The island of Sri Lanka is the place to go for unspoiled nature, friendly locals, colourful markets, and cities with lost of colonial history. I recently returned from my first-ever trip to the island and got to experience some absolute must-see places in Sri Lanka during my trip. If you are hoping to go to Sri Lanka (or you’re already planning a trip), don’t skip these mainly because they are considered main attractions. These are all bucket list-worthy places to see, and you don’t want to miss them!
Of course, if you want something more off the beaten path, head to my blog post covering some less common places to visit in Sri Lanka!
// My trip to Sri Lanka was sponsored by Sri Lanka Tourism, but all opinions and impressions are my own.
Read more: my favourite hotels in Sri Lanka!
10 Must-see Places in Sri Lanka
The island breathes aliveness and beauty, from the stunning white sand beaches to the deep blue oceans, the national parks where you can spot the largest mammals in the world, the ancient heritage sites and the pretty colonial towns. Sri Lanka has it all and much more, and below you’ll find the top 10 must-see places in Sri Lanka. Consider this your bucket list for the island!
Now, you have got your tickets booked but you are still wondering about what to see and where to go? The options seem endless as everything is amazing, and planning your Sri Lanka itinerary will be great fun. If you are looking for something specific, this Sri Lanka itinerary for the East Coast. Whatever you decide to do, remember to check out these 10 activities! Also, if you are heading to Sri Lanka anytime soon, you won’t want to miss this list of 50 travel tips for Sri Lanka!
#1 The Tea Plantations
The views of the endless, lush green tea plantations are truly stunning! Visit the tea plantation to learn all about these cups of hot goodness and try out some of the best ones. To get the most amazing views, head out early in the day before the landscape gets cloudy and misty. Another great way to see the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya is by taking the train from Kandy to Ella, driving straight through the scenic landscape, taking your breath away in seconds! Another great place to take in the view is Little Adam’s Peak.
#2 Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is also known as ‘Little England’ and no wonder; with so many tea plantations around, every Englishman would love this place! The town itself boasts buildings in the decadent Queen Anne style (and some tudor style), a large park (which reminded me so much of the London parks I used to roam around in), and even several roundabouts (I didn’t see any roundabouts anywhere else in Sri Lanka). The post office building itself is as British as it gets, with its red bricks covering it all. This is definitely a town worth visiting, and a must-see place in Sri Lanka!
#3 Knuckles Nature Reserve
The Knuckles Mountain Range and Nature Reserve is a popular place to visit for travellers to Sri Lanka, and definitely a must-see. The mountain range has gotten its name due to its shape, as it seems like a clenched fist with knuckles protruding towards the sky. The local name is Dumbara Kanduvetiya, which means “mist-laden mountain range” (so poetic, right?). In the Knuckles, you’ll be able to look for around 130 species of birds (20 of which are endangered), and 20 species of amphibians. The Kirthisinghe’s Rock Frog can’t be found anywhere else in the world! Find more information here!
Anuradhapura is a must-see place to visit in Sri Lanka and one I wish I had more time in during my trip. This ancient city offers lots of historic and spiritual value to travellers, and it is worth spending at least half a day seeing some of the sights here. From the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree (a sapling of the original Bodhi tree in India) to ruins and excavations dating back thousands of years, there is so much to explore in this ancient place! You’ll also find a stupa with the largest collection of Budha remnants in the world here. Make sure to bring a shawl to cover up, as shoulders and knees must be covered for some of the sacred sites here.
Below is a vlog I made during one of my days in Sri Lanka, which includes exploring some of Anuradhapura’s sights and climbing Sigiriya Rock (another one of the must-see places in Sri Lanka). Sigiriya Rock is next on the list, so watching the video will give you an idea of what that was like! If you enjoy the video, please head this way and subscribe to my Youtube channel for more!
#5 Climb Sigiriya Rock
This ancient rock fortress, with a lost city on top, is the 8th Wonder of the World according to the locals of Sri Lanka! It is massively impressive and is naturally named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Sigiriya was built by King Kasyapa around 480 AD. The rock itself is 200 meters high and surrounded by beautiful gardens. The climb is 1200 steps, so you have to work to make it to the top. Trust me, it is totally worth it!
It’s definitely a bit of a work-out, but once you’re up there, you will be blown away by the sensational views of the Sri Lankan landscape.
While climbing, you get to admire ancient poem-carvings (no photos allowed here) as well as beautiful paintings descending from somewhere between the 7th and 14th century!
#6 Swim and relax at Hikkaduwa beach
Hikkaduwa beach is a beautiful and popular palm-fringed golden beach bordering the stunningly clear blue sea where you can go swimming, snorkelling and surfing. The town of Hikkaduwa has a great lively atmosphere with lots of charming bars and restaurants. The snorkelling reef is beautiful, and there is a big chance you will meet giant sea turtles, especially at ‘turtle point’. Hikkaduwa beach is also great for surfing, especially from November to March when the waves can reach 3-meter in height! In the north of this coastal town, there is a turtle hatchery where baby turtles are nurtured and released to prevent them from getting caught in the fishing nets. During your stay in Hikkaduwa, do remember to get up early for sunrise and allow yourself to get enchanted!
Find Hikkaduwa hotel deals below:
#7 Go on a Safari in one of the National Parks
Before visiting Sri Lanka, I genuinely had no idea that going on a safari was an option there! So I was very excited to learn that I’d be going on my first ever safari during my trip (head to my Sri Lanka Instagram highlights to see what it was like)! We went on a safari in Wilpattu National Park, which is the biggest in Sri Lanka, and saw lots of birds (such as peacocks, and the national bird of Sri Lanka; the jungle fowl), water buffalo, land monitors and an elephant!
Additionally, Udawalawe National Park is home to grassland, jungle, riverine forest, and it is the place to go on a safari trip to see the old and wise Sri Lankan elephants roam in their natural habitat. On top of that, Udawalawe National Park is also a paradise for bird watchers. Nature freaks and wildlife lovers shouldn’t miss out on a safari in one of Sri Lanka’s national parks!
Of course, the capital city has to be on the list of must-see places in Sri Lanka! Colombo is a city rich with history, dating back thousands of years, and traces of colonial rule, ancient traders and modern development alike. From the beautiful Lotus Tower (and the big city skyline) to the ancient temples (and the beautiful mosque seen below), there are lots of things to explore in Colombo. This is also where you’ll find the international airport in Sri Lanka, so you are bound to travel through here on your trip. Make sure to spend some time and get a feel of the city!
#9 Visit the colonial heritage sites in Galle
Galle absolutely blew me away! I had seen photos of the lighthouse there before, of course, and loved getting to explore the town myself! Much loved by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British alike, Sri Lanka has a lot of colonial heritage sites to admire. One of these historical towns is Galle. This historic town offers great heritage tours along the city walls and old Dutch Colonial buildings, including the first church they built and the lighthouse. From the Dutch church in Galle, there is a secret tunnel to the governor’s house! I loved learning facts like these while exploring the town.
#10 Climb Adam’s Peak
Adam’s peak is an important pilgrimage site and it sure is a striking natural landmark of Sri Lanka! Adam’s Peak towers 2243 meter high up in the sky. On the summit of this majestic mountain sits the Sri Padra, ‘sacred footprint’ on a rock formation. Buddhists say it’s the actual footprint of Lord Buddha himself, while Muslims and Christians say it is the footprint of Adam, the first person to step foot on the earth after he got expelled from the Garden of Eden and the Hindus say it is the footprint of Shiva. To get to the top, you will have to climb thousands of steps, taking 2.5 to 3 hours. The legends are intriguing but the views are mind-blowing!
Must-see places in Sri Lanka
These are my 10 tips for absolute must-see places in Sri Lanka. If you are visiting for the first time (or planning on returning), make sure you have seen these before you leave the beautiful island. I had such a great time travelling Sri Lanka with Sri Lanka Tourism, and can’t wait to go back one day!
Read more: Uncommon places to visit in Sri Lanka!