37 Unforgettable Things to Do in Sri Lanka
Declared safe for travel again, Sri Lanka is a destination that needs to be added to everyone’s list. While visitors should remain vigilant, the country being a largely peaceful one, welcomes tourists back with open arms. To celebrate, here are some of the most unforgettable things to do whilst you’re there.
From its palm-fringed beaches and mountainous interior to the verdant forests roamed by elephants and leopards, there’s never a dull moment here.
37 things you have to do:
1. Try sour fish curry
The first thing you should do when you arrive in Sri Lanka is try the famous ambul thiyal (sour fish curry). This delightful dish is most unique, fusing sour and spicy flavours with the addition of tamarind to make your mouth water. The perfect curry to soak up with rice.
2. Snorkel with sharks
At Shark Point Reef on Pigeon Island, you can have the pleasure of snorkelling among a sea of sharks. The water is warm, clean and clear, giving you great visibility of these grand creatures and the hundreds of colourful fish below.
3. Go to Udawalawe National Park
Watch elephants roam in the wilderness at Udawalawe National Park. The herds are attracted to this location because of the Udawalawe reservoir and there is believed to be around 250 permanent residents here.
4. Hike Little Adams Peak
With a fairly easy walk up to the top, this hike is suitable for all ages and abilities. The view at the top is pretty amazing too, particularly at sunset. You can get to the summit in about 30 minutes or so.
5. See Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The Sigiriya is the Central Province of Sri Lanka is a beautiful sight to behold. You don’t have to climb it to experience its wonder. But for those who want 360 views from the top, the climb will take around 2 hours over 1,200 steps and will cost $30 USD per person.
6. Ride the train from Kandy to Ella
Train rides are pretty amazing in Sri Lanka. More than just a form of transport to get from A to B, train journeys are all about the scenery. And the unseen sights that would be missed if you chose to travel by road instead. Hop on the train from Kandy to Ella to experience one of the most beautiful train trips in the world!
7. Explore Anuradhapura
This city in the North Central Province has been listed as a UNESCO site and is famed for its well-preserved ruins dating back to ancient times. One of the most extraordinary features of Anuradhapura is the merging of past and present, where modern buildings and shopping centres meet temples and crumbling monuments.
8. Visit a tea plantation
Plan a day trip to a tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya, the home of British Ceylon. The lush green fields will serve as a dreamy backdrop for a hike, and tea factory tours will give you an inside look on how tea is made here.
9. Go surfing
The seaside resort of Hikkaduwa is just one of the many places surfers can get their fix. The area is known for its relaxed surf beaches, including the main Hikkaduwa Beach fringed with palms and lined with restaurants and bars.
10. Sunbathe on the beaches of Colombo
If you’re looking for the best place to sunbathe, make your way for the city of Colombo. Its coastline is dotted with the best beaches in the country. As well as Hikkaduwa (mentioned above), there’s also Negombo Beach, Kalpitiya Beach, Unawatuna Beach, and Bentota Beach.
11. Hire your own tuk tuk
One of the most exciting things you can do in Sri Lanka is hire and drive your own tuk tuk. Most backpackers will have travelled by tuk tuk in Asia, but few have had the chance to steer their own destiny. Sri Lanka is one of the few places you can do this, with tuk tuk rentals in all major cities.
12. Stay at a local guesthouse
Hotels can be very convenient, but nothing beats the feeling of staying in a local guesthouse. It’s the only way to experience life as a local and get to know different neighbourhoods. Prices vary depending on whether you want a private home or just a room, but you’ll make huge savings compared to booking a luxury hotel. Airbnb is the best place to start your search.
13. Have a picnic at Viharamahadevi Park
Located close to the Independence Memorial Hall in Colombo is Viharamahadevi Park. This sprawling city greenspace offers plenty of room for running, exploring and gentle strolls. Enjoy picnics with a view or take your kids to an on-site zoo.
14. Go to a turtle sanctuary
The turtle sanctuary near Unawatuna is a must for anyone who takes a keen interested in wildlife conservation. Green turtles nest throughout the year on Sri Lankan shores, but their peak season is from January to March. Come at the right time and you could watch baby turtles hatch!
15. Discover the temples of Polonnaruwa
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is an archaeological park featuring hundreds of ancient structures, including a number of tombs, temples, statues and stupas. Not only do people come for the ruins, but they also come to see the population of monkeys that dwell in these parts.
16. Sample kottu roti
Tantalise your taste buds with the best Sri Lankan street food on offer. Ask anyone who’s been and they’ll tell you that kottu roti is a backpacker’s rite of passage. Once you’ve tasted this meat/veg and flatbread wonder, you’ll never go back to a plain sandwich.
17. Shop at Pettah Floating Market
This is one of the most spectacular sights for anyone visiting Pettah. The sprawling floating market is so pretty, and you’ll be able to find everything from clothes, jewellery and electronic goods to fresh fruit and vegetables.
18. Experience Colombo’s nightlife
Sri Lanka isn’t known for its nightlife, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find great bars and nightclubs in the commercial capital. Colombo is fantastic for backpackers and solo travellers looking for a good time. If you want to make new friends, this is the place to be. Gambling is also popular here, so blow on your dice and hope for the best – you might win a free night out!
19. Ride the swing at Dalawella Beach
Stay at the Dream Cabana guesthouse right on the beach and you’ll have unlimited access to this popular sea swing. Or you can pay $3 USD per go if you’re staying somewhere else. Worth it for the views and Instagram pictures.
20. Enjoy water sports on the Madu River
The Madu River is one of the best waterways for enjoying exciting water sport activities. Whether you’re interested in jet skiing, banana boats, para-sailing, para-motoring, speed boat rides, kayaking or canoeing, so many different adventures await.
21. Wake up for the sunrise at Kandy Lake
Visit this tranquil, manmade lake and get there early to enjoy the sunset. With the still, peaceful waters and quiet surroundings, it’s easy to feel at one with nature. There’s a path all the way around for walking and jogging, and it’s just a stone’s throw away from a fantastic Buddhist temple.
22. Devour veggie samosas
Forget meat samosas while travelling in Sri Lanka. Vegetarianism is big here, and so are the tasty veggie-filled pastries. One of the best places to pick up one of these mouth-watering snacks is next to Pettah Central Station where food stalls and street vendors set up for the day. Watch out though – Sri Lankan samosas tend to be extra spicy.
23. Catch the sunset at Galle Fort
If there’s one place to catch the sunset, it’s Galle Fort in the Bay of Galle on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast. First built in 1588 by the Portuguese, this striking building was later fortified by the Dutch during the 17th Century.
24. Visit the Seetha Amman Temple
Legend has it that this temple was built on the site where the Goddess Sita was kept after being taken away by Ravana, the great king of Sri Lanka. Today, the temple oozes calmness and peace and is set against a backdrop of hills and forest.
25. Embark on the religious trail
Take the Ramayana tour across the religious trail and visit a number of attractions, including the Muneeswaran Temple in Chilaw, the Manavari Temple, the Sri Baktha Hanuman Temple in Ramboda, Gayathri Pedam, the Seetha Amman Temple in Nuwara Eliya, Divurumpola at Nuwara Eliya, Ravana Ella Falls, Ravana Cave in Ella, Ussangoda, and more.
26. Go to an elephant orphanage
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was set up to help injured, abandoned or abused elephants, creating a sanctuary where they can be cared for by animal experts and volunteers. The orphanage houses over 40 elephants, many of which are just babies. It’s free to visit and you’ll have an opportunity to watch them socialise with one another in a fantastic controlled environment.
27. Taste weird and wonderful wood apple
If you have an adventurous palate and love trying new foods, the wood apple fruit is a must. Beware though, it’s an acquired treat and some people say that it smells like a cross between dried raisins and stinky blue cheese. But don’t let the strange aroma put you off, as it makes a delicious fruit shake once you get used to the taste.
28. Look for dolphins and whales
Go dolphin and whale spotting in Mirissa, with tours running from November to April. Located in the Matara District of the Southern Province 150km south of Colombo, this coastal town is one of Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets.
29. Spot leopards at Yala National Park
Yala National Park is one of the best places in the world for leopard watching. Marvel at these beasts across five different blocks in the park. The most popular is Block One, an area home to around 40 leopards. There are also 44 species of mammals (including elephants) and 215 species of birds. Visiting the park is not to be missed and will make your Sri Lankan holiday extra special.
30. Explore the malls
Sri Lanka isn’t known as a shopping destination, but there are many places you can go to pick up souvenirs. Particularly in the commercial capital, Colombo, a city that is home to some of the best retail sites in the country. Go to the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, Arcade Independence Square, and the Crescat Boulevard Mall.
31. Try a pineapple curry
As bizarre as it sounds, a pineapple curry is one of the most delicious things you can eat in Sri Lanka. This is a mildly spiced dish that’s bursting with flavour, with refreshing chunks of fruit for a totally unique taste. Perfect for a hot day.
32. Scuba dive in crystal clear waters
Some of the finest dives can be experienced along the Sri Lankan coastline. The Gorgonian Gardens in Colombo is a popular dive site with clear visibility of coral reefs.
33. Book the Trincomalee cruise
Enjoy a leisurely cruise and take in ocean vistas and step foot on the glorious beaches of Sri Lanka. Book your catamaran trip with a barbeque and music on board, and keep your eyes peeled for the sunset.
34. Go to the Dambulla Cave Temple
Regarded as one of the most beautiful ancient temples in the country, the Dambulla Cave is a place of unparalleled peacefulness and serenity. It dates back to the 2nd Century BC and features a huge golden Buddha statue, an impressive golden dome, and prehistoric paintings and carvings for visitors to marvel at.
35. Swim under a waterfall
The weather is hot all year round in Sri Lanka with high temperature peaks in the summer months. If you need to cool off, go hiking near the Devon Falls, Laxapana Falls, Ramboda Falls or Glen Falls. You can take a dip by all of these waterfall pools, or simply wind down by the shores for the most spectacular views.
36. Visit the dog care clinic in Unawatuna
This is one of the most unusual and underrated activities in Unawatuna, but well worth the trip if you love animals. Dog lovers will be able to make small donations, and there are even internships and volunteering opportunities available. Pop in to make a food sponsorship, and spend some time petting the many furry friends in need of love and attention.
37. Eat string hoppers for breakfast
If you want to live like a local, you have to eat like a local. One of the local dishes to try is the string hopper, a delightful breakfast item made from dough pushed through a noodle press then steamed to perfection. Simple, tasty, and best served with a spicy curry sauce.