjoy hiking and birdwatching in the park, with over 20 bird species found in the area. Due to its unique biodiversity, Horton Plains was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. It is a popular destination for tourists and nature enthusiasts who visit Sri Lanka.
  2. Wilpattu National Park: This park is located in the northwest part of Sri Lanka and is known for its population of leopards, as well as elephants, sloth bears, and several bird species.

Sri Lanka’s beaches are also a major draw for tourists, with golden sands and crystal-clear waters. Some of the most popular beaches include Unawatuna, Mirissa, and Bentota.

  1. Unawatuna: Located in the southern part of Sri Lanka, is a popular beach destination known for its white sand and clear waters. It is also home to several coral reefs, making it a great spot for snorkeling and scuba diving.
  2. Mirissa: Mirissa is another popular beach destination located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. It is known for its long sandy beaches and is a popular spot for whale and dolphin watching.
  3. Bentota: Bentota is a coastal town located in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka. It is home to several beaches, including Bentota Beach and Paradise Island Beach. The area is popular for water sports, including windsurfing and jet skiing.
Sri Lanka Beaches
Aerial view of a beach in Devinuwara, Galle, Sri Lanka: Photo by Tomáš Malík
  1. Nilaveli: Nilaveli is a coastal town located on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. It is known for its pristine beaches and clear blue waters, and is a popular spot for snorkeling and diving.
  2. Trincomalee: Trincomalee is another popular beach destination located on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. It is home to several beaches, including Uppuveli Beach and Nilaveli Beach, and is a popular spot for snorkeling, scuba diving, and whale watching.

Furthermore, the Arugam Bay, Hikkaduwa, and Mirissa beaches offer the adventurous a chance to surf in the willy waves of the Indian ocean and activities such as jet skiing and water skiing are available in almost all the popular beach destinations of the island.

For those seeking a greener and chillier experience, the hill country is a must-visit. Here, you’ll find lush green tea plantations, cascading waterfalls, and picturesque mountain towns like Nuwara Eliya, Haputale and Kandy.

Kandy Perahera
Kandy – Temple of Tooth on the Day of Esela Perahera
  1. Kandy: Kandy is a historic city located in the heart of the Hill Country. It is home to the Temple of the Tooth, which is considered one of the most sacred Buddhist relics in the world. Visitors can also enjoy a stroll around the scenic Kandy Lake, the old king’s palace in Kandy and visit the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya.
  2. Nuwara Eliya: Nuwara Eliya also known as Little England is a picturesque town located in the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea country. It is known for its scenic views, tea plantations, and cool climate. Visitors can take a tour of a tea factory and enjoy a cup of freshly brewed tea while taking in the stunning scenery of misty mountains, beautiful waterfalls and fresh cool air.
  3. Ella: Ella is a small town located in the highlands of Sri Lanka, known for its scenic views and hiking trails. Visitors can hike to Little Adam’s Peak or Ella Rock, visit the Nine Arch Bridge, and enjoy the stunning views from the Ella Gap. Also, the Colombo to Ella train ride is considered one of the most famous and beautiful train rides in the world.
  4. Horton Plains National Park: Horton Plains is a scenic national park located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. It is known for its rolling hills, misty mountains, and stunning views. Visitors can take a hike to World’s End, a cliff with a sheer drop of 1,000 feet, and enjoy the scenic beauty of the park and the wildlife.
  5. Adams Peak: Adams Peak is a popular hiking destination in Sri Lanka, known for its stunning views and religious significance. Visitors can climb to the peak to see the famous footprint, which is believed to be the footprint of Buddha, Adam, or Shiva depending on the religious beliefs. Also, the Adams Peak is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna and is the birthplace of many of the large rivers of the country.
Nine Arches Bridge - Ella
Nine Arches Bridge – Ella – Image by Shivaaz RGL


Ah, Sri Lankan cuisine – a true feast for the senses! From spicy curries and savory snacks to sweet delights, this island nation has a culinary scene that’s as diverse and vibrant as its culture. Similar to the Sri Lankan culture, the food here also is a mix of all the ethnicities present in the country.

Let’s start with the basics: rice and curry. You’ll find this classic Sri Lankan dish on just about every menu, and for good reason. It’s a hearty, filling meal that’s perfect for any time of day. The rice is fluffy and fragrant, and the curry is packed with flavor and with few different kinds of vegetables and meats cooked either to be spicy or milky. And don’t be fooled by the word “curry” – there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe here. Each household and restaurant have its own unique blend of spices and ingredients, so every plate is a delicious surprise.

If you’re feeling adventurous, try some of Sri Lanka’s more unusual dishes. Kottu roti is a popular street food made with shredded roti, veggies, and your choice of meat or eggs. The sound of the metal spatulas clanging against the hot griddle is a familiar one in Sri Lanka’s bustling cities, and the aroma of sizzling spices is enough to make your mouth water. And the “isso vadai” or prawn vadai is a popular street food item which is available specially in the beaches all around the island nation.

Another must-try is hoppers. These bowl-shaped pancakes are made from rice flour and coconut milk and are typically served for breakfast with a variety of accompaniments, such as dhal or egg curry, honey or jaggery or a Sambol made out of chilies and onions. The texture is light and crispy, and the taste is mildly sweet and nutty.

And let’s not forget about the snacks! Sri Lankan cuisine has plenty of finger-licking options, from crunchy lentil fritters (known as vadai) to savory vegetable pastries (known as patties). These snacks are perfect for a midday pick-me-up or as a light bite before dinner.

Of course, no conversation about Sri Lankan cuisine would be complete without mentioning the spicy side of things. Sri Lankans love their heat, and their curries are not for the faint of heart. If you’re not used to spicy food, start with a milder curry and work your way up. And be sure to have a glass of milk nearby – you’ll need it!

Adventure & Activities in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka may be a small island nation, but it’s packed with adventure and activities that will keep even the most adrenaline-seeking travelers entertained. From surfing to hiking, there’s something for everyone in this tropical paradise.

Let’s start with the beaches. Sri Lanka has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with soft sand and crystal-clear waters. But it’s not just about lounging on the beach under the tropical sun – Sri Lanka’s coastline is a haven for surfers. The southern coast is especially popular, with breaks that are perfect for beginners and experts alike. And if you’re not a surfer, you can still enjoy the ocean by snorkeling or diving, where you’ll be able to see colorful coral reefs and an abundance of marine life.

If you prefer activities on land, Sri Lanka has plenty to offer. The island’s interior is covered in lush jungle, with towering trees and rushing waterfalls. One of the best ways to experience this natural beauty is by hiking. The Knuckles Mountain Range, located in the central highlands, offers a challenging trek with stunning views of the surrounding valleys. And for those who want to see some wildlife, a trek through the Sinharaja Rainforest is a must. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species, including rare birds and primates.

But if you’re looking for a real thrill, you can’t miss out on white water rafting. Sri Lanka’s rivers offer a range of rapids, from gentle floats to heart-pumping drops. The Kelani River rafting area located near Kithulgala, is a popular spot for rafting, with rapids that will get your heart racing.

And for those who want a cultural experience, Sri Lanka has plenty to offer as well. The ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are UNESCO World Heritage sites and is home to some of Sri Lanka’s most impressive ruins dating more than 2000 years. And no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, where you can see the tooth relic of Buddha and the last kingdom of Sri Lanka where the cultural heritage of the country is still preserved.

Religious and Historical Sites

Sri Lanka has a rich history and culture that is reflected in its religious and historical sites. From ancient temples to colonial forts, there are plenty of places to visit that will give you a glimpse into the island’s past.

One of the most famous historical sites in Sri Lanka is the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. This 5th-century fortress is located in the central province of Sri Lanka and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fortress is perched on top of a giant rock and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and water features. The technology used in building the rock fortress such as taking heavy building materials to the top of the mountain through the stairless steep climb and the intricate water management system baffles the modern engineers as well. It’s a steep climb to the top, but the views of the surrounding countryside are well worth it.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Another historical site that shouldn’t be missed is the ancient city of Anuradhapura. This city was the capital of Sri Lanka for over a thousand years and is home to some of the most impressive ruins in the country. The sacred Bodhi Tree, a branch of the original tree (no longer there) in India under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, is also located in Anuradhapura. Furthermore, the ancient city is covered with massive stupas and massive lakes that were used for irrigation purposes back in the hay days of the kingdom and that are still being used after thousands of years for the same purpose.

If you’re interested in Sri Lanka’s colonial history, the Galle Fort is a must-visit. This 17th-century fort was built by the Portuguese and later expanded by the Dutch. The fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a great place to wander around, with narrow streets lined with old buildings and boutiques.

But Sri Lanka is perhaps best known for its religious sites, and there are plenty of temples and shrines to visit. The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is one of the most famous, as it houses the tooth relic of Buddha. The temple is a beautiful example of traditional Sri Lankan architecture, with intricate carvings and colorful paintings.

Another important religious site is the Dambulla Cave Temple. This temple complex is located in central Sri Lanka and consists of five caves filled with statues and paintings of Buddha. The largest cave contains over 150 Buddha statues and is truly awe-inspiring.

Tips for Traveling in Sri Lanka

If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience. Here are some tips:

  1. Plan your itinerary in advance to make the most of your time in Sri Lanka. There are many different regions and activities to explore, so decide what interests you most and plan accordingly.
  2. Be mindful of the weather. Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, which can affect travel plans. The southwest monsoon runs from May to September, while the northeast monsoon runs from December to February.
  3. Dress appropriately for cultural sites. Sri Lanka is a conservative country, and many religious and cultural sites require visitors to dress modestly. Make sure to bring clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.
  4. Try the local cuisine. Sri Lankan cuisine is delicious and unique, so don’t be afraid to try new dishes. Be sure to sample some of the seafood and street food as well.
  5. Respect the local culture. Sri Lankan culture is deeply rooted in tradition and religion, so be respectful of local customs and beliefs. For example, it’s important to remove your shoes before entering temples and to avoid public displays of affection.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka is a hidden gem of South Asia, with a rich history, breathtaking natural wonders, delicious cuisine, and a variety of adventure activities. Whether you’re interested in exploring ancient temples and historical sites, trekking through tea plantations and national parks, or simply relaxing on the beach, Sri Lanka has something for everyone. So, add it to your travel bucket list and experience the beauty and culture of this fascinating island nation.


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