The top best things to see and do in Sri Lanka.
1. Go on an Epic Safari
One of my top highlights was going on a Jeep safari at Minneriya National Park. There I saw herds of wild Asian elephants AND their babies. It was the BEST. DAY. EVER!
My full experience of Minneriya National Park right here: http://nomadette.com/2019/09/14/epic-elephant-safari-at-minneriya-national-park/
There are lots of national parks within Sri Lanka, so it’s easy enough to plan a visit to one that’s along the way for you.
We were driving along Kaudulla National Park to the next town over, and we came across a couple of elephants! Those smart things were just waiting at the edge of the fence for tourists like us to stop and feed them.
2. Frolic in a Tea Plantation
More accurately, we visited a tea factory that was attached to a tea plantation. We were brought on a rather mechanical tour, which ended with you in their shop and them pushing you to buy tea. Yeah, not the most fun.
We asked if there’s any way we can check out the tea plantation, and that’s when they told us about the “safari” – which is really a fun jeep ride through the plantation. It’s about an hour+ long, and it includes stops along the route for some tea-picking lessons and photo opportunities. This was so much fun. The tea factory we went to was Damro, but I’m pretty sure other factories offer up the same experience. Our tour was about USD$20.
3. Chill in cooler weather at Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is otherwise known as Little England. Set atop the hills and surrounded by the plantations, this town enjoys cooler weather.
My favourite thing to do here was to simply walk around town and enjoy the weather. The weather hovers about 18 to 20 degrees celcius in the daytime, and drops to about a chilly 12 degrees at night – a nice change to the hot weather everywhere else in Sri Lanka.
A couple of “attractions” here would be Victoria Park and Lake Gregory, but you’d have to pay entry for those places. Honestly, while they were clean and pleasant, they weren’t exactly the most beautiful parks you’d ever been to. Make a quick visit to Nuwara Eliya post office, a brightly bold red building in town. It’s one of the oldest in the country and is still up and running today!
4. Go on the famous train ride
Since we read the train ride is a must-do while in Sri Lanka, we included a short journey from Nuwara Eliya to Ella on our itinerary. It can be a nice experience, if you’ve prepared for it.
Read all about my experience here: http://nomadette.com/2019/09/15/the-ella-train-ride-its-overrated/
5. Hike up Sigiriya Lion’s Rock
The view atop Sigiriya Lion’s Rock is absolutely gorgeous.
It’s not an easy hike up this UNESCO World Heritage Site but manageable early in the morning at 7am (right when it opens) when it’s not so hot out yet. We came back down around 9-10am and can’t imagine climbing up when the sun was that intense. Going early also meant you don’t get stuck in a line. There’s only one route up and it gets congested the more people there are.
At one point of the climb up, you’ll get to see faded fresco wall paintings of some… provocative ladies. Interesting to some I’m sure, but I appreciated the tiny break in our climb more. The final stretch of climbing is up some steep steps and alongside wasp nests. One of the wasp nests rippled as we were climbing up close and it was the most horrifying yet coolest things I’ve ever seen in life.
This was the only hike we did in Sigiriya but if you have more days than us you can also climb up to Pidurangala Rock right opposite Lion’s Rock. The tickets for Pidurangala is cheaper but I also read it’s a slightly tougher climb up and without as much history.
Exploring Lion’s Rock takes around 2 hours total to explore – including hiking up and down and erms, all the photo taking.
6. Visit the Dambulla Cave Temple
Full disclosure – we didn’t end up visiting. Technically we did, we drove to the base of Dambulla Cave Temple and realised we wouldn’t be able to make our safari if we climbed up. The only way we were going to make it was if we quickly hiked (not in the hot midday sun) and skipped lunch (definitely a no). So our guide told us the history of the cave temples in the comfort of our car, and then we drove on.
If you’re in Sigiriya though, definitely schedule in time to visit the Dambulla.
7. Visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Kandy was one of our stops and we visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple here. The tooth relic was located on one level, and there were a lot of devotees praying to it. We passed by the relic and left quickly because it felt like we were intruding.
Although that was suppose to be the highlight, the temple itself is huge. We explored the temple grounds a bit. When we arrived, it was the eve of the Festival of the Tooth, in which the relic is led about town in a religious procession. Might have been cool to see it, but we were glad to miss it this time round since the roads would have been blocked.
8. Explore the town of Ella
We hopped towns each night in our Sri Lankan road trip, with the exception of Ella.
We stayed two nights here – and rightly so. Nestled in between the most amazing nature, Ella is a touristy little town with a bit of a manufactured hippy vibe here. I’m not selling Ella well, but it’s a nice change to get your creature comforts here, such as good coffee (tea-country Sri Lanka is not a coffee place) and fresh, safe green smoothies.
You’ll be spoiled by the array of good restaurants and cafes here too. Our favourite was ‘Chill Cafe’ – which served up amazing food at decent prices. We weren’t expecting much since it looked like a touristy place, but it turned out to be the best place we ate in Ella.
9. Check out The Nine Arch Bridge
Ella’s Nine Arch Bridge may have gotten famous from Instagram, but it is by no means overrated. This architectural wonder in the midst of lush Sri Lankan jungles is just a sight to behold.
Fun fact: this bridge is also fully functional. A train rumbles through every hour and is worth watching.
10. Hike up Little Adam’s Peak
This was a gradual hike through a tea plantation, before a quick steep climb up to the top. Little Adam’s Peak offers up gorgeous views at the top. Most definitely worth the climb and a must-visit when in Ella.
There’s more like four peaks in total that you can get to here. There are also lots of rocks jutting out the sides – it’s as if it was made for photo taking. Obviously we took lots of photos here, but we also spent time just enjoying the views and the nature.
11. See Ravana Waterfall
Located in Ella, this isn’t the best waterfall that you could see here, but we work with what we got with our schedule. It’s not in-season, so the waterfall was more of a trickle than its usual gushing glory.
Another famous waterfall in Ella is Diyaluma Falls. A visit here would require a full day to drive to and hike up, but it looks gorgeous in photos.
12. Book an Ayurveda spa session
We wanted to try out Ayurveda spas while we were here, but I have to admit it wasn’t easy to find a good spa. A couple of spas we went to were very subpar, but we did manage to end off the trip with a great one.
I would suggest visiting the place and have a feel of the atmosphere before booking in a slot. TripAdvisor is a good place to start, but don’t take it at face value either. One of the spas we went to had good reviews – and it’s evident that they’re working off their reviews. We felt short-changed with timing as they were extremely busy and rushed through our treatments, and as we later found out, expensive.
I finally tried Shirodhara treatment. That’s when gloriously warm oil infused with Ayurvedic herbs trickle across your forehead and flow through your hair and down the scalp. It was therapeutic.
13. Squeeze in some beach time
The good thing about Sri Lanka is that if one side of the country gets bad weather, the other side doesn’t. If you’re after a good beach time in Sri Lanka, it’s easy enough to plan accordingly.
In our short time there, beaches were not a priority. We did manage to stay a night in Unawatuna en-route to our way back to the airport, which didn’t have the best weather at the time we visited. We were lucky to get a sliver of good weather in the morning though.
14. Explore the Dutch Galle Fort
Located close to Unawatuna is the Dutch Galle Fort. To be honest, we didn’t allocate much time for this. After seeing so much incredible nature in the rest of our trip, we only included this in as it is along the way to the airport.
The iconic shot of Galle Fort is the lighthouse but I wished we knew about the town area. With Dutch influence, the town has a certain charm to it – from just walking past it reminds me a lot of Penang’s Georgetown. We saw a lot of cute cafes and restaurants too. I saw a couple of tourists cycling through the town, and I feel like that would have been the best way to explore the town.
15. Watch a Traditional Sri Lankan Dance
Another disclosure: we didn’t end up watching this. We had two chances to watch the show; at Kandy and Ella, but we missed the timing for both. Reviews raved the dance performances though, so it might be worth
16. Eat all the Sri Lankan Food
I love the food in Sri Lanka. We had mixed rice for a lot of our meals, and it had a lot of vegetable dishes. My absolute favourite was coconut sambal, raw green vegetable salad and a spiced beetroot dish.
We mostly ate at tourist-friendly places, by that I meant the food was fresh, clean and safe, but we also paid a premium price for it. With my history of food poisoning on my travels, I didn’t mind it one bit though. Authentic Sri Lankan food is very spicy – the places we went to toned down a lot on the spice level. They did provide a basketful of dried fried chilis, which I appreciated.
Make sure to try Kottu while you’re there too. It’s basically fried rice, but instead of rice you get chopped up roti pieces.
I also tried their roti samosas, which are triangles of rotes filled with spicy vegetable mix. I loved it as a snack.
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