Located in South Asia, in the Indian Ocean, is the island nation of Sri Lanka. The “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” as the country is also known as, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
For holiday makers, the region offers a tropical climate with warm weather almost throughout the year. With an extensive coastline, Sri Lanka boasts pristine sandy beaches and vibrant coastal life.
The Sri Lankan population is mostly made of Buddhists, who are friendly and peaceful. Additionally, Hinduism is also practiced. The two religions influence most of the country’s culture. You can detect cultural diversity in Sri Lankan music, dance, visual arts, cuisine and holistic medicine practices.
In a nutshell, the country has everything a tourist would need.
Should you find yourself in this home of cinnamon, I have prepared a list of the top 20 amazing things to do in Sri Lanka.
20 Amazing Things to do in Sri Lanka
- Surf in Ahangama, Hikkaduwa, and Mirissa
- Safari in Udawalawe National Park
- Surf in Arugam Bay
- Eat at Tandoori Hut In Arugam Bay
- Take the Famous Train from Kandy to Ella
- Hike to Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak
- Hike to Nine Arch Bridge
- Explore Tangalle’s Empty Beaches
- Go Kayaking in Tangalle
- Climb Sigiriya Lion Rock
- Visit Dambulla Cave Temple
- Enjoy Uppuveli Beach and Nilaveli Beach
- Hike Through a Tea Plantation
- Go Fishing with the Locals
- Climb Ambuluwawa Temple
- Explore Sri Lanka on a Scooter
- Try a Cooking School
- Stay With a Family in a Guesthouse
- Do Yoga
- Volunteer at WeCare, Sri Lanka
1. Surf in Ahangama, Hikkaduwa, and Mirissa
Whether you are a beginner or an expert, Sri Lanka offers one of the greatest surfing experiences. The island’s beach breaks and reef breaks are a wonderful avenue to sharpen your surfing skills on.
The Southern Province has some of the best surf setups. One of the most appealing things about the area’s surf spots is the lack of crowding. Located along small towns, the spots are away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
Ask any travel guide and you will be directed to Ahangama, Hikkaduwa, and Mirissa beaches. These are towns located about 90 miles from Colombo, the capital. Here, the ocean swells with winds blowing magnificent waves towards the beach.
Some of the main surf spots in this area include The Rock, Bennys, North Jetty, Rams Right, Coconut Point, Plantations, Lazy Lefts, and Mirissa Point.
Also, Sri Lanka is home to many surf camps. If you decide to go to the Southern part, I highly recommend you visiting Lapoint surf camp located in Ahangama. It’s suited for surfers of all levels.
2. Safari in Udawalawe National Park
One of the leading things to do in Sri Lanka is taking a Safari to Udawalawe National Park. This is a 119 sq.mi animal sanctuary located about 100 miles from Colombo.
The park was built to host animals after a dam was constructed in what used to be their natural habitat. Now, about 400 Asian elephants plus other wild animals and plants call the park home.
During your safari, you may have the privilege of spotting the rare sloth bear. Also, crocodiles, sambar deers, Indian muntjacs (a type of a deer), water buffaloes, and jackals are a common sight. If you’re really lucky, you may spot leopards. We searched after leopards for hours when visiting Udawalawe National Park, but unfortunately without any luck.
Udawalawe is also home to many bird species, making it a top spot for bird watchers. Apart from the flora and fauna the park also hosts mesmerizing ruins, waterfalls, and rivers.
3. Surf in Arugam Bay
On the east coast of Sri Lanka, Arugam Bay, another amazing surf town awaits. You will require several hours of traveling from the capital but you will love it, I did! Just make sure that the timing is between May and October.
For an even better surfing adventure, visit anytime from June through August when the swells are bigger and more consistent. One great thing about Arugam Bay is the availability of varied breaks for all levels of surfers. What kind of a surfer are you?
Arugam Point Main Point is great for pros while Peanut Farm is a good place for beginners. Pottuvil Point, on the other hand, caters to surfers of all levels.
If you would rather surf in a less crowded environment, head south of Arugam Bay to Elephant Rock. Other amazing breaks include Whiskey Point, LightHouse, and Okanda.
4. Eat at Tandoori Hut in Arugam Bay
Sri Lankan culture is rich and over 2500 years in the making. Much of this culture can be felt in the amazing food and great vibes from the country’s restaurants.
One of the best eateries to sample this food is at the Tandoori Hut. This is an Indian restaurant located in Arugam Bay. It caters to the tourists and locals who come to surf in the bay.
Why did I single out Tandoori Hut? Well… it’s all about the service and cuisine. The staff is friendly and fast, plus the food is mouth-watering. It’s just an amazing food experience.
The menu includes tikka chicken, curry, lassi, paneer, and tuna pizza. In a true Indian fashion, the food is spicy and served with all kinds of vegetables. I highly recommend getting their Lassi with the food your ordering!
Alcohol is not on the menu, which is no wonder in Sri Lanka.
5. Take the Famous Train from Kandy to Ella
Lush tea plantations, beautiful waterfalls, and rolling mountains characterize a train ride from Kandy to Ella and back. The trip, which should definitely be in your list of things to do in Sri Lanka, takes approximately 7 hours.
You can reserve your tickets up to 30 days in advance. Thankfully, you can now do it online on 12Go. First-class tickets come with some privacy, air conditioning, and closed doors and windows. Unfortunately, they can also get stuffy and confining.
For an authentic taste of Sri Lankan fun and interaction with the locals, you better be in the second or third class. It may not be the most comfortable ride but entertainment from locals, a chance to take photographs through open windows and access to lots of Sri Lankan Street foods from vendors, makes it worthwhile.
6. Hike to Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak
Located about 125 miles east of Colombo you find Ella, a touristic town famous for one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka; hiking!
In Sri Lanka, hikers are usually spoilt for choice. For such a small island, the country has surprisingly well-elevated mountains that are just perfect for all difficulty levels of hiking.
What makes Ella my place of choice is its classy accommodation, restaurants, and beautiful mountain ridges. It is also well accessible, with the train from Kandy dropping you off just 30 minutes away from Ella Rock and Adam’s Peak trails.
I recommend the 1-hour return hike to Little Adam’s Peak for beginners and the 2-hour hike to Ella Rock for the ones who are fit. Both routes are well marked and trafficked, as such, you don’t even need a guide.
7. Hike to Nine Arch Bridge
Also known as “The Bridge in the Sky”, the Nine Arch Bridge is a railway bridge between Demodara and Ella stations. This attraction sees lots of tourists due to its architectural inventiveness.
The bridge is made entirely of brick, cement, and stone with a height of 24 meters and a length of 91 meters. It spans across a valley surrounded by beautiful tea plantations.
You can view the bridge during the train ride but for better appreciation, take a walk from Ella station, towards the Little Adam’s Peak, and off the road near a tiny colored temple. This route will also take you through the picturesque Lake Front Cottage.
Fun Fact: The bridge was initially designed to be made of steel. However, when WWI started the metal was reallocated to the war effort.
8. Explore Tangalle’s Empty Beaches
One of Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets are the secluded beaches in Tangalle. Located about 120 miles from Colombo, Tangalle is a beachside town in the southern part of the country.
The beaches here are clean and sandy. Above all, the climate is mild throughout the year and the area is secluded and uncrowded. Except for fishermen, you can walk for long without meeting many tourists.
Among the beaches that are excellent for silent exploration include Hiriketiya, Rekawa, Mawella, and Kabalana. Each beach is unique and with the right guide, you can learn much from the area.
For example, Hummanaya, the world’s second-largest blowhole (98 feet-high) is in the area. On the other hand, Rekawa beach is best for turtle-watching.
9. Go Kayaking in Tangalle
When you are ready to navigate your own way as you immerse yourself into marine life, birds, cool mangrove forests, and spectacular landscapes, head to the Tangalle Lagoon and rent yourself a kayak. Besides being one of the most interesting things to do in Sri Lanka, it is also one of the most relaxing.
Paddling your own kayak lets you decide how fast or slow you move, which areas you would like to linger on, or even better when to stop and just float peacefully and take photos. Alternatively, you can opt to ride with a tour guide.
For the best adventure and to avoid the scorching sun, kayak early in the morning or later in the evening. Whatever time you choose, you want to avoid the time around midday when it is the hottest.
10. Climb Sigiriya Lion Rock
If you are visiting for the first time, climbing the massive Sigiriya rock should be on your list of things to do in Sri Lanka. Also known as Lion Rock, the attraction is nearly 660 feet high.
A 5th-century palace was once built on top of it and the kingdom’s ruins are still standing in the area. This archaeological site is actually one of the best indicators of the brilliance of the Sri Lankan architecture, which is still among the best in Asia.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is open to the public and is accessible through 1200 steps. The climb takes about an hour to the top, and be warned; it can be a tough one for some people!
Photography is allowed so be ready to take postcard-worthy snaps at the site.
11. Visit Dambulla Cave Temple
Being in UNESCO’s list of attractions doesn’t even begin to touch on why you can’t miss a tour of the Dambulla Cave Temple.
Centrally located in Sri Lanka and 92 miles from Colombo, the temple sits atop a 520-ft high rock. This obviously makes climbing to the top a bit tough especially if you are visiting during the hotter midday hours.
The temple is made of a set of five caves adorned with complex yet delicate paintings on the ceiling and the walls. Looking at the art, you can’t help getting wowed at the ancient artistic talent of the prehistoric Sri Lankans.
You also get to behold numerous statues; over 150 of the Lord Budha, 3 of Sri Lankan kings and others of gods and goddesses. At the bottom, there’s also a museum that you can explore.
12. Enjoy Uppuveli Beach and Nilaveli Beach
A little over 3.5 miles from Trincomalee city are the Uppuveli and Nilaveli beaches. Located in the Eastern part of the island, these isolated beaches can be reached with a rickshaw ride from Trinco city.
Uppuveli Beach has several restaurants and resorts to cater to tourists in the area. The strip is lined with palm trees and is known to be more lively than other beaches in Trincomalee.
Nilaveli Beach is just 20 minutes drive north of Uppuveli Beach. It’s a quieter set up and with clear waters, it is arguably the best beach in the area. If you are visiting as a couple, this is one place where you can relax away from prying eyes.
The beaches are also near Pigeon Island, one of Sri Lanka’s marine national parks and a popular spot for scuba diving.
13. Hike Through a Tea Plantation
Hiking through farms may not sound like one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka, but wait until you see the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya. The region has a temperate climate that is conducive for commercial tea production.
Trekking in the area takes you through the many tea estates in a terrain made of steep hills. The hike can take anything from a few hours to a whole day, depending on how far you are willing to push your body.
During the hike, you can expect to see locals picking tea leaves and carrying it off to collection points.
The trip is also a chance to experience Sri Lankan rural life. There are also several waterfalls in Nuwara Eliya, including the 358 ft high Rambada Falls.
14. Go Fishing with the Locals
Fishing is one of Sri Lanka’s main economic activities. Meaning, in every seaside town or village there are fishermen going about their business.
Why should this concern you? Believe it or not, most locals are eager to let you join in the fishing trips. In my travels in the area, I found the southerners to be more open to the idea.
As one of the most thrilling things to do in Sri Lanka, fishing with the locals calls for dedication. See, the small boats leave very early in the morning when it’s still a bit chilly. It’s highly recommended! It was definitely a highlight on my trip to Sri Lanka.
For those who would rather not venture into the deep waters, then you should try stilt fishing; sitting on a branch, high above the water, you catch the fish using a makeshift fishing rod. Yes, stilt fishing needs to be on your bucket list!
15. Climb Ambuluwawa Temple
In my travels on the Asian continent, I have found Sri Lanka to have some of the most friendly and tolerant citizens. With many ethnicities, religious groups, and cultures, peaceful co-existence is just outstanding.
One of the many monuments that showcase this unity is the Ambuluwawa Temple. This is a biodiversity complex located on top of a hill, about 3 miles from Gampola Town, in the central highlands.
The temple is an innovative style to resemble a stupa (Buddhist), a kovil (Hindu), a mosque (Muslim) and a church (Christian).
Despite its beauty, this is one attraction that will test your fear of heights. To begin with, the complex is built approximately 1,965 feet above the surrounding land.
And to reach the top, you have to climb 158 feet through winding stairs up a slender tower. So if you’re afraid of heights, this is the place to conquer it!
16. Explore Sri Lanka on a Scooter
Sri Lanka is one of the best destinations to tour on a scooter. Besides having navigable roads, a safe environment to scoot, and plenty of places to rent scooters, the island has so much to explore.
Whether you are traversing beaches, jungle plains, national parks, tea plantations or other attractions, you can rent a scooter at every destination.
Do you need a license to ride a scooter in Sri Lanka? Generally, as long as you are not in violation of any traffic rules or obviously attracting the attention of the traffic police, you can scoot away without getting in trouble with the law.
Nevertheless, if you like playing by the book, you can get a temporary driving license from the Department of Motor Traffic. Notably, international rights or national rights of other countries are not recognized in Sri Lanka. So there goes your international driver’s license!
17. Try a Cooking School
Attending a cooking class may be the last thing to cross your mind during a vacation but after tasting Sri Lankan cuisine, I got to understand the appeal. Also, I have to admit, I love food.
Cooking classes are many, especially in Colombo and the other large cities. The lessons are usually held in residential areas, away from the noisy city life.
The menus are spread, with each day of the week showcasing the culinary diversity of the region. Typical classes involve traditional one, two, and three-course meals.
You can also join a class to be taught how to cook a specific dish, then be on your way to other attractions. Common foods taught at these schools include curry steamed rice, Gotu kola sambol (herby coconut salad), and ambul thiyal (sour fish curry).
18. Stay with a Family in a Guesthouse
From five star hotels to rental apartments, Sri Lanka has all kinds of accommodations for travelers. In my experience though, to get to know a place more intimately, staying with the locals is the way to go.
Sri Lankan people are so welcoming and friendly. And they cook amazing food. So, why not stay with a family and learn about their culture and aspirations?
Homestay guest houses also allow you to observe the day to day lives of your hosts. The cost is also considerably cheaper compared to boarding most hotels and resorts.
Also, as a customary gesture, most hosts ensure that every morning before you leave, there is a take-away meal for you. They are also very helpful on which attractions to visit, the best local guides, and how to beat the traffic.
It’s also possible to find homestay and guest houses through AirBnb.
19. Do Yoga
Yoga originated from Hindu practices in ancient India. With the close proximity between the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, it’s understandable that yoga on the island is just as original.
Some of the best and oldest yoga retreats in the world are found in the country. These are secluded establishments inside the green countryside or right by the seaside.
For a truly epic adventure, try out the Ulpotha yoga retreat. It is built along the banks of a 1000-year old reservoir, right in the middle of the jungle. The site is thought to be sacred according to writings associated with ancient Buddhist pilgrims who visited from the Himalayas.
When you are not stretching and posing, the retreat comes with other activities including swimming, forest walks, cycling, and boating.
20. Volunteer at WeCare, Sri Lanka
Before you leave this beautiful country, it’s advisable to give back. One of the charities that are close to my heart is the WeCare Worldwide that offers free vet care to street dogs.
The charity was started back in 2014 by Janey Lowes, a UK-based vet. At the time, she had been backpacking in Sri Lanka when she noticed the need for quality healthcare for hurt and sick dogs in the streets.
As she noted, while most of the dogs are well fed and actually have minders, once sick, no much help was forthcoming. She took it upon herself to treat the millions of dogs that live in the streets, starting with Sri Lanka.
For animal lovers, this is one of the most meaningful things to do in Sri Lanka
The is a sneak peek of entire Sri Lanka! As long as you are on the Island, you can never run out of things to do in Sri Lanka. In fact, you may end up missing out on some of these amazing experiences if you do not plan your tour properly.
I have done my part and shared my own experiences. Now it’s up to you to decide what things to in Sri Lanka. Don’t let me down and oh, remember to come back and let us know how your trip went.